What is the "best" way to record your acoustic guitar at home or in a small studio environment? Moreover, how do you get it to sound like it should? A recorded acoustic guitar should sound natural, warm and resonant.
But it's not always easy.
The difficult thing about recording guitars at home, or even in a studio environment, is that there are a lot of different ways to do it, yet many of them are ambiguous, complicated and never seem to provide a straight path forward.
When recording an acoustic guitar, you typically need to deal with the following variables:
- Microphone placement
- Ambient noise or "white noise"
- Signal strength and tone
- Feedback or compression
These are all potential "pitfalls" and problems when you're trying to record an acoustic guitar, and this is all before you get to the variables and challenges that relate to high-level DAW and music production software.
However, if you have access to a Mac running GarageBand, I'll show you how to streamline this process using a the iRig Acoustic Stage from IK Multimedia that covers the following acoustic-related tasks.
- Output to amplifier
- Feedback reducer
- AUX in and mixer for existing preamp
For this tutorial I'll show you how to easily record your acoustic guitar into GarageBand, without the need for a complex software suite and without having to worry about most of the issues we previously mentioned.
Here's how it's setup.
Recording Acoustic Guitar in GarageBand: The Physical Setup
Setting Up the iRig Acoustic Stage
When you record your acoustic guitar you need to set things up so that you have an instrument mic as close to the guitar's soundhole as possible. In some cases you might also want to just use the guitar's existing preamp with a direct TRS out, if your acoustic guitar comes with one.
However, it has been my experience that most acoustic guitar's tend to lose a lot of their natural resonance when played through an internal preamp.
While this isn't always the case, it's a fairly common frustration that the natural tone of an acoustic guitar tends to be a far cry from what you'll hear when the same guitar is plugged in.
Conventional Acoustic Guitar Mic Placement
To avoid this, when I record an acoustic guitar I'm looking to capture the internal tone of the guitar's body or the "internal resonance," as we see in this graphic.
As you can see from the graphic, there a number of different ways to position a microphone for this process. And it's probably fair to say that the most optimal way to mic an acoustic guitar would be similar to how we mic a drum set. For a truly professional level of recording, you'd want at least three microphones positioned the following ways:
- At the base of the soundhole
- In front of the strings at the bottom of the fretboard
- Behind the body of the guitar
This is ambitious, to say the least, which is why I'm opting to use only the iRig Acoustic Stage's mic.
In most cases, and in my own experience, the best place to put a microphone is right at the base of the soundhole, near the high E string.
This will create a similar resonance to what you're hearing from most acoustic guitar preamps, which are usually positioned near the left or right of the soundhole. It'll also capture the most complete sound from your acoustic guitar that is possible from a mic at a single location. IK Multimedia recommends the Acoustic Stage MEMS microphone be placed at the bottom (pictured below).
The unit unboxes with two basic components:
- Soundhole clip MEMS microphone
- Preamp Processor
In tandem, these pieces can either replace your acoustic's preamp or work in conjunction with it (more on this process later). Obviously it can be especially useful for acoustic guitars that have no preamp installed.
Acoustic Stage Mic Placement
The small microphone easily clips onto the bottom of the soundhole of the guitar, which can then be connected to the preamp that can clip to your belt or guitar strap. From there, the signal can be sent either to your mixer, an amplifier, audio interface or an iOS device (iPad, Mac, etc.).
The signal runs from the microphone to the eighth inch input, which is then outputted to either a mixer or amplifier. In my case, I sent the signal straight to my Mac via a USB audio interface. If you have a USB cable, there's a port provided on the iRig Acoustic Stage for a direct connection to a Mac, PC or device, but I like the additional control I get from the audio interface.
However, either way can work.
You'll see on the device (we'll take a closer look in a bit) that you can use a basic TRS instrument cable to go from your acoustic's preamp to an AUX input on the Acoustic Stage, where you can then blend that signal with the Acoustic Stage's preamp via a mix knob, as we previously mentioned
Hooking it All Up
First, let's take a look at what's in the box.
You can see from the photo below that I've clipped the microphone portion right on the front of my acoustic guitar's soundhole, directly underneath the high E string.
Once the microphone is secure, you'll plug the end of its cable into the "IN" jack of the processor.
