The world of recording music can be complicated, to say the least, which can deter many beginners from even trying it. Often, it seems like you need heaps of expensive equipment if you want to sound like your favorite artists.
To record acoustic guitar without a microphone, you can use direct input (DI). While recording with a microphone is likely to sound better, using EQ, effects, good strings, preamps, and the right playing style can make your guitar sound nearly as good as if it was recorded with a mic.
Ok, so now we know that it is possible to get a good sound recording direct, but there is still a huge amount left to talk about. In this article, we’ll be showing you how to record acoustic guitar without a microphone, as well as giving tips on how to get the best sound you can. Let’s get started!
Why Is It Usually Better to Use a Microphone?
It is right in the name! Acoustic guitars get a lot of their tone from the acoustics of the space they play. When you play an acoustic guitar, the sound bounces all around the room, reflecting off different surfaces in different ways, and this contributes a lot to how the guitar sounds to your ears. Unlike an electric guitar or synth, an acoustic guitar’s tone is largely created outside of the instrument.
While recording direct gives you a very crisp sound, then it does not capture the so-called ‘room tone.’ There are also many tricks you can use when it comes to microphone placement, which can affect your guitar’s tone. Not being able to alter the microphone placement means that recording direct gives you fewer tone and feel options. The mic is what captures the space and depth of the guitar sound.
Why Record Direct?
So, if recording with a mic sounds better, why not do it? Well, there are a few reasons. One might be that you simply don’t own a microphone. If you are a beginner who doesn’t have much gear, recording directly might be your only option. Another reason might be that you live somewhere loud, like next to an airport or highway. If you are picking up loads of unwanted sound through a mic, recording directly might be your best option.
Audio Interfaces and Direct Input (DI) Boxes
The first thing to think about is your interface. You will need some form of interface to translate the sound of your playing into electrical signals, which can be read and recorded by the computer. You can have a high-end interface with loads of inputs and knobs, or you can have a straightforward one that simply allows you to plug one instrument in. An audio interface converts sound to a digital signal, which can be manipulated on a Digital Audio Workstation (DAW).
Another alternative is a Direct Input (DI) box. These are very similar to audio interfaces in that both convert the sound to a digital signal for manipulation. The main difference is that DI boxes can convert high-impedance instrument signals to low-impedance signals, which can be fed into a mixing desk. Impedance measures the electrical resistance in an analog circuit. Another use of DIs is during live performances.
Not only can DIs be used to connect the guitar to the PA (Public Address) system, they can also be used to record live performances without noise-bleed. Try recording your acoustic guitar live through a mic with a crowd screaming in the background – pretty tricky stuff. DI boxes isolate the signal from your guitar, so you do not have to worry about all the other sounds going on in the room. That can also be useful for home recording, as we will discover shortly.
The Advantages of Recording Using Direct Input
So we know that it is usually better to record acoustic guitar with a microphone, but there are certain advantages to not using one. Here are a couple of the main ones:
- Noise Reduction – One problem with recording through a mic is that you will tend to pick up small sounds from around the room, and this can cause your recording to sound messy and cluttered. Simply shifting in your chair during recording can produce an annoying squeak on the record. Recording direct eliminates all sources of unwanted noise, which can make the editing process much more simple.
- Quick and Easy – When compared to setting up a mic, eliminating unwanted noise, and finding the sweet spot, recording directly is the much easier option. Simply plug the guitar into your interface, and you are ready to go! As someone who has spent much time rearranging microphones, we can tell you this is a big plus.
- Harder to Make a Mistake – With all the complicated set up that comes with recording through a microphone, it is easy to miss something and end up making a mistake. Say, for example, you get the levels just right, then accidentally move closer to the mic. It is easy to see how, in this situation, you could end up clipping. Recording directly is a reliable way to get a consistent sound, albeit worse quality than with a mic.
Set Up an Interface or DI Box
This can be a tricky step and is one that has irritated many beginners into giving up. As well as having an interface or DI, you will need a Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) such as Ableton, Audible, or Protools. Audible is probably the best free DAW out there and is perfect for beginners. If you are working on a mac, then I cannot recommend Garage Band enough for beginners. It is unbelievably user-friendly!
When you have chosen your DAW, plug the interface into your computer’s USB port and turn it on. Next, go into the preferences of your DAW and find the section on audio devices; if you can see the name of your interface in the list, happy days. Simply select the device, plug your guitar in, and you are ready to go. Unfortunately, however, it is not always that simple.
What if I Don’t See My Interface?
This is a common problem when setting up an interface or DI on your DAW. The best solution is to make sure you have the most updated version of the driver, which is the software your computer uses to communicate with your device. For example, when we set up an interface with Ableton, the device did not appear in the DAW until we downloaded a driver called ‘Asio 4 All’. Check your DAW manual to find out which driver you will need.
