Making A Cheap Acoustic Guitar Sound Expensive

Inexpensive equipment lacks definition. It’s not that you can’t make it sound good, but time and time again I’ve found that certain cheaper versions of nearly identical equipment lack just enough mojo to make me question it’s capabilities.

Does it make or break my recordings? No, and in an effort to keep things moving, the cheaper, available gear will win out over the more expensive gear that might take some time to acquire and set up. If I had to stop my sessions every time I thought I could perfect it with something new, I’d never get anything done.

This isn’t an excuse to start using the wrong gear for a task, and our purpose here isn’t to bash cheap equipment. There are just as many times a less expensive microphone or a cheaper guitar can sound better on the right song and in the right hands.

Instead, I want to focus on what we can do to a cheap guitar to make it sound it’s best in any situation, giving other acoustics a run for their money regardless of their value.

Recording Technique

I’m sure you’ve heard it before, but it all starts at the source. Starting with the guitar, fresh strings and good intonation are a great start toward bright, expensive tone.

If you’ve traveled with the guitar to the session, this also means you’ve got to let the guitar get acclimated. If you don’t, the temperature and humidity in the room can actually change the tone as you’re recording. A guitar can usually get acclimated within a few hours, but if there were a chance it’s moving through extreme temperatures (summer/winter), letting it sit in the tracking room overnight would be ideal.

Once the guitar is record ready, it’s time to decide just how you’re going to record it. While many acoustics have onboard pickups and preamps, these aren’t usually ideal sounding in the studio – they were put there for convenience more than tone. DIs are convenient and effective for electrics, but acoustics rarely fare as well.

Instead, I favor a flexible two-microphone setup on acoustics: one large diaphragm condenser and one small diaphragm/pencil condenser. The large diaphragm mic can be placed between 6 inches to 3 feet from the sound hole, usually driven by the proximity effect on the mic. This mic can be moved further behind the sound hole toward the bridge for more body tones, and closer to the neck for a move overall guitar tone (recommended for single-mic sessions).

The pencil condenser can be placed at the same distance from the guitar, this time aligned with the 12th fret of the guitar. This placement picks up a lot of the attack and brightness of the guitar, which is accentuated by its smaller capsule.

Blending the two together can get you a stellar sound that works for nearly any mix.

Fix It In The Mix

If you’re working with a guitar that someone else recorded, or something you’ve already tracked and cannot re-track, all hope is not lost. There are several ways to bring that same life to a dull, unfocused guitar in the mix.

The key to a good, expensive tone from an acoustic guitar has everything to do with transients. You want something bright & punchy like the definition you’re getting out of the pencil condenser, even if that’s not the way it was recorded.

The old-school way to add this back in would be with an EQ – boosting the upper mid-range where the attack is sitting. This approach comes with it’s own set of risks, including the risk of sound brittle or hyping the fret noise at the same time.

The new way that I’ve been really digging is using a clipper in parallel to achieve the same thing. By using parallel processing, you can crank the clipper all the way up for the full effect, but mix in just a fraction of the sound while keeping the source audio as the main element.

Check out Fluff using JST Clip to make a pre-recorded guitar a little more transient:

Hear how much more presence his tone has after JST Clip is applied?

Prep For The Worst, Hope For The Best

As better equipment starts rolling into your sessions, these tricks aren’t going to be as necessary, but they’re always great tools to have in your back pocket. I’ve had huge sessions where mics have stopped functioning mid-session. I’ve had sessions where guitarists repositioned themselves after I placed the mics.

None of this was my fault, but it was on me to make it work with what we had. By knowing how to work with the recordings I had, I was able to save the session and keep things on schedule.

Do you have your own tracking stories where things went south? How did you go about fixing them (either real time or in the mix)? Come share your studio nightmares with us in the Joey Sturgis Tones Forum on Facebook.