Then you'll need to run an instrument cable from the OUT of the processor to a USB interface on your Mac, or to an external amp if you opt for a direct connection between your Mac an the Acoustic Stage preamp. Since that process is outside the scope of this article, you can read more about hooking up a USB audio interface here, if need be.
Otherwise, I'll assume that's a mechanism you already have figured out.
When you have everything hooked up, it will look something like this:
Before we get into configuring GarageBand and some audio samples, I'll take a minute to go over what is a fairly simple set of controls on the Acoustic Stage.
Once you have everything setup, you'll have four different mechanisms for controlling tone and volume.
- Tone selection (preamp)
- Feedback cancelling
Here's where all those controls are on the actual device.
Once you've taken the time to get familiar with the controls, you're good to start recording.
Once again, if you need help getting your USB audio interface to "talk" with GarageBand, refer to the article I highlighted earlier that details the process.
Let's look at the recording process and listen to a few sound samples from the testing I did.
Recording Acoustic in GarageBand: The Software Setup
Setting Up GarageBand
Start GarageBand on your Mac and select the "Songwriter" option from the new project window.
This gives you a basic mix for an acoustic guitar track.
Note that all we really need to worry about is the track with the acoustic guitar on it, which you can see here titled "Natural Strum."
Make sure the small button to the right is clicked and orange, which means you've activated the channel.
At this point, the only settings you need to worry about in GarageBand are the volume controls, both for the acoustic guitar's channel and the master output, which can be controlled here:
If you're clipping (that little green indicator will turn yellow and/or red), you might need to turn the volume down on either the Acoustic Stage or your audio interface between the Acoustic Stage and your Mac.
Once you have volume set and the indicator is jumping with only (or mostly) little green lines, you're good to try recording a few samples.
The iRig Acoustic Stage has the following preamp "modes" or tone settings:
If you keep clicking through with the tone button, you can combine Nylon with either Warm or Bright, since it defaults to a natural + nylon combination.
I went ahead and tested the last three modes with my Taylor 114ce acoustic guitar.
Here's what they sounded like on the recording.
iRig Acoustic Stage Audio Samples
Bright Preamp Setting
Nylon+ Natural Preamp Setting
Warm Preamp Setting
Out of all the modes I tried, I thought "Bright" sounded the best. It gave my acoustic a niche chime and edge to it that wasn't there with the Warm or Natural modes, though it did so without making it sound too thin or "biting."
Particularly with my Taylor, this was a surprisingly great sound to hear come off of the final recording, just because my Taylor typically doesn't sound that good when plugged in using its own preamp. It definitely sounded significantly better going through the Acoustic Stage and into GarageBand.
Simplifying this process isn't easy, and it does require some extra gear. But this might be one of the most affordable ways to do and still get this good of a recording.
Plus, it allows you to move around a lot more freely than if you had three mics on your acoustic.
Resources and Other Articles
For other issues and information about recording an acoustic guitar on GarageBand, setting up the iRig Acoustic Stage or working with your own USB interface, the following resources could be helpful.
- The iRig Acoustic Stage product feature has all the information and specs on the mic and preamp we've been using
- IK Multimedia keeps manuals for the iRig Acoustic Stage available for download, in case you lose yours or just want more info on the device
- Our most recent article on running an Electric guitar through GarageBand covers the details of getting a USB audio interface to communicate with your Mac.
- Our roundup of Thunderbolt audio interfaces could be helpful for someone wanting to upgrade to an interface faster than a USB connection.
Even with a preamp installed, recording an acoustic guitar, into GarageBand or any DAW, tends to lack a straightforward approach and best practice. The iRig Acoustic Stage makes it incredibly simple, and the results sound surprisingly good. In my opinion, this process made my Taylor sound better than it usually does on other tracks I've recorded.
There are plenty of ways to make it all work, but this is one that worked for me with solid results.
The iRig Acoustic Stage is made for both studio and live use, allowing you to record or perform without having to worry about a placed acoustic mic and/or allowing you to bypass preamps you'd prefer not to use.
However, you can also blend the use of both the iRig Acoustic Stage and your guitar's original preamp, if you'd prefer.
You can checkout IK Multimedia for other products and software. Much of the Amplitube 4 software is available as a free download for trial and testing, which can then be used to install digital amp models and effects from well known gear brands, including Marshall, Fender, Mesa Boogie, Orange Amps and plenty more.