How to Perfectly Record An Acoustic Guitar

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Capturing the perfect tone of an acoustic guitar on record isn’t just an art, it’s a process that requires technique, patience, and technical know-how.

Do you want to learn how to bring the acoustic guitar in your songs to life? This comprehensive guide will equip you with all the knowledge you need to allow your acoustics to sing with all their nuanced passion and emotion.

We will run you through selecting the right acoustic guitar, and setting up your recording environment, to mastering post-recording processing and mixing. You’ll be able to create studio-quality recordings and amplify your musical potential by learning how to record acoustic guitar properly.

Choosing the Right Acoustic Guitar For The Track

When you’re trying to capture the perfect acoustic guitar tone in the studio, your choice of guitar is key. The guitar’s body shape, size, and the type of strings you use can have a big impact on the sound and performance of the guitar.

What Kind of Tone Do You Want?

The tone you’re aiming for will largely dictate the type of guitar you’ll choose. The tone is subjective and can be influenced by a variety of factors, including the guitar’s top, back, and side tonal woods, size, finish, top thickness, bracing, and strings.

For example, if you’re after a singular harmonic chord or note, you might prefer a guitar that offers string harmony. But if you want to hear each string individually for a clear voicing, a guitar with string separation might be more your style.

The choice of wood used in an acoustic guitar also plays a big role in the tone. Spruce tops are known for their high-velocity sound, while cedar tops offer a warm and quick response to lighter playing styles.

Mahogany adds overtone coloration and richness to the sound, and rosewood is prized for its strength, complexity in the bottom end, and richness of coloration in the upper registers.

Types of Acoustic Guitars And Tones

There are several types of acoustic guitars, each with its unique tonal characteristics. The most common types include the dreadnought, grand concert, grand auditorium cutaway, and jumbo.

The dreadnought, known for its bold sound, snappy midrange, and strong low end, is a popular choice for emphatic strummers, singer-songwriters, and musicians playing with a full band.

The grand concert, with its tapered, narrow waist, delivers a well-balanced mid-range tone and is perfect for fingerstyle players who favor clarity and balance in their sound.

The grand auditorium cutaway strikes a balance between the dreadnought and grand concert acoustics, offering a well-balanced, clear tone.

Classical Guitar

Classical guitars, with their soft nylon string tone, are popular among classical and flamenco players. They’re easier on the fingertips and are more suitable for fingerpicking and pressing against the fretboard.

The neck width of a classical guitar is typically wider to accommodate fingerpicking. However, they may require more frequent tuning due to their sensitivity to temperature and humidity changes.

Steel String

Steel-string acoustic guitars, on the other hand, are often preferred in certain contexts, such as in bands or with singers.

They’re known for their brighter and crisper tone and are commonly used in genres such as rock, bluegrass, and country. However, they require a higher amount of force to fret notes properly and can be tougher on the fingers, especially for beginners.

The choice between steel string and nylon string guitars ultimately comes down to personal preference and the desired sound for a particular style of music. It’s important to experiment with different guitars and see which one feels and sounds best to you.

Artistic shot of a woman sitting on a bed playing a guitar, next to a piano, recording her song.

Setting up your Recording Environment

Finding the Perfect Space to Record

The physical characteristics of your recording area can significantly influence the final sound. Spaces with ample dimensions, high ceilings, and irregular walls tend to provide superior acoustics.

Ideally, your studio should measure at least 17.5 feet in width, 10 feet in height, and 23 feet in length.

The initial step in preparing a recording area involves identifying a primary “sweet spot” for recording. This is the location where the majority of the instruments will be positioned, or where the main instruments will be if multiple performers are being recorded.

Given their size, drums typically require substantial space, so it’s advisable to center your room setup around them.

Handling Room Acoustics

The process of acoustic treatment is crucial when establishing a home studio, as it can significantly enhance the quality of your recordings. This process encompasses both absorption and diffusion. Bass traps are utilized to absorb low frequencies, while acoustic panels handle mid/high frequencies. Diffusers disperse the remaining frequencies.

The positioning of your acoustic treatment is vital. Bass traps are best placed in the room’s corners, while acoustic panels can be strategically positioned on the walls.

The objective of acoustic treatment is to achieve a balanced and neutral sound in the room, facilitating accurate acoustic guitar recordings. Proper acoustic treatment can enhance the sound of a recording, enabling a modestly priced microphone to outperform a high-end condenser mic in an untreated space.

