by Metal Mastermind

February 24, 2021

Recording Tips using Amp Sims for Metal Guitars

There’s no doubt that amp sims have come a long way. And they’ve become the staple in the studio for many recording guitarists.

The problem is they sound too good. The tones are so perfect and it’s easy for your guitar tracks to sound too polished and over-processed. It’s missing that raw sound that you get from a real amp.

In fact, many guitarists still prefer to record with real amps for that reason. It’s difficult to get that organic guitar tone from plugins.

Another problem with using amp sims is in the full mix. Sure, they sound great when you’re jamming in your studio by yourself. But in the mix, they can end up sounding too thin. And that’s not good for metal music!

But there’s a solution

In this post, you’re going to learn 7 recording methods you can use with amp sims to make your metal guitars sound more organic and lively in the full mix!

1 – Record 2 Rhythm Tracks (Not Just One)

You definitely want to record more than one rhythm guitar track. This is going to give you those chunky sounds and vibes and that metal music is known for.

Now, this doesn’t mean copy the original guitar track into a new track. No! All that would do is increase the volume and that’s not what you want.

This means recording a separate guitar track. And here’s why:

  • That 2nd guitar track will be slightly off in some places (you’re never going to play it exactly like the first track)
  • This creates nuances and subtle differences between the two guitars
  • And this will make your mix sound more organic and lively

You don’t want your 2nd guitar track to be completely off from the original track. But those subtle variations are going to make your mix sound awesome.

On the flip side, don’t get carried away in layering too many guitar tracks. Especially if you’re doing a lot of riffing. This can lead to a muddy mix.

Try two tracks and use the next method below with it…

2 – Hard-Pan Each Rhythm Guitar Track

This next method ties correlates with what we just talked about. And this is something you’ll do before you record that 2nd guitar track.

  • Record your 1st guitar track
  • Pan that track hard-left
  • Open a new track for your 2nd guitar
  • Pan that track hard-right
  • Record that 2nd guitar

Why should you pan your rhythm guitars?

When you have multiple rhythm guitars up the middle it can create a muddy mix.

Remember those little variances between the two guitar tracks we talked about earlier?

Panning guitars left and right - studio

More importantly, this is one of the key things that will make your guitar tracks not sound over-processed, which is the risk you take using amp sims.

3 – Use a Slightly Different Tone for Your 2nd Rhythm Guitar Track

You’ve got both guitar tracks recorded with amp sims. And they’re both hard-panned. You can already hear the difference and it’s sounding great but there’s just one little hiccup in your mix…

The metal rhythm tracks still sound a little thin.

Of course, you can turn to your EQ but that’s probably not where the issue is. The issue is that you’re used the same exact tone for each guitar track.

There’s an easy solution for this:

  • Go into the amp sim for your 2nd guitar track
  • Try switching that amp sim to a different cabinet
  • Also try a slightly different mic placement for that cabinet

This little trick will do wonders for your mix! And it’s the one thing, on top of the first two methods above, that will bring life to your mix. It will take more of that processed sound out of your guitar tracks.

Video for Tips 1-3

Below is short video that combines these first three methods:

4 – Back the Gain Off in Your Amp Sim

One of the biggest mistakes you can make when using amp sims is using too much gain. Sure, that’s fine for playing guitar in your studio or bedroom. But it can be detrimental when recording guitars for a full mix.

Most amp sims actually overdo it on the gain, specifically with high gain amp sims. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing but you have to know how to manage this. And you have to know how and when to apply the appropriate gain settings.

The problem with cranking up your amp sim’s gain is that you risk having a muddy mix and your guitars sounding too processed. And with amp sims, we all have a tendency to crank the gain up.

Here’s a good place to start when recording with high gain amp sims:

  • Start with the gain between 5.5 and 6.5
  • Record both rhythm tracks at this level, using the methods we’ve discussed up to this point
  • Dump down your mix to an mp3 and listen to it in common sources like your car, headphones, and computer

If you feel like you need more gain, you can always increase it. But starting out with less gain may save you a lot of time and frustration later.

