January 22, 2021
There’s nothing quite so beautiful as well-recorded acoustic guitar. Whether it’s a 6 string, 12 string, nylon string, old and scruffy, or bright and shiny, acoustic guitar is an amazing instrument to put “on wax.” But it can be a little tricky to get right.
So here we’ll go over some basic guidelines that should help you on the way toward capturing that perfect acoustic track.
Number one in any acoustic recording situation is the room you’re working in. If you can get access to a well-treated recording space you’ll be ahead of the game, but even if you’re working at home, your first step should be to audition various rooms and spaces, and to think about what you want to accomplish with the recording.
If you want a super upfront, intimate sound, you may look for a dry space or even create a temporary isolation with blankets or gobos. A very dead space may leave you wanting for something though. Guitars come alive in reverberant spaces so play a while in the living room, kitchen, bathroom, and even outside and see what space gives you the feeling that you want to capture. This may be different from song to song, so play the song you intend to record in each potential space. Not only will the intended vibe change, but how the space responds to a particular style will vary. Heavy strumming, detailed picking - all these styles reverberate differently.
As a general rule, most acoustic tracks are recorded in less ambient spaces – but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t experiment.
Finally, watch for noise sources while you scout recording spaces. Fans from computers, refrigerators whirring, HVAC systems, crickets – all of these are especially troublesome in a stripped-down acoustic recording. If your acoustic track is intended for a big complex mix, you may have some more leeway here, but it’s still wise to minimize noise. This includes bleed from headphones, especially metronomes. Try to use closed back headphones and keep the volume as low as possible so as not to record the metronome on your track.
Acoustic guitars can be recorded with a wide variety of microphones, depending on what you want to accomplish. As always, dynamic microphones lack the high-end detail and sensitivity of condensers, and ribbon mics provide a smooth sound.
For highly detailed work, nylon strings, or quiet styles, condensers are more often the mic of choice than dynamics. Ribbon mics may substitute, especially for stripped-down, standalone performances. While dynamics may not achieve what you want in those situations, they can be great for ensemble situations – for example a bluegrass band – where leakage may be a problem with a more sensitive condenser. A good dynamic mic could also work well for a strumming rhythm part intended for a bigger mix.
Acoustic guitar is a much more complex instrument sonically than it may seem, which means options for mic placement are numerous. What works best here is also highly influenced by the space, so the first rule for miking up the acoustic is to listen in the control room or by recording small swatches as tests.
That said, it almost always works well to mic an acoustic guitar about 6-12 inches away from the 11th or 12th or 13th fret, around where the neck meets the body. Putting the mic directly in front of or in the sound hole usually results in an overly boomy recording, so moving off-axis a bit helps.
Miking closer to the head can help capture more intimate picking detail. This may also pick up too much fret noise, so listen carefully.
As with any instrument, mics placed further away will capture more of the room and less upfront detail, and close mics will give you a raw, in your face sound.
For some tracks you may want to record in stereo. You can do this with many combinations of placements and mics. Common figurations include:
Clearly the most convenient way to record a guitar is to go direct from the pickup. This is certainly the easiest way to lay down a quick scratch track, but it often yields less than ideal results. The way the guitar itself resonates and the way it resonates in the room is most of what gives acoustic guitar its character, so when possible, it’s good to capture it acoustically.
Still, there’s no harm in capturing the pickup’s signal at the same time. Besides being a good backup in case of noise in the room, the pickup can be combined with the mic track to create a new character. It’s not uncommon for recordists to record a mic and a pickup track, and spread them wide in the stereo field, for example.
When it comes to processing acoustic guitar, it’s important not to do too much. Over processing an acoustic guitar track can turn an otherwise beautiful sound into a noisy mess, especially if the track is intended to stand alone. A small amount of compression may help, perhaps a smidge more if the track is in a big mix, and some reverb may give the track missing depth, but again – don’t overdo it (unless your intention is to break the rules and find a crazy new sound).
Make sure your guitar is in tune before the session, and check that it stays in tune all the way up and down the neck. New strings are a good idea before recording but do make sure they’re broken in enough to stay in tune. Warm up properly, rehearse ahead of time, and try to relax. Many players play too hard, which can sabotage your tone.
Finally, tighten up any rattles, buzzes, or other noise from the guitar, as all of these unwanted extras will show up on tape. In general, try to record with the best instrument you can and keep it well maintained.
As with anything in recording, it’s both an art and science, so use these guidelines as a jumping off point, experiment, listen very carefully (small moves can have big impacts with acoustic guitars), and remember that if it sounds good, it sounds good.
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