Home Recording

Steve Vai, Brian Eno and Adele producers on the art of recording guitars

OLLO Audio CEO Rok Gulič talks to specialist guitar producers, Leo Abrahams (Adele, Katie Melua, Paolo Nutini, Brian Eno) and Enrico Sesselego (Steve Vai, Paul Gilbert) about the production approaches they take, recording techniques and the key components of a great guitar recording session.

In this latest edition of 'OLLO Chat' Abrahams and Sesselego offer some unique insights into how you can generate the best sounding guitar recordings with whatever gear you have to hand. They also explain the nuances between recording electric and acoustic guitars, and discuss the best way to prepare yourself for a guitar recording session.

You can also find out more on how to record electric guitars like a pro here, and acoustic guitars here... 

How much of the guitar sound comes from the gear and how much from the player?

Enrico: There’s a saying that you give a crappy guitar to a random player, and it sounds average, and the same guitar in the hands of a guitar god sounds great. It’s a combination of everything. You can be a great player, but you still need good gear. Everything counts.

How do you build trust with your clients in the short time before the session starts?

Enrico: It’s a combination of communicating in a professional manner and preparation. Clients love to work with well-prepared engineers. I always research and prepare to know exactly what we’re doing. That’s the base for decisions in gear and recording techniques. I show quickly that I know what I am doing and that I understand what they want to achieve. That builds trust quickly. The process must be clear from the start.

Is there a basic setup you can use with good results on any guitar style?

Enrico: I always use two microphones and amplifiers, no DI recordings. I used 421s and SM57s plenty of times. Sometimes I add M180 for the triple mic-ing technique. Of course, this is not entry level stuff. With these mic choices you’ll need good preamps and a solid interface. My suggestion for starting setup is to start with the budget. Think ahead of what you wish to do and buy one good piece at a time. Slowly build it up. There’s no right or wrong. You can use simple camper amps with good results.

What would you put in a backpack?

Leo: Similar to Enrico, I use the two mic technique with SM57 and M160. You can get the body from one and brightness from the other and that’s at a reasonable budget as a starting point. Preamps you can add later, as you continue to build up your arsenal. It’s actually difficult or entirely impossible for people to record a cabinet at the correct volume in whatever setup. Here in London even when you’re renting a recording room you need to keep the volume down as there are people renting the room next to you and they don’t want to hear guitar through the wall when they record their takes. 

It may be a bit controversial to say, but some of the Amp Simulators in the UA stuff are good and STL tones too. Of course what you end up is a DI that maybe later on you reamp in a big studio. I have nothing against that. What I’ve personally found is that once you start to multi stack them they start to crush up a little bit. That’s where you hear their shortcomings. For me the STL tones are the best ones as they can be layered up and stay convincing. 

Also, the Brainworks stuff is very good. For sure I wouldn’t rule that out. But of course it depends on what genre you're working on. I use a-lot of DI guitar in my electronic and experimental productions with no amp simulators. I want to capture some of that low, even sub and also the super high that a cabinet will smash off but you can filter that and use that for other stuff. There are really no rules. There’s no shame in using simulators 

With acoustic guitars, what are the main things you need before you even start a session?

Enrico: I start with a small diaphragm condenser microphone in front of the 12th fret. I also love the player perspective, so a microphone above the player’s shoulder facing down to the guitar. If possible, use a third mic about 2 meters in front of the player. When a guitar has a DI jack I record that as a safe net and sometimes it’s a part of the final mix too.

Leo: My approach is very similar. I’d add that a simple and reliable method is a cross pair of small condenser microphones in front of the 12th fret or wherever you find the sweet spot. Sometimes I use Mid-Side (M/S) to the lower side of the sound hole and another omni in front of the 12th fret. That is the most beautiful acoustic guitar sound I’ve ever played with. So natural and yet not intimidating. I’ve been doing this for a long time and some guitar recording (techniques) make you afraid to even shift on your seat. This M/S is a great technique but it’s hard to replicate as you need good gear but also a very good sounding room.

When you use multiple mics, how do you make sure the phase is fine, and how do you keep the click bleed at bay?

Leo: If you’re in doubt about the phase then you shouldn’t be doing it if there’s another person you work for. It’s fine when you're on your own, take even more time and be patient with yourself. About the click, I can’t say I run into that problem too much. I think it’s good to encourage musicians to have sensible monitoring levels and the right kind of click and the right kind of headphones. If you have your headphones too loud, all that really happens after a certain SPL level is that you get that anxiety response. If bleeding does happen, I use Izotope VST to get rid of it. Obviously, nobody plans to track using Izotope but it can get you out of a jam.

Enrico: I agree with you. Maybe I can add that sometimes in pop productions the player really needs a strong click playback. Click tone is important in this scenario. I usually use something more bassy, with less energy in the higher mids because that is the frequency that always gets out. Especially with the microphone over the shoulder of an acoustic guitar player. What I often do is that I ask the player to bring their earphones and only give them a click into the earphone to the opposite side and monitor playback on regular over the ear headphones on top of the earphones. For the phase you can always check but need to understand that phase invert is 180 so not always a good solution.