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Great tone - What is it? How do you get it?

You can't get great tone through EQ or compression. So how do you get it? A different guitar, or a different guitarist?


I was flipping through 'The Daily Adventures of Mixerman' the other day. It's an excellent and realistic book on recording that I highly recommend ( I hope to make time later in the week to re-read it completely.

Anyway, the page my eyes alighted on explained the process of selecting a bass guitar to match the sound of a kick drum. It went on to explain why there may be as many as thirty guitars available on a session, and why this quantity is a necessity, not a luxury or an extravagance.

That got me thinking about the subject of tone. If you ever read guitar magazines, you will know that tone is all that guitarists ever talk about. They are always searching for the ultimate 'tone', whatever that is.

So what is tone, I thought to myself.

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That's a tricky question. I couldn't immediately come up with a good answer so I thought to myself what I would do if I were faced with the problem of recording a guitarist with poor tone.

I could of course try EQ. But you know... if you don't have good tone to start with, there is nothing that EQ can do to help. EQ can surely ruin good tone if it exists, but you can't EQ a good tone from a bad one.

What about compression? Will that benefit the tone?

No, not really. Compression, in the sense of pure compression without enhancements, will not improve a poor tone. I wouldn't think though that good tone would be spoiled by the improper use of compression. It would sound like good tone, improperly compressed.

This leads to a serious question...

What does the recording engineer have in his or her power to improve tone? If EQ and compression can't do it, is there anything that can?

One thing is for sure - there is no simple knob or button that can improve tone. I think there is a reason for this...

Our equipment is designed by electronic and digital engineers. They understand things like frequency response and dynamics. So they give us tools to control those parameters.

They don't understand the subtle musical effects of tone so well, so they haven't gotten round to quantifying the many, subtle and various parameters of tone. And they haven't yet designed the tools by which we can properly manipulate it.

If you are recording a guitar, and the tone isn't right for what you want to achieve, there are certain things you can do...

  • Change the pickup settings
  • Get the guitarist to play differently
  • Try a different guitar
  • Try a different amplifier and loudspeaker
  • Try different strings
  • Try a different pick (plectrum)
  • Get a different guitarist

All of the above offer the possibility of changing the tone MASSIVELY. So if you want a better or different tone, try all of the above, in the order given. (Changing the pickup settings is so quick and easy, that is why it is first.)

After that, you can change the microphone position, or change the microphone (in that order). Both will change the tone, and are (at last!) in the engineer's control. You can also change the position of the speaker in the room (keeping the relative mic position the same). It depends on the room, but sometimes you can find that this makes more difference than changing the microphone.

Tube microphones and large diaphragm microphones tend to display the most variation in tone from model to model. So if you are on a 'tone hunt', these are the options you would experiment with, but they won't make nearly so much difference as changing the guitar.

Changing the mic preamp won't make that much of a difference to the tone unless you change it for a tube preamp, or you change one tube preamp for another. Also, some transistor preamps with less-than-perfect paper specifications can have a tone all their own, which might be suitable for your project.

Tone of course is a very subjective topic. Where it is often possible to say that one microphone is better than another, and most engineers will agree, everyone argues about what constitutes good tone. So no-one is right and no-one is wrong - it's a judgment call on what will please the market.

I have talked here about guitar tone, but of course every instrument (and voice) has its tone too, and its own set of variable parameters. I just wish the mixing console had more controls to shape and blend tone.

In conclusion - my favorite guitar tone? Well that's impossible to choose, but one guitarist I particularly admire from that point of view is Jan Akkerman -

If I could get tone like his from my guitar I'd be playing it all day.

By David Mellor Tuesday February 6, 2007