Recording Classical Guitar: Sage Advice from Engineers John Taylor, Norbert Kraft, and Ricardo Marui
BY BLAIR JACKSON | FROM THE SUMMER 2018 ISSUE OF CLASSICAL GUITAR
For more than 30 years before I took over as editor of Classical Guitar (in December 2014), my main job was working as a writer and editor for Mix, the leading American recording and sound magazine. I wrote literally thousands of articles, big and small, about nearly every aspect of the sound world, from nuts-and-bolts pieces about the making of this or that album, to the intricacies of recording sound effects for blockbuster films, to forums with engineers about every imaginable topic dealing with sound. It’s a wonderful community of brilliant and artistic people who are completely committed to the pursuit of quality. Just like all of you.
Because I’ve spent so much time in studios, watching sessions and talking to engineers, producers, and musicians about what they do, I reflexively listen to albums (and watch films) paying acute attention to the quality and nature of the recording and how (or if) it affects the presentation of the music. A badly recorded album is a sad thing—a wasted opportunity. So I’m happy to report: Over the past three years that I’ve been immersed in listening to classical guitar, most of the hundreds of albums I’ve heard have been well recorded, even though the circumstances of their creation vary widely—from a single stereo microphone placed near the guitar in an acoustically unremarkable room, to ambitious projects utilizing multiple microphones and expensive signal processing equipment in spectacularly ambient chapels, concert halls, or professional recording studios.
But in all my years of writing about recording, I’ve never penned an article specifically about capturing the sound, power, and subtle nuances of classical guitar, so I decided to seek out three top engineers in the field to educate me (and you) about what their job entails, how they do it, the philosophies behind their methodologies, and the equipment they use. I know that more and more guitarists are putting out their own albums these days; perhaps they will learn something from the way these three masters work their magic. I sent all three engineers the same questions and was thrilled to receive such thoughtful, articulate, and illuminating responses.
English engineer John Taylor recalls that his first sessions “were ones where I was in the firing line of the microphones, as a member of the Omega Guitar Quartet, back in the late 1970s.” Those sessions were recorded by John Bower, who had engineered Julian Bream’s RCA albums since the early ’60s, and Taylor was instantly hooked on recording. Unlike most audio engineers, “I had no training in recording studios, but started out as a classical guitarist who happened to have studied physics at university,” says Taylor. “As such, I had a natural curiosity about the theory and practice of recording, which I picked up from books and magazines.” His first “serious” recording was of his own quartet, and then he was off and running, evolving to become one of the top classical engineers and producers in the UK. His extensive guitar credits include David Russell, Eliot Fisk, Tom Kerstens, Ricardo Iznaola, Nigel North, Eleftheria Kotzia, the Eden Stell Duo (and spinoff Vida Quartet), Roberto Moronn Pérez, Xuefei Yang, Juan Martin, Fabio Zanon, Paco Peña, and more.
Austrian-born Canadian guitarist Norbert Kraft is arguably the most prolific classical-guitar engineer and producer of our time. Besides his successful (ongoing) career as a guitarist, for which he has travelled the world and recorded more than a dozen albums, and as a principal at Naxos Records (where he is Artistic Director for the label’s Guitar Collection), he has recorded—and usually produced—scores of classical-guitar albums by both up-and-coming players (first albums by GFA and other competition winners) and established masters. It’s a stunning list that includes such notables as Ricardo Gallén, Ana Vidovic, Zoran Dukic, Pablo Villegas, Nigel North, Jérémy Jouve, Antigoni Goni, Ali Arango, the Brasil Guitar Duo, Adam Levin, Shin-Ichi Fukuda, Anabel Montesinos, Marco Tamayo, and Irina Kulikova, to name just some. He remembers his first recording sessions as a performing guitarist as “nerve-wracking and high-pressured affairs, and it never seemed that we had enough time to get to the musical essence of my playing before the producer barked: ‘We have it; time to move on.’” Later, when he started recording other artists for Naxos, “I kept that memory clearly in my mind, never to make them feel cheated or impinged on musically.” Kraft, who records many non-guitar classical albums as well, says that when he was a teenager he was interested in electronics and actually wanted to become a recording engineer: “I laughingly say I simply took a 30-year detour, performing and teaching at university level, in preparation for the level of work I do now.”
