This Article Originally Published in 1997
While the acoustic guitar remains one of the most simple
instruments by design, it also remains one of the hardest
to get a great sound on in the studio. It's really not brain
surgery, but knowing some of the basic laws of physics doesn't
hurt. Unfortunately, I skipped school that day and didn't
learn my physics, so I had to learn how to get a great acoustic
guitar sound one mistake at a time. After making those mistakes,
I sat down and formulated these laws which are considered
to be the Ten Commandments of recording the acoustic guitar
(by me anyway).
For the sake of argument I'm going to assume that if you're
reading this, you own a 4 track, or an 8 track recorder, a
fairly small console, some basic outboard equipment, and you
don't own any $2,000 microphones. If you own 13 foot long
console and a 48 track digital machine, you can skip this
article because you probably know what I'm about to tell you.
Let's get right to it. If the sound you want to get is a country/pop,
strummed sound similar to the Eagles "Lyin' Eyes," here's
the formula: Place the microphone about 6 to 8 inches from
the guitar's sound hole, but angle the mic toward the area
where the fretboard and the sound hole meet. If you point
the mic directly into the sound hole, it will be very fullprobably
much too full, and very boomy. Use a compressor/limiter to
knock down any peaks (3:1 ratio), and set the threshold a
little lower to give it a slightly "squashed" or tighter sound.
Set the threshold higher to just limit the peaks and give
a more open sound. You may need to EQ out some boominess.
If so, try rolling off some bottom (100Hz), or cutting a couple
of db at 300Hz. To add some "silk" on the top end, try something
in the 8-10K range, but be careful, to much will add noise
to the track. Positioning the mic so it angles toward the
pick will give more attack-less sweetness.
- Rule #1A condensor mic will almost always sound
better than a dynamic mic for acoustic guitars. There are
several condensor mics that are currently on the market
in the $350 price range that sound great on acoustics.
- Rule #2New strings will always sound better for
recording than old.
- Rule #3Skinny strings sound brighter than fat
ones (can you believe I get paid to write crap like this?!)
- Rule #4The sound you get has a great deal to
do with the dynamics of the player.
- Rule #5Get down on your knees and position your
ear as if it were the microphone while somebody else is
playing the guitar. Move your ear around to find "sweet
spots." You'll learn more from that than you will by reading
this article. Don't try it with an electric guitar!
- Rule #6If you have somebody that is assisting
you on the session, have them move the mic around what you
think will be the sweet spot while the player is practicing
the part he or she is about to lay down. Have your assistant
wear headphones so you can communicate with him while the
moving of the mic is taking place.
- Rule #7A limiter/compressor will almost always
help you get a better sound.
- Rule #8Don't believe everything you read. I only
have seven commandments, not ten.
For that John Cougar Mellenkamp sound, try medium gauge strings,
a little more compression, and try adding a little EQ around
the midslets say 700Hz-1.2K. That will give you a sound
that is a little more "woodsy" (a highly technical term).
"Ya, well what about Melissa Ethridge," you say. Try this
on for size. Use a guitar with a built-in pick up and a microphone
to boot. You will undoubtedly get some phase anomalies, but
that's part of the sound. Experiment with moving the mic closer
and farther. That will affect the phase relationship of the
two sound sources. Sooner or later, you'll hit on something
that will put a smile on your face. You can pan the two signals
left and right to get a broad stereo sound, but make sure
that if you check the sound in mono, that there's still some
signal left. Keep an eagle ear on Mr. Phase, he can be a tricky
And now ladies and gentlemen, for the most often heard acoustic
guitar sound at the 1993 Grammys...it's that Eric Clapton
classical/gut string guitar! Piece of cake. Once again, use
a condensor mic, but place it about ten inches away from the
guitar. As a matter of fact, try placing it about 3 to 4 inches
up the neck, but aim it at the players picking fingers. This
angle will reduce boominess by virtue of the mic's cardioid
polar pattern producing a natural roll off when it's aimed
off-axis, while simultaneously delivering the attack of the
fingers. Try and say that three times in a row! The added
distance will pick up some of the guitar body's resonance.
A compressor/limiter is a must for this case because of unexpected
peaks. A 4:1 ratio is a good place to start, but set the threshold
fairly high so that the most of the guitar's natural dynamics
are left in tact.
When mixing acoustics guitars for rock or alternative tracks,
you will usually have an electric guitar or two in the track
as well. My personal preference is to pan the acoustic and
electric across from each other. Send one full left, and the
other full right. You'll quickly discover that the electric
will overpower the acoustic and the most effective way to
even them out is to compress the acoustic a little bit more
than what you may have already done going to tape so you can
bring the acoustic's level up high enough to compete with
Another simple but effective trick is to have the acoustic
and electric guitars play parts that counter each other rhythmically
(giving them each their own space), and have them each play
in a different octave. That will give you a full sounding
track that remains open and airy at the same time. You can
also make an acoustic guitar sound bigger or more rock-like
by panning the original to one side and a delayed signal (short
delays are best) of the same guitar to the other side. That
effect can be taken one step further by using the pitch change
option on your delay to "de-tune" one of the guitars just
a pinch (one cent is a good place to start). The delay will
provide the brain with the psychoacoustic information it needs
to perceive the guitar as bigger, while the pitch change will
make it appear "fatter."
Funny how fatter is always better in the world of recording,
but not in the case of the human body. Just a tangential observation...
must be time to go. See you later.
Wanna publish this article on your website? Click here to find out how.
|"I've received great value from the screeners."
| Mike Rawlins,
"With help from you guys, the music is pouring out and I'm having such fun! Thanks!"
| Willie McCulloch,
"I really appreciate these opportunities so much."
| Justine Kaye,
"Just want to thank you again for the great Road Rally and for all the great work you guys do for us all year long."
| Hunter Payne,