The acoustic guitar is arguably one of the most challenging instruments to record, due to the large number of variables that affect its sound. In a sense, the instrument carries its own room — the body — around with it. The size, shape, and internal bracing of the body, as well as the type of wood used in its construction, have a profound effect on its acoustic properties and thus the guitar's overall sound.
Other factors greatly influencing an acoustic guitar's timbre include the neck construction, choice of strings, and type of pick used. But above all, it's a player's unique techniques that shape the sound of the instrument: have two musicians play the same guitar, and it will likely sound different, sometimes drastically so.
All of these factors come into play before the recording studio's acoustics and the engineer's mic selection and placement are even considered. If that were all the variables involved, recording acoustic guitar would be challenging enough. But you also have to consider the signal path, which includes selecting the best mic preamp for the job, and deciding whether or not to equalize and compress the signal going to disk or tape.
For this article, I interviewed four of the music industry's most accomplished recording engineers — Brian Ahern, Richard Dodd, Jay Newland, and Dave Way — to glean their expert advice on recording acoustic guitar (see the sidebar “Acoustic Guitar Gurus”). We talked about mic choice and placement, polar pattern selection, and signal processing (including the use of DI boxes). I asked the engineers what their favorite pieces of gear were for recording the instrument, and what equipment they would recommend for recordists on a limited budget. We also occasionally touched on the subject of mixdown considerations to keep in mind while recording.
The responses to my questions were surprisingly varied and not always what I expected. No matter how deep your expertise in recording acoustic guitar, you're bound to find some fresh tips and perspectives in the discussion that follows.
Too Much of a Good Thing
Before you even consider mic choice and placement for recording acoustic guitar, you must decide whether to track using one or two — or more — microphones. The key here is to think ahead to what might be needed at mixdown. The decision of how many mics to use to record the instrument often comes down to balancing the need for clarity against how big the guitar track needs to sound. In most cases, clarity wins out and a mono recording is the best way to get there.
“I prefer to use one mic,” says Richard Dodd. “Unless the acoustic guitar is the only instrument in the song, it's very difficult and a waste of time in the mix to have two mics. If you've got one that sounds great, you don't need another one.”
Jay Newland is of the same mind. He records acoustic guitar “mostly in mono, occasionally stereo if it's the only thing there.”
Dave Way also concurs. “More often than not, it's going to be one [mono] microphone,” he remarks. “The times when I would use a stereo mic would be if the guitar is going to be either the only instrument in the track or a really big part of it to where one lone mic and maybe a vocal is not going to be as interesting as something that's slightly bigger and more open. But most of the time it's going to be one mic.
“I find, as a mixer, nothing gets more dense and complicated than everything miked in stereo,” Way continues. “Often in a mix, I'm either picking one channel out of the left and right or, more often than not, summing a stereo track to mono and panning it in one position because, in a dense mix, lots of things in stereo just sound like moosh. If I know going into a recording that it's gonna be in a dense track, one microphone is a good friend.”
It may sound counterintuitive, but the pinpoint imaging provided by mono acoustic guitar tracks can often make a mix sound wider — especially if the same part is performed twice and recorded to separate tracks. Dodd, Way, and Newland are all fans of double-tracking the same acoustic guitar part and hard-panning the resulting tracks opposite each other in the mix (when appropriate for the production). The result usually sounds much wider and bigger than what any stereo-miking technique could produce. But that doesn't mean that piling on even more guitar parts will add more size.
“Often in a pop or pop-rock record, you're gonna have a double-tracked acoustic guitar, sometimes maybe even triple tracked,” Way notes. “I've mixed tracks where there are six acoustic guitar parts all playing basically the same thing, but that gets to be overkill. You end up sacrificing clarity for the sake of trying to make something sound huge. Things can only sound huge in context to something that doesn't sound huge.”
Brian Ahern offers an interesting twist on the double-tracking technique. He remembers one production where he added a digital delay to each of the two hard-panned acoustic guitar tracks. He panned each delay toward the opposite side from its dry counterpart “so that they kind of danced with each other back and forth. I'd pan guitar A to the left and pan the effect from that guitar halfway to the right. That's the only time I've done that,” Ahern recalls. He goes on to note that he made sure the effect was “dull-sounding so it would not distract, it would just create a mood. I always roll the top off my echoes. I find them distracting otherwise.”
