Don’t Make These 3 Mistakes When Recording Acoustic Guitars
This here’s a guest post!
This article was written by Scott of MIDI Lifestyle – a performer, composer and music producer. His work is heard in the soundtracks of shows such as ”It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia,“ ”Entertainment Tonight“ and ”Keeping Up With the Kardashians.
Let’s start off with the biggest caveat going in the recording game: If you get the sound you want, it works and listeners like it, then you haven’t made a mistake, no matter how many rules you broke, which best practices you ignored or whose advice you didn’t take.
The end result justifies the means, so if you shoot down one of these mistakes and end up with a great sound, more power to you.
This primer is about improving your chances at achieving great sounds.
There’s no guarantee. In fact, each factor is a starting point. Use the concept as the basic recipe, and spice it to your taste.
There is no out-of-box secret that makes all acoustic guitars sound great. Skip these mistakes, though, and you’re on your way to better sounds.
Mistake #1: Ignore your recording space
With more and more bedrooms, dens, garages and basements serving as recording studios, there are more recordings that sound like basements, garages, dens and bedrooms.
By accident, some of these spaces will actually sound okay for recording guitars.
Chances are the room will not sound good.
The solution? Eliminate the room.
Get your microphone in close, about 6 inches away from the spot where the neck of the guitar meets the body, pointing at the high E-string.
You’re in close enough so that sound reflecting off the floors, walls, ceiling and Uncle Fred’s fish tank become overpowered by the sound of the guitar.
It’s far too easy to add synthetic ambiance that sounds better than your room. DAW software and plug-ins of even the most basic level have reverbs and room models galore.
Swivel the mic on its axis to tune the sound you want.
Rotate toward the sound hole for more bottom, or away for less.
Tip the mic up, down, this way or that until it sounds ‘right.’
At one point in the history of recording, that was the only method of equalization available. It’s still one of the most effective and complication-free options.
You can even go about setting up a booth for recording.
Oh, and about that mic you’re setting up…
Mistake #2: Use the beer-soaked dynamic mic from last night’s gig
When that killer meteor finally hits the Earth and wipes out life as we know it, only cockroaches and Shure SM58 microphones will survive. If you’re the only recording guitarist left after the cataclysm, I still don’t recommend a 58 on acoustic guitar.
The SM58 and its near-twin the SM57 are amazing, do-anything, go-anywhere mics. But they’re dynamic, so it means that sound must push a diaphragm loaded down with a coil of wire through a magnetic field.
The force of sound energy needed to move the coil eats up everything that’s beautiful about the sound of good acoustic, played well. To capture the subtlety of wood, strings, fingers and air, a condenser microphone is the thing.
It doesn’t matter if you choose a large, medium or small diaphragm. The key is that there’s no inertial mass to overcome.
A condenser mic responds to pressure changes with tiny flexes of the condenser mic diaphragm. Sounds range from very faithful to brilliantly larger than life.
If you’re tempted to forget about microphones because the acoustic you’re recording has a pickup, I will hunt you down and erase all your tracks (but see the caveat in the conclusion).
As with a human voice, some condensers will sound better than others on acoustics. All will sound better than most dynamic mics.
If it’s a choice between dynamic mic or not recording at all, well, I’ll forgive you, but only as long as you don’t…
Mistake #3: Disregard the acoustic guitar’s context in the song
The range of an acoustic guitar’s sound is part of its appeal. Solo or behind an evocative singer, a rich stereo recording of the instrument fills the sound spectrum.
As a shimmering and sandy rhythm sound within a band, the guitar can drive a track with a percussive impetus.
How the guitar fits into a song has much to do with how you record it.
Ignore this at your own peril.
Is your task at hand a singer/songwriter? Learn about X-Y stereo miking with a pair of small diaphragm condensers. Use the same spot described above. Large diaphragm condensers work for this as well, but it’s a lot of microphone in front of the musician, so you don’t want to intimidate them if it isn’t absolutely necessary.
Single mic techniques are just fine when you’re recording a combo. The full range of the acoustic often competes with other full-range instruments such as piano, so placing the acoustic at a single, mono point along the stereo picture usually avoids any frequency range throwdowns.
Often in group settings, you don’t want the full range of the guitar.
This especially true for a strummed guitar driving the beat of the song. Too much bottom end in this situation drags the feeling of the acoustic down. Mic it carefully to avoid too much sound hole and body resonance.
There’s even a guitar stringing technique you may want to try.
Called “Nashville tuning,” a set of strings for a 12-string guitar divides between two 6-string acoustics. One guitar gets the normal set while the other gets the high octave set.
Otherwise, both guitars are tuned the same, but with the second one an octave higher across the four lower pitched strings. Recording the high-tuned guitar naturally gives a swishy, sandy rhythm. Recording a track on each guitar and playing with their blend in the mix opens a number of options.
The Last Chord
Re-stating the intro, recording acoustic guitars may be one of the best demonstrations of the phrase, “rules are made to be broken.” Yet, most of the time, where you choose to start speeds up the process of getting good sounds.
And about that acoustic guitar pickup — plug it in and record it, BUT only after you’ve got your main mic(s) in place. The pickup is never going to rival the sound of a well-miked acoustic. However, it may offer opportunities to get creative later.
One of my favorite tricks is leaving the microphone tracks dry — no reverb or other effect. If I want a little something extra, up comes the pickup track. Feed that signal into a reverb and/or chorus plug-in and kill the original pickup track. Use just the output of the plug-ins.
It doesn’t always fit, but hey, it’s another option on top of your already great sound, with next to no effort.
Something for nothing? You bet!