So it’s time for you to step into the world of recording electric guitar. You’ve got your amp sounding exactly how you want it and now it’s time to capture the magic! What microphone(s) should you use to record yourself and other guitarists in order to get the best results?
As a guitarist (and audio tech), I’ve been honoured to use many microphones to recording guitars in the studio. The mics include the Shure SM57 and 58; the Royer R121 and R-10; the Senneheiser MD421, e609, and e906; the AKG C414; the Neumann U87 and KM184; and more. However, there are two that come immediately to my mind when thinking of a recommended microphone for you!
- Royer R-121: The Royer R-121 (link to check the price on Amazon) is by far my top recommendation for recording electric guitar. The warm, natural sound captures the sound of a guitar cabinet similar to how our ears perceive the sound
..only better! This is a classic choice for professional studios when choosing a mic to record guitar with. Unfortunately, it’s a bit pricey for the average home studio (I’m saving up for one!).
- Shure SM57: The Shure SM57 (link to check the price on Amazon) is always a recommendation of mine. This studio workhorse sounds amazing on guitar cabinets and is very affordable (about $100 USD)!
Let’s talk about each of these recommendations, but first, let’s discuss the sound of an electric guitar cabinet.
“Best” is a dangerous word. There is really no such thing as a “best microphone” for any situation. The microphone(s) listed in my Recommended Microphones And Accessories” page are simply my recommendations. These recommendations are based on my own experience and are mindful of budget. It would be easy to suggest an ELA M 251 or U47 for most scenarios. However, these tube mics are very expensive, putting them out of a hobbyist’s price range and making it difficult for professionals to make their money back on the gear.
Another important note is that the microphone or equipment you choose is not the most important part of recording audio. In fact, there are many factors that are arguably more important than the choice of microphone. These include:
- Performer (whether a musician, speaker, or otherwise)
- Microphone technique/placement
- Number of microphones used
- Natural sound of the room
- Content (whether that’s the song, discussion, or otherwise)
- Signal chain (including mic cable, preamplifier, console, and/or interface/computer)
With that being said, some microphones and gear suit some instruments better than others, prompting this series of articles under “Recommended Microphones And Accessories.”
What Does An Electric Guitar Cabinet Sound Like?
It’s critical to know the characteristics of the instrument we’re recording so that we may best match a microphone to the sound. So let’s start by discussing what an electric guitar cabinet sounds like.
Frequency Range Of Electric Guitar
- Overall Range: 82 Hz ~6000 Hz
Fundamentals range: 82 Hz – 1319 Hz (6 string, 24 frets, standard tuning)
Harmonics range: 164 Hz ~ 6000 Hz (louder, more pronounced harmonics happen with distortion)
Important Harmonics: First harmonics (164 Hz – 2638 Hz)
Frequency Range Of A Typical Electric Guitar Amp/Cabinet
Typically a guitar amplifier will produce a frequency range of 70 Hz – 6,000 Hz, which will reproduce all the important information of an electric guitar signal.
A cabinet that produces a range that greatly exceeds 6,000 Hz at its high-end with sound harsh. If a cabinet produces a frequency range that’s well under 6,000 Hz in its top end, it will sound dull.
Remember that amp distortion or guitar pedal distortion increases the amplitude of these upper harmonics but doesn’t add new harmonics.
So we need a microphone that’s particularly effective at reproducing the frequencies of the electric guitar cabinet (~70 Hz ~ 6,000 Hz) in order to capture all the good stuff!
What Determines An Ideal Studio Microphone For Recording Electric Guitar?
This is the question that needs answering. However, it depends on the variable of microphone placement. In a studio iso-booth, we have the freedom to get creative with microphone placement relative to the guitar cabinet instead of having to get as close as possible for isolation reasons.
However, with this in mind, there are some specs we should be aware of when choosing the best microphone for the job of recording an electric guitar cabinet:
- Tailored Frequency Response: As discussed, the frequency range of guitar cabs is typically 70 Hz – 6,000 Hz. Get a microphone that compliments the sound of the guitar cab.
- Directionality: This is critical to keep in mind when considering mic placement and how much “room” we want in the microphone signal.
- Transient Response: We want an accurate transient response for studio guitar microphones. There’s a lot of information in the transient harmonic content of a guitar (particularly when distorted).
- Versatile: If you’re spending good money on a microphone, ensure that it’s versatile. Pick a microphone that works effectively in all the common mic positions when recording guitars.
Let’s see how our premium mic and budget mic compare against the above factors.
The Royer R121 For Miking Electric Guitar Cabinets
Though different studio engineers prefer different high-end microphones for recording guitar, I’ve never met one that doesn’t like the Royer R121.
Royer Labs is featured in My New Microphone’s Top Best Microphone Brands You Should Know And Use.
The R121 is the flagship ribbon microphone from Royer. This high-end ribbon mic reproduces sound that closely resembles how our ear hear sound, making it sound extremely natural. Royer does so many little things right with the R121 that the mic as a whole is practically unbeatable.