Put It There
When recording acoustic guitar with one mic, Way generalizes his approach to mic placement by saying, “More often than not, you're gonna be down by the sound hole. I usually like to place the mic about 10 inches, maybe 12 inches from the guitar, if it's the only instrument I'm recording at the time. You might not be able to get as far away if you're in a really live room.” He also notes that a guitar played with fingers instead of a pick usually calls for closer miking to compensate for the instrument's resulting quieter sound.
“If I'm looking for something that's brighter,” Way continues, “the mic will probably be pointed more towards the bridge than if you're trying to get something warm.” If the guitarist is playing mostly the higher-pitched strings, Way says he might point the mic more at those strings to avoid having to “carve out the low frequencies with an EQ.”
Way stresses that these are all generalizations. “I'm always trying to put it in context before I make any of these decisions. There's never any rule, because the music always dictates what you're going for. You want to know what you're trying to achieve before you just blindly put it up.” That said, he notes “there are times when you have no idea what they're going to play and you don't have the ability to find out ahead of time,” such as when recording a live event. He also emphasizes that initial mic placement should always serve as just a starting point. “It's pretty rare that you're just going to put a mic in front and not want to go out and move it even just half an inch,” he says.
Ahern generally likes to mic acoustic guitar “as close as I can to where the strings are plucked.” To avoid a boomy sound with such close mic placement, he will use an omnidirectional mic. In fact, he typically prefers omni mics because they don't have all the design “machinations” that directional mics must have in order to create their null points, such as ports that change the incoming signal's phase. “A bad omni mic sounds better than an expensive cardioid,” Ahern declares flatly.
Dodd takes a markedly different approach to miking acoustic guitar from Ahern and Way. He goes so far as to say that miking the wide part of the guitar's body is “mostly employed when the instrument sucks.” He maintains that a good starting point for mic placement is roughly four to six inches away from the instrument, angling the mic down from above the level defined by the top of the sound hole. He positions it slightly past the end of the fretboard and aims roughly at the low E string. But he ironically points out that “wherever you put a microphone, as soon as you turn your back and walk away, that's the last you hear of that sound, because the player is going to settle himself in, lean back, and it's all going to be different anyway.”
FIG. 1: A small-diaphragm,
cardioid condenser mic is placed a foot in front of the guitar and about 18 to 24 inches above the sixth fret.
Magic Carpet Ride
It bears mentioning that yet another approach besides those discussed earlier may be necessary when recording overdubbed acoustic guitar in a heavily damped project studio, such as one that is carpeted or makes extensive use of acoustical foam. In such a situation, I have achieved great results by placing a small-diaphragm, cardioid condenser mic — one that responds very quickly to transients, such as a B&K 4011 — roughly 18 to 24 inches above the guitar's sixth fret, and about a foot in front of the guitar on the horizontal plane, angled so that it points at the strings (see Fig. 1). This mic placement would likely be too distant in a room with very live acoustics, when other instruments are playing with the guitar in the same room, or with a mic that has a soft high-frequency response.
For neophytes who are still learning how to record, Dodd advises putting up several mics simultaneously in different positions relative to the guitar while recording (see Fig. 2). They can then choose which mic(s) and position(s) sound the best during subsequent playback.
Newland has similar advice for acoustic guitarists who record themselves. He recommends they move the mic up and down the neck of the guitar while wearing headphones until they find the position that sounds the best. Newland generally avoids placing the mic near an acoustic guitar's sound hole.
FIG. 2: Recording with several mics simultaneously gives you the option of picking the ones that work best for the song when it comes time to mix.
Because every microphone has a different sonic signature — which, especially with a directional polar pattern chosen, varies according to the distance the mic is placed away from the source — mic choice is usually decided on together with mic placement. All four engineers were careful to state that they always make spontaneous mic choices based on the live sound being created by the guitar and player. They also said there is no inherent difference in their approach to miking an acoustic guitar fitted with a capo as opposed to one that is not.
