When it comes to making an acoustic guitar sound its best, most engineers will tell you that a series of fancy microphones in just the right place is best. In a live setting, however, you do not usually have that luxury. So how do you make an acoustic sound great live?
The live tone of your acoustic will depend on a huge number of factors, including the type of pickup you use, the effects you use, the EQ, the strings, and much more! Preventing feedback is also an important way to make sure you sound great onstage and avoid hurting people’s ears!
There is so much to talk about when it comes to making acoustic guitars sound good live, so we have lots of ground to cover! In this article, we’ll be showing you how to recreate that angelic acoustic sound in a live stage setting.
Choose Between a Pickup or Mic
As mentioned in the intro, a mic is probably the best way to make your acoustic sound like it does when you play it at home. However, there are numerous issues with trying to mic an acoustic for a live show. For example, many guitarists like to sway back and forth or dance onstage, which results in huge volume variances if you are playing through a mic. Plus, you often don’t have time to find the right setup for a mic during a live soundcheck.
Pickups have come a long way in recent years, and it is now possible to get a very natural sound through them while playing live! In the following section, we will see which type of pickup you have will determine the initial sound and the types of interventions you will need to make to get that perfect sound.
Types of Pickups
There are many different options when it comes to pickups for an acoustic guitar. These days, most good acoustics will come with a built-in pickup, but it is always possible to switch out the built-in pickup for an aftermarket pickup. Which kind of pickup you have will also determine what you need to do to the signal to get that perfect natural sound on stage, so it is important to know the differences between pickups and know which type is on your guitar.
1. Magnetic/Soundhole Pickup
This type of pickup is also used on electric guitars and can often make acoustics sound a lot more like electrics than you might want. They work by using magnets to detect the vibration of the strings, creating an electrical signal which is then sent to the DI box. One big benefit of magnetic pickups is that they avoid the problem of ‘transients,’ which are short, high-amplitude sounds at the beginning of the waveform.
These days, magnetic pickups are the most common type found on new acoustic guitars, much to the dismay of many sound engineers. While there are benefits to a magnetic pickup, they only pick up the sound of the strings and none of the sound of the body, which is where the real magic happens. While the sound can be tampered with to be more natural, magnetic pickups often result in a tinny, electric sound.
2. Piezoelectric Pickup
This is another very common type of pickup, which uses piezoelectric crystals to sense the pressure coming from the strings. Very futuristic! Piezo pickups give you a bright and clear sound with plenty of attacks. One benefit is that there is almost no chance of feedback since the pickups only get sound from the strings and not the body of the guitar. On the downside, you get the infamous ‘piezo quack.’
This is a terrible sound that results from the non-linear way in which a piezo picks up the vibrations. The way to get rid of it is through EQ. Cut between 0.8 and 1.6 kHz in order to do away with that awful nasal tone. If you do not have time to do any EQ before a live show, turning up the guitar and then playing more gently will also help to get rid of the dreaded quack.
3. Internal Microphone
This is precisely what it sounds like; a small microphone placed inside the body of the guitar. As you can probably guess, this results in the most natural sound since it picks up the resonance of the whole guitar rather than just the strings. You may also guess that these pickups are the most prone to feedback for exactly the same reason. Mic pickups often come paired with piezo pickups since they are not very powerful by themselves.
This combination can give you the best of both worlds! You can have the bright and clear sound of a piezo with the natural tones of a mic. Unfortunately, you might have some EQ work to do. Between removing the piezo quack and trying to avoid feedback, your sound guy might have their hands full trying to find the perfect balance.
Position Your Microphone Properly
Some older acoustic guitars do not have a pickup installed at all. While it is always possible to install one, some guitarists are too scared to take any chances with the tone of their vintage classics by drilling holes in the side. If that is you, don’t worry! You can probably get a better sound by playing through a stage mic anyway. There are, however, a few downsides to this method. As mentioned before, swaying and dancing can be problematic with a mic setup!
The standard method for micing an acoustic onstage is to aim the microphone at the place where the neck meets the body. This is known as the ‘sweet spot.’ Of course, if you are looking to experiment with tone, you can try out a few different configurations to see what tone you like the best. One issue with doing this live is that you almost never have time to experiment. Soundchecks are always a rushed and panicky experience!
When it comes to distance, the mic should sit about 12-16 inches away from the sweet spot. Of course, this will likely change over the course of the show as you become more energetic during the faster songs. For this reason, sound engineers are never happy to see an acoustic guitar without a pickup coming their way because it means they will have to be constantly adjusting levels and avoiding feedback! (You may also enjoy: How To Make Your Acoustic Guitar Sound Better In Audacity)
The standard mic for live acoustic performance is the Shure SM81. Not only is it reasonably priced, but it also sounds (and looks) very sleek indeed. For a much more expensive option, the Neumann KM 184 is almost impossible to beat for sound quality. The Sennheiser MD 421 II Cardioid Dynamic Mic is another great choice if you want to get the best sound out of your acoustic while performing live!
