June 17, 2021
When it comes to strapping in for a live show, it’s relatively straight forward to dial in an electric guitar. After all, there are no acoustic resonances to worry about, and the instrument is designed to be reinforced and loud.
Acoustic guitars, on the other hand, are subtle creatures which can be a little harder to tame on stage. Here, we’ll go over some basics for using an acoustic on stage, which should be helpful if you haven’t done it before or if you’re having a hard time dialing in a good sound.
Acoustic guitars are perfect for singer/songwriters sitting in intimate settings. There’s literally nothing to do but play. But once you get a PA involved you have to decide how to capture the guitar. It comes down to three choices:
In most cases, using the pickup on the guitar and going direct into the PA is the most straightforward option. Feedback won’t be much of an issue (usually none – but guitars do resonate), you’re not locked to a position in front of a mic, and you won’t color the sound with an amp.
In order to do this properly though, you’ll probably need a direct box to convert your pickup’s unbalanced signal into the balanced signal the console uses. This will eliminate hum, buzz, and other noise.
In the mix, you may have to cut a bit – or a lot – in the midrange, especially if your pickups are piezo style. If they are and the guitar sounds super “quacky”, boost the midrange a bit and sweep from around 800Hz to 1.5kHz until it sounds worse, then cut as much as you need to.
You may find that you’ve used that mid-range cut but you still need to cut some mud. If that was your only parametric style EQ band (say in a three band EQ section found on many small mixers), you can use the low-end shelf to boost a little (usually they’re set at around 100Hz) and boost the high-end shelf some. Once you turn the level down a little to compensate for the boost, you’ve effectively carved out some of the “mud” range around 300-600Hz.
Magnetic pickups sound more natural, so you can probably just EQ to taste with those. In either case, you’ll find that in a solo or duet, you have more room to give the guitar some low-end body. In a full band setting, you’ll probably want to cut some lows and thin the acoustic out some to make room for drums and bass. This is also true if you’re using an amp or miking the guitar.
If we’re moving in order of easiest to hardest, next would be to use an amp. One obvious advantage is you’ll be able to hear yourself even if there are no monitors in the system. Amps built specifically for acoustic guitar usually have an XLR direct out for the PA, or you can opt to mic the amp just like you would an electric. Sometimes bandmates appreciate an acoustic amp if there’s only one monitor mix, because it means less acoustic has to be in the mons in order for the acoustic player to hear it.
Just bear in mind that the more electronics you put between your guitar’s clean signal and the listener, the more colored and electric it will sound. This may be desirable, but for a really clean, natural sound, you’re probably better off going direct or miking up.
Most house engineers avoid miking acoustic guitars if possible, especially in a full band context. This is mainly because feedback can get pretty nasty with acoustic guitars, and partly because many players tend to move around a lot.
However, it can’t always be avoided. After all, some guitars don’t have pickups, and players who value their more expensive instruments may not want to drill into them to add one. In addition, even though it’s trickier, it may be more desirable to mic the guitar. Especially in a solo or duo situation, or with music such as classical, you’re more likely to capture a rich, intimate, and natural sound by miking.
When miking an acoustic on stage, try to go for a hypercardioid or cardioid pattern small diaphragm condenser, rather than a dynamic. The problem with dynamics is they’re not as sensitive, so in turning up the gain, you can easily run into major league feedback problems. Dynamics also aren’t as clear and sharp in the high end, which can leave you with a dull sounding guitar.
When it comes to placement, if you have time to experiment, great. If you don’t (you probably won’t), go for a standard placement of around 6-12 inches in front of where the neck meets the bridge, or in line with the 12th fret. Avoid placing your mic directly in front of the sound hole, as you’re liable to get a really boomy sound – and risk feedback.
Players will have to be mindful not to bump into the mic or swing around too much and get off axis, and you’ll want to make sure the monitor level stays reasonable, so you don’t add to the feedback risk.
Acoustic guitar is quintessential – modern music wouldn’t be without it. It may be a little trickier than some instruments to handle on stage, but it’s certainly not impossible – and definitely worth it.
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