Miking Your Acoustic Guitar on Live Shows
There are a number of reasons to consider playing live gigs using a microphone to amplify your acoustic guitar rather than a built-in pickup and a DI. Perhaps you don’t care for the sound of the pickup built in to your guitar. Maybe you’d rather not carry anything other than your guitar, so you don’t carry cables or your own DI box. The venue where you’re playing might not have a DI for you to plug into, or it might be that your favorite guitar doesn’t have a built-in pickup.
It’s possible to get great live guitar sounds with a mic, but there are limitations that must be taken into account — and you’ll need to be prepared to make adjustments to your playing style to get the best results.
In a Perfect World
Imagine performing a solo guitar concert in a recital hall — great acoustics, an attentive audience, and a great crew. In this case, you might have a single microphone (a DPA 2011 would be lovely) placed on a low stand about 10 inches in front of your instrument, pointing up to the 12th fret, with a shockmount to keep vibrations from the floor out of the tastefully hidden (and very pricey) sound reinforcement system. You would neither need nor have a floor monitor to obstruct the sight lines, and those in attendance would be overwhelmed by the sound of your instrument and the perfection of the performance.
But that’s not the world we’re looking at today; acoustic guitarists are more likely to be performing in a coffeehouse, a pub, or a house of worship with an audience that might be hanging on their every note or carrying on conversations with no awareness that they’re playing. In other words, the real world.
In the real world, start with the mic aiming at the point where the guitar neck meets the body. While it’s possible that the guitar will sound better with the mic pointed (A) halfway between the end of the neck and the soundhole; (B) at the upper bout, an inch or two below the strings; or even (C; with some guitars) with the mic a few inches below and behind the bridge, pointed at the lower bout of the guitar, the first choice works 98% of the time, and most sound engineers will default to that position. Miking the soundhole of the guitar typically adds a lot of unwanted low end, and the muddiness is difficult to remove with EQ. You’ll want the microphone to be as close as possible to the guitar to minimize the amount of extraneous noise (the audience, other instruments, or the monitors) making it into the microphone, though.
If you’re working in a venue with a sound person, then be aware that you’re likely to be pulling them out of their comfort zone a bit; the practice of plugging acoustic guitars into DIs has become the standard, so asking them to set up a microphone means a bit more work since it at least requires them to get up out of the chair and find the gear you need. Oh — since the subject has come up — you’ll want to be nice to the sound person. They really can make you sound terrible; and, if you’re the “troublemaker” who wants to use a mic, it’ll be your fault…
If you have the option, a small-diaphragm condenser microphone with either a cardioid or hypercardioid pattern should be your choice; the more narrow the pickup pattern of the microphone, the more rejection it will have for sounds coming from the back and the sides of the microphone (the audience, other instruments, or the monitors). Small-diaphragm condensers also tend to be more sensitive and have a better frequency response than the average dynamic microphone. Having said that, however, there are circumstances where a little less fidelity and a little less sensitivity can be a good thing; if you should have a noisy audience or other musicians onstage, then the classic Shure SM57 may be more appropriate.
One other option can be considered, and it can be a real problem solver for some guitarists: a small clip-on microphone. DPA, Audio-Technica, and Shure all make miniature condenser mics that can be clipped to the guitar. Though, with a clip-on mic, you’ll lose the ability to simply walk up to the microphone and begin your performance (you’ll have to attach it to the instrument beforehand), it will help with another major issue — the tendency to move around when playing.
Staying on Mic
If you tend to move around when performing — or even if you unconsciously move your guitar back and forth — that movement will really affect what the microphone picks up. If you’re going for the highest-quality sound with your miked guitar, then you’ll have to make an effort to keep the distance between your mic and the guitar as consistent as possible. Whether this is something that you want to do (or can do), you’ll have to decide. If not, then the clip-on microphones discussed earlier might be the answer.
Monitors and Stage Volume
The short version is that you probably won’t be able to get the guitar level in the monitors as loud as you would with a pickup and a DI. You’ll be able to get at least some guitar into the monitors, though, but know before you start that the goal is to make it sound as good as possible in the house, not as loud as possible onstage.
As the volume onstage increases, your options will decrease. A lot of external factors will influence how you get the guitar into the PA system with enough volume and great tone while avoiding feedback. If you’re a singer/songwriter in a small space, monitor requirements are minimal, and you should essentially be able to hear yourself in the room without amplification. When you add other musicians, the amount of your guitar that you can put in the monitor may limit how much you can hear your instrument. But, from the perspective of a discerning listener, the results can certainly be worth the effort.
The suggestions given here should help get you started when using a microphone with your guitar onstage, but, remember, there’s not a single solution that works every time. Every guitar is different, and every guitarist has a different way of playing — and the live environment can be tricky.