How to Mix Electric Guitar
I remember when I started mixing, I was never really sure what to do with electric guitars. Most of the time, they were already pretty stacked with effects and sounded awesome by themselves, but somehow not quite right with the rest of the mix. When I tried putting processing on them, I’d often end up destroying the sound that was crafted at the recording stage and totally over-processing them. Since then, mixing electric guitars has become a very instinctive and easy process. So in this post, I thought I’d share exactly how I approach them, so you can avoid the troubles I had when I was a beginner!
Try to solo tracks as little as possible - it's super important to mix guitars in context with the rest of the mix.
Make sure all of your audio is properly edited before you start mixing.
Get a good tone from the instrument, amp, mic and any pedals at the recording stage and commit to it. Likewise if you're using an amp simulator in your DAW. Revisiting the guitar tone at the mixing stage can have you going round in circles.
1. Subtractive EQ
Electric guitars tend to have a few resonances that can make the mix sound a little messy. Figure out where these are and cut them out by reducing the frequency with a band set to a narrow Q. If you’re feeling fancy, Soothe by Oeksound can be really good for getting rid of some harsh resonances here, but most of the time an ordinary EQ will be absolutely fine for the job!
On top of this, cut out any excess low end and top end with high-pass and low-pass filters. Generally you can cut the highs somewhere between 10kHz and 15Khz, but where you cut the low-end will vary from song to song, if the guitar is quite a predominant feature and there’s not a lot of other low end, you might leave quite a bit in, but if the low-end is rich with kick and bass and there are lots of instruments in the midrange, you might cut a bit more and make the guitar sound smaller to give it space in the mix.
This is normally where I’ll start compressing if needed. It doesn’t really matter where in the chain you put your compression, but here just feels most logical to me! Before you start compressing, ask yourself why you’re doing it, how is it helping you to get towards the sound you’re after? This will make sure you’re intentional and not over processing the sound. Have you got a cleaner electric guitar sound, where the percussive strumming is coming through a bit too much? Use a compressor with a faster attack time to clamp down on those strums as soon as they hit it. Are you using a heavily distorted tone that’s a little flat sounding? You might want to try a more analogue sounding compressor like an 1176, with a slow attack time and faster release time to get a bit of “movement” back into the sound. You could sculpt this with the threshold set quite aggressively and then pull it back to make sure you’re not going overboard.
3. Additive EQ
With the first EQ, we cut the stuff we didn’t want in the sound. Now, it’s time to boost things that sound nice to really start shaping the sound. Before you start doing this, don’t be tempted to solo the track. It’s really important to do this in context with the rest of the mix so you can really hear what’s helping the guitar to stand out, sit back or generally be where it needs to be with the other instruments. There aren’t really any rules for this, what sounds good usually is good. Just use broader EQ bands and bring up areas that help your guitar sound to sound right in the mix. Some high mids might help it to cut through and sound brighter, some lower mids might make it sound a bit richer or help it to cut through below bright synth sounds, or some low end could make it a bit beefier. There’s no real right or wrong as long as you’re getting the sound that’s in your head in context with the rest of the track, without getting in the way of other elements.
This is totally optional and whether you use it or not will just depend on the sound you’re going for. Sometimes, some subtle saturation from a tape emulation or something similar can be just what your guitar sound needs to thicken it up, help it cut through a bit more if it’s a cleaner tone, or tame some aggressive transients - like strumming that’s a bit too harsh. Again, apply this in context with the mix and don’t be afraid to experiment.
5. Reverbs and Delays
Often, an electric guitar will already have the necessary reverb and/or delay at the recording stage, but sometimes you might want to add a bit extra here, or add all of your spatial effects here. This is really a more creative thing, but here are a few general tips:
Make sure your effects are on busses or fx channels - whatever it’s called in your DAW. This just gives you much more control over the sound and means you don’t have to use as many instances of the plugin if you have multiple guitar tracks - just send them all to one fx channel and save your computer from a meltdown!
Don’t go overboard - Unless it’s some sort of atmospheric sound, less is normally more. It’s very easy to use too much reverb and delay and turn your well crafted tone into a wishy washy mush that just adds a load of mud to the mix. Keep it simple!
If you’re using a certain reverb on your keys and drums, use the same on the guitars, even if it’s subtle. This can help to glue everything together. Too many different spaces can cloud up a mix quickly.
Is the guitar mono and panned centre? A stereo reverb will give it more space. Have you got double tracked guitars panned hard left and right? A mono reverb down the middle might give the mix more clarity.
6. The guitar bus
This is my final tip on guitars! Normally, I’ll have them all routed through one channel - the guitar bus. This means I can control the level of all of them at once if needed and apply a little bit of processing to them as a group. Typically, I’ll use a tickle of compression here to glue them all together. Use a 2:1 ratio, slow attack and fast or auto release with no more than a db or two of gain reduction. You could also use a little bit of EQ to brighten them all up or dull them down, or some saturation to give a bit more vibe and glue.
I hope this has been helpful! Mixing guitars is rarely very complicated or fancy. Just follow the steps above to remove the nasty stuff and shape them to sound how you want in context with the rest of the track. Keep it super simple! If you’d like me to have a listen to your mix for any feedback, don’t hesitate to get in touch.