Adding Size to An Acoustic Performance

We talk so much about fixing dense mixes filled with walls of guitars, stacks of vocals, and thick, punchy drums that it’s easy to forget the opposite end of the spectrum sometimes.

There are whole genres built around solo singer-songwriters whose entire catalog consists of a vocal and an acoustic guitar. You might occasionally get some sparse percussive elements, but the bread and butter of this industry are the intimate, raw acoustic performances.

Even if you’re not venturing far off in that direction, most bands will want to do an acoustic rendition of a song at some point – be it a stripped down version of a hit or a slower-paced acoustic track to break up the pace of an album.

Sizing Up The Source

Before making any assumptions about what the song might need, it’s worth listening to a rough mix first, especially if you weren’t the engineer recording it. A quick listen will give you an indication of what you’re working with, the quality of each track, and the level of care and detail taken during the recording session.
Because of the nuances and complexity found with most acoustic instruments, it won’t be hard to spot a recording made for precision versus a recording done quickly in a less than ideal room.

Two Paths

There are really two paths you can head down at this point, and the quality of the recording will give you some insight as to which path you should take.

Path #1: The session sounds well recorded in an optimal recording environment. There’s intimacy to the performance, and you can clearly hear the space around each instrument (and you like that space).

This path sounds like Utopia for a mix engineer, right? When you’re talking about a voice and an acoustic instrument by themselves, you sometimes get lucky like that. Since there are fewer things going on, you can focus on drawing out the most intriguing parts of the song.

This path is tedious in its own right – there is no “big” thing you can do to improve the song drastically. Instead, your time will be focused on multiple smaller tweaks that bring the song to life collectively.
Path #2: The recording isn’t necessarily bad, but it’s sterile. There are plenty of reasons for this from poor mic placement to a less-than-ideal recording environment.

This doesn’t mean the song is bad by any means either, just that it’s going to require some work on the mix side to “place” the instrumentation in a space, and make it sound good there.

Fortunately, this is usually a situation that does give us some “big” fixes that will take the song from night to day in a few quick clicks.

Finding the Space

If you start with a reverb, we’d recommend going with something small and subtle. We’re going for an intimate setting, right?

Start with a room or small hall setting, and raise the send on your guitar and vocal to taste. If you feel like you’re not quite getting enough out of it, you can move up to a larger space, just know that the bigger and more present you make the reverb, the further away your source audio will sound.

The real magic happens when you start adding tape delay to the mix:

By adding a tape delay like SOAR to your lead vocals, you can bring some chilling ambience into the mix that you can’t achieve with reverb alone. There are several important settings to focus on for best results:

· Health – You’re going to want the highest repeat quality if you’re going for a natural effect. If the goal is to give it more of a vintage vibe, dialing this back a bit will get you there.
· Flutter & Age – To reduce the impact these have on your sound, you’ll want to turn these all the way down. Increased Flutter and Age will make this sound more like a special effect than a natural part of the space around your vocal.
· Host Sync – This is a big one for locking in the timing of your delays! By syncing SOAR with the DAW, it will sound like the room around the vocal was tailor-built for that voice (which is exactly what we’re going for).

How Do You Approach Acoustic Songs?

Do you use a must-have processor that goes on everything acoustic? Do you record you guitars a certain way each time for some great results?

Chances are, if you’ve got a technique that we haven’t discussed yet, there are thousands of engineers in the Joey Sturgis Tones Forum that could benefit from your experience. Come join us and share your experiences!