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How to mix electric guitars

In this article, we will give you 10 tips on how to mix electric guitars and make them sound massive in your productions.

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Electric guitars are an essential part of modern music. Whether it’s jazz, pop, funk, rock, metal, or anything in between, they support the melody, the harmony, and often become the distinctive signature sound that defines the song or even the whole band.

But no matter how good the riff or beefy the guitar tone, it is essential that they work within the song's context. They must blend with the rest of the elements in the mix, cut through when needed, and add excitement to the rhythm section.

In this article, we will give you tips on how to mix electric guitars and make them work in your productions.

    Keep your guitar tracks organized for easier mixing

    When mixing electric guitars, keeping them organized in your project is essential. Most modern DAWs allow you to group and color-code your tracks and clips. We recommend using these features for organizing your guitar parts. This will help you navigate through the different parts of your projects more efficiently.

    Additionally, separating rhythm, leads, and solo guitars to independent tracks will make your life easier when dialing in the sounds you are looking for.

    Gain staging is the foundation for a well-balanced and clean mix

    Gain staging is the process of managing the levels of your audio signals to prevent distortion and noise in your final mix. This is important because if levels are too low, the signal may get lost in the noise floor. If they're too high, they might clip and distort.

    Although modern DAWs allow you to record as hot as possible with no perceptible floor noise, keeping a good and healthy level for your guitars through your processing chain is very important. It will benefit the sound coming in and out of your plugins and give you more resolution in your faders for mixing.

    Before you start recording, play your guitar at the loudest part of the song. Adjust the input gain on your audio interface so that the loudest peaks are not causing any clipping (red indicators on most gear).

    Next, in your DAW, create a new guitar track and, while playing, monitor the track's metering. The goal is to have the loudest parts of your performance reach around the -5 or -6 dBFS mark.

    Use presets as a starting point for your guitar tone

    Most guitar plugins these days come with a library of presets. Presets can be a great starting point for finding the guitar sound you are looking for. They can also help you better understand your plugin’s capabilities and what the different knobs do.

    All Neural DSP guitar plugins come with a vast library of presets created by top artists and producers that showcase the different tones the plugin is able to produce. Use them as a starting point when dialing in the guitar tones in your productions.

    Getting a focused guitar sound by filtering

    Every music genre, style, song, or even individual guitar part needs different processing approaches. There are no magic EQ curves or compressor settings that will work for every project you’re working on. However, specific starting points can help your electric guitars sit in the mix quicker.

    The first thing is filtering - especially high-pass filtering. Removing any rumble or low-frequency information from your guitars will not only allow your bass and kick drum to come forward in the mix but also give your guitars a more focused sound.

    A good starting point can be filtering at 80 Hz. However, depending on the style of music or your guitar tone, you can go even higher than that. If you are still determining how far you can go, you can use a low-pass filter to find out. First, cut high frequencies until you cannot differentiate the guitar part. Then, turn off the low-pass filter, set the high-pass filter at that frequency, and you are good to go. The more you do it, the more confident you will make this decision and speed up this process.

    Most electric guitars and amplifiers reproduce very little above 15 kHz. That's why cutting frequencies above that point will also help to clean your guitar sound. This can be done with a high-band shelving EQ. Cutting with the low-pass filter while boosting the high frequencies will make your guitars sound brighter without being too harsh.

    Using compression

    Compression, when used appropriately, can be a game-changer when mixing electric guitars. It ensures consistency in your tracks, helps them sit better in the mix, and can add sustain to solos or lead lines. However, improper use can remove the dynamics from your guitar tone.

    Before dialing in a compressor, understand why you're using it. Are you trying to level out a rhythm part, add sustain to a solo, or simply control peaks?

    If you want to retain the pick attack and natural dynamics of a guitar riff, opt for a slower attack time. This allows the initial transient to come through before the compression kicks in. On the flip side, if you want a smoother tone, especially for legato playing or solos, a faster attack time can help by clamping down on the transients quickly.

    A shorter release time can make the compression less noticeable and maintain a more natural sound, while a longer release can add sustain to solos or lead parts. Experiment to find the sweet spot.

    When mixing electric guitars, a lower compression ratio often suffices. This provides a gentle leveling without squashing the dynamics. Only use higher ratios if you're aiming for a very compressed, "pumping" effect.

    While compression can help in many situations, it's easy to overdo it. Over-compressing can remove the life and dynamics from a guitar track, making it sound dull and lifeless.

    Sometimes, only a specific frequency range needs compression (for example taming boomy lows or piercing highs). Multi-band compressors let you compress individual frequency bands, offering more precision.

