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6 Secrets to Produce Great Recordings at Home

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6 Secrets to Produce Great Recordings at Home

by Jessica Brandon

Home Recording Secrets

                     Home Recording Secrets

Remember the old days of recording on a 4 track cassette recorder and find out that the recordings are to plain and you need to go a 24 track recording studio to get a great recording? Well, those days are over. An old laptop with some inexpensive gear can now produce high fidelity recordings that can rival those made in expensive studios!

However, many musicians who aren’t recording engineers can find the task of recording and producing a great track really daunting. Here are 5 great tips that home recording enthusiasts can employ right now to start getting more polished recordings…

 

  1. Obtain a Preamp

Plugging a guitar or microphone directly into your recording interface can often produce a very transparent sound that lacks the warmth and volume that a great track requires. There is an easy and inexpensive way to get a better source sound: plug the guitar or microphone into a preamp first.

A decent preamp one can be obtained for as little as $50 and will immediately add volume and warmth to everything that you record. A few technical things to note: First, if you buy a tube preamp, it’s best to junk the tube that comes with it and replace it with a better one (doing so requires nothing more than a screwdriver) which you can buy at a guitar shop.

An example, I used PreSonus Studio Channel for a mic preamp and it really made a difference in my recordings. I used LR Baggs Beltclip Preamp with Passive 2-band EQ for an acoustic/electric steel string guitar and it made a bug difference in the sound quality.

Secondly, keep in mind that the output of the preamp will require a balanced audio cable such as a TSR or XLR cable. Don’t try and connect the preamp to your interface with just an instrument cable, even though it will fit into the input.

 

  1. Obtain a Large Diaphragm Condenser Microphone

It is important to get a good condenser microphone. I used a Audio-Technica AT2035 Large Diaphragm Condenser Microphone for just $150.00 and I could hear the big difference compared to my previous use of Shure SM57 microphone. The Audio Technica AT2035 is widely regarded as the ideal first mic for anyone starting a home studio on a shoe-string budget. Among the dozens of terrible mics in this price range, the AT2035 is one of the few that actually delivers on its promises.

I strongly recommend that anyone mastering their own recordings, even on a shoestring budget, make purchasing a large diaphragm condenser microphone mandatory. The reason I believe in this item so dearly is that in addition to recording vocals, you can also record acoustic instruments (banjos, acoustic guitars, mandolins, etc.), light percussion (tambourines, bongos, etc.), and a whole host of other things.

If you start buying separate condenser microphones of various shapes and sizes for all of these different tasks then your wallet is going to take a beating, and the results really won’t change all that much.

 

  1. Obtain Good Mastering Software

I use a product called Ozone 7  by Izotope. You can get it for about $250, and older versions of the product can be had for even less. This gives a pretty cohesive, pleasing mix, with enough dynamics to master.

One thing that virtually any new home recording enthusiast inevitably says is, “my track is done, but it’s not as loud or punchy as my favorite band’s tunes are.”

Many folks will then turn to professional engineers to master their finished songs. While these consultants often do great work (at increasingly cheap rates), it is no longer required that artists use them.  If you are like me and like to record a lot of material, using a lot of outside engineer help is just too expensive.

 

  1. Obtain Decent Monitors

Many home recording honchos fall into the trap of buying really expensive monitors for playback. But if you are on a budget like me, nothing fancy is required.

I used a pair of PreSonus Eris E5 5.25″ Powered Studio Monitors, and I obtained it for just $275.00. These speakers sound fantastic; very balanced, plenty of Bass, plenty of volume, etc. At this price and size, you can’t go wrong.

The only important thing is to simply know how your monitors compared to other speakers. Listen to your tracks, as well as commercial recordings on headphones, car stereos, and cheap computer speakers and compare what you hear to the sound profile of your monitors. Maybe your monitors don’t project certain frequencies especially well so you know to turn those up a little bit when mixing. If you follow this rule your tracks will be just as well mixed as the guy or gal who is using an exceptionally expensive monitoring system.

 

  1. Avoid the overuse of Auto-Tune and other Effects

A common mistake that many musicians make when attempting in-home recording is to rely on “Cher inspired” Auto-Tune and other effects that they hear on radio, both pre-amp and post-recording, to make up for the lack of clarity, warmth and overall quality of a recording. Here at USA Songwriting Competition, we have listened to demo tracks where the auto-tune, reverb and other effects overwhelm the song to the point that it is hard for the judges to listen to the actual melody and lyric.

The most commonly over-used effect is reverb, which is all too often used to make recordings sound less ‘flat’ or ‘more professional’. However, the proper amount of reverb to use to remove the flatness of a vocal recording is rather difficult and is why so many make the mistake of drowning out their recordings by making them so ‘wet’ with reverb that the notes become slurred together and indistinguishable.

A rule of thumb should be to always try to record each track as clean as possible, avoiding pre-amp effects whenever possible, and then only using effects to do minor touch-ups or additions afterwards.

