Most guitar tracks these days—both acoustic and electric—are the result of either close-miked audio recordings or DI (Direct Injected) guitar signals, straight into the DAW. Often this leaves us with a dry, up-front sound that will need a bit of massaging & processing for those tracks to sit in the mix with the kind of width & depth that’ll make them fill out the soundstage, and add some real punch and power to the arrangement. To that end, there’s no shortage of techniques for tweaking those tracks—here are a number of suggestions of things to try, when it comes to building up guitar parts. Some will be obvious, others maybe less so, but all of them can help add that needed something to our solid but basic guitar recordings.
Doubling is arguably the single most common technique applied to guitar tracks in modern mixes. And one of the classic approaches to doubling both electric and acoustic guitar parts is to wide-pan the doubled tracks, hard left and right (or nearly hard left and right). This provides a couple of benefits. One is that it creates a broad, balanced stereo soundstage even from a single rhythm guitar part. Another is that it leaves the center of the mix open for other primary parts of the arrangement—drums, bass, lead vocals—without stepping on them. And if there are multi-miked versions (close, distant) of that part, they could both be doubled and wide-panned, or they could be panned opposite each other. With the latter technique, the close-miked track will be the primary (thanks to its first arrival), and the distant-miked track will spread out the doubled part, even while it mainly seems to occupy one side of the mix, leaving room on the opposite side for another, complementary doubled part, wide-panned in reverse.
Recording a clean DI’d electric guitar and adding the amp/distortion after the fact via an amp sim plug-in is a common approach, especially in smaller project studios. But there’s no reason not to use both the clean and the amped-up/distorted versions. Duplicating the track, and mixing the original clean DI version lightly in with the amped version can add some nice definition, especially to thicker, more distorted chords, where the attacks of the clean DI signal can help the individual notes come through with greater clarity, even as a wall of distorted sound makes for a big, fat, aggressive guitar tone.
When an electric guitar part is doubled, besides the separation achieved by delay and panning, the parts can be further distinguished by having distinctively different tonalities. One way to do this is, of course, via EQ. But another approach might be to double an electric guitar part through different amps.
This is easier than ever nowadays, with DI’d tracks and virtual amp plug-ins, and can be a more subtly effective way to accomplish the task. Different amps (virtual or re-amped) can provide not only some variety in tone, but also different degrees of overdrive. And the tonal differences will be more complex, thanks to the comb-filtered response you get from different speakers and mic positions.
When it comes to strumming acoustic guitars—especially when those parts are doubled for extra thickness—you can both preserve clarity and help the guitars sit in the mix without stepping on other rhythm instruments or vocals by significantly attenuating the low end. Of course, this is a pretty well-known technique, but it can’t hurt to remind people of how useful it can be. A broad cut (or shelf or HP filter) below around 200 Hz or so may make the acoustic guitar(s) sound thin when heard in isolation, but in the context of a busy arrangement, it will carve out space for other parts, leaving primarily the strumming attacks—in effect, making the acoustic guitar into almost a percussion instrument, one that can fill out a mix with its woody chords and strummy rhythms without stepping on the little bits of ear candy provided by other subtle elements of the arrangement.
Another way to help preserve clarity while doubling/thickening an acoustic guitar part is to use a guitar with a “Nashville Tuning” for the doubled part. Nashville Tuning means tuning a guitar to the pitches that would make up the notes of the doubled strings on a 12-string guitar—in effect, it’s a guitar that’s tuned (more or less) an octave higher than normal. The effect is similar to using a 12-string guitar for the part, but has a couple of benefits. Since it’s two different performances, there can be a little more rhythmic variety than with a single performance on a 12-string. And while a 12-string part is a pretty thick sound, being able to separately pan the normal and higher-pitched parts can provide that same thickness, but open it up, image-wise, again leaving more room for other arrangement elements.
There are often a number of electric guitar parts combined/layered in a dense arrangement, and unfortunately, sometimes the musical hooks within them can get lost in the shuffle. Of course, it really helps if you can bring out each part just enough to let the listener pick it out of the crowd, especially on repeated listenings, even while it does its part contributing to the overall density and power of the arrangement. A traditional way to accomplish this is by dialing up complementary EQ on the different parts. For example, if one electric guitar is given a bit of a boost at 3 kHz, and maybe a slight dip at 800 Hz, for a thinner, more nasal presence, another layered part might be cut a bit at 3k, and slightly boosted at 800, for a warmer, fuller sound. The use of complementary frequencies and boosts and cuts helps to carve out a niche (in terms of the frequency spectrum) for each part.
If it’s done well—if the frequencies chosen, in addition to complementing each other, are a good match for the sound/style of each guitar part—this approach can really help put together a mix with that elusive combination of detail and power.
Since many guitar recordings are quite dry, a little mod-delay effect can be a great help in adding some apparent depth and thickness. Of course, performed doublings will achieve this naturally, thanks to natural human performance variations/imperfections. But even, say, an electronically-doubled track can benefit from adding a little extra modulation on top of the basic doubling delay—turning a simple doubling into a lightly-chorused part can soften any excessive closeness or dryness, while adding that nice, subtle shimmer that chorusing (or even light phasing/flanging) can provide. And you can still wide-pan the original and mod-delayed/chorused versions, giving the part a little primacy on the original side, while filling out the other side of the mix with the thicker, processed version.
While you’re thinking about the panning, width, and imaging of the various guitar parts in a mix, don’t forget to consider the front/back aspect as well. A great way to help multiple guitar parts find their individual places in a busy arrangement/mix is to use delay and reverb to position the various parts between front and center and the back of the virtual soundstage. A slightly greater proportion of small-room reverb/early reflections and the careful use of shorter delays and reverb pre-delay can make a guitar track recede subtly, pushing it to the back of the virtual stage, behind the drums and vocals, while a slightly lower level of delay/reverb or longer delays/pre-delays can firmly place it at the front of the “stage”, for a more prominent musical role in the musical arrangement. For example, a lightly chunking electric or acoustic rhythm part might be placed near the front, tying it to the bass, while big, wide dramatic block chords might be pushed toward the rear, where they can be cranked without stepping on the drums and vocals quite as much.
This kind of processing is definitely more subtle than some of the other things I’ve mentioned, and you’ll need to be working on good speakers to perceive the effect clearly, but it can be very effective, even when it’s quite subtle, or even subliminal.
The combination of some carefully crafted tonal variations with selective doublings and a well-designed stereo image, taking advantage of both left/right width and front/back depth, can be a subtle but highly effective way to take a collection of interactive guitar parts in a busy mix/arrangement and make every track—every musical part—really count.