Classical Guitar in the Surround Era

Classical guitar is steeped in tradition, but as technology has changed, the process of recording guitar is changing as well. So when Nestor Ausqui (an internationally-acclaimed classical guitarist from Santa Fe, Argentina, who founded the Santa Fe Guitar Quartet and Del Sur Guitar Quartet) started work on his latest CD De Aquella Luz, he wanted not just a studio with classical-friendly gear, but also a willingness to try new approaches.
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He booked a month at Maricam Studio in Santa Fe, New Mexico — now in its fifth year, and one of the few high-end project studios that specializes in classical music. The plan was to do tracking at Maricam, then have the raw tracks edited/mixed by Marcelo Cornut in Argentina (with MP3s emailed for reference), and the final tracks shipped back to New Mexico for mastering.

THE SETUP

Scott Irving, the Director of Maricam Studio, says that “There’s a reason why ‘get a good sound at the source’ is a cliché: It’s true. Nestor plays a $25,000 Daniel Friederich guitar and unlike some guitars that have big resonances in order to project live, the Friederich has a very balanced, even tone that pretty much dictated what kind of mics we should use. At AES Dirk Brauner told me his Phantom C was ideal for classical guitar; I was familiar with them, having used them as vocal mics on female singers, so we set them up in a X-Y configuration (Figure 1). Dirk was right: They were able to capture the guitar’s ‘large’ sound, which the other mics we tried couldn’t do. Also, we were fortunate that the style of the Argentinian and Uruguayan music Nestor plays puts a premium on not having finger squeaks — we could mic pretty close to the guitar.”

The surround element required overhead mics, but here the story was more about the room. Irving elaborates, “The secret to getting really good ambience for classical guitar is that we use Brazilian rosewood acoustic panels; it’s thinner and less dense than Indian rosewood, so the overtones almost ‘explode’ out of the wood.”

To pick up the ambience (Figure 2), Irving chose Røde NT2A mics. “That may seem surprising, but they’re dead quiet — quieter even than my Neumann U67s — which was crucial. We ran them through D. W. Fearn VT-2 tube preamps, which added a little bit of ‘character’ that brought out the best of the rosewood. However, for the Brauners, Dan Kennedy’s superb Great River MP-2NV solid-state preamps got the call. Of all my preamps it sounds the clearest, and provided a proper balance to the warmer room sound.” Irving favors Zaolla cables; compared to other cables, Irving says, “The clarity is outstanding. It may just be a case of being the right match for the mics and pres, but they take nothing away from the sound.”

THE TECHNOLOGY

Irving uses Pro Tools 7.3 HD running on a Mac dual G5 computer (2.7GHz, 8GB RAM) at 48kHz. “I had just gotten Digital Performer before starting this project, as I was hoping to work with a local mixing engineer who uses DP on the Mac. However, due to schedule conflicts he couldn’t do the mix, and Marcelo is a Pro Tools guy. It was a good lesson, though: Certain people are most comfortable with certain tools, and they need to be accommodated. And frankly, having now seen DP in action, I’m impressed.”

As a break from recording, Nestor had played a concert in a church and fell in love with the room sound; so Irving, along with producer Peter Sheehey, made a decision to augment the natural ambience with a taste of digital reverb applied only to the overhead mics. Irving notes, though, “We didn’t actually do an impulse of the church, as both the Waves IR-1 and Sony Oxford reverbs have stock settings that come really close.”

Ultimately, Irving used the technology with one purpose in mind: “The goal of recording classical guitar is to record a virtuoso player in a natural setting. That means ambience and ‘real’ acoustics, and for surround, it means using 5.1 to produce the most life-like, natural ‘he’s sitting in the room with me’ effect. Sometimes it seems classical recordings lack a certain amount of ‘life’ in their sound, but we believe this CD will convey Nestor’s playing with an immediacy that’s possible thanks to decidedly non-classical technology.”