best acoustic guitar recording technique?
June 25, 2005 2:45 PM   Subscribe

Home recording question: for those with limited funds and limited equipment, what's the best method of accomplishing a big, full, warm-sounding acoustic guitar sound?

For a year I've been recording glitchy synth stuff for fun, but I also want to be competent at recording organic sounds like vocals and acoustic guitar.

Right now I've got an old Gibson acoustic played into a condenser mic which goes into a Mackie and then into an Audiophile card. The results sound a long way from professional recordings, obviously. So without investing in a bunch of vintage compressers, EQs and whatnot, what's a good affordable piece of technology (or technique) which would take my guitar sound to a more professional-sounding level? Plug-ins, etc?
posted by highsignal to Media & Arts (19 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Sounds like a great combination to me. You've likely got a great sounding guitar, which is step one. As for the rest, there are a couple of approaches.

One is buying gear. A preamp might help, and they're available in any price range. If possible, spend a bunch of time listening to your voice through your current setup and take your mic to a store that will let you play with (and listen to) as many preamps as possible. Find the one that does to your voice what you want to happen to your guitar.

A more effective technique is play with the room and, to a lesser extent, the mic. One part of the last session I played involved me playing a National resonator guitar. While getting sounds, the producer first has me sit down and start playing. He moved his head around the guitar until he found a spot that sounded good. Then he took the mic (a large diaphram condensor) and, with me still playing, waved the microphone around until he found the sound he was looking for. This was effective.

In general, I find moving the mic away from the source results in a roomier and bigger sound (which may be what you're looking for) and close mic'ing gives a more sterile (but also intimate with finger squeeks and all) sound. If you use a 57 or a more directional mic, pointing toward the headstock thins out the sound and pointing toward the soundhole gives a boomier sound. Don't overlook really weird mic position as well. I once dug up a percussive, thumping sound like the Band of Blackie Ranchette album, by pointing the mic at the *back* of the guitar around my right hip. It was cool.

The second part of the equation is going to be a little harder to replicate. The album was recorded in an 1883 church with all of the attendent acoustics. The room was such that *anything* played in it sound really, really good. Since you likely don't have access to a church, maybe play around with the room you've got. A typical bedroom is full of crap, carpets and clothes and beds and whatnot. This has the tendency to kill the natural reverb and liveliness of the room. You've no doubt noticed this when you move in or out of a new apartment. There is that lovely, hollow echo when you walk around an empty room. If possible, try to empty out whatever you're using for a studio and create a wonderful acoustic sound. After that, worry about capturing the sound with the microphone.

Also, if, unlike a pro-tools slut like myself, you can actually play your material all the way through, try and cut vocals and acoustic tracks at the same time with, say, a condensor for the vocals and a 57 or some such pointed at the guitar. The bleed between the mics tends to add a mess of warmth to the tracks at the expense of punchability.

At mixdown, sometimes a little bit of delay adds a lot to a track. My rule of thumb is that I never want to hear the delay, I only want to hear a sense of liveliness or hugeness on the track that I can't quite put my finger on.

Good luck and have fun.
posted by stet at 3:18 PM on June 25, 2005

As stet says, microphone placement is crucial.

What kind of condenser do you have? The pre-amps on the mackie are usually passable - a bit of jiggery-pokery with a "Y" cable can usually provide a pre-eq output from the channel preamp (assuming your mackie has insert points).
posted by coach_mcguirk at 3:50 PM on June 25, 2005

stet's advice was very good. Does your guitar actually sound good? Do you have new strings on it? I don't like a super-bright acoustic sound but you can always take a bit of the highs off in eq but you can't add them if they aren't there.

The Shure's are usually good bets but I've had good luck for both live and recording with the Peavey PVM 45i Hypercardioid Dynamic mic. I think it's discontinued but these guys have it for $50, maybe used. A good mic is going to help alot.
posted by 6550 at 5:00 PM on June 25, 2005

For an inexpensive improvement, try preamping with a BlueTube. Two tube channels, runs for under $200, has both XLR and 1/4 inch i/o (so it's versatile in the studio), and it makes a world of difference in the acoustic sound. Having two i/o jacks are good for a stereo pair. There's just something about tubes.

