Tips and tricks for getting different tones when recording multiple guitarists, or overdubbing multiple guitar parts
By Phil O'Keefe
I went over the basics of guitar amp miking in my Guitar Amp Miking 101 article, so if you need a refresher on mic techniques, please have a quick look. In this article, we'll be going into greater depth regarding multiple-guitar parts in recordings. It's not uncommon for recording engineers to face situations where the band being recorded has two guitarists, or when a single guitarist (maybe you) wants to track multiple guitar parts for a single song. Doing this can help add interest and variety to the mix, but in some situations, it can lead to trouble; if you don't watch what you're doing, you could end up with cluttered and muddy mixes, difficulty in differentiating the parts, or even overly-complex arrangements that confuse the listener. Here are some tips and tricks to help you get around some of these common issues, and help you give each guitar its own distinctive identity when using multiple guitar parts.
Have a look at the rigs you'll be working with and make some notes. If possible, do this well in advance of your tracking session. This will help you spot any potential issues in advance, while there's still time to correct them -- such as instruments with poor intonation, or bad action and buzzes. And of course, have any problems repaired before the session. Also remember that amplifiers are essential parts of the instrument we call "electric guitar," and make sure they're in excellent health too. Any bad speakers, ground issues or weak or microphonic tubes should also be repaired or replaced.
Don't forget to ask about any alternative resources they might have available. Just because something isn't a part of their usual "live rig" doesn't mean it won't be useful for a recording session. Practice amps, amp sim pedals, different guitars and effects can all provide alternative sounds for different parts on the recording. However, be careful not to go into the studio with a pile of unfamiliar gear -- while a new toy or two (or even three) can be inspiring on a recording session, too much unfamiliar gear can lead to option overload and anxiety; it's better to have a good idea of what tones you want (and how to get them) before you enter the studio, rather than being overwhelmed by an endless sea of "almost but not quite" and "that's close, but maybe I can find something I like better" options and decisions in the studio. Trust me, you'll face enough decisions in the studio already, so save yourself the trouble and make as many in advance as you can.
HAVE A PLAN
Based on the resources at your disposal and everyone's goals, have a plan for the tracking session. It doesn't have to be super-specific, with every detail and moment of time spelled out, but a good general idea of what you're looking for is important. Compare your plan with the available gear list. If your plan calls for gear that isn't already available, make arrangements to rent or borrow what you'll need for the tracking session.
The arrangement is absolutely crucial to the success of any recording project. This is where pre-production can be a real lifesaver. The band should have a good idea of the parts and the arrangements they want to use on their recordings, and just as importantly, so should the producer and engineer. Attend some pre-recording rehearsal sessions to get an idea of the arrangements, and work through any potential problems well in advance. Home recording rigs can really come in handy for pre-production arrangement ideas. The goal isn't to track the ultimate parts at home, but to work out arrangements in advance. This allows you to figure what does and doesn't work for the song, and do it when the clock isn't ticking and the pressure is far less intense. It also allows you to work on your overdub ideas and have them well rehearsed in advance of the session - all of which will save you time and money when you go in to "do it for real." Make sure you don't try to over-extend yourself. It's not uncommon to have players struggle to lay down a "killer part" that is just beyond their technical abilities, but that lives up to some nebulous ideal they have in their mind… then really struggle when they try to double-track it. In those situations, artificial doubling methods may be in order. An even better option is to rehearse in advance; being realistic about your abilities and adjusting your parts accordingly. Ideally you should be confident and capable of nailing any part on the recording within a couple of takes. If you need more than three, you may be over-reaching. Simplify the part or plan on using another way of doubling it.
Sometimes you want to have two tracks blend into one composite sound, which is relatively easy to do by playing the two parts as identically as possible, on similar rigs and panning them to the same location in the stereo field. It's far more likely you'll run into situations where you want to differentiate the two guitars, and allow each to be plainly heard. Sometimes this is as simple as panning each to a different spot in the stereo sound field, but there's a lot more options available to you beyond mere panning. Here are some specific suggestions that can help when tracking multiple guitar parts.
CHANGE THE GUITAR
Doubling the part with the exact same rig can often lead to muddy parts. Instead, try switching instruments. Use a baritone for the doubled part, or even an acoustic guitar. Something as simple as substituting a Strat on the overdub instead of re-using the ES-335 can often be enough to give each guitar its own identity, and can add extra thickness and dimension compared to doubling with the same setup.
Figure 1: Sometimes getting a different guitar sound is as simple as using a different guitar. Try using a Tele for the doubled part instead of re-using the Les Paul
CHANGE YOUR APPROACH TO PLAYING THE GUITAR
Even if you don't have access to multiple guitars, all is not lost. By arranging the parts differently, you can still give each their own voice and identity. By using different intervals and chord inversions, or capoed and uncapoed parts, you can move each part into its own frequency range and sonic space - even if they're playing rhythmically identical parts. Using different picks, tunings and alternate playing techniques such as slide and e-bow can provide additional layering options to explore.
