The $4.00 Digital Studio

Tuesday, February 13th, 2007

On the acoustic guitar forums I visit, one common question goes something like:

How do I record my guitar so I can judge my progress (or lay down a rhythm track or even make a CD just for family and friends). I have a pickup in the guitar, I don’t need great quality, and I don’t want to spend a lot.

Since this person is posting on an internet forum, I will assume they have a computer. If it’s a PC type, it almost certainly has some kind of built-in soundcard, with at least a mic input. So all we need to do is hook the guitar pickup to that mic input and use some sort of program to capture that input and save it to a file. It just so happens that there are some very effective recording programs available to download for free, so that leaves as our only problem some way to connect the guitar pickup to the mic input. And here it is:

This is a 1/4″ phone female to 1/8″ mini male adapter. A normal guitar cable like the one just above the adapter in this picture (male 1/4″ phone plugs at both ends) fits into the hollow side. The pointed side plugs into the mic input of the computer. It costs about $4.00 at any store or web site that sells electronic geegaws (like Radio Shack). This is all you need to connect your pickup to your computer (assuming you have a guitar cable).

Now, on the software side what are the options? Unfortunately, the built-in Windows Sound Recorder is not very useful. It’s limited to about 1 minute of continuous recording without intervention. There are not effects or editing features, no click track or metronome, no metering, and certainly no multitrack overdubbing and mixing.

The easiest free program I’ve found is Audacity – it’s a little clunky but it is full featured. It includes plenty of editing capability and built-in effects, and you can save your recordings to various formats like .wav for burning to CD and (with some free extra software) to .mp3 for your portable music player or web site. I’ve used this little adapter and Audacity to record new song ideas on our laptop when we’re traveling. I’ve also used it to create practice loops when I’m trying to nail a tough section of a new song. Compared to a decent microphone, preamp, and audio interface these recordings are fuzzy, noisy, and crude, but they do the job, and the price is definitely right.

Here’s one verse of an old Hawaiian song, “No Ke Ano Ahiahi,” recorded as a solo guitar instrumental using the the 1/8″ mini plug adapter and Audacity.

And here’s the same track with some reverb added.

Obviously these are not “major label quality” recordings by a long shot. The direct output from a pickup is not very close to the natural acoustic sound of your guitar. But we’ve looked at a tool that can help get your pickup based recordings much closer to a natural acoustic sound in a previous blog entry: “Better EQ Through Software”. And, as we stated at the beginning of this entry, the whole purpose of using this simple, cheap adapter is to get simple, cheap recordings, not Grammy awards.


Better EQ Through Software

Wednesday, November 29th, 2006

Recording acoustic guitar with a pickup is an extremely appealing idea. It eliminates the expense and hassle of microphones, soundproofing, and room treatment. The biggest problem is the sound quality – not usually that great in my experience. But recently I’ve run across some ideas that might make pickup recording a more useable alternative.

Over at the Acoustic Players Forum a Dutch fingerstyle player and Taylor enthusiast named Eltjo Haselhoff started a thread describing his technique for EQing various pickup systems to make them sound more like a guitar recorded using a microphone. He developed a piece of software that compares a piece of music recorded using a mic and a pickup at the same time. The software then defines settings to use with a graphic EQ to make the pickup recording sound more like the miked recording. His results are pretty impressive to many of us.

In the meantime, Doug Young has been demonstrating Har-Bal in some of our sessions together. This is a piece of software that the creator describes as the “worlds first visual mastering software.” One of the features of Har-Bal 2.2 is a quick tool to EQ one file so it resembles another tonally. I decided to experiment with Har-Bal and some pickup and microphone recordings.

I pulled out my Kathy Wingert Model E (You can see pics of it here.) This guitar has a B-Band AST 1470 soundboard transducer pickup system installed, and I’ve been told that it sounds pretty good in amplified situations. I set up a pair of EV RE16 mics in an X/Y configuration, pointing at the bridge at a 45 degree angle, and about 12″ from the guitar. I ran the mics through a John Hardy M-1 preamp, into my LynxTwo-C soundcard, and into Adobe Audition 1.5. I plugged the pickup into a Baggs Para Acoustic DI (PADI), took the XLR out and connected to Channel A of an FMR RNP preamp. This fed another channel on the LynxTwo-C, and I configured Adobe Audition to record this single channel on both sides of a stereo track.

I played a simple Hawaiian vamp and recorded both sources. I kept the recording short because I wanted to present the material as a .wav file instead of a compressed MP3 file. I normalized both files to -2 db so their peak levels match.

The pickup recording: PEQT-PUP.wav
The microphone recording: PEQT-RE16.wav

I don’t think it’s very hard to hear the difference, and I think most people would prefer the microphone recording.