5 – Try Not to Use Other Plugins on Your Guitar Tracks When Using Amp Sims

Some guitarists like to add other plugins with their amp sim plugin such as a compressor, EQ, or limiter. While this may be okay in some cases, it’s probably not necessary.

Although amp sims are very close to mimicking the sound and feel real amp, the signal is still much different than what you get when you mic an amp.

Here’s the difference:

  • When you’re using amp sims, the sound and signal is smooth
  • When miking an amp, you’re capturing the inconsistencies from that source

When using amps sims, you have a direct signal as you’re plugging your guitar directly into the interface. And that sound you’re capturing is being pulled from the technology from the amp sim.

When you’re miking a real amp, you’re capturing the sound from an external source, and one that has inconsistencies. And oftentimes a compressor (and sometimes an EQ) plugin is used on those tracks.

Another potential issue when stacking multiple plugins is you’re adding more processing to a signal that’s already processed. This could lead to that over-produced and over-polished sound (unless that’s what you’re going for).

Chances are the amp sim you’re using will be enough for your guitar tracks. Not to mention many amp sims come with a suite of effects you can use (ex: if you wanted to add a compressor within your amp sim, that’s an option).

6 – Use Minimal (or No) Effects on Your Metal Rhythm Guitar Tracks

Another component of amp sims that can make your mix sound either muddy or too processed is using effects. Keep in mind we’re specifically talking about metal rhythm guitar tracks.

The main goal for metal rhythm guitars is for them to sound tight and punchy. Adding effects tends to take away from that, especially when using amp sims.

You have to remember that most amp sims have a greater impact on pronouncing the sounds and effects that recording a real amp. If you want proof, try this:

  • Record your guitar with some delay using an amp sim.
  • Now mimic those same delay settings the best you can on a delay pedal connected to your real amp (through the effects loop) and record it.

You’re going to hear a substantial difference. The delay from the amp sim will more than likely be more dominant than the one you recorded with your real amp.

Of course, you would rarelt use delay for your metal rhythms. But that little test will allow you to hear the differences.

For metal rhythms, you may be more inclined to use reverb. I lean towards advising your to skip that and any other post-amp effects. If you do decide to use reverb use it sparingly.

**This does not include using effects like a noise gate and screamer in front of the amp. Most amp sims at least a noise gate and many sound better using an overdrive sim.

7 – Make Sure Your Interface Levels Are Set Appropriately

studio interface and hardware

This point may sound obvious but you’d be surprised how often this is overlooked. Uh-um…myself, included.

The problem usually isn’t the interface volume being too low, although can can indeed be an issue. It’s usually that the interface level is peaking when you’re playing through amp sims.

Most interfaces will have a red light that comes on when your signal is peaking. More advanced interfaces will have a readout so that you can always see where your levels are and how close they are to peaking.

The moral of the story is to make sure you’re levels are not peaking. One of the conveniences of using amp sims is that you always have that dry signal to use other amps and effects. But if that dry signal is peaking, you’re going to have unwanted distortion (not the metal kind!).

Amp Sims VS. Real Amp for Metal

At this point you may be thinking:

“Is it worth it to record my song or album with amp sims? Or should I just go old school and mic a real amp?”

This boils down to personal preference. And this is a decision that had to be right for you, and for your music.

Amp sims can definitely make life in the studio a lot easier. But easier isn’t always better.

Here’s the thing. The average everyday metal music lover isn’t going to notice what you used to record your guitars with. And they probably won’t care.

Most of your fans are listening to your music because they love your music. And aside from that, they’re paying more attention to the song and the way it makes them feel.

You may not want to hear this (or believe it) but your guitar tone has very little to do with that. Obviously, you need a quality guitar tone. Don’t settle for a crappy one!

On that note, it all goes back to your preference. Are you getting the tone you want out of your amp sim (regarding the full mix)? Or do you prefer the recorded tone you get from your real amp?

There’s no right or wrong answer. Instead, focus more on your songwriting and composition. Those are the things that will make or break your music.

Horns up,

Metal Mastermind

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