How to Record Acoustic Guitar
If you’re a guitar-based songwriter, no matter the genre, you may have already discovered that recording acoustic guitar well can be surprisingly tricky. Sure, it might be easy to record a quick scratch track for a demo, but it’s another thing entirely to achieve an album-worthy, pro-sounding recording in a home or bedroom studio.
Without a solid recording game-plan, it’s easy to wind up with an acoustic guitar track that has too much room noise, or is too boomy, or too thin. And acoustic guitar is exceptionally difficult to try and “fix in the mix” - it’s essential that you get the track sounding how you want it right at the source...
In this article, I’ll walk you through the tried and true bedroom studio method for recording acoustic guitars. While there is no single recording method that is definitively “the best”, I'll show you a simple and effective miking technique employed by home recording artists around the world to achieve a commercially competitive sound.
Let’s do it!
The Miking Technique
Mono vs. Stereo - Before anything else, let’s address the pros and cons of miking your guitar using one mic (mono) or two mics (stereo).
Mono recording, when you only use one microphone, is preferable in most circumstances when tracking acoustic guitar. It is simpler to execute well, you don’t have to worry about any phase issues, and, arguably, the acoustic guitar isn’t a large enough sound source to merit having a designated left and right side.
Stereo recording, when you use two microphones, can be the right choice when recording acoustic guitar depending on the type of song you’re recording and the space you’re recording in. If you’re recording in a large, beautifully reverberant space and you’d like to also capture the room, a stereo pair is the right way to go. Additionally, if you’re producing a soft, minimalistic, or delicate
acoustic guitar-centered song, you’ll want to have a full and wide stereo image of your main instrument.
Typically, though, mono recording is the default method for home recording artists as they usually lack access to a large, reverberant, professional treated space and most home-recording artists don’t own an identical stereo pair of microphones. For those reasons, the remainder of the article will be written with the assumption that you’ll be tracking your acoustic guitar in mono.
Room Selection - Now that that’s settled, let’s consider in what room you will track your guitar. I go over how to select the right room in your home for recording in my Vocal Production Handbook, which is FREE for you to download (I encourage you to check it out!). As room considerations for recording vocals apply to recording acoustic guitar as well, here is the relevant excerpt:
“As we don’t all have professionally-treated recording booths in our homes, it’s important to pick the right room for the job. Unless you’re deliberating choosing to be experimental and track in a big reverberant bathroom or a large church or something (totally cool if you want to go that route) the best bet is for you to select a small to medium-sized room that is full of stuff, preferably soft stuff. Think couches, furniture, tapestries, pillows, rugs, etc. Clutter will absorb unwanted reflections and frequencies. If there is stuff in the ceiling corners, even better. The room doesn’t need to be overly dead, as we still want our vocals to sound like they’re existing within a real space, so aim to find a balance. Walk around the space and let out short shouts (as awkward as it may feel) and listen carefully for any nasty reflections or frequency build-ups.
Choose a small to medium-sized room over a closet. While professional booths are the size of a closet, you don’t want to record in yours - professional studio booths are treated with 12 inches of sound proofing fiberglass. No matter how many clothes you might have in your closet, it won’t be enough to fully dampen the room’s reverb that, being very short, will appear significantly louder in the mic.
Mic Placement - The second decision to make is where to place the mic in the room you’re working with. Assuming that you’re in a square or rectangle space, you’ll want to avoid placing the mic in the exact center of the room (where unwanted resonances can build up) and placing the mic too close to any wall (where nasty low frequencies can get trapped). Looking at the diagram below, you’ll want to choose a spot somewhere in the blue zone.
Aim the mic towards the corner if possible, as this will maximize the distance between the mic and the nearest wall.”
Guitar to Mic Relationship - Now that we’re in the correct room and we’ve placed the mic in the right spot, we should consider how to place the mic relative to the guitar. There are two things to think about:
Direction: Although it might seem intuitive to point the microphone directly at the sound hole, do not do that. The sound hole is like an erupting volcano of sound waves - the microphone will be awash in boomy low-end frequencies and the recording will lack any top-end presence or definition.
Instead, start by pointing the mic at the 12th fret of the guitar, or around where the neck meets the body of the guitar. From there, you can fine-tune the mic’s direction after you’ve recorded a quick sample of guitar and are able to hear how the mic should be adjusted.
Be sure not to point the microphone at an angle - the line of the guitar neck and the line of the microphone direction should be perpendicular
Distance: In order to capture the full width of the instrument, you’ll want to place it back around 12 to 16 inches (30-40cm) away from the guitar.