 

  1. Obtain a decent Mixing Control Surface

If you use a DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) , you may want to use a decent DAW controller. I used a PreSonus FaderPort 8 Production Controller for less than $500. This 8-fader control surface features motorized, touch-sensitive faders that handle effortlessly and follow automation precisely. Channel controls include all the standards, such as level, pan, solo, mute, and record arm, and a full set of digital scribble strip displays also help to keep you on track. The great thing is that this FaderPort 8 has native support for PreSonus Studio One DAW (got this a few years ago for less than $400).

So, do you have any more tips you wish to add? If so, please add your comments below!

For more information on the 14th Annual IAMA (International Acoustic Music Awards), go to: http://www.inacoustic.com

 

 

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How to Improve Your EPK/Press Kit in Six Steps

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How to Improve Your EPK/Press Kit in Six Steps

by Kari Estrin

EPK/Press Kit

An EPK/Press Kit

Having an effective Press kit or Electronic Press Kit [EPK ] will not only increase your chances of getting gigs, but will ensure you receive better publicity for the ones you get. Also, that more strategic publicity you’ll receive usually results in attracting more audience members, with the chance for better pay scales and more CD’s/merchandise sold. However, you would be surprised at how often press kits don’t give the important information and delivery that venues, festivals and publicists need. Unfortunately, when your kit is not only ineffective in providing info to entice a venue to consider your booking request, another artist that may not be as accomplished as yourself, but with a well thought out and professional kit, might be the one who snags the gig instead!

Here are six elements of a good EPK which I’ll also explain below. I recommend hosting your EPK on your own web site, as either a separate tab or a link solely for booking, as with your own site you can control the format and the data while sending the venue to one source for everything. You can still keep an alternate kit set up on other digital sites, but I would encourage artists at every turn to ultimately drive the traffic to their own website. It is not uncommon when a platform other than your site is the host, entire kits can be wiped away if you don’t keep up with communications from them.

What Makes an Effective EPK

1) an informative bio

2) a quote page and/or review shorts

3) various publicity shots

4) music to stream

5) video

6) downloadable posters

7) stage plot, sound requirements in your basic contract rider

 

Explanation of Each:

1) An informative Biography

This is perhaps the most misunderstood component of a press kit by artists – as to what makes a good bio and what you should include about yourself. I highly recommend hiring a writer for this, as they will know how to look at your life, musical achievements and make it an interesting and effective read. But if you’re writing it yourself, here are a few tips. First, A bio should captivate the reader with a strong first sentence – perhaps to pique interest or to give an intriguing summation of the artist and what s/he does, filled out in the first paragraph’s subsequent lines. The second and third paragraphs might delve more into specifics about the artist’s current sound, musical life and past achievements. If you’ve received lots of songwriting finalist awards, no need to list them all in a sentence. You can summarize your achievements. Then usually, the last paragraphs might talk about where the artist was born and grew up with some more historical information. Be prudent here, giving homage to your 5th grade teacher or that role in the school play is not usually interesting to others. That said, in general, when writing your bio, when looking at our own lives, we often leave out some of the most fascinating things about ourselves that may stimulate human interest in your story. It’s that memorable content that helps you stand out from a crowd. The trick is in how to incorporate it. Again, If you are unsure of how to write about yourself, talk with friends who may be accomplished writers or hire someone who professionally writes bios. It will be worth it!

2) A Quote page and/or Review Shorts

If you have received some reviews and/or quotes, it’s quite illustrative and impressive to include these in your press kit. The key to selecting quotes when they are three to four sentences long is to create a shortened version of the quote for quick reading. You want the reader to be able to skim over the quotes, not to be weighed down in them. It’s ok to edit out some of what is said – to make the quote have more punch! But, this is also an art, you can’t put words into their mouth, and your edits must keep their intention the same. However, taking out extraneous words or even thoughts focuses the reader to know what the most important take away is. As to reviews, it’s fine to print them in their entirety if they are well written and informative, but many times there will be a lot of filler information found elsewhere in your press kit, so feel free to reproduce a paragraph or two from a longer press clip. If you have a particularly strong and brief quote that sums up the essence of what you do, that may also be included on the front of your website; the top of your bio, placed under your name; on a business card; etc. Do not include fan quotes; try to get quotes from reviewers, people in the business who run/book venues, other well-known musicians, etc. One last caveat – you can use a quote if it is published or asked for, but if someone says something or writes to you personally, it’s best to write back and ask for permission before using – and at that time, they can even clarify what they said once they know you’re looking for a quote.

3) Various Publicity Shots

It’s important to have a good publicity shot – one that is something a newspaper or venue can use to generate interest and attract attention. Depending on your image and branding – having a shot that also can reflect your music is a plus. Clothing, settings and good lighting and camera work are important in getting your shot chosen over others for print. Sometimes a photo editor picks the pictures for previews and it is not uncommon for an unknown artist with a better photo to have it printed larger than someone famous! Therefore I advise hiring a photographer, since if you find one whose work you like, you will usually get a picture that will be more professional which will garner attention. Whether you are looking at the camera, looking away or are relaxing, the shot should convey something about you and your music, albeit in abstract terms. A professional photographer can help you find your best and most interesting camera angles, encourage you to relax and give your shot the polish and nuance it needs. Please avoid taking your pictures in front of barns and brick walls – these backgrounds are overdone. You can scout out interesting backdrops for your photo, or your photographer will have some in mind. If shooting indoors without natural light, your photographer will have the proper lighting with them. You can have a variety of types – head shot, full body shot, horizontal and vertical. The final shots should be available and downloadable in both hi resolution pictures (300 & 600 dpi)and low res (72) for computer screens and should be indicated as such on your site.

