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What are the best plugins to use for mixing guitar recordings?
Can you use digital effects to simulate analog warmth?
Discover how to perfect your tone with these professional mixing tools.
When making a record many people tend to think an artist disappears in a studio, a few instruments get recorded, a few buttons get pushed, and voila! Album’s done. But there’s so much more to making a great album. One crucial part that is often overlooked is the mixing process.
For every record you’ve listened to, a mixing engineer has spent countless hours in the studio trying to make the raw recorded tracks sound as good as possible. Engineers rely on various plugins as mixing tools, and will also likely be using amp sims and other processing on guitar tracks to get the best possible tone.
In this article, we’re going to take a look at the best plugins for mixing guitar and how I like to use them in my mixes.
The Waves Scheps 73 emulates one of Andrew Scheps’ personal Neve 1073 preamps. The 1073 has become a staple of preamplifiers and is known for its rich and colorful sound.
Many mixing engineers love recording through this preamp because the transformer does something magical to the low end of a signal, and the EQ section is very musical. This means you can get away with doing drastic moves on the EQ section without it sounding bad.
I typically use the Scheps 73 in my recording FX chain, meaning I run my guitars through it before it is recorded. This “prints” the effect just as if I had recorded with a real preamp straight into my DAW. An obvious downside to this is that as soon as the signal has been recorded you can’t change the Scheps 73’s settings. So it pays to be sensible with the settings here.
Therefore, I use the 1073 very subtly to give the signal just a tiny bit of that magical Neve color. I don’t like sharing exact settings, but I usually highpass around 50 Hz to get rid of the unnecessary low end, and I often boost a tiny bit around 1.6 kHz to make the guitars sound a little more open.
I use this plugin in two ways which I’ll go into below:
Parallel processing basically means that you route a signal to another channel either to compress or distort. This channel then gets mixed with the dry signal to provide a more balanced distortion tone.
The Decapitator is great for this purpose, but you do have to use it with caution. If I’m mixing clean guitars for an R&B session I usually won’t reach for Decapitator, because I still want the guitars to sound nice and clean. However, for hard rock and heavy metal guitar tracks this plugin really shines.
I usually dial it in to have quite an ugly sound with lots of distortion. Then I’ll turn the channel volume down to zero and slowly dial it back up until I notice a difference in my mix.
Guitar bus processing
This plugin’s name hints at over-the-top, extreme distortion. But the Decapitator is also really good at injecting just a little bit of color into the signal with the right settings. I often use a subtle Decapitator on the guitar bus to add character and move things to the front of the mix.
The legendary sound of the Solid State Logic 4000 series consoles brought to you by Brainworx. With the power of TMT this officially licensed SSL plugin allows you to build a 72 channel analog console in your DAW.
I love this plugin. It’s literally on every channel in my mixes. Brainworx worked with Solid State Logic engineers to produce a truly unique emulation of one of the most famous mixing consoles known to man, the SSL 4000 E series. This console has been used to mix albums by Aerosmith, Bryan Adams, Alice Cooper, and many more.
It has a very broad sound to it and is known for its ability to be used aggressively. It’s got a filter section with a high and low-pass filter, a compressor, a gate/expander, and of course the famous SSL four-band EQ section.
But next to this it also has something no other SSL emulation has. The clever folks over at Brainworx emulated 72 individual channels of an SSL desk by looking at the tolerances of the components used in an SSL desk. Usually, when you make a circuit you use things like transistors, capacitors, and resistors. These components have a certain value, but not every component in a circuit has the same values.
This means that the first channel on an SSL desk can sound different than channel 31 on the same console. By emulating this, Brainworx gets much closer to capturing the feel of an actual console.
I use this plugin to do the majority of my mixing, just like how you would mix on an actual desk. After I mix the song I push the plugin’s “Random All” button, which randomizes the plugin’s channel emulations. This adds a lot of width to the mix, because suddenly not every EQ reacts the same, thus creating minute differences which can give the illusion of a wider stereo field.
Inspired by two highly-desirable revisions of the famed mid-60s Class A line level limiting amplifier, both versions of the CLA-76 (“Blacky” and “Bluey”) offer the superfast attack that made the originals studio legends.
This plugin emulates two of Chris Lord-Alge’s 1176 compressors. The Universal Audio 1176 is known for being a very fast compressor. It’s great for taming transients and for injecting a colorful sound into your guitar tracks. It has a very fast attack time from 20 to 800 microseconds and the release time varies from 50ms to 1100ms.
It also has four different ratio settings going from relatively mild to absolutely insane.
Like the Decapitator, I use this plugin in two ways on my guitar tracks:
Individual channel processing
When I have to mix funk guitars I often reach for the CLA-76, because it has a nice midrange and makes everything sound more cohesive and punchy. I usually go for a subtle amount of compression of around 3dB of gain reduction.
I tend to go for a fast attack (so I turn the attack knob counterclockwise), and a quick release (clockwise) with a low ratio of 4:1. This will push down the transients and raise the volume to the tail of the signal, which makes for a very full sound.