Dodd, whose credits cover a wide range of both pop and country productions, takes essentially the same approach to miking acoustic guitar no matter what the musical style, noting that “the player makes more of an adjustment than a microphone ever could.” That said, all four engineers revealed a general preference for using small-diaphragm mics to record acoustic guitar.
“Often my favorite mic to start with would be like a KM 54 or an M 582, if I'm going for a nice, well-rounded kind of featured acoustic guitar,” says Way. (Both mics are vintage, small-diaphragm Neumann tube condensers.) “The other microphone that I love a lot of times is the AKG D 19,” a '60s-era dynamic mic used by the Beatles on drums, piano, and acoustic guitar. “It's great when you want something that has a little ratty attitude. It's sonically interesting rather than beautiful. You used to be able to get them for about $200 or $300, and now I've seen them as high as $600 on eBay.”
Newland also generally prefers small-diaphragm condensers for recording acoustic guitar, citing the Neumann KM 84 and AKG C 460 B. “That said, there are times when it seems like a Neumann U 47 [a large-diaphragm condenser mic] is the right thing to put up,” he qualifies. “A lot depends on the instrument.”
The artist's personal preference can also come into play. On Norah Jones's second album, Feels Like Home (Blue Note, 2004), Newland used a Royer R-121 ribbon mic placed 6 inches away from a fingerplucked acoustic guitar. “We really wanted to get the wood in the guitar,” he explains. Because the R-121 exhibits a significant amount of bass-boosting proximity effect and an attenuated high-frequency response, Newland recalls he had to roll off a little bottom-end EQ and add some highs. However, he mostly compensated by moving the mic farther down the neck, away from the sound hole, when he wanted a sound with less bass. He also points out that aiming the back side of an R-121 at the instrument yields a less bass-heavy sound. In any case, Newland preferred to roll off bottom-end EQ on the track as needed, rather than moving the mic farther away and picking up too much of the room sound.
Ahern likes to record acoustic guitar using a B&K 4090, in part because its fixed omni pattern and small profile facilitate very close miking. The larger B&Ks, such as the 4011, sound too pristine for his taste. “The 4090s have a little color to them, what I call ‘armpits,''” Ahern says. He recollects that he used an AKG 224E on all of the early Emmylou Harris records he engineered, with great results. He also cites the Neumann M 50 microphone as “arguably the best ever made. You can record an acoustic guitar 15 feet away [with an M 50], and it sounds like it's in your face.” For recordists on a budget, Ahern recommends the Shure KSM27 condenser mic on acoustic guitar.
Dodd's favorite small-diaphragm mics include the Neumann KM 140 and KM 56 (the latter is a vintage, variable-pattern tube mic), as well as the workhorse Shure SM57 dynamic mic. He'll use a mic with a wider frequency response — one that will capture more of the instrument's sound — if he doesn't know ahead of time how the guitar will need to fit in the mix. “It's easier to get rid of it than it is to make it up,” he explains. But if there will be a lot of electric guitars and drums for the acoustic guitar to compete with in the mix, Dodd notes, there is “no reason why an SM57 or 58 won't work. The mic's natural tendency to be ‘middley'' is going to save you some trouble later.”
Newland has also used the SM57 to record acoustic guitar. “In a rock context, where you have some pretty slammin' stuff going, put a 57 on there and compress it a little bit, and it'll give you that nice midrange rip,” he says. “Sometimes the unusual thing is the right thing. Most of the time, I do sort of the standard stuff. You know, the small condenser or whatever. But every once in a while, you just need something weird.”
Who's Sorry Now?
Dodd makes no apologies about using the inexpensive SM57 to record acoustic guitar. “A 57 only sounds like an inexpensive microphone when it's paired with an inexpensive preamp,” he declares. “You pair it with an extremely sensitive, musical preamp, like a Telefunken V76 or Neve 1073, and the balance of the two is a wonderful thing to be heard.”
Dodd's philosophy on mic choice should hearten those on a limited budget. He notes that using a very expensive mic can sometimes “adversely affect the performance” by putting added pressure on the performer. If, on the other hand, you “up the ante of the performance by making the person feel comfortable, that will improve the sound more than any finessing of microphone choice or position,” he says. “It's got to be in the ballpark. But you can have the best microphone and the best mic pre, and if the player isn't comfortable and can't perform, you've got nothing.”
