Practical Tips for Mixing Heavy Guitars

Practical Tips for Mixing Heavy Guitars

(2 min read.)

 

Mixing heavy guitars can sometimes seem like a daunting task, but with the right techniques and tools, you can achieve the aggressive, yet balanced sound you hear in commercial mixes. Here are some things to keep in mind when mixing guitars.

 

New Strings:

Don't use your nasty old skin-cell-covered (yuck) strings. New strings are tonally bright because they haven't been worn down from hours of playing. The tonal characteristics of new strings will help the guitars sit in their appropriate frequency range (mids to upper-mids) and contribute to a less-muddy mix.

ALWAYS use fresh strings in the studio if you're after the "modern" metal sound. 

 

Stereo Width:

Wide guitars are very common in metal tracks today, so you'll want to double-track and hard-pan your guitars to either side. To achieve an even wider result, try mixing different amp/cabs on each side, or using a Stereo Widener plugin (but don't overdo it!).

 

EQ:

One of the most common issues with digital amps is that tinny harshness. Fun fact: digital amps often have a similar frequency response to a baby crying, which might explain why our ears tend to be sensitive to them.

I recommend using an EQ to remove (~3dB) frequencies around 2.5khz and 4khz. A highpass filter at around 50-80hz can help reduce mudiness, especially if you're using additional saturation (I'll talk about aliasing in a future post). Finally, using a gentle lowpass filter to roll off some of the higher "airy" frequencies can help prevent the guitars from clashing with the overheads and vocals.

 

Bonus - Mid-Side EQ:

One of my favourite things to do when mixing guitars is to separate the mid and side channels using an EQ with an M/S mode. This allows me to, for example, reduce the frequencies around 200hz & 1khz in the Mid channel to make some room for things like the snare drum or vocals.

Splitting the channels allows for so much more flexibility, and a lot of stock EQ's nowadays support Mid/Side mode, so what are you waiting for?

 

Bonus #2 - Dynamic EQ:

Alright now we're getting fancy. There's plugins out there like Trackspacer that adjust EQ curves based on an incoming Sidechained signal. If you don't know what Sidechaining is - it's using an external signal to control a plugin or parameter. This means we can reduce certain frequencies in our guitars ONLY when the sidechain signal is also playing.

Combining this with the above tip for Mid/Side control, we can carve out some space in the Mid channel of our guitars, only when the vocalist is singing. This is an extremely powerful way to create space in a dense mix, but be mindful to not overdo it.

 

Saturation:

A sneaky little secret of the plugin industry is to use saturation and gentle EQ curves to simulate "analog warmth". In reality this is typically just a hyperbolic tangent function and a tilt EQ reducing the high-end (and possibly attenuating some of those harsh frequencies I mentioned above).

Nevertheless, you can emulate this "analog" sound by utilize Saturator plugins to add additional harmonics to a signal. This can help blur some of those harsher frequencies the EQ might have missed, reducing the overall tinniness of the signal. Tape Saturation gets bonus points due to the non-linearities of things like hysteresis.

 

Bass & Drums:

If I had to pick a single point from this article, it's this: 80% of the "heavy guitar tone" is actually dictated by the OTHER INSTRUMENTS. A solid kick/snare combo with airy cymbals, and a nicely processed, well-played bass guitar set the foundation of the mix.

The guitars then come in and fill in the gaps (midrange). You're fighting an uphill battle if you don't start with a well-recorded kit and a good bassist. Or just use samples like I do :)

Edit: Since people have asked, I often use the One Kit Wonder Metal kit by GetGoodDrums and my own bass Library, PDQBass.

Wrapup:

Mixing heavy guitars requires attention to detail and a mindfulness about what other instruments are currently playing. The best way to improve is to do, so load up a track and start playing with different tools to get a proper handle on the balancing act.