outboard compressors?

for recording acoustic artists…

hey folks

man, i havent been here in a few years now, but i used to use this forum quite a bit for my recording needs. i still use n-track as my software of choice tho, but am still on n-track 3 (i think - at work at mo)

anyway, i have a project of recording a load of acoustic artists to compile a cd for local distrib (ie liverpool and surrounding area). these artists are some of the best talent around these parts, imho.

i use a nice big outboard studiomaster mixer, micing the guitar and using the line-in to record artists, and then get them to do vocals after, then any harmonies or anything else that they want on the track. (this project is almost exclusively single musicians, hardly any ‘acoustic bands’ if you see what i mean). this goes into my soundblaster audigy card, into n-track. an example of the recording can be heard here: www.myspace.com/folkon (streaming or download)

im pretty pleased with the quality (these have been converted to mp3 as well of course) but i was wondering if i may need any outboard eqpt to get the sound better (im thinkin an outboard compressor would make it warmer and stuff…but my knowledge of outboard eqpt is pretty limited).

so - can anyone offer any opinions??? it would be most helpful.


Hi collen:
I haven’t gone to your page yet, but I’ll have a peek at it, over the weekend. There’s a local entertainer down the street from me who is a “Beetle’s Freek”… He covers their songs as a “Single Act”… and takes his Style around the world… He’s goes to the Big Re-union over where you live every year… I’m not right up on the flavor of what being a “Beetle’s” Fan is… but there are millions around the world that follow it as though it were a Religion…

Go to his page and see, what’s there. He does his CD’s locally here, with a Drummer-turned-Studio… Cat… Mabey, between the two of them, and, you may write them some mail to see just what makes their Crank Turn… when they get creative…in the studio…

I know, from talking to Hal… he doesn’t like getting in front of a mic at 3pm… He’s a type of guy that’s in the studio at 3am…

Anyway, here’s the link… You might find it interesting…


From it… you might get a link to Scott’s Page… I don’t have it in front of me, but there are some nice photos of his set-up and some of the hardware he uses, on his projects…


That stuff sounds pretty good to me, Collen. Some of the guitar sounds a bit more like an acoustic pickup that’s been run through a DI rather than a mic, but I could be wrong. I honestly don’t know that a compressor would get you better results. Different, sure. But bettter?

Here’s my problem with most of the affordable outboard compressors out there: they have a way of rolling off the high end that I find objectionable. Unfortunately, and especially for the type of music represented on your link, the kind of compressor I’d be reaching for would cost between $400 and $1000US, and that’s for 1 channel. I’m thinking in particular about the Universal Audio LA-4, which has to be purchased used, and won’t come cheap. A nice photo-optic compressor would be cool on that stuff too, but again, the cheaper ones wouldn’t do the material justice. You might opt for the FMR Audio RNC (lotta folks here use 'em and like 'em) but even that box, and even in “super nice” mode, colors the sound in ways I don’t always like. Maybe better to do your dynamics processing in the box.

Something you might consider instead of a compressor (if you’re looking to burn some money) would be a change in mic selection. I get more different sounds by swapping out mics than by plugging in outboard boxes. Got a ribbon mic yet? Bet you could find a nice Reslo a lot easier there than I can here in the states. Even some of the newer cheap Chinese ribbons don’t get totally dissed. You’re in the land of Reslo, Coles, and AEA though; look around and see what you can find. Acoustic guitar through a good ribbon mic will make your hair stand up, and provide plenty of the “warmth” you think you’re missing. Plus, most ribbons are figure 8 pattern so they’ll grab some room along with the guitar. If you’re working in an o.k sounding room, that means you might get away with less computer or outboard generated reverb. I like me some natural reverb on acoustic guitar.

Personally, I think you got nothing to worry about with those tracks you highlighted. New stuff is fun, but not always the answer as much as keeping at what you’re doing. Good luck…

Some folks like the sound of outboard compressors, others don’t. Practically speaking, they’re not necessary. Back when recorders had 70 or 80 dB S/N ratio they were critically necessary. With 24-bit recording, it’s no longer necessary and mostly only used by folks who used 'em before and learned to love 'em.

The best way to improve the sound on the recording on your website is to MIKE THAT GUITAR!

Most built-in pickups on guitars sound terrible, and this one is no exception. It’s a sound that screams “AMATEUR”. I listen to a lot of amateur recordings on a couple different websites, and this is one of the dead giveaways. Spend some time learning to mike an acoustic well. Also record the guitar’s pickup, sometimes it’s useful to blend in to firm up the sound.

Miking an acoustic isn’t trivial, but it’s well worth the effort. Especially if it’s a good sounding guitar. There’s no way to tell from this recording whether that guitar is a beauty or not.

