One of the commonest instruments used in popular music, the Acoustic guitar can also be one of the most difficult to record for a home or budget studio.
In this piece we look at some simple rules and concepts that should ensure you get the best recording possible.
The first thing to remember is that if you get a good initial recording, it saves the amount of processing you have to do at the mix down stage, and this is a GOOD THING!
Acoustic guitars are sometimes referred to by engineers as ‘Jangle Boxes’, and with good reason.
As a rule they send out frequencies from all over the place, and the sound a listener hears when they stand in front of a live acoustic player is a combination of all those different frequencies at once.
THE INSTRUMENT ITSELF:
So one of the first things to consider is the guitar itself. Make sure it sounds as good as it can before you even begin to record it. Does it need new strings? Is it properly in tune? Does it sound good? Is there any chance of borrowing a better one for the recording. Sounds simple, but it’s very important, if the guitar doesn’t sound right before you start, its unlikely to get any better later on.
Once you have the best sounding instrument you can get, take a look around you.
What is the room doing to the sound?
Is it a big wide expansive room that allows natural reverb and an airy ‘live’ feel, or is it a small bedroom filled with soft duvets and pillows and curtains that will swallow all the signal and leave you with a flat, dead sound going into the mic? Again, these are hugely important considerations, If you capture the sound of a Cathedral echo as part of your recording, its VERY difficult to get rid of it.
WHICH TYPE OF MICROPHONE:
Generally speaking the best microphone for the job will be a condenser mic. They are generally much better at handling the higher end frequencies that an acoustic guitar puts out.
The next decision is whether to use a Mic with an OMNI pattern or a CARDIOID pattern. The OMNI pattern will be much better at picking up both the guitar and the sound of the room, whereas the Cardioid will take much more of the guitar, and is therefore a good choice for a smaller room.
There have been millions of pages written about Mic placement, and in truth its one of those esoteric arts that each engineer will have their own theories about. However, there are a couple of simple rules that apply to almost every situation.
Most of us are familiar with seeing the image of a guitar player on stage, with a microphone placed very close to the soundhole, but miking on stage is a different art to miking in the studio.
In the studio, you have the luxury of trying different mic positions, capturing a mixture of the guitar and the room, and we recommend you take some time to do this. If you place the mic too far away from the guitar you risk recording too much room noise, you lose definition and run the risk of increased noise from the mic preamp as you raise the gain. Too near, and you lose the feel of the room.
Generally you will find a sweet spot in every location, where the blend between the two is best, but as a start, we would recommend aiming the microphone at the point where the Guitar neck joins the body. As a general rule, the closer you get to the soundhole, the warmer the sound, and as you move nearer the neck you get a more treble based signal. As regards the distance, this will depend on all sorts of factors including how hard the guitarist is playing, whether he’s using a pick or fingers etc. but start around a foot away and listen to how the sound varies as you move closer or further away.
Finally, remember that guitarists are a varied bunch, one will sit beautifully still and play accurately with the minimum amount of fuss, while another will flail about wildly, creating creaks from the stool, hands squeaking up and down the strings, and it’s your job to capture the performance complete with all its nuances.
TIPS AND TRICKS:
Plywood is cheap and has a shiny side. A couple of sheets 5’ X 3’ are a useful thing to have. You can put them in front of a guitarist to allow the sound to reflect off the shiny side, and this will have a big affect on your recorded sound.
Nashville tuning, is a trick used by some session players to create a really bright and jangly sound. Simply replace the bottom three strings of the guitar (the thick ones!) with another set of top strings. You can then tune the ‘new’ bottom three strings a full octave above where they should be and create a very Jingly sound indeed.