Recording acoustic guitar at home has its own particular set of challenges and problems, but fortunately there are solutions for those. These tips and techniques will help you utilize your space and your resources to capture the best possible acoustic guitar sound when recording in less-than-ideal spaces.
The Apollo is an amazing home-recording tool. Between the extensive list of awesome plug-ins and the fact that you can record or audition them in real time, it’s not only a timesaver, but it also helps keep the creative flow going. Everybody knows that working at home and wearing multiple hats as artist/engineer/producer requires you to split your time and attention. Anything that will make that process more fluid and less frequently interrupted is valuable. The fact that the whole system is easy to operate, on top of the fact that the UAD plug-ins sound so good, keeps you focused on the creative stuff and not as concerned with the technical side.
Capturing the Best Sound
The first step is to capture the best raw acoustic guitar sound. There are a lot of ways to do this. The most typical way is in a nice-sounding, or neutral-sounding, room with a pair of small-diaphragm condenser microphones. Placing the mics in an XY pattern and pointing them where the neck of the guitar joins the body is a common technique. My favorite technique is pointing one mic where the neck meets the body and pointing the other just behind the saddle, above the guitar, facing it at an angle. If you have a room that sounds great, this is an awesome option for capturing the sound of your guitar.
Here are some good, bang-for-your-buck, small-diaphragm condenser mics that you should consider:
Most of us are working in a small area that may or may not sound great in every direction. The acoustic guitar projects sound outward and can easily activate an entire small room. The mic will pick up everything, so you’re likely to be dealing with reflections (from hard surfaces like untreated walls) and standing waves (caused by parallel walls, like every wall in your home). Aside from giving your room a complete acoustic treatment, here are a few suggestions for miking in a less-than-perfect-sounding recording environment:
Pointing a single mic where the neck joins the body will give you a complete sonic picture of the guitar. One mic is much easier to control and will pick up less of the room than two mics will.
Tighter Mic Pattern
Most small-diaphragm condenser mics have a cardioid pattern, which means they reject sound from the rear, and that is great for this purpose. If your mic has a hypercardioid pattern, that’s even tighter. Avoid figure-8 or omni mic patterns in this situation, since you want to minimize the sound of the room.
It seems kind of obvious, but the closer the mic is to the sound source, the more you’ll hear it and the less you’ll hear the room. If the guitar sounds boomy (too much low end) or if there’s too much string, finger, or pick noise, then the mic is probably too close. Back it off from there and use your ear to find the sweet spot.
Mic Stand Isolation
If your mic stand is sitting on a hollow floor (such as a wood floor in an old house) or has a level below it (as in an upstairs room), then any movement on any connected floor can cause it to vibrate. Those vibrations can be sent up your mic stand, activating the mic, and sound like a hollow boom or a low-pitched ring. Even if you have a slab floor directly on terra firma, a heavy truck passing by or construction in the neighborhood can still rattle the ground. The Primacoustic KickStand is an isolating base that you can attach to your mic stand. Its primary use is for isolating a kick drum mic onstage, but it also works perfectly in this scenario.
Pointing your guitar at a reflection filter with a mic in the middle of it will help here — it will stop the guitar sound from bouncing around the room so much and control more of what the mic hears. The sound at the front of the mic will be the guitar; the sound around the rest of the mic will be from the filter. Depending on how you angle the filter, it can further contain the guitar sound by sending more detail and low-end information to the mic and not the room. The sE Reflexion Filter X is great for this as well as for miking anything smaller.
Beside the room sound, the other consideration when recording acoustic guitar with a mic is noise. Apart from standard household and outside noises, there is the sound of your HVAC (heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning) system blowing out of the vents. It’s possible that you’ll get lucky and the sound of the HVAC won’t be noticeable on the mic; or maybe you’re enjoying the time of the year when your air-handling systems aren’t required. Here’s how you can tell — solo a recorded track and listen to the ends of notes and to the silence at the end of a phrase. You may need to turn the volume up to hear it, but it’s likely there. The easiest remedy is to turn it off when you’re recording. Having done that in the heat of the Nashville summer more than a few times, I can say that it will motivate you to get your part recorded quickly. If shutting it off is not an option, then you’ll probably have to experiment with covering the vent. However, if it’s only partially and not completely sealed, it can whistle and actually be louder than normal!
The other prevalent noise is the sound of your computer and your hard drives spinning. Isolating the drives in a drawer or in a lined box or rack can help. Make sure there is some airflow so they don’t get too hot, which may cause them to shut down or fail. Additionally, if you are using a reflection filter, put the drives and/or computer directly behind the filter for the greatest sound blockage to the mic.
