What type of microphone should I use to record heavy metal guitars?

Image of heavy metal guitar

Ready to lay down some brutal guitar tracks? In this post, I’ll discuss the microphones that are the most suited for recording heavy metal guitar tracks.

Why you should trust me!

Full disclosure – My main instrument is drums! But I also play the guitar and I’ve played in multiple metal bands and rock bands and have spent a good amount of time recording metal guitars. In my most recent metal band: Terebinth we experimented with a variety of microphone configurations including the tried and trusted SM57 along with a selection of other dynamic and condenser microphones.

We also spent a good amount of studio time experimenting with different mic placements, different cabinets and even re-amping a direct signal. We use the double-track technique for most rhythm parts, which means we recorded multiple takes of the same section and layered them together.

Choosing the right mic placement is just part of the process, before we even start recording metal guitar, we do a lot of work developing the guitar sound. We play all our songs in drop tunings – usually down to C or B, depending on the song, which adds a new dimension to creating a good metal tone.

Choosing the best microphone can be a subjective matter and depends on the sound you are going for.

I’ll explain the microphone configuration we ended up with and why it worked well. I’ll also discuss some other popular microphones for recording heavy metal guitar so you can make an informed decision on which microphone is best suited for recording your heavy metal guitar.

What type of microphone is best for recording heavy metal guitars?

Generally speaking, dynamic microphones are most commonly used to record metal guitar due to their ability to handle higher SPLs (sound pressure levels) and their ability to capture the distortion and bite of heavy metal guitar tones without losing clarity.

The Shure SM57 has long been the go-to microphone for heavy metal and rock guitar recording. It has been famously used by Eddie Van Halen from Van Halen, Jimi Hendrix and many others.

It is a rugged dynamic microphone with an iconic look, and its frequency response makes it well-suited to capturing distorted guitar sounds. It’s also incredibly versatile: you can use it to capture anything from acoustic guitars up close to loud amps in a live setting.

Another popular choice is the Sennheiser MD421, which offers a slightly brighter response than the SM57 and can handle higher SPLs. It also provides a more focused sound, making it especially useful for recording double-tracked rhythm guitars or lead guitar solos.

If you want to experiment with different microphone configurations, you can also combine multiple mics to capture the full sound of your heavy metal guitar. For example, a combination of an SM57 and a condenser mic like the AKG C414 would give you warm low-end with airy high-end.

If you want to add some extra warmth to your sound, try using a ribbon microphone like the Royer R-121 or Beyerdynamic M160.

A ribbon mic will give your sound a unique vintage-style character and also provide great isolation from other instruments.

What pickup pattern should the microphone I use for recording heavy guitars?

For recording metal guitars, it’s always best to go with a cardioid (unidirectional) pickup pattern. This means the microphone will mostly pick up signal from the front and will reject most audio signal from behind. This will result in a tighter, more focused sound, which is what you want for the big washy sound of high gain guitar tones for heavy metal.

Image source: shure.com

How to position the microphone for recording heavy metal guitars

When recording heavy guitars, it’s important to get the right microphone placement. Start by pointing the mic towards the center of the cone or speaker grille, roughly eight inches away from the center. This is a good starting point for getting a balanced and clear sound. You can also experiment with other positions, such as aiming slightly off-center or even aiming directly at the edge of the speaker cone. Depending on your taste and what type of sound you’re after, you can adjust the placement to suit your needs. Don’t forget to use a pop filter or foam windscreen to reduce any plosive sounds from getting into the mic!

How close should I place my microphone when recording heavy guitars?

When recording heavy guitars, it is best to place the microphone closer than you would when recording other instruments. Keep the microphone within a few inches of the guitar speaker or amp for optimal sound quality. Using a dynamic microphone with high SPL capabilities can help keep distortion to a minimum when recording at louder volumes.

Should I record just one guitar track or layer multiple tracks together?

Ultimately, it’s up to you and what type of sound you’re after. If you want a big, full-bodied tone, layering multiple tracks together can give you more depth and power. However, if your goal is to achieve clarity and precision in the recording, then it may be best to record just one track.

Should I record heavy guitars in mono or stereo?

This will depend on your desired sound. To create a wide stereo image, record the guitar tracks in stereo using two microphones placed at different positions on the speaker cabinet.

If you are looking for a more focused sound, mono recording is the way to go. This involves using one microphone and placing it close to the guitar speaker to capture a single sound source.

