Studio Diary #23: Exploring How To Record Finger-style Acoustic Guitar

One of my New Year Resolutions for 2021 is to finally record some music. I’d like that music to be Phase One – the songs I originally wrote back in the early 90’s. Although they were all written on electric guitar, they’re all finger-picking pieces. I think it’ll be cool to record them on acoustic guitar.

Before I can do that, I need to learn how to record acoustic guitar. I haven’t done this before, and I have a lot to learn.

Read on to see what I’ve tried so far.

Table of Contents

tl;dr

I’m taking some time to work out how I want to record finger-style acoustic guitar. My playing is pretty soft, which presents some challenges.

I’ve tried out six different techniques: two using DI signals from different guitars, and four using different mic techniques. I’ve used microphones that I already own; they’re not necessarily the best choice for recording finger-style acoustic guitar.

“Over-the-shoulder” mic’ing was the clear winner in terms of the captured sound. Unfortunately, it’s also the least-flexible of the techniques that I’ve tried. The other mic’ing techniques would probably benefit from different mics and improving the acoustic treatment of my room.

I need to spend more time practising all the techniques with the gear I already own before I can make any real decisions.

What Am I Trying To Achieve Here?

I need to settle on a technique for recording finger-style acoustic guitar. That means:

  • picking the instrument (I have two to choose from)
  • picking the technique for capturing the sound (mics vs DI/modelling)

What are the options, and how did it go?

The Six Recording Techniques I’ve Tried

I’ve spent the last few days giving all of these a go, because I’ve already got everything needed.

  1. DI from my Acoustasonic Telecaster (using the onboard modelling)
  2. DI from my acoustic guitar (using the onboard Brad Clark pickup system)
  3. Mono recording using one microphone
  4. Mid/side recording using two microphones
  5. X/Y recording using two microphones
  6. “Over the shoulder” recording using two microphones

I’ve decided that I don’t want to use the spaced-pair technique; at least, not at this stage. It’s by far the most difficult to do when you’re both sound engineer and performer. I might come back to it another time.

Microphone Options

I used three microphones that are already in my collection.

The TLM 49 is a fantastic vocal microphone. I bought this years ago for recording Tess’s vocals, and I’ve been deeply delighted with the results we got out of it. Reading around, it has a mixed-to-negative reputation when used on acoustic guitar. Some people seem to love it on acoustic guitar, but far more people do not.

The N22 is actually targeted at the singer-songwriter market. I got mine two years ago for recording electric guitar, because I was very impressed with the results that both Fender and Chicago Music Exchange were getting from it. As for acoustic guitars? This microphone is pretty niche, and I haven’t come across that many people who own one and who talk about the results online.

The Rode M5s are also targeted for recording instruments like acoustic guitar. I bought a matched pair a year ago specifically for recording acoustic guitar … and ended up not even unboxing them until Jan 2021. They’re budget microphones, and many people online talk about their price more than they talk about the possible results, sadly. That’s partly because they’re not very sensitive and they don’t have the best signal/noise ratio: you have to crank the gain up on the preamp for finger-style acoustic playing, and when you do, you can hear more noise than more expensive microphones would produce.

#1: DI Using The Acoustasonic

I started here, because this is my benchmark. It’s the easiest option to setup, it’s the easiest to reproduce, and it definitely produces a usable sound – if I throw enough post-processing at it.

My main concern is that the performance lacks nuance. The Acoustasonic is a modelling instrument, and it doesn’t respond the same way that a normal acoustic guitar does. On top of that, I find it more difficult to play than my Auden, thanks to the neck profile and string tension.

#2: DI Using The Auden

I bought the Auden in the summer of 2019 to replace the Acoustasonic for live gigs. (Those were the days!) It comes fitted with Brad Clark’s pickup system, which IMHO sounds far better than the Acoustasonic does.

Far better, but it still doesn’t sound like the guitar does in the room. Can I get closer to that, by using a microphone or two?

#3: Mono Using The TLM 49

When it comes to mic’ing up the Auden, this option is the easiest.

To do this, I pointed the TLM 49 roughly at where the neck meets the body of my Auden. And that’s all there was to it.

I’m not sure I like the TLM 49 for this. Kristi put it best: if it was a photo, you’d say it was over-sharpened. There’s something going on that really emphasises the edge of the string noise. I haven’t yet figured out how to tame it.

My current thinking is that I probably need to try this technique with a different microphone.

