Getting a super hot guitar track, meaning a very high volume guitar track, is all about the signal level. You want to make sure that the signal level from the guitar to the recording is as high as possible without clipping anything, and without introducing more noise than is absolutely necessary (a high signal-to-noise ratio).

Here’s a sample (more info. at Rifflet):

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Getting started

First, you do not need active pickups or a custom guitar, but it won’t hurt if you do have that. You’ll have to be extra aware of the levels, though, because active pickups will pin the levels out of an amp quicker than passive pickups, and while this sounds great live, it will sound clipped and weird on a recording. If you can, try out your amp/processor with a passive-pickup guitar and carefully listen for any clipping at that level. If the active one is clipping, back off on the processor master volume until the guitar is not clipping. Active pickups will get you very high signal-to-noise ratios, which are good, but not if they come at the cost of losing timbre because of clipping early in the recording chain.

Second, you cannot get a super hot guitar sound without some sort of noise suppression, unless you want a ton of noise on the track. I highly recommend setting the noise suppression to come in very late, so that it doesn’t mess with the guitar sound. It will still sound dead quiet after a half-second, and a bit of noise is natural with a super loud guitar track. What you don’t want is that noise riding underneath everything else (… unless that really is what you want, in which case go for it). I would recommend against thinking you need to delete all noise from a guitar track, as this will inevitably clip at the actual sound wave.

I recommend keeping a very even mix. Scooping the mids nearly always screws up the sound at this stage… you can always scoop them in the actual track on your pc/recording setup if you really think you need that, but you want that sound information there to scoop on the pc. A cheapo amp/processor will scoop it poorly anyhow. If you have a sick amp, it will sound great scooped or not, and again I’d really reconsider scooping a great amp. For example,. a H&K Triamp on Amp#3 sounds sufficiently awesome with the EQ totally flat. Again, I reiterate the best advice I ever got: fiddling with the EQ never made a wimpy guitar riff into a tough one… the character of a riff comes from the musician. EQ is really more for adjusting for room ambiance, etc.

Keep the peaks

Let’s call your guitar, amp or processor with noise suppression (the cheapo ones are fine), and mic or line out setup all as a single component “A”. I have a cheap mixer that I use for level monitoring, and I have found it to be an invaluable resource for double-checking the actual output level of my “A” setup. I hook the mixer up like this:

A -> mixer

I use the mixer’s db levels to double-check that at zero volume, I am getting zero signal, and at max volume from the guitar, I am getting near the maximum range of the mixer’s db level monitor. This ensures a nice wide volume range going into the PC for recording. I then monitor the mixer’s record levels with a PC using a tool like audacity as follows:

  1. fire up audacity
  2. hit record
  3. check that the volume range looks just like the mixer’s db range.

Now you can be sure that if the volume here doesn’t look right, it’s because the pc’s record volume is set wrong, because you know that the guitar/mixer output is good from the mixer monitoring test.

In this case, peaking out is ok as long as it’s brief and only on the very strongest of attacks. I want the maximum possible output that is not clipping the signal, so i’ll crank up the pc’s recording level until i see that i’m getting that. There’s gonna be a tiny bit of noise on the track even with the noise suppressor, and that’s fine. If i really need to clean that up, I can always silence it later.

Once you know that you’re getting the right mix, go ahead and do the tracks, then go back and use a normalizer effect to bring up any quieter sections to within range of the highest (clipped) output. Remember, you want the track’s volume blasting — BUT not clipping! Double-check the output levels frequently — especially on sections that appear to be clipped, to see if you’re getting any distortion on the track. A tiny bit is OK because you can pull down the overall volume later and that will ‘duck out’ a bit from the mix. Notice in my example how i left a tiny bit of the distortion in order to capture the strongest sustain… I’d rather have that distortion in there if it means I get the really clear sustained notes at max volume, but that’s my personal preference.

The big studios will not accept any distortion — instead, they just normalize the track to within an inch of it’s life. If that’s the sound you want, that’s the only way to get it, and it takes forever. That’s why professional mastering/mixing costs so much… you might be there for 3 weeks trying to max out that track.

Finally, crank the volume a bit on your stereo, listen to it with headphones, and try out any other pairs of headphones you may have to verify what the track really sounds like vs. color that your audio setup may be adding. I have some speakers that are very bottom-heavy, and i have some cheapo headphones that are the opposite, so i know the track is really in between those two sounds.