Now what can Har-Bal do for us? I loaded the microphone track as a reference, then loaded the pickup track as the active file. I chose the IntuitMatch cursor and passed it over the pickup track. Har-Bal computed an EQ set that would bring the pickup closer to the tonal balance of the microphone track. The result was not identical, but much closer. And to my ear the result was pretty impressive.

The Har-Bal adjusted track: PEQT-PUP-EQ.wav

I still prefer the microphone track, but I could certainly live with the adjusted pickup track. Perhaps a little tweaking with reverb or delay might add a little of the “air” and “body” that are still missing. It certainly seems worth exploring further.


New mics and live recording

Thursday, November 2nd, 2006

This past sunday I performed at Pacific Bay Coffee Company here in Walnut Creek. As always it was an enjoyable experience.

Since I just snagged some new mics on Ebay I decided to try them out as live performance tools. The mics are a pair of Electrovoice RE16 dynamic hypercardioids. These mics have the “Variable-D” feature that reduces proximity effect.

I used one RE16 for my vocal introductions and the other pointed at the bridge of my Martin OM-18GE. The mics were plugged into my very modest Peavey powered mixer, which was driving one pole-mounted Klipsch Heresy speaker.

I also recorded the show, using the tape out jack on the Peavey to feed the line in connectors on my Marantz PMD-670.

The results were interesting. It took a lot of attention to keep from bumping the guitar into the mic. I’ll probably try moving the mic to the 12th fret area, next time. The audience seemed happy with the balance and volume, but on the recording the guitar is pretty quiet, and the typical coffee shop background noises are pretty loud. I did think the tonal quality of the recording was pretty acceptable, and I’m looking forward to trying some “studio” tests with these mics.

In the meantime, I put two of the tunes from the Pac Bay show up at the Music Page.


Hello, and welcome

Friday, October 27th, 2006

Howdy, and welcome to my acoustic guitar/recording blog. I am not a guitar expert, nor am I a recording expert, but I enjoy both. My guitar playing is almost exclusively Hawaiian slack key, and my recordings are almost exclusively my own solo acoustic guitar projects. As a result, I know nothing about overdubbing, and my use of effects is pretty limited.

I’m a big fan of Doug Young‘s playing and recording skills, and we’ve experimented together with mics and microphone techniques, as well as other aspects of recording. One of the observations he often makes is that there is relatively little information directly related to fingerstyle acoustic guitar recording. I’ll try to do my part to add a little to the information on this topic, based on my own experiences.

I’ll also share what I learn about sound reinforcement for live performance from a player’s point of view. Once again, I’m no expert in this area, but my mistakes and learning experiences might save you a little time and trouble, or stimulate some new ideas.



About the Blog

    Howdy, my name is Fran Guidry and this is my Homebrewed Music blog.

    I play Hawaiian slack key guitar and recorded my solo acoustic CD at home. Most of the recording information I find on the internet seems focused on bands, drums, multitracking, and so on but my main focus is recording solo acoustic guitar. Lately I’ve been enjoying video recording along with audio, so that shows up in the blog as well.

    I’m also a guitar nut. I love big ones and little ones, handmades and factory guitars, cheap ones and expensive ones. So I’ll be sharing the fun of exploring guitars as well, along with the challenges of amplifying acoustic guitars for live performance.



    My recording philosophy is pragmatic, skeptical, not super critical. After all, the performance is by far the most important component of a track, and every aspect of any recording is a matter of taste.

    But I do like to know “about stuff.” Back in hifi days I learned about double blind testing. I learned that we humans can easily hear differences that don’t really exist. The more I’ve learned about our human auditory system, the more I’m skeptical of what people say they hear, especially if they claim that a particular microphone or preamp or cable has some magical property.

    I’ve only been recording since 2001, and when I started I found the usual places on the internet. I sought advice and accepted it, thought I would improve my recordings by using more expensive equipment. It didn’t work.

    Two things that did seem to lead to better recordings were experience and room treatment. Getting an appealing sound is the combination of many small details, and learning those details only comes from experience. Amd the sound of the recording space is obviously a big factor.

    I’ve only recorded seriously using digital technology, but I remember trying to record rehearsals and gigs back in analog days. I don’t have any nostalgia for analog recording and playback systems at all. I think even low end digital systems can capture marvelous recordings. So when I look at gear, I look for good specs: low noise, broad flat frequency response, wide dynamic range, low distortion. I’m not interested in colorful components, mics and preamps with a sound, I want the sound to be the sound of my guitar.

    But the last word is that I’m just learning and I hope you find something useful in my posts.