CHANGE THE AMP
You can get a nice change of tonality by simply using a different amplifier for the overdubbed part. Try a Marshall instead of your usual Fender. If you're not sure what to look for in terms of different amp sounds, look for something with a different type of tubes. If your amp uses EL34 or EL84 tubes, try to borrow one with 6L6 or 6V6 tubes. If you use tube amps, try a solid state amp as a tonal alternative to your usual setup.
Don't forget speaker cabinets! Different speakers can make a big difference to the sound of a guitar amplifier, as can closed-back cabinets vs.. open-backed models. In addition to amps and speakers, don't overlook the wide range of alternatives that are available to you with amp simulator pedals, desktop units and plugin software. While these may or may not provide you with your normal "ideal tone", they can provide a staggering range of alternative tones that can be great for layering.
Figure 2: If you used an EL84 based amp like the Marshall Class 5, try using a 6V6 based amp like a Fender Princeton for the overdubs
CHANGE THE RECORDING SIGNAL PATH
Did you use a ribbon mic for the basic tracks? Then try a condenser to bring out the shimmer and treble for that arpeggiated overdub part. Use a dynamic mic on one amp for the first part, and then a ribbon or condenser on a different amp when "doubling" that part. Don't forget that different microphone and preamp pairings can provide different tonalities too.
CHANGE THE ACOUSTICAL ENVIRONMENT
When doing an overdub, consider putting the amp into a different room, or moving it to a different location within the same room in order to give it its own acoustical "space." You can also vary your microphone placement in order to change the ratio of dry, direct from the amp sound vs. the room ambiance; moving the microphone closer for a drier and more immediate sound or further back for a more distant and spacious sound. Remember - the further from the sound source you move the mic, the more "distant" the sound will tend to be in the mix. Blending close and distant microphones on doubled guitar parts can provide you with a huge sense of depth.
CHANGE THE SETTINGS
If you don't have multiple guitars and different amps, it may be more challenging, but all is not lost! You can always try different control settings on the guitar and amp that you do have to get different tones on the overdubs and layers. If you are limited to one guitar, try a different pickup setting for the overdub. If you only have one amp, try different gain and tone settings. Different effects pedals can be especially helpful here -- especially overdrive and distortion pedals with "amp-like" tonalities. Fulltone, Catalinbread, ZVex, Tech 21 and many other companies make pedals that are designed to make your Fender amp sound more like a Marshall, or a Vox, or a Hiwatt. While not always identical to the "real thing", they can provide some very cool alternative tones of their own, and a taste of those other models, and at a much lower cost than a large amp collection.
CHANGE THE EFFECTS
As a general rule of thumb (and when it comes to recording, remember that rules are made to be broken whenever doing so makes things sound better), I feel that busier parts and more complex chords should usually be drier and have less effects and reverb overall. Leads and other single note lines can usually have more effects on them, depending on the part. Long, sustained parts and ringing arpeggios can go either way. The point is, by adjusting the level and type of effects, you can give each part its own sound and sonic "space," or provide extra texture and thickness to layers and stacked parts. For example, try recording the first pass completely dry, and then kick on a chorus pedal for the overdub.
Speaking of effects, if you have a great tone happening, by all means, track it. However, be aware of the amount of effects you're using and don't go overboard - you can't get rid of it after the fact. It's for that very reason that many engineers wait to apply a lot of effects until the mix - things like reverb and tempo based effects can be added later, and often the plugins and rack units will have better sound than the pedals for these sorts of effects anyway. They're certainly easier to "tempo sync" than most pedal based effects.
IN THE MIX FIXES
It's far too tempting to rely on the old idea of "we'll fix it in the mix", and while tracking it right to begin with nearly always beats trying to fix things later, sometimes you have no choice. If you can't re-track the parts, then you can use some of the other methods to put each one into its own space in the mix. Panning them to different locations in the stereo field can often help. If the parts were recorded with close-mikes (and are relatively "dry"), you can easily add different reverb and delay treatments to each one. Don't forget EQ - you can often cut one frequency range back on one guitar while leaving it alone on the other track. Careful, multi-band EQ adjustments can accentuate certain frequencies of one part while accentuating different frequencies in the second part, giving each their own individual tonality. Another useful tool is the mute button -- just because you have a doubled guitar part recorded for the entire song doesn't mean it's always in the best interests of the song and arrangement to let it run non-stop. Instead, try muting the doubled part on the verses and bring it back in only on the choruses, or on the bridge to give it added impact. Remember that good arrangements should have some flow and variation to them, and shouldn't just sit there without changing… but the time to consider the arrangement is well in advance of the actual recording session. Give some thought and rehearsal to the arrangements before the session and your doubling sessions will be far more productive.
Phil O'Keefe is a multi-instrumentalist, recording engineer / producer and the Associate Editor of Harmony Central. He has engineered, produced and performed on countless recording sessions in a diverse range of styles, with artists such as Alien Ant Farm, Jules Day, Voodoo Glow Skulls, John McGill, Michael Knott and Alexa's Wish. He is a former featured monthly columnist for EQ magazine, and his articles and product reviews have also appeared in Keyboard, Electronic Musician and Guitar Player magazines.