The Acoustic Army are well and truly back on the march. From the in die rock of Vampire Weekend to the "grass roots" antifolk of Mumford And Sons, there are a number of movements recontextualizing the "real" sound of 'real' instruments. And by the looks of the charts, the good old music-buying public are clearly down with the sounds of a group of folk belting out good, honest songs that you could actually sing around a campfire with your mates.
The proliferation of acoustic bands in the Top 40 is matched by the fact that open mic nights are enjoying a fashionable resurgence. This is great news for songwriters and those who have put in the effort to learn to play acoustic instruments; their craft is more appreciated now than it has been for quite a while. Whether you're an acoustic artist yourself, an engineer/producer or possibly both, this kind of music calls for some old·school skills when it comes to making your own recordings.
Beyond the one-man band
One man, a USB keyboard and a laptop running Ableton Live aren't going to cut it when it comes to recording a fully acoustic band, especially if said group all want to play and record live and all at the same time! Even if you're a outstanding multi-instrumentalist who's fully capable of overdubbing everything yourself. you're still going to need a certain amount of hardware and software and some audio engineering basics to get you through the recording process.
Of course, the kind of gear we're talking about can be stupidly expensive, but there are some fantastic solutions out there that offer unbelievable value for money if you do your homework and know exactly what you need and why you need it. That's where we come in!
Do your homework
In this tutorial. we'll show you how to record an expanded acoustic band, centered on acoustic guitar and vocals, both live and using overdubs. We'll look at how to maximize the potential of whatever gear and space you have, point out some less obvious pitfalls. share some tips from the top, and point you towards some good buys.
Whatever your budget, and whether you're in a studio or at home. the process is the same. We'll be discussing a lot of different things throughout, and we ask that you take note of the general concepts discussed rather than completely focusing your attention on the specific plug-ins themselves.
Remember, the song is king, and a badly recorded good song will always. be better than a well-recorded crap one. Hopefully, though, after reading this guide, you'll have no reason to make a bad recording ever again!
So, to business. And let's start with an irritating but accurate cliche: if you fail to prepare, you prepare for failure...
The recording environment
Recording a band fully live is a great way of bringing a little "magic" into the room. The fact that everyone is performing together means that more adrenalin is present, and no-one wants to be the turnip in the rose garden. This sharper level of concentration can bring out something extra In a band.
Recording live is a double-edged sword, and the success of the session will depend on how capable the performers are. A great live acoustic band can sit in a room and deliver numerous faultless takes, which may be edited together; and their experience will mean that they play their instruments to blend dynamically well within the band, so you could almost record the whole thing with a stereo microphone. Job done!
A less experienced band will need their own headphone mixes. and quite possibly have to play sections again to correct the odd mistake. If the natural balance between instruments isn't quite right, this will need attention at the mixdown stage. Spill between microphones can be a problem, so it's probably wise to take steps to reduce this and spread the band out a bit.
Feel at home
This sort of situation can make your home a good place to record. There's usually more than one room, and the rooms you have will offer a variety of sonic environments. Chances are that you already have your studio set up, so at least that space may have a reasonably neutral acoustic. If you're taking over a house especially to record then we recommend using the biggest room with the most soft furnishings - usually the sitting room- as the main recording space. Set your control room up elsewhere if possible; this will help you to listen to what's happening in the main room more clearly. It may be possible to put percussion players in bedrooms, backing singers in the kitchen and any additional amps perhaps for electro-acoustic basses or guitars in bathrooms or garages. This way, when it comes to correcting mistakes and mixing, you'll have these sounds recorded in relative isolation.
The downside of using your house as an ad hoc recording studio is that you probably won't get line of sight between the players, who often rely on this more than they might realize. especially when it comes to remembering structures and last minute alterations. Perhaps the most practical solution is to record in these different spaces, but do a bit at a time - eg. acoustic guitar, vocals and rhythm section or piano first - then overdub the extras when the pressure's off a bit. These are the situations where a good producer, working under non-ideal circumstances, will work out how to get the best out of all concerned. You'll have to judge the players, the line-up and the space available to make that call.
