Acoustic Recording Techniques: Acoustic Guitar, Single Microphone Techniques
Acoustic guitar is a beautiful instrument to play and even more to record. Any singer/songwriter artist should know the basics for getting a great sound when recording. Luckily, you've found the right place to do that! In this quick read you will learn how to use a single microphone in different positions to achieve the tone that you are looking for and at a quality level.
So let's get started!
One of the most obviously important pieces to this equation is your guitar. No two people will have the exact same guitar so this process can be slightly different for everyone. That being said there are still a few important things to think about before hitting that record button.
A quality sound will come from a quality set of strings. Unless you're going for that more vintage, less, clean tone, it's advisable to get some fresh strings on your instrument a couple days in advance so they can settle and you can get used to how they feel and sound. When recording a solo instrument, every little detail matters, so starting with a fresh set of strings (what ever your preference is) is a first step in the right direction.
Now this is a pretty obvious one, but in the excitement of recording it could be easy to forget to tune your guitar properly (whatever tuning method your prefer of course).
The room being recorded in, like the guitar itself, will vary person to person. I firmly believe in working with what you already have, but if you are able to book a nice studio space or somewhere similar, you most likely won't have to do a lot of work here in this category.
Depending on what your room is made out of (Hardwood floors, shag carpet, drywall, plaster, etc.) the sound can be reflected or absorbed in different ways. My recommendation, especially for solo acoustic guitar, is to record in a room that has a little bit of good reflection, and absorption. A certain level of reflection and reverberance can help keep your recording sound live and full while some absorption is helpful in handling pesky unwanted frequency imperfections. A great way to do this would be to cut the room you have into thirds, place your seat about one third of the way in and at a slightly diagonal position. If you have hard flooring, get a small rug, blanket, or some towels to put directly beneath you to catch early reflections. If your walls are also fairly untreated, a couch, cushioned chair, mattress, or some heavy curtains hung up close to a wall in front of you or to the side should help with some more absorption.
If you want less of a live sound and more of an intimate close sounding recording, you can double down on the absorption methods mentioned above.
Microphone selection can be a daunting task if you haven't ventured super far into recording yourself, but fortunately it doesn't have to be as complicated as it may seem. We will go over what types of microphones you can use, and where the best placement for these microphones is to achieve a certain sound for a quality recording.
For the most part we are going to be using some version of condenser microphone to capture the detail needed for a solo acoustic guitar recording, but that doesn't mean you can't use something different like a dynamic or ribbon microphone, condensers are usually the most common on hand and starter microphones for musicians.
Large Diaphragm Condenser
A large condenser microphone is probably the most common choice for recording solo instruments, especially for those newer to the process. Large diaphragm condensers provide a large, full, and round tone representation in your guitar recording. Some condensers are made to sound like a little bit more than what you would be hearing if actually sitting in front of the guitar listening. This can be a huge benefit depending on the atmosphere you are trying to achieve. These microphones generally tend to have more detail and even focus in lower end frequency response while still providing a good representation of the upper mids and higher frequencies. This is why most people lean towards the large diaphragm condenser, but it is certainly not the end all be all for recording solo acoustic, not by a long shot.
Small Diaphragm (or "Pencil) Condenser
The next most popular microphone for a musician to have would be a small diaphragm condenser microphone. Because of the construction of these microphones, you get a much different tone than you would with a large diaphragm. With small diaphragm condensers like the Shure SM137 you can expect to hear more of an openness in the upper frequency range while the lower frequencies are more tame and realistic. Overall, a small condenser can provide a more accurate representation of the guitar, as if you were sitting right in front of the player listening to it yourself. Depending on what you get, smaller condensers can sometimes be a bit more cost effective if you have a tight budget. You can usually find more budget friendly options like the MXL CR21s at a good cost, and your get TWO small diaphragm condensers for the price of one, can't beat that.
While dynamic microphones such as the coveted Shure SM57 are great for many applications, it wouldn't be my first choice to record solo guitar if you only had access to one microphone to record with. Pair with something like a ribbon mic, this would be a great choice, but we'll get to recording acoustic guitar with multiple microphones in a later blog.
A dynamic microphone will end up being not quite as detailed as either of the condenser options. There will be more of a mid-range presence, thinner bass, and almost a closed sounding top end. Dynamic microphones, especially in the more budget range need a decent amount of gain to get a good level, which means you'll have to deal with a much higher noise floor than what is ideal for recording solo acoustic guitar.
This isn't to stray anyone away from finding a good dynamic microphone to record acoustic guitar with, in fact you could use some of these characteristics to your advantage, especially if you are going for a more "Lo-Fi" vibe.
What About Ribbon Microphones?
Ribbon microphones are in an area of their own. Since this is more of a forum for my personal recommendations, while they can be great by themselves, I think a ribbon mic needs to be paired with at least one other (whether it be another ribbon, condenser, or dynamic) microphone for a quality sounding recording. A single ribbon by itself, to me, always leaves me wanting just a little bit more. It is always good to experiment with though and everyone's taste is different!
We will go over utilizing a multi-microphone setup in a future blog post and believe me, the ribbon microphones nail it in this area of recording solo acoustic guitar.
Microphone placement might be one of the most important parts of getting a great sounding solo guitar recording. These examples show the different ways you can position your microphone to get a variety of tones to keep it natural or bring a uniqueness to your recording.
**In these examples, the microphone shown is an Audio Technica AT2035 on a , one step under the AT2050 studio condenser. **
A Balanced Sound: End of Finger Board Position
In this position, the microphone is placed near, at the end of the fret board, or at around the 12th fret, about 10-12 inches away from the guitar. The microphone is then angled in about 45 degrees towards the very end of the fretboard.
This position helps to get a very balanced tone from the guitar as a whole. Depending on your taste and preference the more you tilt the microphone towards the sound hole, the more plectrum (picking noise) you can pick up in your recording. If you don't want too much pick noise in your recording, it's best to keep the front of the mic towards the end of the fingerboard.
A More Powerful Sound: Above Sound Hole Position
Positioning the microphone slightly above the sound hole can bring an entirely new feel to your solo guitar recording. This microphone position provides more representation of the guitar's lower end frequencies being produced. A VERY important part of this setup is that the microphone is positioned at an angle towards the strumming hand. This helps to prevent reflections from the body of the guitar going straight into the microphone. This technique also provides a slight balance to the lower end with more plectrum being represented in the recording.
A More Vintage Sound: Bridge Position #1
This bridge position is great for controlling the plectrum noise you might get with other positions. In this position it is still important to place the microphone about 12 inches away from the body of the guitar and angle the microphone towards the right hand. This position is great for getting a 60s-70s type sound in your recording.
Tone Emphasis: Bridge Position #2
In this position, the microphone is placed a little closer, about 8 inches, from the bridge and angled in towards the strumming hand. This position can help provide a more smooth tone in your recording. The placement offers a greater detail of the midrange frequencies that your guitar will produce. Like the other bridge position, this can be great for getting an older more warm sounding guitar tone in your recordings.
Recording yourself for the first time or the millionth time can be a daunting or fun task. Don't take this guide as the end all be all. Experiment with your setup, utilize what you already have as best you can, and don't forget to hit record before you start playing!
In my experience as a musician turned audio engineer, the person who knows your sound best is you. Keep trying until you can get that sound that you are looking for. In the meantime, don't hesitate to send any questions you have over to my email:
Thanks for taking the time to read this blog. In the next blog we will be going over more involved recording techniques, utilizing more than one microphone to record yourself on the acoustic guitar, so stay tuned!
Stay well and create often,