How do I Record multiple layers for heavy metal guitar?

Layering multiple guitar tracks is a great way to add thickness and power to your recording. Start by recording each part separately, preferably using different microphone positions for each track. This will give you more control when mixing the final project and allow you to create a fuller sound with more depth. Experiment with panning the tracks left and right, as well as using different amounts of gain and compression for each track.

Once you have all your tracks recorded, it’s time to mix them together. You can blend the layers to create a powerful wall of sound, or focus on emphasizing certain parts while keeping others in the background.

What cables should I use when recording heavy guitars?

For the microphone cables, you should use balanced (3 core) XLR male to XLR female cables that are shielded. Check the condition of the cable and make sure there are no breaks or bad connections on the terminals.

Check the guitar cable for your young ‘Mustaine progeny’. This should be a shielded single-core signal cable. If it seems dodgy – supply one of your own that you know is good.

One other often overlooked cable is the speaker cable that runs from the speaker output on the amp head into the speaker cabinet. This should be a heavy gauge 2 core speaker cable – up to a maximum of 15ft. A shorter cable is even better if possible. You would be surprised how many guitarists use a signal cable or stage cable for this!

The last thing you want is the perfect take destroyed by a scratchy cable!

Should I use batteries or power adapters for effects pedals?

Many guitarists will have some sort of stomp box or effects pedal in their signal chain. This might be an overdrive pedal like a tube screamer that boosts the tone or adds some presence, or a compression pedal, or noise gate etc. While recording, try and reduce as many of these pedals in the signal chain if possible as they will introduce extra noise into the signal. If they are a ‘critical’ part of the metal tones for the soon-to-be ‘GuitarGod’ then try and use batteries wherever possible to reduce noise that you would otherwise get from an AC power adapter.

Best microphone preamp for heavy metal guitars?

The best microphone preamps for heavy metal guitars will depend on your recording setup and the particular sound you are looking to achieve. Generally, microphone preamps that have a lot of headroom and high-quality components provide the best results when it comes to capturing heavy guitar tones. Popular choices include API 3124, TLA Classic, Seventh Circle Audio N72, Neve and Trident.

Should I use an amp simulator for recording heavy guitars?

If you’re looking for an alternative solution, consider re-amping your guitar recordings. Re-amp is a technique where you record the direct signal of your guitar and then play it back through an amp to get a more realistic sound. This can be especially useful for achieving bigger and heavier tones.

Using an amp simulator can be a great way to add depth and realism to your heavy guitar recordings. Many DAWs (Digital Audio Workstations) have a variety of amp simulations that you can use as a plugin on your recorded track. such as the popular POD Farm from Line 6. This will allow you to shape the sound of your recording without needing to mic up a real amp.

However, if you want to capture the full sound of your guitar’s amplifier, it is best to record with a microphone and a real amp. This will give you the most accurate representation of the instrument and its tone.

Is it better to mic an amp or DI direct for recording heavy metal guitar tones?

Both of these methods can be used to capture heavy guitar tones. The advantage of micing an amp is that it will provide you with a fuller spectrum of frequencies from the movement of the speaker in the cabinet.

When micing an amp, make sure to use the right type of microphone for your instrument and find the best placement for capturing its unique tone.

On the other hand, DI recording can be useful if you want to create a more clinical sound. It also eliminates the need for micing and thus will reduce noise from the room. This is useful if you are doing a live recording with drums or other instruments in the same room. Many metal bands now use a DI setup for live performances with an amp modeling setup such as Axe FX or Neural DSP.

The DI or line output from many amps can tend to sound thin and digital, so if you have the option for recording, a hybrid setup with a real amp and cabinet, paired with a DI signal for re-amping can work well.

Does high gain distortion affect the sound quality when recorded?

Yes, playing guitar with distortion can have a significant effect on the sound quality when recorded. Many metal players aim for high-gain tones which have lots of aggression and sustain

Distortion adds more harmonic content to the signal which can create a thicker sound, but it also increases both noise levels. When recording at louder volumes, this can lead to hum, feedback, hiss and other background noise.