Calling for back-up
The other golden rule is to make sure that all of the instruments involved - and that includes human throats- are in good nick. Guitars and basses should be set up and have correct intonation, so they don't go out of tune when the player goes up the neck. Strings should be new but worn in, so that they stay in tune, sound bright and don't break. leads should not crackle, and amplifiers should not hum or have any intermittent faults. Guitarists should have spare strings, picks, capos, bottlenecks and straps, while vocalists should not have been gigging the day before or up all night doing bongs.
It's also a good idea to borrow as much gear as you can. Often the drummers favorite '65 Ludwig snare or the guitarist's best Gibson acoustic simply don't sound quite right on the day, and having a choice of instruments, pedals, mics, shakers and amps can be a session saver.
What you'll need
So you have a suitable recording space, some healthy musicians and a bunch of instruments that are going to make it through the day. Now you need the means by which to record them. Let's talk about a simple mono recording path, because this is the building block from which more complex and flexible setups are made.
You will need: a microphone. a microphone cable, a microphone preamplifier. an analog-to-digital converter (these last two also come combined in the shape of a decent audio interface) and a DAW (Digital Audio Workstation - the recording software on your computer).
We'll look at specific mics for specific applications as they come up. As for everything else, we'll deal with the live recording scenario and assume that we need 16 simultaneous inputs to record the whole band. If you're tracking one instrument at a time, you can get away with one or two great mic amp channels, analog-to-digital converters, and two or three mics.
For the DAW, we recommend a high-end app like Apple Logic Studio, Avid Pro Tools. Steinberg Cubase or Cakewalk Sonar, as opposed to the less linear likes of Ableton Live and FL Studio. That's not to say that the latter two can't do the job, just that ergonomically they're not designed primarily for this sort of work.
We're going to record at 44.1kHz sample rate, 24-bit. This means no sample rate conversion will be required when we master for CD at the end of the production process.
How many mics?!
So, we need a device with 16 mic preamps and a way to send each signal to the destination of our choosing. A real-life mixing desk is still the most economic way of buying that many mlc preamps, a routing system, and a monitor controller and headphone monitoring system all in one. Many of today's mixers - eg, Mackie's Onyx series have built In A/D converters and connect directly to your DAW via Fire Wire, making them attractive both economically and ergonomically.
If you don't want a full-on mixer. there are plenty of superb audio interfaces on the market with high-quality mic preamps - check out MOTU, RME, PreSonus, M-Audio and Focus rite. The only downside of these is that they generally only offer eight mic inputs.
Remember that you'll need time to install and properly test any software and drivers for new or borrowed audio interfaces and converters before the session. Once you're up and running, make sure your setup can record a pile of audio tracks for a few minutes at a time and play them back without any glitches. You don't want to be wasting time downloading software updates with a band waiting impatiently for you to pull your finger out.
You're going to need quite a few mics, which means you'll also need cables and mic stands. Borrow or even rent stands if you have to - boom, straight and short, with stereo bars if possible, so you can put two mics on one stand. You need the microphones to be in the same place at night that they were in the morning or any drop-ins are going to sound wrong.
If you're recording percussion, make sure you have blankets, pillows, gaffer tape, a brick or two and a drum key - it's almost guaranteed that the drummer won't have his.
Setting up monitoring for a whole band
If the whole band are playing together, everyone's going to need to be able to hear what they're doing. Even if the players can hear themselves without headphones, they'll still need a cue mix to hear other musical cues, click tracks and count-ins, as well as talkback from the engineer/producer.
A cue mix is totally separate from your nicely balanced main mix. It's sent to a performer so that they can hear themselves at whatever level they want and turn down any elements that they find distracting. It doesn't matter to you, the producer, what this mix sounds like, because it's purely for the performer to play along to.
