Acoustic Guitars..

live and recording…

OK, there’s alot of differing opinions about how to deal with and acoustic guitar live or in the studio.

I’m after them! EQ settings, compression levels, defeating the faults of piezos, etc.

What do you normally do, what do you call a ‘good sound’ for an transduced acoustic? I have my own ideas, I want to hear yours!


Solution if all you have to work with is piezo.

1. Run it through a Zoom A2 acoustic effects processor. If that’s not in your bag of tricks than step 2.

2. You can get a half decent sound by using the multiband eq with nTrack and putting a bit of reverb, and compression.

Won’t get into the eq’ing to much, use your ears but use the multiband one.

Soft knee compression attack at 7ms,release at 1/2sec, ratio about 7:1, threshold between 6-14 db. If you have an EQ built into the guiatar set all bands at 0 and use nTrack multiband to give you the tones you want.

Edit: the slightest touch of delay is good too.

There is no such thing as ‘good sound’ for an acoustic guitar pickup. Some merely suck less than others.

OK, I’m exaggerating. Also, some artists take the artificial sound of a pickup and work with it, use it artistically (e.g., DMB). But for someone who really wants the sound of an acoustic guitar, use a mike. You can also use the pickup and blend a little in for crispness.

Most transducers are piezo elements, and sound terrible when the guitar is played loudly. So, if you are using a transducer, baby that guitar; play gently in the region where the pickup doesn’t honk like a duck. (Quack like a goose?)

Stick a mike in front of that guitar. I use an SM57 (visit my website to see how it sounds; not everyone’s cup of tea but it works). Most folks prefer a large diaphram condenser (which I didn’t have at the time or I’d have used). They bring in a lot more of the highs, and in general get a better level. Room acoustics are crucial, too. A good sounding room is best but if it’s small, best to dampen it. Cover at most 50% of the wall space with heavy curtains or lean mattresses against the walls. Best to dampen the ceiling too, if possible, especially if it’s less than 9’ or 10’. You can put just a few square feet of ‘egg-crate’ style foam temporarily on the ceiling somehow and that helps a lot.

For a lot of great and specific advise, check out this thread on, worth bookmarking.

Live for an acoustic or mostly acoustic act, I would use both mike and pickup and let FOH blend the two to taste. Let FOH know that the mike should be the main thing.

Of course, live with a loud rock band, miking an acoustic is too tricky to manage (at least, for me), and you use the pickup. I don’t know any good tricks for that. An acoustic processor might help, but the ones I’ve heard, when applied to electrics, sound only vaguely like an acoustic. Good enough for a rock band cover, or for a special effect, but not really a replacement for the sound of a real acoustic guitar. But I haven’t heard an acoustic transducer fed through one, and my guess is it’s more likely to help than hurt! Definitely worth trying.

Don’t use old strings! If you like a really bright and up front tone, use brand new strings. If, like me, you prefer a slightly mellower tone, let 'em age a bit – put 5 or 10 playing hours one them. I like Elixir Nanoweb strings – they take a bit longer to mellow, but then hold that tone for an amazingly long time (months, for me, but my hands are less corrosive than most guitarists).

Lots of folks seem to like phosphor bronze strings, but IMHO they’re too tinny. They’re great for stage where you need the guitar to cut through the mix, but not for the studio when you want a balanced tone, and I prefer 80/20’s in general.

Also, avoid extra light strings. I use light on my Martin HD-28, but I sure like the sound of mediums better. It’s a real high-projecting guitar so I can get away with light (and the action is not that great so it really helps). On many guitars, light strings sound too wimpy. Also, lighter strings bend out of tune when played strongly – not that the tuning slips, they go back when played lighter. Just during the blare of overstrumming they go sharp (or is it flat?) but it sounds terrible. With light strings, I have to dig in REALLY hard to make this happen, and I’m a hard strummer / big sound kind of player.

If you have to use pickups only, one way to make them sound a lot better is to use a dual-element system. Ideally, an internal mike plus a piezo, but even with two piezos it makes a huge difference. Placing the two in different spots helps balance the tone (though, you want the highest quality pups that resist ‘quack’ as much as possible). Or, one under-saddle and one contact installed a few inches away from the bridge. And use a stereo output (which means you need a stereo preamp in the guitar). Then spread the image and it sounds much better than a pickup usually does. Collapsed to mono they’re still better than a single element pup, but nowhere near as good as stereo. Unfortunately, most venues have to run mono due to stage/speaker/audience arrangements.