4) Music to stream/download

Of course, your kit should include your music – this is easy if you have a CD – you can either include a few (5 or so tracks) from your CD – or stream the CD itself. And if making your music downloadable, you can also have a private link on your site for your whole EPK, or just the music in full, so that only venues/festivals can have that access to your press kit and music. If you don’t have a CD, then put together maybe five or so tracks of your music, well recorded. Indicate if you are about to record an album and that these are some of the songs that you will include. If you are a band, whether in a recording, demo or video, record your sound as you usually perform. However, if you are a singer songwriter and usually perform solo, your CD most probably will include other instruments that you don’t take on the road, but that enhance your sound. Venues look for what is somewhat reproducible in your performances, but not literally. Instead, leave off those drum kits and electric guitars if you don’t perform with them, but it is fine to add bass and some additional instrumentation that doesn’t dominate your sound. Read on to the next section as venues not only need to know what you sound like on CD or recorded, but also live.

5) Video

When booking a gig, it is important for many presenters to know how you are live in performance, not just what you do on your CD. So instead of hiring everyone who played on your CD to record your booking video, when you may only intend to bring two or three or go solo, be sure to include at least one video on your site that represents you in performance. It’s always a plus to have a two or three camera edited shoot, but not necessary if your video, which can even be recorded on an iPhone, is recorded up close enough to see your face, (not from a distance where you are barely visible) that is not shakey (!) and that the sound is not muffled or distorted. That type of video will turn off a promoter. Also, If you’re planning a nationally-released recording, it is always an advantage (but not necessary) to have a story-line type video, in addition to a straight-up performance. Some artists also may include a video of their own story – a bit of a biography – and these can be fun. Just keep them to roughly 3 minutes or so, to hold the attention of the viewer. If you sometimes play solo, but can also bring a trio, record the trio – when you negotiate your contract, then you can see if their offer allows you will bring the trio, come as a duo or perform solo. The booking agent for the venue will have an idea what they are negotiating for either way, you can quote a price for the trio – then if there is not enough money for all three of you, can offer to just bring the duo or come solo.

6) Downloadable Posters – yes, some venues want a poster or two to put up – usually 8.5 by 11 is sufficient, as there is not always space for a larger one. You might even have postcards they can reproduce with your info. But you can have these different sizes on your site, including something larger like 11 x 17 – with the artwork completely done except for the white space where the venue can print their information and reproduce for their own purposes. Your graphic designer can assist you with this. Make sure your design is professional, clean and easy to use – and having it downloadable frees you of the responsibility of having to mail them to the venues, if they can use the downloads.

 

7)  Plot, Sound Requirements and a Basic Rider (optional)

 

If you can, include this as well on a presenter only link on your EPK, it is helpful to the venue to know where you are standing on stage, where the equipment is placed, who is performing with you and what their sound needs are. There are drawing programs on your computer – where you can create a pro stage plot without much fuss. You can indicate where you are standing, what side the microphone is placed, where the equipment will be, etc. That is referred to the stage plot. You can also include a list of equipment that each person needs, you can suggest brands you prefer and list some alternate brands as well. And all of this can be included into a basic “rider” – a document where you let the venue know not only your sound/light specifics and preferences, but for backstage purposes, what you might appreciate and any other special information in making your performance more comfortable and less confusing. For new performers who are not in demand, you do not want to ask for too much, it is more a guide for your sound and backstage preferences, if the venue can provide them. Just remember, when you send this to a venue, they will read it over, then “mark it up” – deleting provisions they don’t provide – then send it back to you for your signature. But here is a good place to indicate if you have an oversize vehicle to park, if you need a keyboard, etc., so this can all come into your booking negotiations. It just allows the presenter to have the best possible picture before making an offer to you.

Kari Estrin

Kari Estrin

Summary:

I hope these tips have been helpful as a general guideline. Each of these items has a wealth of information to delve into further, but this post will start you off on knowing what components to consider including. It is always preferable to seek out help in areas where you or those around you don’t have the expertise to create your most professional press kit – in terms of graphic design, photography, writing and video, if you are looking for better gigs and to improve your overall profile. You don’t have to spend lots of money for this or record in and with expensive places/equipment. It just has to look well done and sound clean. ­If you don’t know anyone in your area, networking with other musicians may be helpful to help you find these resources. And graphic designers and writers can be found at any distance to complete your work. A good press kit will pay itself back over time in better gigs and more of them! www.kariestrin.com

 

For more information on the 14th Annual IAMA (International Acoustic Music Awards), go to: http://www.inacoustic.com

 

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7 Rules of Recording the Singing Guitarist

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7 Rules of Recording the Singing Guitarist

by Jessica Brandon

Recording the Singing Guitarist

Recording the Singing Guitarist

The challenge of recording a vocalist/guitarist singing guitarist is that you are, in effect, trying to capture two sources at the same time and in close quarters. The microphone choice and placement that gives you the perfect guitar sound might completely foul up the vocal sound, and vice versa.

