Guitar Recording FAQ: How to Make Acoustic Guitars Work in a Band Mix | Guitare.com

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My acoustic guitar recordings sound great on their own, but they don’t fit well in a band mix. What am I doing wrong?

–Vanessa, Seattle

Capturing natural, balanced acoustic guitar recordings is something that takes skill and practice. That done, it can be daunting to discover that context is everything, and sometimes you have to make things worse to make them better.

To paraphrase a great line of The Incredibleswhen everything sounds great, nothing works…

What’s the problem?

Basically, our ears can hear frequencies from around 30Hz to 18KHz – or maybe 10K if you’re a metal guitarist. In a typical band mix, different elements are designed to occupy specific frequency bands.

Kick drum and bass guitar cover the low end, guitars, keyboards, and vocals are more mid-focused, and the upper midrange and treble frequencies are taken up by acoustic guitar, hi-hat, and cymbals. But the reality is more complex than that, as most instruments cover a wide range of frequencies.

For example, kick drums have a surprising amount of treble and hats have more low frequencies than you might imagine. Therefore, they don’t fit as well into specific frequency bands as we would like. Things get even more difficult when various instruments are all competing for the same frequency space, but there are different solutions.

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Choose the right guitar

Your favorite acoustic might not be the best guitar for the piece. If you’re layering acoustic over a track dominated by loud, fat, distorted electric guitars, a big dreadnought or jumbo probably isn’t the best choice.

These acoustic guitars usually generate a lot of bass and low mids, and the electrics will already do that. If you add acoustics for rhythm driving and a percussive chime, try a smaller guitar.

Conversely, a country-style track with lots of bright, twangy electric sounds may need warmer, bigger acoustics to fill out the mids. The woodier, darker tones of a Gibson-style acoustic may sound better in this context than the brighter, more ethereal qualities of Martin-style guitars.

And if you can’t swap guitars, try swapping your strings. If you need more brightness, try replacing those old dead strings with a new set of phosphor bronzes. Conversely, a played set or naturally darker sounding strings might be preferable. Martin Retros are a great option for this, and you should also experiment with different picks as thinner ones always sound brighter and punchier.

guitar recording

Equalization

While we always advocate getting the sound right at the source, EQ can provide subtle improvements or be your “break out of jail” card during recording and mixing. The key is to understand how equalization can be used.

To start simply, if your microphone, preamp or equalizer has a bass rolloff switch, you should use it. The acoustics don’t generate anything useful below 75Hz, which can eliminate a lot of low-frequency boom and clutter.

At the other end of the frequency spectrum, you can boost the high frequencies to help the acoustics through, or cut them to sweeten the tone. It’s always better to hear the sound you’re working on in context rather than solo when making EQ adjustments.

Whether you’re using an analog outboard or, more likely these days, a plug-in, set your parametric EQ’s Q/bell (bandwidth) control to a narrow range, apply a 6dB boost, then sweep slowly the frequencies and listen to the change in sound. If you start to hear the result you wanted, then you have found the right frequency. From here you can fine tune the amount of boost and widen the Q setting to soften the effect.

You can use the same procedure to identify and remove unwanted frequencies. The acoustics tend to get boomy and cluttered in the low mids, so if a frequency is skipping that has an unpleasant ringing or detracts from the punch of the rhythm section, you can flip the +/- control the other way and dial it in .

Depending on the guitar and microphone placement, 400Hz is a good starting point when tightening up the low mids. Using EQs to cut rather than boost creates frequency pockets that other instruments can occupy and is an effective way to help an acoustic sit well under a lead vocal.

Once that acoustic is settled into the track – sounding clear but not taking up too much space – try soloing it. You may find it sounds good in the track but not so good in isolation. If so, don’t let it bother you.

guitar recording

Agree voice

When layering guitars, we usually always want to be able to tell the different parts apart. This will be difficult to achieve if you play the exact same thing on every overdub. One solution is to play the chords in different areas of the fretboard.

If electrics play open E chords, try to find ways to play E major higher up the neck of your acoustic. Capos can be extremely useful because if you place one on the second fret when playing your usual open D shape two frets up, there is your upper inversion of E major. A seventh capo with an open A shape will also work, and you can have fun figuring out how to play the rhythm part with capo chords.

Nashville Accord

You’ve almost certainly heard this on countless classic recordings, where the acoustics sound well-defined and floating, but the mix still retains clarity and spaciousness. The trick is to use the octave-high strings of a 12-string set so that B and high E are tuned normally, but E, A, D and G are tuned an octave higher than usual.

It sounds like the effect we often expect from a 12-string, but without any of the problematic pops and noises. And when you combine a capo with a Nashville tuning, things can get pretty interesting.

And if there’s a keyboard player in your band, try explaining that having ten fingers doesn’t mean they have to use them all all the time. If that doesn’t produce the desired results, try sticking his left hand behind his back. You’ll be amazed at how much space this will free up for your guitars in general!

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