On mixing guitars…

After Spectrum of Mana was released, I actually got a handful of people asking me about my guitar tone in my track, “This Song Got Me Pregnant”:

So I figured after having to gather my thoughts and methods, I might as well make a post about it. Keep in mind that my craft of mixing my guitars is pretty much just built on years of trial and error, so I’m sure that if there’s some “right” way of doing things, then I’ve done the opposite. But without further ado, the Jonathan Peros guide to mixing fake-ass guitars.

So, first off is my (digital) gear. I want to point out that this is pretty much irrelevant, but it’s hard to talk about methods without mentioning your tools. There are three major components in that track:
-LePou Le456 (preamp)
-LePou LeCab (cab IR convolver)
-AudioEase Altiverb (reverb – on send track)

The only of these that I’d really say is essential for me (as opposed to another software) is LeCab – because it can convolve using like 6 different IRs or something like that. That’s really important to how I do my thing. I’ve got a collection of different cab IRs from the years – certain ones I like, most not so much. But combining different cab IRs is probably the biggest way I shape my tone. Not for the feint of CPU, though.

Before I get into my process, I have a couple of concepts that I want to get straight:
1) This is going to sound obvious, but many people forsake this ideal in execution. The guitar is part of a mix – just a single part. In “This Song Got Me Pregnant,” the rhythm section is comprised of guitar + bass + kick. The guitar is only a component of the rhythm section – not the entire thing. Don’t expect the guitar to do the job of the entire rhythm section. The bass is a HUGE part of the entire mix for me – I don’t expect the guitar to carry the foundation of the mix. If I were going to put it as simply as I could, I’d say that the kick is my punch, the bass is my body, and the guitar is my bite. All combined, they’re the wall of sound – but individually, they are only components of that wall. If you’re spending the majority of your time mixing guitars out of the context of the mix (soloed), then you’re doing it fucking wrong.

2) Everywhere you add comes at a cost of somewhere else. Let’s say you want a tone that sounds big and that bites. But they’re both separate entities that counteract one another. Let me asplain. So, let’s say that you want your guitar at -10db RMS (I don’t actually pay attention to this number when I’m mixing but bear with me for the explanation). And let’s say your presence/bite is at like 1-5k. And your beef/body is at like 500-100hz. Your guitar is at -10db RMS. If you add presence at 4k, it’s going to increase the overall volume of that track. Now you’re at -9db RMS and your guitar is too loud in the mix, so you bring it down a little bit. You’ve now sacrificed the volume of the beef/body by adding to the presence/bite, while keeping the level of the guitars the same. I’ve actually consciously taken out presence from my tone – my tone is hardly made to pop out, it’s got a little bite, but I think most of it is the beef. You have a guitar with too much presence, and it’s going to sound empty. You have a guitar with too much body, and it won’t bite; my tone leans toward the latter a little bit. This is just my taste, but I do keep in mind that anywhere you add comes at a price.

3) The room that you’re putting the cabs in matters as much as how you treat them. I use a studio live room’s IR as a reverb send on my guitars (along with most other things in the mix). The way that the reverb will phase with the original signal does SO MUCH for taming a fake guitar amp into a mix. That’s why I put Altiverb as a core component of my tone. It doesn’t have to be Altiverb, but find a room reverb that you like and listen for how its early reflections shape the tone.

So with those concepts in mind, here is basically my process for achieving the tone I have:

1) Load up a preamp with settings that theoretically should sound like what I’m going for. This is only a stand-in.

2) Load up all the cab IRs that I like for different reasons. Hopefully the IRs you’ve got are varied and can compliment each other in a mix.

3) Pick a base IR – the IR that I think is closest to what I’m trying to achieve. Then bring in the levels of the others for the additional color they add to your base IR. This is probably the most crucial step – spend as long as you need to combine IRs and get the tone as *right* as you can.

4) Send the track to your reverb and listen to how it reshapes the tone. There’s not a huge amount I can say here, but it’s very important and a matter of finding a reverb that works how you like it. I will say that this reverb is not there to be heard, it’s there to put your guitar in a space. It’ll phase with the original signal and comb filter the guitar into submission. At least that’s what mine does.

5) Once 3-4 are pretty much set, revisit the preamp and come up with tone settings on there that sound like what I’m going for.

6) Get the guitars sitting in the mix as best they can using only the volume fader. A seriously overlooked step. Volume is such a simple solution that works wonders. Often overlooked in favor of the last step. More to come on that.
6a) If your guitars pop in and out, compress them. Then when they’re more evened out, keep adjusting volume.

7) Revisit and tweak. At this point it should be rare that you listen to your guitar soloed. The question that you should be asking yourself is “what problems are there in getting my guitar into the mix?” and adjust accordingly. Guitars at a good volume level, but popping out too much? Maybe some more reverb will tame them. Maybe adjusting the levels of the cabs will bring it back. Not enough bite? Adjust your cabs or your preamp settings. Take off a little reverb.

Revisit whatever you’d like for step 7 in order to problem-solve. I generally play with steps 3-4 again right here. But the idea is that you’ve built a good foundation to work from, and you’re reshaping that foundation BEFORE step 8.

8) Last step. So you’re sure that you’ve done everything that you can in the previous steps in order to get your guitars into the mix, but something still isn’t sitting right? Now is when you EQ it. Don’t get me wrong – most of the times, EQ is going to be used to problem solve a track. But it’s the last step, and should only be done for a conscious reason. It’s astounding how often someone will try to use EQ to fix a problem that the volume fader can fix. Or how someone will use an EQ to try to but the guitar back in the room, when adjusting the reverb will do it better. The biggest point I’m trying to make here is that EQ is a problem-solving tool, and should be used deliberately to solve specific problems for which there are no other solutions.

So there it is – my guitar tone tone put into words. A lot of these concepts can be applied to mixing in general.


  • Comment-ey Guy on said:

    Wow, this changed my life!
    I wish I could just hug you, for days on end.
    Never stopping, never failing, just hugs.
    No end, no beginning, just hugs.

    What is life, if there is no hugs?
    What is hugs, if there is no life?
    Life is what, is no if hugs there?

    I wish you many years of prosperity, and may your tankard never go dry.

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