Experimenting with mic position to record an acoustic guitar

For a while I’ve meaning to experiment with using different microphone positions to record an acoustic guitar. After some discussion about this over at the Six String Bliss forum I decided to pull my finger out and do it. So without further ado, here it is;

The guitar was a Takamine EG560C (with some very old strings on) recorded using a Red5 Audio RV6 condenser microphone set at the same height as the centre of the guitar, into a Behringer Eurorack MX602a mixer, then into an Edirol UA-20 USB soundcard and into Reaper on Windows 7 (32-bit).

There were no effects, reverb or compression added. The only editing I did was to cut out some of the silences between parts and each individual section was normalised to just below 0db to make sure the volume was consistent between each sample. I rendered it to a variable bit rate MP3 (quality 80%, equivalent of 224kpbs).

And what of the results? Well here are the details about each position;

Number Position Distance from guitar
1 Level with the endpin 10-12″
2 Directly in front of soundhole 10-12″
3 Directly in front of soundhole 5-7″
4 Level with 12th fret 10-12″
5 Level with 12th fret 5-7″
6 Level with the nut 5-7″
7 Behind the headstock 5-7″

With the exception of position 1, I can imagine finding a use for each of these different sounds. In a sparse mix, where I need the guitar to fill things out, the warmth of placing the mic right in front of the soundhole will really help. If it has to fit in a busy mix then I’ll be moving it more between the nut and 12th fret for the more “stringy” sound without the booming low-mids and mids. Sound-wise I’m fairly ambivalent about the distance between mic and guitar, although when it was close up (positions 3 and 5) I had to be very careful not to hit it with my strumming hand so I’d probably err towards keeping it around 10-12″ away.

And let’s not forget – what we’re experimenting with here is the raw sound. The addition of some careful/tasteful EQ, compression, chorus and reverb will make the world of difference, but you need to have a good solid foundation to build on so I’d definitely recommend you undertake a similar experiment with your own gear.

Note: I didn’t try an option of placing the mic further away, because the room in which I recorded has a particularly harsh sound. If you’ve got a good sounding room though, this should be an option you try too.

Book Review: Guerilla Home Recording – How to Get Great Sound From Any Studio

Introduction

I’ve been involved off and on with attempting to make music at home for close to 30 years now. I’ve also spent time (and a lot of money) in professional studios. I can get by with most things but I’m looking for something to improve the quality of my results. I asked for suggestions on a couple of forums, and one of the common answers was Karl Coryat’s book “Guerilla Home Recording: How To Get Great Sound From Any Studio (No Matter How Cheap Or Weird Your Gear Is)”.

There was something particularly appealing to me about this book’s premise. I’ve got a load of gear. Some odd and some not. But most of my gear would be the stuff a professional studio or an aspiring engineer/producer would turn up their nose at.

I still felt that I hadn’t got anywhere near exploiting the capabilities of what I had. I needed something that was going to help me learn how to use what I’ve got, rather than telling me why I needed to spend four figure sums on a new microphone or suite of professional mastering plugins.

The topics covered

  • Chapter 1: Introduces the book and the principes behind the whole “Guerilla Home Recording” thing.
  • Chapter 2: Some sound basics: dynamic range, frequency spectrum and EQ, signal:noise ratios.
  • Chapter 3: The signal chain: A run through the whole signal chain from top to bottom, including gain staging, microphone choices, DI, mixer inserts, pre and post sends, busses.
  • Chapter 4: Controlling dynamics: Expanders, compressors, noise gates, de-essing, plosives.
  • Chapter 5: The principles of separation and how to make sure each of your tracks gets the “space” it deserves.
  • Chapter 6: Effects: Background info and a host of tips about how to effectively enhance your recordings.
  • Chapter 7: How to record almost anything.
  • Chapter 8: Humanising drums and MIDI: How to make sure your carefully crafted loops and MIDI parts don’t sound like a machine.
  • Chapter 9: Miscellaneous techniques: From punch in/out, automation, digital editing, pitch correction, reamping.
  • Chapter 10: Mixing and mastering.
  • Appendix A: Analog recording.
  • Appendix B: The “Immersion Music Method”. A way of kick-starting creativity and hammering out a large number of songs in a short period of time, without getting hung-up on trying to perfect the small details.
  • Appendix C: Re-production. A suggestion that, to improve your abilities as a home producer, you undertake an exercise to completely replicate one of your favourite tracks.
  • Appendix D: Using your studio as part of a multimedia project.

