How to Get a Kick-Ass Acoustic Guitar Recording
There’s a difference between getting a shimmering acoustic guitar recording versus recording a powerful rock electric guitar.
Recording an acoustic guitar requires a totally different method than recording an electric guitar. That’s why this following article has a combination of different tips and techniques to try out when you’re going for that shimmering sound of a warm acoustic.
The Simple Secrets Behind Recording Acoustic Guitar (And Everything Else for That Matter!)
You’ve probably heard an acoustic guitar recording a hundred times before.
You know what it sounds like.
But have you ever wondered how each part of the instrument makes up the sound you hear when somebody is playing it? The brilliance of the strings, the resonance of the wood, and the amplification of the body all contribute to what you perceive to be an “acoustic guitar sound.”
That’s what you must remember when you point your microphone and start recording. Your microphone is going to pick up the certain characteristics of the area where you point, so getting the best soundscape possible into your microphone is your best bet for a great acoustic guitar recording.
Getting a great guitar tone starts long before you fiddle with your amp settings. A bad guitar recording can seriously damage the sound of a record, and it’s generally a good idea to not screw it up even before you give the engineers a chance to get a great a sound.
Like they say in [___insert industry or profession here____]:
Garbage In. Garbage Out.
Guitar sound changes with the tides, like fashion. In the eighties, huge rock guitar sounds with appropriately huge reverbs was the sound of the era. In the fifties, clean and jangly chords strums was what was going on.
I’ve touched on many of the underlying character in all these professional guitar recordings.
And this doesn’t only apply to acoustic guitars but all instruments.
First things first. A crappy sounding guitar is always going to sound like a crappy sounding guitar. If you’re serious about recording acoustic guitar, then make sure you have an instrument worth recording.
Before you even start recording your acoustic guitar, do the following two things. I’m not kidding. If you don’t do this, then your acoustic guitar will suffer for it.
Re-string your guitar
If you’re recording an acoustic that has had the same old strings for the last two years, they will sound dull and muffled. All the high-end is lacking, and that sheen of brilliance has gone and is never coming back.
Restring it, and suddenly the instrument will come back from the dead. Some people like old, dead strings but I don’t recommend it. You can always cut a little brilliance from your recording during mixing, but you’ll never add brilliance to an already dead sound.
I string my acoustic every three months. I play my acoustic fairly often and some would say that I wouldn’t need to do it so often. But as soon as my strings start to dull I can hear the brilliance and depth of my guitar fade away.
Well Tuned, Well Set-up Guitars
Before you even decide on what type of amplifier or weird effect you want on your song, you must take care of your guitar. Take care of your guitar and he will take care of sounding good on your record.
Well-tuned, newly-strung guitars sound way better than old and battered guitars. A guitar that constantly goes out of tune, with dull strings and fret noise is a nightmare to deal with. Not to mention impossible to mix.
Do I really need to say this? Before you start recording the guitar, please tune it. And if you’re working with a capo, make sure to tune the guitar with the capo on. Some capos tend guitar a little sharp or flat, so tuning with the capo on is recommended.
Different Characteristics of the Acoustic Guitar
The acoustic guitar can “roughly” be divided into three different sonic spots.
1. The Highs
Pointing a microphone by the first frets will capture the high-end of the strings. Since most of the body of the instrument comes from, well…the body, a microphone placed at the first fret will sound brilliant but lack everything else. Don’t underestimate the advantage of capturing the string sound. In combination with other microphones, it can sound quite good.
A microphone too close to the soundhole will produce a boomy sound, which is usually unusable. Additionally, a microphone pointing at the back of the guitar will also have some low-end character.
3. Mids and body
A microphone placed midway between the end of the body, and the strings will produce a sound with a lot of middle range. Sometimes this is desirable, especially in conjunction with a string microphone to get a full sound, even in stereo, but it can also be a little too mid-range-y.
The Three Steps to Getting a Great Guitar Recording
It’s easy really. That’s why this part of the article is quick and simple for you to digest:
- Make sure you get the right instrument that sounds best for the job.
