Recording Distorted Guitars: The Ultimate Guide

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Distortion is the one sound that unites us all as electric guitarists. 

Every type of player under the sun uses distortion of some kind to add the edge and texture that electric guitars often need. The funny thing about recording distorted guitar tones is that it isn’t always so easy to get the great sounds coming out of your amp to sound big and bold in your DAW or tape deck.

If you’re one of the many who struggle with this issue, your help has arrived. Our topic today is Recording Distorted Guitars and we’re going to see to it that you have the knowledge and techniques you need to put down the best electric guitar sounds ever. 

By the time we’re done, you’re going to know what distortion is in an electric guitar sense and multiple ways to create it and capture it. Ready to learn? Let’s go!

WHAT IS DISTORTION, ANYWAY?

Simply put, distortion is the sound of overload. It’s a signal too hot for whatever device is handling it to do so cleanly. 

Believe it or not, guitar amps in the good old days were intended NOT to distort. It was guitar players out doing real-world gigs who discovered that overdriving their amps in various ways created this gorgeous, singing tone they just couldn’t get enough of. The legends tell of slicing speaker cones, removing power tubes, or just turning the amplifier up as loud as it could go as the way the distorted sounds were achieved. 

These days, most modern amps pack circuits made to overdrive and distort, often in multiple ways. There are also pedals, amp sims, and countless other ways to get some grit into your guitar sound. No matter how you hear it, you can get the distorted tones of your dreams with hardware, software, or a combination of the two. 

Soft clipping

Also please note that what we most often use as guitar players is what’s called “soft clipping.” When a signal exceeds the capacity of an amplifier, parts of the sound wave get “clipped” off. Soft clipping is a moderate smoothing-out effect that takes the corners off of a sound in an inspiring, musical way. 

Hard clipping

“Hard clipping” is what happens when a signal comes in way too hot and heavily distorts the signal at hand. You may have discovered this setting level or mixing down in a Digital Audio Workstation. Quite frankly, it’s a bad sound that no one wants. That soft, warm, clipping of a great tube amp, though? There’s nothing better! 

HOW TO CREATE DISTORTED GUITAR TONES

There are several ways to achieve distorted guitar sounds. Try them out and learn which one works for you!

Turn you amp all the way up

The easiest, fastest, and most muscular way to get distortion is to turn your amp all the way up like the greats of old did. Power tube distortion is amazing so get those big bottles working. Sure, it’ll be loud but you’re proud of your playing, aren’t you? You can battle the volume issue by using a smaller amp, facing your amp toward the wall, or using a closet as an isolation booth. If all else fails, throw a heavy blanket over your amp once you get a microphone on it. 

Pre-Gain andPost-Gain knob

A modern amp with a Master Volume in its circuit is also a fine way to get your dirt on. Turn your Pre-Gain knob up high and use your Post-Gain knob to set your desired speaker volume. Many amps now have multiple stages, modes, or boosts to assist you in getting distorted guitar sounds at any volume level. This type of amp is pretty much standard now so one will be easy to find. 

Distortion boxes or pedals

They simply add an additional preamp stage between your guitar and amp and work just like your Master Volume does. Most players begin with a clean guitar tone they like then stomp the pedal. When used with a high-powered clean amplifier, this method results in a tight-but-saturated tone that’s highly addicting. If you really want to get wild, run your pedal into your amp’s dirty channel and blister the paint on the walls. 

Amp sims and modelers

The most modern way to get distorted sounds is with an amp simulator or modeler that digitally impersonates a raging tube amp. These can be either hardware or software and there are tons of choices. Play them just like you would a real amp and you’re good to go. Amp sims these days are incredible things and will fool most people in a blind listening test. Check them out. 

HOW TO RECORD GREAT DISTORTED GUITAR SOUNDS 

No matter how you create them, you’ve still got to get them into your recorder. This is where the fun begins! 

The single biggest thing you can do to record great guitar sounds is to be a great guitar player. We’re going to assume that you already have that part of your game together. On to recording!

Recording with a microphone 

Old school tracking with an amplifier and a microphone will always be the most valid approach and is, for the most part, the sound we’re most accustomed to hearing. All you need is a single 12-inch speaker, a Shure SM57 dynamic microphone, and an XLR cable running the mic into your audio interface or mixer. 

Mic positioning

Position your SM57 right up against your amp’s grill cloth just inside the outer edge of your speaker. Feel for the edge with your fingers if you can’t see it. Record a brief sound check and see if you like the tone. Adjust your mic placement closer to the edge or to the center of the speaker to find the balance of bass and treble you want. When you find your sweet spot, mark it on the grill with a small piece of tape for future use. 

Recording levels

Assuming you like the sound coming out of your amp, it’s time to set a recording level. When tracking digitally, set your input level a little on the low side because it’s going to be compressed later on in the recording process, anyway. You’re trying to avoid the hard clipping sound we discussed earlier. If you’re recording to tape, it’s ok to set hotter levels, right up to 0dB or even a smidge over. That’s where that magical tape compression lives so it’s fine to be more aggressive with your input level. Your ears will tell you when you’ve got it right. 

Recording directly into your audio interface

  • If you’re using an external amp modeler or a speaker-emulated line out from your amp, treat it just like a microphone. Run out of it straight into your audio interface and into an audio channel in your DAW. 
  • Record-enable your track and your level. Everything discussed above about doing this still counts here, so review as needed. If it’s too hot, tame it down. 
  • Record a sound check and evaluate your tone. Make adjustments as needed. You ARE taking notes of your settings, right? Document everything. 

