One of the most challenging instruments to accurately record, aside from acoustic drums has to be the classical guitar.
This may surprise you, given the simplicity of the instrument itself. But considering the wide dynamic range of the classical guitar and the emphasis on dynamics in classical music, coupled with the fact that recording classical guitar is often done without accompaniment. It’s fair to say the classical guitar endures greater scrutiny from the listener.
This article is written specifically for classical guitarists who don’t have a whole lot of experience with the recording process but still want to produce a quality recording from home e.g. a home demo or simply a recording that demonstrates their playing ability without being hindered by poor sound quality. Below is a quick summary.
Improve the quality of classical guitar recordings by focusing on:
- The tone being produced by the guitar e.g. address unwanted rattles and vibrations.
- Test different microphone placements, trying first to point the microphone at the 12th fret of the guitar.
- Consider moving the microphone further back from the guitar to allow the natural acoustics of the room to influence the sound.
- Don’t overdo the mixing process. Ensure the recording sounds natural to avoid effects and excessive use of EQ.
Recording Classical Guitar
There’s a lot more to recording classical guitar than simply pointing a microphone at the guitar body, hitting the record button, and hoping for the best. If this is what you have done in the past, this is also where the opportunity lies to improve the quality of your recordings.
For the majority of us, without untapped access to an engineer and recording studio, we must work with what we have to produce a quality recording. With this in mind we are going to focus on the typical basic home studio setup, and the areas this allows us to control, including:
- The sound of the guitar
- The acoustic properties of the room
- The audio interface and DAW (digital audio workstation)
- Microphones and microphone placement
- The performance
The Sound of the Guitar
The first step toward improving your recordings is to run a critical eye, or ear over the input source e.g. the classical guitar.
Start by asking yourself the following:
- How does the guitar sound? Does it sound dull or vibrant and rich?
- Is the guitar noisy e.g. produces a lot of unintentional and unwanted noises e.g. rattling?
- Is the intonation correct?
Any problems you are detecting by ear e.g. unwanted noises or tuning issues will be emphasized on your recording.
Sound engineers often say ‘garbage in, garbage out’. This means, no amount of studio magic will make a poor-sounding instrument sound great. With this in mind, it is always best practice to improve the sound of the guitar first, rather than trying to “fix it in the mix”.
Should you change your strings?
Deciding to change your strings before recording might seem like a no-brainer but it’s not always the best idea when recording classical guitar.
While new strings are often the remedy for a dull-sounding guitar and may also contribute to fixing other issues such as fret buzz and tuning and intonation problems they also tend to be noisier.
One of the many challenges of recording classical guitar is reducing fret hand noise e.g. the squeaking that occurs as your fingers move around the fretboard. This tends to happen mostly as you begin to transition from one shape to another and your fingers slide along the strings before the fingers lift from the fretboard into their new position.
That fret hand ‘squeak’ is to some extent part and parcel of the classical guitar and is mostly addressed by working on technique e.g. lifting the fingers more directly rather than dragging them but it’s also a fact that new strings squeak more than older strings, a problem even Segovia had to endure.
With this in mind, it can be a good idea to change your strings approximately a week before you record and give them time to play in a little. Other tricks include moistening your fingers to reduce friction, thus reducing noise, or using a fretboard conditioner.
What strings are best for recording classical guitar?
Polished strings tend to produce less ‘squeak’ than standard nylon strings but alternatively won’t last quite as long as unpolished.
Brands such as D’addario, La Bella, and Savarez all produce sets with polished bass strings. To some, they sound less vibrant and feel a little different from unpolished strings, but this tends to vary from brand to brand, so you will need to judge this with your own ears.
If looking for a set of strings to start with that have a good reputation for cutting down on fret noise try: D’Addario EJ51 Pro-Arte Classical Guitar Strings with Polished Basses, Hard Tension.
High Tension or Low Tension Strings?
High tension strings tend to sound brighter and produce more volume, however, there is a tradeoff in terms of playability as higher tension strings can be more difficult to fret.
The additional tension may also contribute to neck bow, which in turn affects the guitar’s action and intonation. Unless you have been playing with high tension strings up to this point I wouldn’t recommend changing prior to recording.
Fixing Buzzes, Vibrations, and Unwanted Noises
If you are hearing additional noises from your guitar e.g. rattles or unwanted vibrations, these should also be addressed, or they will be present on your recordings.
