By Doug Young
Not too long ago, you had to book time in a professional studio if you wanted to make a professional-sounding recording. But today, modest-priced gear is capable of producing recordings that are indistinguishable from their commercial big-budget equivalents. The biggest obstacle to making top-notch recordings at home is no longer the equipment—the trick is to know what to do with what you have. In this article, we’ll take a look at how to set up your home studio to create quality acoustic guitar tracks, focusing on techniques that will help you sound your best no matter what gear you use.
Recording music does require some equipment, of course. Many retailers offer complete recording packages at various price points, and browsing websites or catalogs can give you ideas about typical setups and budgets. The most important thing is to understand how gear choices will affect your recording workflow. For example, there are many small two-channel handheld digital recorders that can capture stereo sound, typically with built-in mics. These are great for recording live concerts and can also be useful for solo guitar or guitar and vocal performances. Like point-and-shoot cameras, these devices are virtually foolproof. Place the recorder in front of you, hit the record button, and play! The sound can be surprisingly good, and these devices are a great entry point into the world of recording.
However, if you want to record multiple instruments at once or overdub additional parts, you will probably need a more elaborate setup. There are self-contained multitrack hardware recording systems, such as the Boss BR-1200CD (or its digital update the Boss BR-800), Tascam DP-24, or Zoom R24, but many people prefer the flexibility and ease of use of a computer-based setup. A computer-based system may cost a bit more initially, but it is easier to expand as your needs grow. Yet another approach is to record to your smartphone or tablet. There are microphones designed to work with these devices, and a variety of inexpensive recording apps—you may even be able to transfer your recording session to a computer for editing and mixing.
A reasonably current desktop or laptop computer (Mac or Windows), combined with an audio interface and software provides a powerful recording system that can record dozens, or even hundreds, of tracks. Software packages like Logic, Pro Tools, Reaper, or Sonar support the entire recording process from recording to editing and mixing. You will need some type of audio interface—a hardware device that combines microphone preamps/inputs with the ability to connect to the computer via USB. Make sure the audio interface you choose can handle as many inputs as you will need at any one time. Two inputs may be enough for simple solo guitar or guitar-and-voice recordings, but you will need more if you want to record any size group live.
You will also need microphones, mic stands, cables, and other accessories. Short mic stands designed for use with drums make a great space-saving choice for acoustic guitar, and boom stands make it easier to position the mics. Be sure to leave room in your budget for speakers or headphones, so you have a way to listen to and evaluate your recordings.
Prepare Your Room for Recording—Quiet, Please!
Often, the biggest difference between a professional recording studio and a home setup is the acoustics of the room you’re recording in. Most home recordists face two main issues: unwanted noise and the “sound” of the room. Noise is the most obvious issue, and often the hardest problem to fix.
The first thing you may notice when you start recording is that mics pick up everything—air-conditioning, the refrigerator, a dog barking, even cars driving by. To chase down problems, record some “silence” and then try to identify any noises you hear. Turn off the furnace, air, and other household machinery while recording.
External noises can be more challenging, but there may be a room in your house that is quieter than others. Remember to close windows and doors, even in other rooms in the house. You may find it helpful to record late at night after the household has settled down and when there’s less road traffic.
A good—but often challenging—goal for home recording is a noise level that is 60 dB or more below the peak level of your guitar. Professional studios will be quieter than that. However, don’t despair if you can’t eliminate all the noise. Depending on your music, low-level constant noise may not be noticeable in the final mix, and having to edit or do retakes for occasional noises—like a motorcycle driving by—are just part of the home recording experience.
Computer-based setups present a challenge, because computer fans and hard drives are a major source of noise. Placing the computer as far from the mics as possible may help, or you might try placing the computer in an isolation box or a different room. Most hand-held digital recorders (also known as flash recorders) have an advantage here, because they are totally silent and portable, so you can take them to any location.
The acoustics of your room have a major impact on the sound of your guitar, and microphones tend to be less forgiving than your ears. Small rooms with hard surfaces create short echoes that can make your guitar sound distant or indistinct. Rooms also have resonant frequencies that can overemphasize certain notes. Fortunately, couches, chairs, bookcases, rugs, and drapes help absorb echo and break up the resonances, so the average furnished room will usually work well.
If you want to go further, you can buy acoustic sound panels and bass traps. There are commercial products available from Auralex, GIK Acoustics, and others, and it is possible (and often more cost-effective) to build your own sound absorbers.
Keep in mind that recording often takes a surprising amount of time, and once you get your mics placed and a sound dialed in, you may want to leave your equipment set up for an extended period of time. Carving out a dedicated space for recording, even if it’s the corner of a bedroom, allows you to start recording more quickly when inspiration strikes.