Five Rules for Recording Great Acoustic Tones

December 1, 2016

For Birdsong at Morning’s latest, A Slight Departure [Blue Gentian], guitarist/producer Alan Williams didn’t just craft beautiful acoustic textures. He orchestrated his acoustic tracks into a 5.1 surround mix for a deep, compelling listening experience. Here, Williams details some of his studio strategies.
—Matt Blackett

1 Always start with a nice instrument. This should be obvious.

2 Be vigilant about tuning. However, the instruments with the most interesting tones may also possess idiosyncratic intonation. You can address these issues with modern studio techniques—such as tuning the guitar for certain positions, adjusting the tuning for other positions, and then editing between the two. Pitch correction plug-ins are very effective at single-note material, and slightly less so for polyphonic passages.

3 Record the part with a clear sense of how it will live in the final mix. If the song is driving and aggressive, try a single guitar part recorded in mono with a fair amount of compression. But if the acoustic guitar is going to command more of the musical focus, recording in stereo might be a better approach. For A Slight Departure, I conceived the mixes for 5.1 surround from the very beginning. I’d record a core guitar track in stereo, and then record different left and right takes in mono, allowing me to place some of this “icing” in the rear speakers.

4 Be mindful of the performer’s comfort level. Some fingerings feel really good when I’m lying back on a couch, but are far more awkward when I’m standing or sitting upright. In the end, find the way of playing that feels most comfortable, and then let the recording process conform to that, rather than the other way around. This can present challenges for keeping mic placement consistent, but it may result in more musical performances.

5 Use fresh strings. They will have faster response in the high frequencies, and will do better with fluctuations in energy and overtones—something that EQ adjustments can’t quite account for.

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