Thanks to online sharing sites like Soundcloud and YouTube, recording vocals simultaneously with acoustic guitar has become a common routine for many independent artists. If you play and sing and you want to get your music heard, here are some tips and recommendations to help you get great sounding tracks by capturing your live singing and guitar playing performance.
Note that if you are aiming for the cleanest sound, it is preferable to separately record guitar parts and the vocals. In an ideal world, we should all aim for polished productions, but since there are time, budget and skill preferences to deal with, it is best to be prepared to capture both the vocals and guitar parts when the situation calls for it. This is especially true when capturing live performances in small home studios, or when you perform better when singing as you play guitar.
It is useful to plan ahead before diving into actual recording, so the first step is to create a working time table. This is an important task that is commonly neglected in informal home recording sessions. Knowing your time limitation increases your work efficiency and allows for better monitoring of your progress. With the time table set, you can then prepare your recording equipment and decide on the recording process to follow. Last but not that least, it is important to prepare your studio space and make it as comfortable as possible.
Speaking of equipment, to effectively record vocals and acoustic guitar performances together, the minimum requirement is a condenser microphone that can be plugged into your computer. However the recommended setup is to use two microphones, one for the acoustic guitar and one for the vocals, this lets you better separate and control the two different sounds. Note that you have to spend more time setting up if you use two mics, and at times, it can be more complicated than setting up for recording the vocals and guitars separately! Be it single or dual mics, you have to decide which setup to use given the time and equipment limitations that you have to work with.
If you don't already have a condenser mic, the RØDE NT-1A is the safest pick. It is widely recommended thanks to its versatility and reasonable pricing. Various youtube and soundcloud artists have proven that it can handle both guitars and vocals really well.
For a two microphone setup, get a dynamic mic for the vocals, and a condenser mic for the acoustic guitar. Popular dynamic mics from Shure like the SM57 or SM58 are industry standard mics that are invaluable for home studios. Dynamic mics in general can repel other sound sources really well, resulting in great isolation and making them ideal for multiple mic setups. Aside from the NT-1A, other condenser mics to consider for your acoustic guitar include the AKG C214, Audio-Technica AT4033CL or if you have the budget - go for a Neumann TLM 102. Condenser mics are capable of capturing the nuances of your playing and with proper placement, it can provide reasonably good isolation.
On recording day, remember to stick to the timeline, make yourself comfortable and get the mic(s) setup to optimally capture your performance. Subtle changes to your recording space like adding a poster of artists that have inspired you helps you step up your game, while clearing up unnecessary clutter lets you relax better in between takes.
Before hitting the record button, you have to first find the position that you are most comfortable with, be it sitting down or standing up, and adjust your equipment accordingly. If you are working with a single microphone, a good position for the mic is at your front - right at the same height as your neck. This initial position gives you a good idea of how loud your guitar playing and vocals are in relation to each other, so you can adjust the position of the mic accordingly to find the balance. Moving closer to the mouth increases the volume of the vocals while moving closer to the guitar gives the instrument sound more prominence. Getting it at just the right distance and height differ depending on how loud or soft you sing and attack your acoustic guitar.
When using two microphones, you can place the dynamic mic just a few inches away from your mouth, as you wold when you sing live on stage. This standard positioning makes the dynamic mic easier to work with. As for the condenser mic, there are various ways of capturing the acoustic guitar tone - the most common of which is slanting the mic sideways and positioning it right in front of the 15th fret, or the spot between the soundhole and the 12th fret. If you are looking for a brighter tone, move the microphone closer to the bridge, just make sure that it is not facing up to reduce the amount of vocals that bleed into the condenser mic. Utilizing filters also help in improving the isolation of the two sound sources. Again it is important to note finding a comfortable position takes priority, and simply adjust the mics accordingly as you move around, this is important to reduce unnecessary stress as you perform.
After deciding on the best take, you can then process the recording on your favorite DAW. If you used a single microphone, treat the sound as a single track when applying effects and EQ, and not try to separate the two. In my experience, adding subtle compression and a bit of reverb is enough to normalize the volume levels and enhance the recording.
If you used two microphones, you have a bit more freedom in mixing and balancing the sound even after the recording session. Don't let the minor sonic bleed throughs between the vocals and acoustic guitar faze you, simply apply the EQ and effects that you want on the vocals and guitars as if you recorded them separately. The resulting sound is slightly better than when using one mic, but at the cost of more time and effort spent on equipment cost, mic placement and post production.
For a great example of vocal and acoustic guitar recording, check out Gabe Bondoc's live performance recording below:
Finally, don't forget to have fun and be inspired while recording, by worrying about the pitfalls less, you get to better enjoy the entire recording process.
Update: Sander Briones has recently written a new article you might be interested in: Roundup of the Best Parlor Guitars.