Acoustic guitar is one of the most difficult instruments to get a good recording of. So many things go into it: the quality of the microphone(s) and acoustic guitar itself, the placement of the microphone, the environment, and the performance itself. Let’s talk about how to record acoustic guitar from mic placement and other tips to record the perfect sound: the sound you actually hear when you play the guitar.
How to Record Acoustic Guitar
I’ve put together 13 evergreen tips on how to record acoustic guitar. Some of these are more obvious than others but certainly still bear worth mentioning if for no other reason than to remind you why they matter.
Remove As Much Ambient Noise as Possible
Okay, it’s an obvious one and maybe not necessarily a helpful one considering many of us record in less than ideal environments. Street noise is what it is, and most don’t have budgets to do a proper job soundproofing even a section of our home spaces.
Still, the quieter the environment, the cleaner our audio is going to be going in.
It’s such a cliche but arguably there’s no better advice when it comes to mixing than get it right on the recording. There’s only so much we can do once we have the audio we have. Great recorded audio yields great mixes.
Best Microphone for Acoustic Guitar
You can get good results with a number of cardioid (and bidirectional which I’ll mention in a moment) microphones for acoustic guitar (see my tutorial on microphone patterns).
Generally you want a condenser microphone as these are better suited for home and studio recording to capture subtle changes and details in dynamic instruments like the acoustic guitar. Beyond that you just want a guitar with a high frequency and dynamic response which is capable of picking up the fine details of your performance.
A (relatively) affordable condenser microphone I’ve used to record acoustic guitar for years is the Shure SM81. Its small diaphragm allows for an excellent transient response to get the most faithful representation of the audio and it has an extremely high frequency response to pick up frequencies we can’t even hear.
An entry level large diaphragm microphone like the Audio-Technica AT2035 which sounds great on vocals also works well on acoustic guitar.
While not a condenser microphone, the Shure SM57 is also a great entry level microphone which is popular in home recording for micing drums, a guitar cabinet, or even acoustic guitar.
Just as important as the microphone you’re using is to make sure you’re positioning the microphone properly as I’ll cover in a moment.
Use High Pass Filter on Microphone
Generally if your microphone has a filter setting built in, it’s not a bad idea to turn this on. Most high pass filters gently and naturally roll off everything below 80Hz. The low E in standard tuning is roughly 82Hz, so with the gentle roll off you’re not losing anything important here.
This saves time later, gives more dynamic headroom going in when you’re removing those unnecessary low rumbling sounds ahead of time, and is helpful if you’re hitting an outboard compressor or any other processing on the way in.
One of the most important aspects in how to record acoustic guitar is microphone placement.
How to Mic an Acoustic Guitar
There are a number of different techniques for how to mic an acoustic guitar. Each has their benefits and will yield a different sound.
Mic the 12th Fret
The natural instinct if you’re new to micing an acoustic guitar is to place the microphone directly in front of the soundhole. If you’ve ever done this, you might be surprised to hear how boomy and bass heavy the audio is.
The sound we hear when an acoustic guitar is played is actually a combination of the higher more musical frequencies of the strings as well as the low end from the soundhole.
The general rule for how to mic an acoustic guitar is that you want to point the microphone(s) at the 12th fret. This provides a nice balance of high, mid, and low frequencies.
If you want a thinner, brighter sound, move the microphone closer to the 9th or 7th fret. This is nice when you want the acoustic guitar to be more of an accenting piece in the mix.
If you want a warmer, more bass heavy sound, move the microphone closer to the 15th fret. If the acoustic guitar is a more integral piece in the mix, you might want to experiment with this position.
How Far to Place Microphone on Acoustic Guitar
Once you’ve got your microphone(s) pointed at the 12th fret, place it about 12″ away from the fretboard. This creates a relatively dry recording with just a bit of the air of the room on the recording.
Like anytime you’re recording with a microphone, move it closer to the source to get a drier sound. Conversely, move it farther away from the source to blend in more natural reverb and room acoustics, creating more of a live sound.
Listen in Realtime
This really helps, but if you can get someone to either play the guitar while you move the guitar and microphone(s) around or vice versa and listen back in realtime, do it.
This is how you can find the perfect setup for your unique environment as certain spots in the room will undoubtedly sound better than others (and some dead spots sounding worse).
Now let’s talk microphone setups.
Single Microphone Technique
The single microphone technique is the easiest of all of the acoustic guitar recording setups. Simply point the microphone at the 12th fret and roughly 12″ away as mentioned before for a nice overall recorded acoustic guitar sound.
