Saturday, August 1, 2009

Home recording techniques; recording the acoustic guitar.

Adding an acoustic guitar track to a song is probably one of the most often performed operations in our home recording studios. Getting an acoustic guitar to sound as you envision it is sometimes a task, but it need not ever to be a chore.

I would like to discuss some of the most often used microphone placing techniques by home recording enthusiasts (and big budget studios alike) in order to capture some great sounding acoustic guitars. Add to this some great “Direct In” signals from an acoustic guitar pick up or an on board pre-amp and this blog post deepens.

In today’s blog post are some great ideas, and please try them out in your next recording and then find your own version of these different set ups that best suit your own unique vision.

Most of the acoustic guitar tracks that we all have heard in popular recordings are somewhat misleading. They sound as if a professional guitarist stopped by the studio and laid down one great sounding track, and then called it a day. Truth is that it may very well be just one take, but it also may be many, many layered tracks. Most often many different acoustic guitar tracks are mixed down to make a single acoustic guitar track. These tracks are all from the same “take” but they may have some very different signal chains.

For an example, an acoustic guitar (in a studio setting) might just have several microphones pointed at it, several more set around it, and it just might also have a direct signal output which travels from the guitars pick up system, all running into one mixer or a DAW.

But why use so many different microphones?

The microphones pointed at the guitar can be used for picking up the boom-ness of the guitars sound hole, the necks fret and string noise, and even the air that the body pushes outward as it sounds, just to name just a few ideas. The guitar picks attack, the fingers movements, and what the guitar player might actually hear can all be recorded using some well placed microphones. The microphones placed around the guitarist (room microphones) are for recording, or adding a very slight delay in time which adds a room/live feel to the mix. This “room feel” is what makes the listener feel as if they are in front of the guitar player.

The actual sound that one might hear if they were inside of the guitar can be made audible by using acoustic guitar pick ups. This signal is oftentimes routed into a mix and used as a great starting source for adding layers of different sounds.

Putting all of these signals onto separate tracks, lets say in a mixer set up (before the recorder), will give you the most control possible for getting either a room vibe, or a close-up microphone sound, or any mix of both. You can certainly play with the levels of all the signals as you play the song back, or as you mix it down to get many different “spatial” settings.

To get the best recording possible, solo each signal and listen closely using headphones to better isolate the sound. . Microphone type and the exact placement of the microphones around the guitar is what we are dialing in here, until the sweet spot is found.

With all of the signals sounding as good as you can get them, next check your input levels. You want them as loud as you can have them with out overloading or clipping the mixers pre amps. This adds “fizzles and distortion” to the guitar tracks and it will simply ruin your recordings. Having all of the inputs as close to the same level as possible can also make play back more enjoyable and mixing down a much easier task.

Microphone set up for recording acoustic guitars.

The first choice, “go to” microphone whenever you are even discussing recording is the much acclaimed dynamic microphone that is the Shure SM57. Being a dynamic microphone it can handle loud volumes with ease. However, were talking about mic’ing an acoustic guitar here, so forget about the loud volumes. But when it comes to recording, this microphone should be in every studio around the world, so if you have one, try it!

Perhaps a better choice for this application is the trusted condenser microphone. A small condenser microphone is all about picking up the little sounds that your fingers and picks might make while playing the guitar. Try out a couple of directional microphones, like cardioid's and hyper-cardioid's as to better control bleed from the rest of the guitar. Perhaps a nice choice small condenser microphone would be the Rode NT5, but be warned as it is a little pricey. A small budget choice would be perhaps a CAD GXL 1200. These microphones can be pointed right at the sound source (the guitars neck in our case), and very close to the source, and they will give a great sounding recording.

Large diaphragm condenser microphones are just about perfect for close mic’ing of the whole guitar. When it comes to putting the listener in front of your performance I could not offer a better suggestion. These microphones are all about listening, or hearing, so what better microphone is there? A small budget home studio should be able to obtain an Audio Technia AT4040 microphone. These are great sounding, durable, and usable for all sorts of recording applications.

Be aware of phase issues, and the placement of your microphones. You don’t want thin, lifeless recordings! Observing the simple microphone placement rules will give much better sounds for your project.

A nice choice when it comes to a room microphone, or microphones, is the ribbon microphone. These used to be considered a delicate microphone, but they are now better at handling higher sound pressure levels. At any rate, they are perfect foe adding room ambiance into a guitars track. These microphones offer a flat sound that adds little to no unwanted character, or voice to the recorded information. A great choice would be the Royer R121 ribbon microphone.

I’d like to type a word or two about finding and using the right acoustic guitar pickups.

There are so many different ways of getting the acoustic string energy converted to an electrical signal that it may be hard to choose. The simplest way that it is done is to install an acoustic pickup. These can range in design from a “slip in” model to one that attaches to the inside of your guitar permanently and may require a hole be drilled in the side of your guitar to allow for the ¼ inch cable jack. Pick ups can be like electric guitar pickups right down to little microphones that attach under the bridge. They can be as easy or as hard to install as you wish to make them. Choose wisely. Installing a pickup permanently can devalue an instrument, and we all know about miss-drilling holes in our guitars.
When it comes to a small home recording studio, the most bang for the buck would be a pick up that you can insert into a sound hole in order to use, and then remove it and store it away till the next time that you might need it. If you are a recording artist that specializes in acoustic guitar, then you might want to have a specialist install a more expensive model in your prized guitar.

Acoustic pickups have certainly come a long way in my lifetime. For me it all started with the Dean Markley Pro Mag acoustic guitar pickup. This pickup is still one of the better pickups out there and it is best suited for any live acoustic gigs that you might have. These pickups are simple and classic in design and operate very much like an electric guitar pickup. They do not require any drilling or gluing in order to install. A more precise microphone system for acoustic guitars would be a pickup/pre-amp/ and EQ combination like the Fishman transducer “thinline” series.

Fishman Thinline system

Some acoustics are actually acoustic/electric guitars. This is a great option for recording, and live performances. The trouble with these types of guitars is that they are neither a great sounding acoustic only, nor a great sounding electric acoustic only, but a meeting somewhere in the middle. This is not to say they are not nice sounding, easy to play guitars though, no not at all. Most require batteries to supply power to an on board pre-amp in order to amplify the pickups signal.

Recording and mixing down the different recorded guitar signals.

Once you have used this way of recording so many different signals into a take, you will never wish to go back. With each mix you can add room feel or ambiance by turning up the room microphones. You can get a close up sound with the increase of the close microphones. And lastly, if you want a basic recording to send all around the mix, try effecting the direct in signal that came from the acoustic pickups. So many different sounding environments are now made possible by employing these techniques, that when compared to the old way, you will probably never be happy with one microphone set up ever again.


  1. These are great home recording techniques that are surely helpful to a lot of musicians. These ideas are truly effective in creating a recorded musical piece. Thanks for sharing a very informative article.

  2. Hey, thanks so much man. Have you found the new website and podcast?