With its natural frequency response, accurate transient response, and bidirectional polar patter, the R121 is the ideal choice for a variety of guitar cabinet miking positions.
Frequency Response Of The Royer R121
The frequency response of the Royer R121 is given as 30 Hz – 15,000 Hz ± 3 dB. The R121 frequency response graph is as follows:
As mentioned, the R121 picks up a similar sound to what our ears hear. This is partly due to the frequency response. But how does this sound when recording an electric guitar amplifier/cabinet?
We see that the response is pretty well flat over the range of an electric guitar’s fundamental frequencies (82 Hz – 1319 Hz for a 6 string guitar with 24 frets in standard tuning). However, many of the harmonics benefit from the slight boost the R121 offers in the upper mid-range.
Though these boosts and cuts may seem small (± 3 dB), they play a big role in determining the sound of the R121. These boosts and cuts help to make the Royer R121 the best studio microphone for recording electric guitar cabinets.
For more information on microphone frequency response, check out my article Complete Guide To Microphone Frequency Response (With Mic Examples).
Directionality Of The Royer R121
As discussed, the Royer R121 is a ribbon microphone. Ribbons are naturally bidirectional (have a “figure-8” polar pattern). That’s because the ribbon diaphragm of a ribbon mic is typically open at both sides. Here is the polar pattern diagram for the Royer R121:
As we can see above, the R121 has a standard “figure-8” bidirectional polar response. It’s equally sensitive to sound coming from the front and from the back while rejecting sounds from the sides.
We also note that the R121 has a fairly consistent polar patten across its frequency spectrum. However, like nearly all microphones, the R121 does have some off-axis colouration particularly in the form of reduced high-end response.
But why should we consider a bidirectional mic pattern rather than a more directional cardioid pattern? It’s not like we’re miking two cabinets on either side of the microphone.
It really comes down to versatility and the many possible ways to mic up a guitar cabinet.
Note that we are talking about studio miking here. A bidirectional pattern microphone is a fantastic choice for miking guitar cabs in isolation. However, the equally sensitive rear side of these microphones may pick up too much bleed from other instruments if recorded in the same room. The R121 is also not the best choice for isolation on a smaller stage for live music.
For more information on the bidirectional microphone polar pattern, check out my article What Is A Bidirectional/Figure-8 Microphone? (With Mic Examples).
Versatility Of The Royer R121
One of the big factors in my recommending the Royer R121 is its versatility around a guitar cabinet. Capturing the sound of a guitar cabinet can be so much more creative than simply sticking an SM57 against the cabinet mesh (though we’ll get to that later on in this article!).
The Royer R121 gives us plenty of mic placement options. Each of which sound amazing and different. If you have the time to experiment with R121 positioning, I’m sure you’ll find multiple “sweet spots” around the guitar cabinet and the room!
Let’s talk about a few of these “sweet spots” where we can position the R121:
At The Mesh Of The Cabinet
Positioning a microphone at the mesh of the cabinet is the most common way to mic up an electric guitar. Pointing the microphone at different parts of the cab’s speaker cone will yield a variety of sounds.
Similarly, rotating the Royer R121 will slightly change its sound due to its off-axis colouration. This may be a slight change, but a change nonetheless.
My favourite position fro the R121 is in close proximity to the mesh and about half way between the centre and outer edge of the speaker cone. Have the R121 directly on-axis, tilting it slightly so that its top is closer to the mesh than its bottom.
This tilt help to avoid overloading the entire ribbon at once. This is absolutely necessary for ribbon safety when miking drums or other instruments that produce large blasts of air. It’s also a good idea to do this with guitar cabs.
Away From The Cabinet
This is where the R121 ribbon microphone really shines over other microphones.
As we position the a microphone further away from an electric guitar cabinet, we get more room sound relative to the sound of the cab itself. This gives us a great sense of space (if the room is good), providing a natural reverb and “airiness” to the sound.
Nobody listens to a band with their ear pressed up to the guitar cabinet! Try positioning the microphone away from the cabinet for a more realistic sound.
For more information on microphone placement, check out my article Top 23 Tips For Better Microphone Placement.
So what makes the Royer R121 the best choice for distance miking of an electric guitar cabinet?
- Frequency and Transient Response: the overall responsiveness of the R121 is similar to that of our ears. A Royer R121 in the middle of a room approximates how we’d hear a guitar cabinet better than nearly any other microphone.
- Bidirectional Pattern: The bidirectional pattern picks up on the early reflections from the surfaces behind it and does a great job at capturing the sound of the room along with the guitar. Cardioid mics are a bit dull and phasey sounding when used as rooms. Omnidirectional microphones often reproduce too much of the reverberation of the room.
Bidirectional microphones exhibit the greatest amount of the proximity effect. If the R121 makes the guitar sound too muddy, try distancing it from the cabinet. By the same token, if the R121 makes the guitar sound too thin (which likely won’t happen), move it closer to the cabinet.
