TCM Mastering: Home Music Studio Tips and Information

Part 47 Mixing Guitars – Acoustic

Over the last several weeks in the TCM Mastering Home Music Studio series, we’ve looked at Vocals, Drums and Percussion in the mix stage. This week and next we turn our attention to Guitars – Acoustic, Electric and Bass Guitars.

Recording Classical, Electric & Bass Guitars.

If you already have a working Home Studio and have some music tracks that need that final polish, check out the TCM Mastering site. Or contact us with your questions by clicking here. For more information about all the services that the TCM Music Group provide, click here.

A guitar sound or riff can make or break a song. Think of the beginning of ‘Layla’ or the infamous ‘Stairway To Heaven’ – attempted by hoards of potential guitar buyers in music shops around the globe.

Eric Clapton & Jimmy Page.

Consider carefully the guitar arrangement and how it interacts with the other instruments and vocals. Each instrument should have its own space in the mix. So if there are lead vocals in the middle of the stereo field, pan guitars slightly off to the left or right unless it’s a guitar solo (vocal not present), in which case it can take centre stage. As mentioned in an earlier blog, the bass guitar tends to take centre stage to work with the kick drum. But none of these suggestions are written in stone.

If you have a particularly busy mix, there could be a bass guitar (possibly two tracks – DI and amp recordings), a couple of acoustics, a couple of electrics and more. But just because you have all these guitar tracks, does not mean you should necessarily use them all the way through a song. A strummed acoustic could be brought in for the choruses to add some energy to them. A picked electric could be used in just the verses. Think how each instrument adds and contributes to the overall sound.

Every instrument has to find a place to sit in the mix and be heard. If the electrics are using a lot of sustained and distorted chords, you’ll use up your mix space very quickly. Adding too many effects to lots of different instruments can soon muddy the mix, so tread carefully down the effects path.

Acoustic Guitar

There are several different types of acoustic guitar – classical, flamenco, steel string acoustic (6 and 12 string), dobro (resonators) and more. Each type has its own sound and is favoured by a certain genre of music. We discussed recording acoustics in this blog.

Steel String Acoustic, Classical & Acoustic-Electric Guitars.

One of the most annoying sounds captured when recording an acoustic guitar is the squeaking from the fingers as they move up and down the fretboard. You can try to remove or reduce these sounds by using your automation to pull down the level at the precise time of the squeak. However, this is sometimes difficult or impossible without affecting the musical level too.

Pro Tools – Showing Problem Snap Or Squeak To Be Removed.

Showing Close Up Of Problem Audio.

Fixing Problem By Using Pen Tool To Draw New Wave Form.

Showing Result After Pen Tool Has Fixed Problem Audio.

Most good DAWs allow you to fix mistakes in the signal’s waveform by drawing them out with a ‘pen’ or ‘pencil’ tool (Pro Tools is one such DAW, see the series of 4 pictures above). This last method is destructive in some DAWs, so make sure you keep a copy of the track prior to working on it.

Zeroing In On An Annoying Finger Squeak, Using The Waves Q4 EQ Plug-In.

An alternative is to set up an EQ plug-in on the track so that the offending frequencies are ducked at the appropriate point. The plug-in can be automated to cut specific frequencies at specific times in the mix. This way you’re not removing the whole signal at a particular time but just a particular frequency in the signal, making it a less intrusive or severe solution to the problem.

We covered recording the acoustic guitar in this blog. The sound you capture depends on several factors including the quality and construction of the instrument itself.

But even if you were to record the same acoustic guitar for a few songs, chances are the recordings would sound different. One song may dictate a different approach over another – an acoustic guitar in a country song might require a different EQ to one in a rock song. Mic type and placement has a huge effect on tone as does the room, the player, the strings, whether the player used fingers or a pick, as well as the key of the song. Recording to digital or analog will contribute to the final sound too.

A Large & Varied Selection Of Mics To Record Acoustic Guitar.

So to get a great sounding acoustic in your mix, you need to have a good recording to start with. Remember the specific mic technique you use has a profound effect on the sound you capture. The closer you mic anything the more the bottom end will be emphasised. Ideally you want a full, rich sound without too much boominess – don’t make it sound too thin though.

Rolling Off The Lows & Adding A Little Hi-End Sparkle.

Acoustic guitars produce a surprising amount of low frequencies. So in the mix, filter out the low-end picked up by the mic to get rid of the boominess. Anything below 60 to 80 Hz can usually be cut. Some instruments may need you to roll off higher frequencies (up to 400 Hz), just exercise caution the higher you go. You don’t want to take all the guts and body out of the recording.

The low-mids are often where the core sound of an acoustic resides. You have to experiment to find the exact frequencies that need cutting or boosting for each guitar. Acoustic instruments vary in tone dramatically between different types (classical or steel string), makes and models. Even two instruments of the same model can have very different acoustic qualities.

Cuts Centred At 100-300 Hz & 1-3 kHz.

