Today I’m going to discuss more concerning the recording of the acoustic guitar. I get a lot of complaints from some folks that they just can’t seem to get a good acoustic sound. It seems that it would be easy enough to simply stick the microphone up in front of the instrument and start banging away, but the results are usually less than ideal. In my experience in discussing the process with other guitarists, they almost always admit to owning one guitar which, although sounding terrible live, records better than their other, more expensive instruments. I’ll admit that I’ve determined that a full-bodied guitar presents a far greater challenge to mic than one which has a more narrow frequency range.
One thing which I’ve decided simply does not work for me is recording with a pickup system. I’ve never heard a pickup system which sounded anything close to a natural acoustic tone. Also I use outboard effects such as chorus, phase shifting, and flanging sparingly. This sort of ear candy is fine when adding fullness to a lone acoustic but turns into mud quicker than anything when doubled or recorded along with other instruments. My rule of thumb generally follows that if I can hear the effected sound over the natural sound, I’ve dialed in too much effect. Reverberation is fine in small doses when ambience is desired, but a little can go a long way.
Up until now, I’ve been talking about the acoustic guitar as a singularly recorded instrument. If, however, the acoustic is used as a rhythm section as complimenting other instruments, including, but not limited to electric guitar, bass and keyboards, our EQing takes on a different shape in that it becomes tighter in the frequency range that we want it to occupy. This is generally where home recordists begin to have problems. What works perfectly well in one instance will sound horrid in another, so we won’t ever be able to simply adjust the EQ and then leave it.
I’m aware that, as every artist approaches the craft of songwriting differently, they may feel comfortable recording tracks in an order which may be confusing to someone else. The system that I utilise depends on which instrument everything else centres itself around in the mix in my head. It is uncertain as to how well each individual may be able to hear a finished version of a tune in one’s imagination, but the long and the short of it is that if you can’t approximate the completed tune in your head, you’ll never be able to get it recorded to your satisfaction. This requires that we make mental or physical notes pertaining to the specific instruments and number of tracks that we envision. We may have to amend our notes later but we must begin with some sort of plan in order to map out our destination. After getting a solid fix on the general sound of the tune, I ask myself things such as: How many rhythm tracks do I plan on having? Will there be two acoustics or one acoustic and one electric guitar comprising the rhythm section? Will there be percussion? How many vocal tracks, if any? Everything depends on everything else and there will be a certain synergistic meshing if all things are anticipated properly. If not, we may instead wind up with mish-mash.
It is worth pointing out that every instrument has a specific frequency range, and you must play the EQ to that particular instruments’ favor. I have a copy of The Harvard Dictionary of Music and would suggest that everyone own a copy. In addition, everyone needs a copy of the Carnagie Note Frequency Chart for reference. If you know the fundamental tones, it will be a simple enough task to figure the first and second overtones or whichever ones you want to play around with. I’ve found that EQing is akin to playing an instrument in it’s own right.
Before I begin any recording, the tempo is arrived at first, tested and agreed upon. I can’t begin to tell how many times I was sure that a tempo was right until I set the metronome and began playing, only to realise that it was one or two bpm too slow. The next thing that I ascertain is the key. It may sound great in my head, but more times than not, I discover that my ability to sing in the particular key is going to be the most difficult part. Sometimes I can transpose, but other times I realise that this approach completely changes the mood of the tune. Serious considerations must then be made concerning the trade-off.
After these items are sorted out, I record a click track. I cannot over-emphasise using a click track. I never allow myself to think that my timing is good enough to record without one. It’s hard enough to keep the tracks tight as they stack up and the click will keep a over-zealous player in check. Everybody has the tendency to speed up when they play.
Now, if the acoustic is going to print first, but we’ve decided that we’ll have three other instruments in the mix, we’ll want to cut the EQ on the acoustic drastically in the bottom end. It isn’t unusual for me to scoop out everything below 300 or 400 Hz. I’ll dial in some 1.7 kHz for presence, kill everything above 7kHz and then record about a minute of the tune. As I listen back through the monitors, if I find that I need a bit more shimmer, I’ll pull up 10 or 12.5 kHz. It depends on the guitar I’m using. If I’m using silk and steel strings I’ll need to EQ the track differently than if I’m using a brand-new ( and squeaky) set of phosphor-bronze. I’m just giving these frequencies as guidelines, they are not intended to be hard and fast rules to adhere to. After the track is recorded, it will sound quite thin when played back alone, but when you lay down the bass track (yet another EQ juggling act) and throw on an electric with a bit of a boost in the 700 or 800 Hz range, you’ll get a good idea how hard shelving helps the instruments stand apart from one another, and how that acoustic will sound as natural as it should when coupled with the other tracks. This will all take several hours of practice and trial and error EQing, but you’ll soon begin to get an idea of how this type of pre-production greatly improves the sound quality of the finished product.
I’ll get into shelving around vocals next time. If you are a vocalist and you’ve already fiddled around with the EQing of your vocals, you already have some idea of the resonant range of your voice, and in the end, everything else revolves around this.
Johnny Nowhere is a home recording songwriter and composer with several years of trial and error experience.