Dodd asserts that fast setup is also far more important than choosing the absolute best mic. “It's better to have the wrong mic ready than the right mic after the performance has peaked,” he insists. “‘Keep playing, I'm just gonna try this … keep playing, I'm just gonna try this … keep playing, I'm just gonna try this …'' Okay, now they're all played out. Now you've got a great mic, and nothing to record.” He adds that the instrument, room, performer, musical arrangement, and choice of strings and pick “have more effect on the acoustic guitar sound than the choice of any given set of good microphones.”
ACOUSTIC GUITAR GURUS
Brian Ahern's discography spans 35 years and includes engineering, mixing, mastering, and production credits with many of the biggest icons in country music. Artists Ahern has worked with include Anne Murray, Glen Campbell, Emmylou Harris, Guy Clark, Johnny Cash, Linda Ronstadt, Béla Fleck & the Flecktones, George Jones, Tammy Wynette, and Ricky Scaggs. Ahern recently accepted the Canadian Country Music Association Hall of Fame Award.
Richard Dodd's recording and mixing credits know few musical boundaries and include work with artists as diverse as Johnny Cash, George Harrison, Green Day, Joe Cocker, Roy Orbison, Electric Light Orchestra, Boz Scaggs, Sheryl Crow, and John Hiatt. Dodd has also produced Uriah Heep, Little River Band, and Steve Earle, among others. His mastering credits include Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers and Jars of Clay. Dodd has earned Grammy Awards for Best Engineer (for Tom Petty's Wildflowers; Warner Bros., 1994) and Mixing (for Delbert McClinton's Nothing Personal; New West, 2001).
Jay Newland's lengthy discography includes engineering, mixing, mastering, and production credits for a who's who of jazz music. Newland has worked with Milt Jackson, Pat Metheny, Dave Brubeck, Charlie Haden, Michael Brecker, Jaco Pastorius, Etta James, and Keith Jarrett, to name but a few. His work also includes forays into the pop world, collaborating with such artists as newcomer Missy Higgins and the late Harry Nilsson. Newland has won eight Grammy Awards, including three for Norah Jones's 18-million-selling debut album, Come Away with Me (Blue Note, 2002), on which he served as producer, engineer, and mixer.
Dave Way has lent his magic touch to many a Top Ten single and album, in a dizzying variety of musical genres. He has engineered tracks for Michael Jackson, Dixie Chicks, Sheryl Crow, and, perhaps most notably, Macy Gray, on her Grammy-nominated, triple-Platinum album On How Life Is (Epic, 1999). Way has also mixed big-selling tracks for Pink, Christina Aguilera, Fiona Apple, Babyface, Savage Garden, Spice Girls, and Taylor Hicks (including Hicks's 2006 single “Do I Make You Proud,” which Way also coproduced for BMG).
It Takes Two to Tango
For all the benefits of recording acoustic guitar in mono, there are times when two or more mics are called for. This is often the case when the guitar is the only instrument in the mix and needs to sound very big.
In such a situation, Dodd sometimes likes to use one mic placed close to the instrument and a stereo pair placed farther back to capture room ambience. (Of course, distant miking dictates that you record in a room with desirable acoustics that will enhance the recording.)
FIG. 3: The mid-side (or M-S) technique uses two microphones to create a stereo image. A cardioid mic is pointed directly at the source, and a coincident, bidirectional mic (positioned so that the capsules of both mics are almost touching) is aimed 90 degrees off-axis to the cardioid mic. Polarities in the above illustration denote the receptive side(s) of each microphone. The two mic signals must be processed using specialized equipment in order to create and monitor the effect, which offers good mono compatibility.
