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Acoustic guitars- Does the quality always correspond on tape, or are there surprises?

We all know that acoustic guitars come in an infinite range of qualities and voices, so I am wondering if the quality always corresponds from live listening to tape. In other words, have any of you engineers ever come across guitars that buck expectations, i.e., great sounding guitars that just did not record well, or conversely, guitars that did not sound so great, or were less than stellar, but somehow managed to transmit something significantly better to the recorded signal?


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BobRogers Sun, 11/14/2010 - 04:06

Well, one big thing is that an acoustic guitar doesn't really have to project much when it is recorded. So a big-sounding boomy guitar may be great live but be a little hard to record. (Some Martins fall into this category.) Some "parlor" guitars might be anemic in a live unamplified setting, but give a nice balanced recording right off the bat. (A typical knock against Taylors.) But basically good quality live sound and good recorded sound are the same thing.

Now, a lot of the bucks for an acoustic instrument is for how it "feels" to the player, rather than the sound. Players often interpret the feel of an instrument as sound. There is an article somewhere on the web about a test where a bunch of experienced violinists were ask which of a bunch of instruments sounded the best. While there was some disagreement, they basically focused on the same instruments, and said there were clear differences in sound. Then they played the instruments behind a screen for a group of experienced listeners - including musicians. The listeners could not tell any difference between instruments. Completely random results on A/B/X tests. Bottom line - a good player can get a good performance out of a "lesser" instrument, even if he or she has to work harder to do it.

Big K Sun, 11/14/2010 - 04:32

More than once...
I remember an absolute phantastic Gibson steelstring with a real large body, worth about 2800 $ in 1998.
It was meticulously crafted and carried an enourmes tone and volume through the was astonishing...
But when we started the mix it showed pretty soon that the sound was so assertive ( if that describes it right..), so dominat, I could hardly "kill" it enough to merge it into the mix, which consisted of several acoustic guitars and double bass, as well as a few percussion instruments.
We re-recorded the same track with my Takamine Artist series. Btw, a modell that is unknown even by Takamine, itself. So it is a truly rare instrument that sounds absolutely fabulous, but less protrudent then the Gibson and virtually jumped into the gap that was left for it in the mix.

Another time we were looking for a short concert guitar solo line for some background ornamentic... All we had, at this moment that came close to the wanted sound was the 1/2 size acoustic guitar of my son. The sound was ok for the 40 $ it had cost, the strings were old and dull, but it kept its tuning. It was planed to replace the recording by a cool-sounding masterbuild concert guitar, a few day later.
When performing a rough mix it showed that the sound of this cheap guitar merged so well into the mix and gave such an incredible aura that sounded absolutely right to everyone. So, we kept it.

I know, similar stories can be told about many instruments from string to brass and back...
That's what keeps it interesting...

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JohnTodd Sun, 11/14/2010 - 07:41

I'm an artist (...ducks chairs thrown at him...) and I must concur. During my 30+ years I have noticed that the same instrument live may not work in the studio. A live concert usually benefits from an assertive "big" sound, while a smaller-voiced instrument may sit in the studio mix better. I've been using the same Epiphone PR-7E in the studio for 15 years now and it sits very well in my recordings. Occasionally I need something different, but mostly it's that PR7 that I use.

So, to more directly address the question: A quality instrument is a quality instrument, no doubts about that. The catch is that "the sound" may or may nor be appropriate for your particular recordings. Musical arts sometimes trump engineering science.

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Davedog Sun, 11/14/2010 - 14:07

I own a Taylor. I bought it to record with. I hate it live since I have to work so hard to keep up with the other acoustic instruments in my bluegrass band. In my studio, I trust it completely with any size or type of strings, and with any style of music. I've owned a lot of guitars and the difference in their performances live and in the studio can be astonishing. I own an odd plywood top Ibanez Ragtime model from the 70's. It has a sound a lot like a big f-hole guitar from the 30's only on steroids. Nothing like it. Hard to get it to do that live. I have a late 60's Gibson which met with an unfortunate accident and needs top repairs. When it was healthy it sounded a whole lot like Beatles acoustic guitar recordings with nothing but a mic and some compression. It needs to be fixed! (now that I think about it). .

I have had artists in that brought their excellent instruments and have had a struggle with some of them. They hear the tracks back of their guitar solo'd up and it sounds huge and then its almost impossible to mix without severe bandpasses throughout the spectrum. DONT solo up when they're there at a mix!!!

