Layering Guitars for Maximum Impact
Ken Lewis is a mix engineer/producer/songwriter whose impressive list of credits range from Alicia Keys and Drake, to Lenny Kravitz and power metalers, Savatage. His resume also consists of a dozen Grammys, as well as well as over 60 gold, platinum, and number-one records. Lewis is the founder of www.AudioSchoolOnline.com.
When it comes to layering guitars, it may be hard to believe, but often times, less is more — really. I frequently receive songs to mix that have quadruple tracked guitars (or more) that don’t sound any bigger than the double tracks, which, incidentally, don’t sound very good to begin with. I’m going to give you some tips on how I build bigger and better guitar parts in my productions through layering.
So, you’ve just cut the God of all rhythm guitar parts, and now you want to double track it and pan it left / right to make it even bigger — and in stereo!
Well, instead of using the same guitar with the same rig with the same settings, simply change something. Better yet, change several things. If you’ve only got one guitar, then change the pickup setting. Maybe even borrow a second guitar from a friend or try changing the amp, or at least the style of amp in your amp simulator. Spend some time dialing in the sound on the new setting and search for a tone that is complimentary to your first rhythm track, but not the same. The more variation you can put into similar sounds, the wider and bigger the stereo impact will be.
Remember: Double tracked rhythm guitars with sonic variations will sound much bigger than quadruple tracked guitars using all of the same settings. Too many tracks of similar sounds — even panned away from each other — tend to sound a bit mono as they seemingly blur together into one part. Adding tonal variations to your guitar overdubs lets the ear identify the different parts more easily.
Several years ago, I produced a rock record for MCA, and we were working on this super-heavy, wall-of-guitars-type song. The sound was already dense (using the previously mentioned layering techniques), and the band wanted to add a melodic guitar solo on top of this already formidable gang of guitars.
The guitarist dialed in an even heavier sound and proceeded to play. Ultimately, his part got completely swallowed in the mix. I suggested he try an almost clean setting for his lead. After looking at me sideways, he clicked off the distortion, just keeping a bit of edge and compression to the sound, and tried the part again. Lo and behold, the part cut through beautifully, and his sideways glance turned to a smile. All of the sonic room for distortion had been taken up, but the clean part was clear and distinct without being loud. The ear could easily identify it because it took up its own sonic space, not competing with the distorted tracks.
There’s more than one way to play an A minor chord on a guitar — there are actually a ton of ways to play an A minor chord! Next time you double track a guitar part, change where you play it on your guitar. Even the same series of notes, played in a different place on the guitar, is going to add some subtle variation for the listener’s ears. Capos can be extremely useful for this technique as well, offering you all sorts of open-string-type jangle in higher registers.
When I want super-thick guitar parts, I’ll often start by double tracking in lower registers, then I’ll find inversions of the same chords with no low notes, and double track them. Finally, I might add a single note or two higher up the neck, played in the same pattern as the main rhythms. These high notes are just for color or sparkle, and I tuck them in and let them be a part of the whole sound, or I experiment by turning them way up to see if they act as more of a melodic part.
This works just as well for rock as it does for pop or country, and is the same approach many people use in the electronica world to stack massive keyboard patches as well. Same part, different octaves, slightly different sound.
A great technique to try with acoustic guitars or clean rhythm guitars is to add variations to your strumming or picking patterns. Lock in your main part, and on the double track, try strumming a slightly different pattern. The whole thing doesn’t need to change, just mix it up a little. This will help add left and right motion to the parts, and to your mix. This works really well with single note picking patterns as well.
A double-tracked, single note picking pattern with rhythmic variations can start sounding like delay taps. Often I will play several bars of variations, find the one or two bars that feel the best, and copy / paste those over and over throughout the part, yielding a defined, even propulsive groove.
Micing Live Amps
When recording real amps, to get variation beyond the guitar, you can vary your mic set up. I almost always use at least three microphones on one amp (two close mics and one ambient mic), and I mix and match to get the tones I want. But as you pile on successive layers, try different microphone combinations — maybe kill the ambient mic for one layer and on a different layer try only using the ambient mic — the possibilities are only limited by your creativity and attention to detail.
Your guitar production will take a quantum leap if you learn how and, more importantly, when to use these techniques. It's time to throw away your preconceived notions about what will work. Experiment, but let your ears be your guide. There is no “right” guitar sound, only the sounds that work best with your song. Good luck!
— Ken Lewis