After posting an acoustic piece in the clinic (post here) I got a few questions about my approach to recording acoustic guitar. So at the risk of boring some veterans, I’ll spell it out here. Sometimes I think it's hard to imagine the benefits of stereo recording and double tracking when it's just words. So working with a chunk of that tune (without the Marshall Tucker style flute!) I've posted a bunch of MP3s so you can hear for yourself how the track builds up and fills out.
DISCLAIMER: This is not the only way. This just happens to be my way. And it works pretty darn well for me. Some folks say there is no “one” way—let your ears be the judge, blah, blah, blah. But if you hear something you like, it’s nice to know how it’s done so you can try it yourself. Who knows—it might all have to change for you. Different mics, different room, different guitar—those will all affect it. But here’s a starting point.
First, my gear for that track: pair of Rode NT5 SDCs into ACMP 73 preamps. Guitar is all solid (cedar top) Seagull Artist. I love the cedar for recording—very warm. Strings are Elixir Polywebs (gasp). Pick is a 2mm big stubby. Mic cables are black.
You can see my mic setup in the pic below. This is by no means the only way. I’ve done well with an X/Y setup, and even an over the shoulder setup—but this was my setup for the song in question. My mics are probably closer to the guitar than you normally see recommended. I’m not an aggressive acoustic player—and it was about 3 in the morning. As long as my playing’s not gonna clip the mic, I like a nice intimate, up-close sound.
The neck mic is at about the 12th fret angled in towards the soundhole. The body mic (not shown well here) is actually behind the bridge, also angled towards the soundhole. Nothing’s right on the soundhole. That’s too boomy for my tastes. Besides, my hand is there when I’m playing. Note: all other things being equal, the signal from the body mic will be hotter; so I tweak my preamp so my tracks come in at the same level. It’s just easier for me to mix when everything’s roughly the same.
Recording the Rhythms
Now, if I were recording an acoustic line for a busy mix, I’d just use the neck mic (on the right in the pic). I’ve done acoustic on one side and electric on the other, so I’ll just do the acoustic once. But if the acoustic is a bit more prominent such that I want it in stereo, I’ll still just use the neck mic and record it twice—one for the left, one for the right. I don’t use the body mic for these situations, because in a mix with drums and bass, I don’t need the extra lows that the body/bout mic introduces.
However, for this piece, where the guitar is the whole piece, I want the whole range. So I record in stereo (to 2 mono tracks) with both mics. I pan ‘em hard left and right. That sounds real sweet—especially compared to just one mic. See for yourself:
One take, mono (one mic)
Still one take, but stereo (two mics)
For a lot of tunes, that would be enough. But again, I wanted this acoustic guitar to be lush. So I double tracked everything. It took a few takes to get it as tight as I wanted, but I think it’s worth it. So now I’ve got 4 tracks total—two tracks (L & R—or body and neck) from each of the two takes. There’s a number of ways to pan them. One cool way to do it is just keep the neck mic from the first, and the body mic from the second take. Pan ‘em to taste (for me in this case, hard L & R). Now you’ve got the physical width of the guitar, with all the frequencies of both the neck and the body mics, along with the additional “lush-ness” that the double tracking adds.
But for this one, I took it one step further. I kept all four tracks. For both takes, I sent the body mic to the left and the neck to the right. But for take one, I left the body mic up, and brought the neck mic way down. So by itself this would sound very lopsided—to the left. For take two, I brought the body mic way down, and left the neck mic up. This one would sound lopsided the other way by itself. But together, you get two stereo guitars—one with the neck mic dominant on one side, and the the other with the body mic dominant on the other side. Here’s how that sounds:
Two takes, both in stereo, mixed "opposite" each other
Polishing the Tracks
Now I polish it. For me, that means my multiband compressor on the guits. Smooths out the levels and eq’s nicely at the same time. I use the MBC as a bit of a scoop—suppressing the mids, boosting the bottom a bit, and adding some sheen to the top. Then I send ‘em through a bit of hall reverb (in this case anyway). BTW—I grouped all four rhythm tracks so the multiband compressor and ‘verb are added to the group, not the individual tracks. (You can add to the “lushness” and texture by varying these on individual tracks—but that can tend to make it sound like more than one guitar. I wanted one huge guitar, so the group gets the same treatment.) Here’s the rhythm tracks with the processing:
All polished up
The Acoustic Lead
Now for the noodling. A lot of folks (me included for a long time) will just use one mic and track an acoustic lead in mono—even on top of a big stereo spread like this. But I find that sounds thin and hollow. As much as I hate posting these parts without the rhythm tracks—they sound so naked--here goes. The lead from this ditty with just the neck mic, panned to center:
But when you record the lead in stereo, you can actually convey the size of the guitar—not to mention the extra tonal information you get from both mics. The lead is still very centered sounding—the two tracks are balanced and panned equally left and right, so it will stay “centered,” but by recording it in stereo it’s just bigger (not just louder) and fits sonically with the stereo rhythms. It sounds like a real guitar in a real room—not a guitar coming out of an AM radio. Here’s that same lead with both mics:
Note: I did add the reverb to the lead, but I didn’t use the multiband compressor. I wanted the dynamics to remain—it’s a part of this kind of lead noodling. And I also wanted to keep the more midrangey quality—helps it find it’s own place on top of all those stereo rhythm guitar parts. So while the four rhythm tracks were in one group, the two lead tracks were in their own group. This group had no compression and a bit more 'verb than the rhythm group.
And finally, we put it all together. Some folks asked how I got it so clean and quiet. Thanks but, if you listen closely, you’ll hear my stool squeak, you’ll hear me breathe, you’ll hear my arm on the body of the guitar, etc. And even with that, I spent 4 hours tracking the minute and a half tune—section after section, take after take.
The whole sh'bang
Hope this helps somebody.