You want good audio quality if you want to put up your playing on social media. You can have the world’s best microphone but if the mic placement is wrong, you won’t get too pleasing a result. Here’s the quick mantra to learn if you’re new to this: buy a good mic and learn effective mic placement.
There are microphones at every conceivable price range: from the inexpensive plug-and-play USB mic to a German-made connoisseur’s delight at $10,000 with a whole lot in between.
Assuming you are sharing your music online and not making the world’s greatest high-fidelity CD recording, you are looking at quality products that don’t break the bank. You are not aiming to become a sound engineer. You want to mainly concentrate on playing and recording your music rather than learning everything about polar patterns.
Here is a list of microphones that will give you good quality recordings:
- Audio-Technica AT4040 large condenser mic
- Shure SM81 small condenser mic
- Rode NT5 mic pair
- Rode M5-MP matched pair cardioid mics
- Shure MV88 for iPhone or iPad
- Zoom H4n Pro recorder (with built-in mics)
While the last two are digital solutions that plug directly into your computer or iPhone without any in-between device, the first four are analog microphones that will need an audio interface like the Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 to connect them to your computer. Check the price of Focusrite 2i2 at Amazon.
In all six cases, you will need some audio software to record the incoming signals, mix them and spit out a stereo file for you to share. You can also set aside about $60 for recording software like Reaper or Audacity (free).
Of the first four analog mics, two are single stand-alone microphones. The next two are microphone pairs. Let’s discuss single microphone choices (as against a pair) to record your classical guitar.
Single microphone for mono recordings
Audio Technica AT4040: Proven LDC for quality recordings
LDC stands for Large Diaphragm Condenser. AT4040 is certainly among the many great choices of LDC’s that are reputedly good for vocals and acoustic instruments.
A lot of mic talk can sound like urban legends more than factual discussions. But the AT4040, at its price point, has more than its fair share of adherents. Check the price of AT4040 at Amazon if you’re curious. Or you can check the AT4040 at Sweetwater.
If you can swing it, go for the AT4040. It is conventional to think of LDCs as not so ideal for an acoustic instrument like the classical guitar. Small Diaphragm Condensers (SDSs) are thought to be more suited. By and large, this kind of observation is true in the same way guitarists say cedar is warm and dark, while spruce is brilliant and bright. Tends to be true most of the time, but not always.
Depending on a lot of variables, such generalized observations always have room for exceptions. The AT4040 is one such exception. Go for it. You can also look at its cheaper, baby brother – the AT2020. Check the price of AT2020 at Amazon.
Shure SM81: Reputed SDC that delivers
Search the net for ‘classical guitar recording’ and you will see the almost mandatory recommendation of the Shure SM81 microphone. It’s an excellent choice, for it has delivered results for thousands. It is not the most expensive mic ever, nowhere close, yet it is not cheap either. It may in fact be a bit of a stretch for those looking to post something nice once in a while on YouTube.
Unlike the AT4040, the Shure SM-81 is an SDC (Small Diaphragm Condenser) mic. As mentioned, for various reasons, a small condenser is ideal for recording an acoustic instrument like the classical guitar. And, like the AT4040, the SM-81 has a cardioid polar pattern, a sensitivity to recording sounds directly in front.
There are a handful of such patterns that all mics fall under and they refer to a mic’s sensitivity to direction of the sound. Omni polar pattern mics, for instance, pick up sound from all round them. Cardioid polar pattern mics pick up sound directly from the front. Bottom line: Cardioid is good for us players of the classical guitar, especially for home recording.
And the SM-81 is certainly best of class at its price point. You will not go wrong with it.
Now that we have diaphragm sizes (LDC-SDC) and polar patterns (Omni-Cardioid) out of the way, the only important ‘audio geek’ factor left to note is the fact that both AT4040 and SM-81 are condenser microphones and not dynamic mics.
For our purposes, that means that, since all condenser mics need power, we must make sure that our audio interface is capable of providing it. The recommended Focusrite 2i2 audio interface provides this power and so do many of its alternatives. But it’s always worth checking.
Where to place the single microphone in your room
If you’re new to the recording process, a single mic is a perfect place to start – not just to learn about the mic but also about the other thing I mentioned at the beginning: mic placement. You have to learn this yourself, for quick-fix solutions on the net don’t really help.
You are dealing with your room, your walls, your carpet, your floor, your reflections, your guitar and whatnot… the internet has no idea about what’s in your room.
