It’s exceptionally difficult to EQ an acoustic guitar.
For starters, the instrument produces a range of frequencies that extend from the deepest lows to the highest highs. On top of that, it’s super dynamic. And don’t even get me started on the string squeaks and fret buzzing…
While mastering the art of acoustic guitar EQ is undoubtedly tricky, it’s crucial if you want to achieve a studio-quality sound. The following guide will help you get started. Implement everything I cover here, and you’ll be well on your way to EQing acoustic guitar like a top-tier mixer!
1. Consider The Context
There is no one-size-fits-all formula to acoustic guitar EQ. However, the goal is always the same—to try to make the acoustic guitar sound great within the rest of your mix.
This means that your EQ decisions will (and should) vary based on what the rest of the tracks in your mix sound like. If you’re mixing an acoustic guitar in a sparse ballad, you’ll make completely different decisions than if you were working on an uptempo, modern rock track.
The key is to ask yourself—what function does the acoustic guitar play in my mix? Is it a featured instrument, or does it just provide rhythmic support? What other tracks do I need it to fit with?
Take the time to consider this context. It will help guide you towards the right acoustic guitar EQ decisions, every time.
2. Start At The Source
Yes, this article is about acoustic guitar EQ. But the truth is, the decisions you make while recording are much more important. In fact, many of them (such as moving a microphone) will have a similar effect as EQ. And if you start with a good recording, you’ll often need little-to-no EQ in the mix.
Here are a few tips…
- Avoid piezo pickups. They tend to sound brittle and unnatural. Use a mic whenever you can.
- Find the right spot in the room for the player. Corners are generally no good, as bass tends to build up there (which will lead to a boomy, muddy recording). For best results, have the player throw on a strap and walk around the room while strumming. Find a spot where the acoustic guitar sounds balanced and even.
- Mic placement matters. Moving the mic a few inches can dramatically change the sound. For suggestions on mic placement, check out this excellent article.
3. Check For Phase Problems
If the acoustic guitar was recorded with multiple microphones, it’s important to check for phase problems before you begin. In most cases, this should have been handled during the recording process, but it’s always good to check.
Start by flipping the polarity on one of the tracks. Does the low end of the acoustic guitar sound fuller? If so, you’ve just made your job much easier.
You can also experiment with time-aligning tracks to further optimize the phase relationships between them. To learn how, watch the following video:
When time-aligning, listen closely to the low end of the acoustic guitar. Try to find a spot where it sounds full and even. You can also use a phase-alignment plugin like Sound Radix Auto-Align to make this process even easier.
After you’ve completed this step, bus the tracks together and process them as a single unit moving forward.
4. Clean Things Up
Solo the acoustic guitar and add an EQ plugin. (Any will do.)
Some mixers will tell you to add a high-pass filter to every acoustic guitar track. I think it’s better to let your ears decide. Play the track and listen closely for thumps and boomy blasts of low-end energy. (These will often happen when the player digs into certain notes or hits their palm on the body of the guitar.) You can also use a spectrum analyzer to pinpoint problems you may not hear on studio monitors.
If you hear anything that bugs you, engage a high-pass filter and slowly raise the frequency until the problem disappears. You can often roll off everything below 100 Hz without adversely affecting the sound of the acoustic guitar. (Don’t worry about getting this perfect right now. You’ll revisit it later when you listen to the acoustic guitar in context with the rest of your mix.)
If things sound fine, leave the high-pass filter off. No need to fix a problem that doesn’t exist!
Next, dial in a steep boost (+18 dB) with a narrow Q (8) and slowly sweep it up the frequency spectrum. Listen closely for any boomy, muddy resonances. These are problem areas that don’t just jump out on one note, but remain present throughout the majority of the performance. Pay close attention to the lower midrange (around 180 Hz – 350 Hz), as this is where many of these problems will appear. Once you identify a problem, remove it with a cut. For more on how to pull off this technique, I recommend reading this article.
