Recording Acoustic Guitars in Your Home Studio? Read This

The acoustic guitar is an expressive instrument. Trying to capture the subtle nuances of the plucking or strumming of the guitar can be very challenging, especially if you are trying to record from your untreated home studio or bedroom studio.

There are many obstacles you’ll stumble upon preventing you from recording your next killer track when it comes to acoustic guitar recording. Such as; whether the room is right, or how much echo the room has, the types of microphones you should use and whether you should record in stereo or mono?

Not everyone has the privilege to record in a fancy studio with good acoustics topped with expensive microphones. Most of us record in a makeshift bedroom, attic or garage recording studios.

But here’s the fact. You CAN record great sounding guitars from home.

In this post, I will show you what you need and don’t need to record great sounding acoustic guitars in your home studio or makeshift bedroom studio.

How To Record An Acoustic Guitar

Three things to keep in mind when recording an acoustic guitar.

  1. Does your room have bad echo problems?
  2. How are you positioning your microphone for recording guitar?
  3. Does your acoustic guitar come with a pickup?

The room you record in probably plays the biggest factor when it comes to recording acoustic instruments, let alone the guitar. If you record guitars in a heavily echoed room, you’ll end up recording the room reverb.

Adding effects, later on, will be a pain because you lose clarity from your recordings. Your guitar might lose the attack transients, due to the natural room reverberations. It’ll also be harder to mix the recorded guitar with other tracks in your mix, as they will all have different reverb properties.

If you don’t have a choice but to record in an echoey room, you could try using transient shaper plugins like Native Instrument’s Transient Master or TS-1 Transient Shaper to shape the recorded sound later on. This would be a quick fix and will work if the guitar track is mixed as a backing track. But if the guitar is to be used as the main track, then avoid this quick fix using transient shapers.

Most music producers record acoustic guitars in a soundproofed room so that can first have a dry sampled sound. Then they’ll proceed to add their own reverb emulations of halls, rooms, and big spaces to fit the guitar track in the mix.

Don’t have a great sounding room? Here are a few tips for you to fix that.

1. Use Any Furniture You Have At Your Disposal

As a creative individual yourself, think about ways you can hack the recording process. You don’t need expensive soundproofing setup to get decent broadcast results these days. All you need is to be a little creative and resourceful to use things you have around you.

A simple hack to record dry sounds of the acoustic guitar is to use your cupboard or closet. The clothes in your cupboard will help absorb and dampen sound.

Understanding that most studio condenser microphones record with a cardioid pattern, just sit facing outward of the cupboard and have the mic pointing towards the cupboard. Just like that, you’ll have a quick ‘sound-booth’ and you’ll find that the sound you record will be much-tamed and less echoey.

Another great hack I’ve seen used by home studios is to use the blanket and a couple of microphone stands. Line up three microphone stands to form the outer skeleton of a recording booth. Then drape your blanket over them to form a makeshift recording booth.

portable-sound-booth

Not exactly the prettiest thing, but it works.

Sit or stand inside the enclosure and point the microphone towards the makeshift recording booth. As you strum or pluck the guitar, the sound will be absorbed by the blanket, leaving you with a much dryer sound.

Just make sure to get some heavy-duty microphone stands so they don’t come crashing down on you when you least expect it.

2. Invest In Decent Soundproofing Materials

Acoustic panels or acoustic foams are key to many studios in the entire world. It helps with killing the room reverb by diffracting and absorbing sound waves that bounce off the walls. Placing a few of these sound absorbing panels around your room can make a huge difference to your sound.

A few quick pointers when buying and placing acoustic panels.

Diffusion VS Absorption

Repeat this after me: Diffusion is NOT absorption.

Putting up too many acoustic panels in your studio can make the room sound ‘dead’. Your sound becomes uninteresting and your guitar recording will sound ‘dead’. That’s when you remove all the natural sound reflections that happen in your room.

Most project recording studios are built to have some sound reflection but to scatter them around the room, they use diffusers. This is also a reason why you’ll notice big recording studios often have no parallel walls or ceiling. Acoustic panels are often placed on parallel walls for this purpose.

Combine proper absorption and diffuser panel placements in your studio and you’ll be surprised how much that can change the sound of your room.

To find the best spots to place acoustic panels, walk around your room while having a track playing back through your studio monitors. Carefully listen for sound phases, echoes and ‘standing waves’ in the room and place an acoustic absorption panel there. Look for parallel walls and place diffuser panels to break parallel sound bounce in the room.

This is merely a basic fundamental of sound acoustics, but having this is mind when setting up your studio will help you record world-class sounding recordings. If you like going deeper into the subject of sound acoustics, I recommend you to read Master Handbook of Acoustics by F. Alton Everest.