The XY recording technique for recording acoustic guitar is my favorite standard two microphone setup.
Here we place two microphones right next to each other, 12″ away from and pointing at the 12th fret.
We then angle each one slightly inward so that they’re still pointing toward one another.
Together the tips of both microphones should be forming a “V” shape with just about an inch between them. The microphone closer to the neck is aiming more to the bridge, and the microphone closer to the bridge is aiming more to the neck.
We can then pan one of these tracks on the left and the other on the right for a natural stereo spread.
Even if you’ve got the microphones the exact same distance from the fretboard, be careful to listen for any phase issues going in or be ready to correct them in the mixing phase (see my guide to fixing phase issues).
Mid Side Technique
The mid side recording technique is perfect for some songs, but it requires a special type of microphone as one of your two.
I mentioned this in the above linked to article, but you’ll need a figure 8/bidirectional microphone in addition to a typical cardioid microphone for this setup.
The cardioid microphone should once again be 12″ away from and pointing at the 12th fret.
The bidirectional microphone should be directly above the cardioid microphone as close as you can get without touching, but it should be turned at a 90° angle to the cardioid microphone.
As such, the responsive sides of the microphone should essentially be parallel with the fretboard, with one side pointing to the soundhole and the other to the neck.
Once you have both tracks recorded in your mix, keep the cardioid up the center of the mix and duplicate the bidirectional mic track.
Pan one instance of that track full left and the duplicate full right, inverting the polarity on that duplicate.
This gives you both sides of the recorded guitar which makes for a really interesting and natural stereo spread sound in the mix.
As you turn up the bidirectional tracks, you’ll get more stereo spread for that guitar. You can automate their levels up and down to add in some natural width at points of emphasis in the mix, like when a chorus hits.
Record Direct In (When Applicable)
If your acoustic guitar has an onboard preamp and an output, record this alongside the microphones if possible.
My Breedlove has one and while that tone doesn’t sound exactly like the recorded microphones, it blends in nicely as I mix it underneath the mics to add some thickness.
It gives you options and it’s just nice to have, especially if the room recording isn’t coming out like you want.
Sitting Versus Standing While Playing
I typically recommend sitting when you’re recording acoustic guitar as this keeps the guitar in place.
When we stand and play, we have a tendency to move our hips slightly which will move the guitar’s position slightly, relative to the microphones.
If we’re seated and resting the guitar on our leg, the guitar is in a static position and we’ll get a nice uniform signal going into the mic or mics we’re using. This yields better results and less need for level automation or compression later.
Aim For -18dB
The last thing to mention is to set your preamp so that each microphone or input is averaging -18dB as you play. You can have the occasional peaks which top off at -10dB max, but that -18dB is the sweet spot for getting the most out of your plugins and maintaining headroom as I covered in my cheat sheet for gain staging.
Double Track Your Acoustic Guitar
If you don’t have a second microphone (or even if you do), you might want to try double tracking your acoustic guitar.
While more time consuming and difficult to get as identical a second take as possible, this creates a natural width and adds life to your acoustic guitar which you can’t fake with two microphones recording a single take.
Admittedly it fits better on song songs than others, but sometimes it can be just what you need when one take isn’t enough.
Just like double tracking vocals, though, again it’s all about getting as identical a performance for that second take as possible.
Once you have your second track, pan one left and one right to enjoy the benefits of double tracked acoustic guitar.
Acoustic Guitar Recording Tips
Let’s recap this guide on how to record acoustic guitar with the most important acoustic guitar recording tips.
- Remove as much ambient noise as possible before recording.
- Condenser microphones work best for recording relatively quieter and dynamic instruments like acoustic guitar.
- The sweet spot for microphone placement is aiming it at the 12th fret about a foot away. This gives you a nice mix of high, low, and mid frequencies.
- Have someone else play while you move the microphone(s)/guitar or vice versa to locate the unique sweet spot for your room.
- Try the XY recording technique for getting a stereo recording with two microphones out of one performance, panning each one hard left and right.
- If you have a bidirectional microphone, place it above your cardioid microphone and use the mid side recording technique.
- Set your input gain to average -18dB for the best gain staging of your acoustic guitar tracks.
- Sit down while playing to reduce movement and get a more uniform input and take.
- Try double tracking your acoustic guitar if you’re not getting the results you want from a single take, even with two microphones.