Acoustic Guitar Recording 101

WhiteStrat

Don't stare at the eye.
Intro

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.

My Setup

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:

Mono lead

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:

Stereo lead

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.

Altogether Now

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.
 

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rayc

retroreprobate
When I 1st heard it I said it was super cool.
Now, after travelling with it through creative construction I dig it even more.
I'm impressed by it & the how.
 

leobluesy

New member
Interesting

This was very interesting......Any "reasonable" sounds Ive ever had from recording my... not so expensive acoustic..tended to be accidental :*( This has given some inspiration to experiment.

thanks !
 

Mchu86

New member
WhiteStrat, I want to thank you for this contribution. I found this track-by-track explanation to be extremely helpful. It really shows how a track can be built upon to have that "lushness" as you say. I'm sure you've heard this a lot already, but excellent playing and recording.

Cheers,
Michael
 

antichef

pornk rock
Very nice, Strat! I sometimes experiment with cables of other colors, but keep going back to black as well :D

Learning / knowing the room you're in is really important (at least as much as the color of the cables) - I recently moved to a new house - this weekend I set up with my normal XY, silk rug, etc., etc., in the new living room and got some really crappy tracks where I know I would have had good ones in the old living room. Live & learn! Also, I've been using my ACMP73s for a lot of things, but haven't tried them on the acoustic yet -- I'll have to soon. Despite all the sturm und drang of the group buy, I think we made out like bandits with those pres - I like them more every time I use them.

Your description is awesome - while it's ultimately true that there are no rules and your ears need to decide, and stuff like that, having a detailed description of one great approach is immensely valuable for folks who are trying to figure out how to approach the problem.
 

famous beagle

Well-known member
Thanks a lot for doing this! It's really great to hear everything come together bit by bit, and your thorough explanations are greatly appreciated. :)

Great-sounding track.


Edit: Too many "great" references, huh? Sorry. :)
 

kcearl

I see deaf people
Excellent thread..and thanks for taking time out to post it.

I have difficulties recording my acoustic (most instruments in fact lol) I have a condenser and a dynamic...would it be best to have the condenser near the hole and the dynamic on the neck? or just use the condenser?
 

Pete2112

New member
Wow! That's a great sounding track. I'm definitely going to try some of these techniques the next time I record with the acoustic. Great job!
 

WhiteStrat

Don't stare at the eye.
Very nice, Strat! I sometimes experiment with cables of other colors, but keep going back to black as well :D

Learning / knowing the room you're in is really important (at least as much as the color of the cables) - I recently moved to a new house - this weekend I set up with my normal XY, silk rug, etc., etc., in the new living room and got some really crappy tracks where I know I would have had good ones in the old living room. Live & learn! Also, I've been using my ACMP73s for a lot of things, but haven't tried them on the acoustic yet -- I'll have to soon. Despite all the sturm und drang of the group buy, I think we made out like bandits with those pres - I like them more every time I use them.

Your description is awesome - while it's ultimately true that there are no rules and your ears need to decide, and stuff like that, having a detailed description of one great approach is immensely valuable for folks who are trying to figure out how to approach the problem.

Hey Chef!

I'm with you--black cables are the foundation of my sound. And I agree about the pre's--I love my 73's. I bought 2 in the GB and then 2 more off of someone here.

Thanks for the props.
 

WhiteStrat

Don't stare at the eye.
Thanks a lot for doing this! It's really great to hear everything come together bit by bit, and your thorough explanations are greatly appreciated. :)

Great-sounding track.


Edit: Too many "great" references, huh? Sorry. :)

Wow! That's a great sounding track. I'm definitely going to try some of these techniques the next time I record with the acoustic. Great job!

Thanks dudes!
 

WhiteStrat

Don't stare at the eye.
Excellent thread..and thanks for taking time out to post it.

I have difficulties recording my acoustic (most instruments in fact lol) I have a condenser and a dynamic...would it be best to have the condenser near the hole and the dynamic on the neck? or just use the condenser?

In that situation, if I were going for a stereo recording of a single take, I'd put the condenser on the neck side and the dynamic down on on the body. But if I were going to double track (which I always do if it's not complete improv) I'd probably not even use the dynamic. I'd use the condenser on the neck--experimenting with placements slightly closer to the soundhole to get some more bottom end--and play it twice for my stereo effect.

It sounds odd, but of the two placements, the neck mic (angled towards the hole) is the "main" mic--not the body mic. Both give you some stereo, but if you use just one, the neck position is usually a more balanced picture of your guitar's sound.
 

gcapel

boom box recordings
very cool post.

I have always saw the need for an acoustic guitar stand that holds the guitar in the playing position. Especially for the homerecording artist, because sometimes you need to get up to tweak this or or that or better yet go to take a piss and not have to worry about placement when you sit back down. I hate having to set the guitar down, picking it up , and knocking shit over in the process.
 

kcearl

I see deaf people
In that situation, if I were going for a stereo recording of a single take, I'd put the condenser on the neck side and the dynamic down on on the body. But if I were going to double track (which I always do if it's not complete improv) I'd probably not even use the dynamic. I'd use the condenser on the neck--experimenting with placements slightly closer to the soundhole to get some more bottom end--and play it twice for my stereo effect.

It sounds odd, but of the two placements, the neck mic (angled towards the hole) is the "main" mic--not the body mic. Both give you some stereo, but if you use just one, the neck position is usually a more balanced picture of your guitar's sound.


thanks mate..i will try this out..really helped :)
 

WhiteStrat

Don't stare at the eye.
very cool post.

I have always saw the need for an acoustic guitar stand that holds the guitar in the playing position. Especially for the homerecording artist, because sometimes you need to get up to tweak this or or that or better yet go to take a piss and not have to worry about placement when you sit back down. I hate having to set the guitar down, picking it up , and knocking shit over in the process.

There's a stand like that, but it ain't cheap, and it ain't comfortable. I've used it in a live setting to leave my electric on my body, and switch to the acoustic real quick.
 

Mchu86

New member
I've been recording in stereo (nearly hard left and hard right), but because a majority of my recordings are simply acoustic guitar and vocal, the sound wasn't quite full enough for me. I just tried out your doubling and "opposite" panning technique, and I must say I'm astounded by the difference it made! A much fuller sound, while maintaining an intimate, acoustic sound. I have so much to learn...

Cheers,
Michael
 

NYMorningstar

Recording Modus Operandi
Great article WhiteStrat. I love those NT5's. They hardly require any processing and those black cables are pretty sweet too.:D

I know you said you did pretty close micing but can you tell us about the room too? -Thx
 
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