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Recording Electric Guitar—The Science and the Myth

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[Feature] Electric guitar tone, you know it’s right when you hear it. How is it achieved? The typical starting approach at the guitar amp: Shure SM57 microphone, slightly off center of one of the cones of a driver, up close and almost touching the grille cloth. Oh, and angle the microphone a little. Ask veteran engineers why this microphone placement strategy is so common and a range of justifications follows, from seemingly scientific explanations, to vague guesses, to an honest, “I have no idea. I’ve always done it that way. Everyone does.”

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JAES Volume 58 Issue 1/2 pp. 80-83; January 2010
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Drew Daniels
Drew Daniels

Comment posted April 8, 2010 @ 15:13:25 UTC (Comment permalink)

Having served as the Applications Engineer for Tascam, Fender Pro Audio and JBL, and taught audio recording at USC and UCLA for fifteen years, I can add that while we academically oriented engineers may wish to analyze and understand the recording art to facilitate a reliable method of doing things that can provide practitioners confidence in their own results, it is largely a waste of time and a misdirection of artistic effort. Musical instruments themselves are often made of wood (including guitar amplifiers and drums), and that fact alone makes tone production a random affair that requires cut-and-try miking to obtain something that sounds good. Consensus of what sounds good also has limited value and grave danger to artistic intent.

The more engineers try to obtain cookie cutter methods for irreducibly complex problems such as musical instrument miking, the more the world ends up with sterile, same-sounding samples and homogenized, boring recordings that fail to give musical art and artists the subtle differentiations of quality and sensibility that make music interesting and give it value. Without value, there is no reason not to steal music.

Famous jazz musician Paul Desmond (saxophonist with the Dave Brubeck Quartet) once joked that "A jazz musician is someone who never plays the same thing once," and in this innocent observation, defined exactly why it is unmusical and antithetical to musical art, to understand and predict it completely.

As a field recordist with Grammy-nominated recordings myself, I use unusually consistent methods of miking pianos, basses and drum kits, but notwithstanding setups that are left in place for a series of performances in the same room, have never obtained (and hope never to) the same sound from instruments, groups, rooms or audiences, and I regard these tonal "inconsistencies" as a positive, not a negative.

I resist the notion that we should spend a minute of our time studying "how to" mike a guitar amp and suggest we spend that time experimenting as the great recording engineers have always done. Experimentation, not method, is the engine that has created our great, and now declining musical heritage.

If you want to know how to mike a guitar amp, do it a thousand times.

Drew Daniels

Alex U. Case
Author Response
Alex U. Case

Comment posted April 15, 2010 @ 16:13:32 UTC (Comment permalink)

With respect, I must object to Drew's comments that the analysis presented in this piece is "largely a waste of time and a misdirection of artistic effort."
The article never suggests that there is a single right way to record electric guitar - no cookie cutter is offered. It does offer data so that one might be a bit more informed when working some of the most-used variables in shaping the tone of a guitar track.
I abhor random recording 'tricks' and the aping of approaches by others that aren't informed by some basis in science, kept in check by critical listening, and inspired by creative drive. To my knowledge, studio discussions of the microphone position tweaks measured here were generally accompanied by incomplete or erroneous explanations. I wanted only to extract some general trends so that future engineers might know a little better what to listen for.
Myth and ritual may satisfy some, and can lead to great sounds - even practitioners of aroma therapy might be healthy. I'll take creative exploration guided by facts - further leveraged by the intuition that comes from knowing more about something - over random explorations, or blind repetitions, or simple imitations of others any day.
More knowledge, even about something as wonderful and non-linear and all-but-indescribable as electric guitar, does not impede us in our own personal searches for new, unique, better sounds. I think it actually helps...

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Brandon Noke

Comment posted April 15, 2010 @ 16:15:23 UTC (Comment permalink)

I think this article more so inspires experimentation in microphone placement, rather than making any effort in teaching the correct way to mic a guitar amp. It's definitely the case that getting the same tone twice is close to impossible, and maybe not worth while trying to chase. As engineers we would much prefer to find the best tone we can, rather than chase something that happened before.

In order to do this, we must understand how the changes in mic placement (angle, distance, relationship to the center of the cone) will effect the overall sound. Having the knowledge of these changes will help us work faster to find our desired tone compared to trial and error style guessing. I think Alex Case does a good job of sharing his knowledge to help us make informed decisions when chasing the ideal guitar tone.

I personally feel the most confident changing things when I know, or can at least predict in an educated way, what will happen. While this knowledge can come from trying things many times, it is great to have the start point that this article provides.

Famous jazz saxophonist Charlie Parker said "Master your instrument, master the music and then forget all that stuff and just play." While this quote seems whimsical, the concept is solid to our profession as well. It's not that a musician can forget the musical concepts and play whatever they want, but rather that once they've mastered the concepts, they become second nature and an inherent part of the musician playing.