The closer you place the mic to the guitar, the more you get the direct sound of the guitar with room reflections discounted or minimized. Depending on the acoustics in your room, close placement may be a good thing or a bad thing. If you get the mic too close to the guitar, you get an unpleasant sound known as the proximity effect – an overemphasis on lower frequencies, a boomy sound.
The further you place the mic from the guitar, the greater the ‘room sound’ and less of a direct sound from the guitar. Not a good option in most normal rooms. You probably want to experiment in the range of 2 feet or so away from the guitar. A couple of inches can make a difference. If I haven’t said it before, mic placement is key. Spend time and find out what gives you a great recording in your room.
Once you fix the distance, it’s going to be the same every time you sit down to record. So put in some initial effort to get it right.
Many find it helpful to make someone else play the guitar as they walk close to the player shutting one ear and listening with the other. Little moves can cause significant changes in sound perception. Plonk the mic stand where the guitar sounds best to you.
Toward what should the mic be pointing? A natural tendency is to make the mic point at the soundhole. Mistake! You can place it directly in front of the soundhole but the mic should point at the 12th fret.
It’s better to learn recording yourself with a single mic thoroughly. It’s easier to measure your distance and such other things. You can only improve on the basis of what you can measure. Good ol’ mono recording with a single mic will get you there (although, hang on, the output will be a regular stereo file.)
With the mic placement done, you record a single track in mono on your DAW. That’s a fancy way of saying Digital Audio Workstation which is a fancy way of saying audio software (like the aforementioned Reaper or Audacity). Learn to say DAW. You’ll feel professional.
Every audio software worth its salt has a digital reverb and you will figure out how to add a stereo reverb to your mono audio track. The reverb takes the signal in the center, so to speak, and ‘spreads’ the sound out left and right to give you a sense of space – which is the whole point of using a reverb effect. (Don’t overdo this, though.)
Get the mix out and there you have it – a stereo file that’s worth listening to (you did play the piece beautifully, didn’t you?) from a mono recording you made in your room with a single mic.
I’ll say it again. Instead of rushing into two mics for a stereo recording without grasping the essentials of mic placement and your room acoustics, a single mic gives you ample scope to learn the ropes of home recording within a few months. You will learn from your own experience how to deal with your room time and again. Get one great mic.
When the time comes later to get yourself a stereo pair, the decent quality first mic will still play a great role in helping you try out various advanced, stereo mic-ing techniques. It will sharpen your skills, it will not go waste.
Paired microphones for stereo recordings
Rode NT5 pair: Good performance at a reasonable cost
Rode mics are an excellent option more often than not. The NT5 has been doing the rounds for a while now and if used well (mic placement, remember?) it can deliver more than decent quality. We share so much of our music on YouTube and other audio/video channels as well as mp3 files. A good pair of such mics, without getting ultra-geeky about the subject, helps a lot.
Like I already mentioned, if you want to get into the deep and mysterious (but hugely exciting) world of stereo mic recordings, a good pair of SDC cardioid microphones like the NT5s is a solid start. These pencil mics offer good quality at a reasonable price. Obviously, a couple of mics will cost a bit more than a single mic and what’s a ‘reasonable price’ for someone will be pricey for someone else.
But if we are talking about stereo recordings with a mic pair and going for good quality, this NT5 pair must be considered a good price for this level of quality. Check their price at Amazon. Or check them out at Sweetwater.
Rode M5-MP matched pair: The affordable stereo mics option
Made in Australia, Rode microphones have a healthy reputation for quality. And even the inexpensive ones are quite respectable. The M5 is a compact ½” cardioid condenser microphone with low noise and full frequency response. It is certainly good for home recordings of acoustic instruments, a typical use for small condenser mics.
This will remind you of countless videos you have seen of acoustic guitar or classical guitar players in a recording studio. A couple (or more) mics on stands at a decent distance from the guitarist for a beautiful sound – oh, the magic of stereo recording!
Where to place the stereo pair in your room
In a regular home that is not a recording studio, stereo recording even with the best of microphones is a dicey proposition. There are many techniques of recording a classical guitar with a couple of microphones – the so-called AB technique, XY technique, MS technique, Blumlein technique and the ORTF technique.
Because your room has not been treated, many of these techniques will fail because in one way or another they all try to ‘mix’ the sound of your direct guitar with the reflected sound of the guitar as it bounces off the walls and everything else.
You will find the AB technique most useful when applied somewhat close to the guitar at a distance of anything from 16” to 24” from it. This practically eliminates the ‘room sound’ and you will compensate with a dollop of digital reverb in your software to give the sound a sense of spatiality.
