Nothing has challenged, bugged, thrilled me like the pursuit of recording a guitar. I’ve wasted some time and money along the way, but I’ve learned a lot. I play guitars built by James Goodall and Bill Wise of Charis Guitars. The big question: how do you get magnificent instruments to sound the same on your recordings? I don’t have all the answers, but I have a few ideas. Assuming you’re using protools or steinberg, the answer is not a ton of expensive plug-ins. Start with a good microphone and mic preamp.
I use a Rode K2 variable pattern tube mic. There’s also a lot to be said about matched pairs: like the shure KSM 141. You can place one mic on the bass side of the lower bout and one one the fret board just above the sound hole. Pairs=flexibility. The Rode K2 is a large diaphram capsule that captures more nuance: a must if you want to hear those overtones. If you have a truly quiet room to record in, having a third mic to capture room dynamics gives the recording more “breath” or space. Often, I record with my Rode 18 inches or more from the front of the guitar. A recording engineer friend of mine told me that sound develops as it’s carried away from the instrument on the air. Mic-ing too close gives an “in your face” sound, and is also the major problem when recording directly from your on board pickup. Acoustic guitars use air, and mics allow time for tone to develop and let them to breathe on your recordings.
Preamps are critical. We have to face a disappointing truth: the preamps on your MBox are pretty crappy. A preamp or channel strip like the presonus eureka are built with far more attention paid to details. You can easily pay 3K for a tube preamp, but the eureka is a great project studio channel strip. Bottom line is that you need transparent gain and the highest quality signal going into your DAW to capture the sound of a high end guitar in all its glory. The biggest praise I received about my first cd “Speaks a Better Word” was the wow factor of the pure acoustic guitar sound we were able to capture.
When it comes processing the recorded material, I’m a HUGE fan of Universal Audio powered plug-ins. UA has kind of a cult following. [Waves has just recently offered some outboard gear to take the processing load off your cpu. Protools HD is a 5K investment just to get started.] UA builds DSP cards that plug into the expansion slots in your DAW that take all the processing load. Powered plug-ins simply do more. In my opinion, the difference between a digidesign Fairchild and the UA Fairchild is the difference between a pretty picture on your screen, and a pretty picture that actually does something. A $1200 investment will get you two cards [you need two to handle more than 3-4 plug-ins at a time] and $1300 of vouchers to purchase plug-ins. Dreamverb is the most beautiful reverb I’ve ever heard, and has an enormous pallette of room dynamics. It’s best feature is adjustable bandwidth-gain that adjust the wet/dry dynamic in four places on the signal. The Neve licenced 1081 eq is very musical and transparent. With it you can use the soft curve to cut the notorious 1.2K nasal guitar sound and boost presence at 4K. Because of latency issues it works best on the stereo master bus.
I’ve demoed all of the Waves vintage processors. To my ears they lack the tonal sophistication and power of the UA gear. However, I must admit that the digidesign maxim is a great plug-in for leveling and loudness. I’ve found that the Waves L3 maximizer doesn’t have as much headroom. The maxim is especially nice because it boosts levels without boosting noise.
I hope this stimulates some thoughts, and maybe helps you avoid some costly mistakes.