The 4 Rules Of Acoustic Guitar Recording

2016 May 09, 2016

You would think recording an acoustic guitar would be easy. And yet, 9 times out of 10 when I hear a mix from a home studio recording, the acoustic track sounds thin, harsh, muddy, and just downright disappointing. 

A bad acoustic guitar track can bring the quality of the entire mix down considerably. And I don’t want that to happen to you.

Over the years I’ve developed four simple “rules” that I follow to ensure I get the perfect acoustic guitar recording every time. Think of them as suggestions born out of years of experience. You don’t have to follow them of course, but I think you’ll like the results you get if you do.

Rule #1 – Determine The Role Of The Acoustic

Before you grab a single microphone or arm a track in your DAW, there is one critical decision you must make that will determine everything you do for the acoustic moving forward.

You must determine what role the acoustic guitar will play in this song. It’s role within the context of the other tracks will determine the tone you are going for and how you choose to record it.

In 95% of situations the acoustic guitar is playing one of two roles: the main instrument in a sparse, simple mix OR a texture piece alongside many other instruments in a more dense mix.

If I was about to record a folky ballad that was mostly acoustic guitar, bass, and a brush style drum kit I would do my best to keep as much body and low end in the guitar as possible. I would be going for as full of an acoustic guitar sound as I could.

On the flip side, if I’m recording a pop song that features full on drums, bass, electric guitars, synths, and layers of vocals but I need an acoustic guitar to give the song texture, brightness, and energy – I’ll record (and mix) the acoustic in such a way that it is thinner and more present.

It sounds obvious when you think about it, but knowing what the acoustic guitar’s job is for the given song gives you so much clarity and direction for how to treat it in the recording and mixing phase.

Rule #2 – Do Not Record With A DI

Some people might challenge me on this (and I welcome it) but the second rule I suggest you follow is to never, ever, ever record your acoustic through the internal pickup into a DI.

Why? Because it sounds like poo. Sorry to be graphic, but it really does.

I speak from experience – because that, my friend, is how I recorded acoustic guitar for the first couple of years of my home studio adventures.

I did this because I saw acoustic electric guitars being plugged into DIs on stage at church and other venues and I figured that’s what you were “supposed” to do.

Turns out that sounds horrible and unnatural.

I always tell my students at workshops that no one ever listens to an acoustic guitar with their head inside the sound hole. So why do we try to record that sound?

Instead people hear acoustics from outside the sound hole. We like to hear the strumming and the entire body and resonance of the guitar (more on that below).

So please – trust me on this. If you are currently recording your acoustics through the pickup and through a DI, stop today. Use a microphone instead. It will sound infinitely better.

Rule #3 – Back Your Microphone Up

Assuming you’ve followed rule #2 and you’re reaching for a microphone instead of a DI to record your acoustic, please do yourself a favor and back the mic up – at least a foot away.

I see way to many people putting a microphone right up on the guitar (an inch to 6 inches away) thinking they’ll get a good sound. And they might get an OK sound, but not a good sound.

Why? Because again – do any of us listen to acoustic guitars with our heads 3 to 6 inches away from the sound hole? No!

Instead we hear acoustics from at least a foot away and more like two to three feet.

Take yourself for example, when you sit and play your acoustic, how far away is your head? 6 inches? Hardly – closer to 3 feet.

And what does that do for your ear? It gives it a chance to take in the full body and tone of the guitar: from the strings, to the sound hole, to the neck, to the entire shell of the guitar vibrating. It’s all making sound and it all folds beautifully to your ear a few feet away.

So why not place the microphone back a bit so it too can capture the full and balanced sound of your acoustic?

By doing this you’ll also solve a common problem I hear on home studio acoustic guitar recordings: too much muddy low end.

Remember that with cardioid microphones, the closer you get to the source the more bass buildup you’ll create, thus giving you a boomy and beefy acoustic guitar that soaks up all your mix’s headroom.

No bueno.

Instead, back up the mic and watch all that excessive low end melt away and the full clarity of your acoustic come into focus.

Rule #4 – Don’t Record In Stereo

This one is more of a bonus philosophy that I hold very close to and I have my reasons.

But before I explain why I think you shouldn’t record your acoustic in stereo let me acknowledge that many a great acoustic recordings were done (and still are done) this way.

I just don’t think it’s a good idea for most people – myself included.

Many times students of mine seem to ask about the best way to stereo mic their acoustic. “Should I use XY, or Mid Side, or what about simply doing a space pair and keeping the 3:1 rule?”

To all of that I say “Why bother?!”

The idea of a stereo acoustic guitar recording is that you get this nice spread in the left and the right of your one performance. It sounds larger than life and full.

But two things come to mind here.

First – any time you introduce multiple microphones on a single source you open up the box of potential phase cancellation issues.

Simply stated, by doing the very thing you hoped would give you a bigger more beautiful sound, you actually can ruin your guitar and make it sound smaller and thinner.

I hate phase cancellation just as much as the next guy – so I avoid whenever possible.

Second – I personally prefer the sound of single beautiful mono acoustic guitar recording. It is as basic and as essential as it gets.

You can put it through a touch of reverb to create some width if you like. Or simply double up the performance with another mono track and then pan them out wide. Giving you a similar (and phase free) effect.

Listen – I have recorded acoustic guitars in so many situations from rock bands, to folk bands, to singer/songwriters and all of them have been executed with a single mono recording technique. And all with great results.

Stereo tracks aren’t really that helpful to you. A bunch of mono tracks panned out is way more powerful.

What About Type Of Microphone and Placement?

Some of you might be wondering why there are no rules about which type of microphone to use or where to place it. And the answer is simple – it doesn’t matter.

Also it greatly depends on what you like and what you need in a given song.

The four rules above, however, are applicable EVERY time you sit down to record acoustic guitar and they will serve you well. Follow them and your recordings will improve. The rest is open to your tastes.

Next week I’ll show you my favorite mic choice and placement, but for now I have two questions for you:

  1. Do you agree or disagree with these 4 rules?
  2. If you could add a fifth rule what would it be?

Let’s come up with some good stuff for the community here!

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