For us, we have to have a solid foundation of knowing how microphone placement changes the recorded sound. This is not to repeat tones and have technical way of doing things the same way every time, but rather to make decisions that will help sculpt the resulting piece of art. Since our goal is to create that piece of art, our tools (microphone placement being one of them) have to become an inherent part of what we know and do as engineers

I'd love to hear how other engineers have gone through the process of learning and more so experimenting with these microphone variables.

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Hendrik Gideonse

Comment posted April 16, 2010 @ 07:53:38 UTC (Comment permalink)

Interesting article!

I think that the point of doing this type of work (objectively measuring mic/amp behavior) is so that we can make better decisions about where to place a mic to get the sound we hear in our heads. Also from the educator's point of view, I need to be able to teach not just what to do, but also why, and the expected outcomes. I would hope that after I spend 4 years teaching a student, they will only need to mic a guitar amp a couple of dozen times to fully understand it, instead of 1000 times.

I guess (no actual data here of course) that the tried and true mic placement (SM57, close to grill, off center and off axis) has more to do with creating isolation while recording live in one room than with the actual sound quality. Over our history, studios have offered more and more isolation and I think that our idea of what a guitar amp should sound like has a lot to do with these old recordings of guitars. Very rarely does a recorded guitar amp sound like a real amp in a room.


Hendrik Gideonse

John Brindle
John Brindle

Comment posted April 19, 2010 @ 15:10:43 UTC (Comment permalink)

I have found this article to be most useful when teaching my students about guitar cab placement. It can all to often be the case that we recommend a placement and not provide the "whys" as to the choice of placement.

It would be interesting to see how other instrumental recording techniques hold up to this kind of testing. It would also be interesting to see how digital amp modeling holds up to this kind of scrutiny. For example do the mic placement options in Amplitube/Guitar rig yield similar results?

Many Thanks for a great article.


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Bob Olhsson

Comment posted April 26, 2010 @ 16:35:17 UTC (Comment permalink)

I think it's important to remember that the combination of an electric guitar and the amplifier being used constitutes a complete musical instrument that the musician is interacting and making decisions within the context of. In most recording situations, accuracy to what the musician remembers hearing as they played is generally chosen over what the amplifier sounds like to somebody else.

Drew Daniels
Drew Daniels

Comment posted April 29, 2010 @ 17:13:10 UTC (Comment permalink)

Robert Olhsson's comment could be no more perfect. I support his argument with the anecdote I offer readers here. To show what a waste of time is academic examination by engineers, of musical art, this account of a thoroughly witnessed event should put to rest the futility of non-musicians attempting to dissect and analyze true musicians or at least to put such efforts into perspective to preserve sanity.

In the late 1980's, my employer, a major manufacturer began a research program to develop a twelve-inch electric guitar amplifier loudspeaker driver for sale as an aftermarket replacement specifically for guitarists who sought better sound from their guitar amps than the $15 drivers typically found in stock factory amps. After working for several months to identify the desirable traits and electroacoustical characteristics of the most popular aftermarket drivers at the time, the company drew from its 1200 employees, the best "guitarists" to play guitars after hours in a room within their vast facility.

It was decided that the target price for the new driver should place it at a mid point between that company's too-expensive and thus fading market-share premium driver, and the least expensive of the popular aftermarket drivers. To that end, dozens of new driver iterations with various cone stock, voice coil length, BL force and electroacoustical efficiency, etc., were tried. A setup consisting of three—as identical as possible--enclosures were built and connected to an A-B-C switch for rapid comparison of driver sound while a guitarist played. Many months of this testing persisted until a candidate driver was finally chosen and put into production. The tests themselves—and I was ear-witness to some test sessions—had revealed sonic differences among three drivers chosen for low, mid and high cost, to be of truly crudely obvious dimension; no one short of persons with total hearing loss, could possibly imagine that any of the three compared drivers exhibited any similarity to each other when the A-B-C switch was operated, even when the enclosure positions were changed to try to mitigate spatial and reflection differences, or when the comparisons were done from the same enclosure position. The differences were night and day, akin to the differences between listening to studio monitors and listening to airport ceiling speakers.

To announce this new product, the company rented a large closed-off room at the Anaheim Convention Center for the NAMM show that year, and outfitted the room with a stage, lighting truss and P.A. system comprising their top of the line flyable, industry-leading equipment, a mixing console and operator, and hired a record label-signed band featuring Berklee College of Music graduate and blues expert, guitarist Doug MacLeod, who had mastered the art of blues guitar to a world-class level, and could theoretically demonstrate the drivers in the A-B-C stack to perfection.

