Getting your acoustic guitar to sound good in a live band or musical setting is a challenge – especially if you don’t want to compromise on the beautiful natural tone of your instrument. Thankfully, there is a way of doing this, as Blog Of Tone explains…
In our digital era, it would seem that amplifying and recording an acoustic guitar has to be a lot easier than, say, rocket surgery.
We’re not talking about Doc Brown’s Flux Capacitor here.
Indeed, today you can boost your favorite piece of woodwork’s volume to arena levels with very little fuss – many acoustics these days come as standard equipped with factory-installed pickup systems.
Some are piezoelectric transducers, others are magnetic, and others are combination systems with an integrated microphone. All promise to give you fast results and sweet tone.
But faithfully reproducing the dynamic spank of an orchestral-sounding flat-top is actually a complex undertaking. And as so often, the key to taming complexity is to keep it true.
How to mic up an acoustic guitar successfully – or not
Capturing the sonic flair vital of a great guitar can be tremendously tricky or stupidly simple, depending on what you’re aiming to achieve.
If you’ve ever recorded a fine acoustic guitar in a studio and had the time, inclination and services of a talented sound engineer to help you do this well, then you know what a fussy task mic placement can be.
Simply documenting what you’re hearing by pointing one microphone in the general direction of the sound hole doesn’t work for everyone.
Professionals often resort to several microphones to record the various components of the guitar’s tone separately – the sound of the body, neck, sound hole and the pick or nails hitting the strings. Then they can combine them as they see fit later in the mix.
Blending the mics into one great acoustic sound
When you go to blend these sources into a composite signal, phase and frequency cancellation problems can make your day in the studio feel more like a colonoscopy than a creative adventure.
However, engineers are willing to take one for the team because they understand that the acoustic guitar’s sweet spot is elusive.
What reaches your ears is made up of several components, and all need to be taken into account.
Pickups or mics for live shows
To the uninitiated observer, the trials and tribulation of mic placement look more like the expression of an obsessive compulsive disorder than studio cats doing their job.
Budget allowing, you can set out on an epic quest for great sound in a studio.
But at gigs, no one has the time or patience to nudge this mic a millimeter here and that mic a millimeter there for hours on end.
That’s one reason why the medium of choice for the gigging guitarist is a pickup system. Thankfully, the sound quality of these little helpers has attained a very respectable level in recent years.
Aftermarket acoustic pickup systems
All types of systems come as retrofits that are fairly easy to install in stringed instruments.
They can be a worthwhile investment for the gigging player. Although some piezo systems change hands for less than €100, the high-end stuff can set you back significantly more money.
Fishman, B-Band, LR Baggs, Shadow and other reputable makers offer utilitarian systems at a price point somewhere around €200 ($250) at time of writing.
To ascertain the average guitarist’s budget, Blog Of Tone conducted a supremely empirical study. We won’t bore you with the details of this complicated statistical assessment of rounds bought and tips left by fellow axe-wielders, but our conclusions lead me to believe that most players opt for a pickup in this price range.
Your slice of the piezo pie
In nearly all pure piezoelectric systems, a piezo strip wedged under the bridge captures the guitar’s vibrations.
The state of this particular art has advanced to the point where piezo transducers deliver quite serviceable sound, given the right preamp and filtering.
It’s not uncommon for the attack to sound a bit harsh and the signal slightly brittle, but you’d have to have a dog’s hearing to notice it in the context of an electric band chugging away at gigging volume levels.
A piezo/mic blend system
If you’re a soloist or only ever play in an acoustic outfit such as a string band, you should probably splurge on a system with a built-in microphone.
Most setups let you blend the piezo and microphone signals as you see fit. A mix with a piezo transducer to pick up the thwack of the attack and the mic to capture the body of the signal usually works well.
There’s one caveat, though: even the best system can only transmit what the guitar delivers.
Accurately amplifying your acoustic guitar
The rest of the equipment also matters.
Most players – apart from the more avant-garde stylists – want an amplifier, audio interface or mixing console to help render the guitar’s acoustic sound 1:1, without coloring it in any way.
You may have to make slight adjustments for the room’s acoustics, but it’s generally best to capture the tone of the guitar as purely and naturally as the technology allows.
That’s not as easy as it sounds when you’re using an acoustic amp.
The best acoustic amp is the one you don’t actually hear
Most acoustic amp models have a voice of their own that leaves an imprint on the sonic image.
Many of these amps color the sound by design, often by means of a boomy, hi-fi-esque EQ curve that is supposed to beautify the signal.
Now, we’re not saying that these amps are akin to putting lipstick on a pig. And we do have to admit that this sort of lush, expansive soundscape does sound pretty majestic when you play alone.
However, it takes up way too much space in the frequency spectrum of a band or a larger ensemble, so you end up muddying the overall sound.
Why we’re living in a new era of acoustic guitar tone
Because this breed of amp renders the guitar’s ‘natural’ sound with all the neutrality and precision of a good studio monitor.
If you own a nice acoustic with a decent pickup system, you probably want your audience to hear what you love about that axe, and to do that, they need to hear what you’re hearing.
It doesn’t take anything away from the original signal, or add any of those over-the-top trimmings that sound great on ambient movie soundtracks, but don’t work for a band.
It just delivers the goods straight up, with a healthy helping of midrange presence that gets your musical message across yet still sits nicely in the mix.
This is what acoustic guitar legend – and Hughes & Kettner endorser – Al Di Meola thinks of it:
Get rid of those band-killing frequencies
It doesn’t matter if your guitar sports a retrofit pickup or comes shipped with a system built in – the same rules apply to both: in short, meaning that a boomy low end will step all over the drums, bass and/or keyboard signals.
An overly bright top end will clash with the cymbals and pierce your audience’s ears like the ice-pick that ended more than just Trotsky’s Mexican vacation.
Sweet, sweet midrange
In a band context, the midrange is an acoustic guitar’s natural habitat.
Get the middle frequencies right, and you can drive your combo with propulsive, percussive acoustic grooves.
Fingerpicked and hybrid-picked parts will stand out, rather than getting smothered by your band-mates’ instruments.
Get the midrange wrong, and your chords, fills and arpeggios will get lost in the mix or trample all over the other instruments’ signals.
Musically speaking, neither thin gruel nor thick glop sounds very appetizing. If you want to cook up a satisfying sonic stew, you need the right amount of main ingredient.
And the midrange is the meat – or tofu, your choice – of a hearty musical broth.
So, go give this breed of amp a go and let those dreadnoughts ring, those jumbos jangle and those parlor guitars sing for all to hear.
Oh, and if nylon strings are your thing, here’s an article that’ll help you out even further with your amplified sound! And if you play electric, this is your live guitar sound blog of choice.
First published: February 22 2019. Most recent update: May 17 2019.