Use software compression on vocals and acoustic guitar to fill them out. If you’re not already doing that on the vocals here, then the artist is particularly good at dynamics control. (It’s not usually required on pickups, but generally sounds good on a miked guitar. Part of the problem with pickups is they already have the life squashed out of them due to the nature of Piezo pickups. It’s helpful live, but not a good sound!)

A compressor won’t necessary “warm things up” - different preamps and mics will do that better, for the most part -

One cheap optical compressor that does sound pretty good to me is the little Bellari LA 120. It is high voltage tube based, but no transformers.

RNC 1773…GREAT box…way better than any plugin (and I have a motherload of the biggies, Waves, Voxengo, Wave Arts, Sony etc…)…Knocks a little of the highs and lows off and smoothes it out like butter…especially good on miked acoustic…Like Lear Jeff said, technically speaking you don’t need them, BUT…you have never heard a professional recording without them…all over the place. The Beatles used EMI’s, Altecs and Fairchilds all over their stuff.
Good class A pre- RNC -into ntrack at 24 bits makes a #### fine chain :D


hi folks,

thanks for the replies. in answer to a couple of points, the guitar was recorded both through line and through a shure pg58 (no ribbons in my litle garage studio yet…), which was the same mic used to do the vocals. there is generally more mic signal there than line in the mix.

ive been using software compression on the vocals and an overall software compression on the whole mix, which i thikn sounds ok, but i see the point: i need more mics.

i shall check them out! thanks for the help guys. i shall have to start readin up on mic placement again…


Try mixing less of the pickup and more mike. I can clearly hear the pickup and can’t hear the mike. There’s no mistaking the “quack” of a piezo pickup, which is clearly present in that recording. I record my acoustic using an SM57, which should sound a lot like that PG58 – but I don’t hear it in your mix.

You say it’s “mostly mike”, but perhaps that’s based on looking at the faders. The pickup signal is naturally fairly compressed and a small amount of it can easily overwhelm a mike track.

Some people actually like the sound of piezos! What’s up with that? ???

ok, i was mixing with ‘more mic’ based on the faders, that is correct…so the piezo is already compressed, so it is actually louder anyway? is this right? this is new to me, please bear with me…

ok, i will do another mix of the tracksand push the mic’d guitar up and the line down…and this should make it warmer?

(just realised the artists website has four tracks and i only recorded three of these - stairz, journey and silent assassin. on silent assassin you should be able to hear the line and the mic panned either side, so there is some mic in the mix at least!!)

thanks again for your help folks, i know very little about mic tech. like some here, i am more of a musician than a producer, but somehow ive ended up managing this little project…thanks again

Here’s a useful post that a guy called Matt (MaTai2) posted here about three years ago…





Alrighty, For those who are interested in my “plectrum”…ha ha ha…(i had to look up what a plectrum was ) No seriously, this is in regards to another post on the users board which has the sound clip that generated some of the buz…I will post in as detailed fasion as I can because when I ask questions I would rather have someone tell me too much rather than not enough….so feel free to skip around, or close the thread and go on to another…here’s the link to the sound clip. Radio Freindly Guitatr…You Decide?

Here’s the deal. I have been focusing on acoustic guitar recording technique for the last 6 months. Working weekly (and often daily on getting the “radio” sound) Now there are 2 types of radio sounds. This is one of them. It’s big, exciting, up front and in your face. Sounds like…hmmm John Meyer’s big hit song. The other sound is exemplified by a band called “sixpence none the richer” …more commonly known as sixpence…their sound is heavily processed and you hear about the first 20 milliseconds (ms) of the guitar and then the rest of the beautiful “RING” of the string is smashed down into a really small dynamic range. This has the effect of giving the guitar less dynamic range and it makes it sound really well…ringy (sixpense almost always doubles their guitars…and throws a really really light chorus on them too)

I was going for the more John Meyer’s big hit song feel…slam you in the face…guitar sound…maybe another day i’ll post a clip of the sixpence sound with details, but only if there is interest …so here’s the dirty on the pop acoustic sound.

1) Equipment
A) Rode NT3 (all my cool mic’s got jacked)
B) Guitar Pickup (more on this later)
C) Medium thin pick…the light grey kind :wink:
D) Effects 4 Compressors (actually 2…more on this later)
E) Preamp…Avalon 737

2) Quick theory on guitar sounds. Acoustic guitars suffer from a horrible phenomina…just kidding…known as frequency masking (where one frequency makes it hard for the ear to hear a different frequency). After recording a zillion acoustics, i have found that most have an muddy zone in the 500-800 hz range…if you cut a few db off in that range your guitar should start to become much more clear sounding as well as defined in the low end. Also Guitars can do something I call…rumbling…this is where the low end gets all excited and creates frequencies below 50hz that are difficult to hear but that take away from the overall clarity of the guitar. Since most software plug ins have a fairly soft fall off if you use a high pass filter, I suggest you put it at 50 hz, but if you find a plug that is fairly steep in how fast it cuts into the low frequencies then I suggest you drop down to 45 hz. On this recording I used an outboard EQ before I went into ntrack and I cut -4 db from the 550 centered point. I only did this on the Rode NT3, because I only have 1 outboard EQ (on the Avalon). I also high passed at 50hz with the Avalon.

