recording on acoustic guitar can be a confusing experience. It sounds so great in space, then why does it sound so bad on playback? Well, help is at hand, and it’s from one of the finest engineers in alternative music.
Steve Albini, the man behind classic recordings by the likes of Nirvana, Pixies, The Breeders and more, and indeed guitarist/vocalist for seminal noise rock band Shellac, can explain it all. And he just shared a video master class on YouTube.
Shot at his Chicago studio Electrical Audio (opens in new tab)In addition to offering advice on recording acoustic guitar, this Albini lesson also offers acoustics with vocals, and he covers a variety of other stringed instruments including the cello, violin and banjo before demonstrating how these techniques can be applied to an ensemble -Arrangement where each instrument has its own place in the mix and minimal cutting.
Albini may be associated with electronic releases, with electric guitars driven by muted amps, fuzz pedals, his expertise harnessed by artists in search of noise, but there’s something fundamental about the acoustic instrument that speaks for his sensitivity to letting the band conquer as opposed to imposing production techniques on them.
He opens his lesson with an explanation of what we hear when we hear an acoustic instrument. We’re trying to capture that on tape.
“When I talk about recording an acoustic instrument, I really mean recreating the sensory memory of hearing an acoustic instrument,” he says. “When you listen to an acoustic instrument, most of the sound you hear is the body’s effect on the sound.
“The string creates a sound of its own, but the system of string playing and amplification by the mechanics and acoustics of the body, that’s what we hear and that allows us to tell the difference between one instrument and another. That’s why we can distinguish between a cello and a violin, a guitar and a banjo; the bodies are different, and this system creates a different cumulative effect and overall sound.”
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Things get a little complicated once an under-saddle acoustic guitar pickup is introduced.
“This pickup amplifies the movement of the bridge—that is, the initial sound of the string—and completely ignores the rest of the system,” he says. “The top of the guitar or instrument, the volume of air inside the instrument, the contribution of the back, the acoustic reflections formed by the shape of the instrument, the physical size of the instrument, the air flowing in and out of the instrument through the sound holes – the entire rest of the system’s acoustic and mechanical system is completely ignored.”
According to Albini, this flattens the tonal differences between the instruments enough that you could take a high-end acoustic guitar, and with an undersaddle pickup, it might not sound all that different from a budget-friendly sub-$500 acoustic guitar. “The pickup does the same job in both, ignoring the quality built into the rest of the instrument.”
Here, Albini plays out some strategies to minimize spillover, which can be a big problem when recording an acoustic guitar and vocals at the same time. Although they could be recorded separately, Albini says they often sound more natural when performed together rather than overdubbing the vocals later.
He also offers some thoughts on the best microphones for recording and a methodology that ultimately gives you the option of overdubbing an alternative take of the piece. And the video even features Rob Bochnik from The Frames et al. on guitar and actually helped build Electrical Audio. Check it out at the top of the page. Subscribe to the Electrical Audio YouTube channel (opens in new tab) here.