Best Microphone for Recording Acoustic Guitars: 3 Techniques Explained

by Doug

 January 11, 2017
best microphone for recording acoustic guitars

According to producer Daniel Lanois (U2, Bob Dylan, Peter Gabriel), the secret to recording great sounding acoustic guitar is starting with a great sounding acoustic guitar. While that’s all well and good, if you’re a professional act or don't have unlimited funds, this advice is not so great when you’re stuck with Uncle Bob’s old flattop.

However, when you can’t change your guitar, you can still aim to record it. It’s even possible to minimize some of the shortcomings of a less-than-perfect acoustic using sound microphone techniques.

Mic technique, of course, needs microphones, and the market is saturated with many great options at all price points. So where should you start? While every recording rule is made to be broken, mic designs and techniques that stand the test of time are usually the best starting point.

In this article, we will look at three common ways to get great sounds and explore mid-priced mics that fit the bill. We'll also review affordable and pro alternatives to match any budget.


Technique #1: Small Diaphragm Condenser Mono Recording

Mid-priced Microphone Choice: sE Electronics sE5

Condenser mics have an advantage over dynamic mics as there’s no moving coil attached to the mic’s diaphragm. Because the coil takes energy to move, a dynamic mic doesn’t respond as quickly to sound. A condenser mic's diaphragm reacts to changes in pressure with almost no movement at all.

The sE5 is a small diaphragm condenser, a style nicknamed 'pencil condenser' for its compact and cylindrical shape. Pencil condensers are known for their accuracy and full-range frequency response. The sE5 is typical of this mic style.

Set up an sE5 between 6 and 12 inches from the guitar — pointing at the spot where the neck meets the body — along the bottom edge of the neck. Good news! This is a terrific place to start with any guitar, any microphone, and any mic technique.

You’ll notice that the sE5 gives a sound that’s true to what you hear. It responds well to the dynamics of the guitarist while reasonably rejecting sounds elsewhere in the room.

Another typical small cap characteristic that the sE5 exhibits is smooth off-axis response. Sounds coming in from the side of the mic don’t differ much fromon-axis sound. Most mics tend to color sound from the side.

Not so here, so if the guitar needs more bass, turn the sE5 toward the sound hole. Some finger noise is normal in a guitar recording, but if it’s too pronounced, a turn toward the sound hole will work too.

Deal with too much bass by turning the mic to point higher on the neck, or move it up and down, perpendicular to the guitar. The sE5 adjusts nicely without affecting the natural sound of the guitar.

Affordable Pencil Condenser Choice: Behringer B-5 

Pro Pencil Condenser Choice: Telefunken M60 


Technique #2: Large Diaphragm Condenser Mono Recording

Mid-priced Microphone Choice: Rode NT1 

The large diaphragm mic is much bigger than a pencil condenser to start with. Where the small mic is noted for its accuracy, large diaphragm mics deliver a bigger than life characteristic.

When you want a sparkling, sandy sound to a strummed acoustic, a large diaphragm condenser such as the Rode NT1 is a good choice. Its 1-inch diaphragm captures and accents the brilliance of the top end frequencies while maintaining a full-bodied sound.

That sandy rhythm sound usually has a lot of low frequencies rolled off after recording. If you have an acoustically good room, back the NT1 up 12 to 15 inches. If you’re recording in a typical bedroom studio, stay closer to the guitar, but no less than 6 inches. Use the same spot as the small mic to start.

Adjustments are the same, side to side, but if none of those positions work, try up and down. The Rode NT1 is a side address mic, so rather than pointing the end of the mic toward the guitar, the side faces the instrument, and it should be about parallel with the guitar body.

When you move the NT1 or any large capsule mic up or down to find the right sound, tilt the mic so that it points toward the guitar. Large diaphragms are prone to off-axis coloration, so they may sound duller if not pointing at the guitar.

The NT1 is more forgiving off-axis than many mics, which makes it the clear choice here. It’s also a very quiet mic. Every mic generates a bit of noise. It’s usually much quieter than the ambient sound that tends to bounce around a home studio, but the lower noise the better.

The NT1 is not only great on acoustic guitar, it will give outstanding results on any acoustic instrument and most vocals. And it’s rugged enough to throw in front of a screaming guitar amp.

Affordable Large Condenser Choice: Audio-Technica 2020 

Pro Pencil Condenser Choice: Neumann TLM 103 


Technique #3: Stereo Condenser Mic Recording

Mid-priced Microphone Choice: Rode NT4 

Performing great-sounding solo acoustic guitar requires only a simple mic treatment. While you can use mono recording techniques to great effect, a stereo mic setup gives immediacy and the sense that the listener is in the same room.

Stereo mic technique is an expansive topic. Entire orchestras are often recorded with only a pair of pencil condensers. For an acoustic guitar, though, there is a special category of microphone well-suited to the stereo process: the stereo mic.

The Rode NT4 takes the technical factors out of the stereomiking equation. Simply start by placing the NT4 in the same spot as the small diaphragm condenser. In essence, the NT4 is two small diaphragm capsules in a single mic, arranged in an X-Y pattern, a typical stereo technique.

That’s it; you’re ready to go. You already know how to aim and adjust. The techniques are the same, and with both mics in one body, you don’t worry about maintaining the X-Y arrangement.

Affordable Stereo Condenser Choice: Audio-Technica 2022 

Pro Stereo Condenser Choice: Neumann SKM184 


Conclusion

These microphones will help you achieve great acoustic guitar sounds. However, the most important tool you have is your ears. If you’re saving up to buy the right mic, don’t be afraid to try recording with the one you already have. Don’t have a condenser mic? Use what you have. It’s never too soon to start training your ear.



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