What do you do (production-wise) to your acoustic guitar tracks to make them sound oh so good?

March 22, 2010 8:01 AM

What do you do (production-wise) to your acoustic guitar tracks to make them sound oh so good?

With Pro Tools, I finally have a real DAW, and I'm like a kid in a candy store every time I sit down to the computer to record. I definitely want to find my personal sound on my own to a certain extent, but I'd also love some tips and advice.*

So, how you make your acoustic guitar sound so good? What plug-ins/effects do you use, what is your mic setup, do you use several tracks, where do you record - anything that affects the quality and sound of your guitar, I want to hear about it.

*In fact, I have a fantasy of a whole series of forums/threads on Music Talk on various aspects of recording, since it's something we all do here and that some folks are truly brilliant at. So a separate thread on vocals, guitars, drums, bass, horns, mixing, mastering, editing techniques, etc. But, I'll just start with this.
posted by ORthey (13 comments total) 8 users marked this as a favorite

This is sort of the age-old question. I struggle with this constantly. There are myriad techniques to record acoustics. I think you'll find that most of them use two input sources that are mixed together. Usually it's a mic pointed at the 12th fret or so and another down by the soundhole, 6 or so inches away, something like that. But this varies depending on your mics, your guitar, your playing style, etc. Most of what you will read will say to play with the mic position until you "find the sweet spot" which is frustrating because you just want an easy answer but unfortunately it's the truth.
Major Dundee posted about the one-mic-in-front, one-mic-beside-your-ear technique a few months ago, which is pretty interesting. I tried it a bit, it's very finnicky but yields interesting results.
Lately I've been playing with the large diaphragm mic in front and below the soundhole, pointed up; mixed with the LR Baggs M1 Active pickup that I bought recently for my new guitar. Despite my life-long hatred of that acoustic-with-a-pickup sound, it's a pretty great pickup and the key is to mix it and use sparingly. Getting better but still not 100% satisfied, so the journey continues.

I think it's an endless pursuit.
posted by chococat at 8:41 AM on March 22, 2010

Can't speak much to recording, but I just got an acoustic amp (Roland AC-60) that eqs the signal and adds chorus & delay and it sounds a million times better than plugging right into the mixer. So I'd start with those 3 effects and see what you can get.
posted by jpdoane at 8:47 AM on March 22, 2010

I don't know the first thing about mic placing (and I think chococat covered it brilliantly up there), I'll resort to the one trick I know that does have a great effect: if you record two different tracks, playing almost the same thing and pan them, the sound will be a lot better. I learned it from ludwig_van and I found it to be completely true.

Of course, this is almost pointless advice given that you often record several acoustic instruments and more than one track of the main one, but I still had to throw it out there in case anyone finds it useful.
posted by micayetoca at 9:21 AM on March 22, 2010

I like using stereo mics in an x-y pattern like this or this. You could also do it by orienting two condensor mics in that pattern. Depending on the song, sometimes that is enough, but other times I use it in conjunction with a Shure SM57 positioned close to the sound hole at an angle. That way, The SM57 captures the attack, while the stereo mic captures the room. Then, when you mix down, you can decide how much of each to include.
posted by umbĂș at 9:54 AM on March 22, 2010

Agree with all above really - you simply have to experiment. Here's a few more tips for what they're worth:

Recording guitars is not the same discipline as playing live or strumming in your living room. You need to think about what the guitar's role is in a mix. Is it a featured instrument or just a bit of colour? Do you really need to play all those full chords? Will three strings do the job more effectively? Can't stress enough how important this is - don't just launch into things. Think. Very. Carefully.

Think about using a High Pass Filter to cut out unwanted low end crap. Acoustic guitars generate quite a bit of inaudible-though-present shit that you just don't want anywhere near your mix.

Beware of the proximity effect when using a mic. Get too close and you'll get a lot of pick "thump" and other muck that you really don't need. The LPF will deal with some of that - but best to avoid in the first place.

Use the filters and pads on the mic if it has any - a 10dB cut can be all you need to get a nice bright sound.

Familiarise yourself with the sonic "hot spots" for acoustic guitars, roughly:
150 - 300Hz - boost will beef up the tone
300 - 600Hz - boost if the sound is a bit thin
600 - 800Hz - meaty mids
1 - 3.5 KHz - boost for definition
3.5 - 12KHz - sparkle.

Before you start boosting anything to get a better sound, start be cutting things. Counter-intuitive, but well worth observing as a modus operandi. For instance, if the guitar sounds a bit muddy, try cutting a 2 or 3 dBs at 150-300Hz rather than boosting it at 2KHz or whatever. The mud will still be there! Always best to cut rather than boost in my experience.

Make sure your strings aren't fucked. All of the above + mic placement etc will be to no avail if the guitar basically sounds shit.

Get a decent guitar - ditto.

Don't start larding on processing and modulation effects (e.g. chorus) until you have a good basic sound. Certainly don't print them. If you find that the guitar only sounds good with a shitload of chorus, compression and reverb - you have a problem. A well-recorded acoustic guitar simply doesn't need all of that stuff - a modest amount of compression and a shimmer of reverb in the mix, and you're there.

Enough already!!
posted by MajorDundee at 11:13 AM on March 22, 2010 [3 favorites]

Except for pre-amps. Very important piece of kit, the pre-amp. Good mic + shit pre-amp = shit sound. Nothing-special mic + good pre-amp = good sound. My current hobby-horse. I'll shut the fuck up now....
posted by MajorDundee at 4:00 PM on March 22, 2010 [1 favorite]

This is all awesome and very helpful info for me - I'm pretty much a novice when it comes to recording. Well, I've done a fair amount of recording, but I've never learned any techniques, I've just been sort of figuring it out on my own.

