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Acoustic Guitars Off the Beaten Path
Recording the dobro, archtop and 3/4 acoustic...
By Michael Nickolas

Not all acoustic guitars are created equal. If you’ve recorded acoustic guitar before, you probably have a favorite initial microphone placement. For mono recording I start with the mic placed six inches from where the neck meets the body, angled towards the sound hole. I have the performer play the intended part, and tweak the placement from there. How do you do it?

I’ve recently acquired two acoustic guitars that are a bit out of the ordinary in that neither has a traditional round soundhole. I’ve used them on a few good-sized projects where working alone as the composer/performer required me to also act as the engineer. When it came down to recording the new acoustics I wasn’t sure where to put the microphone, and I had to find out while working by myself. And I lucked out with a third guitar that was only meant to make traveling easier…

Dobro—it’s not just for Country anymore

The first example is a “resonator” guitar (see Figure 1 below), commonly referred to as a “Dobro” (although Dobro is actually a specific manufacturer’s name—my guitar is a Johnson). Dobro guitars are usually associated with Country music, but recently I’ve been hearing them on CDs in other styles—vocalists Cassandra Wilson and Norah Jones come to mind. Dobro guitars are traditionally played horizontally on the performer’s lap, with a steel bar. Sure, I bought the instruction book and the steel bar, but for now I cheat and hold it the good old fashioned way while I use a glass slide.

The first thing I noticed was that my “six inches from where the neck meets the body” wasn’t going to cut it. Makes sense—the main sound comes from the resonator plate and the entire body is metal! To find the sweet spot for placing the mic, I sat on my stool with the swivel seat and, while monitoring through headphones, I rotated on the stool to assess how the sound changed as different sections of the guitar were aimed at the mic. You can hear the results online in the Recording website’s Downloads section under the heading for this article, in the file dobro.mp3.

The first few seconds of the example show the mic aimed at where the neck meets the body. It’s not a bad sound, but a bit dark. As I swivel, you can hear the sound change. At about seven seconds in, the mic is aiming at the middle of the guitar, and it sounds brighter and cleaner. By the final seconds of the example the mic is aimed at the right side of the body, and the sound really thins out. Armed with this knowledge, I can make sure the mic position suits my song style.

Blast from the past

The second example is a 1952 Gibson archtop guitar (see Figure 2). The pickup is an after-market add on. The guitar was designed as an acoustic, with two f-holes instead of a center round sound hole. We can pin the year down but can only guess as to the model, the best guess being an L48. There is no serial number and the FON (factory order number) is partially obscured by a splash of paint. If any reader can pin down an exact model from the photo, be sure to write in and let me know!

This guitar acts exactly as the opposite from the Dobro when it comes to recording. Starting again with the mic placed six inches from where the neck meets the body, in contrast to what we heard in the Dobro example, we get a thin sound. Listening to the online file archtop.mp3 you can hear that as I rotate the guitar, sweeping the mic closer and closer to the main body (and f-holes), the sound deepens considerably.

As an afterthought, I think you might get better results for your mic placement test by standing and using a guitar strap. You may end up sitting on the stool to record the part, but standing will allow you to move forward or backward on the mic and will give you more control as you aim different areas of the guitar at your microphone.

Size matters

The third guitar I’d like to report on, my travel guitar (some call it 3/4 size or a kids guitar—see Figure 3), wasn’t even purchased with recording in mind. Turns out it makes an excellent instrument for doubling or complementing your main acoustic part. Overdubs of a full-body acoustic guitar done with the same full-body acoustic can cause the song to muddy up. The big, full sound you love can become too much when doubled or tripled. You could use eq to try and solve this, but recording the small guitar instead adds a new tonal quality to the track and doesn’t compete with the main part, rather it complements it.

My technique is to pan the mono, main acoustic guitar part center, then record two separate takes of the travel guitar. Microphone placement works well six inches from where the neck meets the body and angled at the sound-hole. I’ll voice the travel guitar parts a bit differently from the main acoustic, either by choosing a voicing higher up the neck or by using a capo and playing traditional open chord voicings. I love the sound of the travel guitar with a capo!

In the final mix the main acoustic stays center, and the two separate travel guitar parts are panned full left and right.

By the way, in a pinch the travel guitar can act as a convincing ukulele. If you choose the right voicings and strumming pattern, it is sure to please the client.

Always on the lookout

Achieving different timbres is not as easy for us guitar players as it is for keyboard players. One synth can make a multitude of sounds; if we guitarists want different timbres it pretty much means buying another axe, especially in the acoustic vein—Dobros, nylon string, steel string, high strung, 3/4 size, baritone, you name it. Each has its own sound and will want its own mic placement, and the rewards of looking for these various colors are great!

Michael Nickolas is a producer/composer/guitarist in the Boston area. Recent clients include ABC TV and Macmillan Educational Publishing in Mexico and the UK.

 




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