Some guitars may need a very specific cut at 200 Hz, whilst others may need a wider roll off between 150-300 Hz. Conversely, if the guitar needs more warmth or body try boosting between 150-250 Hz.

Adding A Few dBs Around 5-7 kHz Adds Presence.

Some acoustics will benefit from a cut between 800 Hz-1 kHz. If you want more attack to the sound, try adding some 3-5 kHz. You can often add presence by adding a little 5-7 kHz. Whilst adding some 7 kHz will deliver a brighter sparkle.

Some producers like to marry a steel string acoustic guitar with the hi-hat. To facilitate this effect, add 10-15 kHz to the guitar until the two merge into one.

Two EQ Curves For Acoustic Guitar.

Always do a comparison between your EQ’d sound and the original, to ensure you’re getting closer to the sound you want. And switch between listening to the soloed instrument and the rest of the tracks to see how well it sits in the mix. Never EQ in complete isolation. If you want more information on the use of EQ, check out this earlier blog.

On the subject of EQ, if you have to add more than 5-6 dB of any frequency you may have a problem with your recording. So you may want to re-record or consider something other than EQ to ‘fix’ your problem sound. Also, adding EQ invariably adds noise, which is why so many engineers use subtractive rather than additive EQ.

Gentle 2:1 Compression With -15dB Threshold.

With regards to the use of compression on an acoustic, it depends on how prominent the guitar is in your mix. If your song is based around the acoustic guitar and a vocal, for example, I’d suggest no compression at all on the guitar. Unless the performance is so uneven that a little gentle compression may help it to sit more comfortably in the mix.

But remember, you may apply some compression at the master fader and there will most likely be some compression applied in the mastering stage.

Gentle Compression Used For Acoustic Guitar.

If the acoustic guitar is just one small part of a much busier mix with lots of instruments, then some light compression (ratio 2:1 to 5:1) may help it to be heard amongst everything else. If the acoustic is being strummed vigorously, compression can produce a more consistent level in the mix, it can also bring out the pick noise rendering a more choppy, rhythmic, percussive quality.

Compression can help to bring out the harmonic content of an acoustic buried in a mix and increase its sustain if needed. Don’t forget, compression raises the room noise too. So in a home studio setting that could mean raising the volume of computer drives, background traffic, air conditioning etc.

A Multiband Compressor Controls Tonal Balance & Dynamics.

Use your discretion and again A/B compare between compressed and original sound. Click here for more information on compression and other forms of dynamic processing.

In a busy mix, the attack portion of an acoustic rhythm guitar strum is often more important than hearing the sustain which gets overshadowed by other instrumentation. If you want to achieve more attack on strummed acoustics, try this. Use a gate or expander to pull down or ‘duck’ the level of the sustain. By employing short attack and release times, this will catch the attack of the strum but will apply gain reduction between the peaks. It doesn’t have to be too severe to produce improved punch. Check out this blog for details on gates and expanders.

There are numerous effects you can use on acoustic guitars. We’ll briefly look at reverb, delay, double tracking and chorus.

A Selection Of Effects Plug-Ins.

Reverb is a great way to create ambience in your track. It’s generally pleasing to the ear. The use of an effect like reverb depends to a large extent on what the instrument is doing. Is the acoustic being strummed or picked? Is it being used as a solo or backing instrument? Short reverbs, like some room settings, can give an interesting and unusual quality to the instrument. Longer reverbs will make the guitar sound more distant in the mix and can muddy the sound if too long. Don’t forget to EQ the reverbed sound to get rid of any boominess. The reverb can either be panned to join the dry guitar or split with the dry signal left and right.

On a lead acoustic, a delay timed to the tempo of the track can be very effective especially if used in conjunction with a sprinkling of reverb too…..John Martyn used delay and echo to great effect on some of his recordings. Timing the delay to match the track tempo is important to keep the sound clean and uncluttered. Try panning the delay(s) away from the original clean sound.

Double Tracked Acoustic Guitars – Note The Slight Difference In The Waveforms.

Double tracking is a popular recording technique where a performer sings or plays along to a previously recorded performance, matching phrasing and melody as closely as possible, resulting in a thicker sound. It’s used extensively for vocals as well as guitars. The effect is produced from the two ‘identical’ performances being ever so slightly different in pitch and timing throughout the length of the performance.

If the guitarist cannot match their performance well enough to produce the effect the result can sound quite confusing or cluttered. If this is the case, there are electronic plug-ins that emulate the effect, although none give exactly the same result as the ‘real thing’.

A chorus effect applied to a 6 string can sometimes come close to emulating a 12 string acoustic guitar. It’s a shimmering effect produced by combining two or more slightly different pitched signals. Experiment with the speed and depth of your chorus to get the effect you want. We discussed effects processors in this blog.

As with all effects be judicious in their use…..a little goes a long way! To find out more about the use of effects processors, click here.

Next week we’ll look at Electric and Bass Guitars in the mix.

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