Plus, 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.

 

Rule #1 – Acoustic and Any Noise to deal with

Are you’re dealing with a relatively quiet source, or do you have noise pollution from whirring air conditioning units, computer fans, central heating pipes, buzzing fluorescent tubes, traffic outside and so on? This can be murder, so be sure to vet both your recording setup and recording environment appropriately.

 

Rule #2 – Do Not Record With A DI

Direct boxes are often referred to as “DI” boxes. This stands for “Direct Injection” as their main purpose is to convert unbalanced and/or high impedance instrument signals into a format suitable for direct connection to a mixing console’s mic input – without the use of a microphone.

The rule is never record your acoustic guitar through the internal pickup into a DI. Why? This is because it sounds bad.  I have seen acoustic electric guitars being plugged into DIs on stage at church and other venues but in a recording situation, the recording turns out sounding horrible and unnatural. 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 – How to Mic the Vocals & Guitar

Try to use separate close mics for the vocals and the guitar, to achieve the most pleasing sound possible on both, and to gain, if possible, a useful degree of separation between the two, which will allow independent treatment at the mix: different reverbs, level rides, EQ and so on.

A friend of mine recorded his vocals on a Shure SM57 microphone with a vocal filter a separate Shure SM57 microphone on his acoustic steel string guitar. He liked the results of his recordings on his tight budget. To my ears, though, while the vocal sound from the SM7 is perfectly usable, it doesn’t come close to that of the Neumann, and personally I would choose the better vocal sound over increased isolation in this case. (If you want that level of isolation with the clarity of a condenser mic, you could try one of the modern stage condenser designs such as the Neumann KMS105, Sennheiser e965, AKG C5 or Shure Beta 87a.)

Another option is to treat voice and guitar as a single sound source (which, after all, is what any listeners in the room will hear) and use relatively distant mic techniques to capture it all in one go.

 

Rule #4 – Minimizing Vocal Spill

You will need to know how to capture a good guitar sound that is relatively free from vocal spill. The challenge in this situation is to capture a nice guitar sound while minimizing vocal spill onto the guitar mics. Without the added complication of vocals to think about, the most common point to focus on when close-miking a guitar is the area where the neck joins the body.

If that didn’t yield the required sound, or we wanted to add a second microphone for a stereo guitar recording, most of us would probably next shift our attention to the area around the bridge, perhaps just behind or below it.

 

Rule #5 – Miking The Voice

Choosing a microphone and mic position for the top half of your singing guitarist is, similarly, about balancing the twin priorities of achieving a good vocal sound and rejecting guitar spill. And, once again, ‘normal’ vocal miking techniques are often perfectly successful in this application, as long as you don’t go too far away. If you’re using a conventional large-diaphragm condenser microphone (such as Audio-Technica AT2035), and you place it as close to the mouth as you’re comfortable with — personally I’d want it at least four inches or so away — then as long as your singer has a reasonably strong voice and doesn’t move about too much, chances are you’ll get a healthy vocal level without too much guitar spill. I usually try to avoid pop shields, as I feel they color the sound, but if your microphone is right in front of the singer’s mouth, you will need something to reduce popping and protect the mic diaphragm from moisture.

 

Rule #6 – Mixing A Singing Guitarist

When you’re just recording solo guitar and vocals, the options available for fixing things at the mix are minimal. If you didn’t get it right at the recording stage, chances are it will never be absolutely right, although there are certainly rescue missions you can attempt. For example, if there are audible phase problems between the vocal and guitar mic, and you can visually identify vocal events within the guitar track, ‘slipping’ the vocal part by a few tens of samples for better alignment can sometimes help. If you use one of the techniques that aims for a high level of separation, you might also find that you can comp the odd dodgy vocal word or phrase in from a different take without it being too obvious.

In general, compressing either the vocal or guitar mics will tend to bring up the level of any spill contained therein, so don’t be too heavy-handed with the threshold control. As this sort of music can often be quite delicate in any case, I much prefer to keep compression to a minimum, and use automation to draw in level changes. Achieving the right balance between guitar and vocal can be surprisingly difficult, so don’t be afraid to make fairly radical moves on occasion. Also, don’t be too aggressive in muting the vocal mic where the singer isn’t singing, because if there is guitar spill on the vocal track, the guitar sound will suddenly change as soon as the vocal fader is raised.