If your DAW has sufficiently low latency, cue mixes can be created from your recording channels - but bear in mind that each cue mix you make has to be sent to a headphone amplifier of some kind, and then to at least one pair of headphones.
Sending multiple cue mixes from your DAW's recording channels and FX returns is the ideal situation, as it enables you to construct as many cue sends as you like, and makes it much easier to drop in individual performers to correct mistakes after the main take has gone down. (Note that if you send a signal to headphones from your preamp, you won't be able to hear the playback, only the input signal.)
A mixing desk is ideal in these situations, because it has auxiliary sends hardwired to each channel, with a corresponding master output level and jack socket all ready to go. Mixing desks also have monitoring controls and talkback built in, so the engineer/producer can mix their own mic into all the cue mix sends to talk to the band.
If you don't have any monitoring hardware that features talkback functionality, route any old mic with an on/off switch to your DAW along with everything else, so that it can be included in everyone's cue mix. You might also need to set up talkback mics for any performers who are recording in another room.
Setting up to record acoustic guitar
Now to mic up our acoustic guitar. which is going to be the core sound of this track. We have the right guitar. the right part and nice bright strings that have been treated with Fast Fret or a similar lubricant in order to reduce the squeaking caused by rapidly moving fingers.
The room in which the guitar is recorded is a crucial consideration. A vocal can be successfully recorded in even the most challenging space; because it's possible to get right in there with a dynamic mic, good results can always be achieved. However, the best acoustic guitar recordings are made in a big, neutral space, with a top-quality large-diaphragm condenser mic placed several feet away. This is practically impossible to do outside a professional studio, because it's difficult to find a sympathetic, large, neutral space that's truly quiet. Guitars are very soft instruments. and passing motorcycles and noisy plumbing aren't generally the kind of evocative texture we're looking for. When we start cranking the gain on our mic amp, any extraneous noise becomes very loud indeed.
To achieve a natural tonal balance. we need to get the mics as far away from the instrument as we can. If we're too close. the sound is going to be boomy, scratchy and uneven. So, the room has to be as sympathetic as possible. If you don't have a spacious, quiet sitting room then you will need to calm the acoustics of whatever room you're using and get the mics closer in. A hard floor will make things difficult. so it's duvets to the rescue again. Put them on the floor and draw all the curtains.
Because condenser mics are sensitive and have a wide frequency response, they can be unflattering and unforgiving In certain recording environments. So, what are the alternatives? Dynamic mics are excellent for recording acoustic guitars. and they also have the benefit of rejecting much of the room sound. If your room is not brilliant you can use a Shure Beta 58 placed a foot away from the guitar, angled at 45 degrees and aimed at the neck/body join.
Because the guitar is going to be the backbone of our track, we're going to add another mic, giving us more control over the final sound and also opening up a range of stereo possibilities. We plump for an SE R1 ribbon mic, for two reasons. Firstly, the frequency response is warm and soft at the top end, and ribbon mics in general give a feeling of weight in the low end. Secondly, they have a figure-of-eight pickup pattern that will capture a bit of room ambience, and this will eventually help us to sit the guitar in the mix. This mic is placed a foot and a half away from the bridge end of the guitar, 'looking' at where the strings are played.
We're going to record with no compression to keep our options open later on, so we're pretty much done. Each mic is routed to its own recording channel, so we have control over the level and panning of both in the mix.
If your acoustic guitar has a pickup. then plug it into a DI box and record that signal too. When mixing, you could use amp sim plug-ins to create additional textures for the guitar sound in different sections of the song, or even send the DI signal back out to a guitar amp In a nicely ambient room and re-record it.
Oh, and a final word of caution before we leave this subject: when you're recording, watch the level closely. Even though they're quiet instruments, acoustic guitars can produce loud spikes at times.