Way usually takes a different approach when miking an acoustic guitar in stereo. “Often the first thing I go for is a stereo microphone like an AKG C 24 or a Shure SM2, so that my phase problems are going to be minimal,” he says. Way suggests the Sony ECM-999PR, a discontinued stereo electret condenser, as an inexpensive alternative to the higher-priced mics. “I really like the high end” of the ECM-999PR, he explains. “It's not full bodied at all, but it's very sparkly sounding. When I'm looking for a guitar sound that, in the mix, I would be rolling off bottom on anyway, and I want it to be in stereo, I'll use that mic. It does a really nice job.” He'll sometimes add another microphone as an ambient mic to complement the Sony's sound.
Ahern has a predilection for using ribbon mics to track acoustic guitar in stereo, in part because of the coloration they add to the recording. “I don't like flat recordings,” he says without hesitation. “Sometimes I'll record Emmylou Harris's guitar with two Varacoustics [vintage RCA ribbon mics], one up by the 12th fret and the other down by the fingers of the right hand. That's a pretty interesting sound.” In this configuration, he'll typically place the ribbon mics about six inches away from the guitar. He also uses beyerdynamic M 160 and M 130 mics in a mid-side configuration, placing the mics near where the fingers are plucking the guitar (see Fig. 3 for an explanation of mid-side mic placement). The vintage, '70s-era Reslo ribbon mic is another of Ahern's favorites on acoustic guitar. (For more tips on using ribbon mics on acoustic guitar, see “Ribbon Mic Summit” in the August 2006 issue of EM, available online at www.emusician.com.)
Newland usually leans toward using an XY mic configuration for stereo-miking acoustic guitar (see Fig. 4). “If I were going to use a pair of mics, nine times out of ten I would do XY,” he affirms. “I like the punch of it. You get a little more centeredness,” he says when describing the sound of XY miking compared with that achieved by using a spaced pair of mics.
FIG. 4: XY mic placement uses two coincidentally placed mics
(typically with a cardioid pattern) positioned to create an angle of 90 to 135 degrees between them. By positioning the capsule of one mic directly over that of the other, sound arriving at the mics in the horizontal plane will be picked up at virtually the same time, reducing phase cancellations. The XY technique is highly mono compatible.
Newland is not afraid to get radical, however, when a gigantic sound is called for. On Beyond the Missouri Sky (Universal, 2003), a DVD collaboration between Pat Metheny (playing acoustic guitar) and Charlie Haden (bass), Newland notes he “went for this monstrous, huge acoustic, stereo sound. Not stereo left and right, but this wider image of the guitar. I think we had eight tracks for the acoustic on a single pass. There would be a large-diaphragm condenser, a small-diaphragm condenser pair in XY, a spaced pair, an internal mic on the guitar, and a custom DI.” Newland used all of those mic signals to varying degrees. “If there was a big finger squeak and you wanted to get rid of that, you could kinda cheat it and push the level of the DI for a bar.” The large-diaphragm condenser and small-diaphragm condensers (in the XY configuration) were all cardioid and placed as close together as possible, roughly six to eight inches away from the guitar's 15th fret. The spaced pair was placed farther back and generally used more sparingly in the mix than the other mics.
Dodd and Way generally regard using a DI box to record acoustic guitar as a last resort to solve some sort of problem with the miked signal(s). Ahern and Newland see limited use for a DI signal when trying to achieve a creative effect. (See the sidebar “The Direct Route” for information on using DI boxes to record acoustic guitar.)
Dodd is adamant that a DI is useful “in a live situation only. It's such a ridiculous thing to put a DI on an acoustic guitar [in the studio],” he says. “You only do it when you have to. There are reasons to use a DI — in a live situation, it's very convenient and very controllable — but sound quality isn't one of them. It sucks. You don't need to use it, either.”
Way agrees with Dodd, saying he won't use a DI box “unless it's absolutely necessary. That's just not a sound that I particularly like.” When pressed to mention DI boxes he likes, Way countered that the last time he used one on acoustic guitar was “not in this decade.”
Ahern will use a DI box on acoustic guitar “only if the artist wants a special effect.” On one Emmylou Harris record, he recounts putting a Sunrise pickup on the acoustic guitar, boosting the signal with an old Music Man tube amp, and routing the amp's output to a spinning loudspeaker, in order to achieve a Leslie-speaker effect. When he must use a DI box, Ahern usually reaches for custom-built units. But he also notes that the API 512 preamp's instrument input “cannot be beat. It's often overlooked.”