    While these guidelines can help, it's essential to rely on your ears. Always compare the compressed and uncompressed signal to ensure you're enhancing, not detracting from, the guitar tone.

    Double track your guitars for a massive sound

    Double tracking means recording the same guitar part twice and panning one recording to the left and the other to the right. The subtle differences between the two recordings, be it slight variations in timing, articulation, or tone, create a sense of width and depth that you can’t get with a single track.

    When double tracking, before you record a second pass, it’s very important that your initial guitar track is tight and played well. While you want some natural variation between the two tracks, strive to keep your playing consistent in terms of dynamics and timing. This will ensure that the parts sound cohesive, rather than messy.

    Once you've got your two tracks, pan one hard left and the other hard right. This creates a sense of width and depth.

    Some mixers prefer to use the same guitar and amp settings for both tracks, while others like to vary the tone slightly between the two. There's no right or wrong way here, but a slight tonal variation can introduce additional depth and richness.

    For an even denser sound, you can record four separate performances, with two panned hard left and right, while the other two are panned slightly left and right. This approach can create a very powerful guitar wall, especially useful in genres like rock and metal.

    When mixing double-tracked guitars, be mindful of EQ and effects. Since you're dealing with two similar tracks, potential frequency build-ups or clashes might occur. Carve out space for each track to ensure clarity.

    The Doubler found in Neural DSP guitar plugins projects your signal to a stereo field making it sound like a double-tracked recording. Give it a try to hear what your recordings would sound like with double tracked guitars.

    Dynamic mixing with automation

    When mixing, it's essential to consider the role and arrangement of the guitars throughout the song's progression. Recording multiple guitar parts is great and gives you lots of options during the mixing stage. However, it is vital to assess what parts are needed in the different sections of the song.

    For example, if you want them to make a big entrance on the choruses, keep the guitar arrangement light on the verses. Or, if you want the solo to shine in the center of the instrumental part, make sure you give it enough space.

    By automating mutes, panning, and volume faders during the song, you can dynamically control the mix. It is all about creating captivating contrast that helps the song tell its story and retain the listener's attention.

    Focus on the entire mix rather than your isolated guitar tones

    The true test of a great guitar tone isn't just how it sounds on its own, but how it complements the entire mix. The most important part of the guitar tone is to get it to fit in with the other elements in the song.

    It's easy to get lost perfecting an isolated tone, only to discover later that it overshadows the bass or clashes with the vocals. This emphasizes the importance of frequently checking your guitar's sound against the backdrop of the entire mix.

    You can solo the guitar track to refine specific settings and nuances, but always circle back to hear it in the context of the full mix. Adjustments made in isolation should enhance the collective sound of the entire mix.

    Use references

    If there are songs or records with guitar mixes that you like, don't hesitate to try and copy them. Trying to replicate the sound of a specific album or artist and learning how they got those guitar tones can be a great exercise to understand how to get your guitars to work in your mixes.

    With Neural DSP guitar plugins, you're equipped to effortlessly capture the guitar tones of top artists. Start with their signature tones as a foundation, and then refine and adapt until you carve out a unique sound of your own.

    Don’t forget to take breaks

    In the world of music production and mixing, the importance of taking breaks cannot be overstated. Continuous listening and focusing on intricate details can easily lead to ear fatigue, making it challenging to make objective decisions.

    Immersing yourself in a mix for too long can also cause you to lose perspective on the bigger picture. A fresh set of ears after a break can help you refocus on the overall vibe and balance of your track.

    Additionally, a mental reset can reignite creativity. If you're stuck on a particular mix issue or creative decision, stepping away and then coming back to it might present a solution that wasn't apparent before.

    A good rule of thumb is the 50/10 rule: for every 50 minutes of work, take a 10-minute break. Adjust based on how you feel.

    Next steps

    You now have a foundational grasp on mixing electric guitars and integrating them into your productions. Remember that mastering the art of mixing is an ever-evolving process, so continuous learning is key. Each track you work on will enhance your skills, understanding, and intuition.

    Don't be afraid to try unconventional techniques or break "rules." Sometimes the best sounds come from unexpected places. Always trust your ears and let them be the ultimate judge.

    Additionally, listen to a wide variety of music. Understand the production and mixing choices made in different genres. This not only broadens your musical palate but can also inspire fresh approaches in your mixes.

    For more tips, make sure you read our guide on recording electric guitar. For professional sounding guitar tones, check out our guitar plugins.

    When mixing, stay patient with yourself and persistent in your practice. Your dedication will pay off in the form of polished, professional sounding mixes.

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