Mixing Guitars: 3 Powerful Tips For Better Sound Now

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Wondering how to achieve a professional guitar sound in your mixes?

Hey, this is Jason from Behind The Speakers, and in this video you’ll discover three powerful tips that will help you mix guitars like a pro today.

But before we dive in, I also put together a free guitar mixing cheatsheet that includes some additional tips and tricks that I won’t have time to cover here. So to make sure you get the most out of our time together today, click the link in the description below or up there in the video to download this free guitar mixing cheatsheet right now.

Tip number one is to sweep and destroy. Now on a lot of guitars, you’ll find resonances, or buildups of energy in certain areas of the frequency spectrum. These resonances can sometimes sound fine, but sometimes they can make your mix sound muddy or boomy or harsh and edgy, and they can really just get in the way of a professional guitar tone. So a lot of times you’re going to want to address these resonances and clean them up within the mixing process.

Now there’s two specific areas you want to pay very close attention to on guitars in particular, because oftentimes you’re going to find resonances in these two specific spots. The first is the lower midrange. Now this is around 150 hertz to around 350 hertz on guitars. And in this area you’ll often find boomy, muddy resonances that really just make your mix sound kind of cloudy and undefined.

On acoustic guitars that were recorded with a real mic, you want to pay close attention to this area because oftentimes you’ll find resonances caused by the acoustics in the room that you were recording in, especially if it was a less-than-ideal space like a bedroom or a basement or garage.

The other area you really want to pay close attention to is the upper midrange, around 2 to 4 kilohertz on guitars. In this area you’re often going to find harsh, edgy frequencies that can just grate your ears and really make your mix sound unpleasant to listen to. On electric guitars, you want to pay close attention to this area because oftentimes distortion and effects that you add to those electric guitars can bring out resonances in this specific area of the frequency spectrum.

So now that you know what to watch out for, I want to jump into my DAW and show you how to apply this sweep and destroy technique to find and remove resonances and improve the sound of the guitars in your mixes.

Okay, so I have a song here called “The Glory Years” by Dylan Owen, and I want to show you how to execute this sweep and destroy technique to improve the sound of an electric guitar in this mix. Now normally this is something that I would actually do within the prep process – so before I even start mixing – and I’ll go through each individual track in my mix and use this technique very quickly on each individual track just to clean up and address any problem frequencies before I start mixing.

And the way I like to think about this is it’s almost like if you’re cooking a meal, and you have all sorts of different ingredients. You want to take some time to wash your vegetables and cut off the stems, and just clean everything up so that you get the best ingredients possible heading into the cooking process. And that’s the same exact thing here. So we’re cleaning up the individual tracks before we start mixing, and in practice this can preemptively address some of the problems that you might face within the mix that just makes mixing more efficient and a lot more fun and things come together more quickly. So I recommend using this technique within the prep process, but in this case we’re going to approach it within the context of the mix. So let’s go ahead and take a listen to the whole chorus first, and then we’ll dive into the technique.

♪ Without the worst nights ♪

♪ And my glory years ♪

♪ Without the holes in the rooftops we climbed on ♪

♪ Without the dead nights ♪

♪ And the adventure life ♪

♪ Without the memories we never bet our – ♪

So you’ll notice that the mix sounds pretty good. And this is another reason why I like to use this technique within the prep process, because some of these resonances can be a little bit difficult to identify and hear while everything is playing. But as you’ll see in a second when we take these resonances out, things sound a whole lot better. The entire mix just feels like it comes together more. But it’s hard to identify these problems within the context of the full mix sometimes, and that’s why I prefer to do this within the prep process.

So in this case, I know that the problem is on this guitar track. So I’m just going to solo this. Now if you’ve been watching any of my videos, I’m not a big fan of the solo button, I think it can lead you in the wrong direction while you’re mixing. But again this is something that I’ll actually really do before I start mixing, so we’re just going to pretend we’re kind of moving back to the prep process for a second.

So I’m going to go ahead and select this guitar here and pull up an EQ. Now I’m going to use the Fab Filter. This is my favorite EQ and there are a couple features on this EQ that make it a great EQ for this specific technique, but you can really do this with any EQ, it doesn’t really matter. But I have a preset that I’ve saved here called subtractive EQ. I’m going to pull that up.

