Taming Signal Bleed At Acoustic Sessions

To spend a few months on a record is common nowadays, but guitar virtuoso Hans York wanted to avoid a drawn-out process, so he and his band spent only two days recording the tracks for his new folk-jazz gem, Young Amelia.

“I wanted to get back to a live-performance style—the way music used to be recorded,” says York, who went through about 150 guitars before he found a Santa Cruz acoustic that was “just right” for the album.

To ensure a live approach would still produce a pristine, modern sound, York sought out 30-year studio veteran David Lange, who has plenty of experience miking all kinds of acoustic instruments. Of course, York’s decision to sing while playing meant the first hurdle for the Young Amelia sessions was eliminating signal bleed.

“Hans has done enough recording, and he knows his instrument well enough that I wouldn’t tell him what he could or couldn’t do,” says Lange. “With someone else, I would give the pros and cons of playing and singing simultaneously, and then ask if they really wanted to record that way. Voice bleed into guitar mics definitely does not sound pretty.”

To diminish as much bleed as possible, Lange placed a Sennheiser MKH 50 near the body of the guitar, a B&K near the 12th fret, and made sure York was as close to the vocal mic—a Neumann U87 (which was routed through a Neve 1272 module and an ADL 1000 tube compressor)—as was comfortable.

“The MKH 50 is very efficient at rejecting voice bleed—especially when it’s down on the body,” says Lange. “The B&K was a little more problematic—if you soloed the B&K, you’d get some bleed, but it was pretty negligible. Happily, Hans is great at balancing the volumes of his guitar playing and vocal performance.”

Lange’s studio was also a factor in keeping the live recording feasible. “The room is big—about 20x30—but it’s pretty anechoic,” he says. “There’s about four inches of absorption in the ceiling, so it’s really dead sounding. When you walk in, it isn’t very pleasant, but I can get away with recording a few things in the same room because the ambient sound is very clean and precise. For that reason, I tend to use little or no effects— maybe a little Altiverb or Lexicon reverb. I hate big effects chains, and outboard gear doesn’t excite me. Good mics and preamps are what excite me. I may throw a little compression on a vocal or the bass, but I usually don’t touch anything going down. We like to come from a ‘quote unquote’ natural place.

“However, I do find myself making far too many EQ adjustments. I will listen for problems—mostly in the lower midrange—and then just work that area until I tone it down. I’ve gotten better at finding the bad parts.”

Bass frequencies tend to be Lange’s biggest issue, and he says keeping the mic away from the guitar’s soundhole eases the problem somewhat. “Off the body, it always seems that there’s too much going on at 600Hz. When miking the guitar’s neck, it always seems the A note is too resonant. Obviously, I will turn down those frequencies.”

When it comes to finding the perfect spot for the guitar in the mix, Lange likes to go big. “I usually go for a wide stereo sound,” he says, “especially with singer/songwriters. I go as wide as possible so the guitar stays out of the way of the voice. I’ll get the voice in the center, and then flank it with guitar. You know, I just love the air moving from a piece of wood. When people want to do something electronic, I’m not that useful, but with acoustic music, I can usually get people the sound they’re looking for.”