Mic Placement – Know what…we like the way our guitar sounds right? (unless you are hoping to get a new one because you hate the way it sounds!!! Ha) and the reason we like the guitar is because of where our ear is when we listen to the guitar right? So I got to thinking….I’ve read about every internet article ever posted about getting a good guitar sound from different mic placement techniques, but the truth of the matter is that unless I am engineering for someone else, I will never know what my guitar sounds like from some other perspective in the various rooms and locations within that room unless I have some people come in an play and then I “Memorize” where to put the mic’s, but for anyone who has done this long enough, you know that 1 inch, or a slight shift in angle will make a HUGE difference on an instrument as “subtle” as an acoustic guitar. So you either have to make a couple dummy takes and listen to how your mic’s sound in a bunch of locations…(which is time consuming, but definitely worth it if you want “the sound”) or you can try what I did.

I love the way my guitar sounds in my room…and it sounds that way because my ears are positioned where they are in the room, and in relation to the guitar. When I play, I tend to kind of hang my head and shoulders over the guitar and look down at a 45-75 degree over the body of the guitar such that if you drew a straight line out of my ear, it would shoot through the soundboard and guitar body and into my hips. Thus I figured if I love the way it sounds like that then a mic should sound good there tooo! And all it would require was for me to have good posture for once :wink: I tried out a few mic positions and angles which would mimic where my ear usually sits in relation to the guitar…recorded the results of each and kept the best sounding one. After I was comfortable with that I moved on to the pick up of the guitar.

Most of the commercial stuff we hear is actually a combination of a stereo micing configuration and a pick up. The pick up can ad some of the ‘closeness’ back to the sound of the guitar but most pick-ups sound like crap! I have had awesome guitars, and most of them sound like sh!t when you plug them in, because those under the bridge pick ups just don’t do the trick! However the Fishman blender is an interesting beast…it combines the standard “under the bridge” with a condenser mic inside the guitar. This allows you to get a “mix” of the sound from the bridge and the sound bouncing around in the body. You can…simulate….this by taping a small lavelier type condenser (a wired lavelier, not a wireless) into the belly of the beast (in the body of the guitar) and then play with getting the right mix between the under the saddle pick up and the mic. One thing to do is to hit single notes and make sure that the condenser and the saddle pick up are in phase with each other. Zoom in really really really close and watch that the wav’s go up and down in relatively close sequence…if they don’t try flipping the phase (if your pick-up has a phase flip) or if it doesn’t then move the mic around till it does…this is very very important….if you are lost right now…it’s okay, pause and go do a google on phase and sound because you need to understand how it works.

If you want to hear what a decent blend sounds like, listen to only the right (it could be the left, I can’t remember, but if it isn’t the right one I’ll post a correction) channel of the stereo mix. That is the pick-up blended with the in-board condenser. Remember there are no rules so you may like a more brittle, sparkly sound that blending more of the saddle part will give you. It’s just good to know some of the rules so that you can break them with purpose rather than haphazardly.
3) Compressors - Because I am going for a “top 40” radio sound I am not going to worry too much about the phase relationship of the Rode NT3 (now hanging where my head used to, aiming down at the a place just an inche to the left (from the looking over the top perspective) of the sound hole. I am going to pan my NT3 to the far left, and the Blended pick up sound to the far right. When solo my two channels I notice that the pick up sounds…duller, not as bright as the NT3 (Rode mic’s tend to be really really excitable in the upper ranges of the frequency spectrum.) This is okay, because if you were to go and listen to lots of stereo recordings of guitars, you would note that almost all of them have 1 side that is “duller” than the other. This is actually a tool in it’s own right which makes the sound…make sense to the ear in a stereo image…think about it, when you listen to the guitar from a playing position, 1 ear hears the more of the highs off the fret range, while the other hears more of the lows off the body…I’m not talking a huge dynamic difference, just a nice subtle difference.

Another item of note is that your microphone signal is going to be, generally speaking, much much more dynamic than your pick up signal…that’s because the pick up is on the guitar so it is always going to be picking up a lot of sound and the decay of the notes won’t be as pronounced as a mic in a room. Thus I choose to use most of my compressors on the microphone rather than on the pickup. I figure that if I set the level right on the pick up I Wont’ really clip, so I set up the pick up level and the microphone level (without compression) to peak realativly close to each other when I strummed harder. That way I can use my stereo RNC (if you don’t’ have one you should get one, it should be your next purchase after mic’s and pre’s get yourself an outboard compressor the RNC (really nice compressor) is only 175$ at mercenary audio.com) to hit both channels (the mic and the pick-up) because they should be relatively similar in amplitude swing. However, I really could have been find not using a compressor on the pick up.

