The Acoustic Guitar In The Mix, Part 1

OK, you have captured a really nice acoustic guitar sound on your song, so
now what?

Well, you need to get it to relate to the other elements in the mix, and
how you treat it is going to depend on several factors; the main ones being the type of music, and how many other elements (such as instruments and vocals) there are to have to get to fit together, to get a coherent song that glues together nicely. You would, for instance, treat the guitar in a folksy acoustic tune differently than you would an acoustic rhythm guitar track in a full rock mix with keys electric guitars etc. So we will look at two examples, and call one the folk mix and the other the rock mix.

OK, so what are the different arrows in your quill that you can use to hit
the target you're aiming at - a balanced sound field within a song. Well, you
have at your disposal a few, they are: compression, equalization, stereo
positioning, volume and effects. Now I don't pretend to have all the answers,
but I will just once again share some of the secrets that have worked for
me.

Hmm, I guess that means they won't be secrets any more will they! Anyway, over the
next two articles we'll have a bit of a look at each of them.

Compression

As I mentioned in my last article, I usually use a bit of compression during
the process of recording the guitar. Not a whole heap, but a subtle amount.
Now personally I don't like to pile more on here unless I really have to. Sometimes a bit here, maybe a light use of limiting with a high threshold, or mild compression with a ratio of between 2.5:1 and 5:1 can be used to enable you to raise the subjective volume level a bit ( or even a combination of the two),but as it is an acoustic instrument, I find if you hit it too hard you can lose the natural tone and dynamics, so it's kind of a last resort to me. So use discretion and try not to squash the life out of
it.

Equalization

It is very hard to generalise as to what to do with EQ, as it is really
going to depend on how dense the mix is, but here are a few guidelines that
you may find helpful. I always heavily roll off or cut the very low
frequences from the guitar. If the mix does not contain too many other
instruments, and if the acoustic guitar is one of the main features, then I
would tend to do this at somewhere below 65 hz, but in a rock mix I may
take everything out below 80 or 90 hz. In the folk mix maybe a small boost in
the 140-300 hz range, so long as it doesn't get boomy, whereas in the rock
mix the boost might be in the 300-700 hz range. Another boost could be
helpful further up the mid-range too. Try it at 1.5-2 khz for the folk mix,
and maybe in the 2.5-3 khz range in the rock mix. In both cases a bit of a
boost at round 7 khz can give the guitar a nice sparkle, and usually I do
that there.

Right, so how much of a boost am I talking about here? Well,
personally if I have to boost any frequency by more than 5-6 dB I start
looking for answers elsewhere. In fact, I prefer to use subtractive EQ rather
than boosting where possible. By this I mean if the guitar is getting buried
in the mix, I look for a frequency to cut by a small amount in one or more
of the other instruments, to create a nice hole for the guitar to punch
through. I think a slight boost at a specific frequency for one instrument, with a corresponding small cut at around the same frequency in another instrument occupying the same range, often works better than cranking the heck out of the EQ to get it to "poke out" in a cluttered mx. Why? 'Cause, "if you got your ears on" my friend you will notice that the natural sound of the instrument changes, the phase relationship alters and it generally loses it's nice character. This applies equally to other instruments as well, though there are exceptions.

So to me, a little boost or cut in a few of the right places beats a heap in
one place. Of course if you want your guitar to sound like it's being played
through a transistor radio, ala "Wish You Were Here", then disregard all of
this.In the end it all depends on what effect you are aiming for, and what
else is in the mix.

In the next article we will look at volume, effects and positioning in the stereo field. Well, catchya then aye!

Tony Koretz is a musician, singer, songwriter and audio engineer, based in New Zealand. He is involved in all aspects of music production, from writing and playing music to recording, mixing and mastering.

He runs Rocksure Soundz Ltd, a recording and production company.

Tony Koretz

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