The Secret To Wide And Full Guitar Recordings

| Recording Month, Tips

For years I thought the key to a big wide and full guitar sound was to layer multiple takes of my guitar part. Maybe two on the left, two on the right, and one up the middle. Why double when you can triple or quadruple right?!

Ironically more isn’t what makes your guitars sound bigger. Different is.

Different Tones Are Huge

The simplest way to get a wide guitar sound is to record your guitar two times and pan one take hard left and the other hard right. But let’s take that a step further. To get those guitars to sound even wider (a very desirable thing to do considering how many other tracks tend to get jammed into our mixes) we need to have two different tones on the left and the right. This is because our ears perceive the differences and perk up, giving us a perception of more width than there actually is.

There are many ways to get different guitar tones in the studio. Some examples include: using different guitars, different amps, different pickups on the same guitar, different mic placement on your amps, different pedal combinations, different cabinet or speaker combinations, etc. Whatever is actually doable within your budget and with your gear, do it. Whatever it takes to get two very different, but compatible tones on the left and right will make a big difference in the width and fullness of your recording.

Different Chord Inversions Are Huge

I’m not much of a guitar player, but one thing I’ve learned and try to implement when I can is to change up my chord inversions in order to get width and fullness in my recordings. What am I talking about? Here’s a simple example. There is more than one way to play an E major chord on the guitar. So if your song involves an E chord, why not play one guitar part with a traditional E and then play your other part with a power chord E up on the 7th fret?

Or you could use a capo and play the same chord with different strings and fingerings? Or you could go way up on the neck and play other notes in an E major chord that compliment the traditional E chord well. You’re still playing an E for intents and purposes, but there is a different tonality and resonance to the second fingering that again, like the different guitar tones from our first point, makes your ears perk up, and you get more apparent separation and width.

Just Try Something Different

Hopefully you’re seeing the overall point here, that the secret to having guitar recordings that sound wide and full is to have different tones and frequency responses on the left and right. This can be a simple process to implement that can leave a huge impression on the listener.

But you can track this out even more. Why not different guitar parts entirely? Why not throw in a different type of stringed instrument? Banjo anyone? The idea is simple: small differences in the left and right of your mix can have huge impact. So on your next guitar recording session, after you lay down your first track, just try something different on your second. Once you pan them out, you’ll be glad you did.

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32 Responses to “The Secret To Wide And Full Guitar Recordings”

  1. Beto

    Excellent Post!

    but Graham

    Can you give us more tips to highlight guitar layers for each section of a song?

    Reply
    • Daniel Booth

      I can suggest a few…

      - Make the guitar you want to highlight to sound a bit nasty by boosting using EQ and pull it down in the mix to compensate.
      - Bring in a compressed duplicate or parallel track to fatten it up
      - Add some slight distortion, either to the original track or to a parallel (as above).

      Reply
      • David Roman

        One thing I have a lot of success with is micing the live guitar and then taking a DI signal simultaneously through my ISA 1 preamp. After the fact, I use an amp sim on the DI track and blend in a suitable distortion. Makes the guitar sound thick and meaty. I also use the HAAS trick of panning a copy of the signal to the other side but slightly delayed, and apply the blended DI signal to both sides.

        Reply
    • Dinosaur David B

      Add in some strategically-placed acoustic guitar parts under your electric parts — on a chorus, for example, and mix them somewhere in the background so that the listener is only subconsciously aware of them being there. On acoustic-based songs, do the same thing with a clean electric track. These things add mojo and sonic interest to your tracks. Avoid over-using it though, or it will cease to be special. Pick your spots.

      Reply
  2. Daniel Booth

    Love the inversions idea. Have seen this work really well in the studio.

    It was the same session I did where the producer sat in front of the guitarist, and used one finger to form 5 fingered chords on the guitarists fret board as he played, to create this totally impossible to repeat melody that ran thru the chord progression. That was the coolest thing I have ever seen.

    Reply
    • Chuck

      @Daniel Booth: that technique sounds highly legitimate, especially with utilizing some cool guitar effects with it (delay, chorus, etc.). This is an excellent article and, even though I know this info already, it really helps nail things home for me when I get carried away with trying to layer too many guitars. I’m a guy player by trade and don’t really play any other instruments so it’s tough for me not to overdo it sometimes.

      Chord inversions are the guitarists “shortcut” to being able to play the same or a similar part between 2 different guitars. I ALWAYS do this when recording because, like he said, it definitely livens up a seemingly boring performance that’s just chords playing. You can do a lot with inversions higher up the neck, like utilizing a picking pattern for a melody to create tension in a prechorus or use the same technique as a “pad” in the background of a chorus or breakdown. Lots of ideas here, and that’s just with guitars!