Fret buzz is a common issue and is caused by the strings hitting the fret wires on the fingerboard of the guitar. This is mostly caused by the action of the guitar being too low or the frets being uneven, with the strings hitting the higher positioned frets when vibrating.
If this is the case, try adjusting the neck relief if the guitar has a truss rod (many modern classical guitars do) to raise the action. You can also raise the action by replacing the bridge saddle and/or the nut.
Alternatively, if you suspect the neck relief is correct use a straight edge to check the evenness of the frets. If you don’t have a straight edge available use the low E string by placing a capo on the 1st fret and then fretting the 12th fret and checking the distance between the string and frets at the 8th fret where the relief should be at its most prominent. There should be enough space between the fret wire and the string to slide a business card under the strings. If not, your frets may require dressing.
Unless experienced with fret dressing or you have swapped out the nut on a guitar in the past, both of these tasks should be handled by a professional.
Other causes of unwanted noise
Other causes of unwanted noise include loose frets and loose screws holding your tuners in place. In some cases, you may only detect the unwanted noise when specific notes are played.
For example, the battery compartment lid on the Fishman EQ I have on one of my classical guitars will vibrate at specific frequencies. To fix this, I tape the lid closed from inside the compartment when recording.
You should also check how well the guitar is in tune with itself. The quickest way to check intonation is to tune your guitar to standard tuning and then check the pitch at the 12th fret harmonic. If there is a difference in pitch between your open E and 12th fret harmonic you will need to have this addressed, particularly if you play higher up the neck during your performance.
The acoustic properties of the room
Choosing the best room to record in
The acoustic properties of the room you are recording in are more critical for the classical guitar than the steel-string guitar as we most often associate classical guitar with spacious rooms such as churches, auditoriums, and concert halls with plenty of natural reverb.
When recording at home, we are trying to recreate the same spacious feel of a large room, so one of your first considerations should be to record in a large-sounding room also e.g. an open space with high ceilings.
If you don’t have this option try taking the influence of the room out of the equation by recording a dry guitar track and adding ambiance and reverb when mixing.
Lastly, consider sources of ambient noise e.g. air-conditioners and heaters when choosing the room to record in.
Acoustic treatment refers to the acoustic quality of the room you are recording in with regard to sound reflection and absorption.
When recording classical guitar a microphone is the most common way to capture the sound of the instrument. Unlike when recording an electric guitar (e.g. the microphone sits hard up against the speaker mesh) there is more distance between the input source (the classical guitar) and the microphone. This means the room will influence the sound being recorded more than we might normally hear when recording electric guitars for example.
I’ve written a complete article on acoustic treatment that describes how to treat your room acoustically and improve recording quality.
Sound reflection and Absorption
As sound waves are produced they tend to do one of two things, reflect or be absorbed.
Hard surfaces e.g. walls, mixing desks, ceilings, and floors tend to reflect sound waves, causing them to bounce around the room. You can test how reflective your room is by using the trusty ‘clap test’. Simply clap your hands while standing near where the microphone will be positioned and listen to how the sound is being reflected around the room.
Does the sound deaden quickly or does the sound echo around the room?
Why are sound reflections a problem?
If you consider a sound wave, it projects outward from the source e.g. the classical guitar in a wave motion.
When sound waves reflect from hard surfaces the sound waves can interfere with the original wave source.
If they meet at the beginning of the wave cycle the volume is increased.
If they meet when one is at the end of the wave cycle and one at the beginning they tend to cancel each other out resulting in silence.
Anywhere in between the two results in a partial volume increase or reduction which has an impact on both clarity and tone.
Acoustic treatment can get very complicated very quickly. Low frequencies for example e.g. (less than 100hz) behave differently to that of high frequencies which have shorter sound waves, not to mention the complexities of their associated overtones with regard to phase interference.
I recently had a sound-proof booth built in my home studio for recording vocals and guitars, but prior to this, I had to improvise. The room itself has concrete walls and tiled floors, far from an ideal situation for recording for most purposes. A simple fix at the time and one recommended to me by a sound engineer to allow me to record better-sounding demos from home were to buy blank canvases, pack them out with towels and put them on my walls, and add a rug or carpet.