Once you’ve established your starting position, use tape to physically mark on the ground where your mic/mic stand is positioned. Additionally, make a mental-note of where in space you are holding the guitar, and at what angle the guitar is facing the microphone.
Don’t Settle! - From your initial starting position, record 30 to 60 seconds of playing (making sure to play exactly how you intend to play while actually recording) and then listen carefully to the recording. Does it feel…
...too boomy? Meaning, there is too much low-end presence and not enough high-end presence? The mic might either be too close to the sound hole laterally or too close to the guitar. Audition moving the microphone towards the 9th or 10th fret or back the microphone away another inch or so.
…too thin? Meaning, there is too much string action and not enough full-bodied resonance? The mic might either need to be moved laterally closer to the sound hole or closer to the guitar. Audition moving the guitar towards the 14th or 15th fret or bring the mic nearer to the guitar
Again, don’t settle! Even if you need to take 15-20 tedious minutes going back and forth making micro-adjustments, that is time well spent. As you move the mic around searching for the best position, use tape to mark the mic positions that are potential winners. In your DAW, you can flag your test recordings as “Green Tape” or “Blue Tape”, etc. Create a few options to compare and select the position that gives you the best result.
Tips and Best Practices
Now that we’ve established the fundamentals of how to mic an acoustic guitar with a single microphone, let’s look at some of the other, equally important factors you should consider during your session.
Commit to your Mic Set Up! Once you determine the ideal mic position, commit to it for the duration of your session! Do not make any micro-adjustments in between takes, and maintain a consistent physical orientation relative to the mic. This is for two reasons: Firstly, you want to make sure that all of your takes sound identical so that, if need be, you can freely edit takes together later without worrying about sonic-inconsistency. Second, it’s essential that you focus entirely on your performance while you’re tracking, and not thinking about whether or not the mic placement is perfect. Commit to your mic set up, then forget about it and focus on nailing the performance.
Use the Right Guitar. More than anything else, the biggest factor in getting a great acoustic guitar sound is the actual guitar you choose. While that’s obvious, it’s worth mentioning - if you have access to more than one studio-worthy guitar (one that is intonated well), make sure to audition it for the part. All guitars sound different, even if they came off the same assembly line in the factory, so pick the right one for the song.
Use New Strings. Unless you’re deliberately playing an older guitar with ancient strings for that “rustic” vibe, put on new strings for the session. Using new strings is the easiest way to get a brighter and richer sound.
To Pick or Not to Pick. That is the question… that you should consider carefully. Rather than absentmindedly recording the guitar however you’re used to playing, audition playing the part with and without a guitar pick. The use of the pick dramatically alters the “action” of the guitar, or how the initial strike of the chord or note sounds. It might seem simple, but it’s a detail that’s often overlooked and it makes an enormous difference in the final product. So be deliberate - the mixing engineer will not be able to go back in time and remove the pick from your hands.
Be Dynamically Consistent. This is particularly applicable if you’re tracking a guitar part that’s a steady strumming pattern, like the rhythm guitar part of a indie rock song. Aim to play dynamically consistently throughout the song so the part is easier to edit and mix in post production.
Reduce the risk of unwanted noise - While recording, wear soft clothes that don’t ruffle or otherwise make noise when you shift around. Also, take off any necklaces, wristwatches, rings, or anything else that might jangle or make noise. Finally, select the right sitting stool for the job, one that does creak (unless you deliberately want to capture that natural vibe).
Play to a Click - When building your headphone mix, make sure to include a click/metronome and feature it prominently in your mix. Strong, consistent timing is critical to good acoustic guitar track, so focus on the click intentently while you’re playing to avoid any rushing or dragging. If you deliver on-time performances, it’ll be easier to edit together your takes into a final guitar track.
Record Full Takes. Rather than tackling the song section by section,
record the entire song, front to back, 5-6 times. Or until you feel like the part is “in there”. Even if you make a mistake, just plow forward and keep going.
Edit During the Session - Finally, before you breakdown your mic set up, you should sit down and edit together your guitar takes into one big supertake. It’s critical that you do this now, as it will be impossible to recreate the exact miking set up once you break it down. Comb through your takes, selecting the best moments from each, and build your final comp’ed guitar track. If you discover that you’re actually missing a few moments, you can jump back into the room and record just those sections
Thank you for reading!
I hope this article will help you achieve a stronger acoustic guitar sound for your next project. If you’d like to learn more about some of the methods and techniques I touched on in this article, like building a headphone mix and editing, I encourage you to check out my FREE Vocal production ebook. Though it's focused on vocal recording specifically, a lot of the studio techniques are applicable to any instrument.
Til next time!
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