Acoustic Guitar Recording

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Recording a great-sounding acoustic guitar track used to be a real challenge, but with today’s highly affordable hardware and software, you can have the power of a pro studio right in your computer on your desk.

Mistakes:

There’s nothing worse than playing a beautiful take and then flubbing a note or two. Sigh. Do you try another complete take or punch in to fix the mistake? Neither! Record a brief section on another track that duplicates the area where you made the mistake. Now, simply copy and paste a good note from the new track into the master track to fix the note you flubbed.

  • It may sound more natural to copy and replace a few notes or a short section of music than to copy and paste just one note in a passage. For example, if a note is ringing underneath the bad note you want to fix, you may want to copy over the entire section containing the ringing note for the most natural sound.
  • Make sure the timing of the replacement is correct so the rhythm of the part remains smooth.
  • Be careful to record the replacement track with the same tone and volume as the original.
  • A very short cross-fade (in which one audio region quickly fades out while another fades in) can be applied if you hear a click on either side of where the replacement note or section was inserted into the track.

Divide and Conquer:

If you recorded the main acoustic guitar part for your song with two very different styles—for example, soft arpeggio picking during the verses and hard, heavy strumming during the choruses—you may find it difficult to get the two sections to work when you’re mixing. They may be far too different for the same EQ and compression settings to work well in the context of the song. You could go through and automate your plug-ins so the sound of the track changes at the appropriate time. Here’s an easier solution:

  • Cut the guitar track apart at each verse and chorus section.
  • Create a new track and move the chorus parts down to the new track. (Be careful not to shift them in time when you move them to the new track.)
  • Listen to the two tracks. If necessary, add very short fade-ins and fade-outs to each section to prevent clicks and pops at the edit points.
  • Set the volume and plug-ins as desired to make each track or part sound its best.

With the verses and choruses on separate tracks, you can optimize the sound for each section, giving you more control and creating a more balanced result.

Automate Compression:

There always seem to be a few spots in an otherwise perfect take where a note, chord, or strum pops out. When there are only a few large peaks in a track, it’s hard to set a compressor to catch them without also affecting the rest of the track. Recording engineers used to “ride” the faders to control the level. The engineer would get to know the song, and, as the singer or player performed a part, the engineer would manually move the microphone’s volume fader to manage the overly loud dynamic peaks. (Needless to say, it took a talented engineer to do this well.) However, you can use the supernatural powers of your DAW to attack the problem in a much more controllable way when you’re mixing.

  • Record your track in the usual fashion. Don’t worry about a few loud peaks, as long as they don’t distort.
  • Zoom in on the waveform view on the track and find the problematic peaks.
  • Turn on volume automation for the track.
  • Create a quick volume dip where each peak occurs so that the loud peak is reduced and “sits” properly in the track.

Clean Your Tracks:

If a track plays all the way through a song, background noises typically aren’t a problem. But if there are gaps in a part—say you strum during the verses but don’t play during choruses—any noise in the background when you aren’t playing (breathing, a sleeve rustling, a chair creaking, an air conditioner turning on, whatever) may suddenly become audible. There are several things you can do to control extraneous noise:

  • Use a noise reduction plug-in: if the sound is continuous (“steady-state,” in tech terms) like hum or buzz, you can use a plug-in noise-reduction processor to remove it.
  • Cut the noisy section out: if there are large gaps in the noisy track, get in there and chop them out! Instant silence. The problem is that those sudden silences can sound unnatural, especially in a vocal track where a real person would be taking a breath before singing, etc. So be selective about what you cut, and consider adding a fade-in or fade-out at the edit points instead of leaving a “hard” cut. Solo the track and listen for any clicks, pops, or unnatural-sounding edits.
  • Use volume automation to gently remove the noise without making the track totally silent. This leaves some background ambience in, so the track sounds natural.

Whatever method you use, don’t get too carried away. It’s easy to overclean a track and make it so sterile it sounds like a synthesizer. We’re talking about acoustic guitar here. A pick makes noise when it hits a string. Sleeves rustle when they slide across a guitar body. Strings squeak when your fingers move. Those sounds are part of a real guitar performance and people expect to hear them (whether they know it or not). Take them out and something won’t seem right. But a heavy breath or the thump of a hand accidentally hitting the guitar during the middle of a silent section of a take? Cut it out!

Easy Double-Tracking:

Engineers used to use an echo technique called ADT (automatic double-tracking) to make it sound as if a part had been played or sung twice for a thicker, fuller sound. But with your DAW, you can do the job much better.

  • Record a great track. (That’s always the first step, isn’t it?)
  • Create a new empty track.
  • Copy your track to the new track.
  • Shift the copy track back (later) in time a very small amount to create a bit of delay. I like to set the DAW’s ruler to show milliseconds and slide the track back by just a few milliseconds to begin with. Make sure the track isn’t set to automatically correct rhythms or note placement to a rhythmic value—you want a much shorter delay than even a 16th or 32nd note.
  • Pan the delayed copy track to either side, leaving the original in the center.
  • Turn down the copy track. In most cases the volume will be set correctly when you don’t quite hear it as a separate track but you miss it when it’s muted. You’re after a thickening effect, not the effect of multiple discrete tracks playing simultaneously or an echo effect.
  • Experiment with pitch shifting the copy track up or down by three to eight cents. This will provide a slight, very wide chorusing effect. If you’re using two copy tracks, shift one up five cents and the other down five cents.
  • Try bringing the delayed or shifted copy tracks in only at certain points in a song to help build the dynamics or to add fullness to certain sections.
  • For a more dramatic ADT effect, turn up the copies a bit, and increase the delay to 50–100 milliseconds.

These are just a few of the things you can do with your DAW to enhance your guitar (and other) tracks. Don’t be afraid to experiment. DAWs are nondestructive, meaning that you can always undo a change or an edit and get back to where you started, so you’re free to try whatever you like without losing or ruining your precious tracks. For even more security, save a copy of your project under a new name and work on the copy, keeping your original safe and untouched.

One last tip: The better your original tracks are, the easier it will be to clean them up, make any fixes, and create your final mix. Today’s DAWs are astoundingly powerful, but that doesn’t let us off the hook as guitar players. Start with great tracks, enhance them in the DAW, and you’ll end up with musical, dynamic, and beautiful tracks. By Mitch Gallagher (Acoustic Guitar Magazine)

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