Three Types Of Acoustic Treatment Panels

You’ll need a proper combination of three acoustic treatment panels for your room to sound great. Avoid the newbie mistake by just buying a single type of sound panel, so let me explain the difference here.

1 – Acoustic Panels

These are your basic panels to help with studio acoustics. They are thin, usually about 2″ or 4″ in thickness and can be spread over a large wall area.

But while many new studio owners pack their studio filled with these panels, they are not effective at absorbing low frequencies. Bass frequencies have higher momentum and need thicker acoustic panels to be absorbed.

Here are some value for money acoustic panels:

2 – Bass Traps

They look near the same as standard acoustic panels, but they’re thicker and designed to absorb low frequencies in the studio.

You’ll probably hear the advice to put bass traps in the corners of your room. That’s because low frequencies normally build up more strongly in the corners of your room.

However, keep in mind that you are not actually trapping the low frequencies *despite it being called bass traps*. You are merely controlling the sound reflections in your room by partially absorbing the low frequencies with the bass trap. Low frequencies waves are too long to be fully trapped by commercial bass traps.

Some recommendations for bass traps:

3 – Diffusers

Not many studios actually use diffusers in their rooms. Diffusors are not too effective in small rooms and probably won’t’ benefit too much.

I’d advise you to look into diffusers, only after you have properly set up absorption panels in your studio. In the case, you find the sound in your room to become too ‘dead’ or uninspiring, look into getting few diffusor panels to liven up the sound.

Some bigger studios even have acoustic panels that can be flipped over to switch between an absorption or diffuser panel. That would not be necessary in your case though. If you think diffusers will help with your sound, here are some diffusor panels I recommend.

3. Use Your Acoustic Guitar Pickup (If You Have One)

It might not be the best option to catch the best acoustic nuances of the guitar, but if you are on a tight budget, recording using the pickup on your acoustic guitar is the best option. In fact, you’ll be surprised to know that many singer-songwriters record their album in this fashion.

There is nothing wrong recording guitars this way. Despite what many diehard music producer wannabes will tell you to stay true to the art & essence of recording, the truth is, at the end of the day, if your recording or album sounds good, that’s the goal achieved.

However, depending on the pickup you have on your guitar – they will all sound different.

Some will sound thinner or honky and some are more natural sounding, depending on the quality of the pickup you have.

You can actually switch out for new better pickups for your acoustic guitar, but it usually isn’t too worth the upgrade. So, if you have a below average sounding pickup, thankfully with the many plugins & softwares we have today in the DAW market, there is still hope to help fix the sound when mixing your acoustic guitar track.

Tricks, like adding reverb and scooping the mids of the sound, can give a much more musical sound. Play around with a few settings and don’t be afraid to try. In fact, if you listen carefully, you’ll find that some of the best acoustic songs have not-so-great guitar recordings, despite making it into the charts. But they all started somewhere.

4. Fix Your Microphone Placement

The position of your microphone will affect the types of sound you’ll be recording. Many newbie record producers often skip the importance of microphone placement when recording acoustic guitars.

Short answer – If the microphone is too near to the soundhole of the acoustic guitar, you will get a very bassy and boomy sound. Place the microphone far from the source and you will get a more roomy sound, which can be beneficial if the room sounds good and has a sound character that you’re after.

The golden advice, given by most recording engineers on guitars? 

Place your microphone at the 12th fret of your acoustic guitar. Face it towards the soundhole about 6inches. You will have the best of both worlds, bass, and clarity.

Again I’d advise that there is no one hard and fast rule when it comes to recording guitars. You might want the bassy type of sound for certain types of tracks. Perhaps you’d like to record the sound of fingers striking the strings a little more. At the end of the day, it comes down to your sound preference.

So find your sound and take microphone placement as an art.

If you need some pointers, here’s a great video by Neumann Microphones on the guitar placements.

Do note that in the video, the guitar is being recorded with a Neumann mic in a live sounding room. Neumann microphones are great sounding microphones, so it’ll be tough to get the same type of sound you hear in the video.

All is not lost though. With the proper microphone placements, you can still get a guitar to sound decent even with budget microphones.

Large VS Small Diaphragm Condenser Microphones

The next important thing to recording great sounding acoustic guitars is the microphone you use. The problem is that there are so many microphones in the market. Which one do you choose?

The most common microphones used in many studios to record guitars are large diaphragm condenser microphones and sometimes small diaphragm condenser microphones.

The sound characteristics between the two are quite different. Let me explain.