What I liked

Right from the start there is a bit of a kick in the teeth for somebody like me – someone with years of experience and a smattering of exposure to pro studios. Quite simply I was told to “get over myself”. I’ve seen and heard what proper studios are like and I’m the classic wannabe. I’m trying to apply professional techniques to a cheap home studio and guess what? It sounds like a cheap home studio. To make a professional sounding recording with less than ideal tools needs a different approach. I’m going to have to forget some stuff.

Once I got over this initial scepticism, I began to get the point. There is a Machiavellian “The ends justifies the means” logic going on here. Concentrate on what the end result sounds like. If you used a technique that a pro would frown at to get the result that you like, it doesn’t matter.

Then suddenly I’m into the meat of the book and delving into areas with which I was familiar but not competent. The two of these which I now see had the biggest detrimental impact on my recording quality, was a lack of understanding about the importance of gain staging at every step in the signal chain, and of the techniques to maximise dynamic range whilst still keeping a low signal to noise ratio. I’ve still got a lot to learn and, more importantly master, but this is area where I’ll be focusing my attention for my next couple of projects. This is also one area where, despite the book’s title, I think I may be needing to acquire an additional piece of gear. I’d not really thought about how a carefully used outboard expander/compressor could improve the quality of a recorded track.

While I’m still trying to get to grips with the nuggets in chapters 3 and 4, I’m suddenly plunged into chapters 5, 6 and 7, where the tips just come thick and fast to the point where it is almost overwhelming. I’ll just give you one example;

I come from a background of using effects in a guitar signal chain and had got into the mindset of using effects in a DAW in the same way; plug it in, tweak the settings, job done. I’ve long found that while a chorus can sound great on a bass part, it has a tendency to make the bottom end mushy and indistinct. Karl’s suggestion was to replicate/route the bass onto another track, use a high-pass filter to cut out the bottom end, apply 100% wet chorus to this and then blend it back in with the original bass track. My mind was officially and totally blown! Wait, I can use this approach to create a separate reverb or echo part and pan it exactly where I want. I could do the same thing with phase and flange. What would a uni-vibe sound like just applied to the low-mids of a vocal? I’ve no idea but I’m damn sure I’m going to give it a go to see.

What I didn’t like

To be frank, very little. The author’s preference is to use a fair amount of outboard gear and a real mixing desk, and this colours the book. My personal preference is to get everything into the DAW and then keep it wholly digital until the final mix and master. I’m not excluded but it stopped me feeling like the book was aimed exactly at me.

I didn’t find the sections on recording and humanising drum and MIDI parts to be particularly useful or tell me anything I didn’t already know, and the section on the “Immersion Music Method” in Appendix B didn’t seem to fit with the rest of the book, but it was an interesting concept and exercise nonetheless.

Conclusion

When I first bought the book I had visions of reading through and then passing it on to a couple of friends. Having finished the book, that is not going to happen. This is a book that I’m going to keep by my side for a few years to come. I’m afraid my friends are going to have to get their own copy. There are a couple of sections I’m going to want to have on hand as a reference (particularly the stuff about gain staging, dynamic range, and the mix-down check-list). There are other parts (especially chapters 6 and 7) where the suggestions come so thick and fast, I’m going to be going back for inspiration and help for a long time to come.

If you’ve got some recording gear and are more interested in trying to make the best use of what you’ve got, instead of looking for a new “silver bullet” piece of gear then I can’t recommend this book highly enough. And let me put this in context; the book cost about the same as two guitar mags. It is going to provide me with months (perhaps years) worth of inspiration, and it isn’t stuffed with adverts. Now that’s what I call value for money.

If you want a sneak preview of the book, the author Karl Coryat, has published the section on Compression at ProSoundWeb.

Using Reaper and free VST plugins to simulate a 12 string guitar

On the Six String Bliss forum I’ve got involved in a collaborative recording project where we’re going to document a lot of the background discussions and processes that go on, both so that we can find out more about how each other works and to pull together a “how to” guide (no doubt with elements of “how not to” as well).