Use the Right Amount of Reverb
Reverb is perhaps the most important effect in an acoustic guitarist’s repertoire. The right amount of reverb will make your guitar feel like a powerful, ethereal force. Reverb creates a sense of depth to the music and fills out space. This can also create extra space for the vocals and other instruments that do not need reverb. The main benefit of reverb is the way it evokes emotion in the listener.
However, you need to be very careful with how much verb you use. It is very easy to get carried away by the amazing emotional power of reverb and end up using too much of it. That can make your guitar sound washed out and muddy. In other words, you lose a lot of the clarity that makes an acoustic sound like an acoustic! To summarize, reverb is incredibly important and useful, but you have to be very careful not to get carried away and overuse it!
Ask for Monitors
An often overlooked but very important aspect of live performance is the monitors. These are the speakers on the stage who face the performers. It is not something a beginner would think about when getting ready for a gig, but it is so important to be able to hear yourself! When I started out, I played many gigs where I was too nervous to ask the engineer to give me more acoustic in the monitors, and I ended up playing much worse as a result!
Especially if you are playing with a big band, you need to have the confidence to ask for more monitors. If you are standing right beside the drums, you will need a lot of monitor volume to be able to hear yourself. Again, however, you need to be careful not to overdo it! If you keep asking for more monitors on your acoustic, that will make it more difficult for your fellow band members to hear themselves. Plus, you might get feedback coming from the monitors through your mic!
Find the Right EQ
Equalization, or EQ, is one of the most important factors affecting the tone and overall sound of your guitar. EQ refers to the process of balancing the different frequencies in an audio signal. In other words, how much of the highs, mids, and lows do you want to come through in the final sound? Some electro-acoustics have built-in EQ control on the body of the guitar, but the EQ is usually controlled by the sound engineer at the desk.
For acoustic guitars, there are pretty widespread guidelines for how to EQ. If you are playing with a band, it is a good idea to get rid of all the lows below 80Hz. This is because the lows of the acoustic can clash with the drums and bass guitar (Question: Can Bass Guitars Have Whammy Bars?). They are essentially competing for space like trees in a forest. If you are using a piezo pickup, you should do a sweep for nasal sounds in the range of 800-2,000Hz. EQ is the best way to get rid of that dreaded quack!
If you have an internal mic, it is very important to look at the 100-300Hz range since this can get very muddy when playing live. You should also slightly boost the mids between around 2,000 and 5,000Hz since this is where the acoustic guitar really shines!
In summary, EQ is about making space for all the instruments and finding the frequencies at which the guitar sounds most natural and bright. You are essentially trying to recreate the acoustic tone!
Go for a Thinner String
Just a quick note on strings: you probably already have a pretty good idea of what strings you like to use, but it does have a huge effect on the sound! For more delicate playing like fingerpicking, it is good to go for a lighter gauge string, meaning a thinner string. Heavier, more rhythmic playing, a thicker (high gauge) string is recommended. You cannot go wrong with brands like D’addario, Ernie Ball, Martin, and Elixir.
What kind of strings you use will also affect what you need to do to the sound digitally, so if you want to use classical nylon strings, for example, make sure you know what that does to the EQ process. There are quite a few different string materials available, so shop around a bit until you find that perfect tone that fits the sound you are trying to create.
Feedback is the bane of the acoustic guitarist’s life. Feedback occurs when the sound coming out of the speakers is picked up by the microphone and then played back through the speaker. This creates a loop that continually amplifies itself until it sounds like a million babies crying into a megaphone with a hint of nails on a blackboard. If your acoustic has an in-built mic, you can accidentally create feedback simply by facing the wrong direction.
Acoustic guitars are more prone to feedback than most instruments since they rely heavily on the resonance of the body to create their sound. While feedback is more common in guitars with internal mics, even acoustics with other pickups like magnetic and piezo are more prone to feedback than other instruments.
How To Prevent Feedback From an Acoustic Guitar
The main thing you can do to avoid feedback is to understand why it happens. If you know the mechanism through which the sound happens, it is easy to figure out where the mic needs to be pointing in relation to the speaker. If the speaker is pointing towards the front of the mic, you will definitely pick up some feedback. Try to picture the sound waves bouncing off the walls when deciding where to place the speakers.
1. Get a Soundhole Cover
Another way to prevent feedback is to get a soundhole cover. These are exactly what they sound like. Soundhole covers are circles of wood or plastic which… cover the soundhole. The Planet Waves Screeching Halt is a great choice for a reasonable price. Be warned, however, putting a cover in can end up having a pretty serious effect on your tone. On the plus side, you can say goodbye to losing picks in the soundhole!
2. Get the Right Mic
Suppose you are playing directly into a microphone. Which type of mic will make a big difference in how likely you are to suffer from feedback.
Omnidirectional mics, which pick up sound coming from all directions equally, are the worst for feedback. It is much better to get a ‘cardioid’ mic, which focuses on sound coming from in front of the mic, or a bidirectional mic, which detects sound from the front and rear. If using bidirectional, make sure the speaker is to the side.
