The pedal steel guitar is a mainstay of country music, a beautiful, ringing sound that ends up on nearly all modern country and bluegrass recordings. A good pedal steel track can make a recording go from just “good” to completely outstanding. Here’s a guide to recording and mixing the pedal steel so as to preserve the sound and majesty of the instrument.
1. Microphone choice – Since the pedal steel is an electric guitar, your microphone choice will depend on the amplifier you’re miking. Most of the time, I use two microphones, a close, cardioid condenser microphone (SM57s and other dynamic cardioid microphones tend to be a little lacking on detail for the steel guitars, in my opinion) and a large diaphragm condenser microphone or ribbon microphone. For smaller amps, you may elect to just use the cardioid condenser microphone.
2. Microphone placement – If you’re using two microphones, I recommend a close mic and far mic combination, as the room sound will reflect some of the subtleties of the pedal steel guitar. Use the cardioid for the close mic, and place it 1-3 inches from the speaker of the amp pointed at an angle slightly off center from the cone. It’s best to have the player play the pedal steel while someone else moves the microphone around and you monitor the signal. Place the far microphone a few feet back from the amp, and pointed directly at it unless you’re in a room that’s more susceptible to natural reverb, in which case you might want to face the microphone towards one of the walls. Experiment, as it’s the only way to learn what will work properly for the instrument.
3. Mixing – You’ll want to EQ other guitars away from the frequency range of the pedal steel, which tends to be in the mids to high mids, but you shouldn’t have too much of an issue with instrument separation if you pan the pedal steel about 45 degrees to one side of the stereo spectrum. A well-done mix will let the listener pick out any instrument and listen to it without too much trouble, so that’s what you should be shooting for. I’ll usually add some very light compression and reverb to the pedal steel, but don’t overdo the compression, because you’ll lose dynamics, and the pedal steel’s all about the dynamics.
Do you have any tips for miking and recording a steel guitar? Post them in the comments section below.