Now you’ll see that there’s one band here, and it has a gain of plus 18, a Q of 8, and the frequency is down at 10 hertz, so right at the bottom of the frequency spectrum. And I find that this is a pretty good starting point for this technique. So I would just copy those settings, maybe you can save a preset, because if you’re like me you’ll probably be using this a lot.

And the basic idea is we’re going to play the track and roll the frequency knob up through the frequency spectrum and listen out for problem areas. And these are spots that really just sound grating to the ears. They just stick out. They sound distorted, ugly, and aggressive. Maybe they even hurt your ears. They physically elicit like a response in you. So you want to pay attention to your body and really, you know, kind of listen for those spots in the track that just really hit you the wrong way. So I’m going to go ahead and do that right now with the track playing. Now before we start here, I’m just going to turn this up so we can hear it a little bit more clearly, and I’m going to do that and then we’ll stop when we hear a problem.

Okay, there we go. So take a listen again to this frequency and just, man, this sounds horrible to my ears. Really hurts. So this is a great example of one of these frequencies. And you’ll notice it’s right around 2,500. This is an area that I find especially on electric guitars very commonly has these kind of problem frequencies that kind of stick out. So you want to pay attention to this area on electric guitars, this upper midrange area. And on acoustic guitars, especially if they were recorded with a real mic, oftentimes you’ll get buildup of, you know, problem areas around the lower midrange. So that’s another place you want to kind of pay close attention to.

So now we’ve kind of found this problem frequency, the next thing that we want to do is we want to really dial in the frequency to really just make sure that we’ve caught the meat of this problem. So we actually want to find the spot where this problem sounds its worst. And the way that I like to do this is play the track and I’m going to grab this and actually roll the frequency up and down slightly, and listen for the spot where the problem frequency just sticks out to me the most, so it sounds the loudest and the worst. That’s really what I’m looking for. So I’m going to go ahead and play this and roll things up and down until I really zero in on that spot where the problem frequency sounds the loudest, and that’s when I know I’ve set the right frequency.

Okay so right around 2,430-2,440 tends, seems to be the problem spot. And you’ll notice, you know, when I rolled it down a little bit that area kind of disappeared, it didn’t sound aggressive, and when I rolled it up, the problem disappeared too. So we really want to make sure we’re taking the time to find the right spot, specifically on these types of problems in the upper midrange which tend to be fairly narrow. So you really want to make sure you’ve dialed in that right spot.

So the next thing that we’re going to do is we’re going to adjust the Q, and that’s the width of this band, so that we contain as much of the problem as we can within the band, but we don’t start to affect or influence the good stuff on the left and the right of this band. So the goal is we want to contain the problem, but we don’t want to be taking out a whole bunch of stuff that sounds good on the left and the right side here. So as narrow as possible while still getting the majority of the problem within the band is really our goal.

Now this Fab Filter EQ has a band-solo feature, which I find really useful for this step. And basically it allows us to listen to just what’s going on between this band, or inside this band, and I find that pretty helpful. You know, if you don’t have an EQ that does that, it’s not a deal breaker, it’s just a little bit more difficult for this specific step. So in this case I’m going to use that feature, and then I’m going to play the track and I’m going to adjust the Q while the track is playing, and listen and try to kind of dial things in so that I hear as much of the problem as possible, but I don’t hear the good stuff on the left and the right. So let’s play it again, and this will make a little bit more sense once I show you this in context.

So see, this is too wide. Listen to this again, and you’ll hear that you start to hear the good stuff on the left and the right. See how we’re hearing good parts of the guitar that don’t really sound ugly and aggressive? So let’s narrow this in. So that’s pretty good to me. That sounds like we’re narrow enough where we’ve contained the problem but we don’t really hear a lot of the good stuff.

So now what we’re going to do is I’m going to reset the gain back to zero, and I’m going to give my ears a couple seconds to rest. And this is important because at this point we’ve just be hearing this blaring, aggressive frequency and we’ve kind of lost perspective. So you want to give yourself a couple seconds to rest.

