How Do You Mic Fingerstyle Guitar?

How Do You Record Fingerstyle Guitar and What are the Best Microphones for It?

Do you have a nice fingerstyle guitar composition that you want to record for your next song? How should you go about doing it? What microphones work the best and where should you place it in the room?

Today I want to answer these questions and then some. Here’s your guide to recording fingerstyle guitar parts at home, for both large and small budgets.

What is the Biggest Factor When Picking a Fingerstyle Microphone?

Regardless of your budget or studio space, there is one overarching factor on which you should focus when recording fingerstyle acoustic guitar and, therefore, when picking a microphone for the job. And that is: dynamics.

Dynamics refers to the variability of sound levels that an instrument can produce, from very soft to very loud. An acoustic guitar will usually sound much softer, and therefore quieter, if you’re playing with your finger as opposed to a plectrum. Guitars can be quite dynamic when playing fingerstyle, as the intensity of each finger pluck can vary—even depending on what finger is doing the plucking on which string.

There are several types of microphone styles (that is, build designs) on the market. The main three are: dynamics, condensers, and ribbon microphones. Without getting overly technical, these designs vary in how they take in noise and convert it to audio. Dynamics have more high-end coloration, condensers have flatter EQs, and ribbons have roll off high frequencies.

What Style of Microphone Should I Use for Fingerstyle Guitar?

So what is the best kind of microphone for recording fingerstyle guitar? I would recommend using a cardioid condenser microphone, which can capture far more nuanced tones than a dynamic microphone but are more durable than a ribbon.

You can find cardioid condenser mics in a variety of price ranges, but in general they will cost a bit more than a dynamic.

Dynamic microphones are not designed for soft intimate recordings—they are meant for capturing very loud and explosive sounds, like amp’d electric guitars and snare drums. Ribbon microphones are usually bidirectional, which means they pick up sound from both the front and back of the mic. You don’t really want that or need it when recording a single guitar part.

If you don’t own a microphone yet and you’re looking to buy one, then let’s look at some specific models you can consider.. For those of you who already own any kind of microphone and lack the funds for getting another, then my recommendation would be to just use what you got.

Poor Man’s Microphone for Acoustic Guitar

Let’s briefly discuss microphones that fit the budget of us broke home musicians (because who isn’t these days?). There are a lot to choose from, but I’m only going to mention the two that I have actually used. This are not sponsored, it’s just my two cents.

The Audio-Technica AT2020 Condenser Microphone

This one gets rave reviews all over the internet, perhaps because it’s quite cheap but still a respectable brand. It often gets suggested for beginners, and I’ve even used one myself on a bunch of recordings. If you’re just starting out on a shoestring budget, this will get the job done. It’s not overly bright sounding; it has some lower mid warmth but nothing too drastic, just for adding clarity to the mix without causing a lot of harshness On a personal level, I felt it was fine for recording guitars…but, when it came to recording my own vocals, the AT2020 just did not sound good (which is why I bought the next one on this short list). That could come down to the room I recorded in and the frequencies of my voice, so take my complaints with a grain of salt. A lot of people on the internet will attest to the quality of the AT2020.

The Lewitt LCT 440 Pure

This is another cardioid condenser mic from a relatively reputable company. It’s well-praised in Amazon reviews, if that says anything. I even saw Glenn Fricker from Spectre Sound Studios review several Lewitt mics on his YouTube channel and they sounded quite nice. This one costs more than the AT2020, but it’s still generally in the affordable range (I could afford it, and I’m a dead-end desk jockey who hasn’t seen a wage raise in like 5 years). I noticed that, compared to the AT2020, the 440 handles dynamics better; it’s a bit louder and, to my ears, has more clarity in the midrange.

Slightly More Expensive But Nicer Alternative

If you only have access to one microphone, there are two great techniques you can use to capture the sound. However, if you can swing the money for a pair of microphones, then a set of matched small-diaphragm condenser microphones (often called “pencil mics”) will allow for a much richer sound with much greater depth. We’ll get to that in technique #3.

At the time being, I don’t own a pair of matched pencil mics so I cannot personally recommend anything at this time. However my Tascam DR-40 has paired mics, so I can still provide audio examples.

4 Vital Prep Tips Before You Record

Hopefully by now you know what microphone to use and you’re ready to record. How should you proceed? Before we get to the actually recording techniques, let’s run through some preliminary checks you should always do first:

1. Turn on Your Phantom Power

If you’re using a condenser mic, you’re going to need a power source for it (condensers have active pickup technology, which means they need 48V to operate). You’re digital audio interface should have phantom power included. After you have plugged the mic in, turn on phantom power. It’s usually a button labeled as 48V, and on my interface the button glows when it’s on.

2. Test Your Gain Level to Prevent Clipping

Do a couple of test playing into the microphone from about 6-12” away and watch the gain level on your interface. If you see the gain meter light up red at any point, that means you’re too loud and clipping. Turn down the gain knob until you’re only seeing green.

