The mystery of capturing electric guitar tone…

After having recorded myself and other electric guitarists for around 3 decades, I’ve firmly arrived at the conclusion that many electric guitarists don’t really start out with a very good idea of what their tone actually sounds like.

How could that be? one might ask. I know I asked myself that a lot at one point.

Part of the answer lies in the fact that our psychoacoustic systems (ears and brain) are not designed for objective sound texture analysis — they’re designed as personal space mapping, danger-sensing systems. And that has really pervasive — if not immediately easy to grasp — significance to recordists.

Here’s an example: walk through a room with a small radio playing a long song.

Does the sound change?

Of course, not, unless someone tinkers with the volume or the actual content changes, right?

Well, close your eyes and try the experiment again, really concentrating just on the sound of the radio as someone leads you blind through the room.

You’ll note that the sound does change, and probably quite substantially, and not just in volume as your distance varies.

But when you walk through the room, the elaborate perceptual system devoted to making sense of acoustic environment is continually processing information returned from the senses and reintegrating your interpretation of that sensory data so that, unless you really stop, break down the processes, and reanalyze the raw data, your brain just essentially treats that radio as a ‘stable’ factor unless something ‘extraordinary’ happens to change that assessment.

Amp tone in a room is a bit different, but some of the same processes are going on: the guitarist may well have (and particularly studio newbs seem to have) a substantially different impression of what their amp ‘sounds like’ than is likely to be captured by a mic (or two).

There are a number of reasons, some of which I alluded to, and some of which relate to the fact that, as a guitarist plays his guitar through an amp in a room, he will be likely be continually changing his orientation (however slightly) in the room, moving his head from side to side, at an angle, up or down, or even getting up and walking around. And any and all of those changes in aspect relate to changes in sound — even if that is not immediately apparent until one has learned how to listen not to the ‘processed’ sound delivered by the complex spatial perceptual analysis but rather to the “raw sound” as it hits the nervous system. (And the one place Mr Guitarist is most likely NOT to be deriving his idea of the sound of his guitar/amp/tone is from 2″ from the speaker cone, off-axis — which is, of course, a ‘favorite’ spot of studio engineers to mic a cabinet from.)

Acoustic engineers must learn how to ‘hear a room’ in sort of a reverse process, disentangling their own brain’s interpretation of what is being heard from the actual sound.

The processes that go into a guitarist’s estimation of his own sound are related, but even more complex (at least for some), as ego and desire and even that ‘awesome rush of your first fuzz pedal’ mix with all the other factors…