E04 - Capturing DI Guitars/Bass
For the fourth video in the series, we tackled the art of Guitar and Bass DI recording and how you can go about getting the most from your performances. Now I’m sure lots of you will have heard bad DI files and good DI files, but how do you make sure that you end up with a solid DI at the end of your recording?
Tip 1 - Choose the Instrument
The first step towards getting brilliant DI track is choosing the right instrument for the part. Each instrument, even when the same make and model from the same production line will sound slightly different to another. The differences range from nearly immeasurable, to massive. When you are recording a DI, it is important to think of what the final sound will be, and using the guitar or guitars at your disposal to help you achieve this “ideal sound”.
Dealing first with pickups, there are two main categories of guitar pickups. Humbuckers, and Single coils. Now there are variants inside of each of those categories, but for now we will deal with the most common varieties of each. Humbuckers tend to have a comparatively higher output than single-coils and will drive the front end of an amp harder. They tend to have less dynamic range as well, meaning that the top end of the dynamics spectrum is compressed leading to higher sustain and a more squashed sound. This is a great characteristic to have when aiming for big powerful chords, or strong sustained lead lines. Single-coils by comparison have a lower output and will drive the front end of an amp less, leading to more dynamic range and a bit more separation between notes. They also tend to be brighter and a bit more cutting than their hum bucking counterparts. This allows them to suit more jangly open chords, and more cutting lead lines or clean parts. Now these are slight generalisations, as you will have pickups from both camps that will break the rules, however this isn’t a bad starting point at viewing the suitabilities of guitar pickups.
Next up, consider using comparable but different guitars for your parts played in unison. Having a guitar like a Les Paul play both the L and R rhythm tracks will give you a huge sound, but by using another humbucker equipped guitar with slightly different tonal characteristics will give you a far wider stereo spread as the tonal characteristics will be different.
Bearing these capabilities in mind when recording is vital, as you can shape the sound before you even press record by choosing the appropriate instrument for each part. If you don’t have the luxury of multiple guitars, then using the volume and tone settings on your guitar, the amp settings, the cab choice, the mic choice, or the mic placement can also have a huge effect on your end result.
Tip 2 - Play the Part
One of the most frustrating things I encounter as an engineer is receiving a great song, only to find that the parts have been played without any feeling or drive. Every part of an arrangement should serve a purpose and help build a great sounding song, so when you encounter something that has been played as though the performer couldn’t care less its really hard to help it serve the song. Now I don’t mean that everything should be played aggressively, or loud, I simply mean that the part should be played in a way that helps it serve the song and energy of the part.
So if you have driving rhythm guitars, try injecting some life into the performance and give it an aggressive playing style. If there is a super warm floaty clean part, then play it gently with good separation between the parts.
Whatever you do though, think about how you would like the part to sound, and accomplish it with your hands.
Tip 3 - Choose the Pick
Guitar picks can be quite a personal thing. Certain players love the feel of their ideal guitar pick, and can’t really get on with much else. However, the guitar pick can have quite an influence on the sound of the guitar part and bearing this in mind before recording can make a big difference.
Thick guitar strings can transfer more energy to the string when playing as the plastic will bend less, causing the string to move more when struck. Conversely, thinner guitar picks transfer less energy as the plastic will bend more readily and the string will move less. Using this knowledge can help you to shape the tone of the part simply by having the right pick for the part.
When playing rhythm parts, consider using a thinner pick to keep performance levels a little more consistent as more energy will be lost in the pick leading to a more stable dynamic. Nolly of Periphery and GGD compares this to having a compressor in your hand where there is progressively lessening string output with increased hand input.
When playing a lead part, using a thicker pick allows you to play the part more softly with your hand yet achieving a consistently high output from the string. This leads to more sustain for slightly less initial transient due to the lower input strength from your hand.
Tip 4 - Set DI Levels
When it comes to the input stage of an amp, increased clipping is introduced with increased pickup output. Clipping into a mic pre or convertor doesn’t traditionally sound good, and definitely doesn’t sound like the same sort of clipping that an amp would provide, and the hottest DI signal available without clipping will not drive an amp as hard as a high output pickup would coming straight from the guitar. So how then do we achieve good DI recordings?
First off we have to accept that getting a DI as hot as an amp input isn’t possible, so trying is pointless. This leaves us with one clear objective and that is to avoid clipping. Recording with peak levels of around -12 to -8db gives us plenty of headroom for potential overs, and ample distance from most noise floors to capture a great sounding performance. Next up we want to make sure that our DI is free of any electrical noise, like ground loops or hum. After that, you’ve pretty much done all you can to ensure a great DI recording.
The one thing you could do if recording with multiple instruments, is set the input level from the DI to be as hot as possible without clipping on your highest output instrument. Then by leaving the input gain at this level for each part recorded, you will maintain the difference in level between the various guitar/pickup combinations in your recording. I don’t know if this is defiantly worthwhile, as you can always change your input gain on your amp, but as its easy to accomplish with minimal effort its worth considering!
Finally when it comes to achieving peak levels the best practice I have found is to play palm muted chugs with plenty of aggression coming from your pick hand. This introduces extra low end and if these are at a healthy level, then you should be able to avoid any clipping whilst recording . Make sure you monitor in your DAW for your input levels, and set your meters to show you input monitoring to avoid getting false reads from any plugins you may have inserted.
Tip 5 - Tune Tune Tune
I cannot stress this enough. Tune before, and after every take. Having a part that is slightly out of tune can ruin a perfect take, so don’t take the risk. Secondly, make sure you tune in the right way. Guitar nuts can be sticky, and as a result when tuning down to a note, the nut can hold onto a string that is slipping back towards the tuner. When played and bent, this string can then slip backwards through the nut, resulting in the string going flat as tension is released. To avoid this, always tune down around 1 semi tone, then tune back up to the note, playing the string with something close to the same aggression as the part will be played. Tuning in this way allows you to remove most of the issues associated with guitar nuts as the string is now at a constant tension along its entire length.
Next up, make sure you tune with the same tuner for all parts. All tuners can get you in tune, but they will not be in tune to one another meaning you could have two perfectly tuned guitars that sound horrid when played together. Choose one tuner, and use it for every guitar or bass in your song or album.
Tip 6 - Re-String
Finally, now that you have set everything up, restring your guitar. New strings make a huge difference to both tone and feel, and for each part to sound its best, I can’t recommend new strings enough. Be sure to check your input levels again once the guitar is re-strung though as the new strings may have resulted in an increase in output levels from the guitar.