Keith Everette Smith

Producer, Songwriter, Multi-Instrumentalist

That Amazing Recorded Sound and Simplicity

Every few weeks or so, I’ll find myself in conversation with a young engineer.  I enjoy this chance to teach and share knowledge I’ve learned along the way.   Inevitably, we will end up having some form of the following conversation…

Young Engineer: “I really loved your ______________ album.  It sounds great!”

Me: “Oh, wow!  So glad you enjoy it!”

Young Engineer: “The sound you got out of the acoustic guitar was amazing.  Did you use such and such crazy over-the-top recording technique?”

Me: “No, it was way more simple than that….”

I TOTALLY understand this question.  I’ve been in the same place.  As we listen to our favorite albums, we hear excitement.  We hear such big sounds.  We hear music that sounds so other worldly that it takes us to a magical place that cannot exist in real life… and “DARN IT, WHY DOES’NT MY STUFF SOUND LIKE THAT?” (says the young engineer.)

It’s true, many of these albums have amazing engineers working at the tracking phase to achieve great sounds, but if modern technology has taught us anything, it has taught us that some of these albums were made in someone’s bedroom with gear that would shock you at how unimpressive and simplistic it is. 

I hold to Einstein’s philosophy.  He said, “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.”  In other words, don’t make things unnecessarily complex. 

Especially as you begin your recording quest, hold on to this: your techniques do not need to be complex.  In fact, I promise that you should be able to get great sounds this way. 

A fantastic sounding acoustic guitar can be achieved with the following:

            - A good-great player

            - A good-great instrument (use your ears, expensive doesn’t mean it’s better)

            - A good-great microphone

            - A good-great preamp

Things you don’t necessarily need to get a great sounding acoustic guitar

-       An outboard compressor

-       an outboard EQ

-       more than one microphone

-       to understand the depths of M/S Recording

-       a perfect room

-       a $10,000 microphone


You just must hold on to the fact you can achieve an amazing recorded sound with the most simple of techniques.  As soon as you begin complicating things, you run into all sorts of issues.  You have more of a chance of messing things up this way.

Someone once told me “Phasing is the engineer’s only arch enemy.”  For this reason, I use as few of microphones as possible when recording.  I don’t claim to be the best engineer in the world, but I do know how to use my ears.  I know what sounds good to me and try to use simple techniques to achieve what I would like to hear. 

With an acoustic guitar as my example, here’s what I might do….

Place the guitarist in the room and have them begin playing.   I may start placing my ear near where I think the microphone might go to find out where the best place might be.  With headphones on, I would move the microphone around until I hear a good spot.  If I hear odd reflections in the room, I would place a blanket or a baffle to try to limit the room sound.  I would be sure to record a good level going to the preamp and be absolutely sure there’s no clipping OR odd harmonics being added by running the preamp too hot. 

That’s pretty much it.  No EQ, probably no compression.  You should be able to get a good sound this way.

Now, I’m not saying that you shouldn’t ever use more complex signal chains or more elaborate micing techniques, but I am saying that until you master a more simple approach, more extensive techniques can only make things difficult on you.