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Recording Acoustic Guitar… and Hand Percussion!

In the early days of my project studio I had the whimsical idea that my songs would be enhanced by liberal application of hand percussion. So I went round music stores and bought all sorts of shakers and rattles and cowbells, triangles, a tambourine, a cabaasa, brushes, and several items whose names now escape me. I also took the opportunity to pick up a swanee whistle, an ordinary whistle and a mouthorgan. My brother donated a didgeridoo brought back from a business trip. These items remained unused. I never even dreamed of bringing the didgeridoo into service, particularly since my one and only effort to coach a sound from it failed utterly and in fact lasted leas than a minute.
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A Task Facing Me

The bulk of the songs for Uneasy Listening is sitting on the hard-drive of my DAW (Digital Audio Workstation or Discount Analogue Workaround, depending on age and prejudice) awaiting editing. What does this comprise?

Well, as far as the guitar parts are concerned, it involves editing out the occasional (I insist) fluffs from the selected take using corresponding bits from alternate takes. This can be a painstaking episode auditioning the selected take closely to identify the aforesaid fluffs, performing the edit on the computer screen by incorporating and cross-fading bits chopped out of other files and incorporating them into the selected one, then listening closely to the results to make sure the edit is seamless.

For the vocal track it involves “comping” from four or five takes. For the uninitiated, this involves selecting the best lines, phrases, words, or even parts of words from these takes and gluing them together in a new master version of the vocal track. With a little imagination you should be able to see that this can be a mind-numbing venture.

In fact, both of these activities are the least creative part of the process of putting an album together and can leave you spiritually drained. You are, after all, listening out for the bad bits. And, to be honest, some bits can indeed be hair-raisingly bad. There is also a danger that, after spending a couple of hours with headphones on staring at the screen, your faculty for making accurate judgments can become blunted at which time it’s best to shut the DAW down and come back to it the next day.

So why don’t I just record the song as I would perform it; ie, guitar and vocal all at once straight into the mics and into the DAW? Well, there are a few reasons:

1. I don’t have the mics to do this effectively
2. This is hard (to my mind, impracticable) without an engineer to help with mic placement, and get an optimum balance between them at the console.
3. The sonics of the studio are not optimum for this method.
4. I would only feel comfortable recording this way (think take after take) when the house is empty, which is rare.
5. Working the way I do enables me to apply EQ, compression, and reverb (sparingly in each case) to the guitar and vocal separately, allowing greatest flexibility.

I would not hesitate to record the songs as performed in a commercial studio with an engineer to hand, but that is not the case. I’m happy with the way I work and I’m concerned only in achieving results that are sonically pleasing to the customers of my records. And I mean by that obtaining a quality of production that doesn’t get in the way of the songs. Or to put it simply: to achieve transparency.

But there it is. I have a pleasant few days mucking around with .wav files and their raggedy representations on my computer screen. I’m just glad I recently invested in a new computer graphics card so I can see the fluffs and bum notes in their digitally crystal clear, accurately colour-balanced glory.

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On the importance of acoustic treatment of the recording space

Trawling through one internet music recording forum after another (as I often do) is certainly illuminating. The multitudinous posts from earnest recordists enquiring from the experts which microphone, preamp, soundcard, converters, compressor, EQ, reverb – blah, blah, blah – is better than another have a rather dulling effect on my sensibilities before too long. And in truth, I’ve begun to make a bit of a nuisance of myself at one or two places by interjecting with a recommendation that the poster look to the room before he batters his credit card in the hope that some sparkling new high-end “professional” piece of gear will solve all his recording issues. Sometimes the repost comes back claiming that the initial poster is a hobbyist and is not aspiring to achieve professional results – so why don’t I just back off and let the guy/gal spend his/her money the way that he/she sees fit? That’s all very well, but it doesn’t gainsay the logical flaw in spending in the region of $2k on gear when a similar amount – or much less with a bit of research and DIY – on some acoustic treatment of the recording space would achieve a whole different order of improvement.

At this point I should perhaps confess (as you might read elsewhere on this site) that it took about a year for me to reach the same conclusion. There’s no question that a sexy new microphone with a price tag to suit is far more appealing than buying bags of mineral wool slabs, or even proprietary, pretty looking, sound treatment products. I should also admit that I did read a whole lot online about ways and means, materials and products, and earnest debates between the experts – not all uncontroversial – before I felt confident about doing something about it in my own place.

That notwithstanding, I won’t apologise now for my evangelising about the topic whenever I get the opportunity – such a difference has acoustic treatment made to my own projects. Hobbyist or not, you’re better off recording in a field with the cheapest of gear than in most untreated rooms with the most expensive recording equipment on the planet. So there!

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Mixing it

Getting to grips with some new titles is always interesting for its own sake – but it also refreshes the ears if they’ve been only fed a diet of familiar sounds and songs thereby slowly losing critical acumen. At another level, there’s the odd effect caused by continuously recording and mixing solo acoustic guitar and vocal. That kind of presents my ears with a pretty constant sonic palette and while that’s great for becoming sensitive and attuned to subtle nuances, it does become make me feel satiated with that sound world and in need of some contrast.