Choose the Right Strings
Which strings you choose will have a pretty big effect on how your acoustic sounds on the recording. It is a good idea to change your strings before recording to give yourself that bright, full tone. Remember, though, the sweet spot for a set of strings usually comes a few days after you change them, so give them a little time to settle in before you record. Here are a few of the most important things to know when it comes to acoustic guitar strings:
The gauge of a set of strings means the thickness of the strings. The higher the number, the thicker the string. 12 gauge are the standard for acoustics because they are not too light and not too heavy. However, you should choose your strings based on your playing style. If you play very rhythmic stuff (and you like to do it hard), then maybe opt for a heavier gauge like 13. The low end will have a fuller tone, and the guitar will sound more rhythmic.
Heavy gauge strings are also more durable and hold tension better. Lighter gauge strings are perfect for fingerpickers or other more ‘delicate’ players. The tone will be brighter, but you will lose some of that low-end ‘chunk.’ It is worth noting also that lighter gauge strings are much easier on the fingers. Lighter gauge strings are even better for soloing because it is much easier to bend the notes on lighter strings with more ‘give.’
There are a few different materials to choose from when it comes to acoustic guitar strings. The most common are bronze, phosphor bronze, brass, and nickel. Each has its own sound characteristics. If you can afford it, it is a good idea to buy a few different sets and try them out to see which best suits the style you are trying to record.
Bronze strings have a bright, clear tone. Phosphor bronze strings sound a bit warmer and should last a fair bit longer. Nickel sounds very natural and brings out the guitar’s tone rather than just the string’s tone. Brass strings sound ‘chimy’ and metallic, but bright. There are many other options to choose from, so make sure to do some research before committing to strings. As long as it is a good brand, your strings should sound just fine.
In addition to the thickness and material of your strings, you also need to choose who to buy them from. While this may all seem pretty daunting, there are a few brands out there that get it right every time. D’addario, Martin, Elixir, and Ernie Ball are all wonderful choices for quality and sound. All of them have been around a long time, and they all know how to make a great-sounding acoustic guitar string.
Alter Your Playing Style
Many people underestimate how much you can alter your recording’s sound simply by changing the way you play. If you are used to playing live, for example, you might be tempted to play your acoustic in a dramatic and percussive way. For example, slapping your acoustic strings with your palm in a live performance is a great way to keep time and create energy in the room, but it probably won’t come out well at all on a recording.
When recording acoustic guitar, try to reduce the percussion you generate through your playing style. That can mean using a softer plectrum to reduce the ‘clunking’ sound of the pick hitting the strings. As mentioned above, if you normally slap the strings to keep time in live performances, it is good to try and stop that altogether when recording. Playing without slapping over a dedicated drum track will end up sounding much better.
Recording can be nerve-wracking, not least because every little mistake seems to be amplified as well as being immortalized on the record. This leads to ‘red light fever,’ which is a term used to describe when your nerves cause you to play worse when the red recording light turns on.
This is simply a matter of experience. This is a great advantage of home recording since you do not have other musicians and engineers making you feel worse about small mistakes.
Which kind of plectrum you use will also have an effect on how your playing sounds on the record. A thin pick, for example, is great for recording acoustic since the flexibility limits how loud it can be, and that protects you against clipping during the loud parts of the song.
Use Soundhole or Piezo Pickups
Pickups are devices that pick up the sound and translate it into electrical signals, which can be passed through a cable to the interface. Acoustic guitars with built-in pickups are called ‘electroacoustic.’ However, not all pickups are the same. Here is some information about the two main types, and a couple of pros and cons of each:
These are the same type of pickups as you would find on an electric guitar. On an acoustic, they are usually found inside the soundhole or to one side of it, hence the name. Soundhole (or ‘acoustic’) pickups function by using magnets to detect the vibration of the strings and convert that into electrical signals. Recording direct using a soundhole pickup will often make your acoustic sound more like an electric guitar than you might like.
The other type of pickup commonly found in acoustic guitars is called the Piezo pickup, short for Piezoelectric. Instead of using magnets, these pickups function by detecting the vibration of the wood itself. Unlike a soundhole pickup, you will usually not see a Piezo since it is installed inside the body of the guitar. A big plus of Piezo pickups is that they will seldom produce feedback during live performances.
One advantage that the piezo pickup has over the soundhole is that it functions in a more similar microphone, which produces a less ‘electric’ sound.
Add Effects to Acoustic Guitar
One way to compensate for the slightly worse tone you get from recording acoustic guitar direct rather than using a microphone is by nailing the effects. There is a huge amount of info about the best ways to add effects, but we will just be doing a fundamental overview of acoustic guitar effects. Three of the most common effects used on acoustic guitars are reverb, chorus, and delay. Here is some basic info about these effects:
Reverb, which is short for reverberation, is essentially a way to artificially change the sound of the room you are playing in. A tiny amount of reverb and you will sound like you are in a small room. However, keep piling it up, and eventually, you will sound like you are playing in a cathedral. Be careful not to overdo the reverb, as many people do. Too much reverb will make your guitar lose a lot of punch and fade into the background.
Chorus gives the effect that you are playing two acoustic guitars at once by creating a copy of the guitar track, which varies slightly in pitch and time from the original. Using a chorus is ideal if you want your acoustic to play a background role, providing rhythm, and filling out space. However, if the acoustic is taking the lead, too much chorus will make it sound washed out. You want your guitar to sound good in the context of the mix.
