Trouble-Shooting Crap Sound

Every studio geek occasionally experiences that sick, dropping-20-floorsin- an-elevator feeling when confronted with a track that sounds like zombie poop. Almost immediately, all the toil, trouble, and angst you expended to craft a masterful audio production is bulldozed to dust by that one clunker that rears its ugly-ass head every time you spin the track. If your guitar sounds are so bedeviled, here are a few tips for righting sonic wrongs.
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Every studio geek occasionally experiences that sick, dropping-20-floorsin- an-elevator feeling when confronted with a track that sounds like zombie poop. Almost immediately, all the toil, trouble, and angst you expended to craft a masterful audio production is bulldozed to dust by that one clunker that rears its ugly-ass head every time you spin the track. If your guitar sounds are so bedeviled, here are a few tips for righting sonic wrongs.

Low-End Mud

If you’ve miked an amp dead-on the speaker, move the microphone back an inch or so, and point it a tad offaxis to the speaker cone. If you’re using an amp simulation, dig into the parameters and see if the preset EQ and/or effects are dragging the tone into the mush. Delete the offending effects (you can add whatever you want later without bringing on unwanted low-end gunk), and cut bass-heavy low- and low-midrange frequencies to taste. Typically cutting out unwanted bass is a more organic tactic than boosting mids and/or highs, but trust your ears and do whatever makes you smile.

Hurtful Mids

Again, make sure you haven’t been screwed by the preset processing of whichever amp simulator you’re using. Common offenders are reverb or modulation effects that are too bright-sounding, or the fact the programmer may have cranked the mids to impress music-store tire kickers looking for the loudest, baddest guitar tones around. (Remember, those aggressive tones were auditioned solo— not within the context of a full mix—and the nice programmers probably assumed end users would tweak the basic guitar tone to their needs, which, sadly, is sometimes not the case.)

If you’ve miked an amp, see if the amp is placed by a window or on an uncarpeted floor, and, if so, position some small rugs, blankets, and beach towels around the area to soften any hard, bright signal reflections. You can also push the mic right up on the speaker grille to minimize room tone leaking into the miked sound. You can opt to use EQ to diminish overly aggressive mids, but take care—if you cut too much, you’ll likely neuter the guitar sound into something too sissy-fied.

Frequency Sharing

If the soloed guitar tone appears to be okay, but it sounds weird when referenced within the context of the full mix, there may be another instrument (or effect) whose frequency content is reinforcing the guitar’s frequency spectrum in undesirable ways. Seek out mix elements in the same tonal range as your guitar, and mute them one-byone to determine which elements (or multiple elements) are adversely emphasizing the guitar sound. When you’ve identified the culprit(s)—good hunting grounds include synths and keyboards, percussion, background and lead vocals, and even hi-hats—tweak the frequency ranges so that each element has its own distinct space in the mix. This can be as easy as leaving the guitar the way it is, but cutting, say, 3kHz to 5kHz from a support synth part.

Over Saturation

This is an easy one, but only because many guitarists view saturated guitar tones as uber powerful, when, in fact, too much distortion and/or too many layered guitar textures can actually make the guitar sound puny. The simple fix is to crank down the gain of the amp or amp simulator, and to rethink the six tracks of rhythm guitars you’ve put down. Go for a stout and overdriven, but not an overly creamy or buzzy tone (think AC/DC), and/or cut your layers by half (or, for the hell of it, use just one guitar track), and see if the guitar part suddenly comes alive.

Avoid Bad Tone From the Start

David Bowie guitarist Earl Slick offered some fabulous—and simple— guitar tone advice during his “Get a Great Sound Out of Any Guitar and Amp” clinic at Guitar Player Live! on September 12, 2009. (You can view the whole presentation at www.guitar player.com/live .) Slick advocates getting a good overdriven tone from a tube amp, and then dialing in various levels of clean, gritty, and distorted tones by simply knocking around your guitar’s volume and tone knobs. You’ll be amazed at how many different tones you can get using this method, and pretty much every sound is a winner. Try it!