One of the major advantages of gaining some separation between vocal and guitar mics is that you can use two different reverbs, or at least different amounts of reverb, on the two signals. My own preference for vocals is usually something plate-ish, with plenty of pre-delay, and perhaps a touch of slapback echo. On guitars, by contrast, a much more natural reverb is often the order of the day — perhaps something involving mainly early reflections, just to add a bit of life and zing to proceedings. Separation will, of course, also allow you to equalise the two signals independently if need be, although, again, you need to be aware that adding a large high-frequency boost to the vocals will make the guitar spill much more obvious. If you’re forced to use the output from a pickup as your main source of guitar sound, you might need to get much more radical with EQ or even multi-band compression; both piezo and magnetic pickups tend to put out too much mid-range, which will need to be reined in if you are to achieve a natural sound.

 

Rule #7 – Determine what is it you wish to accomplish

This is probably the most important rule is to ask yourself what exactly it is you really wish to accomplish, how you really want to sound like? Can you envision the sound of your vocals and guitar?

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

Do you agree or disagree with these 7 rules? If you could add a eighth rule what would it be?

For more information on the 14th Annual IAMA (International Acoustic Music Awards), go to: http://www.inacoustic.com

 

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Expert Tips for Building a Home Recording Studio

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Expert Tips for Building a Home Recording Studio

Tips for Building a Home Recording Studio

Tips for Building a Home Recording Studio

It’s true that at some point every talented and aspiring musician hopes to advance to a level where there will need to be a professional touch added to your audio track. Becoming a sound engineer does not necessarily require a college degree! You can set up your own studio at home with some basic and affordable equipment.

As a newbie, there isn’t too much you need to start enjoying working from your own home recording studio.

 

 

The Room

An important thing of what you require is a room inside the house. This is the most important gadget you will need. Put in mind which room to use that will be inaccessible to noise and possibly sound-proofed. The ancillary noise from the laundry room, playing kids in the sitting room, the knock from the delivery man – all these are likely means that can distract you and spoil a smooth track.

Preparing the room then requires a measure of effort, before you think of bringing in other instruments and accessories like the headset, drums, speakers and microphones. Remember you will need a desk with a few seats, as music can be enjoyed as a collective process. You should also think about sound absorbing panels, furniture and some colorful lights to get the inspiration flowing.

 

The microphones

One or two microphones are all that you need to start with for now. As your studio continues to grow bigger, you can then increase your range. There are several different types of microphones, which depend on the instruments you have and what you want to record at home.

From the many options available, you can get low-end microphones as well as higher brands like AKG and Neumann, which have specialist microphones for each and every task. Other types of microphones that are suitable include Rode NT1A for recording vocals. For any high-frequency instrument like the cymbals and acoustic guitar, the AKG P170 in particular excels.

When investing in microphones, make sure you also stock up on its accessories such as microphone stands, pop shields and XLR cables. It always helps to have spares too.

 

Monitoring sound

Speakers and headphones come next. Good speakers produce perfect sound depending on how well they are sealed. Examples of such include the mixing studio standard Yamaha NS10 speakers that produce a realistic & true sound.  Though some engineers do suggest you go for more costly choices from JBL companies.

At this stage, it’s better to avoid high cost headphones and settle for ones like Sony MDR-XD200. A good headphone set should be large and comfortable and demonstrate a true flat sound so that you can work on your music as accurately as possible.

 

Separation

It’s also very important to bear in mind how you are placing your set up. For example, the guitar and the cymbal are operating in the same frequency; the cymbal crash will break-off the guitar solo.

Good engineering principles are therefore needed to ensure the sounds are separated and won’t spill into each other.

Working with your EQ settings will help aid the separation of your instrument’s frequency space in the mixing phase.

 

Music production software

Now let’s focus on what digital software we need to get started. Your main program of choice will be important in dictating how you work. These are called DAWs (Digital Audio Workstation) and here, there are a few options.

The most popular are Pro Tools (made by AVID), Logic Pro (made by Apple), Ableton Live and Cubase (made by Steinberg). Of course there are options that are available for a range of prices such as; Reason (made by Propellerhead), Fruit Loops Studio and Reaper (made by Cockos).

Your plug in library should be thought of as your box of tricks and there are many expensive tricks out there from companies such as Waves, Soundtoys and Fabfilter. Luckily each DAW comes with its own basic box of free plug ins, which have been found to perform their respective mixing tasks to more than an adequate standard.

 

This blog article has been brought to you by Mixbutton

 

For more information on the 14th Annual IAMA (International Acoustic Music Awards), go to: http://www.inacoustic.com

 

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So You Want To Record An Acoustic Guitar?

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So You Want To Record An Acoustic Guitar?

By Paul J. Stamler

The basics of a successful acoustic recording, explained…

Recording Acoustic Guitar

Recording Acoustic Guitar

It’s actually simple, right? Just put the guitarist in a room with good acoustics, put a mic 8″–16″ over the fingerboard and aim it just above the 15th fret (see Figure 1), and you’re ready to roll. But, as usual, there are subtleties, and that’s why we’re gathered together today. Here’s a stream-of-consciousness look at recording this fundamental and wondrous, yet elusive, instrument.

 

Start with the instrument

The first step in recording a good acoustic guitar track is to make sure the guitar makes sounds that are worth recording. At the risk of repeating myself (I mentioned this in the last segment of my “First Steps” series in December 2016), you probably shouldn’t put on new strings at the start of the session; new strings hold their pitch well, yes, but on acoustic guitars they also ring and rattle like nobody’s business. If you change your strings 24–48 hours before you’re planning to record, they’ll have a chance to settle in and calm down.