1. Large Diaphragm Condenser Microphones

These microphones are popular for recording vocals, ensembles, drum overheads and many other things including the acoustic guitar. In fact, the large condenser microphone is a good choice for beginners, who is learning recording techniques.

In simple words, to differentiate the sound of the large and small condenser is that large condenser microphones sound rounder and warmer compared to a small condenser.

It picks up a wider frequency range, so you get more of the bass response of the acoustic guitar. It also captures more room sound because of the way the large diaphragm is built.

Condenser microphones are pretty much used in nearly all types of recording situations. So if you are starting out to record acoustic guitars, a large condenser microphone would be a great choice.

Plus, most budget large diaphragm microphones are actually quite decent sounding, making it easier for you to grab one. Decent sounding small condenser microphones on the other hand, usually come with a higher price tag.

Large Condenser Recording Technique For Acoustic Guitars

The 12th Fret Technique

There are a few ways to mic up your acoustic guitar with a large diaphragm condenser microphone.

One of the most popular ways is the 12th fret method.

Place your microphone at the 12th fret and face it at an angle where it faces the soundhole.

Experiment the placement and carefully listen for the sound. When you find a sweet spot, be sure to mark it down.

Some great large diaphragm condenser to consider:

2. Small Diaphragm Condenser Microphones

Small diaphragm microphones though known for many recording applications, is not as diverse compared to the large diaphragm condenser microphone. This is because the small capsule in the microphone can only pick up certain amounts of frequencies of the recorded object. In other words, it records a narrower frequency response.

However, they are popular for recording ‘acoustic’  instruments such as guitars and other string instruments because the small condenser microphone records with more clarity and crispness compared to a large diaphragm condenser microphone. In simple words, your acoustic instruments will sound more realistic, without the added bass response.

Depending on the price range of the microphone, low-end small condensers usually have a very harsh sounding top end. I’d suggest you look at at least an affordable mid-ranged priced small condenser like the SE Electronics SE5. It records with great clarity, natural sound, and transparency.

Listen to an Ukulele recorded with the SE Electronics SE5 in the video here:

Though, if you have the budget, you can look at higher-end small condensers like the Neumann KM 184.

Usually, small condensers are sold in pairs allowing you to record in stereo. Recording in stereo can be a good and also bad at the same time. We’ll get to the pros and cons of recording in stereo in awhile.

Bottomline if you’re planning on recording acoustic instruments; be it an acoustic guitar, violin or an acoustic piano, small condensers will be a great choice if you are aiming for that natural sound.

When it comes to recording vocals, small condensers fall short as it cannot pick up the total frequency range of one’s voice. In this case, it will result in a thinner and brighter sounding vocal recording.

Small Condenser Recording Technique For Acoustic Guitars

The X-Y Technique

 

There are many ways to mic up an acoustic guitar with a stereo pair. One of the most popular techniques is called the X-Y.

The X-Y technique uses two cardioid microphones of the same type placed either as close as possible or within 12 inches of each other and facing each other at an angle ranging from 90 to 135 degrees – depending on the size of the sound source and the particular sound desired.

This technique can also be achieved when using large diaphragm condenser microphones. Although you’ll get an attenuated bass response when using large diaphragms.

Take a look at the diagram below for more mic placements when recording acoustic guitars with a stereo pair.

Some great small diaphragm condenser choices:

  • Rode M5 Matched Pair – $325.00 (Rode makes great sounding microphones. The M5 is a great start althought not the sweetest sounding small-condensers out there. Get this if you’re on a budget.)
  • sE Electronics sE5P Stereo Pair– $499.00 (Very transparent and natural sounding pair. I found that they lack a little of low-end, but that’s what small diaphragms do.)
  • Audio Technica AT4041 Studio Pack – $795.00 (Nice stereo pair with smooth sounding low-end.)

Here are some sound samples to differentiate small and large diaphragm condenser microphones:

Ribbon Microphones And Dynamic Microphones

Other than small and large condenser microphones, you can also consider using ribbon or dynamic microphones to record acoustic guitars and getting very different sound characteristics. Let’s talk about dynamic microphones first.

1. Dynamic Microphones

Dynamic microphones are best known for live usage, mostly for vocals. One of the biggest possible reason for that is because a dynamic microphone isn’t as sensitive as compared to condenser microphones, because of its cardioid polar pattern.

A polar pattern is how much sound the microphone picks up. This means you are less prone to monitor feedbacks on stage with dynamic microphones.

A diagram of how a dynamic microphone polar pattern looks like.

One of the most popular dynamic instrument microphone which you might have heard of is the Shure SM57.

