Vocals: Tracking Singer-Songwriters - EMusician

Vocals: Tracking Singer-Songwriters

Recording a singer/ songwriter can be one of the most trying gigs you’ll ever get. This is not due to any technique or technology hang-ups, because the setup itself is typically one of the simplest you can imagine. No, the real nut of recording the singer/songwriter is in the psychology.
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Recording a singer/ songwriter can be one of the most trying gigs you’ll ever get. This is not due to any technique or technology hang-ups, because the setup itself is typically one of the simplest you can imagine. No, the real nut of recording the singer/songwriter is in the psychology.

Didn’t Freud Produce Pete Seeger?

Singer/songwriters often have the worst traits of both disciplines combined in one package—the total narcissist tendencies of a singer, mashed-up with the introverted madness of a songwriter. Throw in equal measures of righteous indignation for some cause, and/or lost, unrequited, or toxic love, and you have a good chance of the personal dynamic between the artist and engineer/producer going sideways. In this article, we’ll deal with surviving an artist who simultaneously sings and plays acoustic guitar.

A Cocoon of Sonic Love

To capture these hothouse flowers before they come unglued, it is essential to have the prime acoustic space scoped out in your studio well in advance. Acoustic guitar tone being, well, acoustic, the overall results really live or die on the natural reverb of the space in which it is recorded. Hard walls, ceilings, and floors provide excellent reflection of sound, so finding the best “live” area will go a long way to getting a sound quickly.

Invading Sensitive Spaces

Assuming you have a decent selection of mics in your collection, go straight for the best condenser mic you have. Acoustic guitars seem to love condensers, as these mics generally serve up an expansive, dynamic, and sweet sound. If the guitar being recorded projects extra low end, try a small-diaphragm condenser. If the overall guitar tone is bright, try a large-diaphragm model. If you have both types, experiment with using them simultaneously with each signal recorded to a separate track for cool stereo tricks or toneblending fun.

Most of the low-end energy of an acoustic guitar comes directly out of the soundhole, so if you place the mic directly in front of it, chances are the results will be a boxy sounding mess of bass you could spend half of your life trying to EQ away. Start by positioning the mic about a foot from the guitar, aimed at where the guitar neck joins the body. If the sound is too bass heavy, point the mic further up the neck. If you need more beef, point the mic carefully towards the soundhole.

Even if you manage to capture the most incredible acoustic guitar tone ever, your singer/songwriter may tweak because “it doesn’t sound like it did when I was playing it.” Here’s a simple way to nip that madness in the bud. Set up a small-diaphragm condenser at ear-level with the player, and point it down towards the guitar. Send the signal to a separate track, and—viola!—you have recorded a close approximation of the sound the player is hearing. Mix this track in with the main track until satisfaction is achieved.

Separate But Equal Signals

As you can’t stick gobos or blankets all over our singer/songwriter, you’re going to have to figure out a way to get maximum separation between the vocal and guitar mics. Look for a dynamic mic with a supercardiod pattern that will reject most of the sound coming from the guitar. If the singer has a soft- to medium-loud voice, place the mic about one or two feet from their pie hole. If your singer/songwriter has something to scream about, increase the distance to a yard or so away from the source of angst.

Now you’re ready to go. Light some incense, put out a plate of mung beans and hummus, and slap up a poster of a baby seal—whatever it takes to provide inspiration—and hit Record.