As the demo show began, the company's executives and a sizable audience gathered and as Doug got well into a tune, the president of the company stepped forward and switched the A-B-C switch to show the differences—those really, really obvious-to-anyone who isn't deaf as a post differences—to the gathered crowd. An error appeared to occur at that point because as the switch was operated, no difference in sound was heard. Immediately, the executives had the techs open the switch box and examine the wiring to the three cabinets, but no problem was found. One of the executives strummed across the active guitar while switching the box until everyone was satisfied that the switch was operating normally. But when Doug MacLeod took up the guitar and played, there was no difference in sound.

The executives were at a loss for an explanation of how this expensive demonstration could possibly go so wrong, until it was noticed how Doug MacLeod had gathered a crowd of guitarists around him as he explained that he had to alter his finger technique to obtain what he expected to hear from the three different drivers; how it took less effort with the most expensive and sensitive driver, while he had to "dig in more" to get the same sound out of the $15 driver in the stack.

The best guitarists within a company of 1200 employees at the time, were no match for a professional guitarist, not even close, and would never have discovered that finger technique trumps and controls any and all engineering efforts to understand this arcane art. This is why I suggest that trying to find "the combination," "the sweet spot," "the answer" to getting consistent or desired results miking electric guitar is academic self-hypnosis and a waste of time. It simply adds credibility to the argument that engineers just don't get it, when they try to analyze art. As an engineer who, in a previous life, used to analyze everything and enjoy nothing, I would caution those caught in this enticing trap to work at discovering when it is relevant and valuable to seek a detailed technical understanding, and when wisdom suggests simple, temporal enjoyment is perhaps most appropriate.

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Brandon Noke

Comment posted May 1, 2010 @ 19:53:16 UTC (Comment permalink)

I respect Robert and Drew's opinions. I think that the most important aspect of making a musical recording is the music, the art, the emotion, the feel, etc.. If I was forced to make a choice between a poor recording of a great performance, I would take that over a great recording of a poor performance. But as engineers, we can't afford to make a poor recording.

I think the discussion is getting away from this papers intent. It doesn't project a "correct" way to place a microphone, but just shows that changing the microphone placement will change the sound, as well as explains how it changes the sound. I liked Robert's point of the most important thing being to capture what the artist is hearing (or wants to hear), but if as an engineer, you don't know how to capture that, then the conflict will take away from the art.

If a guitarist is happy with the sound of their guitar and amp as they play in the room, but then don't like it on play back, it is the engineers job to correct that problem. While tracking, this is going to happen by microphone selection and placement. Since time is money, an engineer should know what microphone to reach for and where to place it without experimentation. This article pushes towards gaining that knowledge, thinking otherwise, in my opinion, shows ignorance. The recording studio is full of experimentation... and thankfully so! But an engineer should know what backing the mic off a bit is going to do before doing it, and this action can absolutely be predicted. Not perfectly predicted, but enough to make en informed decision.

I think we can all agree that the better the musician, the better the recording, but that point is irrelevant to this particular paper. If I could have Jeff Beck at all my session, I would be the happiest camper on earth, but alas... He is very busy.

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Hendrik Gideonse

Comment posted May 3, 2010 @ 07:32:53 UTC (Comment permalink)

Dear Moderator:

In most online discussions there exist rules and etiquette which govern the type of language that should be used in discussion. A good example of a forum rules and on language etiquette can be found at

My understanding is that the AES is supposed to foster academic discussions about topics related to audio engineering and that the AES website is the venue for the discussion of these topics. I think that calling someone's work a waste of time is actually pretty offensive.

I find Drew Daniels' comments to be rude, dismissive and extremely unhelpful to the actual discussion of micing guitar amplifiers. While all of us recognize that the proverbial art is made in the recording studio, there are other ways than instinct to choose a combination of player, guitar, amplifier, effects and signal chain to obtain the sound that we are trying to capture.

There are reasons why engineers favor one type of microphone over another for certain activities. Mic placement really does matter and does change the timbre of recorded sound. It would be nice if as AES-member engineers we could discuss mic placement techniques without the influence of anti-intellectual heckling.

I am pretty disappointed with the lack of moderation in this forum. I don't really like to think of my career as a producer and educator as a waste of time. I am interested in learning more about my craft and I am wise enough to know I can learn valuable information and techniques by discussing and analyzing actual measured data.

It would be great if the moderator(s) could try to keep the discussion on topic and try to direct the contributors to be collaborative and less antagonistic.

Thanks for your help!


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George Massenburg

Comment posted May 3, 2010 @ 07:33:08 UTC (Comment permalink)

Excellent work, Alex. Good observations, all. We've long taught this, but this will improve the presentation. Bob, I'd wish to add that students would probably do even better in spending more time in the studio / performance space and less time in front of their LE systems.

Just one question, Alex: when did we start getting the fossils at the AES to take studio methodology seriously? Well, done there, too...

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