Recording On A Small Budget and a Smaller Mic Locker

There are many articles concerning how to get a great acoustic guitar recording; most involve hiring very talented players with expensive instruments and getting your hands on some vintage Neumann.  For most of us, this isn’t always an option.  I’m going to outline a few points that should be considered to make even entry-level gear produce a quality recording. I must stress this article isn’t about making the end all acoustic guitar sound, but rather exploring your options to find the sound that’s right for the song.

The Room
The room you record in can greatly affect the sound of your recordings, especially with an acoustic instrument. Square and rectangular rooms often produce predictable modes, or areas where frequency build up occurs. These places occur along walls, in the dead center or the room, and mostly everywhere. Locating your player in the middle of the room might yield a more bass heavy response than positioning them at a not so symmetrical location.

Without getting into too much technical scientific knowledge (though it’s a good topic to get into for recording), there are a few key points to consider when choosing a room to capture your acoustic player.

  1. An odd shaped room, with fewer symmetrical walls will yield fewer bass build up locations
  2. Position your player at an irregular spot in the room.
  3. Different instruments will resonant differently in the same room.
  4. Most importantly, don’t be afraid to move to a different spot, or whole different room.

From the windows to the walls……
Mildly sorry I made that reference. If you’re finding that your room has too much echo or reverb tailings, try sectioning off a portion of the room. You can either “booth” your player, or just block off a portion of the room. This can be easily accomplished by using blankets, the thicker the better. Drape them over spare mic stands or furniture, nail them to the ceiling, whatever will keep them in place. We all made couch forts as kids; this isn’t much different. Just remember to evaluate the space you created, did it help or hurt your goal?

makeshiftWall

Here’s a little half wall we built out of open guitar cases and packing blankets.

Sometimes you don’t have an empty room and you need to use a furniture occupied room in your house/apt. No worries, this will more than likely play in your favor. Furniture like couches and chairs will absorb a lot of the dreaded build up and help “deaden” your room. One could even upend couches and futons to create a sort of vocal booth. Be aware of hard surfaces like blank walls, TVs, and such. Keep those blankets handy! If you’re finding your space needs some more reverb, try moving some furniture out.

So you don’t have a vintage 47
Neither do I, or most people, hell I only know 3 people that do. But no worries, there’s plenty you can do with what is in your mic locker. Let’s cover a few basics

  1. Condenser mics have faster response, resulting in more attack/articulation; most will tend to be brighter than dynamic mics.
  2. Large condensers will have more bass response than small, whereas small will have more attack.
  3. Dynamic mics will have slower response, resulting in a smoother response. Could work nicely for strumming.
  4. Dynamics also have lower output, read higher noise floor, so with quiet playing maybe reach for that condenser.

Trial and error might be your best friend at first, at least when it comes to a little sound discovery. Consider your sound source and the method of playing. How’s the external noise in your room (air handling, cars, etc.)? A condenser mic is going to pick that up clearly as well. A good starting point would be the 12th fret, 4-6” away, aimed slightly towards the sound hole; I don’t think that’s a secret or news to anyone. The result is going to be bigger, more upfront, and in my opinion less organic. The further away you get from the guitar the more your room will come into play and a more natural “in a space” sound will appear. Of course there’s a point where it will sound more like reverb over a direct recording.

Movement of the microphone can result in some pretty unique sounds. Understanding this is vital, especially if you find yourself in a situation where you don’t have any processing; yes rare in this day and age, but possible. Here’s a couple samples using that 57 showcasing how different 1 mic can sound.

You’ve got to learn to let go
There are some things your can’t control, and you’ve got to be ok with that. Control what you can. Shaping your acoustic environment to get a desired room feel/response and paying close attention to your mic placement and choice will get you quite a bit of mileage on a relatively minimal budget. Now when I say learn to let go, I’m also referring to preconceived ideas that recording can only be done a certain way. Which is absolutely not true. Spend time and energy to capture the sound you want from the beginning. Change all that you can until you find the sound that’s right. The idea of fixing it in the mix will cost you just as much time and will more than likely leave your guitar sounding very un-guitar like if you have to process it too much.

How to invest
Well you put all your money into Apple and Google stock. Ok not really. If you’re looking to have a small recording setup there’s a few things that will help you do just about anything.

  1. An interface – digital or trusty 4-track; it’s a must.
  2. A Shure SM57 will get you anything from metal vocals to kick drums to acoustic guitars. Its a great utility mic and cheap.
  3. A large diaphragm condenser mic will add “air” and definition to your recordings and do anything that sounds funny through a 57.
  4. Blankets. More specifically packing blankets. They’re heavy and work well in recording scenarios.
  5. Spend time getting it right during recording.  Not only will this help you down the line by having quality recordings, but through the trial and error you’ll go through you will grow as an engineer and the process will be easier and quicker each time.

As your budget grows you can look into purchasing polar pattern selectable mics, stereo pairs, tube, vintage, ribbon, etc. etc. Will these things help your process? Probably. Are they a necessity? No. Do some research; you might be surprised the albums created using consumer level gear. Or how various recordings were created (queue any 1 of about 1000 Beatles studio stories). It’s not so much what you’re using to record but the knowledge being applied to how you’re recording. The time spent learning your on-hand gear will open the knowledge doors to endless possibilities and scenario problem-solving skills. Even a high-end mic requires finesse to sound amazing.