And what everyone else said is good advice too. Especially the bit about mic placement and room sound. It's helpful to have a second person relocate a mic while you play, listening to the playback through headphones. With focus, you'll find the sweet spot in the room, relative to your seating. You may consider marking the spots (your chair legs/feet and mic location) with tape, so you can more easily replicate the sweet spot later. Try combinations of two mics and their placement, try both focused on different parts of the body/soundhole, and also try one condenser on the body and another at a distance for the ambient sound. (Kind of a natural delay, still organic though.)

I find I get the best results by setting the conditions correctly, and getting the best performance on tape. As such I record "naked"...flat EQ, no reverb, no delay, no compression, no gating -- no nothing. In my experience, the quality comes from with a musician who's nailing it on a great sounding instrument, perfectly tuned, with fresh strings, in a good sounding room, with the mics in the sweet spot.

The goal is to "capture" the best performance as faithfully as possible. As a rule, I keep the "tricks" in the mix, and out of the recording.

YMMV. But tube preamps help. A lot.
posted by edverb at 5:07 PM on June 25, 2005

Years of being the guitarist in that situation, later the guy with the ADATs and mics, and my basic advice is to splurge on a great mic. Your choices are myriad for acoustic guitar, and I would not deign to recommend something specific, but you get what you pay for with mics (and speakers) more than with any other element of the chain. A quality phantom-powered condenser should run you at least $500 if you are serious about your sound. All the preamps in the world won't help if the signal coming in isn't good enough. Use high end cabling for everything. All the other advice here is good too, though I never considered recording anything with an SM57 or equivalent dyanmic before. Great for live sound though.
posted by realcountrymusic at 5:26 PM on June 25, 2005

Here's what i would do, and have done. Get an FMR RNP8380 preamp (rnp stands for really nice pre, and it is.) Then get two AT4040 mics to record a stereo field. Find a nice place to record in, get new strings and mess around with mic placement. This combo sounds great and doesn't break the bank.
posted by gallois at 5:41 PM on June 25, 2005

A decent mic preamp like the M-Audio (or the Firewire 410 interface which has the same preamp) really helps. I've never even dealt wtih tube preamps because I prefer clean to warm by and large, and that's a solid-state product of course. I've heard lots of good things about the RNP though. A dead quiet room, hopefully with some kind of shielding like blankets to reduce resonance, is also important.

You can get professional sound with low-end gear nowdays. The advantage to a pro studio is the range of equipment and real engineers to work it, but if you're willing to commit your own time and be relatively selective it can sound professional (Mastering, by contrast, is an art that has not yet been pried open to the public, so a lot of people send their mixes out to mastering shops, but it's possible to do it acceptably on your own too).
posted by abcde at 5:57 PM on June 25, 2005

M-Audio DMP3 that is.
posted by abcde at 5:58 PM on June 25, 2005

Response by poster: I don't know which answer to check because they are all great; thanks guys. A decent condenser mic, plus something like the DMP3, plus a little room-noise/mic-angle creativity will probably serve me well. I'm just trying to get the best sound for the least money.
posted by highsignal at 8:07 PM on June 25, 2005

Being in Europe, I tend to get to these threads after their done - great advice above, but I'll add:

I find I get the best results by setting the conditions correctly, and getting the best performance on tape. As such I record "naked"...flat EQ, no reverb, no delay, no compression, no gating -- no nothing. In my experience, the quality comes from with a musician who's nailing it on a great sounding instrument, perfectly tuned, with fresh strings, in a good sounding room, with the mics in the sweet spot.

The goal is to "capture" the best performance as faithfully as possible. As a rule, I keep the "tricks" in the mix, and out of the recording.

You should always track sans effects, save a compressor if you're trying to capture a really dynamic performance (which might be necessary in order to make the most of the limited dynamic range of your recording medium).

That said, acoustic guitar will always benefit from a little bit of EQ in the mixing stage. Roll off below 50-100Hz to aleviate muddiness, add some air at 2000-12000Hz and maybe boost a little at 500-600 to add a bit of body (or cut there to get that "ticky ticky" sound of rhythm guitar).

If you guitar has a piezo electric transducer, record that onto a second track and mix a little bit of it in below the microphone recording (but be aware that you will introduce phase issues) - this will give a touch of bite to the sound without changing it too radically.

