Using Live Mics for Acoustic Performances
This month, I’d like to step out of the studio and onto the stage. Still jetlagged as I
type this, I recently returned from recording some shows for a live DVD over in
Europe with flamenco/jazz guitarist Hernan
Romero. The hard part of this was that we
used live mics on his guitar—without the
aid of DIs or built-in pickups. As most of
you know, live guitar mics and PA systems
don’t always get along with each other.
Read on for the gory details.
While there are many great pickup systems
available for acoustic guitar, Romero doesn’t
feel they provide the transient detail he
needs for flamenco music. In his work with
Paco DeLucia, he explored not installing
an internal pickup on his Conde Hermanos
guitar and just using a mic onstage. For
this particular application, he chose to use
Earthworks SR20 cardioid microphones.
When used for vocals, the SR20 has a cool
windscreen assembly that screws on to the
top of the mic. It helped deflect any wind
noise and minimize pops, and since the
mic’s diaphragm is so small, you can get
right on it with just some slight, positive
boominess. Also, these mics can handle
up to 145dB (SPL); the dynamic range of a
good flamenco guitarist can go from almost
nothing to overload in a single strum. Their
wide frequency response (50Hz to 20kHz) is
beyond the range of your average mic used
in live applications—something we felt was
important for the recording.
Onstage, we placed one directly where
the sound hole meets the neck of the guitar, and one for vocals, not far above the
first mic. We did this both out of personal
choice and to minimize feedback. We faced
any monitors away from him, just outside
of his seated position. Luckily, he doesn’t
move much during the show, so the sound
of the guitar mic would remain relatively
consistent. It was very important that he
“felt” the mics more in the house than out
of his monitors, so luckily we didn’t have to
crank them up onstage. That of course not
only affects the recording, but the band’s
It was interesting to break these mics out
when setting up at the various theaters
and TV/Radio appearances. Most house
soundmen had never seen them before, so
I simply explained that the only difference
was they would need +48V phantom power.
It’s very satisfying
to hear the sound
of a great guitar
played by a fine
“honk” that many
ment have with
Also, they tended to need less overall EQ
because of their frequency response, but
that obviously varied with each PA system.
Neither Romero nor I care for the sound
of compression or dynamics on acoustic
guitars live, so that was also sometimes a
surprise to the house crew. Only once on
the whole tour did I apply compression,
and even then, it was very light. Again, we
didn’t want the transients of the instrument
to sound squashed in any way. I would control them live by riding the faders and let-
ting the full sound of the instrument come
through the speakers.
Another reason we chose to go with these
mics is their high gain before feedback
characteristic. That allowed me to turn
them up in the PA without any howling.
It’s very satisfying to hear the sound of
a great guitar played by a fine guitarist
without that midrange “honk” that many
acoustic instrument have with built-in pickups. Yes, the challenges of using mics such
as this onstage were greater, and using a DI
would have been easier, but the end results
spoke for themselves.
The reason I’ve written about this topic is to
perhaps open your minds up to trying live
mics onstage with your guitars. Do some
research and see which ones might work best
for your application. There are many great
models out there, and some are even small
enough to mount inside your instrument—
such as the well-used blender systems. You
can even combine your DI with a live mic and
create a mix that suits your taste.
It’s especially worthwhile to consider using
mics if you’re recording for a live release.
Depending on how much you move around
and the overall stage volume, you could
even leave one on the guitar and not play
it back through the house at all. That way
you’ll have it for the recording to add that
extra bit of “air” on top of the instrument.
When it comes time for mixing, you’ll be
thankful you did. Try it; you may like it.
Rich is a producer, engineer and mixer who has worked
with artists ranging from Al DiMeola to David Bowie .
A life-long guitarist, he’s also the auther of Pro Tools
Surround Sound Mixing and composes for such networks
as Discovery Channel, Nickelodeon and National