- Pick the best microphones you have that you think will work. If you only have one microphone, that’s the best one for the job. You’ll just need to move it around a little more to get the best sound out of your instrument.
- Take some time to move the microphones around to get the best mic placement.
Use the First Fret Trick for a Brilliant Acoustic Guitar Recording
When you’re doing an acoustic guitar recording, you’re going to want the most out of your full-bodied instrument.
The nature of it being an acoustic instrument means that you will need some fairly capable mics if you want to capture the whole sound of the acoustic guitar – Everything from the deep lows to the bright highs.
A great way to record an acoustic is with either an X/Y stereo pair or with the M/S microphone technique.
X/Y Stereo Technique
The X/Y technique is one of the simplest stereo recording techniques out there. It’s simple to use and hard to screw up. The X/Y technique uses two condenser microphones touching each other at a 90-120° angle.
By keeping them as close to each other as possible you reduce any phase difficulties, resulting in a pleasant stereo sound.
The M/S Technique
The middle side (M/S) technique is a different type of coin- cident pair technique. It combines two different types of mi- crophones and some after the fact processing to make the performance into stereo.
We still need two condenser microphones, but one of them needs to have a gure eight pattern.
The cardioid microphone is used as you would normally mike up an instrument. Place it like you were only using one microphone, at the spot where the instrument sounds the best. Once you’ve found the sweet spot for that microphone, it’s time to place the bi-directional microphone. The bi-directional one is used as a room mic that picks up everything that’s going on around the instrument.
The M/S technique works well if you are recording in great sounding rooms. Since the bi-directional microphone picks up the room sound, it’s most advantageous for the final sound if that room sound is good.
After setting up the mics like this, there are a few studio tricks you need to do in order to get a stereo sound.
Once you have a good level inside your DAW with both microphones recording at the same time, follow these steps:
- Make sure you are listening in mono while you do this. Most DAWs have a way of switching into mono.
- Create an Aux Track and send the bi-directional micro- phone track to it via a post-fader send.
- Insert an EQ or a plug-in that has a phase switch and ip the phase on the aux track.
- Solo both the bi-directional microphone and the aux track and pan both of them dead center.
- If you have a post-fader send to the aux track that has its phase ipped; you shouldn’t be hearing any sound coming from either channel.
- Flip your DAW back to stereo.
- Pan one of the tracks hard left and the other hard right while keeping the cardioid microphone in the center.
Now you should have the same stereo image panned hard left and right with the cardioid condenser picking up the center. The cardioid mic picks up all the attack and body of the instrument while the bi-directional microphone picks up the room sound.
How to Record at Home: Recording Acoustic Guitar In Mono and Stereo With Condenser Microphones
In this supplemental video you’ll hear the various differences in miking techniques using a condenser microphone to record acoustic guitar. In addition, I’ll show you exactly how to route your recordings for a wide and spacious M/S stereo recording.
Sparkling brilliance is the intricate sound from the nuances of the strings. It’s the crystal clear highs of the top strings and the relationship between the frets, strings and finger work.
If a guitarist is playing very gracefully, with all of his finger movements perfect, you might want to capture those subtleties. Try the first fret trick the next time you are dealing with such an acoustic guitar recording.
This technique is also great if you want to capture some of the brilliance of the strings, for an added high-end sheen.
The First Fret Trick
1. Get a small condenser with a great frequency response in the higher frequencies and place it near the 1st fret. If your guitarist is using a capo, then place it on the first fret after the capo.
2. By using a bright condenser mic on the first fret, you capture all the highs and details that the strings generate. Move the microphone closer or farther depending on how close you want the sound.
3. Try angling the mic to pick up more of the higher strings if you want a brighter sound. A few inches here and there might make it sparkle a bit more. You might get that extra brightness you need.
4. Left alone, it has a pretty bodiless sound since this microphone only captures the string noise. But added together with either an X/Y technique or an M/S, it can give added depth and brilliance to an otherwise normal-sounding guitar.
5. Also, try it alongside a normal condenser that’s pointed at a sweet spot somewhere else on the body. Having a large condenser pointing towards the sound hole, or just at the 12th fret will fill out the frequencies that the first fret condenser is lacking.
