There’s just no way around it: the most important factor in recording acoustic guitar is the player! A quality performance with great technique will get you an awesome recording 99 times out of 100. After the musician, the next most important thing in recording acoustic guitar is the instrument. Putting a great guitar in the right hands is practically the whole process!
From the engineering side, just basic knowledge of mic placement and gain staging will get you where you need to go if you have a great player and guitar. You’ll see that other things to consider when tracking acoustic really have nothing to do with setting up mics and getting levels!
Recording Acoustic Guitar – The Basics
We did a video called Recording Acoustic Guitar 101 where we tried out a bunch of different microphones on an acoustic guitar. One of these was a the standard $99 SM57 going through an Audient iD14. As long as you’re not clipping the input stage (you can keep it down to about 50% of the gain) you will get a good result.
With under $350 of gear ($99 mic, $200 interface, $30 cable), you can get great sounding acoustic guitars as long as you have a great player delivering a quality performance on a fantastic instrument. When it comes to mixing, there are a ton of stock plugins that you can use as well! You really don’t need a fancy set-up to capture acoustic instruments, and the guitar is no exception.
The most important thing when recording acoustic guitar is the player, the performance, the instrument, and then the mics, in that order! From there,
It’s the little things that count…
1. Proper Seating for the Player
If you can, choose a chair where the arms can either go down or be removed so that you have full mobility with your guitar. A stool is another good choice.
This is especially important if you have an artist recording; you want to make them feel as comfortable as you can. The last thing you’d want is to have your guitarist fighting their chair.
Also, be mindful of any potential noise the seat itself might make. You really don’t want a creaky seat ruining a perfect take!
2. The Right Mic Stand
A “double boom” stand is a great option. This way you can keep the bulk of the weight on the back of the stand so when the mic is on the other side, it doesn’t droop. You might not think this is a big deal, but you’ll notice a sound difference if it moves. You want to keep the mic in the same plane when it’s this close. Any slight changes will change the way it’s recorded.
So, have a quality mic stand on hand that’s sturdy enough to not droop or change position!
3. Making Sure Clothing/Accessories Don’t Hit the Guitar
This might seem obvious, but buttons on your sleeve, a necklace, or anything else between you and the guitar can get picked up by a mic! Be mindful of anything that may hit the guitar and have the artist adjust accordingly.
This is one of the finer details of recording acoustic guitar you won’t want to overlook. Our job as engineers goes beyond hitting record.
4. Mic Choice/Placement
Small diaphragm condensers like the Neumann KM 184 or AKG 451 are great on acoustic instruments. They’re usually extremely detailed and crystal clear in the high end for a very ‘hi-fi’ or ‘3D’ sound which is phenomenal on acoustic guitar.
Likewise, you can get a great result from your favorite large diaphragm condenser as well. As we mentioned earlier, the dynamic SM57 with a budget interface can work wonders too! Remember, it’s more about the performance than anything else. As long as your mic choice and placement is ‘in the ballpark,’ you should be just fine.
Depending on the kind of mic you’re using and the sound you’re looking for there are a variety of different mic positions that you can use. The following are the most common single mic techniques:
A popular single mic position is to place it somewhere around where the neck meets the body of the guitar. The exact angle and distance will vary depending on the instrument itself and the sound you’re going for. In this position, you’ll be picking up a lot of the brightness and detail of the strings.
Alternatively, placing the mic roughly pointed at the bridge nearer the player’s hand is another common single mic position. Here the sound is a bit duller than up nearer the neck, capturing less of the strings’ brightness. If you’re going for a fuller sound with a bit less detail in the high end, this is a great position.
5. Polar Pattern
One thing to consider when recording acoustic guitar is the mic’s polar pattern. A problem you may run into using a cardioid condenser or dynamic like the SM57 is how that pattern unnaturally highlights the area it’s pointed at. Proximity effect is another problem with cardioid pattern microphones and close miking.
If you have one, try an omnidirectional microphone on acoustic guitar. Sure, you’ll pick up more of the room sound, but you’ll actually be able to place the mic closer to the guitar than a cardioid mic because of the latter’s proximity effect. The wider pickup pattern will also capture a more accurate image of the guitar all together.
If you’re worried about too much room sound, you can always dampen the space behind the mic.