While there are obviously additional steps that could be taken, if balancing budget and time this is a relatively inexpensive and simple treatment option that will improve your recordings. If you discover the room isn’t badly affected by sound reflection don’t assume your room will need much in the way of treatment. Avoid making the room ‘dead’ sounding.
Audio Interface and DAW
I remember my first recording session. I was recording a couple of original pieces as part of an application to a music school (I never went but that’s another story).
Back then we were using a reel to reel recording device, and a fruit packing shed as a studio.
Nowadays, as the inexpensive digital home recording has quickly become a viable option, musicians from all over the world have been able to record their own music at home. Computers have taken over, as they tend to do.
The Audio Interface
An audio interface is a device that takes the analog sound you are recording and converts it to digital. These most often connect to the computer via USB and feature inputs for instrument cables and microphones, along with outputs for speakers and headphones.
If you don’t currently own an audio interface and want to record and mix on your computer you will need one.
You won’t require anything specific for classical guitar if recording from home, and you won’t need to spend a great deal of money. Just ensure the device is simple to set up and operate and has sufficient inputs and outputs for your purposes e.g. at least two microphone inputs if you plan on recording using more than one microphone and an input for a guitar cable if you plan on also recording using the pickup of your guitar e.g. to blend between the microphone and pickup for example.
You will also want an audio interface that has phantom power if using a condenser microphone to record with, which is recommended (more on this shortly). Most audio interfaces nowadays include phantom power (often labeled as + 48V)
DAW (Digital Audio Workstation)
Your DAW is the software program you use to record with. This is where you will set up your tracks for recording and mix the finished audio.
Some DAW’s e.g. industry-standard software products such as Pro Tools can be quite expensive but the good news is there are plenty of lower-priced alternatives available, (not to mention free options) that will do a great job.
Much like your choice of audio interface, you won’t need dedicated software specifically for classical guitar and if you already have software installed on your computer, it will be just fine. E.g. if you own a Mac you are likely to have a copy of Garage band installed. If so, great, there are many tutorials on youtube showing you how to use it.
Other options include:
- Logic Pro (my home recording software of choice)
- Acid Pro
- FL Studio
- Studio 1
- Pro Tools first
- Garage band
If there’s one area where you should focus much of your energy it is the microphone or microphones you use to record, along with mic placement.
That’s not to say you need to own expensive microphones.
A microphone that is twice the price of a decent mid-range mic will typically not be twice as good and would be considered overkill in a home recording environment. However, avoid cheap. Cheap microphones, tend to make recordings sound ‘cheap’.
Should you record with a mic? If you don’t already own a microphone you might consider using the pickup system on their guitar (provided you have one). Nine times out of ten a microphone will be a better choice for classical guitar and provide a fuller, richer sound but it does depend to some extent on how the microphone compares to the pickup in the guitar.
You can also record using both the microphone/s and your pickup system using two inputs from your audio interface and blend them when mixing. If you do want to try incorporating a pickup, keep in mind sound hole pickups won’t work with nylon string guitars as they rely on detecting a change in the magnetic field created by the pole pieces of the pickup. As classical guitars use nylon strings, this renders them useless for recording classical guitars.
Which microphone to use?
Many mid-range microphones will do a fine job of recording guitar.
It’s definitely the case that the more you spend, the better the quality of the microphone but in a practical sense there are some very good options for around the $200.00 mark including a matched pair of Rode M5’s, ideal for recording guitar.
Dynamic or Condenser Microphones?
When buying a new microphone, you typically have four options.
- Dynamic Microphones.
- Large Diaphram Condensor Microphones.
- Small Diaphram Condensor Microphones.
- Ribbon Microphones.
I won’t get into explaining the different types of microphones in great detail here, you can read my article here for more information on recording microphones suffice to say dynamic microphones more or less operate in the same way as a speaker, only in reverse. They are more durable, making them ideal for live performance and recording loud instruments such as acoustic drums.
Condenser microphones convert vibrations into electricity, which is why they require phantom power to operate. When recording classical guitar a condenser mic will better detect the subtleties of the instrument e.g. detect a wider dynamic range compared to dynamic mics as they are more sensitive.
Ribbon microphones are another good option for recording acoustic instruments such as classical guitar. They were one of the first types of microphones invented and tend to sound warmer and fuller than dynamic microphones for example. The limiting factor with regard to ribbon mics will most likely be the price (most are upward of $1000), especially considering we are discussing home recording.
