There’s nothing worse than when an instrument sounds fantastic in a live setting but it just doesn’t come through in the recording. I have found this to be the case with acoustic guitar in particular.
There is no definite solution for getting the perfect sound. This will vary between equipment and other aspects of your studio. But here are a few tips that can help you improve.
1) Always use a microphone if you aren’t recording a full band.
You may notice on your acoustic guitar that you have a direct output allowing you to plug into an amp or to plug directly into your recording system. You can record this way if you like, but I pretty much guarantee you will not be a fan of the sound you get.
What makes an acoustic guitar so unique and desirable, is the sound created by the large hollow body. To get the full sound that your ears hear into your recording you need to record all the frequencies that are emitted from the entire instrument. This just doesn’t happen when you plug it into an amp or directly into the PC.
The pickups in the guitar are simply not capable of capturing the entire sound. By using microphones you can capture it all.
2) Use a condenser microphone
For acoustic guitar recording, a condenser microphone tends to capture the realistic sound much better than a dynamic one.
I have had a lot of luck using my Audio Technica Pro 37 which is very reasonably priced at under $200. There are much more expensive options out there but this one has personally served me great!
Many people swear by the Shure SM57 dynamic microphone for acoustic guitar. Don’t get me wrong, I love this microphone and own one, but I tend to find it better for micing up amps or drums and I stick to condenser mics for acoustic guitar.
3) Use a small-diaphragm microphone for more clarity
Small diaphragm condenser microphones are good to use with acoustic guitars when you are looking for a little more clarity. A larger diaphragm microphone will give you more depth of sound. However, I find that with an acoustic guitar, the larger diaphragm tends to just give a bit too much emphasis to the low end.
4) Use a direct line in if you are recording with other instruments
The above tips of always using a microphone come with a caveat.
If you are recording a full live band, then using a microphone to record may simply not work. In this case, you may have to resort to recording through the direct line in or line out from an amp.
Recording live bands with several microphones can make mixing very difficult. For this reason, I would advise recording an acoustic guitar on its own if you get the choice.
5) Don’t place the mic directly in front of the sound hole
It is most people’s (mine included when I first started) instinct to place the microphone as close to the sound hole as possible. When I first started recording acoustic guitar I would have the mic as little as 6 inches from the hole. Basically as close as I could get it before I’d literally be hitting it whilst strumming!
Then I thought to myself. If the guitar sounds good from where I am sat playing, or to people sat a few feet away, surely that is where the microphone should be placed. And I was right.
The issue is that by placing the microphone directly in front of the sound hole you are getting all the air that is coming out of it. This creates a sound with a lot of low-end, which you may hear described as ‘muddy’.
The true sound of an acoustic guitar doesn’t just resonate from the sound hole but also the neck and body of the guitar too. And this is where you will get some higher pitched, brighter sounds.
6) Try pointing the microphone towards the sweet spot
Ok, so you are avoiding putting the microphone too close to the sound hole and strings…so where do you put it? Well as I often say, you should try out various things and see what sounds best to you.
But as a good general rule, you want to point the microphone in the direction of the ‘sweet spot’. This is located at around the 12th fret.
So most of the time I have the microphone about 3 or 4 feet away from the guitar, level with the sound hole BUT pointing at the sweet spot. I find this captures the sound most accurately.
7) Record in Mono for speed and to avoid phasing
By recording in Mono some people believe you are missing out on depth within the recording. In a stereo recording, you can use one microphone to record to the left and another to the right to give a full sound.
However, although I have achieved some good results recording in stereo over the years, it does throw up some potential issues which can be a pain for the beginner.
One of the main issues is that of phase cancellation. Without getting too complicated here, if you are recording with two (or more) microphones at the same time they must be in phase with one another. This is to say that if you imagine the waveform of the sound, to be ‘in-phase’ these waveforms must match up. If they don’t, this causes phase cancellation where the waveform from one mic literally cancels on that of the other. Still confused? This video may help.
So by recording in Mono rather than stereo, this is no longer as much of an issue. You can always add effects after recording such as reverb to make up for any lack of depth in your sound.
For speed and ease, I often record with a single microphone in mono and then record multiple tracks panning them out wide left and right to add depth.
8) If you insist on stereo, use the X/Y technique to avoid phasing
Although I think you can create a sound just fine for most recordings using one microphone and recording in mono. Some musicians still swear that you can’t get the same sound without recording in stereo. It can be more appropriate in some situations such as if you don’t want the guitar at the forefront of the mix. In mono, you often get a much thicker and deeper sound, and this may not be what you desire.
