TCM Mastering: Home Music Studio Tips and Information
Part 10 Recording Acoustic Guitar
Continuing on our journey through the various instruments you may want to record in a Home Music Studio setting…..this week we cover Acoustic Guitars.
Classical Ramirez and Steel String Acoustic Martin.
Strictly speaking, the term ‘acoustic’ covers nylon or gut stringed – classical and flamenco guitars, as well as steel stringed – folk, lap steel and archtop guitars amongst others.
With a basic microphone and a little trial and error you can record an acoustic guitar and get a reasonable sound. But to get a great sound you need to consider many contributing factors…..
First and foremost, consider the guitar itself. It’s going to be difficult to get a great sound from a cheap, badly set up instrument. Having said that, there are plenty of guitars on the market that will allow you to achieve a great recorded sound without spending a fortune. I’m talking for as little as £130-£250. The Vintage V300 has had great reviews, can be bought for around that price and sounds fantastic. Yamaha, Epiphone and Fender also produce good quality guitars in the same price range and beyond.
Classical Contreras and Country Acoustic Gibson.
Of course if you have the money, then the sky’s the limit…..Ramirez, Contreras, Martin, Taylor and Gibson all produce excellent instruments. And depending on the genre of music you’re recording eg. rock or country, if you have the choice you may prefer to use a specific make over another to get the desired sound.
Before a recording session, change the strings to give a less dull, brighter sound. But remember to give them time to stretch, so that they will keep their tuning during the performance. If you’re recording a steel string guitar, experiment with several different picks or finger picking styles to get the sound quality you’re trying to capture.
You could even try taping two picks together separated by a coin…..I think I read that Brian May of Queen actually uses a coin in place of a plectrum. Some guitarists put talcum powder on their fingers before recording to reduce squeaks from the strings. The point I’m trying to make is that before you place a mic, there are a few things you can do to alter the sound coming from the instrument.
Early picture of Les Paul in his Home Studio.
Now because we’re considering acoustic instruments, the room you’re recording in will have an effect on the sound. Technology has moved on from the days when Les Paul (above) made his ground breaking recordings, but the Home Music Studio room still presents one of the biggest problems when recording acoustic instruments of any shape or form. For more thoughts on how you can change a room’s acoustics, check out this blog post.
Always listen to the sound of the guitar directly with your ears first, before placing any mics.
Close Mics on Acoustic Guitar.
Like many acoustic instruments, the acoustic guitar family produce different frequencies in different directions. So unfortunately, it is quite easy to accentuate certain aspects of the overall sound by using close mic techniques.
This is especially true, if you use a dynamic mic which will emphasise the bottom end at close range. They tend to have too limited a frequency response for guitars (but they might produce an effect which you like). Having said that the Sennheiser 441 seems to be quite a popular choice.
A more natural tone can be captured by moving the mic further away, but this will obviously capture more of the room sound too.
If you use a close mic technique (A above), you could
also try combining it with an ambient mic position too (B).
Looking at the diagram below, we can see various mic positions. The ‘default’ position (A) which is tried by many as their first attempt when recording, is to place the mic about 12 inches from the point where the neck meets the body, angled slightly towards the sound hole.
Various mic positions for recording acoustic guitar.
You could also try using a mini omni mic (B) and tape it to the outside of the body of the guitar between the bridge and sound hole, an inch or two above the bottom E string.
Alternatively, if you want a stereo recording try positioning a mic at the bridge and another at the 12th fret (C). You can pan them slightly left and right. Or use an X-Y coincident pair (eg. Audio Technica AT822 condenser) positioned around the 12th fret, but don’t place them too close, you want the full sound to be captured. And the closer in you mic the more coloured the sound will be.
X-Y Coincident Mic Pair.
There are mics which you can mount on the inside of the guitar body (D). They’re designed with a reduced bass response to be used in that position…..a good option for a live performance because they provide good separation from other instruments and prevent feedback from the PA, but there are better mic positions if you are recording in a controlled environment. However, this example along with example B are useful for recording guitarists who find it difficult keeping still while playing.
Remember – with all multiple mic set ups,
check for phase problems…..see this blog for more detail.
As I’ve said repeatedly in earlier blog posts, experimentation is the key to success, when it comes to recording. Try placing a mic underneath the guitar body or facing a reflective panel close to the guitar…..you never know what it’s going to sound like until you try it.
If you have to record a singing guitarist, try using a couple of figure-of-8 or bi-directional mics (see below). These types of microphone picks up sounds front and back, but not the sides. So they can be quite effective in picking up the vocal and guitar if placed just right.
Get good separation using Figure-of-8 Mics
when recording a Vocalist and Guitar simultaneously.
A popular mic choice for acoustic guitars is either a small or large diaphragm condenser (or even a ribbon). These mics have a more even extended frequency response (than the dynamics) giving a detailed, clean sound to the instrument. What you want to try to avoid is using mics that will emphasise the string and finger squeaks…..particularly annoying if you’re recording a solo instrument. Large diaphragm condensers are good for capturing the depth of a guitar’s tone (eg. Rode NTK, Studio Projects T3), whilst the small diaphragm condensers (eg. Shure SM81, Octava MK012) also sound great on instruments with higher registers eg. mandolin and violin.
Dean Markley Acoustic Guitar Pickup.
A tip for recording acoustic guitar with a pick-up in a band scenario…..record the guitar with a pick-up for the band performance, this will give good separation from the other instruments. Then overdub the acoustic guitar with a mic, either to double track the earlier performance or to add a different rhythm or melody line.
As with all mic positions, you may need to use some subtle EQ to get rid of any boominess or to reduce unwanted squeaks.
And remember, always listen to the sound of the guitar directly with your ears first, then get to work capturing the sound you want with the mic(s).
There will be differences and compromises, but with perseverance you should be able to get close to the sound you want and more importantly the sound your guitarist likes too.
Choosing the right mic and finding the sweet placement spot will usually work better than any amount of EQ. So use EQ sparingly and save it for the mix stage. The same goes for compression and reverb. Remember, once you add signal processing and it’s recorded it’s always difficult and sometimes impossible to fully undo or correct it.
Just a final word of warning…..whenever possible try out a mic before buying. Quality control can be an issue with any mic, especially the cheaper less well known makes.
Next week I’ll cover some of the acoustic guitar’s relations and other stringed instruments.
We’ve been getting some great feedback lately, so if you already have a working Home Studio and have some music tracks that need that final polish…check out the TCM Mastering site, where you’ll find lots of useful information. And if you have any questions just drop us a line.