Remember how I talked about using the Decapitator for parallel processing? You can also do the same thing with compression.
The CLA-76 not only has the standard 4 ratios, but it also allows you to engage all the ratio buttons at the same time! This turns the CLA-76 into a really aggressive compression monster, which you can use for very colorful parallel compression.
Using the plugin in this manner creates a crunchy sound that brings the mids right to the front, which will make your guitars sound more harmonically complex. Even when mixing clean guitars this can sound very nice if you use it sparingly.
From beautiful natural chamber reverb to surging delay cascades, the rich sounds of the legendary Abbey Road Studio Two echo chamber are now at your fingertips, complete with Abbey Road’s long-lost S.T.E.E.D. setup.
Before the digital age, reverb was one of the hardest effects to create in a studio. Sure, there was spring reverb, but it’s a very limited and artificial effect. Plate reverb sounds lovely but it’s still an expensive and cumbersome solution. So your best bet was to place a speaker in a room with interesting acoustics and capture the results with microphones. These rooms are known as “echo chambers” and are essentially a one-size-fits-all reverb solution.
Abbey Road’s reverb chambers are among the most iconic echo chambers in the world. They can be heard on records from the Beatles, Deep Purple, and Pink Floyd. Of course, not everybody gets to record at the prestigious Abbey Road Studios. Luckily for us mere mortals, Waves took the time to meticulously emulate Abbey Road’s Studio Two reverb chamber so you can get that iconic vibe in your own production.
I mostly use this reverb to create an artificial live environment. I love records that were played with all the musicians in one room, such as Boz Scaggs’ Middle Man record, or Toto records.
For extra depth and cohesiveness, I send my guitar tracks to the Waves Abbey Road Chambers plugin. I usually go for Room 2, with a highpass before the reverb signal at 150Hz to ensure there is no unnecessary low-end buildup that can muddy up the mix. I also send other instruments to this reverb in order to make it feel like all instruments were played in the same room.
NOVA GE is a parallel dynamic equalizer. Appearing in the familiar layout of a parametric equalizer, the plugin also includes flexible dynamics processing options allowing the coverage of an impressively wide range of applications.
This is a nice four-band EQ / compressor with extra high-pass and low-pass filters. But this is not a standard EQ plugin – each band also has a compressor, meaning it’s closer to a multiband compressor than a traditional EQ. This makes the TDR Nova ideal for surgical EQ and multiband processing.
I usually use TDR Nova to get rid of unpleasant peaks in the upper midrange (2kHz to 4kHz). This especially comes in handy when mixing guitars with lots of distortion, or guitar solos.
I also use their dynamic EQ setting to remove buildup in the low mids to prevent my guitar from sounding too muddy. I prefer dynamic EQ for this, because not every note on the guitar has the same amount of low end.
Let’s say I’m mixing a guitar part that plays low and high notes. If I just cut the low end out, the low notes will sound controlled. But as soon as the part goes to a higher register the cut makes everything too thin. When using dynamic EQ, this plugin will remove low end when it becomes too overwhelming, but on higher parts there is no attenuation as there is no low-end to react to.
The Waves J37 attempts to emulate the Studer J37 tape machine used at Abbey Road Studios. It simulates 888, 811, and 815 tapes, the machine’s bias, and tape modulation. It also has a saturation knob which adds to the amount of drive you can generate from the tape.
It can also function as a tape delay, which you can either sync up to the tempo of your song or set it manually in milliseconds. There is also a tape noise section for – you guessed it – adding in the characteristic noise of this machine.
I use this in two ways which I’ll go into below:
Old school tape delay
When mixing classic rock guitars you can’t go wrong with good old tape delay. I like panning my dry signal to one side and panning my delays to the opposite side. This creates a lot of width, but it does not work for all parts. I usually use the J37’s delay on a U2 inspired guitar riff.
I also use the J37 tape delay for guitar solos that need to sound larger than life. To achieve this I usually go for a long ping pong delay. Because longer delay times on tape delay mean more high-end attenuation, the dry signal from the guitar is still able to cut through the mix.
Guitar bus processing
In my mixes, I try to create as much of an analog vibe as possible, and recording onto tape is a big part of the analog sound. In order to get close to that vibe I put a J37 on my guitar bus so that every guitar channel gets affected by the J37, thus creating a tape feel.
Depending on the song I will play around with input levels and what type of tape emulation I use. For a more vintage sounding record, I’m more likely to go for either the 888 or 811 types as they are the oldest. If I want a more modern vibe I’ll usually gravitate towards the 815, which is the latest tape type with the least amount of high-end roll-off.
That’s All Folks
Mixing is one of the dark arts of making music. It demands a lot of dedication, but is also one of the more fun sides to making a record if you have the right attitude – and the right mixing tools.
There’s no one way to properly mix all your guitar tracks, so feel free to try out different approaches for different vibes.
Do you want a guitar solo to be drenched in tape saturation? Do it with the Waves J37! Do you wonder what your guitar would sound like through a cranked 1176 emulation? Give it a shot. Be creative and you might just stumble upon the next cool guitar sound!