 

You routinely use a humidifier in your case or inside the guitar, right? Unless you live in a climate with consistently high relative humidity (and never use an air conditioner or forced-air heating at home!), your guitar spends much of its time in a dry environment, and its tone suffers—the bass goes away, and the action gets troublesome. I routinely use a Dampit® humidifier, a piece of rubber tubing that contains a hunk of surgical sponge; you soak it for about 10 minutes, wring it out, and put it into the guitar’s soundhole. (Some people keep a slice of apple in their guitar case as a humidifier; it smells nice, but can attract ants.) If you’re not using a humidifier routinely, at least use one the night before you record; the tonal dividend can be remarkable.

I’m assuming your guitar is set up properly: no fret buzzes or rattles, comfortable action all over the neck, good intonation. If not, get thee to the town’s best guitar fixer and make it right.

 

Four categories

Now that the guitar sounds its best, what are you planning to record? There are four major categories into which an acoustic guitar recording may fall, and some of them need specialized recording techniques.

 

  1. Solo/twin guitar. Solo is self-explanatory, but the techniques used for recording guitar solos also apply when there are twin guitars interacting—the classic example being the longtime partnership between Doc and Merle Watson.
  2. Guitar accompanying a solo singer, such as a singer-

songwriter recording without a backup band. This may not work with the same setup as the solo/dual guitar recording if the musician sings and plays at the same time, since now leakage issues present themselves. If you play the guitar part first, then overdub the voice, obviously leakage isn’t an issue.

  1. Guitar as part of a small ensemble. This might be a bluegrass band, or an Irish ensemble, or a small rock combo, but the salient characteristic is that the guitar still counts as, and is still recorded as, a full-range instrument. (But for caveats, read on.)
  2. Guitar as an element in a dense mix. This is a whole ’nother ball game; when the guitar is part of a large ensemble (whether live or overdubbed), it’s usually not recorded/mixed full-range. Usually the ensemble includes a bass instrument that takes care of the nether frequencies, so the acoustic’s low end gets chopped off to some degree.

Obviously, there are intermediate or hybrid situations. One classic example is Elvis Presley’s famous Sun recording of “That’s All Right, Mama”, where the guitar is certainly accompanying a singer, but in the presence of a small group (electric guitar and bass fiddle). There, the engineer (Sam Phillips) rolled off the bottom of the guitar’s sound to avoid having the guitar’s lower frequencies overlap the bass.

 

Mics and guitars

Which mic you choose for the task depends to some extent on the scenario you’re working in, although not as much as one might think. Guitars have a lot of bottom (particularly larger guitars, like dreadnoughts), and directional mics—cardioid, hypercardioid and figure-8—have proximity effect. That acts like an EQ which boosts the bass when the mic is close to the sound source. Even for a solo guitar recording, you probably don’t want that; you want full-range sound, yes, but not a boombox.

That’s where the 15th-fret position I mentioned above comes in; on most guitars, in most situations, you don’t want to fall into the hole. Some people think that the soundhole is the place to put a mic because “it’s where the sound comes out.” But that isn’t really true; most of the sound from an acoustic guitar comes from the vibration of the top, with the strings themselves contributing a small amount (their main job is to set the top in motion).

 

The hollow body of the guitar forms a resonator, which boosts the bass frequencies to a lesser or greater degree, depending on the body size. The hole helps tune this resonator, and what comes out of it is not the wide range of the instrument’s sound, but a spectrum centered around the note to which the resonator is tuned. This one-note sound is sometimes called “jukebox bass”, and while the strong bass can help the instrument carry in a bluegrass jam session (that’s why the Martin D-18 has become the quintessential “bluegrasser’s guitar”), it can interact with the microphone’s proximity effect to produce the dreaded one-note boom. One solution, if leakage from other instruments or voice isn’t an issue, is to record the guitar using an omnidirectional mic, which has no proximity effect. Even so, keep the mic away from the hole.

 

So back to my question: which microphone to use on that 15th fret (which is away from the soundhole)? What you don’t want is a mic with a shrieking high end. I read a recent review describing a mic with a rising response through its range, culminating in a +12 dB peak in the treble. Yes, +12 dB; that’s not a mic you want recording an acoustic guitar, as it will sound thin and wiry, and exaggerate pick and fret noises like nobody’s business. Even in Scenario 4, the small-element-in-a-big-mix recording, a mic with such an exaggerated response won’t produce good results.

 

In class a few weeks ago we did a mic shootout between some mics renowned for their ability to record acoustic guitar. We were using a not-particularly-fancy plywood-topped guitar; when the student brought it out and started playing, we were all pleasantly surprised by its tonal excellence. Cheap guitars have gotten a lot better in the last 20 years!