PS: I listen to a lot of amateur recorded music. Few things jump out of an otherwise good production and shout RANK AMATEUR more than an acoustic song recorded using a pickup. And of course, there are exceptions to everything: sometimes the transducers work perfectly for a given composition and arrangement.

I agree with Jeff that it is very hard to make a piezo pick-up sound good. One possibility for live recording is to use a mic for the recording and the piezo for the PA. This only works if the player is disciplined enough to stay put in front of the mic but can avoid the issue of feedback while providing a somewhat better sounding recording.

I have also heard good results with a magnetic pick-up like a Sunrise when properly EQ’d although it can still make the guitar sound a bit electric. The other problem with magnetic pick-ups is that they are more efficient when the guitar is played further up the neck (due to the pick-up position changing relative to the center of the fretted string where velocity is highest) resulting in variations in tone and level.

Blends of pick-up types can also sort of work although sometimes it is best to EQ each separately.

On the whole nothing beats a mic though. There used to be a comparison on the web (I believe it was for the Baggs iBeam but I can’t find it there any more) that had audio recordings of the their pick-up compared to a simultaneous recording with a Neuman mic which they evidently thought would be persuasive. All I could tell from the demo was that I would like to have that mic and that the pick-up was not even close. (That may be why I can’t find that particular demo anymore).

These days the usual advice I have seen on mic placement is to place it near the 12th fret pointing slightly toward the body. Do not try to mic the sound hole. You are trying to pick-up the upper bout of the instrument. I have had reasonable success with this but have not tried enough alternatives to decide whether it is the “best” way or not.


For the dual-pickup tests, be sure to listen in both stereo and mono. IMHO, the stereo tests sound great but in mono most sound like crap (especially in comparison to stereo). It’s too bad that most venues don’t run stereo, but it’s a practical matter.


There is no such thing as ‘good sound’ for an acoustic guitar pickup. Some merely suck less than others.

“Friends don’t let friends record piezos!” :p

Seriously, I have a tune up at that has a hastily recorded piezo acoustic on it. It SOOO needs to be mic’ed and re-tracked. The acoustic guitar sounds like poo.

The BEST acoustic guitar pickup I have heard personally is the LR Baggs I-Beam pickup. My bud had one installed in his Gibby J-100. It really sounds great live. Recorded… eh… I’d still mic it. It’s a PITA but a good mic’d guitar will sound tons better than a cheesy pickup. IMO, YMMV, etc…

To see what a nice Alvarez acoustic (which sounds fabulous acoustically) sounds like recorded via the built-in piezo… go HERE and listen to Arise. It’s a cover of an excellent song by Paul Baloche. My buddy and I didn’t quite do it justice, but it ain’t bad and we’re not finished with it yet. (Frick-em, frack-em, murfin, cheezin, DAY JOBS!) :D


Thanks for this good info everyone. Hey StuH, what settings do you like best for recording with your Zoom A2 acoustic effects processor?

It’s setup in a way that you select the type of pickup your playing through, the box has optimized settings whether your playing with a piezo, a soundhole mag pickup, or coiled pickups on electric guitars. Then you select what type of acoustic you would like to model. Several different makes and models it emulates including resonators. It’s quite convincing and convenient alternative to miking. I would love to get into this aspect someday, I’m sure that’s how you seperate the men from the boys but it’s not a practical method at this point for me.

I’ve used it with a Yamaha APX 6a which has an under bridge piezo. On it’s own that guitar records quite nicely but it lacks resonance so I create a stereo track and slightly offest the wave and adjust the volume. I have to boost the low end dramatically cause it lacks depth. If I’m lazy which I usually am, I will add some delay instead. I don’t necessarily attribute all the woes of the sound on the piezo casue if you ever saw the APX series they lack body depth.

I’ve miked the guiatar in combination with the piezo and bar none this is the best but too much background noise and a nice isolated room is not a huge priority for me right now.

The pedal certainly gives the guitar a more convincing acoustic sound, it not perfect but it’s very very close. I’ve never patched an electric guitar through it or an acoustic with soundhole mag.

There are some demo sounds on the zoom website for the pedal under downloads, doesn’t say what the baseline for the recordings are but I’m pretty sure several of the takes were done with piezo equiped acoustics.

I no longer have my A2 pedal but will be getting a replacement A2.1 for my yamaha and a G9.2tt for my electrics very soon.