- Don’t forget to mute your studio monitors when recording — duh. It happens!
- In-ear monitors or isolation headphones will keep your headphone mix out of the guitar mic. A good set such as the Direct Sound EX-29 Plus or something similar will do the trick.
- Turn your phone off and place it physically away from the mic. The ringer isn’t the only sound that can get into your mic, though. Airplane mode is best because you don’t want a notification “ding” in the middle of your perfect take. Even the sound of your phone vibrating on your desk can ruin a perfect take. Plus, many mics are sensitive to the electromagnetic waves that emanate from a phone when its ringer is activated, whether it actually rings or not. You may hear an electronic noise in your recording that you never heard with your ears.
- Also, be aware of buttons, zippers, belt buckles, earrings, etc. knocking against your guitar while you’re playing.
- If it’s allergy season, you may have to breathe through your mouth in case your nose is whistling. Don’t laugh — it happens.
- Keep the guitar in the same position relative to the mic while you record. Moving while you play effectively changes the mic position and ultimately affects the recorded guitar sound. Make sure the angle of the guitar to the mic and the guitar’s distance from the mic stay the same.
- A stool or armless chair that is the correct height for you to play is good to have… just make sure it doesn’t squeak!
Depending on the acoustic guitar sound you’re looking for, you may be able to achieve it without any mics. Internal pickup systems are pretty sophisticated and may be just what you’re looking for — just add a little EQ and compression. For a great library of modeled acoustic guitar sounds, the Fishman Aura Spectrum is amazing. Fishman has been perfecting this technology for a while. I used a Fishman Aura in my live acoustic-guitar rig and always got compliments on my tone in the house system. You can try a blend of the Aura and your direct sound, or just run all Aura. It’s also a DI so it’s convenient for live use, too.
The Audio Sprockets’ ToneDexter is another direct solution. Mic your guitar, play into the ToneDexter, and it “WaveMaps” the sound of your guitar. Then, plug into the ToneDexter and run into your interface; you get the sound of your guitar without mics. In this way, WaveMaps are similar to impulse responses.
Remember that external, environmental sounds will still be picked up if your guitar is not a solidbody instrument, even when going direct. Treat recording a DI acoustic the same way you would if you were using a mic — monitors off, isolated headphones, quiet room, etc.
Processing for the Best Sound
Now that you’ve gotten the raw acoustic sound you want, it’s time to experiment with some plug-ins. The great thing about recording with an Apollo is that you can choose to either A) monitor the plug-ins and not commit them to the track or B) record them directly to the track on your DAW — all in real time without latency. Most plug-ins assigned to your DAW cause latency, so normally you’d be limited to a “placeholder” plug-in that takes the least amount of processing. The Apollo’s internal processors take the load off of your computer, however, so you can record with the sound you want.
On the UA Console, assign the plug-in to the insert, and there’s a button labeled INS (insert) that allows you to choose between REC (record) or MON(monitor) options. If you choose the MON option, that means you can hear it while you record, but you can further tweak it on playback. This is a nice feature if you want, for example, reverb while you’re tracking but aren’t sure that’s the sound you’ll want when it’s time to mix.
For acoustic guitar specifically, the preamp, compression, and reverb plug-ins can help you tailor the guitar sound to have it fit in the mix exactly how you want. Here are a few sample applications of UAD plug-ins for acoustic guitar:
An emulation of the classic leveling amplifier, this makes the guitar sit properly in the mix and adds a bit of harmonic richness.
A colorful yet versatile compressor, it works great on a track that has a wide dynamic range and quick attacks. It keeps a lid on the spikes without sounding squished.
I like the Millenia’s ability to precisely carve frequencies. This setting takes out boominess in the lows, slightly scoops the mids, and adds a little sheen on the top end to help a strummed acoustic fit in a full-band track.
This faithful emulation of the classic effects unit can add some seriously luxurious reverb to held chords and long single notes.
This is an amazing, all-around reverb modeled after Capitol Studios’ famous subterranean echo chambers. The setting shown here will add depth and “air” to a strummed track yet will still retain note and chord separation.
The UAD plug-ins respond a lot like their hardware counterparts. You can even change input impedance on a preamp while you’re recording to get either a brighter, more forward sound or a darker, set-back sound. I’ve just barely scratched the surface here, so have fun experimenting with this extensive list of plug-ins.
I hope this helps you on the path toward recording great acoustic guitar sounds at home. I’m a big fan of gear that facilitates the creative process, and the Apollo family definitely does that. The main goal, as always, is to make more great-sounding music.
If you have any questions about any of the gear in this article, give your Sweetwater Sales Engineer a call today at (800) 222-4700.
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