If you've written a few tunes for guitar and you're not sure what to do with them, why not learn how to record acoustic guitar and produce them yourself? This way you can make a demo without the pressure of a studio, show your songs off to friends (or a record label if you're at that level) or collaborate with other musicians, all the while learning the basics of recording live instruments.
What you will need:
- One to two microphones (condensers, if possible)
- Microphone stand for each mic
- Microphone cable for each mic
- Recording device
- Mixer or a pre-amplifier
- Phantom power unit (unless the mixer has this)
- Acoustic guitar
- Quiet room
- A note about recording set-ups. There are many options for recording that it can seem daunting to choose one. If you are getting into recording for the long haul, spend the money on something that will still be of value to you in five years. Otherwise, get something simple and cheap like a cassette recorder or borrow gear from a friend. You can use anything from a MiniDisc to a field recorder, a four-track cassette recorder (Yamaha MT4X), a digital eight-track (Tascam Digital Portastudio DP-008) or computer software like Reaper (free) or ProTools. Understanding the basic signal flow will enable you to learn any recording set-up quickly. The signal path is generally like this: microphone > XLR cable > mixer/preamp > recording device channel > individual/stereo track.
- Find a quiet room, sit in the center of the room and see how your guitar sounds. If you have a friend who can play the guitar, have the friend play where you will be playing and listen to the way sound travels in the room. Critical evaluation of acoustics is an important practical skill to develop when learning to record live instruments. If you don't like the guitar's tone when your friend plays, change the position of the guitar until you like it.
- You need to know something about microphones and microphone placement. For acoustic guitars, its best to use condensers, but you will need phantom power. Check to see if your mixer has this (the 48V button). If not, you will need to obtain a separate unit in order to power the condenser mics. You can use a dynamic mic as well, but it might not provide the same signal clarity.
- Deciding on a "sound." if you want an ambient sound, position a large-diaphragm condenser microphone (Audio-Technica's AT2020 is a decent mic to start with) at the height of the guitar's sound hole and in a good spot in the room. Again, you can use a friend to play the guitar while you walk around listening for the best spot. Place the mic wherever it sounds best. For a closer, more detailed sound, use two pencil condenser microphones–one aimed at the twelveth fret and another aimed at the bridge on the body (not at the sound hole). A good pair of pencil condensers to start with is the MXL 603s, which can be obtained for less than $200. Using two of these in a stereo set up gives you an extremely even and detailed sound.
Do a test recording or two until you get the gain settings right. On a multi-track device or outboard hardware that accompanies recording software, adjust the gain nob on the selected input channel. If the sound meter is way in the red zone, reduce it the gain. Ideally, you want to minimize the gain hiss and maximize the guitar volume without causing distortion. When you do a test, play as loud as you will when you're recording to get an accurate read on your volume. This is important because you can't remove distortion in a raw take without severely compromising the clarity of the guitar.
- "Arm" the tracks selected for capturing your guitar track. Hit "Record" (or "Record" and then "Play" on some machines) and then go to work. When you finish, it is best to wait five seconds just in case you need the silence later on.
- Headphones are useful for monitoring your recording, especially if you are playing along with another track.
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