We hear lots and lots of people talk about ribbon mics on electric guitars. I bought my Royer R121 back in 2005 and picked up a pair of Cascade Fathead II’s in 2009. The Royer is my first choice on electric guitars although the the Fatheads do very nicely as well.
Why Not SM57?
I want to point out that I’m not a ribbon purist and I certainly don’t just grab the most expensive microphone. A Shure SM57 is a fine tool for recording electric guitars. Some of the best guitar tones of all time have been captured with an SM57. There’s no reason to assume it’s incapable. In many shootouts it’s clear that the difference between a SM57 and a Royer isn’t going to change a guitar tone that gets a “1” into a guitar tone that gets a “10”. So expectations need to be held in check. The Royer R121 is not magical. It’s just a different tool….like using a PRS instead of a Les Paul or something.
The SM57 does deliver a lot of bite. Some may call it fizz. It’s easy to let the top end of a guitar get away from you with an SM57 if you aren’t careful. Of course, “top end” on an electric guitar is often quite a bit lower in frequency than we intuitively think. The treble knob of most amps is rarely centered over 5k or so.
The Too Much Top Problem
Paul999 sent me a mix he’s working on for his new (SUPER BADASS) diary we hope to launch in the not-too-distant future. (I think this is going to be a really awesome product and can’t wait.) I thought he had a pretty smokin’ mix. He also sent the mix to Ronan Chris Murphy (big dog who offers pro critiquing services). One of the things Mr. Murphy recommended was putting a low pass on the guitars to knock out the extreme top end.
I didn’t find the electric guitars to be overly bright, but I’m definitely not gonna argue with a guy in the league of Ronan Chris Murphy. (The story goes that Mike Shipley assisted Murphy for some time. If you haven’t heard his work, you haven’t been on a float trip in a while.) This is one of those rare opportunities to learn something HUGE. While I haven’t heard the post-Ronan-Chris-Murphy-critique mix of Paul999, I have done some experimenting on my own.
I recorded a screamo band about a month ago and am FINALLY making my way to get serious about mixing it. I decided to use SM57s for these guitars mainly just to change things up. (Lesson #1: Don’t change things up!) I was looking for more bite and the “mellow” tendency of ribbons on electrics was something I was trying to avoid.
Note: I’ve recorded some AGGGRRESSSSSIVE, bitey guitars with the Royer R121. A ribbon-recorded guitar track only sounds “mellow” if you place it that way. Much of what the ribbon ignores may be noticeable on hi-hats or overheads (although rocker producers like Michael Wagener and Ross Hogarth use ribbons on overheads all the time), but for electric guitars that stuff is so high in frequency that losing it is not nearly as dreadful as I originally expected.
Anyhow, so I’m mixing this screamo project and I decide to see if we can get more sparkle up top in the cymbals and vocals by putting a low pass on the electric guitars. I quickly figured out that I can get away with a TON of low-pass filtering. Yes, the fizz will disappear (and maybe I miss a bit of that), but when doing this I immediately heard those “other kinds of guitar tones” that I frequently hear on big boy records. I intentionally took it too far and was shocked by how far I had actually gotten in terms of ditching the top end.
There was a point where I had to knock out160Hz because I didn’t have the top end to compensate for the low mid stuff anymore, but even then I could go even further if I was so inclined. (Lesson #2: High gain guitars can get away with exceptionally little top end and upper mid if you keep the low end in line.)
About halfway through my little experiment I realized that this didn’t sound too much different than a ribbon on a bad day. What do I mean? I mean that using filters always has byproducts. Usually, if a filter is truly needed, it’s worth it, but there are strange phase thingies going on any time you use a filter or EQ. That’s why it’s best to avoid the mess if possible. In short, where I ended up sounded like a cheap emulation of a ribbon mic. Well, hell. Why did I use the SM57? I already have ribbons!
Oh yeah, the trick definitely works. The top end sparkle of the mix definitely shines when you clean up the offending fizzy tracks a bit.
What Went Wrong With The SM57 Tracks? Part A
When engineering electric guitars, the worst thing you can do is think. It’s an engineering instinct to think of EQ as the solution to most of our problems. In most cases, EQ cuts off the icing when we need to make alterations to the cake. When a guitar isn’t quite right, you know it. You know it because you find your hands reaching for knobs or your finger reaching for a plugin.
I teach in Killer Home Recording that you NEVER want to feel the need to EQ a guitar track while tracking. You know you are on the right track when you feel no urge to tweak. When you say, “Well shit, I can’t make those better.” or “What would I even do to it if I was forced to tweak?” then you know you’ve got the cake right. You can always add icing when you mix.