Setting up to record drums and bass
Now we have our vocal and acoustic guitar all set up, it's time to pay a visit to our drummer. As this is a soft acoustic song, we're not chasing a muscular, rock-orientated drum sound. Instead we're after something soft, expressive and warm. in which the kick drum is going to help round out the bottom end of the track along with the acoustic bass. We're not looking for any ambience around the kit either, as this can give the impression of power and volume - which we don't want - so apart from a reflective kitchen or bathroom, any room will be OK. In this case, we're in the dining room next door to the sitting room, but spill won't be a problem as we're playing quietly.
We're recording a kit comprising a kick, hi-hats, snare drum, two tom toms, ride cymbal and crash cymbal. We're using nine mics and record with no compression, EQ or gating. That's a lot of mics, but if you can't get hold of that many, you can get a decent sound just using a pair of overheads. Ideally, though, you want at least a pair of overheads, plus a separate mic for the kick drum.
We set up a pair of AKG C414 B-ULS condensers as overheads, set to cardioid pattern. A good starting position for these is between two and three feet above the cymbals, pointing down either side of the snare drum, roughly four feet apart. This will put the snare drum in the center of the stereo picture when we pan the overheads left and right.
On the top snare head, we position a dynamic mic. In this case it's a Shure SM57, which is a great all-rounder. We place it roughly four inches above the edge of the drum and pointed towards the center of the head. This setup is mirrored for the bottom snare head. Since we've again got two mics capturing the same source, we might well need to flip the phase of the snare bottom mic, just as we did with the guitar on the previous page.
The kick drum is recorded via another SM57, placed two or three inches inside the shell and pointed directly towards the point at which the beater strikes the head. We also place an EV RE20 dynamic mic pointing straight at the outer (non-batter) head from about four inches away.
Next we put a Sontronics Orpheus condenser mic on each of the tom toms. pointed towards the center of the head from five inches above the top edge of the drum. lastly, we have a "general" condenser mic over by the floor tom and ride cymbal to capture a bit of everything. For this song, we'll probably only make full use of the overheads, snare top and outside kick mics.
Generally, mic preamps, whether on a mixer or audio interface. will sound best for drums if they're ever so slightly overloaded, tickling the red on the meters. This has a peak limiting effect and can add a little punch to the sound of the recording.
Totally addicted to bass
Acoustic bass guitar is an incredibly quiet instrument. If it has a pickup we plug it into a bass amp, which we mic up with another EV RE20 dynamic. Because the bass guitar itself is so quiet, the bass player can sit in with the drummer without interfering, and the amp can be out in the hall with the volume set quite low. That's great, because line of sight between musicians is always something to strive for.
The singer, guitarist, drummer and bassist are now in position, and we have 13 tracks armed for recording. At this point we make the decision to add the accordion. cello and backing vocals as overdubs when some good takes have been recorded and edited together (comped). Each of these instruments can be recorded through the main vocal mic without any problem. So, quiet, studio, please...
Mastering and finishing up
Before your mix is ready for mass consumption, it has to go through the stage known as mastering. Thanks to the way that music technology has advanced, these days the mastering process can now begin before the mix is printed (exported), especially when you're working entirely in your Mac or PC, with no outboard processing. Back in the days of yore, mastering was an entirely separate stage, where the completed mix was treated in isolation according to its destination format (ie. vinyl, CD).
Generally speaking, any mix benefits from some gentle overall compression. This gives a sense of power to the music by mimicking the behavior of our ears. which automatically turn up the quiet bits and reduce the loud bits for us. Some EQ helps to brighten up a mix or add bass. Finally, some technical peak limiting enables the digital file to be louder without sounding distorted. This kind of peak limiting can be very savage, and indeed the sound of what was once called "squared off" or "over-limited" audio has become not only acceptable. but positively sought after in modern mixes.
We could route our mix-in-progress through some very powerful mastering processors and effectively listen to the mastered mix while still having control of the mix elements. This way, when we print it, that's it - job done. The problem with doing this, though, is that some of the best mastering plug-ins are so CPU intensive that they can rob us of mixing power and introduce unacceptable processing delay.