If you play with a pick, particularly strumming, a mic will pick (sorry) that up more readily that your ears, and you may want to playing with a transient designer or a compressor with a really fast attack and short decay time to reduce it.

Acoustic guitar is one of the hardest instruments to record well. All of the advice above is great - good sounding room, good sounding guitar, sweet spot for the mic - and a lot of pracise! Have fun!
posted by benzo8 at 12:54 AM on June 26, 2005

While having a good pre-amp is nice, the Mackie has decent pre-amps for a mixer, you're going to get better results by using a 2nd microphone.

I've found the best results come in a large room a large condenser mic placed between 12 to 18 inches from the sound hole and another mic at the neck of the guitar (near the tuning pegs). This allows for a full, stereo sound that can be all enveloping.
posted by aaronh at 5:22 AM on June 26, 2005

Recording a guitar in stereo raises two things to think about at the mixing stage:

1. Phase issues. Unless you use carefully controlled mic placements (or something like M+S encoding), you will introduce a phase discrepancy between the microphone's signals. Not the end of the world, and there are plug-ins to help you turn one of the signals to cancel it, but you need to be aware of it.

2. Placing the guitar in the stereo mix. A stereo signal panned in a stereo spectrum does not, and will never, sound right. Capturing something in stereo captures its location in the stereo field - that's the whole point - and then moving it in a second stereo field while mixing will introduce weirdness. Only ever record in mono what you want to mix in a stereo sound field. (Think about it - instruments in real-life are only in mono.) If you want to add width during the mix stage, apply a stereo reverb or chorus to a mono signal after you've placed it on the stereo field.

That said, if your backing is just the guitar, then a really nice stereo sound will be much nicer than a mono sound, but always remember (1) above. Particularly if you follow the advice further above about tracking vocals and guitar at the same time, as the bleed between those two microphones will introduce further phase issues.
posted by benzo8 at 6:04 AM on June 26, 2005

Another vote for the best mic you can afford. I've had not-bad results with a Shure SM57 about 12 inches from the sound-hole. That SM57 is a crazy good mic for guitar.
posted by ikkyu2 at 11:15 AM on June 26, 2005

Just want to second, or third, or ninth the above recommendation to spend your wad on a good mic. No other single piece of equipment will be nearly as influential in the final sound quality.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 12:11 PM on June 26, 2005

Save the calculations for the professionals if you plan to record in stereo. Get a good X/Y stereo field condenser, like a Shure VP88 (ca. $700).

I think of the SM57 as too hot and mid-rangey for acoustic guitar even if you are going to use a dynamic mic. I can't think of a dynamic mic in that price range ($150) that will do anything nuanced with the highs on an acoustic guitar. Depends on the sound you want I guess. Duh, realcountry.
posted by realcountrymusic at 2:58 PM on June 26, 2005

But on further thought, I meant to mention a nifty little mic. M-Audio just released the Nova, a $100 phantom-powered mono condenser that, for the money, gives the closest approximation I've heard to a real microphone of anything in its price range. It is particularly live at the high end, and thus might really work well for acoustic guitar. As said above, easier to record mono and then place the image in the stereo field when you mix and master. And the Nova might just be your baby if you're on a tight budget.
posted by realcountrymusic at 3:15 PM on June 26, 2005

Response by poster: Dunno if anyone is still reading, but: as an alternative to mic'ing (not that i'm looking for one), what about those acoustic pickups you drop in the soundhole? Do those give pretty crappy results?
posted by highsignal at 4:19 PM on June 26, 2005

Yeah, I'd say those are probably only any good for live performances. A decent condenser mic seems to be the way to go. If you're on a budget (and who isn't), don't rule out the Rode and MXL mics that are pretty popular nowadays for budget recording musicians. Won't self-link in-thread but most of the acoustic guitar for the tracks on the site linked in my profile was recorded with a humble Rode NT-1.
posted by goodnewsfortheinsane at 5:30 PM on June 26, 2005

I totally missed this thread when it happened, but for posterity, let me recommend the MXL 990 as a cheap condenser. You can get it for less than $100, and I've gotten very nice acoustic sounds with it and a Presonus TubePre (also around $100). All the acoustic guitars on this track were recorded with this setup.
posted by ludwig_van at 2:48 PM on July 15, 2005

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