Acoustic guitars and similar acoustic instruments are common elements in music production today; despite most of those productions having higher track counts and overall thicker mixes than they’ve ever had before. This isn’t something that’s genre-specific – you’re just as likely to find an acoustic guitar popping up in a pop track as you are a country song.
The problem lies in getting that acoustic element to shine through the rest of the mix. You’re often dealing with full frequency spectrum synths, layered guitars & larger than life drums in a full production. With so much other stuff going on, how can you get your acoustic instrumentation to cut through when it needs to and fit into its own pocket when it’s not being featured in a session?
Start With The Source
If you’ve got a thin, inconsistent sounding acoustic guitar recording, you’ve got a long uphill battle ahead of you to get it to cut through the mix. Plan how you want the instrument to fit in your mix right from the start. The acoustic recording session is a great time and place to consider how wide an acoustic instrument should be.
Do you want something easy to manage and manipulate as needed? Stick with a well miced mono track that captures as much of the pick attack and body of the guitar as possible.
Prefer to have something wider that fills up more of the space in the mix? Try capturing a detailed stereo recording of the acoustic with a pair of condenser microphones.
The more you can do to find the “perfect” acoustic tone for your song during tracking, the easier your job will be when it comes to mixing it with the rest of the tracks.
Slamming anything through a compressor can seem like overkill in the wrong situation, but desperate times call for desperate measures. If your acoustic guitar is expected to go up against overdriven tube amps and professionally produced vocals it’s going to need the extra “oomph” that a great compressor can add to its sound.
Using a compressor like Gain Reduction Deluxe on acoustic instruments can be a great fit. You get the benefits of a heavily driven compressor, including all of the saturation that comes along with it. Your acoustic guitar can be singing like a compressed lead vocal in no time!
I’ve seen acoustic guitars take a beating, from compressors to limiters peaked every which way imaginable. There’s just something special about the sound you get from a very naturally clean instrument when it’s run through heavy dynamic processing. Speaking of which…
Using a peak clipper like JST Clip can add a slightly different flavor to your acoustic sound from a compressor. By clipping the signal, you can accentuate the brilliant, chime-y attack of steel string instruments while the body and overall tone remains generally unaffected.
A clipper isn’t going to work for every guitar or every song. For example, I much prefer the sound of a clipper on a mostly strummed acoustic than a fingerpicked guitar (fingerpicking tends to sound better with more conventional compression). This just comes down to overall goals for your tone: if you’re looking for something bouncy and bright, the clipper is going to be a perfect fit.
In the past, we’ve covered how you can add size to an acoustic performance to fill out space in an empty mix. For denser mixes, the process still applies.
Using a spatial widener, specifically a mono-compatible one, gives you a way to spread your acoustic guitar out into a wider instrument in the mix. On its own, it’s easy to have things get out of hand with a widener. Combined with a well recorded, well mixed guitar, a widener will give you a little more breathing room to work with, no matter how full the mix is.
Focus On A Specific Frequency Band
At the end of the day, we’re talking about dense mixes that possibly already have more instruments and tracks available than you’ll ever need. Once you’ve parsed these down to the essentials, your acoustic needs to decide where it’s going to fit in with the rest of the mix.
Don’t try to take on too much at once with it. There’s not point in sacrificing your mids and low-mids on your distorted guitars and snare drum to make your acoustic fit. It just wouldn’t sound right.
Instead, try to find a particular frequency range where you think your acoustic will be most effecting. Acoustic instruments are notoriously flexible; they’ll fit in perfectly with your cymbals in the high-end of the spectrum, but can also provide body or support in the lower end, getting as low as your bass guitar’s territory at times.
You need to decide where your acoustic can add the most to your mix and focus on that range above all else when there’s a lot going on in a song. Once you’ve found it, EQing a notch out of some competing instruments and potentially boosting it on your acoustic is a quick and easy solution.
If you focus on your acoustics’ dynamics, you’ll quickly find yourself in a better position that try to start with time-based effects to get theirs to stand out. Effects like that can be great at creating depth and space around a sound, but they frankly won’t do anything for you in an already dense mix if your dynamics aren’t in order.
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