In the recording world, guitars manage to find their way into most forms of music in one way or another. Miking the instrument can be difficult however and despite its significant appeal, too many home recorded tracks fail to reach their full potential due to a poorly recorded acoustic guitar track.
Kurt Cobain plays an acoustic guitar during a recording session in Holland in 1991 pic.twitter.com/UC8gesjQON
— Eric Alper (@ThatEricAlper) December 20, 2018
Acoustic guitar has found its way onto millions of songs all around the world in every possible style. However, miking an acoustic and getting a great guitar sound can be a bit of a challenge.
Being a folk singer-songwriter, the acoustic guitar is one of the most important parts of my music. However, when first getting started recording at home, I constantly found myself struggling to get a proper tone. It took years of trial and error before I finally began to grasp proper methods of miking an acoustic guitar in a captivating, realistic fashion.
To save you the same hassle I’ve gone through, I’ve assembled a list of essential tips and techniques that will leave your acoustic guitar tracks sounding pristine and professional.
#1. Establish the Role of Your Guitar Track
Before miking anything, I take time to think about how the instrument will sit in the rest of the recording. It’s easy to get excited and want go for the biggest, most breathtaking sound possible. But often this isn’t necessary, and can actually hurt your track by taking away from more important aspects.
The ultimate stereo miking ensemble! How many different arrangements can you point out? pic.twitter.com/SgD4QzYRoh
— Bent River Records (@BentRiverYEG) October 19, 2018
There’s plenty of possibilities when miking an acoustic guitar but until you know your guitar tracks purpose you can’t make an educated decision.
If all that your track consists of is vocals and an acoustic guitar, then you may be miking it up as best as possible. If it is more of a rhythmic part in a dense mix however, a smaller sound may suffice.
Getting an idea of how you want your instrument to sound should always be the first step. Then you’ll be able to better make decisions in everything that follows.
#2 Stereo vs Mono Miking Acoustic Guitar
Mono miking uses a single microphone on a sound source. Alternatively, miking in stereo involves using two microphones to capture a more realistic image of the guitar’s acoustics.
Using a stereo technique is great if you want your guitar to be the focal point of the song. This method can give it a full sound with a wide spread across the mix.
However, sometimes the role of an acoustic guitar is simply to serve as harmonic or rhythmic support. In this case a mono microphone properly placed will do the trick of accurately capturing the instrument, while not taking up to much room in the mix later on.
I’m going to save the various types of stereo microphone placements for another article. However, take some time to check out the video below which demonstrates some useful stereo miking techniques that are a great starting point.
#3 Listen for Phasing Issues When Miking in Stereo
A second microphone can greatly enhance the sound of your acoustic guitar. However, it can also have the opposite effect in the case of phase cancellation.
Phase cancellation occurs when an identical sound from a source reaches two microphones at different times. Without getting too much into the technical side of things, the result is an unnatural sound known as “comb filtering”. This is most noticeable as a reduction in a low end and of the recording.
In order to tell if you are having phase issues, record something then play it back. As you’re listening to it, use a plugin to flip the phase on one of the microphones. If you notice the low end improves when you do this, your microphones are out of phase with one another.
#4 Avoid Phasing Issues With Microphone Placement
Although you’re likely to have microphones be slightly out of phase, there are proper techniques you can use that will avoid a deteriorating sound on your recording.
The first is to use a “coincident” technique like X/Y or ORTF where the microphones diaphragms are close together. With this, sound arrives at the microphones at almost exactly the same time, having a unified and enhancing sound.
Another technique when miking your acoustic guitar with a spaced pair, is to use the “3:1 Rule”. This suggests that your second microphone should be placed three times the distance from the first microphone that the first microphone is from the source.
This technique doesn’t remove phase issues but works by substantially lowering the relative volume between microphones. Like all “rules” in recording it has a time and place where it can used, but is not the only way to record in stereo.
#5 Stay Away From “Fake Stereo” Recording Techniques
There are several beginner resources that suggest miking your acoustic guitar with one microphone and creating a “fake stereo” effect. You do this in your DAW through means of doubling, phase shifting, and other destructive techniques.
More times than not this will actually result in a worse sounding guitar track. You will often achieve better results leaving your single microphone recording as is.
My advice if you only have one microphone is to simply use it to its best potential. There are plenty of other ways a mixing engineer can create space (eg. reverb delay etc.) that don’t involve messing with the prosperity of the source recording.
Getting the best sound when multi-miking acoustic guitar is all about placement. This is where my next tips come in handy.
#6 Never Place A Mic Directly in Front of The Guitars Sound Hole!
