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Getting Great Acoustic Tones

How to get the most out of your acoustic when recording

This month we’re going to focus on ways to track great acoustic guitar sounds. While musicians and engineers have as many techniques as they have opinions on this subject, sometimes getting a sound you’re happy with is simply a matter of listening first and then approaching the recording with an open mind.

Listen from the Right Perspective
For a minute, put aside the usual thought about an individual player and musical style. Think about the sound of your acoustic guitar when you hear it—while you’re playing. You’re not sitting in front of it—you actually hear it below and in front of you. Did you ever have someone else play it for you? Try it: Stand in front of the instrument and just listen. Ask your friend to use your pick, or, if you play fingerstyle, to try to mimic your picking technique. Just take that in.

In the studio, most of the time the objective is to capture that natural essence of the guitar you hear when you’re standing in front of it. But why is this so hard? There are numerous reasons, which we’ll discuss below.

Choose a Good Mic and Preamp
Let’s start with the microphone. We know not all mics are alike. A $100 Shure SM57 does not sound like a $2000 DPA 4011. That doesn’t necessarily make the Shure a bad choice, but there’s a reason it’s not typically used to capture acoustic guitar sounds. The SM57 is quite colored, meaning it has a sharp midrange peak and doesn’t capture a ton of bottom. These sonic characteristics work well for recording electric guitars. By contrast, the DPA has a relatively smooth response from 40 Hz to 20 kHz, which translates into a more “natural” sound.

The point I’m making is that, when you’re recording an acoustic guitar, try to reach for a mic that has as little coloration as possible, one that evenly captures the wide spectrum of sound your instrument puts out. Using EQ on a mic can help, but only so much. You can only work with what you’ve captured, so try to begin with a clean, natural-sounding microphone.

While the preamp can make a difference, it doesn’t influence the overall sound as significantly as the mic. As with mics, when I’m recording acoustic guitars, I reach for natural, clean-sounding preamps, like those from Grace, Focusrite, Earthworks, and Great River. These units tend to give you back exactly what you put into them. Yes, there are plenty of excellent preamps out there, but those are some I’ve used with good success.

Some of My Favorite Setups
I’ve achieved my best acoustic guitar sounds using an Earthworks QTC-1 or DPA 4003 omni mic placed between 6" to 12" out from where the fretboard meets the soundhole. Omni mics capture a 360-degree pattern of sound, so the room is more of a factor in the overall sonic picture. I’ll sometimes add the small DPA 4099G clip mic for a tight center focus.

I had great results with Al Di Meola using a pair of Schoeps CMC 5s equipped with cardioid capsules and positioned in an X/Y configuration. We would also occasionally mix in a pair of the Earthworks mentioned above in split omni—that is, a few feet out from the guitar and spaced a few feet apart. They widened the image considerably and added depth to the guitar tones. Sure, four mics is a lot, but it was a guitar record, so it worked.

When using multiple microphones, you have more options at mix time. By increasing or decreasing the levels of the various microphones, you can tailor the sound to the needs of the song. Not every song needs a big, wide guitar sound.

What About Going Direct?
Now lets talk about recording direct using internal pickups. Many of today’s guitars have an onboard pickup and preamp system that outputs a signal directly from the instrument via a 1/4" jack or even a balanced XLR connector.

While onboard electronics are great for live use, their utility is limited in the studio because they tend to sound bright and midrangey. There are quality variations amongst all the brands, but, overall, that is their fundamental character.

If an acoustic has a DI output, I will always capture it when recording—just to have it as an option during mixdown. Sometimes you can blend the direct signal into the overall mix to provide a little extra brightness and clarity. EQ-wise, I tend to roll off the entire bottom somewhere between 120 Hz and 150 Hz, pull down the midrange between 600 Hz to 1 kHz, and sometimes even goose the highs for a brighter tone.

DIs are also useful to keep plugged into a rack tuner to make quick, easy work of keeping the guitar in tune for the session. I tend to route the tuner output directly to the studio preamp via its 1/4" input. However, I would not suggest relying on DIs alone to deliver a great guitar sound in the studio.

Keep It Natural
Certainly, there are countless other ways to record acoustic guitars. But before your next session, step back and listen to your guitar and the room. Consider the kinds of mics and preamps you’re using. And then just try to keep it all as natural as possible.

Rich Tozzoli
Rich Tozzoli is a Grammy-nominated engineer and mixer who has worked with artists ranging from Al Di Meola to David Bowie. A life-long guitarist, he’s also the author of Pro Tools Surround Sound Mixing and composes for the likes of Fox NFL, Discovery Channel, Nickelodeon, and HBO.