Recording acoustic guitar
Martin DCX1E Dreadnought Cutaway Acoustic-Electric Guitar
|Recording acoustic guitar in your home studio can be challenging. There are many alternatives when it comes to how you record and that depends on what sound you are aiming for, to find the sound that you want for your song may take some experimenting. If you have access to several microphones and guitars there is a lot of experimenting you can do, but by just changing the position of the microphone or of the guitar and the player in the room you can get very different sounds. So even if you are limited with what you have access to there is still a lot you can do when it comes to experimentation. Maybe you have tried using an acoustic guitar with built-in pick-ups and finding that the sound you get on your recording does not sound like the guitar sounds in a room, though some people really like that sound and can't get enough of it.|
If you want the pick-up sound of your recording you are more or less set if you have an electric/acoustic. You can use EQ to shape the sound the way you want and perhaps add some compression and you are set.
Simulators and modelers
To get the "in-a-room" sounding acoustic guitar sound on your recordings you can either use microphones or an acoustic guitar effects/modeler unit. You could use an acoustic guitar simulator (for example Boss AC-3 Acoustic Simulator Pedal and Behringer AM400 Ultra Acoustic Modeler Pedal). Then there are acoustic guitar effect pedals for guitars with pick-ups which, aside from having effects especially for acoustic guitars, also do some sort of modeling to make your guitar sound like an acoustic guitar in the room instead of through the pick-ups (for example Zoom A2 Acoustic Guitar Multi-Effects Pedal and Korg ToneWorks PX4A Pandora Acoustic Guitar Multi-Effects Processor). These processors work quite well in a live environment, which is usually much more forgiving but they do not always convince completely in a studio - on the ones that I have tried I have heard some artefacts which I was not completely happy with. Then there is the acoustic version of the Line 6 Variax, it looks like an acoustic electric but it is a modeling acoustic guitar which has built in controls (on the guitar) for controlling the guitar body type, reverb, compression, distance to mic, preset guitar model and tuning.
Line 6 Variax 300 Steel Acoustic-Electric Guitar
Fishman Aura Spectrum DI Acoustic Pedal
|Another alternative similar to the above ones is the Fishman Aura series (Fishman Aura Spectrum DI Acoustic Pedal and Fishman Aura 16 Imaging Programmable Acoustic Pedal among others), these pedals have a slightly different approach and get closer to the real thing. With these devices you can download and store up to 16 different images which take the sound that your pick-ups are producing and translate this to what your guitar would have sounded like recorded using quality microphones. There may be only one image which translates to the true sound of your guitar but along the way you may find other images that generate interesting and usable sounds. The difference between modeling and imaging is that imaging is an attempt to make your guitar sound like your guitar through the speakers, modeling is an attempt to make your guitar sound like another guitar through the speakers.|
Types of pick-ups
Before we go any further I should mention that there is not only one type of pick-up used in acoustic guitars, below is a quick description of different pick-up types and how they are different. You either have a guitar with a pick-up already built in or you have one without, if you do not have a pick-up you have the option of getting one installed. Click on the following link to get a list of acoustic guitar pick-ups. As you can see in the list there are both passive and active pick-ups just like electrics (if it needs a battery it is active), the active ones usually come with EQ and volume built in to the guitar. The passive ones need to be plugged in to an external pre-amp or DI box.
The different pick-up types are usually categorized like this:
- Soundhole pick-ups
- Undersaddle transducers
- Soundboard transducers
Soundhole pickups are easy to install on most guitars and can be easily moved between guitars - no drilling required. The sound is not as natural as the other pick-up types.
The most common type is the undersaddle transducer. The sound is more natural than the soundhole pick-up. As the name suggests they are installed under the saddle and sense the vibrations of the strings through the saddle. Good for fingerstyle playing and less heavy strumming, not so great for heavy strumming or a thick pick since this creates an annoying quacking-like sound.
The soundboard transducer listens to the vibration of the bridgeplate and produces the most natural sound of these three types. This one is especially good for a studio, because of the natural sound, rather than a live setting since it is more prone to feedback.
Using microphones and/or pick-ups
The alternatives in the first section is one approach to recording your acoustic guitar, the other is to record your guitar using one or several mics. Several things will determine the sound and quality of your recording, the type and quality of mic(s), the positions of the mic(s), the room you are recording in and your playing. There are other factors as well such as the volume you are recording at and any effects you might have but these are typical of any recording situation. You need to experiment with mic positions to see what different positions get you with different mics. If you have a lot of money you can also experiment with lots of different mics (good mics are expensive), but to start with take what you have and experiment with different positions and angles.
When recording acoustic guitar (same goes for electric guitar), the first thing you should do is to make sure you have new strings. This makes a big difference. The sound of new strings is superior to the strings that have been sitting on your guitar since you bought it (unless you just bought it of course). You should not restring and then record directly, you should play for a while so that the guitar holds its tuning - about an hour of playing and constantly retuning should do. Having new string also affects your performance, if the guitar sounds better you will play better since you get more inspired.
What about my pick-up?
So what if you have a pick-up? You can use the pick-up together with mic, use the pick-up on one channel and the mic on another channel. When you blend the two you can decide how much volume the pick-up should have and how much the mic should have so that you have the mic at 100% volume and the pick-up at 60% so that the nicer mic sound is dominant. You could have the one completely on the left and one completely on the right, this creates a very pleasing stereo image. If you use two mics or a pick-up and a mic you need to careful with phase shifts and cancellation, one way to solve this is using a variable phase controller like the Radial Phazer. If two mics are at different distances from the guitar you are at risk and may be loosing certain frequencies because of this.
Mic and mic positioning
When it comes to positioning the mic, a good starting point is to have the mic pointing to the twelfth fret and angled towards the sound hole. It should not be more than 3-5 inches from the guitar so you need to be careful not to move around too much. From this position there are three ways to move the mic to get the sound you are looking for. One is the angle of the mic with respect to the neck of the guitar, having the mic parallel to the guitar will not be great but somewhere between that position and 90 degrees with respect to the guitar will give you a range of sounds to choose from. You can also move the mic closer or farther away from the guitar. Another parameter that affects the sound is which fret the mic is pointing at, getting too close to the sound hole will give you a very boomy sound and a lot of bass going to far away you risk picking up a lot of other noises. You can also position the mic close to the bridge to get a different sound.
Purists prefer small membrane condenser mics for recording close to the guitar, but using a large membrane condenser would not be a disadvantage. You can also use a good dynamic mic. The advantage of the condenser mic when recording acoustic guitar is that it captures a higher frequencies with more detail and the relatively low volume of the acoustic guitar does not work well with a dynamic mic. Another alternative mic positioning is 3-6 feet in front of the sound hole, you would probably use a condenser mic for this set-up and a good room for recording.
Why settle with one when you can use two
When using two mics you need to be careful with phasing, if the two mics are at different distances from the sound hole you will get problems with this. If you record both mics on different tracks you can move one of the tracks in time so that they are in phase using your DAW or you can make sure your mics are always the same distance from the sound hole. Using two mics (or one mic plus a pick-up) enables you to record the whole guitar, since using one mic only captures one aspect of the guitars sound using another mic at a different position and combining the two can give you a more realistic in-the-room sound.
If you only have one mic use that to start experimenting with, if you have several test them all in different positions, test several at a time and blend them in different ways. Since the room is an important factor move around in the room (make sure you have long cables) to find a spot where it sounds best. Sometimes a small change in position or angle can make a large difference. Remember the most important rule - there are no rules. The best way to learn is to experiment.