 

We didn’t have a chance to make the shootout comprehensive or scientific; we only had the chance to try a few mics. The students’ favorites (and mine) were the ones I predicted: the AKG C451B small-diaphragm condenser, and the Microtech Gefell M930, which has a large diaphragm but a small body size. Interestingly enough, the published frequency response curves on these mics are surprisingly similar (Figs. 2 & 3—our thanks to AKG and Microtech Gefell for permission to reprint these).

 

Over the years, those mics have become favorites for recording acoustic guitar. Their prices aren’t comparable, though; the M930 goes for about $1200 new, whereas the C451B can be had for about $500 new. Of course, the M930 will do a lot of other things well, though, like drum overheads and vocals—it’s become my “money mic” for many reasons, not just its usefulness on acoustic guitar. (Interestingly, my limited experience when I was reviewing the Neumann TLM 102 suggests that it might share some of the M930’s strong points on guitar.)

 

If you prefer a flatter frequency response on acoustic guitar, two good alternatives are the Shure SM81 and the Oktava MK012. The Oktava has interchangeable capsules that include cardioid and hypercardioid pickup patterns… and therein lies a tale.

Way back in the Paleolithic Era I recorded a musician named Bob Abrams in a Scenario 2 setup—guitar and vocal. I had eight tracks available for the recording, and I decided to try a trick I’d read about: putting a large-diaphragm Neumann U 87 on the guitar, with a couple of small-diaphragm Neumann KM 84s flanking it. Everything sounded fine, right up until Bob launched into some blues shouting.

 

When it came time to mix these songs, I discovered that Bob’s voice had leaked into the U 87, and the leakage sounded terrible. He was seriously off-axis, and many large-diaphragm mics have squirrelly response off axis. (The M930 and TLM 102 don’t, but they hadn’t yet been introduced at the time.) The leakage into the small-diaphragm KM 84s, however, didn’t sound bad; their response off-axis is pretty uncolored.

KM 84s, however, have an odd interaction with large-bodied Martin guitars; they “woof out” at the bottom. I suspect that this is a combination of proximity effect and saturation of their minuscule output transformers; whatever the cause, it doesn’t go away with EQ. Fortunately it wasn’t too obtrusive on this session, but would have been nice to avoid altogether.

 

The nice thing about Oktava MK012 microphones, however, is that they’re transformerless, and they don’t woof out. For recording a Scenario 2 (guitar+voice) or Scenario 3 (small-group) combination, I might use an MK012 with its hypercardioid capsule; that allows a little bit of leakage from the voice, but less than the cardioid capsule, and the off-axis response is still nicely uncolored. The hypercardioid capsule has more proximity effect than the cardioid, but a 100 Hz rolloff will usually cure that.

If you’re looking for Oktava MK012s, by the way, you need to get them from the official distributor (oktava.com). I mention that because there was a rash of MK012s on the market about 10 years ago that had failed to meet specs, and they were followed by knockoffs that weren’t really Oktavas. Go to the official source and save yourself some heartache.

 

What about Scenario 4, the dense mix? I’d actually choose the same mic I’d use for the other setups, making sure not to use one that woofs out or screeches. A little gentle boost in mixdown around 10 kHz (no more than a couple of dB) plus a steep rolloff of the lows should make it fit in nicely.

 

Other voices

I’ve only mentioned a few mics above. What about some others?

In an article I wrote for Recording several years ago, I touted the Neumann KM 84 (hero of my session with Bob Abrams). Unfortunately, the KM 84 is long gone, and its successor (the KM 184) is a very different-sounding microphone; though I’ve liked the KM 184 on flutes and mandolins, I haven’t had much luck using it on acoustic guitars. The KM 84 occasionally shows up on Ebay, though, and deserves mention here. I’ve had excellent results using it on Taylor and Gibson acoustic guitars; it seems to get along less well with Martins and their imitators, as it tends to woof out on them.

What about the venerable Neumann U 87, which I also lauded in that long-ago article? When you’re recording solo or duo guitars, without a singer, it can do a splendid job on an acoustic guitar—the U 87 has an unusual liquid quality that imposes itself over the guitar’s tone. It’s a very 1970s sound. Unfortunately, the U 87 now sells for about $2400, not including shockmounts.

 

Somewhere along the road, I had the pleasure of reviewing the Sennheiser MKH40, a small-diaphragm condenser mic. My memory of using it on acoustic guitar is that it had a unique ability to draw the listener’s attention. When it was on a guitar (say, in a small ensemble) you had to listen; the instrument just wouldn’t stay in the background foliage. That might be what you’re looking for or it might not, but in the right context it can be an enormously attractive sound. The MKH40 costs about $1200, the same as the Gefell M930.

 

Hear me in stereo

One alternative available for recording acoustic guitar in Scenarios 1 and 2 (solo/duo guitars, with or without a singer) is to mic the guitar in stereo. One way to do this on a solo guitar is to point two mics at the instrument’s body—one on the usual 15th fret, the other down by the bridge—panning them hard-right and hard-left respectively. This can produce a “bigger-than-life” guitar sound that spans a listener’s speakers—sort of like a 10′ acoustic guitar body. I’ve done this a few times; Julie Henigan’s album American Stranger has several examples. On that recording, I think I was using Shure SM81s on the guitar. When vocals leak into these mics from the side, their response is basically flat with a rolled-off treble.