If you want to record in stereo then you can overcome the issue of phasing which I mentioned above then the X/Y technique is one way. This is the easiest way to get a nice stereo sound.
For the X/Y formation, you need to place two microphones at a 90º angle as close to one another as possible without them touching.
But how does this avoid phasing?
Well, phasing when using two mics is caused by the microphone capsules not being at exactly the same point. The X/Y formation allows for the most accurate estimation of this without having to get the ruler out.
9) Use a stereo bar to avoid phasing issues if you still have them
If you are still encountering phasing issues, even when using the X/Y formation then you may wish to purchase a stereo bar.
A stereo bar (such as this one from Amazon) allows you to attach two microphones at identical distances from one another.
10) Use thicker strings for a fuller sound
You may or may not have experimented with different gauges of strings on your acoustic guitar. Many people don’t realize how much difference this can make to the sound.
If you are struggling to get a thick, full sound into your recordings, maybe try a thicker set of strings. Or if you think your sound is too deep and thick you may wish to try thinner strings.
Here is a little chart of which gauges to look for:
• Extra light: .010 .014 .023 .030 .039 .047
• Light: .012 .016 .025 .032 .042 .054
• Medium: .013 .017 .026 .035 .045 .056
• Heavy: .014 .018 .027 .039 .049 .059
11) Replace those old strings
When you’re recording in your home studio, compromises have to be made as we can’t afford the top end equipment of professional studios. However, there are certain areas where you should not cut corners.
One of these is the strings. Using old, worn, rusty strings will really affect the sound you produce.
Newer strings will ensure a bright, clean sound. I would advise changing the strings a day or two before your recording session as new strings tend to go out of tune quicker and they also may sound a little too bright and new (for me anyway).
12) Find the room with the right acoustics
If you are recording with external microphones (which as you’ve read, I recommend in most cases) the choice of room makes a massive difference to the sound.
In the majority of cases, you will be recording in your home studio. Which will probably sound just fine but it is worth trying out recording in a few different rooms to see what sound you like.
Again, this is often a matter of personal preference but there a few things you should try and avoid.
You want to avoid any room that is too ‘live’ or too ‘dead’. I’m referring to live and dead in terms of sound, not the number of plants you have in it by the way.
A ‘live’ room consists of lots of hard surfaces. Think wooden flooring, floor to ceiling glass windows etc. You will notice in these kinds of rooms you have a lot of echoes, as sound bounces around off all the hard surfaces. This does not make a good recording sound. Especially with something like an acoustic guitar where you are using a microphone that is positioned away from the instrument.
Equally, you don’t want to be in a room that is too ‘dead’. A good example would be one stuffed full of comfy sofas, lots of curtains and a nice thick carpet.
I won’t go into too much detail on the optimum room here but somewhere in between ‘live’ and ‘dead’ would be a good start.
13) Try out different positions in the room (of the microphone and you)
If you have the time and patience, then try out playing and then recording in various different places around your studio, or even house.
You will read hundreds of things about how you have to be exactly 5 feet from the nearest wall that must be at a certain angle etc etc. But in reality, if it sounds good to you and it works in the mix then don’t stress too much.
I have recorded in various rooms and places within those rooms. Statistically, I tend to find the best place to go for the most natural sound is just a little past the center. This will give the least reflections and will make the room sound as big as possible. Avoid being close to walls or in a corner as this will cause muddy, bassy sounds, which is not what you will usually be after with an acoustic guitar.
Try out various positions of microphone and player and monitor it through headphones as you go. This will allow you to hear what will actually be recorded rather than how it sounds to your ear.
14) Record at a slower tempo to avoid mistakes
This is a little trick that I have used occasionally when playing particularly hard pieces. Some fast finger plucking sections played at full speed can lead to the odd missed note. This can be very frustrating.
To avoid this frustration try recording at a slightly slower tempo and then simply speed it up in your DAW once you have finished. Providing you aren’t speeding it up a significant amount this shouldn’t sound too odd.
Be careful though. Make sure you practice it at full speed before playing live, otherwise you may get some very puzzled looks.
15) Add effects after
You may be tempted to add in effects such as reverb, echo or delay to your acoustic guitar, prior to recording. This may sound great to the human ear, but these effects may not translate nicely into the recording via the microphone.
You are much better off recording a nice clean sound with no effects and then adding effects to the recording within your DAW.
16) Don’t push the meter ‘into the red’
This applies when recording any instrument of course. However, I find it can be a particular issue when recording acoustic guitar.
If you are recording a softer plucked verse you may turn up the input volume or move closer to the mic to make sure it picks it up. But if you suddenly burst into a loud strummed chorus this can push the meter up ‘into the red’, causing horrible distortion.