Some of the things you can do to counteract this include;

  • Muting high strings with tape when recording rhythm parts
  • Removing unnecessary pedals and effects from the signal path
  • Try moving the amp position around the room away from power sources which can cause AC hum and buzz
  • Use a power conditioner to reduce noise in the power source
  • Try turning off lighting and other electrical equipment in the building- Things like flourescent lights, microwaves and even refrigerators can cause extra noise in the power source.
  • Turn off AC, ventilation systems or heating systems while recording.
  • Add a ground wire from the guitar to the player’s body or to the main ground circuit in the building.
  • Use a noise gate that can help cut noise from the signal when it is below a certain threshold
  • Turn off any RF equipment like wireless microphones, in-ear monitor receivers, even wifi and bluetooth devices in the building which may create interference.
  • Upgrade the pickups in your guitar to humbuckers or active pickups
  • Check the wiring inside the guitar – add circuits to reduce RF interference.
  • Replace the battery in your guitar if it has one
  • If there is a polarity switch on the amp, flip that until you find the position with the least amount of hum or noise
  • Try a different signal cable between the guitar and the amp. A damaged cable or unshielded cable can make a big difference. High gain settings on the amp with multiply the effect of these.

Can I use effects pedals while tracking metal guitar parts in the studio?

Yes, you can use effects pedals while tracking metal guitar parts in the studio. Effects such as distortion and overdrive create a thicker sound, while delay and reverb add more space to your recordings.

Many of these pedals also have dedicated recording outputs that allow them to be connected directly to the audio interface. This eliminates any noise from the amp and allows you to control the amount of effect in the signal.

That being said, this is a subjective question. It depends on the sound you are going for. It may be better to record a dry guitar track without reverb and delay. You can add those effects later on in the mixing process.

Should I use room mics for recording heavy metal guitar?

This can depend on the style of playing. For faster complex styles of metal with very high gain tones like death metal, grindcore and black metal – the room sound may be muddy and lack clarity. You may find that room mics don’t add anything useful to the mix.

For slower sections or styles like doom metal or gothic metal, a room mic can add a nice fullness and body to the tone.

Room mics are usually placed at a distance from the amp and will capture more of the natural ambience of the room as well. Room mics are best combined with close mics directly on the guitar amp or speaker cabinet. The close mics will capture most of the tone while the room mics will add some fullness and body, often the lower frequencies with a longer wavelength can come through more naturally with room mics.

What is the best way to check phase alignment between two amps and microphones when recording electric guitar in stereo?

The best way to check phase alignment between two amps and microphones when recording electric guitar in stereo is to use a polarity or phase reversal switch. If you’re recording into a DAW in your computer, most DAW’s will have a plugin with a phase reversal switch, such as the stock EQ plugin from Pro Tools shown below.

Solo the two tracks in question and flip the phase on one of the tracks. If the audio you hear sounds thin and weak then the two tracks are out of phase. That means they are cancelling each other out – especially the lower frequencies. Flip the switch until the two tracks together sound the most powerful and the lower frequencies re-appear. This means the tracks are in phase and they are working together to create a fuller, powerful tone.

Is there a difference between dynamic and condenser microphones for recording heavy guitars?

Yes, there is a difference between dynamic and condenser microphones when it comes to capturing louder sources like distorted guitars’ amplifiers/cabs etc. Dynamic microphones are optimized for handling higher sound pressure levels, which means they can capture a higher volume without distortion.

This means that they’re more suitable for recording loud musical instruments like guitar amps without clipping or distorting the signal. On the other hand, condenser mics can provide a much wider frequency response and extended low-frequency response which makes them better suited for recording quieter sounds with greater accuracy.

If placed correctly, a large diaphragm condenser such as the Rode NT1000 is an excellent option to combine with a dynamic microphone such as a Shure SM57 or Sennheiser E609.

How can I make my metal guitar recording sound fuller?

To make your guitar recording sound fuller, you can use a combination of techniques such as double-tracking, using different mics and mic positions to capture the full frequency range, adding effects like reverb or delay to create an ambient feel and adding low-end frequency with a subwoofer. 

You can also experiment with distortion pedals and EQ to shape the sound and make it punchier.

Surprisingly, you may have too much gain. Reducing the gain slightly and adding more presence can actually result in a better tone that sits better in the mix with other instruments.

Finally, double-checking for any phase issues can help ensure that all elements in your recording are working together harmoniously.

What is guitar amplifier bleed, and how can I control it?

Amplifier bleed is the sound of the guitar amp leaking into other mics when recording in a studio.

