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Overcome common problems when recording and get cleaner, more professional sounding tracks


Playing the acoustic guitar can be a lot of fun, but in some ways it can be more challenging than playing electric guitar, and some of these unique challenges really rear their heads when you sit down to record an acoustic. But fear not - there are ways of handling those challenges that will result in much cleaner and more professional sounding acoustic tracks.

Common Challenges:

Headphone bleed - I've run into this more than a few times; especially with players who like to have the click screamingly loud in their headphones, or who just love loud monitoring levels in general. The key tool that will help you out here is going to be a pair of sealed-back headphones with excellent isolation. The Direct Sound Extreme Isolation EX-29, Sennheiser HD280 and KRK KNS 8400 headphones all perform admirably in this department. It will also help if you can avoid turning them up any louder than absolutely necessary. Still having issues with bleed? Try using a pair of in-ear headphones (earphones) - the kind you insert into and that seal around the ear canal - and then wearing a pair of unplugged isolating headphones or even shooter's ear muffs over those. This can reduce the amount of bleed the microphones will pick up while still giving you very loud monitoring levels if needed.

External noise interference - Unless you're lucky enough to live in a very quiet location, or have a well soundproofed room, sounds emanating from outside of your studio can often cause problems and interfere with what you're trying to record inside of it. You may not notice the sound of traffic outside when recording a loud electric guitar amp, but with the mic preamp gain cranked up to record your fingerstyle acoustic guitar part, you'll be surprised by just how much it can bleed through your walls and invade your tracks. You can modify your room, but reducing outside sounds that enter your space usually involves making the room airtight and increasing the mass of the room's surfaces, and that can be very costly, not to mention entirely out of the question in most cases for renters. Instead you might want to consider moving to a different room in the house that's further away from the noise source, reschedule your tracking session to a time when those interfering outside sounds aren't happening, or even relocating to a different place for tracking.

Finger squeaks - Nothing is quite as distracting as a gratingly loud finger squeak right in the middle of your delicately fingerpicked breakdown section. While nothing will eliminate squeaks entirely (and leaving some of the less obtrusive squeaks in the final mix may even add to the naturalness of the recording) Finger-ease, coated strings and talcum powder are the three biggest tools available to help combat them. You can also work on your playing technique to help minimize them, but that's a more long-term proposition. Using coated strings can help reduce squeaks, and so can applying a bit of Finger-Ease or Fast Fret to the strings. Talcum power is another commonly used substance that, when applied to the players hands, can help minimize squeaks. I don't recommend using talcum powder and a product like Finger-Ease simultaneously though, as it can make a mess.

Computer fan noise - Sometimes it's not the sounds outside that cause us headaches, it's the sounds from the gear inside your recording space. An isolation box can be a big help if you suffer from a overly noisy computer that keeps showing up on your acoustic guitar tracks. There are commercially built units available, as well as some DIY plans on the web, but if you go the DIY route make sure you have sufficient airflow to keep the computer happy and running cool. Another approach that works for some is to move the computer's tower into a closet and use extension cables and / or a wireless mouse and keyboard. Quieting your computer is another approach that can do wonders for reducing the noise - there are companies that sell quiet CPU and case fans, as well as variable speed fan controls. Case-lining acoustical foam and limp mass vinyl barrier products can also help, as well as using isolating rubber grommets to help reduce vibration transmission from your hard drives.

Poor room acoustics - The sound of the room you record in can have a significant effect on acoustic instruments. If your room's acoustics aren't up to snuff, you can try DIY temp treatments, such as moving blankets draped over chairs and mic stands to cut down on ambience and flutter echo, and of course more effective acoustical treatments are also available if you are in a position to make more permanent modifications to the room. Don't forget that there's always the option of moving to a more suitable room for the recording - laptops and even tablets that can run multitrack recording software makes this easier than ever, so there's really no reason to stay stuck in one room for all your recordings - especially if it doesn't sound good for the instrument you're currently working on.

Tracking an acoustic with a band: isolation and bleed issues - Tracking the acoustic guitar along with the rest of the band can be challenging, especially if the band consists of drums and other loud or amplified instruments. If you can track the acoustic as an overdub you can avoid these issues, but that isn't always possible. When it isn't, try moving the guitar as far away from other instruments in the room as possible and using gobos or blanket baffles around it, isolating it in a large closet or other adjacent room, or using a pickup instead of a microphone.

Clipping - I'm still amazed by how often I get tracks that were recorded elsewhere that clip all over the place. In fact, I worked on a session just this weekend that had clipping on the tracks I was sent to work with. Remember that in a 24 bit world it isn't necessary or even desirable to try to record as hot as possible; your tracks will sound better and be far less likely to suffer from clipping (which with digital recording can lead to very nasty sounds) if you keep your nominal levels in the -15 to -18dBFS range. Occasional peaks can go higher, but that's where you should keep your average levels when tracking, and you should always try to avoid illuminating the clip indicator.

Note Consistency - When tracking acoustic guitar, volume levels and playing dynamics can be difficult for some players to control, especially if they're relatively new to playing or recording. If this applies to you, compression can help even out the levels a bit and give you a more consistent sound. Using volume automation as needed when mixing can help even further. Don't go too heavy with the compression when tracking unless you're looking for a specific effect; try starting out with a 2:1 ratio and slowly lowering the threshold so that you get 2 or 3 dB of reduction off the loudest peaks, which should be all you need to smooth out the dynamics a bit. Going gentle with the compression will also help minimize the compressor's tendency to increase the apparent level of room rumble and extraneous noise too.

The key to stellar acoustic guitar tracks is to pay attention to the details. If you're not satisfied with the sound of your recordings, identify the trouble areas and take steps to address them!

Do you have other issues with your acoustic guitar recordings that weren't covered in this article? Or maybe you have a tip to help others with their recordings that wasn't mentioned. Either way, your questions and comments are welcome in the Studio Trenches forum right here on Harmony Central.

Phil O'Keefe is a multi-instrumentalist, recording engineer / producer and the Senior Editor of Harmony Central. He has engineered, produced and performed on countless recording sessions in a diverse range of styles, with artists such as Alien Ant Farm, Jules Day, Voodoo Glow Skulls, John McGill, Michael Knott and Alexa's Wish. He is a former featured monthly columnist for EQ magazine, and his articles and product reviews have also appeared in Keyboard, Electronic Musician and Guitar Player magazines.  

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