3. Check Your Tuning

This sounds like common sense, but always check that your guitar is in tune before you go any further. I’m scatterbrained and have recording several tracks before only to realize the guitar was flat, leaving me little choice but to re-do all the acoustic parts. Don’t be like me, tune up before you record.

4. Pick the Best Ambient Location in Your Room

The room in which you are recording will have an impact on your tone, because all the hard surfaces around you (your walls, ceiling, floor, the furniture, etc) will reflect audio waves in different ways and accentuate different frequencies. In many situations, the middle of the room will be the best place to sit down with your guitar. That’s because you want to minimize bass reflections, and those will be most noticeable when you’re close up to walls…and especially corners! I’m assuming you have an average-sized bedroom to work in. If possible, sit in the middle of your room with your back a few feet away from a flat wall. Don’t have your back towards a corner. If you have any clothes or blankets you can hang on the walls, then do it: those will help dampen the reflections around you and the microphone.

5 Microphone Placement Techniques for Fingerstyle Guitar

Now we can talk about the 4 techniques for recording acoustic guitar. When you’re playing fingerstyle, your output noise level will naturally be quieter than it wold just strumming chords with a pick. We need to keep that in mind when placing the mic. The five techniques to try are:

  1. Facing the Neck Joint Placement
  2. Bridge & Hand Placement
  3. XY Two-Mic Placement
  4. AB Two-Mic Placement
  5. Natural Ambient Placement

1. Facing the Neck Joint Technique

In this technique, you will position the microphone about 12” away from the guitar and point it at the neck where it joins at the body. For most guitars, this is usually the 12th or 14th fret. If you’re not getting enough volume at a foot away, try moving the mic a little bit nearer but don’t get in any closer than 6”. If the guitar is too near the condenser, the sound will get boomy due to the proximity effect.

Don’t point the mic towards the soundhole unless you want a lot of intentional pent-up bass frequency. Pointing at the neck joint will give you the most clarity without overwhelming the mic with bass response or excessive finger noises.

2. Bridge & Hand Technique

Alternatively, you can point the microphone towards the bridge of the guitar (again 6-12” inches away from the guitar). In this position, the microphone will pick up more of your fingerpicking noise and the tone will be more woody. Again, avoid the soundhole whenever possible to retain clarity.

3. XY Technique with Two Microphones

For this technique, you’ll need a pair of condenser mics. Preferably ones that are matched. Place the microphones so they are criss-crossed over each other at a 90 degree angle or just point them towards each other—again, at a 90 degree angle. Don’t let the two mics touch though, or you’ll get mechanical noise in the recording. Now point this setup so one mic is pointed towards the fretboard and the other towards the bridge.

Using two microphones will give much more depth to the tone because, well…you’re giving the listener two different audio perspectives of the sound. Humans normally have two functioning ears, so using two mics creates a more three dimensional and more realistic sound.

To do this technique, you will also need an audio interface with two mic cable inputs. The low-end and portable interfaces usually only have one.

XY Technique without Pencil Mics

But there are two other ways to accomplish this without the need for a pair of pencil mics and a larger interface:

  1. You can overdub your guitar part and pan each one to opposite sides of the mix. To capture an XY sound, you’ll want to record the first take with the mic facing the fretboard and the second take facing the bridge. Clearly, there will be slight differences in the sound of each take because you’re playing the part twice. But overdubbing like this can also create more space (read, auditory depth) in the instrument’s final recording.
  2. Use a field recorder. Most consumer-grade field audio recorders have a pair of mics on top. This includes the DR-40x (what I use), DR-05x, DR-07x, Zoom H1n, and the H4n. You can capture your takes on the field recorder and then import them into your interface, or use the recorder temporarily in place of your interface (if yours has this feature, like the DR-40x does).

4. AB Technique for Two Microphones

This technique involves you taking two microphones and placing them further away and both facing towards the guitar’s direction. The two mics and your guitar should form a slightly-lopsided triangle when looking at it overhead.

The upside is that you don’t need a matched pair to make this sound good, just any two cardioid condensers will do. However, you do need to watch out for phasing. To prevent phase issues, you should follow the 3 to 1 rule: The second mic should be 3 times as far from the first mic as the first is from the guitar.

5. Natural Ambient Technique

Last up is another one-mic placement. Put your microphone a few feet away from the guitar and facing towards the neck joint. This will allow more of the room noise into the mix, which will sound more realistic. It will emulate more of the tone a listener would actually have in a room (people usually sit a few feet away facing a guitarist, rather than standing right up in the guitarist’s grill).

However, this placement obviously includes more ambient room noise…which may not sound too great if your room is untreated and/or overly small. Feel free to test out this technique but watch for nasty reflections that can cause the sound to be boxy from extra lower mid-range frequencies.

If you want that more ambient tone but have a boxy-sounding room, you can artificially replicate the sound—to an extent at least—by adding room reverb in post-production.

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