Live Mic or Direct Box for your electric guitar?

If you play in a live band — even in relatively small clubs — it’s not that unusual to mic the guitar amplifiers. The preference towards smaller amplifiers and the general frowning upon of high stage volume makes mic’ing the amp a good option. If for nothing else, being able to feed the guitar through the monitors allows everyone to hear what is going on. And as every guitar player knows, it’s impossible to judge your guitar sound — or how loud it is — while standing two feet in front of your amp. Having the guitar in the monitor also helps prevent “volume creep” during the night.

The Radial JDX is a popular amplifier direct box for live performances

So while having guitars in the mix has obvious benefits for the both the audience and the band, what’s the best way to get it into the mix? Typically most bands tend to mic amplifiers, and there are plenty of options for microphones. As guitar amplifiers get more feature-laden, many now include a balanced direct out, sometimes with various forms of “speaker emulation.” As not only a guitar player, but the sound man for the band, two things have made my life infinitely more convenient: Digital WiFi mixers, and a good amplifier direct box. So while it’s very convenient to be able to throw a mic in front of the amplifier, I find that a direct box gives more consistent results and fewer headaches during the performance.

I’ve been using the Radial JDX for a number of years, which is specifically designed for guitar and bass amplifiers. If you have a head/cab arrangement it’s very easy to connect between the head and speaker. After that you run a microphone cable from the direct box to the mixer and off you go. If the amp is a combo, it can get a little more tricky if the speaker has a very short cable or is internally wired. This is a primary reason sound techs like to use microphones, as they work with anything. But if you plan ahead or mix the same bands all the time (like I do) using a direct box has advantages.

Why a direct box? For starters it’s more consistent, and you get the same sound wherever you go. Bouncy floors, microphone bleed, placement…none of that matters. Plus I can’t tell you how many times a mic gets kicked out of position on a cramped stage. With a direct box none of that will ever happen.

I use the non-phantom version Radial JDX which has a “reactive” load to mimic the characteristics of a speaker, but it is not a speaker emulator in the sense that is simulates a particular speaker. To me it sounds very natural, and it since the room sound is a mix of amp and PA, there is still plenty of the “real” amp sound in the room. Subjectively speaking I’m just as happy or happier with the sound of the JDX over a well-placed SM-57. I’ve tried the phantom power version of the radial JDX but the results have varied depending on the mixer. This may be due to variations in phantom power output depending on the brand of mixer, so I stick with the AC-powered version.

If your guitar amp has a direct out, try it and see how it works. Ditto for the speaker emulation, if that’s an option. Speaker emulation is a matter of taste, so let your ears be your guide.

If you are recording, microphone selection and placement is almost an art. But if you are in a working band and need to show up, set up and have everything work, consistency and reliability take precedence. This is even more true if like many weekend warriors you don’t actually have a person in charge of the sound. For DIY bands, going direct can save time and headaches.

Hear your guitar better when playing live

Here is a very typical situation: You’re playing in a club, and as with most places there is not a lot of room. You’re standing close to your amp and one of two things is happening (or both); 1) You can’t hear your guitar very well, or 2) You’re told that you’re too loud.

Sound familiar? This happens all the time, and if you crank the amp up to the point where you can hear it, the audience gets pummeled. This is especially problematic with solos, as increased gain means increased signal compression, which can make it even harder to hear distinctly.

Here is the solution: In-ear monitors, preferably wireless.

Why would any club band need to resort to in-ear monitoring, especially for guitar? Because it’s the most effective monitoring method, takes up the least amount of space, is easy to carry, never feeds back, and cuts down on stage volume.

Quick aside: I common response is, “yeah but I’d rather tip my amp back, put it on a chair or use and amp stand. Yes, and you typically lose most of your low-end response and whatever tone you’ve been working is completely altered.

Whether or not you currently put the guitars through the monitors, your band has some type of mixer, and at least the vocalist has a monitor. So now all you need is an ear-monitoring setup, and a way to feed your guitar signal into the mixer.

A decent ear-monitoring system is not cheap, and a new one with earpieces will run close to $500. But there is always eBay, and I’ve scored a couple used transmitters and receivers at decent prices. But simply put, with ear monitoring you’ll hear the vocals better, hear your guitar better than you ever have, plus have a better idea of how it actually sounds. Ear monitors also cure the habit of over-playing and over-singing in order to hear yourself. Once you go this route, people might even ask you to turn up (a first for most guitarists).

My own setup is a Shure PSM200 with Shure SE315 ear monitors that have the form-fitting foam earpieces. The foam earpieces fit very snuggly and effectively “noise cancel” the ambient stage volume. I use only one earpiece, in the ear towards the drummer. This cuts the perceived drum volume way down, and with my open ear I get a feel for the general overall mix, but at a comfortable level.

It’s easy enough to mic the guitar amplifier, but my preference is to use a direct line. Radial Engineering makes a direct box called the JDX, which is a reactive speaker load box that goes between the head and cab (or speaker line in a combo). The JDX feeds a direct XLR line right to the mixer. The signal to the speaker is unaffected, and the line to the mixer sounds great, typically much better than what you can get with a mic. And you don’t have to deal with the mic getting jostled, or other resonances coming up through the mic stand. It also helps take room acoustics out of the picture, so if your amp is jammed in some little corner it will help it sound less like crap.

For all but the smallest clubs, the ideal setup is using the guitar amp to get the right tone, and using the PA to help create a balanced mix. But to do this you actually have to know what you sound like, and ear monitors are the best way to accomplish this. I use them everywhere, even in small clubs where I’m often only inches from my amp.

Because you’ll no longer be cranking a floor monitor (or your amp), you’re less likely to damage your hearing, have headaches or ringing ears. And if you’re also the sound guy (like me) it’s one less monitor to haul, there’s more space on the stage, and monitor-induced feedback is eliminated. One successful local band essentially required that any member have in-ears. If not, the player was responsible for bringing his or her own floor monitor and cables. That’s a little militant, but for logistics, setup and sound quality it made sense. Talk to a player that uses ear monitors on a regular basis, and you’ll find a convert for life.

Ear monitoring is not just for pros; the quality of the systems has gone up, and the prices have come down. Most bands that don’t use them have not tried them, or already have a significant investment in their floor monitors . But if you are planning to spend several hundred dollars apiece on good floor monitors, think about putting that money towards in-ears.