5. Fit It Into The Mix
Unsolo the acoustic guitar and place it back in context with the rest of your mix. From this point forward, avoid the solo button.
Listen for any competition between the acoustic guitar and other tracks in your mix. Pay close attention to the low end—often times, you’ll need to roll it off to create more room for the kick and bass. (You can often get away with taking out quite a bit—sometimes everything below 300 – 400 Hz.) Also listen to the relationship between the acoustic guitar and vocals. Sometimes, a gentle cut in the upper midrange will help them fit together.
Again, all of this is context-dependent. I wish there was a formula, but the key is to listen to the mix as a whole and use it to guide your decisions. Resist the urge to solo!
Don’t forget about panning as well. If the acoustic guitar is competing with another track, try panning the two tracks to opposite sides of the mix first. This can often create separation without EQ.
6. Enhance (If Needed!)
You should now have an acoustic guitar that’s sitting pretty well in the mix. In many cases, you may be set. But sometimes, a bit of extra magic may be needed…
If the acoustic guitar is lacking clarity, a gentle top-end shelf (10 – 15 kHz) can bring it out. Combining a broad top-end shelf with a slight cut in the upper midrange can often lead to a more natural sound.
A boost in the upper midrange (5 – 7 kHz) can add presence and enhance the sound of the pick on the strings. This can pull the acoustic guitar forward and help it cut through a busy mix. But be careful—boost too aggressively, and your mix will start to sound harsh and edgy.
Also, listen closely for string squeaks and other unpleasant noises that may be accentuated when boosting. If they’re getting in the way, a de-esser or multiband compression can help tame them.
Avoid These Pitfalls
As you continue to hone your acoustic guitar EQ skills, there are a few key pitfalls worth avoiding. Here’s what to look out for…
“We’ll Just Fix It In The Mix”
You’ll never achieve a great-sounding mix if you rush through the recording phase. Take the time to get a great sound from the beginning. You’ll end up needing less acoustic guitar EQ, and your finished mix will sound a whole lot better.
Adding Too Much Top
Top-end boosts can be seductive. Done right, they can make an acoustic guitar sound clear and brilliant. Go too far, however, and you’ll end up with a track that sounds edgy and thin. And a word to the wise—be particularly careful when boosting the upper midrange. This area can quickly become harsh and aggressive, as it’s where our ears are the most sensitive.
Boosting Too Much Bottom
I rarely boost the low end on an acoustic guitar (unless the track was unusually thin to begin with). In most mixes, you’ll want to let the kick and bass dominate this area of the frequency spectrum. With that being said, your ears should always be the final judge. If it sounds good, it is good! Just be careful.
Master Acoustic Guitar EQ By Listening To These Tracks
At this point, you should have all the information you need to approach acoustic guitar EQ like a pro.
So what should you do now?
Stop reading and start listening.
Here are 5 world-class recordings that feature acoustic guitar. Study them closely and develop your own ideas about what a great acoustic guitar sounds like. This will give you a target to aim for while mixing—which will help you conquer acoustic guitar EQ, once and for all. You can even import them into your DAW to use as references! Enjoy…
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Daughtry – “Home”
Great example of heavily-processed acoustic guitars. They propel the track forward without taking up a lot of space in the mix.
Meghan Trainor – “Like I’m Gonna Lose You”
Natural, yet still bright and snappy.
Fleet Foxes – “Someone You’d Admire”
Good example of a natural, minimally-processed acoustic guitar sound (with a fair bit of plate reverb for depth).
Bon Iver – “Holocene”
Several layers of hard-panned acoustic guitars add width and depth to this track.
Coldplay – “Sparks”
The full-bodied tone of this acoustic guitar takes up quite a bit of space in the track. It works, but only because of the sparse arrangement!
What are your favorite acoustic guitar EQ tips? Let me know by leaving a comment below!