I’ve been researching and experimenting a lot with recording acoustic guitars recently, here are some notes and observations.
1) Every room, player, string, guitar, mic, mic preamp, mic position, playing technique, song, and style of music is different. It may seem obvious, but it makes the question, “How do I record my acoustic for the best sound?” pretty meaningless. There is no one way that will always give you the best results.
2) Play the guitar in different parts of the room, or different rooms. You may be surprised how different it sounds. Where it sounds best, that’s the playing position where you should record it.
3) Rehearse a lot, warm up before recording, get used to recording a lot so you don’t get “red light fever”. Remember, “An amateur practises until they can get it right, a professional practises until they can’t get it wrong”. The recording will only be as good as you can play it. Technique is very important for the best recorded sound, as well as emotion and feel.
4) New strings/old strings. Pros usually put new strings on within 24 hours before the recording session. However some people (myself included) quite like the sound of older strings. One person’s zingy and bright is another’s harsh and brash. One person’s old and muffled is another’s warm and woody. So choose wisely for the track, which would sound best in the mix?
5) Is the guitar well setup, comfortable, and easy to play? How does it respond to dynamics? As mentioned above, all guitars are different. Try to play to the strengths of the guitar.
6) Mics are a huge subject in themselves. They all record sound, but they all sound different. Do you want a large diaphragm condenser, a small diaphragm condenser, a dynamic, or a ribbon? Should you use the omni, cardioid, or figure 8 polar pattern? A single mic, a stereo pair (and if so, in X/Y, A/B, ORTF, DIN, NOS, M/S, or something else entirely?), or even more mics, perhaps also a distant mic for the room sound? Do you use the high pass filter and pad built into the mic, or not? With mics, a great one will make all the difference, but even some of the best mics might not work on all sources. Experiment with what you have.
7) Mic pres are another huge subject. Most of the best classic acoustic guitar tones have been recorded through very high quality, all discrete, transformer balanced, class A preamps. These aren’t cheap, and the ones built in to your audio interface are almost certainly not as good, and won’t sound as good either. That’s not to say you can’t achieve great results with them, just that a really good pre will make a very positive difference. What is the output impedance of the mic? What is the input impedance of the pre? Are they a good match? And don’t send phantom power to your ribbon!
8) If you take anything away from this entire post, let it be this: Mic position is the single most important variable in getting the best possible sound. Most people don’t realise that moving the mic just an inch or two can change the recorded sound drastically. The only way to find where that best position is for you (see point one above), is to experiment, take notes, and listen. In pro studios you’ll often see the engineer running around at the beginning of the session, mic in hand, a pair of headphones on, wildly trying different positions in front of the acoustic player, trying to find “the spot”. This is really the only way to do it. If you can get someone else to play your acoustic in the recording room/position, have a go at this. You might be surprised how different it can sound. Try to use headphones that cut out the surrounding sound, and turn up the volume so you can mainly hear the miced sound, rather than the sound in the room. Note how the sound changes as you move the mic, where it sounds good, and which position might be best for the track. Write it down. Record some tracks. Far better to get the best sound at the source, than have to worry about EQ and other “surgical” processing later. There are many, many articles on the various “go to” mic positions for acoustic, so I’ll leave you to look those up.
9) It is considered by most professional guitarists and sound engineers that an acoustic piezo pickup is a horrible, quacky sound, to be avoided at all costs. For live sound, it’s convenient, of course, but when you’ve compared a DI’d acoustic to a well recorded miced acoustic, you are never likely to want to use the pickup/preamp/DI for recording ever again. However, for effect, why not? There are no rules in audio!
With my own experiments, I’ve drawn up info sheets such as the following:
Track: The Jester’s Revenge
Instrument & Setup: Faith Naked Venus Acoustic Guitar, Standard Tuning, Broken In Strings (Martin MSP3100 12 80/20), Dunlop Prime Tone .73 plectrum
Mic/DI: CM3 mic (hyper-cardioid) & Jack Out (Bass: Flat, Treble: Flat, Volume: Max) to DI to TG2
Mic Position & Setup: Single CM3 pointed directly on axis at the 14th fret, 30cm away
Mic Pre Settings: Mic Channel 1, 55dB Gain, 300 Ohm. DI Channel 2, 35dB Gain, 1200 Ohm
Bax EQ Settings: HPF 54Hz, LPF 70kHz
I hope this has been in some way useful to some people! There is no one answer, it’s all about the process, lots of practice, lots of experiments, and above all, lots of listening to find out what works for you, in your space, with your gear, for your tracks.
For strummed chords recently, I’ve really been digging my Advanced Audio CM48T tube large diaphragm condenser in cardioid mode, no pad, 125Hz HPF switched on, into the Chandler TG2 pre at 300 Ohm. Position at 14th fret (where neck meets body), about 18 inches back, angled at 45 degrees toward the sound hole. Sounds great! That mic/pre combo is very “coloured”, if I want things a little more flat/transparent/natural I’ll use the Line Audio CM3 small diaphragm condenser in a similar position.