I often see beginner engineers try recording acoustic guitar by miking it right in front of the sound hole.
This seems like a logical choice, as it’s where the resonance and volume of the guitar comes from. However, no one actually listens to a guitar by sticking their ear right in front of the sound hole. So, why expect a realistic sound to come from this part of the instrument?
The true tone of an acoustic guitar, though enhanced by the soundhole, comes from the strings resonance through the entire body, as well as the acoustics of the room the guitar is being played in. Every guitar resonates in it’s own unique way which leads me to my next piece of advise.
#7 Take The Time To Properly Place Your Microphones
There’s no one rule for this, as the beauty of a well-made instrument is its resonance and characteristics are unique. The best way to go about this is to have your instrumentalist play. As they do, move the instrument around, listening for points where the guitar sounds most pleasing.
A general rule as a starting position for using a single microphone is to place it somewhere between the 10th and 14th fret angled across the neck, towards the bridge of the instrument. A second microphone could be introduced just below the bridge of the guitar and angled slightly towards the sound hole.
If you are like me and are often playing the guitar, therefore unable to walk around and listen to the instrument there are still some techniques you can use.
First, borrow a friend and have them play your guitar while you walk around, getting to know how it sounds. You may even want to try recording something to listen back to as a reference later. This can give you an idea of how to properly place microphones when recording by yourself.
Alternatively, and more often what I will do, is run a microphone (or two) through headphones. Then I can listen to how the acoustic guitar sounds when miking it from various positions.
#8 Use Two Different Microphones
A lot of beginner advice on home recording suggests always using two identical microphones when stereo miking your acoustic guitar. This is great when you want the left and right channels to sound identical, but it’s not always the case.
Often times in budget recording, home studio owners may not even own two identical microphones. If they do their matched pair may be significantly less quality than some of their other microphones.
Although I often use a matched pair when stereo miking other instruments, in the case of the acoustic guitar I actually prefer to use a spaced pair with a large diaphragm condenser near the bridge of the instrument and a small diaphragm condenser on the neck.
In this fashion I’m often able to capture both the high brilliance and low end warmth that the instrument produces.
#9 Start With a Great Sounding Guitar
You could have the most amazing sound microphones in the world but if you’re miking a cheap guitar that sounds awful, it’s not ever going to sound like your favourite artists, who may be playing an acoustic worth $1,000-$3,000+.
That’s not to say you need to go drop $1000 on guitar in order to get a great sound. It’s important in budget recording to work with what you have and sometimes there is a certain magic to an old instrument a musician is familiar with that the higher end ones just don’t have.
The point is to make sure when miking your acoustic guitar that you have a realistic vision of how you want it to sound. This should be based off of how it actually sounds when listened to.
If the tone of the guitar isn’t quite what you want, consider renting or borrowing another guitar to record with.
#10 Before Anything Have an Amazing Musician!
This is even more important than the instrument being played. If the musician is playing a part badly it is guaranteed to not sound pleasing to the listener. Make sure that your talent coming in knows the part well and has practiced in advance.
Pre-production is extremely important in all recording situations as once microphones are set up and a musician is sitting down to record there is a certain level of tension that can rise.
Even the most skilled musicians, in a new recording environment, can make mistakes they would normally never make elsewhere. It’s therefore important to be certain your musicians are confident in their parts during the pre production phase. This will lessen the chances of mistakes in the studio.
— beatlesrecordingref (@beatles_ref_man) January 11, 2018
Having a talented musician is the most important step in getting a good guitar sound.
#11 Don’t Get In The Way of The Musician
When miking an acoustic guitarist take caution not to get in the way of their guitar and their playing. Some guitarists move a fair bit when playing or may simply feel uncomfortable with a microphone inches away from them.
And the recording process continues. Next up, acoustic guitar.
Guild acoustic courtesy of Tim V. Smyth.
— TheMidnightUnionBand (@MidnightUnion) January 30, 2018
Making sure your talent is comfortable and not feeling crowded by mics is key to getting a good performance.
My philosophy when recording anything is first and foremost to help the musician play as well as they possibly can. Sometimes that means sacrificing the perfect microphone placement which may sound amazing but is hindering the musicality of the player.
In the end you get a better sounding take when the musician is confident, comfortable, and can play to the best of their abilities.
Hopefully by now you’ve realized that properly miking an acoustic guitar and using microphone technique is about a lot more than just the placement of the microphones.
Yes, the acoustics of the guitar and technical aspects such as microphone choice and placement are important. Just as vital however, is role and quality of the instrument in the track and making sure musician is able to play to the best of their ability.