One of the most common recording questions I receive from my clients and students is, “what’s the best way to record acoustic guitar?”
Well, there are a lot of factors, but the first piece of advice I always give is to record the guitar with a microphone, rather than just with (or in addition to) its built-in pickup (often referred to as its “DI” for Direct Injection).
To me, this microphone-instead-of-DI technique is the single most important factor in raising the quality of your acoustic guitar recordings from “okay” to pro.
Why should this change make such a difference, especially considering that both the pickup and the mic are capturing the same sound from the same source?
Well, actually, they’re not picking up the same sound. The pickup captures the sound inside the body of the guitar, which is obviously not how we experience it when we hear a guitar played in front of us. The mic, on the other hand, picks up the sound in the air, outside the guitar, which is much closer to what we normally hear. This sound in front of the instrument is also what guitar makers take into consideration when they design them for optimal tone. There are certain sounds that occur in front of the guitar that simply aren’t present inside its body.
There’s one more factor in using a mic instead of (or in addition to) the DI: not only does the mic pick up the sound coming out of the sound hole of the guitar, it also picks up the sound of the room in which the guitar is located.
So, the mic actually gives us two additional sources of sound over a DI. If the mic is placed well, the added room sound can be a huge contributor to the overall sound of the guitar recording, and enhance its quality and fullness greatly.
When given a choice between a mic or a DI for recording acoustic guitar, I will always go with a mic first. However, if the guitar has a pickup, I will often record the DI in addition to the mic.
Why? Because it gives me choices later, when I mix the recording. Sometimes just a smidge of that characteristic, midrange “squawk” that’s endemic to guitar pickups, blended in with the mic sound, can give the guitar part just that little bit of “bite” that it needs, depending on what else is going on in the mix. I would rather have the choice of two sounds to blend to taste, and end up not using one of them at all (the DI), than never having a choice in the first place.
If you’re used to recording your guitar only using its pickup/DI, try recording the same part using both the DI and a mic, onto two different tracks, and then “A/B” compare the results by soloing back and forth between the two tracks, and then try a few combinations of blending them at different relative volumes. You’ll be amazed at the wide range of guitar tones you can get between those two sound sources.
How do YOU normally record acoustic guitar? And if you normally record with a mic, how often do you combine it with the DI as well? I’d love to hear from you, so comment below.