      Reply
  3. Dinosaur David B

    Most of my stuff features very big guitar sounds, and this stuff is great advice and it all rings true. The only thing I’d add is that if you to project really tight, rhythmic guitars (certain kinds of heavy metal feature this kind of sound) then you might very well want to play the same thing on both sides with the same guitar/amp setup, because doing so can give you that effect if and when you need it. However, most of the time, I’m going for “big,” and I do the kinds of things Graham is talking about.

    Reply
  4. Scott

    Alternate tuning (DADGAD etc) is a great way to introduce other colors into the mix. Nashville-tuning is one of my new favs. Pan a standard to one side and the same part played on Nashville panned to the other. I know it depends on the style, but I LOVE it!

    Reply
    • ernest

      Good point. And it opens songwriting possibilities that you can never get with standard tuning. Half my songs are this way.

      Reply
  5. Mike

    Would it be better to record in mono and then pan, or just record in stereo left, and then stereo right?

    Reply
    • Chuck

      I always record a mono source in mono and pan accordingly. So, record one guitar mono and pan left, and record another guitar (playing the same part but with a different tone) and pan right. This is the basic gist of what’s being discussed here. Stereo tracks of a mono source do nothing for your stereo field and it makes your recordings sound smaller (in my experience). The only true stereo sources are things you record with 2 microphones and even then, a stereo sound of those 2 mics may not even sound as good compared to recording a source twice in mono and panning left and right.

      Reply
  6. Thomas

    The “Easiest” way to full and wide guitars is to record one guitar track in stereo, duplicate the track, pan 60 degrees left and right and then send one through a slight slap back delay panned to 30 degrees in the opposite direction. Toss in a little reverb in the mix bus and viola!

    Having two guitar tracks where track b is played in the first or second inversion in relation to track a, really only adds more color than depth.

    Reply
  7. Jordan

    Could you tell me if 24 bit is really necessary? Sorry this is way off topic but i couldn’t find your thoughts on it anywhere haha.

    Reply
    • TheSchmalz

      24-bit isn’t necessary but is hugely helpful in the quest to get cleanly recorded tracks that also aren’t close to clipping your digital converters.

      Our good buddy Joe Gilder talks about 24-bit vs 16-bit here:

      http://www.homestudiocorner.com/24-bit-vs-16-bit/

      The article can be summed up by its last paragraph (but you should definitely go read the whole thing to understand why): “In a 24-bit system, you don’t need to record the levels super-hot, because you’re signal is not nearly as likely to drop down into the noise floor. This leads to better sound quality, less noise, and less stress when recording.”

      Reply
  8. Allan

    Some great ideas here. This is one reason why I’m so comfortable using modellers. I’ve used a POD for years and have recently started using Amplitube. I also have a Line 6 Variax guitar which gives me access to a wide range of guitar models. This combination has made it easy to get different sounds when I’m tracking.

    Reply
  9. Floyd

    I am using a additional fishman piezo in the bridge, so the normal pickups are going to my “normal” guitar amp, the piezo sound to a more acoustic amp (Yamaha THR5a). I am always recoding both, sometimes panned hard left and right. A second recording is than panned other way round. If you than use inversions or powerchords for the second layer, it gives as well an interesting “full” sound.

    Reply
  10. radioredrafts

    Not exactly new. SRV was using this method more than thirty years ago to get his “king” tone.

    Reply
  11. Gareth

    I used this method today on a chorus for one of my tunes. Worked a treat. I didnt have the benefit of a couple of guitars as the recording phase on my track was done a few weeks ago so I made a new track, copied the second 4 bars of the chorus guitar and put them on the start of the new track and vice versa. I panned the original track and the new track hard left and right. luckily id recorded the guitar di so I put an amp plugin on one and run the other through my marshall jcm. sounds great! nice and thick and it brings more interest to the chorus. good tip :-)

    Reply
  12. Jeff

    I am a big believer in this technique and more specifically the chord inversions. To take it a step further, I will play only part of a chord or a sympathetic note to the main riff….I mean, I recorded something in E and at a specific part, I would just upstroke the open high A and B. That little upstroke brought a hugh amount of life and sparkle to the riff. When I mixed it in, that little deal was kinda transparent to the listener but without it, the track was a little less snappy.

    Reply
  13. Mike Hawkins

    Turn down the distortion! Listen to AC/DC and how clean the guitars are…..yet POWERFUL. Same with Zeppelin. So many of Page’s sounds are kinda dorky, but they fit the mix and therefore totally ROCK.

    Reply

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