In many churches today, the electric guitar has become a staple of modern worship music. I can remember a time when I was leading worship and I searched for over 2 years to find an electric guitarist. Today it seems many of the new songs being written even lend themselves to more interesting electric guitar parts and a wider variety of tones. If you are using electric guitars on a regular basis in your church, then it is important to properly mic and mix the guitarist’s amp. Also, I realize that there is a lot of digital technology out there to keep from having to use a live amp on stage, but this article will focus just on using a traditional electric guitar setup with a guitar, pedals and an amp. This article isn’t a be all, end all guide, but it will help you gain a basic understanding of how to mic and mix electric guitars for live worship music.
Placing the Amp
To get started using a live amp in a worship service, the first thing you need to do is decide where to place the microphone. There are few things to consider in placing a guitar amp on stage. If you place it on the stage at the guitarist feet, then it’s highly likely your guitar player is going to want to turn it up loud enough to hear it the way he/she likes it. If it isn’t aimed at the guitarist’s head, then chances are it’s going to be too loud and aimed somewhere at your congregation. This is going to make it difficult to mix the way you want to and, in small rooms it may be too loud for the congregation. Part of the guitar player’s reasoning behind this is that most guitar amps, especially tube amps sound better when turned up louder. A good way to help yourself out as the sound tech is to split the signal at the guitarist’s pedal board. Use one of the many devices that simulate a cranked up tube amp and speaker cab. Torpedo, JHS, Sansamp, and, a few others make variants of this device. You can then use that controllable line level signal in the house and monitor mixes, and the guitarist can keep his/her amp a little lower and operate at a lower stage volume.
To combat this you can use a guitar amp stand to aim the guitar amp at the guitarist and help them achieve the level they like without directly facing the amp at the congregation. One caveat in using something like this is that if the amp is facing upwards you will need to make sure that you are not also aiming it at someone else’s head that is not the guitarist. Singers usually will not want extra guitar amp blaring in their ears. The second consideration is to make sure that you aren’t aiming the amp at other microphones on stage. This can create phase cancellation issues with the guitar sound and it could cause you to unintentionally bring up the guitar sound in your house mix. This of course would only be an issue if you the guitar amp is really loud and aiming towards a mic.
If the guitarist has his/her own personal mix from a floor wedge or in ear monitors, and the guitarist is not relying on stage volume from the amp, then you can put the amp backstage or behind some type of isolation. Mic it, and get a tone that accurately represents the guitar players sound run it to the monitors/in ears.
Mic’ing the Amp
When it comes to micing the guitar amp, there are a ton of options and nearly endless combinations. I’m going to give you a few basic examples, but after you have mastered these tips, try and experiment and see if you prefer different mics or combinations of mics.
The old standby is to begin with a shure SM57 and place it just off the edge of speaker cone, where the cone meets the dust cap. I nearly always start in this general area. If it’s too bright then I move the mic away from the center of the speaker toward the edge. If my initial placement is a little too dark I will move back toward the center of the speaker. The third trick that you can try is to move the microphone off axis a bit. If the mic is facing straight on the cab then try placing it at a 45 degree angle in relation to the grill cloth. This will help to relieve some of the harshness that the attack of the guitar sound can have. Finally Even if the guitar player is not running a lot of low end in their sound, guitar amps can often have too much bottom end. The proximity effect is usually the culprit here. The close that a dynamic microphone is to the source that it is micing, the more low end that signal will have. A good move to combat unnecessary low end it to pull the mic back 2-3 inches from the grill cloth. That little bit of space usually helps me get rid of unwanted low end.
Mixing the Amp
You’ve placed your amp in the optimal place on stage, and you placed your microphone where it sounds the best. You’re ready to make it sound its best in the mix. There are a couple rules of thumb that I like to consider when mixing my electric guitars. First, I like to get a good feel for the guitarist sound by standing next to his amp and hearing it from the source. Most guitar players today have a really good pulse on the tone they are going for. Most guitarists have compression, eq, overdrive, delay and reverb all right at their feet. Each pedal board will vary, but the point is that the guitarist has the sound he is going for in his head at his feet. The first 2 EQ moves i start with are a low cut up to around 85-100Hz. And a high cut down to somewhere around 10KHz to as low as 8.5KHz. These two moves do two things for me. First, I am able to keep the guitars out of the way of the kick drum and bass guitar but removing low end that I do not need. Second, the highest fundamental frequency that a guitar makes is around 1200Hz. Above that, everything that is generated is harmonics and harmonic distortion of the fundamental pitch being played. I have found that when a guitarist is playing an overdriven or distorted sound, that there is not much useful about 8.5 – 10KHz. Above that you are getting mostly fizzy sounds. Cutting this area off will give you more focus. The last eq move that I make is a small dip in whatever frequency range i find that is masking some of what i need for the vocals. I usually find this somewhere in the 800-1000Hz range, but I have gone higher than that occasionally. To find this frequency, make a small boost of about 4-6db in a mid band of the eq and sweet between 800Hz to 2KHz. You will notice that the guitar is really starting to cover up the vocal. At this point I like dip the EQ down about 3-5db and tighten the width of my Q. Please note that this is not always necessary, some guitarist will have a mid band notched out on purpose because they like the sound. Try it and see if it works for you.
I usually don’t compress live guitars. The guitar will often have a compressor running on their pedal board, but if you must use it lightly. Medium attack, fast release and I try to stay away from any more than 1.5 – 3db of gain reduction. If I am going to compress, I just want to catch really high transients that might jump out of the mix. If you set the attack of your compressor too fast you will risk squashing the transient and making the electric guitar sound gross. So please use compression sparingly.
Finally, if you have FX that you can use, should you? I tend not to with electric gutiar and this is for the same reason I don’t use a lot of EQ and compression. A lot of the guitar sounds in modern worship music have layers of delay and reverb already on them. That is the sound that many guitarist are trying to achieve. Also many guitar amplifier have a really great sounding spring reverb built in. To me, there is not much purpose in adding yet another layer of reverb to an already wet sound. But, just like I previously stated, you need to listen to the guitarist sound and be aware of what they are doing. If you can tell that they aren’t using reverb and maybe they have a very dry rock sound, then you might want to send a little guitar to your reverb buss.
Be tasteful, and do your best to serve the song and meet the needs of the band and your congregation.
Now, you are ready to make the pastor’s wife weep tears of joy when she hears the glory of this amazing guitar tone that you have captured and presented to your congregation.