Five Ways to Avoid Trashing a Lovely Acoustic Guitar Tone

Acoustic music can be a calm, beautiful, and uplifting oasis of inspiration— unless you transform it into an ocean of tears with ill-conceived recording approaches.
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Acoustic music can be a calm, beautiful, and uplifting oasis of inspiration— unless you transform it into an ocean of tears with ill-conceived recording approaches. Acoustic instruments need to be respected and nurtured to coax out the gorgeous sounds they can deliver. Unless you’re a sorcerer, you can’t kludge, rush, force, or cajole great acoustic tracks in a home studio. And if you truly think that any of the horrendous techniques listed below are recipes for excellence, well, I’d love to sell you some excellent swampland in Siberia.

1. This Crappy $29 Walmart Mic Should Work Beautifully, Right?

Are you barking mad? If you want to capture a stunning acoustic sound, you need a decent microphone. I’m all about deploying cheap mics to craft sonic effects, but positioning a bargain-basement model that only “hears” searing, tinny midrange frequencies is going to murder the timbral quality of your steel-or nylon-string, mandolin, ukulele, or other acoustic instrument. Borrow, rent, or purchase a good large-diaphragm condenser mic that can reproduce lovely low end, sparking mids, and shimmering treble. There are a number of wonderful condensers available for less than $200, as well as some fabulously expensive models. Check out reviews online or in your favorite magazine (GP has published numerous mic reviews, and our sister publication Electronic Musician is also a great resource), and go with your gut. And, yeah, save your Walmart trips for cheap groceries.

2.The Sound Comes Out of the Soundhole, So I’m Gonna Point this Mic Directly at It.

That’s also where the air rushes out. Duh. Chances are, you’ll capture booming, woof-y bass frequencies with that position—at its worst, delivering a sound not unlike blowing directly into a condenser mic. Back off the mic a bit (12" is a decent start), and experiment with angling the mic away from the front of the soundhole (I like to begin with 45 degrees). You should notice a more balanced and pleasant tone with no low-end mud.

3.My Onboard Piezo Pickup is Awesome for Playing Live, I Think I’ll Just Plug Into the Board.

While “quacking” midrange isn’t a characteristic of all piezo pickups, it can be a factor. That frazzy attack can be a benefit when playing live because it helps your acoustic jump out of the band mix. In the studio, though, if you’re not careful, going solely piezo can make your guitar sound thin and rather ugly. Abandon the piezo for a mic, or blend the piezo sound with a miked tone to calm the beastie.

4. I’m Sure I Can Improve the Sound of My Guitar by Tweaking the EQ Before I Hit Record.

Really? Here’s an idea: Why box yourself into a tonal corner by transforming the acoustic sound while recording, when you can record the instrument flat, and then add EQ when it’s brought up in the mix with all the other parts? This will ensure that the tweaks you do make are tailored precisely to the final frequency spectrum. A little patience here can pay off .

5. Reverb is So Yummy—I’ll Slather it On.

High levels of reverb can accentuate annoying finger squeaks, sabotage rhythmic clarity, and produce mixes that make you seem like either a clueless amateur or a daft genius. Wanna bet on the outcome of that one? Perhaps a better approach is to reference your favorite acoustic CDs, and see how the pros you respect utilized reverb in their mixes. Objective research is always helpful as a check-and-balance against folly.