3. Use a Notch Filter
A notch filter, which often comes inbuilt in an acoustic preamp, is a device that aids you in cutting out certain frequencies in order to prevent feedback. In other words, it is like a very specific EQ. You use it to find the ‘over-resonant’ frequency of your guitar, which can easily cause feedback, then surgically filter that frequency out. Notch filters can be the most effective way to prevent live feedback without worrying about where you stand on stage.
Plug In Through a Preamp
There are a few options for amplifying acoustic guitars for live performance, and each one has its own advantages and disadvantages. You may be surprised how much difference it makes to plug in through a preamp as opposed to going straight into the PA! In this section, we will go through each one of these options to find out which suits you the best. Sometimes, it will be a matter of what you can afford.
A DI (Direct Inject) box is a common piece of live performance gear. The main purpose is to transform the audio signal into one that can be fed into a PA system. By plugging your guitar into the DI, you transfer the signal from your pickups directly to the sound system, eliminating any unwanted mic sounds. You will almost always find a DI box on the stage at any venue you go to, so it is a good thing to get used to.
If you are a beginner, this is always how you will plugin at a gig. The PA (Public Address) system is the system that every venue has for projecting the sound of instruments or speeches to the audience. Relying on the venue’s PA is not only the cheapest but also the simplest option. The drawback is that you might not be happy with the sound, and it might sound different from gig to gig. You will need either a DI box or preamp in order to connect to the PA.
Your Own PA
This is only really for bands who have been together for a while and plan on gigging together for the foreseeable future. If you have that kind of money to spend, getting a band PA is a great way to make sure that the instruments sound roughly the same no matter where you go. You can save different settings for different instruments or even have different presets from song to song. One downside is this is a pretty heavy piece of kit to be lugging around—also the price.
While it is perfectly okay to just plug an acoustic straight into an electric guitar amp, there are plenty of amp options designed specifically for acoustics, and these will give you the best tone. Acoustic amps should have a clear, natural sound that emulates the organic tones of an acoustic guitar. Most acoustic amps will also have a microphone input, so they are a very handy thing to have if you are the singer/songwriter type!
You may have heard about preamps but never knew what they did. The main point of a preamp is to convert instrument-level signals to line-level signals. In other words, they boost the volume of a weak audio signal but do it cleanly. They also allow you to alter the tone to your liking before it is sent to the PA, giving you more control over your sound. If you are also looking for a reverb pedal, the Fender Acoustic Preverb has a great preamp and reverb rolled into one!
The Best Effects/Pedals To Use for Live Acoustic Guitar
When a lot of guitarists are starting out, they might assume that effects and pedals are for electric players only. Why would an acoustic player need pedals if their guitar sounds great, to begin with? As we have discussed in this article, however, there are a lot of ways in which you can lose important aspects of your unplugged tone when you plug into the PA. Here are some of the best effects and utility pedals to use for live acoustic guitar:
Okay, you might have a tuner built into your guitar itself, but if you don’t, this is the first pedal you should buy. You might be able to tune your acoustic to perfection at home, but live is a different story. Not only are you under time pressure to get the show going, but you also have a million distractions and other sounds to throw you off.
Try tuning an acoustic while bass and electric are both tuning at the same time. You might get it done, but it will be harder than it needs to be.
We have already discussed the power of reverb earlier in the post, but it is important to reiterate. A good reverb can be the difference between a dry, boring tone on the one hand and an exciting, emotionally charged tone on the other. If you are looking for a great reverb pedal, the BOSS Reverb Guitar Pedal (RV-6) is pretty hard to beat. It is not hugely expensive and not hugely cheap, but the tones really do speak for themselves. You can’t go wrong with Boss!
This is a bit of a controversial one, with many acoustic players suggesting you avoid chorus like the plague. Used sparingly, however, a chorus can (in my opinion) give your acoustic a much brighter, more ethereal sound. Chorus can smooth out the sound of your pick hitting the strings and allow the guitar to sit better in the mix. However, using too much chorus is even worse than using too much reverb! Too much chorus and the guitar will sound unnatural and washed out.
Many audiophiles these days love to complain about how music is overcompressed these days. They are mainly referring, however, to the low-quality file formats that over-compress the whole track. A compression pedal can help to control your volume during a live performance. Think of it as setting an upper and lower limit on your volume. That means you will never be inaudible during quiet parts and never burst any eardrums during the bangers.
Okay, one more utility pedal. We have already talked in some depth about why EQ is so important for your final sound. While you can rely on the sound guy to take care of it from the desk, it is usually a good idea to present your sound to them in a form that already sounds like what you are going for. Also, you know your guitar best! Hours of experimenting can give you a better idea of what EQ needs to happen to your acoustic than the sound guy could ever have.
Summary Of How To Make Your Acoustic Guitar Sound Better Live
There are many ways to make your acoustic sound great onstage. I hope this article has helped you understand the many factors that go into a natural and bright-sounding acoustic guitar. Which type of pickup you use, for example, can have a surprisingly large effect on the final tone!
While you should be sparing with effects pedals on an acoustic, some reverb (and occasional chorus) can go a long way towards making your guitar sound full and deep. Compression can also give your dynamic range consistency to avoid hurting your ears.
Good luck finding the perfect tone for your acoustic guitar!