See if this trick will get you a little closer to that magical acoustic guitar sound you hear in your head. Recording acoustic guitar isn’t easy, so I hope you are willing to experiment with different techniques until you find the sound you are looking for.
Top Ten Tips for a Great Acoustic Guitar Recording
Since it’s an acoustic instrument – as opposed to a plugged-in electric one – there are a few different techniques that you need to keep in mind when tracking an acoustic. Read on for my top ten recording tips for an easier acoustic experience.
1. Use a condenser microphone
Condenser microphones are more suitable for recording acoustic guitar than the dynamic microphone. The sensitivity of the condenser helps capture the sound of the acoustic guitar as accurately as possible.
2. Avoid too much bass
It’s a common misconception that the best sound from the acoustic guitar is captured at the sound-hole. Normally, a microphone pointed at the sound-hole results in too much bass.
3. Be aware of the sweet spot
The sweet spot is at the 12th fret, normally where the neck joins the body of the acoustic guitar. Recording acoustic guitar with a microphone pointed at the sweet spot usually captures a good blend of highs, lows, and mids.
4. Use New Strings
New strings are a must if you want to record a clear and brilliant acoustic guitar. No amount of mixing is going to fix an acoustic guitar with old and worn strings. However, brand-brand-brand-new strings might be a little bit too brilliant so make sure you strum the guitar for a few hours to let the sound sink in.
5. Record Direct
If you are looking for an alternative sound and your acoustic guitar has a plug, it might be a good idea to record direct. Just plug your guitar into a DI box and use some of the great guitar recording software that’s available to spice up your acoustic guitar sound. I’ve also found using an amp simulator can give you a really different acoustic rock guitar sound.
6. First Fret Brilliance
To capture the delicate sound of the string a microphone placed at the first fret can pick up the intricacies of the strings. This can bring a whole new dimension to your acoustic guitar sound.
7. Record in Stereo
Recording acoustic guitar in stereo will capture a much fuller and wider sound than only using one microphone. Using the X/Y technique is the easiest technique to get a wide and spacious stereo acoustic guitar recording.
8. Double-track with different mic techniques
If you are double tracking the same guitar part for added depth, try experimenting with different microphone techniques. Not only will it give your guitar parts added depth by double-tracking, but the difference in sound might create some interesting textures.
Beware of phase issues during mixdown if you go this route. Combining all these different signals might cause phase issues so keep an ear out for any weird thinning of the sound when you combine the tracks.
9. Use ribbons for a different sound
Ribbon microphones, if you have access to them, can give your acoustic guitar sound a smoother and different sound than recording with a condenser.
10. Subtle position changes nail that perfect sound
The way recording works is that even the slightest microphone change can affect the sound. By just subtly changing the position or direction of the microphone you can find that perfect acoustic guitar sound you are looking for.
How to Easily Produce a Kick-Ass Guitar Recording
I bet you’re a bit like me when it comes to producing guitars: You obsess over how they sound and want to ensure they’re the best they can be. You want a shimmering acoustic guitar and powerful rock guitars.
When I was playing hard rock as a teenager, I obsessed over getting those thick, distorted guitars I heard from Tool, A Perfect Circle, 30 Seconds to Mars and Deftones. Or the incredibly distorted lead guitar tones from In Flames or Soilwork. Those octave chords were so distorted but still so clear in the mix. It baffled me, and I’m sure you understand the feeling if you’ve ever tried to recreate those tones in the studio.
Today, I record a lot of acoustic guitars, and it’s the same obsession all over again. The clean acoustic guitar tones from all those classic rock bands of the ’70s, that’s what I’m hunting for now. The strumminess of the multi-tracked acoustic guitars from The Traveling Wilburys. The pristine fingerpicking of Simon & Garfunkel.
Guitar sounds are quite the obsession, wouldn’t you agree?
Now, I’m not sure if this next part is for you, but I wish I had somebody who taught me how to mix guitar when I was starting out. I’m sure most people would.
If that’s you, I recommend checking out Step By Step Mixing: How To Create Great Mixes Using Only 5 Plug-ins.
Recording Acoustic Guitar, Recording Tips