The hazard in recording guitar with two parallel mics is that most guitarists move around a little when they play. (Julie doesn’t, luckily for me.) This changes the relative distances of the two mics, and two things can happen: first, the image of the guitar can shift drastically in the speakers, sounding like the guitarist just jumped across the room.

The other problem that can develop from the guitarist’s motion is comb filtering. If he or she twists the guitar so that it’s closer to one microphone than the other, cancellations and reinforcements will happen in the high frequencies—a 1″ difference in guitar-to-mic distances will produce a cancellation at 6.8 kHz and a reinforcement at 13.6 kHz.

For recording an acoustic guitar in stereo, therefore, I prefer to use an XY arrangement, using two cardioid mics (usually small-diaphragm) nose-to-nose, with their capsules angled at 110° and stacked one above the other (see Figure 4), and the whole assembly sitting—where else/—above the 15th fret.

 

The sound clip that goes with this article (downloadable from https://is.gd/RECJuly2017AcGuitarExample), used by permission of the artist, Phil Cooper, is one of my favorite acoustic guitar recordings. Phil was playing a small-bodied Breedlove C2 guitar, and I put an XY pair of cardioid Oktava MK012s over the 15th fret, panning them hard left and hard right. I think I rolled the bass off at 100 Hz to compensate for proximity effect, but there was no other EQ or processing used.

Can you do this when someone is singing? Yes, if you’re careful. If Phil had been singing on this track, I might have used the hypercardioid capsules on the MK012s; XY works with hypercardioids if you change the angle to 90°. And here’s something that might only work with Phil Cooper’s voice: I used to record him with an XY pair of KM 84s or MK012s at neck level (his neck, not the guitar’s), and I could change the mix of guitar and vocal by adjusting the mics’ angle. I did need to use a pop filter when I did that, as most small diaphragm condenser mics are inordinately sensitive to p-pops. The guitar was off-axis, but on the KM 84s and MK012s I was using, it actually sounded good that way… so much so that I occasionally recorded Phil’s guitar with the mics in that position even when he wasn’t singing.

 

Beyond the mic

The quality of your mic preamp matters a lot on acoustic guitar recordings. If the preamp is thin-sounding, or one-dimensional (flattening everything out until it sounds like a cardboard cutout), or hard and shrill in the high frequencies (the telltale clue is exaggerated pick and fret noise), your recordings of acoustic guitar will suffer for it.

I can’t emphasize this too strongly; too many low-priced interfaces include cheap mic preamps that won’t do an acoustic guitar justice. If you have a separate mic preamp, and can patch it more directly into the A/D converter, your acoustic guitar recordings can gain a great deal of depth, three-dimensionality and realism. Some interfaces have insert jacks; they’re worth their weight in gold at times like this.

Other manufacturers are putting better preamps into their interfaces—see, for example, Paul Vnuk’s June 2017 review of the Antelope Goliath. That’s good news for everyone, but especially for guitar players. Even if the recording’s destiny is to have its bottom chopped off for incorporation into a complex mix, you can make a track that fits more effortlessly if the preamp is good.

What about pickups? They used to be anathema for serious recordists; magnetic pickups made your acoustic guitar sound like a pawnshop-special electric, while piezo pickups often had a characteristic timbre that received the moniker “squacky”—if you’ve ever watched “Austin City Limits” you’ve heard it.

 

Well, pickups got better, and more important, the preamps used with them got better. It turns out that pickups (all pickups, not just piezos) really prefer to operate into a really high impedance, like 10 MΩ or more… that’s 10 million ohms. Preamps with input impedances like that used to be rare birds, but now they’re more common, and the “instrument” inputs on some interfaces have sufficiently high impedances too.

The singer-songwriter and virtuoso guitarist Joel Mabus has, for his last several CDs, blended a track from his pickup (via a good preamp) with the microphones on his guitar. The result adds just a little edge to the sound, in an engaging way. Check out the guitar sounds on his latest, a gospel record called Different Hymnals, for some examples.

 

In closing

The acoustic guitar is its own universe; listen to a recording by John Renbourn, or John Fahey, or Joel Mabus, or Doc & Merle Watson—listen deeply, until you get lost in the sound. Acoustic guitars are like that; their sound is endlessly complex and fascinating.

A certain renowned guitar player once said in an interview that he thought the sound of an acoustic guitar had much more variety and depth than that of an electric guitar, and was just plain “more interesting.” This purist rock-hating retro-folkie was named Keith Richards. If Keith thinks the acoustic guitar has the most possibilities, who am I to argue?

In any case, I hope this article will help you to record the acoustic guitar more richly, capturing the interest that Keith (and all of us) love. Enjoy!

 

[Reprinted by permission by Recording Magazine]

 

Paul J. Stamler is an audio engineer, educator, musician, and collector of vintage and historical audio recordings, living and working in St. Louis.

For more information on the 14th Annual IAMA (International Acoustic Music Awards), go to: http://www.inacoustic.com

 

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