And the last thing that we’re going to do here is we’re going to play the whole track and we’re going to slowly dip this frequency out until the problem goes away. And it’s going to be really easy to hear, now that we’ve kind of identified what it sounds like in context, without that big boost we’re just going to hear it right away. And the goal here is we want to dip out as little as possible to fix the problem. So you don’t want to go with, you know, 30 dB right away. You just want to try to be as subtle as possible to actually fix the problem. If you need to dip out, you know, 20 dB, you find that that’s how much you need to really fix the problem, then that’s fine. But, you know, try to be subtle before you go aggressive.

It’s tough cause on certain notes it kind of comes out a little bit more, so I find myself kind of having to dig in a little bit more than I want to. But since it’s so narrow, I think that’ll be okay. So right around, you know, negative 9, negative 10, seems to be good to me. So the last thing that I want to do here is test my fix. So now what I’m going to do is I’m going to play the track and flip this cut in and out of bypass and see if we’ve made an improvement. So let’s start with the cut in bypass and then we’ll kick it in.

Pretty crazy difference, right? I mean, it’s interesting how that’s a problem that you might not really hear, but when you take that frequency out, the whole track feels like it opens up, right? It just sounds so much better, and just sits so much better. So let’s go ahead and un-solo this now, and I’m going to put this back to the level that it was in the mix. And I’m going to pull this EQ up one more time, and let’s take a listen to this track in context, and I’m going to bypass the cut and then kick it in and kind of flip it in and out, and I want you to listen to the impact this actually makes on the guitar track in the mix. So first let’s listen to it without our cut, and then I’ll flip it in and out.

♪ – see the roads that we travel ♪

♪ Without the worst nights ♪

♪ And my glory years ♪

♪ Without the holes in the rooftop we climbed on ♪

♪ Without the dead nights ♪

♪ And the adventure life ♪

♪ Without the memories we never bet our lives on ♪

♪ How would I know whoever I am ♪

♪ Without the long drive to anywhere that we were always miles from ♪

♪ If these are the best of times I don’t want mine back ♪

♪ The glory years I always thought I’d have – ♪

So it’s pretty crazy how such a small little cut like that can just make the entire mix feel like it opens up. And this is a great example of this kind of problem resonance that can really get in the way in the context of the mix. Now going back to what I mentioned earlier, I recommend that you do this during the prep process so you can actually go through each track in your mix. Do this technique, just pretty quickly, you don’t have to get too tweaky about it. I find that’s the best way to approach this. It can take a little bit of time but you’ll find, again, that moving into the mixing process things just come together so much more easily, mixing is just a lot more fun because again you’ve fixed and addressed a lot of these resonances that just build up and make your mix sound harsh and aggressive and muddy. But specifically on electric and acoustic guitars, I find a lot of these problem frequencies tend to pop up, so you want to pay close attention to these in the mix and make sure that you’ve, you know, addressed them properly if you want your mixes to sound professional.

Tip number two is to compress carefully. Now compression on guitars can be dangerous if you don’t know what you’re doing. So you really want to get your compression chops under control and make sure that you’re making the right compression decisions when you’re working with the guitars in your mixes. Most people over compress electric guitars, especially electric guitars that were recorded with lots of distortion.

Distortion does a similar thing to compression. It actually rounds off the peaks in an audio signal. And so if you have guitars that were recorded with a lot of distortion, you usually don’t need any compression to make them sit right in the mix. So don’t just add compression because you think you should. Listen to the tracks, listen to the way the guitars are sitting in your mix, and ask yourself – do I feel like I need compression to make them sit a little bit more evenly, or do they sound great as-is? And if they sound fine, there’s no reason to add compression to them.

Another thing you want to watch out for is setting an attack time on your compressor that’s too fast. Especially when you’re working with acoustic guitars that provide more of a rhythmic foundation in the mix where you really want to hear the percussiveness of the performance, the pluck of the pick on the strings, the strumming that really drives the groove forward. If you set an attack time that’s too fast on your compressor, the compressor is going to clamp down on a lot of that energy right on the beginning of the hits and the strums. And that’s going to really make the guitar sound flat and lifeless, and take away a lot of that energy that’s going to move the groove forward. So to show you exactly what this sounds like, let me jump into my DAW next and play you the difference between fast attack compression and slow attack compression on acoustic guitar.

