In the home studio, the acoustic guitar is one of the easiest instruments to physically record, requiring little more than a microphone, audio interface, and DAW. Truth be told, it’s really not all that difficult to record a decent acoustic guitar sound either, provided you follow a few time-honored traditions with regard to mic placement and have a reasonably good sounding room to record in. But, how does one take an ‘OK’ sounding acoustic guitar track and improve upon it further? That’s where acoustic guitar EQ comes in. And, while this article isn’t intended as a complete guide to EQ today we’re going to cover some of the basics of acoustic guitar EQ to add that extra spark to your recordings and really bring out the best in your instrument.
Some Helpful Tips Before EQ
Before you begin mixing, look at how you recorded your acoustic guitar. If you used more than one microphone to capture the guitar, begin by bussing those tracks together in your DAW (digital audio workstation) or recording software.
Creating a bus with these tracks tells your DAW to treat all of the bussed tracks the same way. That means EQ settings or other plugins you apply to one of the bus tracks will be applied to all of the tracks within that group. Bussing will save you time, and CPU usage which can become important if you record a high number of tracks.
Another point to keep in mind is that you should never finalize a mix with the acoustic guitar sound soloed. Mix the acoustic guitar while the other instruments are playing alongside it for context.
Mixing in solo will make the guitar sound great on its own, but it will hinder the overall balance of the song because you’re not adjusting the settings to play well with the other instruments. If you need to hear the guitar more clearly, boost the track’s volume temporarily, and make adjustments while the other parts are playing. While we are discussing EQ’ing the acoustic guitar, don’t forget the bigger picture, that is the song itself.
How to EQ Your Acoustic Guitar
When we are talking about EQ we are really talking about where in the acoustic guitar frequency range that you should boost and cut different frequencies.
Except for the low pass filter, you should make all other boosts and cuts incrementally, by boosting or cutting just a few decibels at a time until you find the much sought-after ‘sweet spot’. Listen to how each adjustment affects the guitar in the mix to know how many decibels to boost or cut at each given frequency range.
The suggestions below are starting points only, no two acoustic guitars ever really sound identical and the decisions you make when mixing often lead to choices underpinned by your initial starting points. Remember, while there are tried and tested methodologies that can be followed your most valuable piece of equipment you have at your disposal are your ears. So look after them! If you feel you are losing objectivity after mixing for an extended period take a break and come back with a fresh perspective.
Begin the process by applying a low pass filter. This cuts frequencies from 0Hz to approx. 80Hz. By cutting this range, you will create room for additional instruments e.g. a bass guitar or a kick drum, allowing it to more easily punch through and add depth to the mix.
If you recorded the acoustic guitar at home, in a less than ideal recording environment, you should next eliminate unwanted room noise. Go to your EQ plugin, boost the band up to 12db then set the Q to 5. Drag the band around the frequency range and listen for distracting room sounds e.g. an air conditioner or road noise. Then hone in on that frequency and cut it by 2db-5db to suppress it.
Obviously, the best course of action is to eliminate this kind of unwanted room noise, to begin with, but if you happen to live near a freeway or are unable to control the amount of noise within the room or from entering the room from an external source you might be surprised just how much-unwanted noise EQ can address.
For fullness and weight for the acoustic guitar, go to the 50Hz-80Hz range and give it a boost. The frequencies here will support the depth of the acoustic guitar to sound more prominent. This boost provides the acoustic voice some strength among the other instruments when you need it.
The mid-range frequencies in a mix tend to get muddy as many instruments compete within this frequency range. Reduce this by going to the 100Hz-250Hz range and cutting it on your acoustic guitar track. The cut will relieve some of that boominess. It will also make room for vocals that are often present within this mid-range area.
To give the acoustic guitar additional brightness, go to the 3000Hz-8000Hz range and boost. This lift in the acoustic guitar’s tonality helps it rise above the mid-range frequencies more. It will help bring clarity to some of the higher pitches associated with the guitar.
Finally, to give some air to your acoustic guitar sound, use a high-shelf EQ at 10,000Hz-20,000Hz.
Acoustic Guitar EQ Plugins
Plugins are an essential piece to any DAW and when it comes to EQ plugins, aside from the default options your DAW will most likely come with there are many additional 3rd party options.
A popular EQ plugin choice is the FabFilter Pro-Q3. This plugin is a parametric EQ with an intuitive design and lots of different features to fine-tune the EQ process.
If you don’t have the budget for a commercial EQ plugin don’t worry. Often, the best EQ plugin for an acoustic guitar is the stock EQ that comes with your DAW. External EQ plugins mainly do the same things as your stock EQ but with additional features. Often, these plugins offer more customization, but chances are, especially if you are new to this whole recording thing, that your stock EQ contains all that you need to get you started.
To keep your process simple, learn to use the stock EQ and get the acoustic guitar sound you want using only that, at least until you are ready to move on to a more sophisticated system. You’ll become a better producer by minimizing the number of third-party plugins you rely on to make a great mix. Developing skills using stock plugins will benefit you in the long term.
Acoustic guitar EQ can clearly improve an acoustic guitar track but it depends on how it is used, like any effective tool, using it incorrectly can make things considerably worse. Also, keep in mind the room you are recording in and try to cut down on reflections and unwanted noise, and pay close attention to the effect on balance any EQ adjustments have on the whole song when you’re mixing. Balance, after all, is the overall goal of a good mix.