A bright guitar tone under many circumstances might be considered a good thing. But, sometimes, especially when recording, an overly bright guitar tone can sit poorly in the mix, sound harsh and bring down the quality of your recording. In the following article we’re going to discuss how you can put out the fire to some extent, and tame a bright sounding acoustic guitar recording.
Key Points: Acoustic guitar recording too bright?
Use EQ and roll back the low to mid-range frequencies (250 – 500Hz). Try recording in a larger and less reflective room. Try a large diaphragm condenser mic and bring the mic closer to the guitar to reduce brightness and the room’s influence. Lastly experiment with phosphor bronze guitar strings and softer picks. If all else fails, don’t waste time and money trying to change the natural character of the guitar. Instead, replace it for something more in line with the tone you are going for.
Is it too bright or just lacking low end?
The first thing you should do if your acoustic recordings sound too bright is consider whether the guitar is exhibiting excessive mid to high range frequencies or is actually lacking in low end.
Lack of bottom end is often referred to as being too bright, but it’s really just as it sounds, lacking in the low end. Fixing this involves boosting low end frequencies, as opposed to reducing mid to upper range frequencies as you might with an overly bright sounding guitar.
If this is the case, you’re probably you’re asking the wrong question and instead should be considering how to increase the bass response of the guitar.
If the guitar is too bright sounding however the tips below are worth experimenting with, and in most cases will help tame a bright sounding guitar tone to some degree. But, keep in mind there are many different aspects to guitar tone.
One of the largest of these is the materials the guitar is built from aka the tonewoods used for construction.
There can be huge differences between two otherwise similar pieces of timber, even if the same species, so what may work for one guitar isn’t necessarily the best option for another.
Adjusting your EQ is arguably the best starting point. The reason for this is simple, if you can’t fix overt brightness using EQ you probably aren’t going to have a lot of luck trying anything additional, aside from perhaps recording in a different room.
EQ will offer the most bang for buck when it comes to taming a bright sounding guitar, but be careful not to replace brightness with muddiness by increasing the frequencies in the low to mid range e.g. 250 – 500Hz.
You can use an EQ pedal to control the signal going in, or use the EQ controls on your preamp if you have one, or EQ the guitar from within your DAW. How much you adjust EQ depends on how bright the guitar sounds and the actual tonality you are aiming for.
Under most circumstances a ‘bright’ sounding tone emphasizes frequencies in and around the upper mid ranges e.g. 2kHz to 4kHz. Try rolling these back a little, but be careful not to sacrifice clarity as can often occur if reducing presence (4kHz to 6kHz).
How are you recording the guitar?
If you are recording direct e.g. plugging the guitar directly into your audio interface, using an undersaddle piezo pickup. Stop, right now.
Piezo pickups sound ordinary at the best of times (that’s being kind) and recording direct in this way robs you of the ability to record the natural sound of the acoustic guitar, as the pickup is directly underneath the bridge at the highest tension point of the strings and almost guarantees the guitar will sound brighter and harsher than it might sound when unplugged.
The same can be said for magnetic soundhole pickups to a lesser degree, which mostly capture the sound of the strings, rather than the complete guitar including the tone woods and body shape and the influence they have on the guitar’s tone.
Microphone type and placement
If using a microphone to record your acoustic guitar (a wise choice) consider the microphone you are using and experiment with additional microphones.
Most of us who dabble in home recording will have at least one large diaphragm condenser microphone available, and this is usually going to sound less bright than a dynamic mic, along with offering greater sensitivity.
Ribbon mics are far less common due to price, but are often credited with a warm, natural sound, if you happen to be fortunate enough to have one you can experiment with.
What does the room sound like?
I’ve already written a fairly extensive article on acoustic sound treatment, but in short one of the biggest contributing factors to acoustic guitar tone is the sound of the room itself.
After all you are playing an ‘acoustic’ guitar. The sound waves generated from the guitar interact with the space they are being played in and, if the room is reflective and sounds small and too bright, it’s going to affect the sound of the guitar.
Try other available rooms of your house if possible (trust me, it’s worth the time and effort), and look for something larger with a high ceiling and carpet on the floor.