The same can be true with some electric instruments. Primarily bass. Some basses have so much character and so much gain in certain frequecies that recording them, even though a high-end bass preamp, becomes a challenge to fit all of that tone into a dense mix. Give me a P or a J and good hands and most bass styles can be done by simply plugging into a DI, setting the gain and keeping the EQ out, and Bob's yer uncle.

Big K Mon, 11/15/2010 - 09:43

Hi Dave..
Youp.. e-bass is a good example..
Ps, Js and after the last experience I add the newer Rickenbakers are always safe cards. Almost any Sound can be produced from what they give us.
Some time ago a musician proudly presented his new Alembic active 5 string for recording.. a marvelous instrument with clean and definated sound to the lowest of low.
But it was a drag to get anything like a substancial air-moving and carrying bass from it that supported the music like we wanted it. About 3.000 bucks spend on a bass
and in the end we recorded most stuff with my 25 years old

bigtree Mon, 11/15/2010 - 14:10

Interesting topic.

Dave, I have a beautiful Taylor too, but have never thought this would be an issue. As you know I'm a performer going recordist late in life so I find this very interesting. Can you explain how it can be so different? I've always thought if you love the guitar, and it sounds great, period, why would a different setting make any difference if you are micing it? Isn't the room the room and ... Micing the axe is just that. It sound like the guitar and the room etc. I can see this relevant acoustically (no mic) as some guitars are louder but once you are micing it, how could it be better for (micing in the studio) but not micing it in a coffee house as an example?

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BobRogers Mon, 11/15/2010 - 17:05

In general it's like acting in the movies and acting in live theater. In the theater you have to project to the back rows. In the movies to two feet away. Tons of Broadway actors come off as too "stagey" for the movies. Even when you mic the guitar live you are fighting through stage volume. Not the same as a studio. Closer mic, louder guitar, less of the room. A good sounding live guitar can probably always be made to sound good recorded, but it often takes work.

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Davedog Mon, 11/15/2010 - 17:50

Bob got it. When I bought my Taylor, a 414CE BTW, I had the money to go BIG and I wanted a special guitar. I musta played 25 high-end guitars including an exquisite 1971 Martin 0041 that I coulda had for a fraction of its value.........kick me!.....All sounded different as you might expect but at the time I was assembling my studio and the one thing I did not have was a great studio acoustic. When I played this one next to all those twice-as-expensive and higher ended guitars, it was the most BALANCED thoughout the entire spectrum. BUT, like I said, ya gotta beat the crap outta it to get any volume on stage. Its not a party guitar nor an auditorium piece by any stretch. But I can stick ANY mic on it, play ANY style on it, and as long as the headphone mix is right on, this thing will deliver a sweet and balanced acoustic guitar sound every time. It doesnt matter what strings you put on it, it sounds great mic'd up. For me, live, I move around way too much for a mic. It has one of those 'Fishman Prefix' preamps which is crap. Through an LR Baggs System it sounds pretty good, but its still an effort to bang on live. One of these days I'll get me a Collings or something loud as heck and play that out live. It has occured to me to get the braces shaved and loosen the top a bit, but I'd hate to ruin an almost perfect studio guitar.

Big K Tue, 11/16/2010 - 02:51

Yes, Bob made an excellent comparison... With this Gibson, I mentioned, you could play a large room and sing out to the fullest, but the single notes of every chord you play on it are just not making a smooth, well...yes, .. chord. Not a smooth, silky unity of string sound, but a concert of soloists in perfect harmony but still soloists, sounding hard and selfcontained.
With another guitar I recorded ( and I could kick myself, 'cause I forgot the brand ) it was a miracle... The chords were singing and the strings walked kinda hand in hand through all notes and harmonics. Like a build-in harmonizer or chorus, yet, clear, defined and of wonderful musicality. It was not a very loud instrument, but that was never a problem in a studio, was it? The older Ovation Adamas has a similar performance, but I have never been a fan of Ovation sound, which does not mean it is a bad brand, not at all. But sometimes, it cannot hide its roots coming from a helicopter manufacturer...JK...

As to pre-amps. The one in my Takamine from 1985 features a stereo pickup with string split switch. To me it sounds not very good by today's standards, but must have been much appreciated 25 years ago. It is more the acoustic sound I love very much, from this hand-crafted jumbo body with arched top and back. Usable in any recording situation and style. Just like a Fender Precision, a universal indispensable tool for a studio. A nice member of my, meanwhile 16 my wife hates my...