Yes, the I-beam does seem to be the taster’s choice. I’m still agonizing over putting a pickup in my baby (1982 Martin HD28). I think I’ll go for a combination with the I-Beam and an internal mike. Now, if only my son would stop costing money by getting in minor legal trouble, and if I hadn’t just come back from vacation, and 4 out of 5 of my guitars need a bit of repair, and … and … well, you know the drill!

The duplicate-and-shift trick is popular among amateurs but has serious drawbacks. If my ears are telling me the truth, it’s rarely used in commercial music (but then, they have the time & bucks to do stuff we home-boys don’t). The biggest drawback is when summed to mono you get phase cancellation and a colored effect. If the shift is small enough, this isn’t bad – but by ‘small enough’, I mean, well under a millisecond, and most folks shift considerably more than that to get a bigger image.

With electric guitar, the dup-and-shift trick works great, because electrics are expected to be colored. It’s only with natural acoustic instruments that I have trouble with the technique. And while we generally expect folks to listen in stereo, a mix that doesn’t sound good in mono is problematic because (a) lo-fi feeds on websites, and more importantly (b) the tone will greatly depend on where you are in the listening room, and the further you are from speakers (or when hearing through a doorway) the coloration can be extreme. Of course, item (b) can be used artistically, so as usual, rules of thumb are only for thumbs, so to speak.

Instead, try finding a good stereo reverb, where the tails are minimal and the early reflections are significant. I like n-Track reverb at Ambience 2 setting, increase damping significantly (to reduce tails) and then adjust to taste. Be sure to click “expand mono track to stereo” in the track properties, and when adjusting the reverb controls, be sure you understand the left/right/locked behavior of the controls (or you’ll accidentally reduce it to mono).

Another good trick is a comb filter. MDA has a good one, but I find that with acoustic guitar it often leaves the image unbalanced tonewise, because the low end (boomy part of AG) doesn’t always balance out left/right. I do remember seeing a stereo comb filter that had a built-in crossover so that the bass could bypass the effect, and that would be idea (but I don’t remember where it is: might have been a Blue line plug, which I don’t use because they tend to crash N).

I bet the Zoom is just the ticket when you’re forced to use a pickup. Certainly a lot less time consuming and trouble than miking, expecially the first couple times.

Thanks again! I just bought a Zoom 504 II acoustic effects pedal after hearing the fullness it added to a friends guitar played through a PA and I confused it with your reference to a Zoom A2. This isn’t the first time I’ve confused something. While EQing my guitar recording I (until just this week) thought that the open A string’s fundamental vibe was 440 Hz so I figured the E string was in the upper 300s or so and felt it was probably a good idea to cut (by a lot) everything from 200 Hz on down in order to get a “clearer”, less boomy sound. Now I just found out that the open A string’s fundamental is 110 Hz and the low E is 82.41 Hz so I guess I need to rethink my Eqing stratagy. I know there’s harmonics too. I just shake my head and laugh at myself sometimes. You’d think I’d be able to tell when what I’m doing is working well (and when it’s not) by how it sounds when I play it back. Unfortunately, my objectivity gets lost somewhere between editing a song, burning it to CD and playing the CD back through computer speakers, then headphones, then front room stereo, then car stereo then boombox. I end up just being pleased that I’ve got an okay “happy medium” and that the guitar isn’t overpowering my singing. Well, at least I’m clear that the term “headroom” isn’t refering to the distance from my face to the mic. Right…am I right…?
Even though I feel so lost at times and in a totally different league than most of you, I love this stuff!
Thanks again everyone for sharing your strengths and experience.

Here’s some Eq info for strings and an adjustment order:
Read lots and experiment, thats the ticket, and there’s lots of info on the net that’s where most of this comes from.
And the A2 will blow that out of the water.

300-500Hz is the fundamental zone of strings so cut everything and dabble in this range first till it sounds good to your ears.

800-4000Hz-fundamental zone of strings and harmonics (too much in here and you get duck quack)

The piezo puts out alot of harmonic freq, so you’ll want to be cutting in this range for strumming tracks but in picking tracks some boost in this range actually sounds pretty good especially if you pick with lots of expression.

You need to boost the low end of piezo 160Hz-250Hz.
The frequnecies are there with a piezo but the have to be boosted. Think of this range as a nice tasty glazed donut that just came out of the oven.

The higher bands + 1K also give warmth.

The piezo won’t put out enough to worry about in lower bands from 31-125Hz.
31 to 50Hz gives power but also creates mud and 80 to 125 produces boom.

thx for these guys, I really appreciate it :)



Here’s some Eq info for strings …
300-500Hz is the fundamental zone of strings so cut everything and dabble in this range first till it sounds good to your ears.

