With the right equipment and some simple steps, anyone can get a decent stereo recording of their classical guitar. This happens to be my way. I have provided the steps below as well as my audio samples for you to gauge the results.
So what’s the no-fuss way to get a clean recording of a classical guitar at home? Place a digital audio recorder like the Zoom H4n Pro at a distance of about 15 inches in front of the 12th fret of the classical guitar. Record the guitar as many times as required to get a decent performance. Take out the SD memory card from the Zoom recorder, insert into your computer to save it and publish.
Why the Zoom H4n Pro recorder? (Any of their models will do fine, I just happen to have the H4n Pro). The crucial point is the Zoom does your job with one device instead of two – a microphone or a pair of them, as well as a computer interface like Scarlett 2i2.
Plus the X/Y stereo mic configuration is already built in, so we don’t worry about individual mic placements. We can concentrate of what we do best: play the guitar.
What is the Zoom H4N Pro? What does it do?
It’s palm-sized. It has two built-in microphones, fused together for now and till kingdom come, that record in stereo. It can record in two different audio types: the larger, uncompressed WAV format and the popular, compressed MP3 format. It delivers excellent quality audio.
The Zoom H4n Pro is touted as an excellent recording device for the field, an outdoor location where a video is being shot, or perhaps at a rock concert. However, it seems to work very well in my living room as well.
The H4n Pro has the advanced X/Y technique built into its design itself. It comes with two matched unidirectional microphones at an angle of 90 degrees to each other. Making a tightly focussed stereo recording right out of the box.
It comes with free recording software, a limited version of the famous Cubase brand. We don’t need for it recording. But we can optionally use it for processing our recorded audio file (explained shortly).
Since the H4n Pro can record in either WAV or MP3, which one should you choose? I recommend recording in the larger WAV format for greater fidelity (if you wish to post-process, as discussed below). If you don’t plan to post-process, use the MP3 option.
If this sort of technical wrangling already gives you a headache, just choose the MP3 recording at the outset. And never worry about it later. You’re done when the recording is done.
It’s perfectly fine. The sky will not fall.
Here’s the Amazon affiliate link to the Zoom H4n recorder. And, by the way, if you need help in choosing a better quality guitar for yourself, do read my review of classical guitar options for the intermediate guitarist.
The process, the whole process and nothing but the whole process
The H4n Pro has a groove at the back that allows you to fix it on top of any standard photo/video tripod (purchased separately). Tripods are cheap and any simple one will do for our purpose.
Its job is to hold the H4n Pro steady at a low height just a little ahead of you in your playing position. So you can lean over, view the screen and touch the controls.
If you have a bench or a stool that provides such support, you don’t need a tripod. Just make sure the support is a stable one.
Adjust the tripod height and orientation in a way that the H4n Pro is head-on in front of the 12th fret at your playing position.
Switch on the H4N Pro.
The two X-Y microphones will be facing away from one another – one looking towards the fingerboard and the other towards the sound hole. This is perfect. The distance from the fret to the recorder should be about 15 inches. There is no magic in this number – it can be 12 inches or it can be 16 inches, but stay in the range of a little more than a foot.
(Surely, you have already popped in a couple of A3 batteries into the recorder to make it work. And an SD card into the slot to make it record.)
Press the round button with the red dot which from time immemorial mankind knows as the Record button. It doesn’t record, it merely puts it on standby mode. Use the volume buttons on the side of the recorder to adjust the input level.
Play some guitar snippets while watching the audio meter on the display screen. Keep the level in the -12 dB to -18 db range. No higher. This is important. If ever there is an ugly sound in the universe, it has to be an acoustic instrument distorting.
You are ready. Press the Record button again to start recording. The digital timer starts its micro-second count furiously. Play through the piece. Press the STOP button to stop, not the Record button. Record a few more times till you are satisfied. Record one more.
Every time you press the STOP button, you make a separate file. So your 5 different takes will end up as 5 different audio files in the SD card. Which is perfect.
You can pop the card into your computer and open up Cubase if you want to post process your WAV file. Or call it done and start posting away your MP3 on social media right away if you don’t want to post process.
Settings: Before you start, use the menu button on the side of the recorder and set the audio quality to 16-bit 48 Hz. It is a healthy compromise between file size and recording fidelity.
Check out the audio samples of my recording
This is my playing of a very shortened excerpt from Gaspar Sanz’s Rujero from the 17th century. This is recorded with the Zoom recorder at 14″ distance from the guitar and placed opposite the 12th fret.
It was recorded as a 16-bit 44.1 Hz WAV file (I know, it should have been 16-bit 48 Hz). And converted into an MP3 file to show how an unprocessed MP3 straight off the oven sounds like.
The same original WAV file was then taken into Cubase LE and processed lightly. Below is the same recording with some audio processing.
The processing, the optional processing and nothing but
Install the free Cubase LE software on your computer following the instructions and using their secret license key.
Import your audio file (your best take) into the software. We will process this audio track now.
Specifically, we will add a touch of EQ (equalization), a touch of compression and a touch of reverb. The word ‘touch’ is important. Being ham handed here, as many a recording rookie will attest, wreaks havoc with your sound.
And we’ll call it done.
The EQ settings I used are the following (for my guitar and for my ears). Yours will vary from these. Skip the next paragraph completely if you have no clue at all about EQ. It’s OK, really.
Look for the EQ plug-in in the left column. I cut off -4.5dB at 300Hz and cut off -5.5dB at 2500Hz. I’m using subtractive EQ (lessening bad sounding frequencies) to take away some tubbiness at around 300Hz (a standard range to look for this bloated sound is between 250Hz and 400Hz) and also at the grating frequency of 2500Hz (a baby’s piercing cry has a lot of 2000-2500Hz in it).
Don’t bother with EQ if you can’t tell the difference the settings are making and can’t understand what they’re supposed to be doing.
But do the next two steps using the following exact settings:
Use the Inserts section on the left to insert a VST Dynamics plug-in which is a compressor by a fancy name. It has 3 sections from left to right: Gate, Compressor and Limiter (look for the names at the very bottom).
Only the Compressor button should be ON (green dot), the other two OFF.
Use the Inserts section on the left to insert a reverb plug-in which goes under the name of RoomWorks SE. The settings for a ‘touch’ of reverb to your music are given below (feel free to alter the values). Unlike EQ and Compression, a reverb effect can be easily discerned and adjusted to taste.
Export the file with all the above processing using the Export… command on the File menu, making sure to export it as an MP3. That way, your masterpiece will be small enough to be mailable and post-able on social media.
Pour yourself a tall one. You deserve it.
Amazon link: Zoom H4n recorder
EDIT: It’s useful to know that you can use an external mic or two instead of the inbuilt mics and use the Zoom recorder as an interface to the computer. Check out my article on Microphone Choices for Home Recording a Classical Guitar for more information.
Happy home studio-ing!
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