Brazilian engineer Ricardo Marui is also a classical guitarist, and from 1990 to 2004, “I often played as a chamber musician, and I recorded a few CDs in that period. My first commercially released recording as a musician was in 1993—an album where I played in a duo with a violinist. Since I was also a trained electrical technician and systems analyst and had an easy time handling new technologies, I was actively involved in the production of my own recordings, and even edited my own tracks.” He began engineering for others in 2002 (a cello record by Zygmunt Kubala); a disc by Gilson Antunes became his first classical-guitar recording. Since, he has worked with Marcelo Kayath, Sérgio Abreu, Marco Pereira, Fabio Zanon, Jorge Caballero, and others, several of those for the high-quality GuitarCoop label.
CLASSICAL GUITAR: How has the way you record classical guitar evolved through the years—if at all—and is it changes in equipment or recording technique that have affected that evolution?
JOHN TAYLOR: There have been a few big changes over the years, beginning with the advent of digital recording and CDs in the early ’80s, and since then the increasing sophistication of analog-to-digital conversion, digital editing, and all sorts of new digital tools for manipulating or cleaning up audio. Personally, I have no great nostalgia for analog tape recording, which at its best could sound warm and clear, but suffered from many problems, such as “print-through,” which caused pre- and post-echoes on music with a wide dynamic range, such as classical guitar. This might seem an odd thing to say of such a quiet instrument, but in fact the full dynamic range from the quietest touch on a string to the loudest rasgueados is a challenge to reproduce successfully in a recording.
Unfortunately, digital recording got off to a bad start for audiophiles by promising “perfect sound forever” but delivering some recordings that were so starkly clean that they were as much fun to listen to as taking a cold shower while biting into a lemon. But I have to say that, even from the start, my own experience with digital recording was positive—for the first time I was able to make recordings that were hard to distinguish from the live feed from the microphones. And these days the best digital converters give a beautifully sweet and transparent sound.
However, in terms of the capture of the sound with microphones, I would say that there have been no major advances in the last few decades, unless you count multichannel surround sound, which has never caught on as a mainstream medium for classical music. Many of the microphone models from top manufacturers such as Schoeps, Neumann, and AKG are almost unchanged since the 1970s or even earlier, except perhaps for lower-noise electronics. And some engineers are even prepared to pay a fortune for ancient tube mics from the 1940s or ’50s, which they believe have never been matched for their unique sonic character—though I’ve never been tempted myself.
I’ve spent much of my working life as a one-man team of engineer and producer resisting various temptations—especially the temptation to use ever more elaborate multi-mic setups, and to use all the digital tools now available for “enhancing” the sound in various ways, or for eliminating every tiny flaw or extraneous noise in the playing. After all these years, what I like most is to record as simply as possible, using the minimum number of mics—if possible, just one for each stereo channel—carefully placed in a venue that’s just right for the music being recorded. And what’s more, if I can see the project through to a final edited master that has no signal processing whatsoever—EQ, reverb, compression, etc.—I’m very happy to leave it like that! This is such a minimal approach that many recording engineers would regard it as a dereliction of duty. But here I feel I have an advantage, in that the engineering is only one part of my job of seeing through a whole recording project. So I’m happy to keep the “engineer” in his place if he ever tries to justify his existence by getting too elaborate or clever for his own good!
NORBERT KRAFT: I would say that aside from becoming more efficient and better at prioritizing details, I learned after the first few years not to “get in the way.” In my keen desire to get the best out of my artists, I would sometimes become overly zealous—not by trying to change the way they shaped the music, but by simply trying to get more of their own creativity to work better. This sometimes backfired, and the player would clam up rather than become more free. So a real aspect of my work has to do with the psychology of the situation, and learning to recognize when the artist can’t be “urged” any further. Some players, on the other hand, really thrive on this and welcome all musical suggestions, which then becomes a truly creative musical partnership on the session. This is especially true when I record chamber music, and I really get a charge out of feeling that I am an integral part of the performance, rather than just a bystander. One might think that once the mics are set, I simply sit back and let the players have at it. But my real session work is similar to that of a film director, guiding and shaping the performance from a perspective that the artist cannot possibly have. I am hearing as a “listener,” rather than from the players’ perspective on the stage, and the mics actually “hear” differently than the performers.