Although usually used on electric guitars, a delay can sound great on an acoustic too. How it ends up sounding will depend entirely on the settings. A subtle delay will allow you to create a thicker, more full-bodied tone. More lush and powerful delay can change the sound. Try experimenting with different settings until you find a tone that feels right for your track. Again, make sure the settings work in the context of the mix, not just in isolation.
Whether you are recording direct or using a mic, Equalization (EQ) is a major part of getting your acoustic guitar to sound just right. EQ is essentially the process of balancing all the components within your track so that different sounds aren’t fighting with each other over their space in the mix.
In other words, it is the process of finding a frequency range that can become a home for each instrument and making sure the home is cleared out before they move in.
The first thing to do when EQing acoustic guitar is to cut out some of the low end (anything below around 80Hz) to make room for bass and kick sounds. Of course, this is only if you are recording other instruments. If it is a solo piece all played on one guitar, then EQing is simply a matter of preference. When other instruments are involved, it becomes a little more complicated. This is when you need to think about the sonic environment as a whole.
It is good to boost the 200Hz-300Hz range a bit to give the guitar a full-bodied sound. All this said you should still use your ears to decide how to EQ. You will be able to tell the difference when you make a change, and whether it is right depends on how much you like it. Just be careful not to overdo the EQ, as this will make your instruments sound artificial.
It all boils down to one rule: find your instruments a home, then make sure no one trespasses!
Make Use of Panning
Panning refers to the process of finding a space within the stereo field for each instrument. In other words, does the guitar come through the left headphone, right headphone, or center? Like EQ, it is a good idea to find different spaces for different instruments to live in. It is generally recommended that you keep vocals, kick drum, snare drum, and bass in the center of the mix. Everything else, however, should be panned to some degree.
If you pan your guitar track to the left, for example, it is an excellent idea to plan something else to the right. You do not want the music to be louder and busier through one headphone than the other. If you want an instrument to be panned in both directions, simply duplicate the track, reduce the original and copy volume, and then pan each track individually.
Keep experimenting, and you should be able to create a great stereo space for all your tracks!
Remember That Nothing Exists in Isolation
When mixing and mastering your acoustic guitar, it is important to remember that it is not the only sound in the room. Unless you are recording a solo acoustic piece, there will always be other instruments vying for space.
While a certain set of effects and EQ might make your guitar sound great in isolation, it might not be right in the track’s context. Decide what role the acoustic is playing in the track as a whole, and that will inform how you engineer the sound.
Embrace the DI
One option when recording acoustic guitar through a DI is to lean into the weird sound. Does your acoustic guitar sound like a tinny electric? Ok, embrace it! By adding things like chorus and delay, you can end up with a unique sound. It might not sound like a normal acoustic guitar, but it can still sound cool. Just look at David Byrne’s live performance of ‘Psycho Killer’ in the Talking Heads show ‘Stop Making Sense!’ All DI, all genius.
How to Make a DIed Acoustic Sound Like the Real Thing
Ok, so we have gone through various ways to make your acoustic sound better, but now let’s look at how to make it sound like you recorded it through a mic. As mentioned right at the start, acoustic guitar recorded through a mic gives a much more accurate representation of what the guitar sounds like when you are in the room with it. Here are a couple of ways to make your DIed guitar sound like it was recorded with a mic:
This is pretty advanced stuff, but it is a great way to make DIed guitar sound more natural. The way it works is that the audio characteristics of space are used to alter a sound that was not recorded in that space. The signal which contains the audio characteristics you want to impart to your recording is called the ‘impulse response.’ In simple terms, you can use an impulse response to make your guitar sound like it is being played in Wembley Stadium.
Companies like 3 Sigma Audio make acoustic guitar impulse responses for a range of different sounds. They can make your DIed acoustic sound like a fully miked Takamine, Guild, Gibson, Martin, or Taylor. This is a great way to make DIed acoustic guitar sound like the real thing. Each impulse response costs $10, so make sure you listen to examples and read reviews before committing to a particular one.
You can get DI boxes these days that can emulate the sound of a miked acoustic. This Fishman Aura Spectrum DI Preamp, for example, is specifically designed to make your DIed acoustic sound like it was studio miked. The DI preamp comes with 16′ images,’ which essentially impulse responses that color your guitar’s sound differently. It is worth mentioning that you cannot remove it later on once you record using one of these presets.
Another great option is the Zoom AC-3 Acoustic Creator Pedal. This is another DI designed to restore the tone that is lost when you record acoustic guitar direct. This one also has the option to switch between the sound of an acoustic (soundhole) pickup and a piezo pickup. It also has 16 different presets designed to sound like different makes and acoustic models. Who even needs a microphone these days?
We hope this article has convinced you that recording acoustic guitar DI is not necessarily a mistake. There are loads of ways to alter the sound of your guitar, be it through specialized DI boxes or simply some good old-fashioned EQ.
If you do not have access to a microphone or live somewhere loud, that does not mean you can’t record acoustic guitar. It just means you will have to do some more sonic fiddling before you arrive at that perfect, heart-melting sound.
Good luck finding the right tone for your acoustic!