Many valve guitar amplifiers need to be driven loud to get the valves really working – the guitarist’s tone won’t sound the same at low volume. This means that other microphones in the room may start to pick up the noise from the amp.

This is really only an issue if you are doing a live recording with all instruments and vocals being recorded simultaneously in the same room. ‘Bleed’ simply refers to the sound from one instrument bleeding into a microphone of another instrument. (For example the audio guitar amp being picked up by drum overheads or the vocal mic).

If you are doing a live recording, you should use close miking techniques – which means keeping the mics as close as possible to each instrument.

Additionally, using acoustic treatments such as soundproofing foam in your studio can help reduce the overall noise and make it easier to control bleed during a live recording. If you have the space available, move the guitar amp into another room, or create a temporary ‘enclosure’ with blankets or mattresses. This will help contain the noise of the guitar speaker cabinet, and reduce the bleed into other mics in the room.

Ideally, you want to track each instrument individually so you don’t have the sound from the guitar amp ‘bleeding’ into drum mics or vocal microphones.

‘Bleed’ is also an epic metal masterpiece by Swedish metal legends Meshuggah!

Should I record metal guitar dry or with effects?

This really depends on what sound you’re trying to achieve. If you want a more precise and direct tone, it’s best to record your guitar dry so that you can add the effects in post-production. This also gives you more control over the final product since you can tweak and adjust any parameters as desired. On the other hand, if you’re going for a more unique or atmospheric sound, recording with effects can be an effective way to capture the exact tone you want. Experimenting with different combinations of effects and plug-ins to get the desired sound is the best way to go when it comes to recording guitar with effects.

It’s important to remember that you don’t have to choose between recording dry or with effects; you can always record your guitar both ways and then decide later which one works best for the song.

Why does my guitar recording sound tinny?

If your guitar recording sounds tinny, it’s likely because the sound isn’t being captured adequately. To fix this, you should try using different microphones and mic positions to experiment with different frequency ranges and capture more of the low end.

You can also use a compressor or EQ to boost certain frequencies and make the sound fuller. Additionally, adding effects like reverb and delay can help to fill out the space and give your guitar recording a more natural sound.

Finally, double-checking for any phase issues can ensure that all elements in your recording are working together harmoniously.

Should I use a single coil or humbucker pickup for heavy guitars?

Humbucker pickups are generally used for recording the rhythm guitar tracks in modern metal as they provide a thicker sound with less noise and more low-end frequency. Single coil pickups can also work, but they tend to have a thinner sound which can be too bright in certain situations. Many metal guitarists use active pickups which like the EMG 81 or 85 which has a higher gain output, resulting in a tighter tone with less background noise.

The type of pickup you use will depend on the genre of music you’re recording, as well as your own personal preference. Experimenting with different pickups and EQ settings to find the right sound is usually the best approach.

Active pickups vs passive pickups – which are better for metal guitar?

Both active and passive pickups can be used to record metal guitar – it really comes down to personal preference. Active pickups are designed with higher output levels, which can give your guitar a fuller sound with less noise and more low-end frequencies. Passive pickups also provide a great sound but often need to be boosted with an external preamp or EQ to get a more powerful tone.

In Summary

In this article, we’ve discussed some great techniques and recommended equipment you can use for recording heavy metal guitars.

  • Use a dynamic microphone with a cardiod pattern like a Shure SM57, SM7B or Sennheiser MD421
  • For a 2 microphone setup consider using a Rode NT1000, AKG C414 or other large diaphragm condenser and blend with a dynamic mic.
  • Use close miking position with mic pointed slightly off center towards the cone of one speaker.
  • Record multiple tracks and blend together for more power and body
  • Experiment with room mics, depending on the genre of metal.
  • Check phase alignment when blending tracks and multiple mics.
  • Keep the signal chain clean by removing unnecessary pedals and effects. Try adding this in post-production
  • Use new batteries for effects pedals where possible to reduce AC noise
  • Check your equipment and use the right cables
  • Experiment with a DI and amp simulator if you don’t have access to a good guitar amp and speaker cabinet
  • Try reducing gain slightly to eliminate noise and feedback
  • Control amplifier bleed for live recordings by isolating the speaker cabinet in another room, or enclosure
  • Use a humbucker pickup for rhythm guitar sections. Try an active pickup for higher gain and a fuller sound.
  • Check your room and building for devices that may cause electrical or RF interference.

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