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Softening the Blow
Choosing the right gear to flatter the guitar...
By Bruce Kaphan

Okay, I admit it. I’m an audio snob. I like the finer things. This doesn’t stop with my recording equipment. I like my recording environment to be just so—the air has to be just right. And if I can exercise any control over it, my audio sources have to be just so, too.

That is why I was delighted to make the acquaintance of Michael McNevin a few years ago. Michael writes an interesting variety of songs which he beautifully brings to life with his intricate guitar playing and beautiful voice. I’ve recorded Michael for the past few years—an assortment of demos and various collections.

One of my favorite aspects of longstanding recording relationships is that over time, as I get to know an artist better, I can adapt my recording techniques to best suit what the artist brings to the recording session. Remember—I mentioned that I’m an audio snob? One manifestation of that snobbery, as it relates to recording steel string acoustic guitar, is that I prefer the sound of a solid top instrument. Michael loves his guitar, a twenty-something year old Alvarez, with a plywood top...and therein lies the substance of this article.

Especially when I first record an artist, I try to strike a balance between running a session as efficiently as possible and getting sounds which are as à propos as possible. To suit this purpose, my first choice is generally a pair of Neumann KM 184s when recording steel string acoustic guitar, given my collection of mics. They seldom let me down and I found that they did a perfectly adequate job of portraying Michael’s guitar as I heard it.

Michael seemed to like the sound. Michael, to his credit, is not an audio snob. He’s way more concerned with turning a good phrase and singing like he means it. He loves his guitar for its sound and because it feels good in his hands. Not to mention that it’s been an extension of his musical self for two decades.

I think it sounds like a plywood top guitar. A really nice plywood top guitar, but nonetheless a plywood top guitar.

My audio snob side let Michael know that I thought he should be playing a solid top guitar. At one point, before I knew better, I offered to have him play my solid top Gibson J200. He was completely uncomfortable doing that. I backed off.

Since then, I’ve placed my KM 184s and bit my lip. Until one day when it hit me that the harshness that I perceived coming off that plywood could very likely be toned down by choosing a signal chain that was more complementary to the sound source.

My studio is relatively small. My mic collection includes one Neumann M 149, a pair of Neumann KM 184s, a pair of Neumann TLM 103s, a Coles STC4038, two Royer R-121s, an AKG C-414EB with a CK-12 capsule, a pair of Oktava MC0-12 with omni, cardioid and hypercardioid capsules, an Earthworks SR71, a Crown PZM-6LPB, a Countryman Isomax IIC, a Shure SM57 and a Shure Beta 58. Given those choices, my thought process went as follows.

Count out the Neumanns—too focal and too punchy. Count out the dynamics and ribbons—too direct and not hi-fi enough. This left me with the 414, Oktavas, Earthworks, Isomax and PZM. Although I love them for specific tasks, neither the PZM or Isomax entered my mind as possibilities—I couldn’t imagine their color in this situation. The Earthworks might have been okay, but its accuracy would have been a liability, so I didn’t bother listening to it. This left the 414 and Oktavas.

Microphones are the audio engineer’s equivalent to a photographer’s lenses. Knowing the essential nature a given mic brings to the portrayal of an audio picture is one of the cornerstones of creative engineering. After some experimentation I chose an Oktava MC-012 with cardioid capsule for the soundboard and the 414 in cardioid, with roll off set to 75 Hz, for the fingerboard/strings.

I used my ears to position the mics. The soundboard mic was set at a 45º angle focused away from Michael’s head (since he sings while playing guitar), roughly to the treble side of and slightly behind the bridge, at about three inches from the guitar. The fingerboard/strings mic was also set at a 45º angle, focused away from Michael’s head, roughly above the 15th fret, focusing on the 13th fret, at about three inches from the fingerboard.

When it comes down to it, I was attempting to make Michael’s guitar sound more like a solid-top instrument. My perception of the difference between a solid top and a plywood top is that a solid top produces a more complex timbre, especially in terms of the development of timbre over time. Although I have never seen any specifications to back up this theory, my ears tell me that the Neumanns are very nimble—they have fast response and are very phase coherent. Using the Neumanns exacerbated the elements of the plywood top’s sound that I didn’t like (simple sound source delivered quickly and coherently).

By using mics that I perceive as having slower response rates and less phase coherent response, I was able to soften the aspects of the plywood top’s behavior I didn’t like. In a sense, although in a different medium, this created more complexity, especially over time, thus softening the blow of the plywood top.




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