There is something very intimate and moving when a song is performed with an acoustic guitar accompaniment. It seems that when the song is stripped down to its core, it has more meaning and impact. It’s no wonder that Bob Dylan stayed on the top of the charts while music trends were changing over and over again. So it’s crucial for every audio engineer to be able to maintain the energy of the acoustic performance while presenting the listener with a coherent sonic structure. So in this article, we’ll show you how to mix acoustic guitar with vocals in 9 simple steps.
Step 1. Choose your gear
Although most of us have a very limited budget, choosing the right gear is still very important. Even if your budget isn’t limited, to say the least, it’s rather undesirable to spend your hard-earned money aimlessly. Expensive gear doesn’t necessarily mean good gear and investing in a couple of decent microphones, and an audio interface will help you to step up your game.
When it comes to choosing the right guitar for the recording session, the only requirement for it is to be playable. It doesn’t really matter what type of guitar you would choose and how much it costs. That being said, budget instruments could have a rather odd frequency response which nevertheless could be fixed later on. Instead, you should worry about how the performer feels about playing and how well the guitar is adjusted. A set of fresh strings is also crucial.
Step 2. Prepare for the session
Before you start the recording session, there are a few strategic decisions to be made. Firstly, you have to decide how exactly will you record the performance. You might use only one mic, which would be faster but wouldn’t leave you much control on the mixing stages. Or instead, you can use a multiple mics setup which will give you a lot more flexibility while mixing later on. The best option would be to record acoustic guitar and vocals separately. This will give you the cleanest recording possible and the most flexible mixing material.
Secondly, unless you have a dedicated recording studio, you should prepare your room for the session. Make sure that there are as few reflections as possible and none of the appliances are making unwanted noise.
Step 3. Record properly
We could spend countless hours discussing which microphones are better for which task, but it’s more important to be able to achieve results with what you have. You have to know how your microphones behave in certain situations from A to Z. Assuming you have several mics, some of them would be better for vocals and some for guitar. Choosing the right microphone is as important as choosing the right placement for the microphone.
If you are not sure about what mics to use and how to place them exactly, make a couple of test runs and see which is better for the particular performance you are going to record. Place your microphones in such a way that you still would have a strong signal without the need of cranking up the preamps. And make sure that nothing is clipping, especially on the loudest parts of the performance.
Step 4. Edit
After the recording is done and we start mixing, you may consider making a few edits here and there. If you’ve made a couple of takes, listen to all of them thoroughly and see which take has a better performance in which part of the song. There is nothing wrong with editing different takes together if it benefits the performance. While you are editing it, you may also trim the excessive parts of the tracks and cut out the silence where needed.
After all of that is done, you may also consider using automation. Although this step is completely unnecessary in some cases, if used properly, it might help you to have more consistent levels throughout the whole track without any compression applied.
Step 5. Balance the mix
If you’ve used only one microphone to record the performance, you don’t have any other choice but to skip this step. But if you’ve used a separate microphone for each part and maybe even used a room mic, it’s rather a good idea to find a certain level for each track that would make the performance feel more coherent and, if you will, balanced. Unfortunately, in terms of mixing acoustic guitar with vocals, there are no guidelines on how to balance tracks. So you would have to use your own taste and common sense.
The only thing we can recommend you is to make sure that nothing is way louder than it should be. That means that the guitar shouldn’t overshadow the vocals and vice versa.
Step 6. EQ
In terms of EQing acoustic guitar and vocals, the best place to start would be to cut some excessive low-end. You wouldn’t find much useful information in acoustic guitar below 60 Hz and possibly even slightly higher than that. High-pass filters on vocals could be rather tricky at times. Male vocals could be hurt by an aggressive low cut, but female vocals, more often than not, should be cut higher than male vocals. The best thing to do is to place your cut somewhere around 70 Hz and move it to the right until you hear that vocal sounds too thin. Then move the cut back a little.
Then it comes down to cutting some offensive frequencies. As a general rule, acoustic guitars sound too boomy somewhere around 200-350 Hz. If you are using a cheap guitar, you may consider cutting frequencies between 500-700 Hz which would make your guitar sound much cleaner. You can find some unwanted string-buzzing somewhere around 5 kHz.
After you’re finished with an acoustic guitar, you may trim your vocals a bit if you find it necessary. Usually, vocals sound rather boomy around 200-400 Hz, and also, you may find that vocals sound a bit boxy somewhere around 2 kHz. You also may find that a high-shelf boost somewhere around 5-7 kHz could add some presence to your vocals.
Step 7. Compression
When it comes to compression, our goal here is to achieve more consistent levels throughout the track without squashing the performance to bits. So consider using some moderate ratios of 2-4 to 1 and a softer knee. Place your threshold so you would have 3-4 dB of gain reduction on both tracks. Use slower attack and a rather moderate release.
Attack and release parameters would very much depend on the performance, but when it comes to the attack, a good place to start is 20 ms and go slower than that if needed. Release on an acoustic guitar should help you to bring up the quieter parts of the performance. Start somewhere around 100 ms and adjust it from there.
When it comes to vocals, your goal is to make the endings of the phrases louder. Start from 80 ms and listen carefully to what it does to your vocals. Adjust it from there, if needed.
Step 8. Reverb
As a general rule, it’s a good idea to put your reverb on a bus and use it in parallel with a dry signal. Which type of reverb to use and how to use it is strictly up to you. But make sure it doesn’t sound too excessive. You may actually consider using two reverbs, one with shorter reflections and one with longer. If you’ve ever wondered how the sound of Jeff Buckley’s ‘Halleluiah’ was achieved, this is exactly how it was done.
Step 9. Rest and revise later
When you’re working on something, it’s always good to step aside and let it lay for a bit. While mixing, even experienced audio engineers could lose their focus and perspective on what they are doing. So it’s rather important to rest and get back to your work later and see if you’ve made some mistakes. Even if no mistakes were made, maybe in time, you will get a different idea on something or maybe even change your approach entirely. Even when you’re working on a mix, a couple of 15 minute breaks here and there could do wonders.
Mix Acoustic Guitar with Vocals: conclusion
We hope that this article helped you to understand how to mix acoustic guitar with vocals better. To sum it up, you have to thoroughly prepare for the recording session and make the best use of your gear. After you’re finished with the recording, you may edit some takes together or trim the excessive bits. Start your EQing with a high-pass filter both on the guitar and vocals and trim some offensive frequencies. Use some moderate compression and a few reverbs in parallel, and don’t forget to rest every now and then to get a fresh perspective on your mix each time.