Okay so we’re here in ProTools and I have an acoustic guitar track from a song called “Better Way” by Clean Green Music Machine. And I duplicated this track three different times, and applied different processing to each version of this track. So the top track you can see is uncompressed, there’s no compression, completely dry.

The second track, the second version of this track, I’ve added the Oxford Dynamics compressor plugin to it, and I’ve set this compressor up with a slow attack time. So you can see here slow on this compressor is around 20 milliseconds, but you really don’t want to pay that close attention to the numbers here, they really don’t matter all that much because every compressor is going to react or work differently. So 20 milliseconds on this compressor is probably going to sound completely different than, you know, another compressor. So don’t worry about the numbers too much.

And the last track here I’ve set up the same compressor with a super fast attack time. So this is 0.5 milliseconds, which is actually as fast as this plugin will go. Now I’ve adjusted the threshold and makeup gain on these plugins so there’s a fairly equal amount of compression going on between the slow attack and the fast attack versions of this track, and I’ve also added some makeup gain so there should be no level increase or decrease between all those three versions, and that should make it easy to compare.

So I want to flip back and forth between these three versions. Before I tell you what to focus on, I just want you to listen to these three versions and make some judgements for yourself. And kind of ask yourself which one do you prefer best? So let’s take a listen, and I’ll flip back and forth between these three versions of the track.

So to my ears, there’s a couple of key differences between these three tracks. Now the uncompressed track sounds pretty good to my ears. It’s a very natural presentation of the acoustic guitar. The slow attack actually sounds brighter, and we hear a lot more of that pick noise and the punch and impact on the beginning of the guitar hits. And that’s because the compressor is actually letting through more of that energy right on the beginning of the hits. So it’s a brighter sound, it has more impact and punch. It sounds great. It may be a little bit too much, and I’ve tried to kind of overdo the compression a little bit just to, you know, so we can really hear these differences.

But the fast attack compression totally sounds flat and lifeless to me. And we’ve lost all of that punch and impact, so the guitar just sounds one-dimensional. It has no punch, it has no impact on the front end of the notes. So let’s go ahead and zero in on this again, and I’m going to flip back and forth just between the slow attack and the fast attack and I want you to listen for two things. Number one – listen for the brightness of the guitar. And number two – listen for the punch and the impact on the beginning of each strum. So we’ll start with the slow attack and we’ll flip back and forth.

So you can hear all of the impact and punch is lost with the fast attack time. And that’s because the compressor is annihilating all those transients that are responsible for adding that punch and impact. The other thing that I’m hearing is some distortion on the fast attack compression. So the compressor is actually compressing so quickly that it’s adding distortion, which really makes this guitar sound pretty nasty to me. So you really want to be careful with fast attack times, specifically on acoustic guitars, things that really have a lot of that punch and impact. You may be able to get away with a faster attack time on, you know, distorted guitar or something that doesn’t have a lot of those transients, but on something like this, an acoustic guitar that’s really playing a more rhythmic role, you know, slower attack times typically are going to give you a more natural sound, a sound that has more impact and punch, and a sound that just, you know, fits a lot better in the context of the mix.

Tip number three is to try delay instead of reverb. Now on electric guitars in particular, I find that there are some real advantages to using delay instead of reverb when you’re trying to create space and depth and width on that guitar in the mix. Delay can take up a lot less space in the soundstage than reverb. So specifically when you’re working with tracks where there’s a whole bunch of stuff competing for space, you have a million different tracks in your mix, delay can help you achieve a sense of depth and width and dimension on your guitars without taking up as much space in the soundstage.

Delay also doesn’t push things back in the mix as much as reverb. So if you want your guitars to remain up front and sound really present and forward in the mix, delay can help you achieve that sense of depth without making the guitars sound like they’re really far away from you. So next I want to jump into my DAW and show you how I use delay to add depth and dimension to a guitar in a recent mix.