Large or Small Diaphragm Condenser Microphone?
If you have the budget for just one microphone and record more than classical guitar choose a large-diaphragm condenser mic as this will be a good compromise between recording vocals and other instruments. If you are buying a microphone specifically for recording a classical guitar at home, choose the small diaphragm condenser microphone as it is an affordable option, well suited to picking up the subtleties of the classical guitar.
Microphone placement is another vitally important aspect of recording and is another area that can greatly improve the quality of your recordings without a lot of additional costs or energy required.
While there are tried and true microphone placements, there really is no one-size-fits-all best-practice scenario. How you go about selecting the microphone, the number of microphones you use, and their placement comes down to the tonal response of the guitar and the sound of the room. Your ears will be your best guide, so use them to find the sweet spot for your microphone.
If you are familiar with the recording process, try moving the microphone or microphones further from the guitar than you might normally consider.
As mentioned, we associate solo classical guitar with spacious open areas with good natural reverb. To allow the room you are recording in to have more of an influence on the quality of your recording try moving the microphone further from the guitar than you normally would allow the room to have a greater influence on the finished recording.
One Microphone or more?
When using more than one microphone to record classical guitar, you will provide yourself more additional options with regard to mic placement and mixing and how you go about blending the different input sources. However multiple mics also introduce new layers of complexity for the inexperienced.
Most people new to home recording start out with one microphone and upgrade to two microphones at a later date when their ears have developed and they hear more of the subtleties of the recording process.
Many people also record with just one microphone while some record with multiple microphones. How you go about micing up your guitar mostly comes down to budget, experience, and the amount of effort you are prepared to go to with your home recordings.
Mic placement for 1 microphone
For years I gave very little consideration to microphone placement. To be fair, I was knocking out quick demos for bandmates so they could learn their parts or recording simple solo guitar pieces for my own amusement but for the small-time investment required to learn more about mic placement I really could have improved the quality of those recordings.
The ideal microphone placement?
Most people assume the best place to place the microphone is directly in front of the sound hole but this is rarely the case.
Firstly, there’s the mechanical aspect e.g. your hand is far more likely to bump a microphone if it is sitting directly in front of your strumming/picking hand and you are more likely to detect unintentional noises from your picking hand.
Secondly, the sound coming directly from the sound hole is boomier, driven by internal resonance and less characteristic of the guitar’s natural tone.
The most commonly recommended mic placement if using one microphone is to point the mic directly at where the neck meets the body, typically the 14th fret, but this can change based on a number of variables so I would urge you to record several samples using different placements and make a note of which appeals to you the most and captures the guitar most authentically.
A good starting point is to position your microphone between 1 and 2 feet from the guitar. Too close and you won’t pick up the sound of the room. Too far away and the guitar will sound less articulate and boomier.
Keep in mind, the choice of guitars, the guitarist, and the room tend to have a big influence on the recorded sound of a classical guitar so experiment with different mic angles and distances until you settle on the mic placement that sounds best to your ears.
Mic placement for 2 microphones
When recording with two microphones we have a range of options up our sleeve. However, there are two options I would try first before moving on to more elaborate placements.
Firstly, we can incorporate a direct mic sound e.g. one microphone close to the guitar and one further away to provide more of a room sound that can be either reduced or emphasized when mixing.
This tends to work well with classical guitar as it provides the best of both worlds in a sense and provides a wide dynamic range, however how effective this method is for you will depend on the acoustic properties of the room itself. Due to the different distances of the mics, you may also be introducing phase interference.
X Y Method
The X Y method involves placing the microphones within close proximity of each other but facing away from each other at approximately a 90-degree angle. This method also works well and provides more of a stereo image.
Do you need to have matched microphones?
Not really, there may be some advantage to using a matched pair but for the purpose of home recording, it is not essential.
Recording Classical Guitar – The Performance
An often overlooked aspect of recording from home is the performance itself. It’s not uncommon to place such a focus on the technical aspects of recording that the performance itself becomes a secondary consideration.
Whenever possible, the best way to avoid falling into this trap is to have someone to assist with the recording or manage the entire process and allow you to focus on being the artist. If you are the person hitting record on each take you attempt it becomes very difficult to relax and perform at your best.
This might seem obvious but the importance of being well-rehearsed cannot be overstated. Repetition is a guitarist’s best friend.
