Singer-songwriter opnemen - Zo doet een geluidstechnicus dat

Recording a solo singer-songwriter? How hard can it be? All you need to do is set up one or two microphones and hit record, right? Unfortunately, it’s not actually that simple. If you’re only using one microphone, you have next-to-no control over the balance. And, even though using two microphones is the smarter option, how do you deal with any phase issues? Of course, your singer-songwriter could be playing any instrument, but in this blog we’ll focus on recording vocals and an acoustic guitar at the same time.

Note that the methods described below can also be used to amplify acoustic singer-songwriters.

Avoid One-by-One Recording

Because the voice and guitar are usually interwoven when it comes to the sound of a singer-songwriter, recording each element one by one is not really an option. Of course, this does mean that the artist needs to both sing and play flawlessly, and in turn, the engineer needs to have a flawless microphone technique to get it down on tape and really do the performance justice.

Recording Guitar & Vocals with One Microphone

  • Microphone: Even with just one microphone you can get pretty far. A large-diaphragm condenser microphone with a cardioid polar pattern is recommended since it’s able to pick up the full frequency range and the cardioid capture means that there’s room to play with the balance.
  • Distance: Because you’re trying to record the guitar and vocals at the same time, the microphone shouldn’t be placed too close to the artist. A good starting point is to place the microphone at around the same height as the mouth of the artist and around 40cm away.
  • Positioning: If you’re using a large diaphragm condenser microphone, you’re better off suspending it from above. Every microphone has a body, and if this is placed between the diaphragm and the sound source, this can compromise the clarity of the recording.
  • Balance: You can adjust the balance of the guitar and vocal by shifting the microphone up or down a little. It’s important that the balance is perfect before you start recording, because once it’s recorded, you won’t be able to change it.
  • The Downside: One of the disadvantages of using this method is that you have to set the microphone up quite far away from the artist. If a microphone is placed too far away from the sound source, then most of the time you’ll actually hear that distance on the recording. Which can be a shame, because producing a singer-songwriter usually demands close and intimate sound.

» Large-Diaphragm Condenser Microphones

Example 1 – Recording the vocal and guitar with one microphone:

Singer-songwriter opnemen - Zo doet een geluidstechnicus dat

Recording Guitar & Vocals with Two Microphones

By using one microphone for the guitar and a second microphone for the vocal, you immediately give yourself far more control over the balance of the recording. You can set the EQ levels and compression of the guitar and vocals separately and get far better results. Above all, you can actually set up the microphones really close to the artist to gain a far more intimate recording. Usually, you’ll also be using a couple of large-diaphragm condenser microphones, although a small-diaphragm condenser microphone can pull more detail out of the sound of an acoustic guitar. Ribbon microphones can also work. They have a slightly darker sound than a condenser microphone but can be a little less detailed.

» Large-Diaphragm Condenser Microphones (vocal & guitar)
» Small-Diaphragm Condenser Microphones (guitar)
» Ribbon Microphones (vocal & guitar)

The Downside: Crosstalk

This method also comes with a downside. Since both microphones will pick up at least a little of both the guitar and vocal, you’ll have to contend with what’s called crosstalk. So on the vocal microphone, you’ll also hear the guitar, and on the guitar microphone, you’ll also hear some of the vocal. If you play back the vocal-crosstalk from the guitar microphone at the same time as the vocal microphone, then it can sound a bit weird and hollow. The same goes for the guitar-crosstalk picked up by the vocal mic. This weird sound is also referred to as the comb filter effect (which we’ll cover in the next bit). The best way to tackle crosstalk is to get rid of it before you hit the record button. You can do this by trying out one or a combination of these methods:

  • Use microphones with a super-cardioid or hypercardioid polar pattern. These patterns register sound coming from the front with loudness and clarity, but they’re almost completely deaf to any sound coming from the sides. So, you can easily set up a super-cardioid vocal microphone so that the ‘deaf’ side’ is aimed at the guitar. For the guitar microphone, of course, the opposite applies.
  • Use the 3:1 rule (Example 2) when positioning the microphones (see more on this below). To overcome phase problems when recording with two or more microphones, it’s best to place the microphones fairly far away from each other. In practice, this won’t be easy when miking up a singer-songwriter, because if you’re sticking to the 3:1 rule, you need to place the microphones 30cm apart.
  • Instead of using the 3:1 rule, you could place the microphones right up against each other (Example 3). Here, both microphones are set up in near-enough the same spot as in the one-microphone method, or maybe a bit lower. The vocal microphone is pointed upwards and the guitar microphone is pointed downwards. This is actually an X-Y or Blumlein configuration, but on its side. All of the sound now hits both of the microphones at the same time, so they’re ‘in phase’ and you won’t get that comb filter effect.
  • You could use a pickup for the guitar instead of a microphone. This way, you’ll have zero crosstalk issues on the guitar track. This might sound like the perfect solution, but on the recording, it can often make a guitar sound a bit dead and sterile. If you’re amplifying an acoustic guitar on stage, the advantages of using a pickup will often outweigh the warmer sound of a microphone, since pickups are far less sensitive to feedback issues and give the artist much more freedom to move around

» Electro-Acoustic Guitars
» External Pickups

Example 2 – Recording the vocal and guitar with two microphones using the 3:1 rule:

Singer-songwriter opnemen - Zo doet een geluidstechnicus dat
Example 3 – Recording the vocal and guitar with two microphones set up against each other

Singer-songwriter opnemen - Zo doet een geluidstechnicus dat

The Comb Filter Effect

If, for whatever reason, a sound is recorded twice and then played back, it will sound way louder because both sound waves are matched and therefore doubled. You might think that this isn’t a problem, but if one of the two recordings is just a tiny bit delayed, then the sound waves only partially match up. This means that, at multiple points across the frequency spectrum, the sound waves are pointing in the opposite direction, creating a gap. When you stick it all through a frequency analyzer, these gaps become really clear. And, with a little imagination, the pattern can look a bit like a comb. Hence the name ‘comb filter effect’.

The 3:1 Microphone Rule

This rule provides a good starting point for recording with two or more microphones. The 3:1 rule dictates that the distance between two microphones needs to be at least three times that of the distance between the microphones and their sound source. This ensures that you’re placing the microphones as far away as possible from the instruments or sound sources that they’re not actually miking up. The larger the distance, the quieter the sound capture. By placing the microphones far away from each other, you also reduce the ‘phase relationship’. The soundwaves you can see in your DAW while recording will be less similar, meaning that, if there’s a small delay between the two, they’re less likely to cancel each other out and result in dead sound.

Adapt the Method

While I’ve focussed on vocals and a guitar in this blog, in principle, these methods can also be applied to other instruments, like vocals and a piano or even vocals and an accordion.

Have you already nailed your technique when it comes to recording singer-songwriters? Share your tips in the comments below!

See also…

» Large-Diaphragm Condenser Microphone
» Small-Diaphragm Condenser Microphones
» Ribbon Microphones
» Microphone Stands
» Electro-Acoustic Guitars

» How Loud You Should Record Audio
» How To Avoid Mic Bleed
» So, Can You Connect a Microphone to Your Computer?
» Phantom Power: This is What You Need to Know
» How to Record a Full Choir
» How to Prevent or Fix Phase Issues in the Studio
» How to Record a Piano
» The Best Microphone Set-Ups for Stereo Recordings
» Recording Drums: A Specialised Skill

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