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Recording Acoustic Music: An Audio Producer’s Guide

A person is recording acoustic music using a control board

Recording acoustic music requires an audio producer to have a more delicate touch than recording heavier or synthesized music. Acoustic instruments, from guitars to violins, require specific equipment and mixing techniques to hear the full glory of their sound.

Like any other specialization, acoustic recording is a process that any audio producer can learn through training and learning the specific needs of different types of acoustic instruments. Here’s a step-by-step guide to recording acoustic music.

Pre-Production Practices

An acoustic instrument is any instrument that doesn’t have electronic components built in, like the acoustic guitar, orchestral instruments such as clarinet, violin, or cello, and most especially the human voice. Micing these instruments properly is critical to getting a quality recording for later mixing and mastering.

Before beginning any sort of recording, each performing artist should carefully tune their instrument, using a piano or pitch pipe to precisely calibrate each string. Wind and brass players should tune during this process as well, ensuring that their instrument is properly sounding each note. Instruments that sound off-pitch might need maintenance, such as a new reed, body maintenance or replacement, and new strings.

Vocalists should warm up before beginning the recording process. It can also be helpful for them to sing scales pertaining to the work they are about to record alongside any instrumentalists recording with them.

During this process, the recording engineer can set levels and adjust microphones being used by each performer. They will also attend to other tasks that will help the recording process go smoothly.

The Right Gear for Recording Acoustic Music

The most important task of any recording engineer is ensuring a quality recording. Getting equipment set up properly is critical to recording. Acoustic instruments need specific mics and techniques to ensure overall quality and trueness of sound.

For most acoustic instruments, a good condenser mic will record the sound best, such as industry standards Shure, Rode, Sennheiser, and Audio Technica. Once the performing artist takes position, acoustic guitars need their mics adjusted. Placing mics too close to the soundhole can be bad for tone. If more than one microphone is available, the best spots to mic on an acoustic guitar are the lower end of the body, the back, and the upper frets.

Stringed Instruments

For violin and viola, place the mic above the bridge of the instrument using a boom stand, allowing plenty of room for the instrumentalist to bow. When micing Cellos, place the mic either eight feet away with a pair of condenser mics, or up close, about a foot away from the bridge of the instrument, depending on how much of the environmental acoustics the recording engineer wants present.

Brass and Woodwind Instruments

Brass and woodwinds can be much trickier to mic properly. Generally, mic Woodwinds towards the center of the instrument, a foot or two away from the instrumentalist. Do not point the mic at the end opening of the instrument. The recording engineer runs the risk of missing out on the true sound of the instrument or creating too much bounce depending on the recording chamber being used.

Brass instruments, however, should be miced at the end opening of the instrument, a couple of feet away, to ensure that the optimum range of sound is recorded. The most notable exception to this is the trombone. Place mics slightly lower than the opening of the instrument and with plenty of room for the trombonist to maneuver their instrument.

Piano

Pianos should be recorded with their covers up and a microphone poised over the internal strings. Ideally, piano recordings should have extra room to record, so it may be worth micing the piano several feet away.

Vocalist

Last but not least, vocalists should be miced somewhat closer in. Place the windscreen a few inches from their lips and the actual microphone about eight or nine inches away. Place the mic closer in for breathier or lighter voices.

The Environment

As with most music, the acoustics of the environment makes a huge difference to the overall sound. When recording acoustic instruments, there are a few different approaches depending on the taste and goals of the recording engineer and the performing artist.

Using Natural Reverb

The first approach involves recording a room that can create natural reverb, such as a recital hall or a room with hardwood floors and perhaps a few sound baffles. Some audio engineers prefer to record in this kind of environment, as do some performing artists; it can create a more natural sound and give the impression of an overall warmer sound depending on the characteristics of the recording chamber. Such a space may also be a requirement for recording larger ensembles, such as orchestras and choirs.

However, recording in a room like this involves careful placement of microphones, a variety of tests to ensure that the mics are capturing sound properly, and usually altering the gain on the microphone to control bounce and echo. This process is made easier if the music recording is taking place in a specially designed acoustic space, like a recital hall. Knowledge of this process is essential for any recording engineer. Mastering it is key for any audio producers who might want to specialize in orchestral or choral recording.

Using a Deadened Room

The second approach involves recording in a more acoustically treated, or “deadened,” room. Carpets, wall hangings, and sound baffles can help to deaden a room. Doing so will limit the sound of the room in the final recording. Most sound engineers record in such rooms, and acoustic recordings are no exception.

Producing a recording in a treated room can make achieving a great recording easier; the only potential tradeoff is that recording engineers will need to spend more time adding effects into the mix suitable to the mood and content of the recorded piece.

Mixing Acoustic Music

Mixing a solo acoustic instrument, or even a guitarist/singer combo, doesn’t have to be extraordinarily difficult. Recordings like this come down to microphone choice and a musician who knows their instrument well.

Mixing whole ensembles can be a weightier task. With large ensembles, like orchestras, the recording engineer loses the ability to individually edit each instrument. As a result, they can only mix and edit the collective sound result.

Phasing is a phenomenon of sound that causes certain frequencies to disappear in a recording. Limit or eliminate phasing before the recording takes place. Engage in at-length testing and adjusting of the microphone placement before starting the full recording process.

Compression and equalization are two of the most important elements in record mixing. These should be used minimally when recording acoustic instruments or groups. Compression can help to regulate a large dynamic range, which is especially important for large orchestras and choirs. However, this should be limited in order to keep the expression of sound as true as possible.

Finally, carefully chose effects to suit the mood and physical space of the recorded pieces. Choirs may benefit from a hall-style reverb and delay; quiet, intimate guitar work may be best suited by minimal reverb and less of the sound of the room overall. As always, recording engineers should discuss the desired outcome and mood with the performing artists they record. Doing so is essential to establishing an approach before delving into recording and subsequent editing and mastery.

The Final Product

The successful recording of acoustic music involves careful attention to the above mentioned steps. Also, a deep understanding of different instruments, how they function, and how to best capture their sound for the listener. For this reason, many audio producers at least dabble in one or more instruments. This helps to cultivate this understanding and translate it into their work in audio production.

Ultimately, an acoustic recording should fit the parameters of any other successful recording, smooth, excellent dynamics and use of effects, and an environment, created or physical, that suits the mood of the musical content. Proper training, knowledge, planning and execution are key to making great recordings of acoustic music.

Audio Production Program

The Audio Production and Engineering Program  at the Institute of Production and Recording is an occupational degree program designed to train producer engineers who are entrepreneurs, musically and technically creative, and proficient in modern recording technology and technique. Throughout the program, students are involved in hands-on exercises and real-world studio projects that enable them to apply their knowledge and refine their skills.

At the end of the Audio Production and Engineering program, each student presents a portfolio — a selection of his or her best work to date. This serves as a demo reel for potential employers and clients — an audio resume with professional content that highlights the graduate’s talent and skill.

Contact us today to learn more about the audio production programs and starting a rewarding career.