MajorDundee, you can keep commenting as many times as you want!
posted by ORthey at 4:22 PM on March 22, 2010

I don't have good gear for recording acoustics, so I haven't built up a lot of knowledge on the subject, but I wanted to just echo what MajorDundee said about really planning WHAT you play. I find that when I play guitar in a live setting (that's code for "by myself"), I'm playing it in a way that basically replaces a whole band. When I play it to record a part in a song, it almost always is a good idea to edit a lot BEFORE recording. If it's strumming, then I do less frequent strums, or play on fewer strings. If it's a picking pattern, maybe I relearn the pattern on just the three brightest strings, leaving room in the mix for other instruments to cover the lower range. So basically, sometimes recording LESS guitar gives you a better guitar sound.
posted by edlundart at 9:59 PM on March 22, 2010

I'm a huge proponent of the 12th fret / bridge setup at about 6" to 12" distance from the guitar. I use Samson C02s (~$100), and I bias the 12th fret mic to pick up the majority of the treble/mids and keep the bridge mic biased towards the bass end of the spectrum. This has yielded a largely-consistent, rich sound for fingerstyle playing. For vocals, I use a Behringer B1 large-diaphragm condenser & pop filter, biased towards the treble. These mics are mounted on a 3-mic boom with the vocal mic sticking out of the top post. Once I feel that I have a good mix, I'll record everything in one track, one take. As for effects, I rarely use them myself, save for the slightest touch of plate reverb at the end.

If I had more cash, I'd buy a higher-end large-diaphragm condenser and do everything with just one mic hanging from the ceiling, but I don't have that kind of scratch.
posted by The White Hat at 11:21 AM on March 23, 2010

i cheat and use acoustic guitar simulators for my electrics - it really doesn't sound right by itself, although it's somewhat close - but in a mix, it can work
posted by pyramid termite at 9:01 AM on March 24, 2010

The advice about the guitar's role in the mix is extremely helpful - I think this is going to help me a lot. When I fingerpick, which I do on most songs, I often have to suppress the urge to play very fast and with lots going on string-wise, and it definitely muddies the sound. I'll start playing around with identifying the sounds that I really need and the ones that are superfluous, as well as highlighting the sounds that I want in the mix.

I often do double my acoustic guitar tracks, as miceyetoca mentioned, sometimes with the exact same track, sometimes with another one of me playing something similar, and pan them left and right. Depending on the sound, sometimes I will pan them all the way left and right, but that makes it sound (to my ears at least) verrrry different on headphones than on speakers. I use a little reverb, a little compression, and have been playing around with all sorts of other stuff. It's all new to me, really. I've never used filters or anything like that.

I have a lot of experimenting to do with mic placement. I recently learned how to remove the occasional unwanted sound of my finger sliding on the string, which was cool. I also need a new acoustic guitar, but that won't happen for a while.

The other day I spent a good couple hours tweaking a guitar sound with all sorts of effects and such and finally I removed everything but the compression and it sounded way better. Good lesson learned.

Great advice everyone.

/random thoughts
posted by ORthey at 5:05 PM on March 24, 2010

More or less re-iterating what others have said here...I agree with MajorDundee...pre-amps are important. You can stick an SM57 in front of anything through a good pre-amp and it can sound great.

You can never go wrong with a good condensor mic, either though. Having a selection is handy (my go-to's are an AKG414 and a Neumann TLM105). I also have some 57's and a cheap Studio Projects C3 which sounds really good up close but gets quite fuzzy more than 8" away though (this can be kind of handy, though).

Placement and proximity is also unbelievably important, as MajorDundee mentioned. If you pay attention to where the source/guitar is placed the room, how it interacts with the surfaces, and where the mic is picking the sounds up, then moving them around and listening to the effect it has can be a revelation. You can get some really interesting sounds if you're prepared to experiment (like playing the guitar at one end of the room and close miking a wall at the other end).

Finally, it really helps if you know what sound you're expecting in the mix (or rather, how it is you want it to sit and interact with the other elements). This is really obvious sounding, but it will help make finding a sound less about being flat-out awesome and more about being useful. It also has the benefit of making you pay closer attention to the effect that your choices have on finding that sound.
posted by Jon-A-Thon at 10:03 AM on March 26, 2010

Lately I've been mostly recording my Acoustic Guitar tracks with this Cheap pair of Pencil Condenser Mics (Small Diagram Condensers in a right angled X type pattern.) but I find they are often a bit too twinkly.. (if you know what I mean)

I just use the Channel Mic Pre-Amps in a Soundrtracs Topaz Project 8 Mixing Desk. they are a bit noisy but I'm not fussy.

For awhile I was just using a Shure Sm-57 though running it into a Behringer Mixer Channel for Pre-Amps. this did give a more rounded but somewhat dead sound. The Acopustic guitar though was generally more of an Incidental part to the song - so it didn't really matter.

I will often double up the gutar part (ie two different takes) but sometimes this will muddy the mix too much. Especially now with the stereo Condenser Setup. using the Sm57 though I found i'd need to double it up. almost always.

I've also tried a few times doubling up the Guitar part with a Ukulele playing the same chords (for Rhythm guitar tracks). I thought that was quite nice. the Uke added some nice warm body to the track.

For processing I will often just add some mild Compression In The Box (in the computer) and EQ. I cut out a lot of the bass and sometimes the tops need a cut ( I think due to the Pencil Condenscers) but that seems to really reduce the sense of air and space in the mix. And a bit of Vintage Plate Reverb (emulated).
posted by mary8nne at 7:37 AM on March 30, 2010

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