With the proliferation of excellent and affordable interfaces, mics, computers, DAWs, plug-ins, and virtually everything else you need under the sun to record, making music is now easier than ever. There is still a fair amount of technique to learn to properly record guitars, but it’s not as hard as you think!
There are several ways to record your electric or acoustic guitar. Some will be the same, some will be different, and with a little practice, it’ll become second nature!
In the first part of a two-part series, we will look at recording acoustic guitar.
Recording acoustic guitars – Micing
Acoustic guitars will always benefit from proper micing. nothing will have a greater impact on your recording than how and where the microphone is placed. If you’re just starting and don’t have fancy microphones, fret not! You can still get great results with a little trial and error.
When micing acoustics, it’s best to use either large-diaphragm or small-diaphragm condenser microphones, but you can use dynamic microphones in a pinch. For one technique, you will need a microphone that can be set to a figure-eight pickup pattern.
One mic, no problem!
You can get a great acoustic sound with just one mic. The best way to place it would be about a foot away from the guitar, with the capsule pointed at the 14th fret. This placement should give you a nice balance between body and shimmer. The 14th fret is a good starting point; if you need a bit more body, point the mic a bit more toward the body. Too much low end? Then point the mic closer to the 12th fret to get more shimmer.
Two mics, the XY pattern
This involves taking two microphones and placing them so that the capsules are at a 90-degree angle from each other. Take this setup and point it towards your acoustic, again starting at the 14th fret, and adjust to taste. This placement should give you a nice, wide image of the guitar that stays in phase.
Two mics, neck and body
This one can be a bit tricky because it’s easy to get possible phasing problems, so take your time with this one. One mic is pointed straight at the 14th fret, while the other is pointed at the body, behind the bridge and off-axis. This should give you a nice mix of body and shine that you can further blend to taste while mixing.
Two mics, the mid-side method
This one will need some particular mics (remember that figure-eight mic I mentioned earlier). This setup will capture a great stereo image of the guitar that will also avoid phasing issues should your mix be summed to mono.
You will need to set up two mics, one on top of the other (so get your boom stands ready!) The first mic (set to cardioid) will be pointed at the guitar (again, start at the 14th fret and adjust to taste). The second mic should be set to a figure-eight pattern and set on top of the first microphone, with the capsule pointed 90 degrees away from the capsule of the first mic (essentially micing the room).
Now, at the mix stage (a little ahead of ourselves, but this is important), you will essentially have two tracks: your main cardioid mic, and the figure-eight mic. What you need to do is take the figure-eight mic track, duplicate it and flip the phase of that duplicated track. If you play these two tracks panned to the center, you will hear (almost) nothing, since the phases are cancelled out. However, if you pan them both hard left and hard right, you get this nice, full, stereo image that goes great with the cardioid mic. A great way to get a stereo sound!
Don’t forget the piezo
When recording acoustic guitars, if your guitar is equipped with a piezo pickup, plug it in and record that too! On its own, it won’t sound the greatest. However, you can blend it in if you feel that the guitar is lacking a bit of attack.
Going into the DAW
When tracking, you want to try to get the best signal possible without overloading your interface’s preamps, as well as leave adequate headroom for your plugins to do their job later. So, you want to set your input gain on your interface so that your acoustic guitar going in tops out at about -10 dB. That’s the sweet spot!
You’ll want to record in as quiet a space as you can, considering that you are relying on mics to capture the sound. If you can, try to acoustically treat your area as best as you can to kill any reflections that can be picked up by the microphones (it has happened to me; it’s no fun). If you have an acoustically treated room, great! If not, try to use heavy blankets hung to either side of the guitarist, as well as in front of them, if you can.
If you don’t have access to this, just try to find the best room that you can that has as dead a sound. Generally, rooms with several bookshelves may act as diffusers or soft furniture that can absorb some of the sounds.
Once in your DAW
If you recorded with one microphone, you don’t have much to deal with! Just pan it where you want.
If you recorded with two microphones, try to adjust your panning so that you have a good image of the guitar. You don’t want to go hard left and right with these tracks, just a bit of space in the stereo image should be enough.
With the mid-side technique, just set up your tracks as discussed, and play with the panning of the cardioid mic.
Often with multiple microphones, a good idea would be to send all your acoustic tracks to their bus track. That will allow you to control the overall volume of your blend, and in the case of the mid-side technique, control the overall width of the acoustic guitar signal.
When it comes to EQ, there are a few good habits to have to make your acoustic tracks sound their best.
When it comes to the top end, the best move would be to use a high shelf to bring up some of the overall shimmer. You can also pair this with a low pass filter to shave off any harsh frequencies at the top.
For the low end, your best tool would be a high-pass filter, especially to shave off any low-end rumble that might have been picked up through the microphones (such as footsteps, etc.) An accumulation of this across all tracks will make your song sound muddy. The best trick I found is to set your high-pass to a steep curve and move it until you hear a difference in the low end, then dial it back a bit to taste.
With acoustic guitar, you just want to use a bit of compression to even out the transients without squashing the overall sound. Start with a 4:1 ratio with a quick attack to catch the transients, and a bit of a slower release so that it’s more smooth than squash. Adjust your threshold to get about 3 to 4 dB of gain reduction, then adjust to taste.
Reverbs and delays
Well, this is all subjective. To space, or not to space? Up to you. However, it’s best to have your reverbs and delays in separate bus tracks so that you can blend to taste. At the very least, I would suggest a small room reverb just for a bit of dimension and to make it sound more “natural”.
The more you have in your mix though, as far as other instruments go, be prepared to have your acoustic share reverbs and delays with other instruments, just to keep things from muddying up. Mono reverbs are also fine with single-mic applications. Stereo should be reserved when you have multiple mics used on the acoustic, just to keep things consistent in the stereo field.
For delays, if your mix allows, try to get the repeats to be a bit wider than the acoustic guitar in the stereo field so that everything can be heard (though this may be more difficult in dense mixes). However, in a band context, delays tend to get lost unless it’s a prominent effect. Let your ears be your guide!
And there you have it! These are all suggestions and starting points, so don’t be afraid to modify things to suit your song. Bring the mic closer/farther, point it somewhere else, squash the signal with a compressor, add saturation, or don’t add saturation. Use your ears and go with what’s best for you!