by Alex Fenton (Studio Manager, Swanfield Studios) Welcome to the first in a series of articles on recording techniques, bringing you studio tips straight to your own recordings. First up: acoustic guitar; most musicians have picked one of these up at some point and have seen countless renditions at open mic nights. However, capturing a natural recording of our beloved acoustic guitar isn’t as straight forward as it seems. In this article I’ll de-mystify the process and help you get to that ideal recording.
First things first, don’t just plug it in!
It’s a natural thing to assume – “It’s got a socket on it – let’s plug it in!” But that’s really not a good way to go. Pickups on acoustic guitars are primarily designed for live performance where the goal is loud signal and reduction of feedback. As soon as you plug it into your recording setup, you get an unnatural version of what the instrument is doing. How can the vibrations directly in the bridge accurately reflect what we hear? If you’re recording an acoustic guitar, use a mic. I quite often take a mic and a pickup signal so I have the flexibility to blend the two, or treat the pickup signal separately with something more radical.
When choosing a mic, condenser all the way.
You should almost ALWAYS use a condenser mic for acoustic instruments because they most accurately capture the detail and dynamics. Dynamic mics lack the high frequency response required and therefore can rarely do an acoustic guitar justice. The only occasion I’d use a dynamic, such as an SM57, is if I’m after more of a lo-fi sound. The traditional choice of mic would be a small diaphragm condenser , also known as a pencil mic, like the Rode NT5 (see above). For a transparent sound, a mic with an omni-directional response pattern is commonly used, but if you’re doing home recordings in a small and less than desirable recording space, a cardioid pattern is usually the best option.
Many home studios might only have a large diaphragm condenser such as an SE Electronics SE2200, but there’s no reason you can’t use one of those for acoustic guitar. In fact, I often find if I want a fuller and warmer sounding guitar, a larger diaphragm mic helps give it a bit more body.
How many mics?
For starters, I’d suggest one mic and practice getting the right sound for different guitars with your recording space and equipment. Once you’ve found a tone you like, it’s worth experimenting with a multi mic setup. The most obvious of these is a stereo pair. If tweaked correctly, you can get a good stereo image and a natural feel to the performance. There is plenty of information on stereo mic techniques on the web if you want to find out more.
It’s important to give yourself as many options at the recording stage as possible. It gives more flexibility at the mixdown, given you don’t always know where something will sit best in the mix until that stage. With acoustic guitar, I often take a close mic and a distant or room mic. This gives you the option to blend the two signals.
Where do I put the thing?
So, you have a mic and a guitar. Where’s the best place to put the two? Well, from an acoustics perspective, it’s always good to have absorbent material behind the performer to avoid reflections from behind coming back into the mic. Try playing in front of closed curtains, an open wardrobe or hang up a spare duvet. This makes a huge difference to the tone and cleanliness of the recording and will help to avoid nasty resonances.
A good starting point for positioning is to point the mic at the fretboard where the neck meets the body. This will give a good balance between treble and bass tones. The general rule is that moving the mic towards the neck will brighten the sound, whilst moving towards the sound hole brings more fullness and body to the sound. Obviously make sure it’s not in the way of the performer too – you don’t want that perfect take ruined by a stray hand! Try to avoid pointing the mic straight at the sound hole. This is where the bulk of the guitar’s energy comes from, but the sound is coloured by the boominess of the body’s resonances and usually needs more radical EQ. As with all recording, try to get the sound right from the point of recording rather than “fix it afterwards”.
Other placement ideas can make for an interesting recording. Try placing the mic over the shoulders of the guitarist. It’ll give a different feel, almost as if you’re hearing it from the ears of the performer. If you are recording acoustic for a full band, you can really add to the arrangement by doing something a bit more radical. I would often use a really distant sound on intros, outros and breakdown sections to give a change in ‘space’ to the production and enhance the arrangement.
Who is Alex Fenton?
Alex is an experienced sound engineer and music producer who started out by setting up his own company, Fentek Audio, after gaining an honours degree in Music Technology. You might also know him as the sound engineer at the Wee Red Bar where he built a reputation for quality live sound and attention to detail. Alex has helped many local bands enhance their status with the likes of White Heath and Birdhead, gaining label deals off the back of his recordings and creative production style. He now runs Swanfield Studios, a custom built studio in Leith offering recording, mixing and mastering as well as training in music technology and recording techniques.
Alex (and his Swanfield Studios co-worker, William) will be in Red Dog Music featuring a workshop called An Introduction to Home Recording – Part Two: Mixing. Come, sip from the fountain of musical knowledge…