Zen of Recording

The Secret of “The Frame”—An Unorthodox Technique for Recording a Vocalist and Their Acoustic Guitar Simultaneously

Over the years, I have experimented with an endless variety of mic setups with regard to all instruments, but particularly the acoustic guitar. That tinkering evolved into discovering a mic setup that is not only beautifully unique, but wonderfully wrong as well.

When I think of all of the songwriters who have played a song for me at my kitchen table, I picture them sitting down with their guitar, relaxed and completely immersed in the song they’re performing—not craning their neck toward the mic or maintaining any particular posture. I wanted to be able to allow an artist to sing and play in this near-fetal position of comfort and still get the best performance and recording possible.

It was with this in mind that I placed an MXL Genesis tube microphone in a nearly horizontal position, facing up to where the vocalist’s mouth would be if they were singing slightly bent over their guitar. This mic location not only allows for intimate close miking, but it’s upward orientation also frees the vocalist from having to sing squarely into it. The Genesis has a set cardioid pattern, which helps to reject the sound of the guitar in this position in addition to a built-in windscreen, which helps facilitate this tight placement. Since the mic’s shock mount isn’t really intended for less than vertical orientation, a small piece of thick foam rubber was placed where the weight of the mic caused it to make contact with the shock mount.

At the upper-bout, I placed an MXL R-77-L ribbon mic in front of a Taylor 510 Dreadnought acoustic guitar. This mic was turned 90 degrees to the right, but facing the guitar’s soundboard, about a foot away. The “L” stands for Lundhal, an iron-wound output transformer that imparts a deep, warm, and rich quality that is still quite detailed and open. The mic’s figure-8 pattern brings the sound of the room into the sonic picture, as well.

The top of the R77 almost touches the mic placed next to it, a Shure KSM 27 cardioid condenser, with no low roll-off engaged. The KSM 27 is a very bright mic, with very forward and aggressive upper mids. This mic is set up 45 degrees off axis, looking across the sound hole (not at it), at an angle. This picks up the guitarists left-hand action and just enough “bleed” from the other mic’ed areas to help to keep the imaging focused and unified, once the guitar mics are subsequently panned into stereo.

The R-77-L was run into an Avalon 737sp preamp/compressor/EQ (no phantom power, please!), which offers plenty of good clean head room to amplify the ribbon mic’s typically low output level. Compression with a moderately fast attack and release time was applied at a 3:1 ratio with the threshold set to allow a maximum of 3dB of gain reduction during louder musical passages. Because of the large amount of low frequency energy provided by this combination of the guitar and the Lundhal transformer’s “booty,” the Hi Pass Filter was set to roll off at 80Hz. Additionally, a low-shelf EQ set to 80Hz was attenuated 3dB. Using a Pultec-style EQ trick, I then boosted the low mids 5dB at 80 Hz with the Hi “Q” engaged. This gives you a tighter, more focused and controllable bottom end, reminiscent of the ’70s-era singer-songwriter records from artists like James Taylor and Joni Mitchell. I increased the upper mids slightly by 2dB at 1.5K, but added a whopping 8dB at 20k.

The KSM 27 was sent into a Universal Audio 6176 vintage channel strip. I drove the preamp’s tube stage pretty hard, in an effort to bolster the attitude a little and thicken the sound. The EQ was +3dB at 10KHz and +1.5dB at 200Hz. I applied about 3dB of compression at an 8:1 ratio, with a slow attack and a fast release. I believe the slight disparities between the two different compressors’ settings helps to glue things together a little.

The Genesis vocal mic was taken straight into a Presonus 16.0.2 Mixer, via one of the onboard Xmax preamps, with no further processing applied. The mic’s tube imparts a bit of compression of its own and adds a bit of excitement to the upper harmonics as well.

The three channels are then balanced level-wise as the artist plays and sings, all panned to center for a fully mono perspective. Once the levels were all looking pretty even, phases were all checked, the EQ was good and we had the vocal at the level we liked, I panned the ribbon hard left and the center mic hard right, leaving the vocal mic in its center position.

The result sounds like the artist isn’t just in front of you, but is actively hugging you with their music. The soundstage is extremely wide, yet center-focused at the same time, imbuing it with an almost 3-dimensional sense of depth.

Two recordings I’ve produced best exemplify this technique’s three dimensional depth and beauty: Peter Bolland’s Two Pines, which places this sound into a band context and Jason Yamaoka’s According to the Doctor, a brilliant collection of live-in-the-studio performances of some of his finest songs.

** Portions of this article were previously published in Recording Magazine, May 2014.

Sven-Erik Seaholm is an award-winning record producer, singer, and songwriter. He performs as part of Java Joe’s 26th Anniversary Show on Friday, December 8, at 7:30 pm. 2611 Congress Street, Old Town San Diego.

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