Focus on the difficult aspects of the performance, remember a chain is only as strong as its weakest link. If you play 99% of the piece effortlessly and stumble over the remaining sections your recording will suffer.
Tune, tune, and tune again
Ensure your guitar is in tune, then double and triple-check it. Make sure you check the tuning of the guitar regularly throughout the recording session.
Make sure you are comfortable prior to recording. You may be required to be in the same position for quite some time. Use a stool with no armrests to avoid the sound of the guitar making contact with anything other than your fingers (a common home recording mistake) and ensure you are conscious of reducing tension in your body that will soon transfer over to the guitar.
Also, ensure you take regular breaks to avoid mental and physical fatigue.
Focus on Dynamics
Great performances rely heavily on dynamics. The louder you play one section will have an immediate dynamic impact on the listener when playing a softer, gentler section. Think about the performance aspect of your playing and emphasize where possible.
Focus on being musical
Remember, you are playing music not scales. You may hear music as a guitarist does, in fact, your peers may also but the general public won’t be impressed by technical proficiency as much as the music is memorable. Emphasize melody over technical aspects.
Once you are satisfied with your captured performance you will need to mix the finished piece in your DAW and export the sound file.
Keep in mind, the classical guitar is at its very best when it sounds natural. Just because you have a range of effects and tools at your disposal doesn’t mean you should use them. If you focus on capturing a great performance using the methods outlined above, very little in the way of mixing should be required.
This will mean different things for different circumstances e.g. if you were only able to record in a small room then you may want to add reverb to give the performance a more natural sound.
If the captured recording sounds spacious you may be better served focusing on eq and removing frequencies that you feel detract from the recording.
If there is an abundance of fret noise from the left hand (if you play right-handed guitar) then you may want to edit these areas out completely.
Did you record with two microphones? You will want to blend these appropriately and use panning to enhance things further.
Mixing guitars can get very complex.
For the sake of the home recording environment, I’m going to focus on removing fret noise, addressing imbalances using equalization, and adding subtle reverb as these are the three areas you are most likely to enhance a classical guitar recording the most in the shortest possible time.
Removing Fret hand Noise
If you have some experience mixing classical guitars you may assume the best way to reduce this aspect of the performance is to isolate the frequencies and use EQ to cancel them out. The problem with this is when you change one thing, the ripple effect created can have consequences on other aspects of the recording.
While EQ can be used to reduce fret noise, removing them by editing the sound wave of the track directly will tend to be more effective.
Keep in mind that fret hand noise occurs between notes, not during so these can be addressed provided you have the patience required to manually edit out or reduce the length of these unwanted noises.
Otherwise, you can simply accept fret hand noise as part and parcel of the classical guitar and leave well enough alone as many classical guitarists over the years have done, or try coated strings when you are next recording.
Many people treat equalization as something to add to a recording, where in many cases it is the frequencies that you remove that really make the difference. Therefore the most important tool you have at your disposal is your ears.
- Does the performance sound articulate? If not consider boosting the upper frequencies and listen again to see if this provides more clarity.
- Do the lower, mid, or upper ranges sound overly dominant? If so use EQ to address the imbalance.
- Does the guitar sound overly boomy? If so consider removing some of the mid-range.
If you are not hearing aspects of the recording that are bothering your ears, step away from the computer or mixing desk and leave well enough alone.
If you are new to home recording, you wouldn’t be the first person to overdo the reverb when mixing. However, adding loads of reverb tends to do the opposite of what it is intended to do and will make a recording sound unnatural.
Most reverbs have built-in presets e.g. medium room, long hall, etc. I’d suggest testing some of these first and noting how natural each sounds. Remember when it comes to reverb and classical guitars, less is almost always more if the room you recorded in has sufficient natural reverb.
The information above is intended to help the classical guitarist who has little experience in home recording, improve the quality of their recordings with just a basic home studio setup.
Obviously if entering a commercial studio there is much more to consider. But when recording from the comfort of our own home, the basics outlined above can make a major difference to the quality of your recordings, especially when recording a solo instrument such as the classical guitar.
If you are looking to further improve your recordings, the best advice anyone can give you is to record more often and take note of how subtle changes can affect the quality of your recording, from microphone placement to your choice of strings and the amount of practice you have put into performing the piece.
I wish you all the best with your home recordings and as always if you have a question or a comment please use the comment form below and share your thoughts with our readers.