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Sticky Situations Part 1 - Acoustics
Dealing with pickups and contact mics
By Ray Legnini

Here are a few techniques I have used in sessions past when dealing with acoustic DI's and pickups. I hope you’ll find them useful in your own work. (Part 2 of this article deals with electric guitars and can be found in the electric guitar subcategory! -Ed.)

What will it do for me

Acoustic guitars are always fun to record. But there’s no one-way-fits-all technique. Consider the function of the acoustic guitar in the track when setting up a mic. Is the artist a singer/songwriter whose main instrument is guitar? Or, is the song based around piano with some guitar accompaniment? Is this just a track with some fills?

This is important information because placement of the guitar sound in the track is affected by the tonality of the instruments surrounding it. Everything competes for space in one way or another. The location of the mic affects the tonal balance of the recording, and as such the placement is then another type of tone control.

The biggest, fattest solo acoustic guitar strumming sound is not necessarily what you want every time. A common mistake is to set up a track in solo mode, without using the rest of the instruments. Of course this leads you to a great solo guitar sound. But if that same guitar is meant to be just one component of a larger group performance, your efforts may be wasted. View the overall picture.

I always find it better to adjust levels, eq, etc. in context as much as possible. Also, I try to get an idea from the artist, producer, arrangers, etc. about what is planned for the track when we are in the early stages. It’s nice to know in advance if the singer and guitar version you’re recording now is going to have distorted leads, Latin percussion, and full orchestra overdubbed on it later.

Picking up pickups

The pickups found in many acoustic guitars deliver a sound that may be fine for on-stage use, but may be far from satisfactory in the studio, at least alone. But when you get a guitar that has an internal pickup system installed, don’t dismiss the pickup right away.

On a couple of occasions, I’ve recorded the output of a pickup on an acoustic guitar to its own track, in addition to capturing a track via the traditional microphone methods. The pickup and the microphone deliver different frequencies and they deliver the sound at slightly different speeds (a mic in the air versus an electronic transducer). This equals a bit of delay, which can be used to your advantage. Here’s how to set it up:

The internal pickup gets connected to a direct box to bring it into the console. Compress or eq the track to taste. Of course, do this in context with the other instruments if at all possible. Record the pickup’s track separate from the main guitar sound. When you play back the track, experiment with the panning of the two signals. Sometimes a hard-panned version works like a double-tracked guitar, fattening up the sound. In other cases, you can try adding an effect such as chorus to the direct signal and blending the effected track under the real guitar recording to add double track effect and a bit of shimmer. A variation on that theme is to run the direct track into an effect pre-fader, so only the effect is heard under the real acoustic recording.

Ray Legnini is a writer living near Philadelphia. He barely has time to play any of the guitars he already owns, but somehow feels the need to keep buying more guitars. Sound familiar?

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