There are many approaches to mixing heavy guitar tracks. Striking a balance between clarity and thickness is a constant struggle. There is a general tendency in the recording of heavy music to layer many guitar tracks, but how do you maintain that razor’s edge clarity of a single track? Here is a mix recipe to take a double tracked rhythm guitar, give it the thickness and stereo spread of a quad tracked guitar but the clarity of a single tracked guitar. This technique will also work on guitar styles other than metal.
Layered rhythm tracks with panning
The conventional way to record really heavy rhythm guitar is to layer many tracks of the same (or slightly varied) guitar parts on top of one another. I have done many heavy recordings where we did two, four or as high as eight tracks of the same rhythm guitar part layered on top of one another. Typically you would vary the tone slightly (or greatly) with each take to create a pallette of timbres that will combine to create a much richer sound. Pan the tracks across the stereo spectrum and you will have a very large sound. Typical drawbacks of this approach include an increased tendency to create muddiness and a lack of sonic focus on the guitar in general. We can overcome both of these problems by using an effect commonly known as the haas delay trick. Let’s take a look at how a heavy rhythm track will take shape while using this technique.
Case Study: The Ballad of Stumpy Ron
The Ballad of Stumpy Ron is a track that was meant to fall sonicly somewhere between the original release recording of Paranoid and the sound of metal in the 21st century. Here is one approach I took while experimenting with guitar sounds for the track. I started with the initial rhythm guitar track using my POD X3 set to an Engl Powerball amp model. Here is what it sounded like:
Sound clip 1: Engl Powerball panned center
Not too bad, but it is not the final sound I’m looking for and I know I can do better. First trick in the bag is to double track it. I dialed up a Mesa Boogie Triple Rectifier sound on my POD X3 and doubled the track.
Sound clip 2: Powerball and Triple Rectifier panned center
The guitar sounds a lot thicker now but it has no transparency or depth. Also it is covering the bass guitar almost completely. The most common treatment of layered guitars is panning them apart.
Sound clip 3: Guitars panned 100% left and right
The sound opens up quite a bit with the two tracks panned hard to each side. You can hear the bass a lot better, but the guitar seems very disconnected now. There is a giant sonic hole in the center of our mix. Let’s try bringing the guitars in a little bit.
Sound clip 4: Guitars panned 50% left and right
The hole in the center is gone and we can still hear the bass guitar. This is probably where most people will stop. If we were going to stop there though, you wouldn’t need this article. So what can we do to get even more excitement and heaviness out of this track?
Pan the guitar tracks back to center and drop the Free Haas plugin on each guitar track. Make sure to set the image control to left on one track and right on the other (see Figure 1).
What does this sound like?
Sound clip 5: Two guitars with free vst plugin
There are a number of presets included with the plugin and one of them is called Heavy Guitar. Select this preset to get my favorite haas delay settings for heavy rhythm guitar tracks. Make sure your two tracks are imaged left and right (they will default to both on the left)!
Figure 2: Heavy Guitar setting
Sound clip 6: Heavy Guitar preset on both guitars
The difference is very subtle, so you may have to listen a few times to hear it. Mainly though you’ll want to adjust the delay time up or down just a little bit to make sure you aren’t getting any strange phase cancellation with your particular guitar tone. About the only thing missing is a bit of that razor’s edge found in a lot of metal guitar sounds. This is easy enough to add by boosting a high shelf eq band around 6kHz by 4-5dB. I used the vescoFx Free Queue vst plugin a la Figure 3.
Figure 3: Razor’s edge eq setting
Sound clip 7: Razor’s edge eq added to guitars
The debate over whether to add reverb to metal guitars has been raging as long as metal itself. I grew up on Metallica era thrash and they’ve always got a shadow of reverb on the rhythm guitars and I like that sound. So I put just a hint of reverb on an aux send from both guitar tracks. Here is the final result:
Sound clip 8: Guitar tracks with haas delay, eq and reverb
Mix Recipe: Heavy metal guitar tone summary
- Double tracked rhythm guitars (sound clip 2)
- Add a haas delay of 20-25ms to each guitar track (vescoFx free vst plugin freeHaas or pro Haas make this easier) (sound clip 6)
- Add a 4-5dB boost on a 6kHz high shelf to add some extra cut (sound clip 7)
- Sprinkle a subtle layer of reverb on the guitars (sound clip 8)
- Experiment, and don’t be afraid to try this on single guitar tracks too!
- Here is another article that explains how to set up a haas effect if you prefer to use your own favorite delay plugin.
- Get the free Haas delay, professional haas delay, free EQ and other free and professional vst plugins from vescofx.com
- You can read more about tracking rhythm guitars for The Ballad of Stumpy Ron and see the POD X3 patches here.