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Recording Guitar and Vocal: Together Or Separate?

7:01 am Home Recording

As the owner and sole employee of an on-location recording company, I am often asked to record someone playing acoustic guitar and singing. The question arises, should I record the guitar first and then overdub the vocal, studio style, or should I record both at once, concert style? Both are valid approaches, and which to use in a given situation depends on (a) performance factors, and (b) recording factors. Let’s look at the performance factors first.

Some artists strongly prefer playing and singing at the same time, wanting to capture an actual performance of the song. They may be unfamiliar with studio overdubbing techniques, or they may be accustomed to playing the song “live” and feel most comfortable just “banging it out.” Others are delighted to learn that they can record the guitar part first without having to worry about the vocal, then record the vocal without having to worry about the guitar. Or they may like the idea of sitting while playing the guitar, then standing up for the vocal part.

If the artist has a preference for one or the other approach, my suggestion is to do it the way that they are most comfortable with. You can get a good recording of the song either way, but the artist needs to be comfortable to “get in the zone” and deliver a good performance. Now, if they offer to leave it up to you which to use, I would suggest the studio-style overdubbing approach because of the additional flexibility it offers, both at recording and mixing time.

Let It Bleed

This brings us to the recording factors involved in the “Together Or Separate” decision. Actually, there is really only one recording factor involved: leakage. Bleed. Spill. Whatever you want to call it, if the artist plays and sings at the same time, the guitar mike will pick up some of the vocal, and the vocal mike will pick up some of the guitar. When you go to mix the song, you will find that you don’t have total control of either element. The volume levels and pan positions interact. If you add a some reverb to the vocal, you add a little to the guitar as well, and vice versa. Same with EQ. And so on.

Luckily, none of this needs to be fatal, so don’t panic if the artist is an “all at once” man. First off, there are some steps you can take before making the recording. The main issue here is microphone selection and placement. Clearly, you will want to use directional (cardioid) if not super-directional (hyper-cardioid) mikes so that you can take advantage of their sound-cancelling capabilities. Although condenser mikes can give acoustic guitars a nice, crystalline sound, you might want to use a dynamic type here because of its lower sensitivity. Condensers hear everything!

If the guitar has an electric pickup, consider using the signal from that instead of miking it at all. But beware - the pickup signal can sound quite different (and not always better) than the regular miked acoustic guitar sound. Some guitars have EQ or other controls you can tweak. If you can get away with this, you’ve solved half your problem! But for now let’s assume you’ve decided to use a microphone on the guitar.

To the extent possible, point the vocal mike away from the guitar and the guitar mike away from the singer. The “null” toward the back of each mike, where pickup is minimal, will be at a slight angle from straight back - check your microphone documentation for the exact angle (or have a guess, like I do). Also, make sure both mikes are as close as possible to their respective sound sources, so that there will be more of the right sound and less of the wrong one in each. And don’t forget a windscreen for the vocal mike!

With these precautions, you should end up with a reasonable set of tracks to work with when the time comes to mix the song.

Studio Style

If the artist agrees to using the overdub method, you can just use your usual studio process. Start with a click track if the artist wants one - some do, some don’t. (Of course you can use a click with the all-at-once approach too, by having the artist wear headphones and putting the click in them for reference.) Here is where the flexibility of this approach becomes evident. Starting with the guitar, you can record multiple takes, do punch-ins, or make a composite track, depending on how far you want to take it. Same with the vocal!

Naturally, with the guitar and vocal cleanly recorded on their own tracks, with no leakage, you have a much better situation for mixing as well. The danger, though, is that the two parts may not “blend” the way they do when they are recorded together, bleed and all. We sometimes hear that a particular vocal doesn’t “sit” properly in a mix. This is partly a consequence of having recorded them separately in the first place. Extra care is required to make it sound as if the two parts happened at the same time.

In this discussion, I have assumed the guitar is being recorded with a single mike. In fact, I prefer using two mikes in an X-Y configuration on the guitar so I can pan them part-way left and right in the mix to get them out of the way of the centered vocal and provide a nice stereo guitar sound. As always, the overriding consideration is to produce a clean, natural-sounding recording that doesn’t call attention to itself in any way. If you know your gear, it is possible to achieve this result regardless of whether an acoustic guitar and vocal are recorded together or separately.

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