Newland says that for a production that isn't “organic,” one option is to pan mic and DI tracks from the same recording pass opposite each other. “That gives you a pretty cool stereo effect,” he notes. When asked what DI box he could recommend, his response was that “for the money, the Countryman is one of the best DI boxes you can get.” He also lauds the Universal Audio 6176 Channel Strip as having “a great guitar direct input.”
Newland notes that the DI track can be a saving grace in some instances where bleed from a vocal outtake forces you to ditch a miked guitar track that was performed simultaneously. “There are times where the intention was for the voice and the guitar to go down at once, then you end up replacing the voice,” he says. “But there was something very cool about the guitar track, rhythmically, that was cut with the band. You still have the DI track. The music has to win out at that point.”
All four engineers stated that there was no difference in their approach to using a DI on an acoustic guitar fitted with magnetic versus piezoelectric pickups, with the exception that Ahern noted piezoelectric pickups usually require a healthy dose of EQ cut in certain frequency bands to sound decent. I have observed that the Demeter VTDB-2 Tube Direct box seems to load either type of pickup less than competing models (due to the VTDB-2's sky-high input impedance), resulting in the capture of a significantly wider range of frequencies. Also, musicians who are interested in using a DI with their Taylor guitar (300 Series model or higher) should check out the Taylor Expression System, which consists of three internally placed transducers and associated active electronics. It is by far the most natural-sounding DI system I have heard.
THE DIRECT ROUTE
Most acoustic guitar pickups provide an unbalanced, high-impedance, instrument-level signal unsuited for direct interfacing with line-level gear such as a workstation I/O box, mixer, or A/D converter. A DI (or direct injection) box converts the pickup's unruly audio signal into a balanced, low-impedance signal that professional audio gear can handle with grace. While most direct boxes (or “DIs” for short) provide mic-level signals at their outputs (requiring connection to a mic preamp for additional gain boost), a few models feature onboard gain-boost facilities that bump up the output level enough for direct connection to line inputs.
Recording the output of an acoustic guitar's pickup with a DI box is easy: connect an unbalanced cable from the instrument's output jack to the DI's unbalanced input, and then patch the DI's balanced output into the input for an outboard mic pre, I/O box, console mic input, or A/D converter for routing to your recorder or DAW (see Fig. A).
FIG. A: An acoustic guitar being recorded simultaneously with a microphone and DI box, routed to separate channels of a mic preamp.
If you are also using a mic or multiple mics to record the acoustic guitar, it's best to record each signal to a separate track so that you can independently (and perhaps dynamically) adjust the levels of the direct and miked tracks at mixdown. Be sure to delay the DI's track so that it is in phase with any miked tracks of the same acoustic guitar performance. It takes roughly 1 ms for the guitar's sound to reach a mic positioned 1 foot away. Delaying the DI signal by the same amount (1 ms for every foot the mic is distanced from the guitar) puts it in phase with the mic signal(s). Alternatively, DAW users can simply nudge the DI track later in time so that its waveform peaks line up with those for companion mic tracks. Aligning mic and DI signals in this manner reduces phase cancellations and comb filtering that would otherwise thin out bass frequencies and make higher frequencies sound less smooth.
For further information on using DI boxes, see “Direct Action” in the November 2001 issue of EM, available online at www.emusician.com.
Despite the DI box's occasional creative and problem-solving uses, a good mic and mic preamp will always deliver a more organic, natural, and realistic acoustic guitar sound. If you can't afford both a high-end mic and an expensive preamp, Dodd recommends that you put most of your money on the preamp.
“You can maximize [the quality of] an inexpensive microphone with an expensive mic pre,” Dodd notes. “But you can lose so much the other way around.”
When recording to Digidesign Pro Tools, Way prefers to use a tube preamp. “When you're going to digital, especially with something as transient as acoustic guitar, to be able to soften up those transients is definitely something you want,” he explains. “Otherwise, it can sometimes just hurt your ear, especially when you put a compressor on it.”