You should also consider mic placement (more on this shortly). If all else fails try utilizing acoustic treatment, particularly absorptive products, as opposed to diffusion.
Absorptive treatment is more effective on the bright mid to upper range frequencies, converting much of the energy created into heat. If unsure, absorptive acoustic treatment is often found in the form of foam or mineral wool.
If recording with a microphone try recording with the microphone closer to the guitar than it is currently.
Generally speaking the further the microphone is from the source of sound the brighter it will sound, and the more of the room’s influence will also be heard. That’s fine if your room sounds great, but most of us will be recording from our homes in whatever rooms we have available to us.
If too close however, you may encounter the proximity effect, which may or may not be such a bad thing depending on what you are going for.
Also be sure to move as far away as you can from any walls. This generally means recording from the center of the room where possible.
Change the strings
You should also experiment with a new set of strings. Try a different brand, preferably one that doesn’t include ‘brightness’ as a selling point e.g. look for strings that seem more focused on warmth.
Phosphor bronze strings tend to sound the warmest to my ears and would be a good starting point, but it does depend on the guitar to a large extent.
Otherwise, you could consider letting your strings age more than you usually do. New strings will always sound bright and ocassionally harsh. They often take a little bit of time to settle in. Personally I never record with brand-new strings. If the strings need replacing I try to restring the guitar at least a day or two earlier and play the strings in a little first.
Try a different pick
The materials you strike the strings of the guitar with obviously also play a fairly outsized role with regard to tone. This is the same regardless of whether you play with a pick or your fingers and strike the strings with your nail.
Generally speaking the harder the object the brighter the sound produced. Softer picks or playing with the flesh of your fingers mean a less harsh attack on the guitar, resulting in a less abrasive or bright tone.
Change the action
There’s always a balance between playability and tone. The higher the action the more difficult the guitar can be to play, but often also sounds richer and more balanced.
If your action is low, one possible solution to an overly bright sounding guitar is to adjust the action and make it higher.
This isn’t as simple on acoustic guitar as it is electric and you may need to replace your current saddle and adjust the truss rod. You could also change out the nut, but I wouldn’t recommend removing the nut unless you have some experience as you can tear the timber around the nut and headstock if you don’t know what you are doing.
How badly should you chase tone?
Lastly, also, keep in mind some guitars sound like they do for a myriad of different reasons. Holistically, taking into account the way the guitar was built, the materials used, particularly for the soundboard, and the body shape all contribute to the voice of the guitar, not to mention your playing style.
You can even hear this when playing an electric guitar while unplugged. Guitars just tend to sound different, sometimes even between models from the same manufacturer using the same materials.
Also, remember tone is highly subjective. One person’s bright is another person’s shrill, and in some cases what sounds poor to you, will sound great to another set of ears. Regardless of that however, if you, the guitar owner don’t like the tone of your guitar, more often than not the guitar itself will be the problem. Chasing endless ways to make minute adjustments to the natural voice and tonality of the guitar can be time and money not well spent. You may also create additional problems e.g. you might address the guitar sounding too bright but lose clarity or response in the process.
It can become a never ending cycle that you ultimately wish you had never begun.
In this scenario it’s often better to sell the guitar and acquire another. Just be sure to test drive the guitar first and take into consideration the characteristics of the room and the differences this might make audibly between the guitar store and/or your home studio (more on this in the closing section).
In most cases an overly bright sounding acoustic guitar is an inherent aspect of the guitar itself. One piece of advice is to speak to the manufacturer and seek their recommendations, they will be better informed than just about anyone else and may be able to point you in the right direction.
Lastly, don’t rule out how much of an influence the room you are playing in can have on the acoustic guitar. Many people have purchased guitars in store, only to come home and feel disappointed with the tone of the guitar which apparently transformed completely on the car ride home from the music store. This is especially the case for electric guitars when also taking into account the amp being used in-store, but is also definitely the case with acoustic guitars. So, if you can listen to as many examples of the guitar as you can and if unsure come back again the next day and try the guitar again.