Soundproofing your Recording Area

Soundproofing differs from acoustic treatment. While the latter manages the reflections within the room, soundproofing prevents sound from entering or exiting the space. Soundproofing materials such as acoustic foam, resilient channels, multiple layers of drywall, green glue, damping compounds, and acoustic caulk are essential for maintaining impeccable audio quality.

The correct installation of soundproofing and absorption materials is key to achieving optimal acoustic efficiency. This involves sealing gaps, strategically positioning acoustic panels based on room analysis, and using high-quality materials.

There are cost-effective methods to soundproof a room, including the use of mattress covers, carpeting, and sound baffles. These materials can help diminish airborne sound and prevent reverberation in a room.

It’s crucial to distinguish between room ambiance and noise floor when soundproofing a room. Room ambiance can be managed with acoustic treatment, while the noise floor pertains to the inherent electronic noise originating from the recording equipment.

Preparation Procedures Before Recording

Before you even hit the record button, there are a few steps you’ll need to take to ensure you’re capturing the best possible acoustic guitar tone in the studio.

Change Strings!

First off, change your strings. It might seem like a minor detail, but it can make a world of difference in the quality of your sound. Old strings can sound dull and lack the clarity you need for a crisp, clean recording.

Fresh strings, on the other hand, will provide a brighter and more vibrant tone. So, before you start recording, take the time to replace your old strings with new ones. It’s a small step that can have a big impact on your final product.

Warm-up and Practice Tips

Next, make sure you’re warmed up and well-practiced. This isn’t just about avoiding mistakes during the recording process (although that’s certainly a part of it). Warming up and practicing beforehand can also help you get comfortable with your instrument and ensure that you’re playing at your best.

The more comfortable you are with your guitar, the better your performance will be, and the better your recording will sound. So, don’t skimp on the warm-up and practice time.

Positioning the Guitar and Microphone

Once you’re warmed up and your strings are fresh, it’s time to position your guitar and microphone. This is crucial for capturing the perfect acoustic guitar tone in the studio.

Your guitar should be positioned in a way that allows for easy access to the strings and frets. This will help you play more comfortably and effectively.

As for the microphone, it should be placed in a position that captures the natural sound of the guitar. This might take some trial and error, as the best position can vary depending on the specific guitar and microphone you’re using. But with some patience and careful adjustment, you can find the sweet spot that gives you the best sound.

Checking Levels And Setting Up Headphones

Finally, before you start recording, you’ll need to check your levels and set up your headphones. This is all about balance. You’ll want to make sure that your guitar is properly balanced with any other instruments you’re recording with. This will help ensure that your guitar doesn’t get drowned out or overpower the rest of the mix.

Setting up your headphones is also important. You need to be able to hear yourself clearly while you’re recording. This will help you catch any mistakes or inconsistencies in your playing, and it will also help you stay on time with any backing tracks or other instruments.

Recording Techniques for Acoustic Guitar

To capture the ideal acoustic guitar tone, you’ll need to consider your microphone selection, its placement, and the recording method.

Microphone Types For Acoustic Guitar

The initial step in recording an acoustic guitar is selecting the appropriate microphone. There’s a variety of microphones commonly used for this, each with its unique characteristics.

Condenser microphones are often the go-to due to their sensitivity and ability to capture the instrument’s nuances. They’re great at picking up high-frequency information, making them ideal for capturing the detailed sound of an acoustic guitar.

Dynamic microphones are also an option, especially for live performances or when you’re after a more robust sound.

Ribbon microphones, known for their warm, vintage sound, can be a great choice for acoustic guitar recording as well.

Some popular options for acoustic guitar mics include the Aston Origin, Neumann KM 184, Shure SM81, and the sE Electronics Voodoo VR2, among others.

When selecting a microphone, consider factors like frequency response, pickup pattern, and self-noise. A microphone with a flat frequency response will capture the truest representation of the instrument’s sound. The pickup pattern determines how the microphone captures sound from different directions, with cardioid patterns being common for acoustic guitar recording.

Self-noise refers to the inherent noise produced by the microphone itself, with lower self-noise being preferable for capturing clean recordings.

Experimenting with Different Microphone Placements

Once you’ve selected the right microphone, you’ll need to find the perfect placement. The position of the microphone can greatly affect the sound of the recording. If you place the mic in the wrong position, you might end up with a weak or muddy sound.