Ahern says, “The best all-around preamp for guitar is a [Neve] 1084. If you can't afford one of those, get a Peavey VMP-2 tube preamp. It sounds really close to a 1084. Available cheap, and they sound amazing. Nobody paid much attention to it when it first came out, but it was a fine piece of work, and everybody should own one.” (The Peavey VMP-2 is a discontinued dual-channel model that occasionally sells on eBay for around $650.)
Way and Dodd have no qualms about applying analog signal processing such as EQ and compression to acoustic guitar while tracking. In fact, they both stress the importance of getting the sound right in the analog domain in order to avoid the use of DAW plug-ins as much as possible. The big caveat is that you have to be sure the processing you want to apply is appropriate for the production before you cast it in stone. Prudence dictates playing it safe if you're just beginning to track and have no idea what will be needed at mixdown.
“The engineer's job is a bit like the Hippocratic oath: first, do no harm,” Dodd states. He won't hesitate to apply EQ and compression, however, when he knows it's needed or will add a nice touch. “If I'm sure, I'll commit,” he says, adding, “If this is the last overdub, you should be doing it the way it's meant to be on the record. What's the point in not doing that? Leaving too many options [open for mixdown] is a bad thing.” But he qualifies his statement by noting that “the EQ usually only comes into play to deliberately change something you already like and seldom to try and salvage something.”
Way agrees. “I try to move the mic before I put in EQ,” he notes. When EQ is needed, however, he says that “more often than not, you're either rolling off a little bottom, adding a little top, or both.”
Like Dodd, Way is “not afraid to put in the compressor. Ultimately, if I'm going for a sound, I'll go for it,” he says. A typical way in which Dodd and Way might use compression while tracking acoustic guitar would be to back the mic farther away from the instrument and compress the signal to bring out the room tone (if it's favorable). Way also notes that compression “can affect how the guitar player plays. If he gets that hyperreal sound in his headphones where he can hear every little detail, that can actually inspire a great performance.”
Unlike Dodd and Way, Newland usually shies away from compressing acoustic guitar while tracking, preferring to capture “the full signal.” He will, however, conservatively apply EQ while recording “if it's obvious it needs a little bit no matter how you look at it.” He notes that you can always add a little more EQ during mixdown if needed. He has no compunction about using EQ and compressor plug-ins, citing Waves Renaissance EQ and Renaissance Compressor as favorites.
“The Renaissance Compressor is probably the No. 1 plug-in that I have, period,” Newland enthuses. “It's great on guitars. It's a totally flexible, great piece of gear. I've got no problem slapping one of those things on in addition to whatever analog processing I'm using. I'm totally into the concept of a little bit of the old, a little bit of the new.”
I have also found Renaissance Compressor to be my go-to compressor, when uncompromised transparency, minimal coloration, and preservation of depth are required for acoustic guitar tracks.
Ahern will use compression and EQ while tracking acoustic guitar “if the player is looking for a specific trashy, rock 'n' roll sound.” But he notes that his favored UREI 1176 “may sit there for a year and never get lit up.” As for equalization tips, he revealed that “if you use a felt guitar pick, the plectrum noise becomes suppressed, and then you can crank up the high frequencies without any danger of clicking and banging.”
When asked about their favorite compressors and equalizers for tracking acoustic guitar, the four engineers cited mostly vintage, high-end models. However, when pressed for suggestions on an inexpensive compressor to use, Newland said of the FMR Audio RNC Compressor, “That thing, for $200 or so, is one of the most kick-ass pieces of equipment available.”
Good Is Good
As we wrapped up the interviews, Newland and Ahern both offered advice to those who are new to recording acoustic guitar. “If I didn't know what mic to put on it and was recording a great player,” suggested Newland, “I'd say, ‘What works for you?'' I would certainly ask the player what they've had success with. I think that people learning to record can learn a lot by asking other good players what helps. It's a good way to get another perspective and some extra knowledge.”
Ahern brought the subject of recording acoustic guitar down to earth by cautioning not to get caught up in equipment specs and theory while tracking. “I always ignore math,” he said flatly. “What sounds good is good. Period. Just turn the buttons till it sounds right.”
EM contributing editor Michael Cooper (www.myspace.com/michaelcooperrecording) is the owner of Michael Cooper Recording in Sisters, Oregon.