An easy short term fix is just to slip in a CD in the hi-fi for some sonic wash and rinse, but from time to time a real break is needed; some distance between the recording (say) and the mixing and the “auditioning”. It’s at this time I’ll explore swing jazz or immerse myself in some Sibelius or Mahler, or get out some maps and plan some days in the hills. I may even take a look at the TV but I always end up staring at twenty-four hour news channels or endlessly scrolling the schedules. Occasionally, a favourite movie DVD will get spin…

But not too long and I’m back in the chair again, mulling over that soundworld and trying to hear it with someone else’s ears. Just a guy with a guitar: who’d have thought it would be so involved?

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An optimistic morning…

The day is still and only on the coast does there appear to be the rumour of a chill wind. The light is sharp and the low morning sun keeps one honest when driving east along the north Deeside road. The gulls, judging by the absence of airborne nagging and screaming, must be sunning themselves on the cliffs nearby. Being Friday, I have high hopes of exeunt-ing this battleship-grey office building shortly after noon and do some real work in the studio…

…I have come to the conclusion that one EQ and one compressor – both used with a very light hand – is all that the guitar tracks are going to get. Deifinitely no hi-shelf on the EQ – I’ll provide any air together with the voice when brought together later on. There are – what? – half-a-dozen, or so, songs that are ready to be mixed? ‘Bout that. A simple task you might think for acoustic guitar and vocal, but it’s given me no end of trouble in the past – it’s something to do with the exposed nature of it all – no band or orchestra to hide behind. Ha! Any little sonic flaw seems to slap me in the face with its impudence. Damn things. Anyway, fingers crossed, folks. I’ll pick one, see how it goes, and post it here for you to tear into”¦

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My Acoustic Guitar Recording Setup

The following is a copy and paste of something I wrote on an internet forum, not too far from here. I repeat it here ’cause it’s fundemental to my recording practice and might be of interest to my fellow guitarists and weekend warriors in the studio…

I read a lot of huffing and puffing about acoustic guitar recording strategies, and, to be honest, it caused me a lot of heartache for a while. I describe below how I ended up for my new CD, and beyond. (Note this is primarily intended for solo guitar, or guitar and vox, tracked separately.)

I’m afraid I’ve given up entirely on spaced mic techniques for guitar recording. I only use X/Y setup with small diaphragm condensers. (I would try mid-side, but I don’t have a figure-8 mic.)

My reasons for my X/Y setup are three-fold:

1. When I listen back through a hi-fi system at normal listening distance, a guitar recorded with a spaced technique sounds unrealistically big – in fact it sounds about 12ft wide! This might sound impressive to some, but it makes me nauseous.

2. Phase cancellation. No matter how big it sounds in stereo, if I hit the mono button on the recording console, the middle of the guitar disappears leaving the sides hovering disembodied in space. More nausea. (Maybe that has more to do with my skill at setting up a spaced pair, but for the other two reasons, It’s now academic.)

3. To a listener in an audience any further than 6 feet away, the guitar is a mono source. Any stereo information is by virtue of room reflections.

So this is how I proceed: I use two Neumann KM 184s in the X/Y configuration, about 18″ from the guitar. These mics aren’t matched, but I don’t consider that so important. (Sidebar: I had actually recorded more than 30 guitar parts using ORTF before being forced to admit it wasn’t going to work for me and had to abandon them and start again using X/Y.) Now, (some folks say that) X/Y can appear to give a very tight stereo image, but it truth I find the image more realistic – and anyway, if the image needs a bit of stretching I can use a bit of mid-side processing.

The future? I’m considering getting a figure-of-8 and do some M/S for real for the next record. Or two, and do Blumlein. This gear purchasing never stops…

(Now an A/B setup with mics pointed at saddle & neck / body joint [I]can[/I] sound fantastic – just make sure you audition in mono. Mono-compatibility doesn’t matter to a lot of folks, but it does to me – so I don’t use it.)

More for general interest, here’s my signal path:

Mics: KM 184s (guitar) in X/Y setup 18″ from neck/body join; Audio Technica AT 4033 (vox)

  • Pre-amps: per Allen & Heath GS3 console
  • Soundcard: RME Multiface
  • Software: Cubase SL
  • Plug-ins: Voxengo and Kjaerhus dynamics and Voxengo convolution reverb.
  • Monitoring: Mission Cyrus amp and JBL 4208 monitors (it’ll do for now!!)
  • Phones: Sennheisser and Beyerdynamic
  • PC: self-built using QuietPC case, Seagate Barracuda HDDs, AMD 64 CPU, Zalman heatsinks, fans and controller.
  • So that’s it. I’d like to read your comments and ideas. What strategies have you found successful? What about acoustic guitars that are intended to sit in a mix?