Acoustic Recording Made Easy, Part 3: How to Choose and Set Up Your Studio Guitar

The choices you make here will have a significant impact on how things go down when the red light turns on.
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We’ve covered home studio setup in the past couple of Frets columns. This month, we’re going to focus on how to select our primary acoustic guitar for recording and get our tools prepared so that they work best for us in the studio environment. As you’ll see, the choices we make here will have a significant impact on how things go down when the red light turns on.

PICK A MAIN GUITAR

If you own a single acoustic guitar, even a modest one, you have plenty to be thankful for. As Santa Cruz Guitars guru Richard Hoover likes to say, “That’s enough to create a song that can change the world.” If you have two or more, that’s even more reason to be appreciative. And if you’re fortunate enough to have multiple versions of similar instruments, consider designating one of them as your primary recording instrument.

Of course, certain types of acoustic guitars will be more appropriate than others for some types of parts or recordings. For example, steel-string acoustics sound different than nylon-string and resonator guitars, but acoustic guitars also vary in sound depending on their size, materials, body shape and more. In general, it’s best to choose one guitar to serve as the workhorse for your signature sound.

Here’s how: Using your various guitars, record the same parts on a few different tunes with the exact same settings, and make an informed choice about which instrument sounds best. Vintage acoustics generally sound warm, which makes them ideal for the studio. Often, they’re relegated to the studio due to their lack of stage-worthy electronics. If you have one guitar that’s more valuable or considerably more fragile, be smart and keep it in the studio. Let another one bear the scars of the road and the high risk of being damaged by an increasingly unconcerned airline industry.

STRING UP STRONG

Use heavy strings. Lighter strings are generally easier to play, and that benefit may take precedent when onstage, but heavier strings produce bolder tone with better sustain, and that can make a meaningful difference to your recordings. Heavier strings also help you focus more on your playing, as each note truly carries more weight, and that can yield a stronger performance when you’re in the studio.

Whether or not to use a fresh set of strings for a session depends on the nature of the acoustic part. If your part is particularly percussive or demands the purest tone, then a new set is best. If the song is a smooth strummer or something stylistically traditional, such as a Delta blues, older strings are appropriate and sound authentic. How often do you think Robert Johnson got his hands on a set of shiny new strings? If you want to minimize the steely sound and string noise, and hear more of the guitar’s inner character, consider a mellower steel-string set, such as D’Addario’s Nickel Bronze, Martin’s Retro or Ernie Ball’s Earthwood Phosphor Bronze.

SUIT YOUR STYLE

How does your stage performance style compare to your studio style? I prefer to stand onstage, but I sit down to write and record. I even adjust my guitar’s setup to the occasion. For example, I’ll sacrifice a bit of string buzz in my live performance for the sake of having lower action. But overt string noise in the studio is a track killer, so I make sure my action is high enough to prevent it. Maybe you mostly play in standard tuning and use a pick when performing, but you experiment with open tunings, fingerstyle and slide playing in your home studio. Set your guitars up for the situation. How often you gig and record matters. If you do plenty of both, you’ll want your live acoustic to be ready to roll for a gig at a moment’s notice and have the primary studio acoustic ready to record when inspiration strikes. Clearly, playing in the studio is entirely different from performing onstage. Treat each situation accordingly, and you’ll find you’ll play and sound at your best every time.

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