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My Acoustic Guitar Recording Setup

The following is a copy and paste of something I wrote on an internet forum, not too far from here. I repeat it here ’cause it’s fundamental to my recording practice and might be of interest to my fellow guitarists and weekend warriors in the studio…

I read a lot of huffing and puffing about acoustic guitar recording strategies, and, to be honest, it caused me a lot of heartache for a while. I describe below how I ended up for my new CD, and beyond. (Note this is primarily intended for solo guitar, or guitar and vox, tracked separately.)

I’m afraid I’ve given up entirely on spaced mic techniques for guitar recording. I only use X/Y setup with small diaphragm condensers. (I would try mid-side, but I don’t have a figure-8 mic.)

My reasons for my X/Y setup are three-fold:

1. When I listen back through a hi-fi system at normal listening distance, a guitar recorded with a spaced technique sounds unrealistically big – in fact it sounds about 12ft wide! This might sound impressive to some, but it makes me nauseous.

2. Phase cancellation. No matter how big it sounds in stereo, if I hit the mono button on the recording console, the middle of the guitar disappears leaving the sides hovering disembodied in space. More nausea. (Maybe that has more to do with my skill at setting up a spaced pair, but for the other two reasons, It’s now academic.)

3. To a listener in an audience any further than 6 feet away, the guitar is a mono source. Any stereo information is by virtue of room reflections.

So this is how I proceed: I use two Neumann KM 184s in the X/Y configuration, about 18″ from the guitar. These mics aren’t matched, but I don’t consider that so important. (Sidebar: I had actually recorded more than 30 guitar parts using ORTF before being forced to admit it wasn’t going to work for me and had to abandon them and start again using X/Y.) Now, (some folks say that) X/Y can appear to give a very tight stereo image, but it truth I find the image more realistic – and anyway, if the image needs a bit of stretching I can use a bit of mid-side processing.

The future? I’m considering getting a figure-of-8 and do some M/S for real for the next record. Or two, and do Blumlein. This gear purchasing never stops…

(Now an A/B setup with mics pointed at saddle & neck / body joint [I]can[/I] sound fantastic – just make sure you audition in mono. Mono-compatibility doesn’t matter to a lot of folks, but it does to me – so I don’t use it.)

More for general interest, here’s my signal path:

Mics: KM 184s (guitar) in X/Y setup 18″ from neck/body join; Audio Technica AT 4033 (vox)

  • Pre-amps: per Allen & Heath GS3 console
  • Soundcard: RME Multiface
  • Software: Cubase SL
  • Plug-ins: Voxengo and Kjaerhus dynamics and Voxengo convolution reverb.
  • Monitoring: Mission Cyrus amp and JBL 4208 monitors (it’ll do for now!!)
  • Phones: Sennheisser and Beyerdynamic
  • PC: self-built using QuietPC case, Seagate Barracuda HDDs, AMD 64 CPU, Zalman heatsinks, fans and controller.

So that’s it. I’d like to read your comments and ideas. What strategies have you found successful? What about acoustic guitars that are intended to sit in a mix?

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US “Tour”

I am hugely tempted by an idea that popped into my head to visit the US next summer or autumn (Fall, dudes) and play a few places. I’m also considering combining with a family holiday – that is, I work and they holiday. For them it would by a bit of a mystery tour, the trip not having been arranged via the normal touristy methods. I reckon I can google for venues and send of a cd, or two, with a press-kit and maybe do some cold-calling. I’m used to this – or was. Although I do play gigs these days, they are none too frequent, are ad-hoc, and are offered rather than sought. Nevertheless, I have toured extensively in the past, particularly in Europe, so I’m no stranger to life on the road. But I have never played in the US.

Here are a few parameters that are in my head:

  • Venues can be whatever; coffee bars, clubs, pubs, Carnegie Hall, festivals, open air, indoors…
  • Fees are not a priority and are entirely negotiable
  • Generally I would be responsible for my own travel, food and accommodation
  • I would not carry my own sound reinforcement, so if needed, this would have to be provided
  • Set, or sets, can be anything up to 2 hours (more than that, I can’t guarantee integrity of fingernails! <- joke)
  • I’m happy to formalise by contract in advance.
  • I anticipate producing publicity material: press kits, posters, brochures, fliers and forwarding these to the venues in advance of the show.
  • I would cooperate with regard to other publicity initiatives in advance of the engagement, as appropriate and practicable

That’s the way I’m thinking at the moment.

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Why Ain’t I Gigging (very much)?

Ooh, well…

This is hard to write about without is sounding like a bunch of baloney and excuses. And maybe there will be some truth in that – but i’m going to give it a shot, anyway.

If you have stumbled across some biographical material elsewhere you might have read that I quit playing in the early 80s. This coincided with a complete break from playing guitar and songwriting entirely for about 5 years. When I did get back to playing and writing I had lost pretty well all the contacts I had with promoters and agents who had helped me with gigs and tours in the past. Things had moved on and I would have had to pretty much start at the beginning again to build these contact and prerequisite reputation with new people. Well, in truth, I confess that didn’t have the appetite for that – and the bottom line was that there was no requirement for me to do it for the purposes of earning a living!

So now I’m living in the north-east of Scotland, whilst being a perfectly habitable corner of the planet (it’s that humped-shouldered part of the UK that sticks out into the North Sea), is not festooned with live music venues that an ‘umble fingerstyle acoustic guitar player like me would get paying work. Plans are afoot, though. Oh, yes, plans are afoot and I’ll confide about them here, ‘ere long…

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Beinn Mheadhoin

Right, well, hills are important to me. If I can drag my ass out of bed and get enough coffee down my throat, there’s little I like better than spending a long day in the hills. So this part of the site will be about those pleasant days. For the time being, the items will be mostly retrospectives of hills “long ago and far away”.

These hills are called “mountains” in Scotland, but to many folks living in the US Rockies, or the Alps, they’re not considered to be real “mountains” and disdainfully dismissed due to their lack of altitude and height. Experienced mountaineers don’t hold this view and know that you underestimate them at your peril.

In the meantime, and until I sort out some photographs and upload theme to the server, here’s a nice pic of the approach to Beinn Mheadhoin through Glen Laoigh deep in the heart of the Cairngorms. Nice innit? I took the shot after I’d huffed and puffed my way to the top and sauntered back down again. The highest knob just above the patch of late snow is the summit.

More soon…