Everything You Need To Know About Mixing Acoustic Guitars
People have been playing the acoustic guitar for over 3,500 years—so why is it still so hard to get one to sit right in a mix?
Oftentimes, acoustic guitar recordings sound boomy and muddy, masking other instruments in the mix. Or they sound shrill and harsh, overpowering the vocals.
But when mixed properly, they can bring a track to life with a natural, shimmering tone. That’s why we put together this step-by-step guide to mixing acoustic guitars.
Read on to learn about the best EQ settings, when to use compression, and how to create the perfect room tone using reverb.
If you have multiple acoustic guitar mics, start by routing them all to a bus. This makes it easy to quickly make adjustments and allows you to apply signal processing without affecting the phase relationship of the tracks.
After blending each of the microphones together to create a balanced tone, adjust the level of the acoustic guitar so it sits at an appropriate level in the mix.
A good rule of thumb is; the sparser the arrangement, the louder the acoustic guitar should be. In a sparse arrangement, the guitar may be almost as loud as the vocal. While in a busy mix, the acoustic guitar will likely play more of a supporting role.
Even still, it can be tricky to find the right level. Too loud and you run the risk of overpowering the vocal. Too quiet and you lose the guitar altogether.
That’s why I like to use REFERENCE to make sure the acoustic guitar is sitting at the right level. REFERENCE makes it easy to quickly compare your mix with your favorite tracks.
Drag your reference mixes into the Wave Transport and press play to compare tracks. Engage the level match feature at the top and toggle between your mix and your reference tracks. Listen carefully to the level of the acoustic and adjust the level until it’s sitting just right in the mix.
Depending on the type of track you’re working on, the EQ settings for your acoustic guitar are likely to vary quite a bit.
In a sparse arrangement, the acoustic will need a full, rich sound with a balanced frequency response. In this case, the acoustic guitar typically provides melody and harmony, so you should emphasize the detail and clarity in the upper-mids.
In a busy mix, the acoustic guitar is probably more of a rhythmic instrument, meant to emphasize the groove. In this case, a powerful low-end will just muddy up the mix. Instead, focus on bringing out the sound of the strings in the high-end.
Start by cleaning up the sound of the acoustic guitar and removing any unwanted frequency build-ups.
I typically start with a high-pass filter around 80 Hz to roll-off any rumble in the low-end. The low E string on a standard-tuned guitar is 80 Hz, which is my go-to frequency range for setting high-pass filters on guitars. Feel free to adjust as needed.
Next, use a parametric EQ to comb through the low-mids and remove any mud in the 100-400 Hz range. Or, if you want to make things easy on yourself, just add BASSROOM to the acoustic guitar bus, analyse your favourite guitar recording to create targets to automatically identify and remove problem areas in your own recording.
Then continue sweeping through the rest of the frequency range and remove any resonance or overtones with narrow bells. If you feel that any one frequency range is overpowering, make a small cut with a wide bell for subtle tonal adjustments.
After cleaning up any frequency problems, it’s time to focus on enhancing what you like about the recording.
A small boost in the 1-3 kHz range can help add clarity and bring the guitar to the front of the mix. Boosting the 3-5 kHz range will add sparkle, which can be great for picked melodies. A low shelf can add power and presence in a sparse mix.
When mixing rhythmic parts, try adding some air by boosting the 12 kHz range with a shelf. This places the guitar in the same frequency range as the cymbals, shakers and other percussive instruments—and keeps it from interfering with the vocal.
Last but not least, if you’re working with a busy mix, spend some time carving out space for the other instruments. If you boosted a frequency on the guitar, cut it on the other instruments and vice versa. This helps make sure each instrument can be heard clearly.
Compression can be a great tool for controlling the dynamics of an acoustic guitar recording. But when used improperly, it can completely suck the life out of a performance.
In most cases, I typically use subtle bus compression when working with acoustic guitars. Moderate compression can help glue each of the different mics together and create more consistent dynamics.
Start with a slow attack time—typically around 10-25 ms—to help accentuate the attack of each transient. Use a fast release time for a more natural sound, usually somewhere around 50-150 ms. I like to use a moderate ratio of 2:1 or 4:1, and apply 1-3 dB of gain reduction—just enough to squeeze the tracks when they need it.
If you’re working with a particularly plucky performance, you can use a faster attack time to help accentuate the attack of the sound. Just be careful—if the attack time is too fast, you run the risk of compressing the sound of the pick, which can create nasty artefacts.
Yes, even acoustic guitars can benefit from distortion! Granted, this isn’t the same approach as with electric guitars, so don’t go grabbing your Tube Screamer just yet.
Instead, we’ll take a subtle approach. Distortion can add harmonics that fatten up the sound and help the guitar cut through the mix.
With IGNITE, you can even use the filter to focus on a specific frequency range (like 1-3kHz), to make sure you don’t create any harsh or brittle overtones.
Tape machines can be another great way to add subtle harmonics to your track, along with a bit of vintage vibe.
It’s time to add the cherry on top—spatial effects. Similar to the steps above, your approach should change depending on the track.
With a sparse arrangement, you can use more effects to help flesh out your sound. But in a busy mix, effects tend to get in the way, so keep it simple.
Chorus adds subtle pitch variations that wash out the sound and help push the acoustic guitar into the background.
Delay is a great way to add space, depth, and width to an acoustic guitar, making it sound larger than life for those big, anthemic tracks.
Stereo enhancers like GROW are great for adding space and creating big, atmospheric beds for ambient music.
But my go-to effect for adding space to acoustic guitars is reverb. Whether you’re going for a small room, or a variety of hall and plates in your mix, reverb helps create contrast in your mix by pushing the guitar back in the mix and adding depth.
Personally, I like to use a small room reverb to simulate the sound of performing in a world-class studio. Some studios like Ocean Way even offer their own impulse responses, allowing you to capture the exact same room tones.
Follow these simple steps and you’ll be dialling in lush acoustic guitar tracks in no time. Just remember to check your reference tracks from time to time to make sure you’re staying on track!