When you plug an electric guitar into a pedal or two and thence into an amplifier, then place a microphone in front of the rig and connect that up to a pre-amplifier, you’re going to be working with a lot of knobs and buttons: gains, trims, tone controls, pads. Recording electric guitar, then, is an even more complicated endeavour than acoustic guitar. The variables are endless: all the elements I mentioned in the acoustic post still matter (yeah, all the way down to the thickness of the pick and the material its made from), but each element added to the system matters too.
Any young guitarist confronted for the first time by an amplifier with preamp and master volume controls will soon figure out that they can produce the same perceived output volume with wildly different tones by setting those two controls in different ways. Put the preamp knob at 3 and the master at 5 and nice clean tones are your reward; reverse them (that is, pre-amp at 5, master at 3) and perhaps you’re in Keith Richards territory. Go on, play the riff to Start Me Up. I’ll wait here.
OK, so that’s your introduction to gain scheduling. Now add in half a dozen pedals, each with level controls, blend controls, tone controls (yeah, gain scheduling is frequency-dependent, not merely amplitudinal), and you’re now establishing the complexity of the system you’re working with. Scared yet?
I won’t go on about this in detail. If you want a how-to guide, there’s plenty available by folks who’ve done this longer than me. But one final point to get over before we move on. Imagine this scenario: you set up your rig in a room, get your guitar to sound just the way you like it and a sample audience is brought in to hear the fruits of your labours. You play them some riffs. One member of the audience is wildly enthused by what he hears. Another seems to be quite impressed too. Most look blank. A couple have their arms folded and a look on their faces that says, ‘Dude, really?’ One leaves in disgust.
And there’s the rub. At the end of this system, there are a potentially infinite number of human ears that all like different things and that all have their own thoughts about what’s cool, what’s heavy and what’s appropriate to any given style of music, and their opinions are all equally valid (well, some more valid than others perhaps, but in as much as they can listen to your music or not, come to your show or not, buy your album or not, they all have equal commercial power over you). So you might come up with an absolutely killer tone that you love, your bandmates love and that your engineer captures beautifully. Doesn’t mean anyone else will like it.
Guitar amplifier, with knobs. Weeping sound engineer not pictured. ©Dan Keeble, 2007