With regard to mic techniques, purists will say that “one microphone” is best for the cleanest, most natural sound; or at least just one point-source for the stereo pair, such as in an M-S recording setup. I have used this to good effect, and still do for part of my setup, say in piano recordings, or when I have another set of omni-directional mics in the far-field. But generally I use only a pair of omnis for 95 percent of my recordings, resorting to more mics only when the situation requires. In general, more is much less when it comes to microphones.
What I do play with a lot is the different character of various mics. I have some lovely tube mics, as well as some rather “clinical”-sounding mics at the other end of the spectrum—all of which claim to be “flat” in response. But we all know that every mic has its own character. It’s not unlike the different characters of various instruments. Most guitarists have several guitars, even from the same maker, each of which has its own personality, suited to different musical genres.
RICARDO MARUI: The first change has to do with my concept of what it means to record. In the beginning, I thought that a good recording should be as close as possible to the real sound of the live instrument—that is, that the sound of the speakers should be exactly the same as the sound I would hear if the musician was playing right in front of me, in the same room. Through the years, though, I realized that beyond the physical and acoustical impossibility of achieving this, there are many other factors that make a recording valuable to the listener. People have in their memories the sounds of albums that marked their relationship to music; recordings that are forever part of their memories.
Although we are now in the 21st century, with regard to classical guitar, people have as references the legendary recordings of Segovia, Julian Bream, Duo Abreu, and many other exceptional artists. The playing on these recordings is marvelous, but from the point of view of physics alone, they do not try to reproduce the live sound of the instrument, and for this they are no less spectacular.
Another thing that has changed, this time regarding recording technique, is that as I became more selective with respect to the acoustic quality of the spaces in which I recorded, I also developed some of my techniques for capturing the sound of the instrument. In spaces where the acoustics were less favorable, I used to use directional microphones closer to the instruments, as well as microphones that were a little further away—in an effort to compose a stereo image of the sound—but the audio of these [distant] microphones could rarely be effectively used.
Today, working in better spaces and with better equipment, I can record the sound of the instrument, and the space as a whole, using omnidirectional and figure-8 microphones. By figure-8 microphones, I’m referring to ribbon microphones, which have become my favorites for recording classical guitar.
CG: Here are a couple of interrelated issues: Can you briefly talk about the challenge of capturing both the full range and subtle nuances of the guitar? And when you choose to record a guitarist in a relatively reverberant environment, such as a church or concert hall, is your miking approach different than if you were recording in a conventional studio?
KRAFT: I very rarely record in a dry studio and nearly always use acoustic venues. These vary, of course, depending on the instrument—piano or string quartet require a different acoustic than Baroque orchestra, or opera, etc. The great challenge is to find the “perfect” venue for whichever instrument is involved. For guitar, I found a truly magical space right at the beginning—some 24 years ago—and have always recorded myself and other guitarists there. [St. John Chrysostom Church in Newmarket, Ontario, Canada] When entering the space for the first time, some of my younger artists look with dreamy eyes and call it “the Naxos church.” It is a bit of an odd-shaped building—a church of about 600 seats, very high at the altar, where the performing area is, and with five segments at the lower rear wall that reflect back to the stage as almost a sort of horn effect, making the reverberation quite long and complex. This gives me the freedom to come quite close to the instrument and capture the essence of its sound, almost like hearing the wood “breathe” as it’s played; magic indeed!
There is an art to finding the right “bloom point” for each instrument, and mixing that direct sound with the right amount of reverberation, depending on whether the result should be more “dry,” such as for contemporary or Classical-period music, or a more “Romantic” effect with more reverberation.
Here’s an example of one of Norbert Kraft’s fairly recent recordings :
TAYLOR: I have nothing against studio recording per se, but my specialty is to record in “real” spaces such as churches and concert halls, which is still a well-accepted way of producing classical music CDs, at least here in the UK. Of course, many orchestral and chamber-music recordings are made in large studios, which are similar to concert halls and have a desirable acoustic character of their own, but these tend to be very expensive for a mere guitarist to hire. More commonly, we would be talking about a small recording studio
with a very dry acoustic, or a home studio without much space—and my own limited experience of trying to record in such places has been discouraging enough to keep me booking those churches, despite all the possible frustrations of planes passing over, lawnmowers, and various forms of wildlife in the background!