Unlike condenser microphones which pick up a lot of sounds, a dynamic mic only picks up sound directly in the middle of its capsule. That’s why you always see singers holding their microphone close to their lips.

Dynamic microphones can be used to record acoustic guitars too but you won’t get too much much of a natural sound, because of its polar pattern. You’ll get a very focused sound depending on where the microphone is pointed to. It also records a narrower frequency range compared to condensers.

However, there are many music records where a basic microphone like the Shure SM57 has been used to record acoustic guitars, electric guitars, drums and many other instruments.

2. Ribbon Microphones

A ribbon microphone up close.

Unlike dynamic or condenser microphones, ribbon microphones belong to a different group. A ribbon microphone is like a large condenser but instead, has a very flat natural sound and is also very sensitive.

Some record engineers swear on using ribbon microphones to recording acoustic guitars or vocals, given on its extremely natural and silky sound characteristics, provided that it is not placed too near to its sound source. Ribbon microphones can easily be damaged by high sound pressure levels, thus they are never recommended to instruments with high SPL levels such as drums.

However, ribbon microphones belong to the pricey side of the microphone market. It wouldn’t be necessary to use them to record acoustic guitars, but if you have the means to get one, it could offer you a different sound characteristic.

Here are some suggestions for decent ribbon microphones: 

  • Avantone Pro CR-14 – $259.00 (Let me warn you first. The sound of the Avantone CR-14 might be pleasing to some but not for others.)
  • sE Electronics Voodoo VR1 – $499.00 (Interesting microphone sound character. Only get this to add on to your microphone collection, not as your first microphone purchase.)
  • Rode NTR– $999.00 (An amazing ribbon microphone that records the sweetest parts of the acoustic guitar, piano or vocals. You’ll hear the sound that you’ve not heard before in your previous recordings.)

Stereo VS Mono

So as I’ve promised to touch on earlier, should you record in stereo or in mono? I will be completely honest with you and say that it is completely subjective. Both has its own pros and cons. Let’s jump into it.

1. Recording Guitars In Stereo

The most important thing to keep in mind when recording guitars in stereo, is phase cancellation. Phase cancellation refers to when an audio signal bumps into another, thus canceling the signal resulting in no sound.

You’ll be able to easily hear phasing problems in your recordings if you ever did stereo recordings. If you ever recorded in stereo and found that your recording sounded silvery, washed out, weird or quiet at some parts, congratulations. You’re a proud owner of a phase problem. 

In order to avoid this issue, it is always best to have a matching microphone pair. This will give you lesser chance to get phase cancellation problems in your recordings.

Other than that, recording in stereo is, in fact, a producer’s wet dream, given that you can balance the audio signals. Recording in stereo is great especially for intimate acoustic guitar recordings as you actually record the way a listener would listen to a real guitar, with both ears!

However when it comes to mixing stereo recorded guitars in a big mix, where a lot of things going on, it may start sound messy and the acoustic guitar track will have a high possible change to be drowned out in the mix, depending on your song arrangement.

If you foresee yourself mixing a large big mix with lots of instrument tracks, recording guitars in mono may be a better choice.

2. Recording Guitars In Mono

Many people think of mono as bland and just outright horrible. But in fact, with your microphone angled at the right position to the guitar, you can actually achieve a really good sound.

A mono signal can do a lot, especially in a messy mix.

Let’s say you have electric guitars panned to the left and right, a stereo piano, drums, and maybe some synths in your mix and you just can’t get the sound right with stereo acoustic guitars. Try recording in mono.

By recording in mono, you place the sound of your acoustic guitar in the center and this gives room for other instruments to roam about in the stereo mix, making the acoustic guitar stand out from the rest.

Again, choosing between recording stereo or mono comes down to your mix preference. There is an acoustic guitar mixing technique where a mono recorded guitar track is duplicated and panned from each other with a little of delay effect applied. See the video below for this technique:

Where Do You Go From Here?

I hope you have learned something from this lengthy post.

Recording acoustic guitars should be fun, so have fun with experimenting different types of guitar recordings and be open to trying new ideas. Remember, there is no hard and fast rule to recording acoustic guitars. But I’d like to leave you with some additional tips for recording guitars.

  1. Remember to change your guitar strings before recording. – Every guitarist knows this. The strings on your guitar will lose its brightness and sound quality after some time, so be sure to get the best sound of your guitar by changing the strings before a recording.
  2. Set a low-cut filter on your mic. – if your microphone comes with a low-cut filter, try using it to cut off the lower rumble (70Hz and below), that you don’t need in a guitar recording.

But overall, what recording methods or techniques have worked for you when trying to achieve a great sounding acoustic guitar? Let us know in the comment section below!