Whether you’re in a multi-million dollar recording studio or just in a small home studio, these acoustic guitar recording techniques and tips can help you get the best sound out of this versatile instrument.
If you’re an electric guitar player, please visit this article: Electric Guitar Recording Techniques
Acoustic Guitar Recording Techniques – Before You Record: Prepping your Guitar and Space
Before you record, you will want to take steps before to make sure there is nothing interfering with the acoustic guitar’s delicate sound. To get the best sound possible for the recording, change out your strings. A fresh pair of strings can ensure that your guitar will be as clear and responsive as it can be. It is important you do this before you enter the recording studio. This is especially true if you are working with paid musicians or paying for studio space. Nothing is worse than having to change a broken string during expensive studio time. If you are particularly worried about this, it never hurts to have a second guitar on hand, tuned, and ready to go.
Ensure your guitar is in good repair. Inspect your guitar days before you are scheduled to record. This ensures you have enough time to get it repaired if needed. Just about all of the benefits from the following acoustic guitar recording techniques will be negated if your instrument has a buzz and is in need of a repair.
When you arrive at the studio and you are ready to record, take off any rings, watches, or belt buckles that could bang against the guitar. Take off noisy articles of clothing such as a windbreaker jacket. You want to minimize any peripheral noises that are made by the guitar player.
Next, tune the guitar. Tune each string as accurately as you can using an external tuner. Once each string is in tune, check the intonation of each string against each other. This ensures that the strings are in tune with each other.
Room placement is an important part of recording any instrument, and this is no less true for the acoustic guitar. As a general rule, you don’t want your player to be too close to the walls or any corners. Being too close to the corners of the room can cause bass loading, which is when the bass frequencies bounce off the walls and interfere with the current frequencies. (As an aside, you can avoid bass loading in general with sound-proofed walls and corners. Even just a well-placed corner bookshelf can help reduce bass loading significantly.)
Play around with different spots in the room that promote a clean, open sound. Even if you don’t want a lot of ambiance, it’s important to give the guitar a space in which the sound can really develop. If you are tracking instead of overdubbing, ensure that the guitar player has a good view of the other players in the band. Once you’ve found your spot in the room, you play around with a few miking options.
For recording an acoustic guitar, I would recommend using a small-diaphragm condenser mic or a ribbon mic. Condenser mics in general suite acoustic guitars very well due to their high transient levels. They are able to pick up on small details that make acoustic guitars so appealing as well as being able to take on the transients without overloading.
Ribbon mics provide added warmth and depth to the guitar’s sound, which tends to be very desirable. Ribbon mics don’t typically play well with sharp transients. However, the guitar transients are soft enough to prevent the ribbon in the ribbon mic from moving out of place. Another thing to consider is ribbon mics are usually very quiet. When paired with the soft voice of the acoustic guitar, this may not seem like a great match. However, you can overcome by selecting an active ribbon mic. Active mics give ribbons a boost in gain while staying true to the warm sound characteristic of the ribbon mic.
Don’t be afraid to experiment with all kinds of mics. There are no rules on what mics you can and cannot use, it’s all about what sounds the best with the instrument at hand. Some common mics to use when recording acoustic guitar include the Shure SM57, SE Electronics sE7 Condenser, Mojave MA-300, Royer 121 Ribbon Mic, and the Mojave MA-100.
Now that we’ve got some great mics in hand, let’s talk about mic placement. There are a handful of ways you can mic your acoustic guitar. Choosing the right option depends on what kind of sound you are looking for, whether you are recording a solo guitar or a guitar part, and what kind of stereo space you have available in your mix. Feel free to play around with the following acoustic guitar recording techniques and mic placements to get the sound that’s right for your track.
Mono Recording Placement
When recording with a single mic, there is a “golden placement” that will capture a solid mix of the guitar’s highs, lows, and room ambiance. To hit this golden placement, place the mic where the fretboard meets the body of the guitar, then back it up about a foot. If you want a darker sound, move the mic toward the sound hole. For a brighter sound, move it farther away from the sound hole. If you want more room ambiance, move the mic farther away from the guitar. For a more intimate sound, move the mic closer. It’s a good idea to start with the golden placement whenever you start recording acoustic guitar, but the real sweet spot will be whatever placement sounds best to you in regard to the room, the guitar, the mic, and the mix.
Stereo Recording Placement
If you have the mics available, I would highly recommend recording your acoustic guitar in stereo over mono. This is especially the case if you are recording a solo guitar part. Not only does recording with more than one mic give you more options to customize the sound, but a multi-mic recording will also give you a wide stereo field to work within your mix.
We’ll start with two-mic techniques. A simple way to get a nice stereo sound without too much fuss is to simply place two mics in an ORTF or X-Y position at the golden placement. This results in a similar sound as a single mic in the same position while giving you a wider stereo field. Using this miking technique will also allow you to adjust the warm/bright (low/high) frequency ratio while mixing. It’s always best to position your mics in a way that requires you to do minimal mixing later, (EQing, etc.). However, it’s nice to have the flexibility to be able to adjust the sound of your acoustic guitar part if you end up adding or removing an instrument that occupies the same sonic space.
Stereo Recording: Spaced Pair Configurations
Another option for recording acoustic guitar with two microphones is to use the spaced pair method. Using this method, you can fine-tune the warm/bright frequency ratios by moving each mic closer to or farther from the golden position.
As with all space-paired miking positions, make sure there is a 2:1 ratio between the distance between the two mics and their distance from the instrument. For example, if your mics are placed one foot away from the guitar, the mics should be placed two feet away from each other. This makes an isosceles triangle between the instrument and the two mics.
Another two-mic technique is similar to the spaced pair with some variation. Place one mic in the “golden position” and the other farther back in the room. This will allow you to mix both the intimate sound of the guitar and the ambient sound of the room.
Using three mics will produce a similar effect. When using three mics, put the first mic in the golden position. This will be the same if you were recording in mono. Set the next two mics in a spaced pair farther away from the guitar. Note that any mics used in a spaced pair configuration should be the same type of mic. The spaced pair will pick up the ambiance of the room and give the recording a very wide sound. This sound can be added gradually in the mix until the perfect level of ambiance is obtained.
Using your Guitar’s Pickup
If your acoustic guitar has a great internal pickup, feel free to utilize it in your recording. However, if you are going to use your pickup you are going to need a great amp or direct box to help carry that great sound. A few great acoustic amps include the Fishman Loudbox Artist PRO-LBX600, Fender Acoustic 100, or the Roland AC-60. Some great direct boxes for the acoustic guitar include the Radial PZ-DI, LR Baggs Para Acoustic DI, and Countryman DT85. When you are looking for amps and direct boxes you want to look for models that are transparent. This means they don’t add a lot to the sound. However, you may like what the amp or direct box has to offer by means of added sound. It’s all about finding the right equipment for the right sound.