If you have 2 mics – matched pairs preferably – place one (called A) in front of the 12th fret and the second one (called B) aimed at the lower bout below the bridge.
This is the simplified AB technique as applicable to your room. This technique was used frequently with great results while recording acoustic guitars (steel strung) and is often applied to recordings of the classical guitar. It may or may not be the ideal method for your room.
An alternative AB approach to try that may work better in some rooms is to increase the distances suggested above. You place the two mics to the left and right of the guitar at an increased distance of 32”-36”.
It’s important that the distance between the guitar and each mic is exactly the same to avoid phasing issues. A ‘phased’ sound is a thin, ugly sound that arises from frequencies canceling each other out. It is caused primarily by misplaced mics.
The distance between the mics, in this case, is about 16” and the height of the mics from the floor is about 42”-45”. Both the mics face directly forward or even slightly outward, looking away from each other (a little, not a lot). The key difference in this approach as against the first AB version is that we are no longer close mic-ing anything near the frets or soundboard. The mics are about 3 feet away, allowing the sound to reach it after it blooms.
Try both these AB approaches but take your time. Gauging the quality of sound takes some practice and you will find your work improves with successive recordings.
Now go through this fine write-up and video below on classical guitar recording with various mic set-ups. These microphones are high end and the quality of the player, Slovenian guitarist-cum-recording-engineer Uros Baric, is also high end! But it gives you an idea of the sound that is possible on this magnificent instrument of ours.
(Never mind if you can’t tell the subtle differences between one mic recording and another. All of them are superb recordings and unless you have what’s called ‘a set of golden ears’ you will hardly perceive significant differences. Enjoy nevertheless and see what’s possible.)
A word on microphone specs
While you don’t have to get into the murky, geeky world of acoustic specifications, a broad awareness of what to look for will help.
Beware of claims that just say ‘Low noise’. I’ve run through a list of them and discovered them to be noisy as heck. Background noise is a real thing and while you can’t eliminate it entirely – given our imperfect rooms and the mics at our price range – you really shouldn’t be falling for unsubstantiated claims.
A good set of specs to pay attention to are these three:
Signal to Noise Ratio: Anything above 76 or so is good. A low number will introduce hiss into your recordings.
Self Noise: Low numbers are better. Anything below 21 is respectable. A higher number will introduce hiss into your recordings.
Impedance: 150-600 is a safe, low value.
If important specs like these go missing, I personally wouldn’t consider that mic seriously.
Direct to computer, the full-on digital solution
Most of us want to record our playing for self-evaluation. Our devices today make great videos so that we can see ourselves playing and learn from them. More and more tutors today encourage their students to record themselves to help them observe faulty techniques and make corrections.
We may also put up videos on social media for further comment and feedback if not appreciation. For these purposes, we look for superior audio quality that is better than what we get from basic phone videos.
A fully digital audio solution is what you need – something that plugs directly into your computer or phone or tablet. You hit ‘Record’ and when you are done you hit ‘Stop’. No audio interfaces, no breaking your head over mic placements, no futzing over levels.
Shure MV88: Ideal for your iOS devices
This tiny mic packs a punch. By way of usage, nothing can be simpler. You plug the MV88 into the lightning port of your iPad or iPhone and you’re in business. You place the device about 2 feet away from your guitar and record the audio/video with your phone app as usual. Your audio quality will certainly go up a notch or two.
For the YouTubers among us, the MV88 is a quick and dirty option. Plug and play, literally. It is also the cheapest option on the list we are covering here. What’s not to like? Check the price of the Shure MV88 at Amazon. And here’s the Sweetwater link.
Zoom H4n Pro: A versatile, stand-alone audio recorder
There are quite a few Zoom product variants out there providing audio and video solutions for today’s musicians. As someone coming from the old fashioned pro-audio world of analog devices, I find that products like the Zoom H4n Pro are very good for the way we go about making music these days.
The Zoom H4n Pro is a palm-sized, stand-alone, audio-only device that has a couple of condenser mics already fixed in an XY orientation for that style of audio recording (see above.) But, more than mics, the H4n is also a recorder and a mini-computer, where you set levels, monitor on headphones and record into a regular SD card. You can also bypass its own mics and insert your regular, analog mics instead.
Once your recording is done, you pull out the SD card and transfer its contents to your computer for further processing. It is my preferred way of recording myself these days. I have a full how-to article featuring the Zoom H4n Pro which gives more details on proper usage for good quality recordings.