small studio BIG GUITAROctober 18, 2016, 12:21 pm
I've waited a long time to be in an age again where an acoustic guitar was a sought after instrument. In the late ‘70’s acoustic guitar was washed into oblivion by the raw sound of Punk and the monotony of Disco (you can tell how much I loved the Disco age) not to emerge again until Rock was called Country and all the rules for recording had changed. Over the years I have learned a lot the hard way through the school of hard dread-knocks (sorry – couldn't resist) and with a minimum infusion of dumb humor I’ll try and pass this knowledge along to you.
Though it is true that acoustic guitars are simple by nature of construction, they are a mountain to climb when recording. Transient spikes and just the fact you need to convert sound energy to electronic make it a hand full, unless you have read this article that is. (Well, that’s a bit arrogant but what the heck!)
Before we tackle microphones, we need to look at the guitar, player, room position, and background noise. The guitar itself should be tuned with new strings long before (like a day or two) sound goes to media… (I would have said sound goes to tape in the old days but that’s another thing washed.) New strings go out of tune fast and need the time to settle in but always sound better than old ones. Thinner strings are brighter than thick ones while thick ones carry more tone. Knowing your player will help determine string gauge. If your guitar player is accustomed to using thin strings and starts whining about thicker ones just call him/her a wimp and say "Get over it. It is only for one take if you can play it right!" Your player should be comfortable (especially if they are a wimp) and the chair they are sitting on shouldn't have any creaks unless you're going for that 1904 hound dog sound. When I play I'm usually lazy, laying back on a couch and not worried about mistakes but when I record my foot is up on something as to make me feel like a well, studied player. You might want to try a small stool for a footrest because guitar cases get in the way. With windows closed, shades drawn, all ticking clocks properly buried in the back yard and all rattling surfaces covered or removed you still have to worry about the sound of your walls. Yes, I am suggesting your wall can talk, and they do. Walls each have their own reverb quality and where you put the guitar player and microphone will determine what the microphone hears. Try putting your player so that they are in the middle of the room facing a corner (nothing to do with the wimp thing). Some of the spilled sound will cancel itself out that way. Blankets or pillows on the wall work great for fixing the "ain’t got no sound room blues" (Anyone writing a song from that title better give me credit). In today's world of plugin effects, there is little reason to suffer the ill gain of a stucco wall. Lastly, if you live in a noise infested city… MOVE. No, just record at night when all gets quiet. If you move you might come to my neighborhood and mine will get noisy.
Now we’re talking about microphones. Condensers sound better than dynamics and my personal favorite is the Rode NT1 used as a stereo pair. No matter what mics you decide to use, you will employ the same techniques and knowledge to use them. There is little reason to mic anything mono these days unless you are still strapped for tracks but that's less likely these days with all the computer studios around. Microphones should be thought of as if they were your removable ears. I've seen one mistake so often that it must be addressed. When placing a microphone it is true that letting the other guy play while moving your head (ears) around will help you find the sweet spot but to do it right you need to plug one ear and listen strictly through the other. Also remember that microphones all have a polar pattern or patterns of their own. Knowing the ability of your specific mic will greatly improve your ability to find a sweet spot. Ability includes more than the polar patterns, it also includes response EQ and sound pressure capabilities, but that is another article entirely.
An acoustic guitar makes different sounds from different places. Where you place the mics will make or break your intended sound. I do a lot of country pop and find that if I place the microphones (2 NT1’s) about 6 to 8 inches from the guitar's sound hole in an XY pattern, angling one mic toward the area where the fretboard and the sound hole meet and the other directly into the players picking fingers (but not at the sound hole), I get a sweet and expressive sound that I can mix to taste. I use a compressor/limiter to knock down any peaks (2:1 to as much as 3:1 ratio). I set the threshold a little lower to give it a slightly "squashed" or tighter sound or set the threshold higher to just limit the peaks and give a more open sound. Depending on your microphones, you may need to EQ out some boominess. If so, try rolling off some bottom (100Hz), or cutting a couple of dB at 300Hz. If you need to add some "silk" on the top end, try something in the 8-10K range or an aural exciter, but be careful, too much will add noise to the track. Positioning a mic so it angles toward the pick will give more attack-less sweetness. If I'm going for that Americana sound, I use medium gauge strings and a little more compression. I fill up the midrange with a little more EQ around the 700Hz to 1K. For a really raw sound, I mic up my Fender electric acoustic and run a direct in from the Fender's pickup. I get lots of phase problems but there are times that nothing else sounds right. Moving your mics further away from the guitar can even things out but a little experimentation is definitely needed here. (On a computer that allows visual editing at the sampled level you can visually move the tracks so that the sound waves line up…. This is a very cool feature of computer-based recording.) (For those of you that don’t know about phasing, well, one more article……..) For all you dreaming of that Clapton classical/gut string guitar, try this and thank me later. Place a condenser mic about 10 inches away and 3 to 4 inches up the neck pointing at the players picking fingers. The pattern of the mic will automatically roll of some of the boominess but a compressor/limiter set to approximately 4:1 is a must in order to control transient spikes. Setting the threshold fairly high will help to keep most of the guitar's natural dynamics.
In all of the above situations I use a 3rd mic (an AKG 414) about 2 to 3 feet away from the headstock and aimed at the 5th (ish) fret so I can add warmth and fret sound when needed (like during a solo or when other instruments drop out)
In Rock or Alternative music with an acoustic guitar you'll need to consider the drowned out of the electric(s). One way to cure some trouble is too hard pan the acoustic and the electric to opposite sides of the mix. Another is to use very different EQ settings for each. If you yourself can have a hands on from the start of the arrangement you can WISELY arrange your guitars to play contrapuntal parts or parts that are divided by more than an octave.
OK. You've read through this entire thing and now it dawns on you that you only have one microphone and you're about $300 dollars short of buying a new $200 mic. Try recording two takes of the same guitar playing the same part. If the part doesn't come close enough to itself on the second take try using the first take through a Digital Delay, panning the track to one side and the output of the Delay to the other. Time the delay for a very fast return (start at around 2 to 3 milliseconds) and detune it a little (start at 1 cent of detuning and work out from there).
It may all sound like a lot of work but think of the finished product as if it were going to be that hit. What if you give it half a shot? I heard Peter Frampton in an interview recently where he said he wrote, "Baby I Love Your Way" and "Do You Feel Like We Do" in one morning and has never had that luck again as much as he tries. I’d hate to have to say that I wrote two unreal songs and recorded them in a half way manner so that no one liked them. As a Peter Frampton fan, I can’t picture him doing anything less than 100% but I know I have been tempted from time to time to cut corners. DON’T! Take some time and try out these ideas. Amaze your friends. Get the girl of your dreams. (If you are a girl, get the girl of my dreams and give me a call…. But don’t tell my wife… Oh, I forgot that she edits all my work…. Yikes…. Gotta go)