Here’s the trick though…the meet of everything. I compressed the mic channel 2 times. This is a crucial technique that is used quite often in todays studio. If you compress a whole bunch with 1 compresser you can hear it, but if you compress what you were gonna on 1 copressor do on 2 compressors (1/2 on each (thus leaving the same level of compression)) it is very very hard for the ear to hear. I used an opto compressor as the first compressor (my threshold setting doesn’t really matter because your threshold should be adjusted to match you preamp’s output) but I put an attack time around 15 ms. Normally I would say that you should try to stay slower than 20 ms, but because opto compressors are fairly soft-knee and are pretty “un-attached” to the controls I knew that the light will barely start heating up at 15 and will probably just start to compress at 20 ms. OOOPS I forgot to describe how a guitar strum looks to a compressor.

If you took a guitar strum and looked at it really closesly the first 20-30 ms are just pick noise, slapping the strings into action with maybe a few strings just starting to vibrate. After that the next 50-150 ms are the strings big vibration time where they are twanging all over the place. Then the last 150-end is the decay of the string. Lots of people mistakenly set their compressors really fast so they can “Get more volume” by squashing those transients, but all you do is lose high end information and create a muggy mixed guitar sound. Lots of those tones you are squashing in the first 20 ms are needed to make your guitar sound more lound, even though it isn’t actually a higher amplituted (loudness=EQ not just amplitude!..ponder) So I try to let a good portion of my first 10-20 ms sneak past the compressor and just get the big booooooooming part of the strings really twanging around. Your guitar actually gets louder after 30ms which is counter intuitive because it is a percussion instrument so you would think it would be BIG 20-30 ms and then a Somewhat smaller next 10 ms. But the opposite is true. We often lose the first 20 ms in our ears because the vibration of the strings following the pick noise drowns them out….to state in more plainly it takes about 20 ms for your strings to actually start to make a loud enough sound to overshadow the pick noise and percussive stuff, but once they do vibrate it is substantially louder (depending on how YOU play).

So I set my compressor to get about 2.5:1 or 3:1 reduction at 20 ms and hold onto it for the another 100 ms then let off. It should sound almost inaudible! You should only be getting 2 - 4 db of reduction. Then I ran that signal into the RNC and switch on RNC mode. I set the attack slower (down to a full 20 ms because the RNC is pretty quick compared to an opto compressor) and then I set another 3-4:1 ratio with a solid 3-6 db of reduction on any strum that was louder than medium. Then I used the gain up, to bring the signal back up to a loud enough level. Finally, I recorded a few takes and did a little post, adjusted some thresholds on the RNC and went to town playing and recording. Running compressors in multiple stages can really really really enhance the professional sound of your music. The RNC actually has 3 compressors in it that engage at various times and ratios depending on the nobs (when in RNC mode) but if you switch off RNC mode it will only use 1 of those compressors. Thus I was in effect using 1 Opto compressor and 3 VCA compressors which makes the compression very very difficult to hear, and still leaves in tact a lot of the harmonic data without to much compression distortion.

4) Post production – I shaved a few DB off of the pick up blend at 700 Hz and added a few in the 1000 – 3000 khz range then I slapped on another software compressor FA Soft compressor works fine for this (it’s actually a great software compressor) to take a little bit of the bite off of the the pick up (didn’t want it to peack the signal).

I panned both signals to opposite sides and applied a limitier to the 2 bus. I only wanted to get 2-3 Db of reduction at the louder parts, with little to no reduction on the medium parts. DON”T OVER LIMIT OR OVER COMPRESS you will just shoot apart the harmonic data that makes the thing sound louder and more lifelike. IT should sound loud without being loud. I also slapped on a little reverb, fairly light, to give the whole thing a slightly more “big” feel, as if it was taking place somewhere. Sorry I don’t have any presets to offer on that one, you just need to listen to your own reverb.

That’s how I got the sound. To summarize the important stuff

1) trim some sound out of the 500-800 area to get rid of some of the mud
2) Stage your compressors so that you can get more consistent levels without them being heard
3) Limit the whole thing but only a few DB off the more passionate parts
4) Put your mic where you ears would go when you really like the way your guitar sounds…for me that’s when I play, so I put the mic’s where my ears go when I play which was hanging over the guitar angled at the soundboard aiming an inch to the left of the soundhole.
I’m totally sure I forgot a ton of stuff so if you have questions post away so we can all learn…maybe you know some neat tricks I can pick up on, or maybe you think some of this was complete crap (long winded crap)…either way hope it helps someone?