The most common mic position for acoustic guitar is the ‘vanilla’ position, which points the mic roughly at the junction between the instrument’s neck and body.

Avoid placing the microphone directly in front of the sound hole, as this can result in a loss of detail due to overpowering bass frequencies. You can achieve a balanced sound with good high-end detail by placing the microphone about 12 to 16 inches away from the 12th fret of the guitar.

If you’re looking to add more bass to the sound, try positioning the microphone a little above the sound hole or behind and below the bridge.

Mono versus Stereo Recording

Lastly, you’ll need to decide whether to record in mono or stereo. Mono-recording uses a single microphone to capture the sound, while stereo-recording uses multiple microphones to create a wider, more immersive sound. Both approaches have their own advantages and can be used depending on what you’re aiming for.

Mono recording is great for thickening up an arrangement, while stereo recording adds depth and width to the sound.

Techniques like the XY technique, where two microphones are used to capture a stereo sound, can provide more options in the mix. Just make sure that the two microphones are positioned at the same distance from the guitar to avoid phase issues.

Close-up picture of a man playing an acoustic guitar.

Post-Recording Processing and Mixing

After you’ve captured your acoustic guitar performance, the subsequent phase involves refining the sound through post-recording processing and mixing. This process encompasses several stages, each contributing to the final tone of your guitar.

Basic Editing Tips

The initial stage in post-recording processing involves basic editing. Utilizing a digital audio workstation (DAW), you’ll align your tracks and eliminate any undesired noises. The stretching, cutting, and moving audio features of your DAW will ensure synchronicity.

It’s also crucial to purge the recording of any superfluous noises, like ambient sounds or unintended taps. This provides a clean foundation for the subsequent stages.

EQing the Acoustic Guitar

Equalization, or EQing, is a pivotal stage in achieving the ideal acoustic guitar tone. This involves adjusting the balance of various frequencies in the sound. You might need to eliminate unnecessary frequencies or balance the low end, middle mid frequencies, high mids, and high end. You may also need to remove resonating frequencies.

The objective is to enhance the natural tone of the guitar and ensure it blends harmoniously with the other elements in the mix. Bear in mind, that EQ settings for acoustic guitar will differ depending on the type of track and arrangement, so don’t hesitate to experiment and listen critically to achieve your desired tone.

Compression and Acoustic Guitar

Compression is another crucial stage in post-recording processing. It aids in evening out the dynamics of the guitar part and ensuring it fits seamlessly within the mix.

To utilize compression effectively, you’ll need to set the threshold, ratio, attack time, and release time correctly. This can help regulate the volume of the guitar and prevent any parts from being excessively loud or too soft. It’s a delicate balance, but when executed correctly, compression can significantly enhance the tone of your acoustic guitar.

Extras: Doubling, Panning, and Effects

Lastly, there are a few additional techniques you can employ to enhance the tone of your acoustic guitar. Doubling the guitar part and panning it to the left and right can create a denser and richer sound. You can also incorporate effects like reverb and delay to blend the elements together and create a more cohesive sound.

Panning is a crucial element of mixing that creates space for each element in the mix so everything can be heard by the listener. It’s also worth noting that the position and width of stereo tracks can be controlled using pan pots or balance pots in a DAW.

Achieving the perfect acoustic guitar tone in the studio is a process. It involves a combination of the right gear, the right techniques, and a lot of experimentation. But with patience and practice, you can achieve a tone that is uniquely yours.

Nailed It

As we’ve pointed out, nailing the perfect acoustic guitar tone in the studio isn’t a simple task. It begins with you choosing the right guitar, setting up the perfect recording environment, positioning your instrument and microphone just right, and getting to grips with the subtleties of recording techniques. But the job isn’t over at recording – post-production tasks like editing, EQing, applying compression, and using extras like doubling, panning, and effects are just as important.

In essence, achieving that ideal tone is about meticulous attention to detail, patience, and openness to experimentation.

As with many things, there is no one-size-fits-all method. You need to discover the configuration that suits the unique character of your guitar and the overall aesthetic of the track you’re creating. I encourage you to continue on your journey of exploration, fine-tuning, and crafting, so you can find the nuanced sound you’re looking for.

Andrew Scrivens

Andrew Scrivens

I am a live musician and guitar teacher from Brisbane, Australia, with extensive experience playing live, in the studio and for TV shows. I play in many venues, studios, music shops and with my students and as such am exposed to a lot of different gear. I form my opinions based on my experiences playing instruments in these locations.

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