For more information on microphone proximity effect, check out my article In-Depth Guide To Microphone Proximity Effect.
The point is that the Royer R121 sounds great in nearly any position around a guitar cab. I’d highly recommend experimenting with this beautiful microphone.
Transient Response Of The Royer R121
Ribbon microphones typically have the most accurate transient responses. The Royer R121 is nearly dead on.
Moving-coil dynamic mics have heavy voice coils attached to their diaphragms and are a bit sluggish when it comes to transient response. Condensers (particularly small diaphragm condensers) often have “overshoot,” and reproduce inaccurately strong transients. Ribbon mic diaphragms are just right for reacting efficiently to the true sound waves they’re subjected to.
Guitar, like most instruments, has a lot of information in its transients. An accurate capture of the guitar attack will work wonders in a recording. The R121 provides a nearly unbeatable capture!
The Shure SM57 For Miking Electric Guitar Cabinets
My usual go-to and most recommended guitar cabinet microphone is the famous Shure SM57. The 57 is unbeatable in price for the results it has on guitar cabs. Both project and professional studios benefit from SM57s, especially when it comes time to mic a guitar cabinet.
Shure is featured in the following My New Microphone articles:
• Top Best Microphone Brands You Should Know And Use
• Top Best Headphone Brands In The World
• Top Best Earphone/Earbud Brands In The World
This Shure “studio workhorse” is the best bet fro those of us on a budget and those of us who already own this superb microphone.
Frequency Response Of The Shure SM57
The frequency response of the Shure SM57 is given as 40 Hz – 15,000 Hz. The SM57 frequency response graph is as follows:
I really like the presence boost in the SM57. The gradual ramp up at 2 kHz effectively accentuates the upper harmonics of an electric guitar. This provides extra clarity and punch to the upper harmonics and extra air and brightness above the frequency range of the guitar cabinet.
The gentle roll-off of low frequencies starts around 200 Hz. This helps the guitar signal “stay out of the way” of the bass guitar and kick drum frequencies. Less competition in the low-end makes for easier mixing with less processing after recording.
However, watch out for the proximity effect when using this cardioid microphone for close miking-guitar cabinets. The extra bass boost associated with close-miking may very well increase the low-end of the guitar signal to the point of competition with other low-end instruments. In this case, post-microphone-EQ is your best friend.
Directionality Of The Shure SM57
The Shure SM57 is a directional cardioid microphone. Here is the polar pattern diagram for the SM57:
The SM57 has a relatively uniform polar pattern. This makes the microphone a little less versatile, but much more consistent when used in various studio sessions.
Cardioid mics pointed at a guitar cabinet will effectively capture the sound of the guitar while rejecting sound from the rear and dampening sounds from the side. This makes the SM57 a great choice for recording guitar amps/cabs that are in the same room as other instruments. It also works well in isolation booths.
For more information on the cardioid microphone polar pattern, check out my article What Is A Cardioid Microphone? (Polar Pattern + Mic Examples).
Transient Response Of The Shure SM57
The Shure SM57 does well for a moving-coil dynamic mic when it comes to transient response (though not as accurate and transparent as the aforementioned Royer R121).
Its small diaphragm and light voice-coil react quite well to incoming sound pressure variations. The relatively low inertia of the 57 diaphragm (compared to other moving-coil diaphragms) allows it to more accurately reproduce the transient information of a guitar cab!
Versatility Of The Shure SM57
Overall, the SM57 is one of the most versatile microphone you’ll ever find. If I could choose only one microphone model for my entire mic locker, it’d be the 57.
However, when talking specifically about miking a guitar cabinet, the SM57 is not the most versatile mic.
It’s excellent to close-miking, but that’s not always the best way to record guitar cabs.
When it comes to distance miking guitar cabinets, the SM57 does well, but not great.
Its cardioid pattern rejects the rear natural reverb but picks up the latent reverb and reflections from the side. This may or may not lead to phase issues in the microphone signal (depending on the room and mic distance).
The SM57, being a dynamic moving-coil microphone is less sensitive to tiny nuances in sound. This means it’s unlikely to pick up as much true character of a space as a ribbon or condenser mic.
The Recap Of The Two Recommended Microphones
This famous ribbon mic works wonders on guitar cabinets. Royer has done so many little things right with the R121. All the little details culminate into the best mic for recording electric guitar cabinets.
There’s no better microphone to approximate the way we hear sound naturally. Using an R121 to record guitar is like standing in the room listening to the guitar yourself!
This legendary microphone will get nearly any job done sufficiently. Recording guitar cabinets is one job this jack-of-all-trade does particularly well.
It’s got frequency and polar responses that make an excellent close-mic option for guitar cabs in and out of the studio.
For all the My New Microphone mic/gear recommendations, please check out my page Recommended Microphones And Accessories.