How to Cheaply Record an Acoustic Track

Most posts on this site are aimed at electronic producers and musicians, I thought it was time to do a brief guide on recording an acoustic track for those who prefer playing real instruments. I will use a singer/guitarist as the example here however, the same ideas are transferable to a number of instruments. This guide will allow you to record demos or even more professional sounding tracks using only a small amount of gear.

What you will need

Assuming you already have your voice and a guitar, the list is quite short:
  • USB condenser microphone
  • Computer
  • Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) Software 
Regarding the first two, you have a number of options, you could kindly ask a friend if you could borrow their mics and audio interface, or you could buy them yourself. Don't worry if you have to buy them, both are cheaply available (with prices increasing with quality). Second hand is a very viable option if you are on a budget.

SubZero SZC-500 USB is a condenser USB microphone at roughly the same price as a budget dynamic mic, it is a good choice. If you also use it to record your acoustic guitar (perhaps because you don't have pickups) then you can skip having an audio interface altogether. It is the cheapest option overall.

Reaper is probably the best DAW software out there as it is available for free (it does have a price but there is an unlimited evaluation license). It is a bit more complicated than Audacity, an alternate free software, but is way more powerful and full featured. It resembles other professional software which may be a plus if you are interested in recording future, more advanced projects. 

How to record your song

I won't go into specific details on setting up Reaper, as Youtube is the way forward for that, especially as it can vary depending on whether you use an audio interface or not. This section will cover the actual process you, as a musician will use to make your track sound as good as possible. There are several points to consider.

Recording location - this is very important, microphones don't decide what they pick up, they just record everything. If you are in a super echo-y room then the echos will be recorded and will be next to impossible to edit out. Adding reverb digitally to a clean sound means you have complete control instead of being stuck with whatever the room offered.

Choose a room using the "clap test", where you stand at the place you'd record and clap. If the clap rings out in the room, it may not be ideal. 

This is why pro studios have plenty of treatment
on the walls.

Either bring in lots of cushions and duvets to catch some of the sound reflections or find a better room. This step can be more essential than the subtle difference in different microphone qualities.

The other point to make regarding room choice is that traffic and background noise can ruin a mix. If you are in a noisy environment, at least time your recording so that outdoor noise is at a minimum. 

Laying down the rough track - The first recording you should do is just a rough one. The idea is to have something to play and sing along to when you do your proper recording. Hit record and play your song through from start to finish. Look out for any issues such as unwanted speed changes and re-record until you are happy, a metronome may be helpful. This is like when an artist sketches outlines out in pencil - its not part of the final painting.

Once you have your backing track ready, you can think about how you want to record. Normally a recording with just a guitar and singer will have more than two tracks. Firstly, recording two takes of each sound and mixing them together thickens it. Secondly, you are able to add parts to your guitar and vocals which aren't possible using only one performer live e.g harmonies.

When ABBA were in the studio, they'd record the vocals
over the backing track and then literally rewrite the
instrumental to fit with the vocals.

Recording your guitar - Rule One is to tune your guitar before and after every take. It's your fault if you publish an out of tune song. Make sure you are able to play along to the rough backing track accurately, and that you are listening to it on headphones (downloading the rough track to your phone may help). We don't want your rough track to bleed into the real takes.

Figure out a good microphone placement, try recording a few riffs with the microphone various distances away and see what you prefer. Keep the mic near (but not over) the sound hole on your guitar.

The aim is to get two perfect takes, this probably won't happen, it certainly doesn't always happen with the pros. This is OK, don't delete a recording because of one finger slip in bar 72. Things can be edited and spliced together.

The reason we want two good takes, is to double track. Both recordings are panned slightly (or a lot) to either left or right to give some stereo depth since notes will be played slightly different in each take and therefore each ear.

If it's easier, you may want to record sections individually, start playing before the start of the section so you can naturally lead into it, and keep playing for a few notes after the section has ended (you can chop the tails off). This means the listener won't hear you anticipating the end and it will sound more like one coherent recording when it is all assembled.

Once you know you have every section recorded well (no matter how many tracks it took) you can split the tracks up and put all the good bits together.

Crude MS Paint example showing that even if 
every recording has mistakes, by picking the
good bits, you can have a perfect track.

Recording your vocals - while a guitarist may argue that playing guitar is just as hard as singing, sloppy vocals will ruin a track more than sloppy guitar since the lyrics are what people focus on.

For complete clarity, you don't want to record your voice while playing guitar, so again, make sure the reference track is only in your headphones and your guitar has been put out of reach.

Double tracking also sounds great on vocals, there's also the option to add more recordings with harmonies on top.  Staying in tune is so important with singing, even with Autotune, you want to nail it as much as possible first, then a small digital touch up after is fine.

It's like if you were driving between traffic cones, if you accidentally mess up and bump one out of place, it takes little work to right that single traffic cone. If you smash through a bunch of them, it will be much harder to put them all back into place and, the chances of them all going back into place neatly are reduced. 
How to find the right distance to stand away
from the mic

Mic technique is essential. If you are too loud, then you'll distort the mic. If you "pop" then it will ruin the recording. Learn good mic technique and get yourself at least a ghetto pop filter. Some tights over a firm ring or coat hanger does the trick nicely.

Consider triple, or even quadruple tracking vocals at intense parts of the song, e.g. the chorus, and reverting back to a double track on the verses. Some lyrics may require particular impact so try adding more layers on just one word. Stay as in tune as you can.

By the end, you should have at least four tracks recorded (two for guitar, two for vocals), probably more. The next post in this series will cover the mixing aspect of the sound.