What I have always felt—and this applies to all acoustic instruments, not just the guitar—is that it’s a mistake to imagine that the instrument has an inherent sound that can be picked up by a close mic, or an array of close mics, unrelated to the space around it. In real life we don’t put our ears near the bridge, or over the soundhole, or close to the fingerboard. We listen to the whole instrument, at a comfortable distance, in a room where the sound travels in all directions and reaches our ears at slightly different times from all these directions. And if the room is spacious enough to give a warm “glow” around the notes, so much the better. Now, I wouldn’t go as far as to say that you’ll get a perfectly good recording by putting up a pair of mics several rows back from the stage in a concert hall—such a recording would almost certainly sound impossibly dim and distant—but I do believe you can capture the full range and subtle nuances of the guitar, with a pleasant feeling of openness around it, by placing the mics carefully at an intermediate distance. Not so close that it sounds raw and claustrophobic, nor so far away that it sounds like an empty room with someone playing the guitar in it, but close enough that the guitar sounds clear and present, with that enveloping glow of the acoustic all around it.
MARUI:When I began to work as a sound engineer, there was a consensus that classical-guitar recordings could only be done in large spaces, like churches or auditoriums. However, with the development of reverb devices—the more advanced models of which not only electronically alter the sound, but also simulate spaces in such a way that, if well employed, they’re able to achieve a sound similar to that of a larger environment—recording in studios not only became viable, but opened up a greater set of possibilities for the musician.
I still believe that the sound of a space with exceptional acoustics is difficult to be rendered by an electronic reverb device. Despite the advancements I described, I always explain to the musicians that record with me the important differences between recording in a studio, a church, or an auditorium.
In the studio, besides the possibility of achieving a totally balanced acoustic environment, the primary advantage is noise cancelling. This makes the process of recording much more productive, as there are no interruptions caused by extraneous noises from airplanes, cars, and animals, which invariably appear in the worst possible moments. On the other hand, a space with exceptional acoustics gives the musician a feeling of enormous comfort, as he or she is able to hear the sound with an ambience and color that is remarkably similar to what the final result will be. The musician who records in a studio, thus, only has the flat sound as his reference, with no effects, and has to imagine what will happen to the sound he is currently producing. This can often make the musician lose his or her references in relation to phrasing, color, and articulation, especially if the person has little experience with studio recording.
I think the best of all worlds would be to record in large spaces with balanced acoustics and noise cancelling, but this is not always possible.
CG: Does the particular guitar and/or the player’s style affect your mic choices?
TAYLOR: I’m rarely asked to record any guitarists other than classical players, and although the classical guitar repertoire ranges very widely, I find that most players still want a recording that sounds realistic and natural, whatever the music. So the differences in the choice of mics and their placement tend to be fairly subtle. Generally, I find that the distance of the mics from the guitar can’t be changed very much without upsetting the balance between direct and ambient sound. You can certainly make it more intimate by coming in a little closer, or more spacious by moving the mics a little further back, but not by too much either way, or you’ll run into the problems of dryness in the one case, or “emptiness” in the other.
One of the biggest issues in the classical guitar world is the question of what instrument to use, and guitars built to a radical new design can sound very different from a traditional model. Generally, the two best-known modern developments are lattice-top—Greg Smallman, etc.—and sandwich-top [also known as “double-top”]—Matthias Dammann, Gernot Wagner, etc.
Despite their differences from each other, both have in common an aim to enhance the guitar’s acoustic responsiveness, particularly by reducing the mass of the soundboard. Put simply, they tend to be louder, bigger-sounding instruments, but that’s not the whole story, as the live-ness of their response can be unforgiving of the slightest error of touch, especially in a recording. Also, there tends to be a clear difference in the overall character of the sound between traditional, lattice-top, and sandwich-top guitars—so much so that, however hard they try, some people struggle to love all three types at once!
My own view is that while the more acoustically efficient types of guitars can be just what’s needed for playing chamber music with other instruments or filling halls where a traditional guitar would sound rather feeble, they don’t give any clear advantage for guitar-only recordings. Personally, I still like to hear a really good traditional spruce-top guitar, played by a guitarist with a keen ear for all the flexibility of color it can offer. But then, all good players know how to get the best from their chosen instruments, and I certainly wouldn’t turn down a job on the grounds that the guitar is the “wrong” kind!