17) Have a friend help you record
When you are trying different microphone positions and moving around the room to find the best position to sit, you may find it gets rather annoying having to press record and run over to your seat every time. You can use a count in. But a much easier solution (if you can) is to get a friend to help you out.
They can monitor the sound through headphones as you test out different mic positions and can also keep an eye on the recording ensuring you aren’t creeping into the red.
18) Consider a portable vocal booth if your room isn’t soundproofed
Not many of us, especially when first starting the home recording journey, have the luxury of a fully soundproofed room. This means that any sounds such as a passing police siren or a bird singing in a nearby tree may creep into the recording.
To reduce these external sounds without having to invest in full room soundproofing is to use a portable vocal booth.
One like the Monoprice Microphone Isolation Shield (click here to check the latest price on Amazon) should do a great job of ensuring that most of your sound is funneled towards the microphone, whilst also keeping out unwanted external sounds.
19) Avoid other unwanted noises
Sometimes unwanted sounds can creep in even when using a sound booth or a soundproofed room. These unwanted noises can creep in from even closer to the microphone. These include sounds that you may not even really be aware are occurring (until you hear them on the recording).
This could include a squeaky chair for example that squeaks ever so slightly as you lean forward or back. Or perhaps it is something even more subtle like the rustling of clothing as you play.
Try and minimize all these extra unwanted sounds as much as you can to avoid headaches and constant re-recording. As if you needed another excuse to record in your pajamas!
20) Use a tuning pedal or tuner in the DAW
During a recording session, your guitar will gradually slip out of tune. This could happen quickly or slowly depending on your guitar and other conditions such as the temperature of the room.
To ensure you stay in tune throughout and to keep your workflow as fluid as possible, plug into a tuning pedal if you have a DI output. If you don’t have an output then you can either open up the tuner within the DAW or by a digital tuner which attaches to the top of the guitar.
I personally use this one and it works fine, you don’t need to fork out a lot of money.
You want to avoid the frustration of recording what you think was the perfect take, only to find out that it was ever so slightly out of tune.
21) Record lots of takes even when you are happy
Try recording the track in a few different styles so you can pick the one that feels right in the mix. Perhaps more than any other instrument, the way you chose to play a track on acoustic guitar can make it sound wildly different.
For example, a soft plucking or finger strum would sound very different to an erratic pick strumming motion.
Test out using up and down strokes or different strum pattern and see what sounds best. You could even try layering a couple of different ones up. Experiment with a few and see what sounds right.
22) Let the final chord ring out
This may seem like an obvious one, but it is worth a reminder nevertheless. I have this annoying habit of stopping a recording hastily in the excitement following the perfect take. By doing this, it creates a very weird and unprofessional ending to a song.
Resist the temptation of stopping the track too soon after the last chord and let it naturally ring out. Do this for even longer than you think is necessary as you can always trim the track down later but you can’t naturally add extra (without great difficulty).
I would recommend about 15 seconds after the final chord, and don’t breathe or move a muscle!
23) Try and keep squeaking to a minimum
This is easier said than done but it can make a big difference with a bit of practice.
A little bit of audible squeaking isn’t the end of the world and can make the track sound more authentic and raw. But too much squeaking caused by sliding fingers on every chord change can get very annoying indeed. So try and practice keeping it to a minimum.
This may be achieved by lifting between chords rather than sliding, or by placing the microphone further away from the guitar.
24) Remove fret squeaks from acoustic guitar recording
Once you finish recording a take you are happy with. Listen carefully back to the track for any particularly annoying fret squeaks that may have crept into it. One or two squeaks won’t be too bad, but too many can get rather annoying.
Unfortunately, if there are too many it may be worth just doing another take. If it is a matter of just one or two then you may be able to go through and just re-do a certain section or copy and paste in a bit from elsewhere in the track that is identical.
You can also use a technique called manual compression to get rid of the squeaks. This is explained rather nicely in this video:
25) Try out different picks
There is no one size fits all with picks and you may have settled on a particular thickness for one reason or another. But the thickness and material of a pick can make quite a difference to the sound the guitar produces.
So I would recommend splashing out (about $5 probably) on a variety of different types of pick and try recording with each to see which sounds best.
A softer pick may add a percussive element to the sound, whilst a harder pick could add power and volume. Or maybe try not using a pick at all if you are feeling really adventurous!
So there are a few (hopefully useful) tips for recording acoustic guitar in your home music studio. If you have any other top tips that you wish to share then please leave them in the comments below.