You got them there guitar strings tuned waaaaay too tight! :D

I’ve got an Alvarez AD-60SC that I’ve used live with great results together with a Yamaha AGStomp preamp/effects box. You can get them used on eBay for about $100.

Of course like everyone said, the mic is the most natural sound, but sometimes you can do very nice things using one of those boxes. I’ve got one song recorded using this box where the guitar sounds like a dubro. Check it out on my page. The song’s called Anim Zemiros. The song right before that called O’dcha, was also recorded using that box, that time I was experimenting with some compression. Neither of these sound like a natural sound, but sometimes, that isn’t what you’re after.

What a great thread !

I’ve been struggling with recording the sound of acoustic guitar and seem to learn a little more each day. First thing to consider in recording AG is the overall mix. If it’s just a vocal and the AG, then, yes a mic is best. I find that the small condenser (pencil mic) works best on my Martin D16R, as well as a few others I record, including a 12 string. A large condenser just gets too boomy for my taste, but that is MY taste.

If the AG is sitting in a mix with drums, electrics, bass, etc. then a mic may not always be the best alternative. There’s a reason so many recording acts use pups, they stick out in a mix much better. I’m thinking John Mayer, Dave Mathews, their AGs sound pretty good in their music, but hey, it doesn’t sound “natural”, but that’s not the sound they’re after.

I’ve slowly come to this realization and am now considering getting a decent AG pick up. I don’t perform with others (yet), and I only record at home for fun, family, & friends. I’ve narrowed it down to the LR Baggs element, but more likely the M1, which allows me to move it from one guitar to another. I occasionally hang around the Unofficial Martin Guitar Forum, and they seem to overwhelmingly favor the K&K mini for its ability to reproduce the sound of an AG. From what I read, part of the problem with undersaddles is the weak preamps that are used. The quack comes from volume spikes overwhelming the preamp. For recording a mix of UST and mic, I think is good.

What I’ve found effective in mic’ing accoustic is using a pencil mic about 6-8" away (off axis a bit) and a large condensor mic about 12-24" away (to get the ambience). Blending those two gets a very full sound, without the boominess.


I actually believe that the undesirable characteristics come from the element itself. I have not heard any preamp, (even external preamps) that sound good. I have also been unable to EQ them to correct the problem without also getting rid of the necessary harmonics. While I don’t yet have the objective data to prove it, I suspect that undersaddle pick-ups respond to the vibrations of the string in ways that exaggerate certain harmonic content in ways that the soundboard does not, particularly the longitudenal mode of the string (the wave traveling down the string rather than up and down relative to the top). This mode is not normally reproduced by the top because it creates a “rocking” motion in the saddle (toward and away from the nut) which does not excite the top to move much air but may be more easily sensed by the pick-up. Harmonically this mode is unrelated to the tuning of the string and by nature dissonant. Since it is within the frequency band of the desired signals it is difficult to filter out.

I also notice that undersaddle pick-ups are unforgiving of sloppy fretting and much more likely to exagerate “fret-buzz” on poorly fingered notes. As a result very good players will sound better than the average player will with exactly the same equipment (even discounting the musical differences).

The importance of the top of the guitar in terms of tone production is also reduced, which can be a good thing for cheap guitars but a bad thing for a good guitar. Reverb can be added to try to recover some of this character but I have yet to hear an undersaddle recording which sounds as good as a good mic. I understand the argument that it is simply a different tone and a matter of taste and would agree if I liked the tone. There are pure acoustic insruments that have obnoxious tones that can work in some circumstances (various double-reed ethnic instruments come to mind) but they are not suitable for general purpose use either.

For live work the degradation in tone is compensated for by the increased ease and freedom from feedback so I am fine with undersaddles for live performance. There are so many other factors that compromise live sound that this drops down quite a bit on my list of issues. Actually, while I try hard to get the best live sound I can, I will make many compromizes that I would not for a recording. The output in this case is a memory rather than anything that can be replayed accurately and if the audience has a good time it will conceal a host of sonic defects.


My theory is it’s not the under-saddle position but simply nonlinearities in piezos, because if you stick a contact piezo ANYWHERE that it gets a loud enough signal, you get a quack. They sound fine (well, a nice instrument just not a natural acoustic guitar) for quiet playing.

Also, there are under-saddle pickups (like Schertler, who use tiny mics based on recent hearing aid technology) that do not quack. They don’t sound as good as a mike, either.