Why You Will Hate Ribbons The First Time
The reason that most guys start out their love affair with ribbons with a huge fight is the same reason these SM57 tracks had problems. The abundant top end in dynamics, which we’ve already established is optional in guitar land, can mask problems in the bottom end. Ribbons don’t have such a top end and will put a microscope on that zit in the low end.
I’ll never forget the first time I used a Royer R121. I was rocking a modern rock band. I told them I had a $1,100 ribbon microphone that all the engineers were just ravvvvvving about. The band, of course, was excited. I put the mic in the usual place I start with an SM57. (On the edge of the dustcap about 1” from the grill.) It was mud, mud, mud, mud, and more mud.
As usual, all the hype from recording land resulted in a lighter wallet and me scratching my head as to what I did wrong. I let out a sigh and went to work. Actually, I’m not even sure if the R121 made it onto those guitar tracks. I may have said, “Screw it!”, and used a mic I was more familiar with.
There were a few mistakes I made that day.
- Ribbons require different mic placement than dynamics or condenser mics.
- Ribbons, permanently stuck in Figure 8, have the most intense proximity effect of all microphones.
- Ribbons inherently have WAY more low end than your usual dynamic.
- Ribbons inherently roll off that top end that is often unnecessary…..although no one told me that this top end was optional at the time.
- Get the low end right with a ribbon and you can often call it a day.
What Went Wrong With The SM57 Tracks? Part B
So ultimately what happens is a good ribbon mic on a great sounding guitar cab placed in the right spot is going to automatically get everything above 1k “right”. (Again, if your tonal preference requires lots of fizz, you may need to figure something out.)
Note: Another way of wording that statement is if anything above 1k sounds weird, you should be able to ENTIRELY solve the problem with mic placement….assuming the guitar sound is perfect…..good luck on that.
In the exact same situation, the SM57 is going to give us dramatically more fizz and MAYBE more bite. Again, a well-placed ribbon can get very bitey in a hurry. All that fizz forces us to make a decision. Do we like the fizz? Do we want less of it? How much? If we decide we want to tame the top end significantly, on a non-exceptional day of work in the studio we will notice that we’ve got some low end problems, too.
Maybe in this situations, we should have the discipline to deal with the low end issues first, and then go back to the fizz. Maybe there is something to temporarily killing the fizz, dealing with the low end, and then bring the fizz back in. Not sure.
All I know is the SM57 on electric guitars forces us to fight a Two-Front War. We have to think about two sides of the seesaw at once, balance them, make sure one isn’t masking problems in the other, and come out with a kick ass tone. If we kill too much fizz, the low end gets out-of-whack. If we kill the low end, the top end gets weird again. (We are seeing the immediately need to ditch this 2-dimensional oversimplification of sound.) All the while dealing with some distracting guitar player talking about something he read in Guitar World. At least he can read.
My experience with ribbons suggest, as mentioned, the top end is gonna be right. We shouldn’t have to worry about the guitars fighting with the sparkle of cymbals. They already have that covered in a way I consider to be superior to EQ. With ribbons, all we have to do is get the low-end right. You will hear more low end beef/mud than you are used to with a dynamic if using the same mic placement as the dynamic. So you gotta back it off a bit and move it towards the center of the speaker…something I’ve never gotten right with an SM57.
Note: For the sake of our sanity, I’ve referred to sound in only two dimensions. (Low end, top end.) We all know that sound has about 20,000 dimensions. I needed a breather from reality.
- Rolling off the top end of high gain electric guitar tracks can definitely give the impression of more sparkle in the mix without actually adding it.
- You can (optionally) ditch tons and tons of top and upper mid bite in electric guitar tracks and come out with them sounding pretty good. In less extremes, a person could use shelving instead of the low-pass and get similar benefits in mix sparkle by simply taming the top of the guitar tracks just a bit.
- Well-placed ribbon mics will automatically solve this top end problem and put you on the fast track of already exposing the low end problems that would, most likely, be there in the dynamic mic tracks, too.
- There’s no reason you can’t knock off all the fizz in you tracks recorded with an SM57, check for mud, deal with it (one the amp or with mic placement), and then bring the fizz back in as you feel inclined. This does add a step in the process which can be tough to pull off when a guitar player is flapping his jaw about how Creed records their guitars.
- You can avoid all the BS in this article by simply slapping any old mic (dynamic or ribbon) up on a perfect sounding guitar amp.