Recording with amp sims/software 

  • Plug your guitar directly into your audio interface and into an audio channel on your DAW. This will give you the pure, uncolored sound of your instrument. 
  • Most of the time, your amp sim or virtual amp will come in the form of a plug-in. In Pro Tools, you’d put it in the first Insert on the individual channel you’re recording into. Put yours wherever plug-ins go in the platform you’re using. 
  • Dial up a tone, record-enable your track, and do yet another sound check. Listen and adjust. Lather, rinse, repeat. 

You’ve probably noticed by now we do a lot of sound checking. It may seem tedious but it’s the only way to figure all of this out. Expert recordists can often do this quickly but, if you’re new at all of this, expect to spend some time working on getting a good tone going in and capturing it effectively. There really isn’t any other way to learn except by doing. 

SUPER SECRET INSIDER GUITAR PLAYER TIPS FOR GREAT DISTORTED SOUNDS

A lot of the ability to get outstanding distorted guitar tones in the studio comes from listening and experience. Here are some tips to save you some years!

Big amps and more gain aren’t always the answer

Sometimes, a smaller amp that’s being driven hard will sound bigger to the microphone. We all dream of being rock stars blasting away with a wall of amps in some posh studio but it’s not always proper or possible. This is where all that sound checking you’ve been doing starts to matter. Listen critically and compare. 

Many of rock music’s most famous distorted guitar sounds aren’t as distorted as we often think

Listen closely to an AC/DC record; the guitar sounds are distorted around the edges but fairly clean at their core. This is the sound of an old Marshall amp turned up loud, not saturated waves of preamp gain. This is how you get that punch-in-the-chest sound.

You’ve got to get loud and physical. Sometimes, there’s just no substitute for big iron. If you’re going for a post-Metallica sort of tone, preamp gain is your new best friend. Decide what you like and proceed accordingly. 

Panning matters!

Where you place your guitar tracks in the stereo spectrum has a major effect on how they sound, especially distorted tracks.

Purists will contend that the only three panning positions are Hard Left, Hard Right, and Center. This is called LCR mixing and countless landmark albums have been mixed this way.

Generally, rhythm guitar tracks go to the left or right, along with any keyboards present. Drums, bass, lead vocals, and soloing instruments go in the center. Panning this way allows everything to be heard in its rightful place in the arrangement without parts fighting with each other for the spotlight. If your tracks always sound like mush, this could be your issue. 

Equalization, or EQ also matters

When we’re recording, it’s often necessary to EQ a sound in a way that you normally wouldn’t when playing live.

For example, it might sound better in the context of your mix to use less bass on some guitar tracks than you normally would. This is because your guitar sounds are only one piece of the musical puzzle you’re creating and all of those pieces need to fit in with each other. This holds true for all the other tracks in your song, too. EQ is an art form all on its own. 

Double tracking

Nothing makes your guitars sound huge like double-tracking them. Take the time to actually play each duplicate track and avoid the convenience of copy/paste. The played tracks will sound bigger and stronger than pasted ones and your individual bits of human feel on them will give off more of a live sound. You’ve got to be a pretty tight player to make this work but it’s worth the practice time to get there. 

Multi mic’ing

Nobody ever said you could only mic one speaker, did they? Be extra cool and set up another, different dynamic microphone on another speaker in your cabinet to get an additional tone for blending in with the first one. You’ll be amazed at how well this works if you’ve never done it.

You could even go one step further if you have a decent-sounding space and set up a third mic farther back to capture some of the room sound. Putting a mic on the open backside of a combo amp is worth trying, too. What does this lead to? More sound checking! 

Explore condenser and ribbon microphones

Passive, dynamic mics like the Shure SM57 are the industry standard because they sound great and can stand up to the high volume levels frequently involved in recording electric guitars. Condenser mics require an external source of power and are usually used on vocals and acoustic instruments and can also be damaged by sounds that are too loud.

There are condenser mics available today, however, that can handle a loud amp and provide a rich, detailed sound. Ribbon mics are passive and also level-sensitive but can produce wonderful guitar sounds when used correctly. Start building your mic collection with an SM57 and expand from there. 

WHAT NEEDS TO BE SAID

There is no one method guaranteed to get you outstanding distorted guitar sounds every time! You need to put in your time with your instrument and recording gear and find your way to the sound in your head. 

Yes, recording is a science but it’s an art, too, and you have to treat it as one. Of course, you need to know your gear inside out, fully grok the recording process and develop your own workflow, and train your ears to be accurate.

Never forget, though, that you’re creating something based on emotion and humanity, not a product manual, and you have to get beyond pure knowledge and learn to interface yourself with your equipment in an artistic way.

The more comfortable you are with your setup and room, the easier this will become. A vibrant, amazing distorted guitar sound will light up any listener and help pull them into your world. A fizzy, nasty, or uninspiring tone will send them off looking for better tunes. Recording always takes more time than we think it will so plan for it and dig in. 

CONCLUSION

We hope this article, Recording Distorted Guitars: The Ultimate Guide, has left you feeling smarter and more inspired to craft outstanding distorted guitar tones than ever before. Keep experimenting and you will find worlds of sound and music you never thought existed. Please share this article with all of your guitar-playing friends! See you again soon with another big dose of knowledge!

1 COMMENT

  1. I always read that you shouldn’t turn your amp all the way up. The guys at the guitar store told me that at least 5 times when I bought my recent amp. I have been trying to play with different sounds and now I want to give this a try! This sounds like it could be a lot of fun for experimenting.

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