Sunday, February 10, 2013

Big Guitars: Makin' it Wider

Let me set up a scenario: You are in your studio, and just finished laying down a rhythm guitar part for a new song. You hit the right notes, your amp tone sounds good, everything seems to have been set up perfectly. Then you hit the playback button . . . something is missing. Depending on how you recorded your tracks, your guitar track probably sounds very centered in the mix, not at all spread out extra wide and thick like that Metallica record you listen to all the time. What do you do?

Much of the time, guitar tracks are recorded in mono. This means there is just one track (and one waveform) and usually the default panning (the knob above the volume fader in your recording software) is set to center. So, if you are listening to your mix on headphones, it's going to sound as though the guitar was coming right at your nose. Most of the time, this is probably not what you are going to want and it isn't going to deliver that massive sound. What you are looking for (whether consciously or not) is that wide, stereo sound. The big guitar, wall of sound associated with many of the famous rock recordings within the past 30 years is attributed to a myriad of different sound engineering tactics including everything from stereo miking to playing each rhythm part twice. However, there is one very simple, very easy tactic you can use to help get that big sound and take your mono guitar track into a wide, stereo-emulating, guitar sound. For starters, double your guitar track. You should be able to right-click on the track and select that option (it may be referred to as cloning). Then pan your original track hard left, and your newly doubled track, hard right. See Ex. 1: 

In the picture, I only panned mine to 80% on either side, but you can pan all the way to 100%. You want to be sure to pan in order to create space (I will discuss 'space' in a later post). If you do not, they will only make the guitar part louder and even more in the way of everything else in the mix. The next step is REQUIRED to effectively use this technique. Go to your effects rack for your newly doubled track and add a delay. This is not going to be your solo delay type of effect, but rather a literal 'delaying' of the sound. What we are going to do, is delay the arrival time of the doubled track to your ear. In this case, it is the right ear. This causes an offset between the two tracks and in turn, it creates a stereo-like effect. See Ex. 2: 

Set the delay time to around 20 ms (I set it a little past that in the picture). Depending on the plugin you use, make sure the 'mix' and 'gain' controls are all the way up. You should hear an instant 'widening' of the sound and some distinct separation between the left side and the right side (you can hear this effect best with headphones). To understand what is going on here, think of it this way . . . you have two guitarists standing about 20 feet apart from each other playing the same song and you are standing directly between them. They may be playing the song together incredibly well but because of the human factor, they are simply not going to hit the strings at precisely the same fraction of a second. This is going to cause the sound coming from their amps to hit each of your ears at slightly different times. The resulting sound from this sort of a situation is a stereo effect which is what we have emulated in the above examples. You can use this tactic in a lot of different situations and for many different styles of music. Please understand though that this is very subjective. The width of your guitar (% of panning and amount of delay) is going to depend highly on the type of music you are recording. For example, if you are recording an R&B track, you may not want it that wide. It all depends on taste. Always keep that in mind.