The song chosen is Pink Floyd’s “Hey You” from The Wall. As we’ve been sharing out the various tasks and jobs somebody mentioned that they didn’t have a 12 string guitar. Now I have a Line 6 Variax, as does one of the other contributors and the Variax does a half decent job of simulating a 12 string. If you listen to it in isolation is is far from perfect but, especially when put into a mix, it is definitely usable. It set me thinking about whether you could mimic the sound of a 12 string in post-production, using Reaper and some of the free VST plugins that I have installed.

Before we dig into the steps I followed to do this, lets just take a minute to look at the way a 12 string is tuned. The E, A, D and G all have a second string that is tuned one octave higher. The B and E have an identical string tuned in unison.

So my first step was to record a single track of plain 6 string guitar. For this I used the neck pickup on my Hohner G2T, plugged into a Line 6 Pod XT Live (because it happened to be handy). I called this track “Raw Guitar”.

I then set up a second empty track which I called “Octave Up”.

On the “Raw Guitar” track I clicked on the “io” button, and added a new send, to route this signal to the “Octave Up” track.

On the “Octave Up” track I added one of Reaper’s bundled VST plugins called “ReaPitch”. I set this to shift the pitch up my one octave. I set the level of the “Octave up” track to be about -12db, just so it subtly underpins the raw guitar.

At this point it is starting to sound like a 12 string but, with this pitch shift, particularly in the higher registers, there is a harsh an unpleasant squeakiness that has been introduced. This is both a basic flaw in the way pitch-shifting works but also because we’re affecting the B and E strings. Whilst we can’t totally get rid of this, we can tame it to a certain extent, by EQing the signal before it goes into the pitch-shifter. For this I used the bundled ReaEQ plugin.

This is a four band EQ but in this case I’m only interested in having a simple low-pass filter so I disabled 2 thru 4. For #1 I set the type to “low pass” and then experimented with the cut off point. To my ears it sounded best at 2.2k, but this is something you could experiment with.

To give a final gloss I added a touch of chorus to the master track. I used the chorus from the excellent free Kjaerhus Classic collection. I selected the “Clean Guitar Chorus” preset, but wound the dry/wet mix back so it is a bit more subtle.

And here’s a soundclip of the results, stepping through the various stages; first raw, then with pitch-shifter, then with the EQ and finally with the chorus.

Much like the Variax it is far from perfect but, if used with care and subtlety, an interesting technique to have in the toolbox.

Image Source: Picture of 12 string guitar taken by Kirsty Darbyshire (flickr).

Using Reaper to split a stereo track into two mono tracks

I can’t imagine that this will be a lot of use to many people but when I needed to do split a stereo track into two mono tracks I couldn’t find any help. After a fair bit of experimentation I finally figured out how to do it and thought it would be worthwhile documenting the method I used.

The background was that I had a recorded Skype telephone call which I needed to edit down. The call recording software I use allows you to pan each side of the call on the recorded mp3. I wanted to be able to work on each end of the call independently, mainly to set the levels, so that they were about the same.

First step is to add a new track and import the mp3 file onto that track.

I then duplicate that track, so that I have two versions of the same thing (right click on the track and choose “Duplicate”). I name the tracks “Original Call” and “Duplicate”

Next I set up two new empty tracks called “Left” and “Right”.

Now comes the interesting bit. We’re going to use Reaper’s excellent patching and routing capabilities. I’m going to route the left side of “Original Call” to the track called “Left”, and the right side of “Duplicate” to the track called “Right”.

On the “Original Call” track, click the small “io” button just above the pan slider. Set up a new send, routing the signal to the track called “Left”. We only want the left channel so, from the drop down boxes, select Audio 1 => 1.

We do the same with the “Duplicate” track, sending it to the track called “Right” and selecting Audio 2 => 2.

Now select the tracks called “Left” and “Right” (click “Left” and then shift-click “Right”), then right click and choose “render to mono stem”. This creates your two separate mono tracks, called “Left – stem” and “Right – stem”.

If you wish you can delete “Original Call”, “Duplicate”, “Left” and “Right”, but I prefer just to mute them (as in the screenshot above), just in case I need to go back and redo any step.