John Taylor recorded and mastered the Eden Stell Guitar Duo’s Cançons i Danses album:
MARUI: Yes, style is especially important. When I’m recording non-classical guitarists, I generally go for a closer capture. I like the final result of such recordings to sound intimate, as if the musician was playing in your living room. In these cases, I tend to use cardioid microphones like the Neumann KM 184. In my classical-guitar recordings, I tend to go for microphones with a smaller diaphragm. I generally achieve better results using this type of microphone—although another thing that I’ve learned over the years is that, when dealing with audio, there is not a single solution that works in every situation. For non-classical guitarists, too, a good microphone with a large diaphragm placed near the bridge of the guitar also leads to interesting results.
CG: This last question is for all the guitarists out there who can’t afford a proper recording session with an engineer and multiple mics, etc., but perhaps would just like to make a decent recording of themselves in their home environment. If you had to record a classical guitar with a single low- to mid-priced microphone, what might you choose, and where would you place the mic in relation to the guitar?
MARUI: First of all, in a household environment, the musician will rarely have a space with acoustics good enough that one might want to capture the sound of the space as well as that of the instrument. So, in that case, it is better to focus on capturing the sound straight, as neutrally as possible. This can be done, for example, by recording in front of a cabinet or a dresser with blankets. I hesitate to cite brands of microphones at low cost because I know that people reading an article like this tend to buy products simply because they were mentioned in an interview. But if I had to choose a low-cost condenser microphone, under $90, that works well for recordings of guitar—I even have a pair of them that I’ve used a couple of times—it would be the AKG Perception 170. If I’m not mistaken, I think that microphone was recently updated by AKG and is sold now as the AKG P170.
Ricardo Marui recorded Marcelo Kayath’s Suites & Sonatas album:
TAYLOR: This is a very reasonable question, especially these days when musicians can reach a wide audience far more easily by posting videos on YouTube than by recording CDs. Unfortunately, I have to pass on this one, because I just don’t have the experience of using the low- to mid-priced mics currently on offer. And with mics, it’s really essential to hear them in use before deciding whether they are right for the job—it’s no good taking anyone else’s word for it, or hoping that reviewers on the internet share your preferences about sound.
Another thing I advise people is that it’s not just the mic itself that matters, but where you put it. Any mic is likely to sound unpleasantly boom-y if you place it right over the guitar’s soundhole, especially if it’s a directional type, such as a cardioid mic, which will overemphasize the low frequencies when placed close to the source. If you have a pair of mics to create a stereo image, it’s worth spending time experimenting with different configurations of the two mics—their distance apart, if any, and the angles they point in—as well as their placement relative to the guitar.
Finally, I’d suggest that it might be worth their while to check out their local area for any spacious rooms, halls, or churches with a nice acoustic for guitar music that could be available to try out for a test recording. If you’re really lucky, you might even find a place that you can use for free, where the real sound beats any artificial reverb that you might add to a boxy-sounding recording in a small room.
KRAFT: I have not personally researched or heard any of the lower-budget home equipment, so I’m not able to give much specific advice here. But a definite must is a condenser microphone, or maybe a ribbon mic. Contrary to the name, with “dynamic” microphones, the dynamics are simply not sensitive enough and generally cannot reveal the depth or subtleties of the classical guitar; they usually make the guitar sound tinny and compressed. This is where the biggest investment ought to be: If the source sound is poor, there is no way to “fix it in the mix.” Then, if at all possible, use a pretty live space of a certain size. You might think that a “live” room, such as a hallway or tile bathroom, can provide this, but the room does need to be big enough to avoid multiple early sound reflections.
If you have access to a good potential music producer—perhaps a colleague, teacher, or someone with the ears and musical knowledge you trust to help make you sound your best—this will take a huge burden from you while recording, and free up your concentration for the task of playing. It will be more like a performance than being under a microscope.
Recording is certainly a different art form than live performance, and the two should not be confused nor compared. With all the tools and references that we have at our disposal, it can be a powerful means of expression. There is no substitute for the live performance, the living creation at the moment before your very ears! But also, the expertly recorded performance is one in which the artist can take some risks, make great dynamic effects and new interpretive statements, and, not the least, is a record for all time of a moment in his or her musical achievement. Despite the current financial state of the recording industry, artists need to be heard, and listeners will always be there to hear them.