Okay, so I have a song here called “Joshua” by Leah Cappelle, and I want to show you how I created a sense of space and depth and width on the electric guitar solo on this mix without using reverb. So let’s go ahead and take a listen first and then we’ll dive in.

So there’s a really nice sense of space on that guitar solo. And it really sounds like reverb but it’s actually entirely 100% delay, so there’s no reverb at all on that guitar. And one of the reasons why I really like using delay, specifically in situations like this on electric guitars, is because when you have a lot of tracks competing for space like in this situation, you don’t have a ton of room in the soundstage to add effects like reverb.

Reverb tends to kind of muddy up the mix because it takes up so much space, but delay will give you a lot of the same benefits as reverb so it’ll help create that sense of space and depth but it’s more economical. So it doesn’t take up as much space in the soundstage, and circumstances like this where I just have a barrage of different tracks, I find I like to lean more on delay, not only on guitars but just in general on the tracks in my mix because it gives me that same sense of space and depth again, but takes up a lot less space in the soundstage. So it can allow me to maintain that clarity when I have a lot of different tracks competing for space. So let’s go ahead and solo this electric guitar.

Now if we dive in a little bit deeper here, you’ll see I’ve created a send. So I have a piece of this electric guitar being sent out bus 21-22, and then I’ve created an aux track here called solo delay, the input of which is 21-22. And then I’ve added the EchoBoy plugin on that aux track. So this is the delay that I typically like to use on electric guitars, and I like it because it has a lot of character to it so I can kind of make it sound a little bit more distorted and low-fi, and for electric guitars it works pretty well. But just about any delay you have can produce pretty good results.

So you’ll see here I have an echo time, or a delay time, of around a 16th note, I typically like to time the delays to the tempo of the track and this plugin makes it really easy to do that. Quite a bit of feedback. And where the magic is happening here is over here on the style section. So there’s this, there’s a bunch of different styles you can choose, and this will control the character of this plugin. So it adds distortion and changes the tone a little bit. I’ve pulled up this binsonette style, which I believe is an emulation of an analog tape delay. I’m not 100% positive, but I just like to cycle through these and kind of listen to them in context with the mix until I find something that sounds really good. So let’s go ahead and listen to this in solo to get a closer sense for kind of what it’s doing.

So it sounds really natural. I mean it doesn’t sound like delay, but it really gives you that three-dimensional sense of space. So I’m going to play it again and I’m going to actually flip this in and out of mute so you can get a sense for what this delay is really doing.

It’s a great effect. I mean it really sounds super natural and gives the guitar just tons of width and space. But again it sounds a lot like reverb, but it’s not. So let’s go ahead and listen to this in context with the rest of the mix, and I’m going to do the same thing. So I’m going to flip this delay in and out of mute so we can listen to the impact that this delay has on the guitar in context with the rest of the mix.

So to my ears, there are two main benefits. Number one the guitar feels like it takes a step back in the mix, so it doesn’t feel like it’s so up front, it feels like it sits on the same plane as the rest of the instruments. And that’s a major benefit to me, so it doesn’t sound so dry and like it stands in front of everything else, and it also feels a lot wider. So there’s a sense of width that’s created by this delay. And again, very simple effect. But I find that, you know, there’s just something about delay on electric guitar that, to me, a vast majority of the times I feel like it works better than reverb for creating that kind of three-dimensional space and depth and width that I’m looking for.

Now if you’re ready to dive deeper, I also put together that free guitar mixing cheatsheet that includes some additional tips and tricks that will take the sound of your guitars even further. Click the link in the description below or up there in the video to download this free cheatsheet right now.

Now before you go, leave a comment below this video and let me know – what’s your dream guitar? An SG, a Strat, a Martin? I’d love to hear your response, so again leave your comment in the section below. Thanks so much for watching, and you can check out more mixing tips right here on my YouTube channel or at BehindTheSpeakers.com.

About Jason Moss

Jason is an LA-based mixer and the founder of Behind The Speakers. He's a graduate of New York University's Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music. His how-to articles have been featured in leading industry publications by Berklee, TuneCore, SonicScoop, The Pro Audio Files, and Disc Makers.