Recording engineer/producer Ken Scott knows a thing or two about recording guitar. Check out just a few of his credits:
The Beatles (Magical Mystery Tour, The White Album)
Jeff Beck (Truth, There And Back)
Pink Floyd (Apples And Oranges, A Saucerful of Secrets)
David Bowie (with Mick Ronson; Aladdin Sane, The Man Who Sold The World, The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust)
Mahavishnu Orchestra (with John McLaughlin; Birds of Fire)
Dixie Dregs (with Steve Morse; Night Of The Living Dregs, What If)
George Harrison (All Things Must Pass, Wonderwall)
Gamma (with Ronnie Montrose; Gamma 1)
Kansas (Vinyl Confessions)
I was fortunate to be able to spend a chunk of a day with Ken, and along the way, I asked him a variety of questions about the artists he’s worked with. (You can see the full interviews in two episodes of the Sweetwater Minute videos I host on Sweetwater’s YouTube and Facebook pages.)
But I also asked him how he records electric guitar.
“Generally speaking, with electric guitar, it will be a Neumann U67 [vintage tube-based large-diaphragm condenser microphone] or a Neumann U87 [large-diaphragm condenser microphone]. It will be a foot or 18 inches away. I tend to put it center [on the speaker]. I’m sort of old school; I haven’t found that moving it off [axis] makes it sound any better. I will quite often use room mics; there is no particular room mic I prefer. It’s just whatever is around.”
“I love double tracking. It can be on the same guitar or on a different guitar, but playing the same part. I tend to pan them on either side. What I’ll generally do when I double track is change the speed [of the tape] very slightly. Now, I’m thinking analog here, so I put the VSO [variable speed oscillator] in and take the speed up a fraction. See, the thing with something like a violin section is that all the players are slightly off from each other. If they all played at exactly the same time, exactly the same note [tuning], it would sound like one violin player. So, it’s those tuning and timing differences that make it sound big. So, I put the VSO on the tape and change the speed slightly, so the tuning is just slightly off, and it just makes it sound that much bigger. It creates this natural chorusing thing – just a little.”
[Editor’s note: a similar effect can be achieved in a digital system or DAW by using a small amount of pitch shift on one of the guitar tracks in a double-tracked situation.]
“With someone like Mick Ronson, to get his sound, he played through a wah-wah pedal. We discussed what kind of sound it should be, and he would go to the wah-wah pedal and find the sound that we wanted and just leave it set there. He used a Marshall half stack, and he always had that set the same. That’s how he got his sound.”
“With Steve Morse, the mic setup was very much the same. On some of his stuff, I would have used a DI [direct box] as well, I seem to remember.”
“John McLaughlin was always Marshall. I remember my first time in the States; we were working on the Birds of Fire album. We’d started work at Trident [Studios, in London], and it had gone very well. Then, we were going to complete it at Criteria down in Miami, Florida. Well, this was during the Bee Gees disco era, where a lot of the recordings were very, very dead. So we went into Criteria, and I didn’t quite realize how dead the studio was. John turns his amp up, and you just about heard it. Turned it full bore, still, only just heard it; then the amp blew up. Okay, it’s a bad amp; we’ll bring another one in. We bring another Marshall in, and turn it up; we don’t hear it, and then it blows. So, we ended up having to cancel the recording; the studio didn’t work for that band [Mahavishnu Orchestra]. Great studio, but it didn’t work for that band.”
“I’m very much old school, where you get the sound in the studio. Once you get the sound that you want, then mess with it as much as you want to. I’m not the kind for today’s thing where you seem to get any sound, and you can doctor it in the control room. Get a good sound first, and then make it better in the control room – as opposed to a bad sound and trying to make it sound good in the control room. You learn that kind of thing [what a good sound is] by experience. You make mistakes. You experiment. I was lucky in that I started off with The Beatles, and they were willing to spend the time to try things.
“Obviously, with the mics I use, they’re bloody expensive – it’s ridiculous – and there aren’t many of them around these days. I’m talking about really high-end mics, which not many people can afford. So, just get some mics and try them. Find what you like as a guitarist or an engineer or a producer. Find what you like. Line up several in front of the same amp and just go between each one. That’s the best way to do it.”
“With acoustic guitars, I use the U67 and U87. I will sometimes use an AKG 414 [large-diaphragm condenser microphone] or C12 [vintage large-diaphragm tube microphone]. And the mic is generally angled over the soundhole.”
Now, you may not have vintage tube microphones like the Neumann U67 to work with when you’re recording (unless you have a big budget!), but you can still take quite a bit away from this.
- Have your guitar equipment fine-tuned and working its best.
- Create the sound you want to hear with your gear; don’t rely on “fixing it in the mix.”
- Know your parts and the arrangement.
- Use great mics and preamps to capture the sound. Ken prefers U67s and Trident consoles. Other great engineers use Royer or AEA ribbon mics; Shure SM57 or Sennheiser MD421 dynamic mics; or various large-diaphragm condenser mics, such as the Neumann U87 or the AKG C414. These days, there are also great affordable mics, such as the Mojave Audio MA-200, the Shure KSM44, and others, that will do a wonderful job of getting your guitar down without costing a fortune.
- Place the mic or mics carefully.
Here’s one way to find a good starting position for the microphone:
- Plug a cable into the amp (don’t connect a guitar), and crank it up to where you can hear noise. You may want to touch the end of the cable to get a good loud buzz.
- Now, put on headphones. Be VERY careful to keep the headphone volume down to prevent blasting your ears with noise from the amp.
- Place the mic in front of the speaker. Listen to the amp’s noise from the mic through headphones.
- Move the mic around until the noise sounds the fullest and most “real” through the headphones.
- This will be a good starting point for your miked-up guitar sound. From here, you can adjust the position while playing the guitar to find the exact sound you want.