There are numerous ways to record acoustic guitar. Before I even pull out a microphone I like to ask myself a few questions to narrow down the search. What kind of sound am I going for? What are the correct tools to capture this sound?
It all starts with the musician and the instrument. I tend to try to get the best sound I can going straight to “tape”. I don’t like putting a lot of EQ on things unless its an effect. And even then I prefer to record it sounding like an effect. If there’s too much bass, I move the mic further away. In general, the only thing I add is compression after it’s tracked and maybe some reverb.
How the musician plays and what kind of song it is has a great amount to do with the choices you’re going to make. For instance while recording Abby’s Ahmad’s new record almost every song had a slightly different mic placement. This was not for the purpose to mix it up, but because each song had different nuances. To capture each of those nuances took some careful listening.
Which guitar is correct for the track. Just because you have a main guitar for live use doesn’t always mean it’s the right choice for a track. Some times an overlooked guitar can really bring a track to life. We used several different guitars on Abby’s record. Mostly different Martin’s, but also a Takamine, a National, a vintage classical and a beloved toy guitar borrowed from Nathan Rosenberg’s kids. Which guitar we used was based on how percussive the track was or how open we wanted it to sound. All the elements have to compliment each other.
What kind of guitar pick is being used also affects the sound of the guitar. Or how close to the bridge or neck the guitarist is playing. Often when I’m playing on a session I change pics and move my pick position accordingly to change my playing “EQ”. It all starts at the source. I keep a collection of picks in my session bag that include different sizes and materials.
I don’t have a go to when placing the mics. I will have the musician play and then I move around the instrument to find the spots that have the best sound. If you listen closely, you’ll notice that when you slowly move around with one ear closed it’s kind of like using an EQ. Some spots are very prominent in the upper midrange for example. If that’s not your bag, then you could move the mic a bit (small movements can make a big difference).
Once we’ve picked the guitar and I have an idea where I might like to place the mics I’ll start thinking about which mics and pre amps. Mics and pre amps share the same kind of personality that instruments do in some ways. They have distinctive characteristics. It’s good to know these “flavors”. It doesn’t matter how nice a mic is, it’s not always the right choice. I have an idea of what a 414, 451, UM92, 103, RE20, 57, etc… is going to sound like before I set it up. This is just a starting ground ofcourse.
I also have an idea of what mic pre’s I’m using sound like. I try to match the guitar, mic and pre to match the song. There is a good chance you might have to swap something out because you’re not getting what you expected. The important thing is you’re listening. It doesn’t matter if you’re using gear you don’t know. The bottom line is trust your ears and don’t hesitate to experiment. It’s really a matter of taste. If you have a mic pre that has separate gain and output knobs you can experiment with the the setting of the gain knob. Try cranking it and bringing down the output knob a bit so you’re not clipping the imput of your soundcard. It clearly changes the sound.
Once we have the signal chain hooked up I grab one of the mics, put headphones on, turn them up a bit and place the mic in the spot I thought I liked. I adjust to taste and move to the next mic if there is one (if I’m happy with the mic pre and guitar).
I’ll then record a little of the track and play it back through monitors I trust to make a final decision. After I’ve settled on a sound I’ll put a compressor on it. I have a thing for classic compressors like an LA2A or 1176.
The thing to remember is a great signal chain does not make great music, it merely helps to capture it. Don’t forget about that cheap ass mic collecting dust in the cabinet. It might have the perfect EQ curve for that track you’re recording. Since working with Nathan I’ve embraced using a “dark horse” mic or pre. They might not be good for everything, but that one thing they do may be great for something.
For instance, when recording a track called “Borders” for Abby’s new album Nathan mentioned that he might stick a RE20 right up near the soundhole. The reason was that Abby is playing this groove that sounds like a guitar and bass at the same time. The RE20 picks up lovely low end. When it came time for us to track it I remembered what Nathan mentioned. I stuck an RE20 right near the soundhole. I also found that I liked the sound coming from above the guitar. So in addition to using the RE20 I put a spaced pair of AKG 414’s above her. One 414 facing down at the bridge and the other facing down near where the body meets the neck. To accentuate the track we used a Martin HD-28 which projects more bass than the other guitars we had. The HD-28 blooms in a really nice way and is kind of naturally compressed.
Abby plays guitar like a full band. Sometimes it sounds like drums, bass and rhythm guitar at once. Sometimes the missionary position of mic placements is not going to pick everything up. Which explains the use of the RE20 on “Borders”. There is a track on her album called “Landing Gear”. On this track she’s hitting the guitar with her hand like a drum at times. Nathan wanted to capture the bass drum like quality of the sound we were hearing live. He grabbed some console tape and a pair of headphones. Within 10 minutes we had a pair of headphones (using them as a microphone) taped to her guitar and with a stereo pair of small diaphragm condensers. The headphones really picked up the “guitar drum”. Compressed hard and mixed with the mics it really added another dimension to the track. One instrument sounded like 3.
There are moments where you just have to not mess it up. Some matches are just meant to be. We were in pre-production for a song titled “Lost on Me”. Abby had brought in an HD-35 to consider using on the track. At one point I was walking back and forth from a different room as she was playing and everytime I reached this one spot I got this feeling. It was almost like a twitch. I would leave and come back and it would happen again. Finally I realized that my ears were freaking out over this beautifully written song and the sound coming from this special HD-35. It was stunning. I went running for a sharpie and some paper and carefully documented where she was sitting and where I was standing in the room. After we broke for dinner and resumed our session I knew where I wanted to place her and the room mic. I tracked it with three mics. I used a stereo spaced pair in front and then a large diaphragm room mic in the “spot”. The job was simply to carefully represent this sound and not mess with it. We also didn’t track with a click track on that song. I really, really wanted to capture what I heard earlier that day when Abby, Nathan and myself were in pre production.