#4: Mid/Side Using The TLM 49 And N22

This option is very interesting, because it produces the most practical stereo recording.

To do this, I pointed the TLM 49 roughly at where the neck meets the body of my Auden, and then set the N22 above it, with the positive side pointing to my left. Afterwards, I copied the N22 track in my DAW, flipped the phase on the copy, and then panned the two N22 tracks left and right to taste.

The nice thing about this is that it gives me the most controllable stereo result. I can adjust how wide it sounds just by adjusting the faders on the N22 tracks. It’s definitely a very usable sound, and it should be as easy to reproduce as the mono microphone technique.

There’s a couple of downsides. First of all, it doesn’t sound any better than the mono recording, because it also relies on the TLM 49 to do the heavy lifting. Secondly, my room doesn’t have much acoustic treatment, so the N22 ends up picking up a lot of extra reflections.

One to return to when I’ve got a different microphone to use for the mid, and when my room isn’t quite so lively.

#5: X/Y Using The M5 Matched Pair

This option is probably the most-used approach for recording acoustic guitar professionally. I got better results by adding a twist, though.

The classic way is to point one mic towards the spot where the neck meets the body of the guitar, and then point the other mic towards the sound hole. The two mics are placed at right angles to each other, with the capsules aligned to avoid phase issues.

I wasn’t too happy with the results, so I borrowed a trick from Creative Sound Lab, and switched to a vertical X/Y arrangement instead. I found that the vertical arrangement produced a more balanced stereo image, with no boomy lows.

The stereo image seems to collapse to mono quite nicely. That’s important: I can record in stereo, but switch to mono should the arrangement need it. I can’t do that with the spaced-pair technique, which is one reason why I’m not interested in trying that approach.

I think that I need better microphones, if I’m going to pick this technique. I’m a very soft finger-style player, while the M5’s need the gain cranking to pick up very much. The result is the nosiest so far, sadly.

#6 “Over The Shoulder” Using An M5 And The TLM 49

This option produced the most natural sound, at the cost of being the most inflexible.

To do this, I pointed one of the M5’s at the Auden’s lower bout (in true Warren Huart style), and put the TLM 49 at ear height just in front of my right shoulder, pointing straight down at the side of the Auden.

The results were great. Not only did the recording sound the most natural, it also picked up very little reflections from my room while still producing a stereo signal. The TLM 49 helped mask the noise coming from the Rode M5.

Unfortunately, there’s a couple of reasons why this technique isn’t widely used. The two tracks don’t collapse down to mono very well at all because of the phase relationships between the two mics. Those same phase relationships will also make it extremely difficult to reproduce the same sound every single time.

Final Thoughts

It’s a bit early to be making my final choice.

I am feeling encouraged by the results so far. Mid/side, vertical X/Y and over-the-shoulder all produced sounds I could use with the gear I already own.

  • Over-the-shoulder produced the nicest sound. If I can reproduce it fairly reliably, it’s a strong contender.
  • Mid/side probably needs a different mic for the mid position. It definitely needs some acoustic treatment to help out the side position.
  • Vertical X/Y probably needs better mics than the Rode M5s: nicer sounding mics that aren’t as noisy, and that don’t need the gain cranked so high. (They’re fine for strummed playing; it’s my very soft finger-style that really challenges them …)

Before I go any further, I need to try each of these again. I need the practice, and I need to prove that over-the-shoulder didn’t produce the best results simply because it was the last technique that I tried.

As for the straight mono mic’ing technique, it’ll definitely benefit from a different mic. I haven’t tried the M5 or the N22 for this yet; I definitely need to do that shortly. When I do, I’ll also try the M5 with the N22 for the mid/side technique.

That said, I’m not yet ready to buy some more microphones. I need to select a technique first, and that’ll drive any decision on whether or not I need different microphones. I’ve got my eye on the Roswell mini K47 or the Austrian Audio OC18 to be the mid or mono mic. For the X/Y setup, I’m thinking of the classic Neumann KM 184 or Rode’s new TF5.

(There’s also the slight problem of serious shortages right now. It may be months before any of these microphones are actually back in stock here in the UK.)

Where does this leave the two DI options? They’re definitely on the outside looking in, so to speak. I’m getting such encouraging results from using real microphones, I’m not sure that either DI option is worth putting any more effort into atm.

Which would make the Acoustasonic Telecaster surplus to requirements …

3 Replies to “Studio Diary #23: Exploring How To Record Finger-style Acoustic Guitar”

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