3 Tips for Making DI’ed Acoustic Guitars Sound More Like the Real Thing


Ever had this problem? You record a demo in your DAW, plugging your acoustic guitar straight into your interface—no mic, just a DI. Then, when it comes to the actual mix, you think: can’t I somehow just use that acoustic DI track, so I don’t have to mic up my acoustic? As probably the laziest person at the B&H office, I can assure you it’s happened to me.

Though sometimes the problem is not even due to laziness: maybe you played gold in that one passage, and you can’t recreate it. Whatever the reason, you’re stuck with DI, and no idea how to make it sound like an actual acoustic guitar. Maybe you live near the airport, so you can’t record anything with a mic in your house.

This can be a problem, because DI’ed acoustic guitars just don’t sound like the real thing—not without some help. Today, we’ll discuss some options available to you in this newfangled world of technology!

1. Embrace the DI

We’ll get into other, more satisfying answers later, but one cannot discount the creative flow that results from giving in to the DI. If you’re working within an electric or synthetic arrangement, try embracing the DI—allowing that quacky, clangy sound to dictate the direction of your mix.

Don’t think this works? Listen to “Psycho Killer,” by Talking Heads, the Stop Making Sense version—that’s a DI acoustic guitar over a looped and programmed beat. Listen to how the clacks of that percussive drum-loop rub against the thin, chorused sound of the acoustic DI. It all blends together to create a sonic space, rewarding the listener.

In such an arrangement, the burden of DI’ed acoustic guitars can be turned into an asset. Stereo chorus, delay, minute modulations of pitch, and all sorts of trickery can transform an acoustic DI into lovingly weird sonic terrain. You could even add distortion to the signal for a most unnatural growl (I’ve been known to do it myself). What’s more, the ambiance-free nature of the DI comes in handy with this technique, because you won’t process room noise or instrument leakage by accident.

But, what if you have an arrangement that calls for a naturalistic sound? In this case, the above techniques won’t do the trick. So, read on.

2. Try Impulse Responses or UAD Woodworks

You could experiment with EQ, compression, and reverb, spending hours trying to force your square sound into the round sound hole of an acoustic instrument. But today, you’ll find technology that approximates a miked acoustic guitar sound in the digital realm, doing so with believable results.

Try an impulse response loaded into your favorite convolution reverb. 3 Sigma Audio makes acoustic guitar impulse responses that emulate Martins, Taylors, Takamines, and more. They all sound good and offer a range of highly usable tones. You’ll have to comb through a bunch of impulses to find one that works for your song, but it’ll be quicker and more rewarding than the usual tricks.

If you’re on the UAD platform, a plug-in I can personally vouch for is Sound Machine Wood Works, which takes the distinctly tinny sound of a piezo pickup and turns it into a full acoustic sound. The GUI offers multiple mic positioning (neck and body), and you can blend the two and pan them around the stereo field. 16 voicings are provided, including four studio, four jumbo, and eight dreadnought models.

Universal Audio UAD-2 Satellite USB QUAD Core Desktop DSP Accelerator for Windows

When I’m using this plug-in, I prefer not to fiddle too much with the panning knobs, and to favor one pickup over the other. I keep it simple and mono, and use further effects for additional processing. As with the impulse response route, you’re not necessarily going to get the most appropriate sound out of the gate. It requires some judicial tweaking. We’ll talk more about that later.

If tweaking in the digital realm isn’t optimal, there are also acoustic preamps that provide convincing acoustic tones. Which brings us to our next tip.

3. Try a new DI

In the last few years, companies have fashioned acoustic DIs with mic modelling built into the hardware. Fishman makes such a unit and calls it the Aura Spectrum DI. This preamp houses a DSP engine with 128 pre-loaded “images.” Think of these “images” as impulse responses at your feet, rather than in the box. Alongside a one-knob compressor and a three-band EQ, these images go a long way to enlivening the dead sound of a DI.

Fishman Aura Spectrum DI Preamp

Keep in mind, you’re married to the tone when you record with it into your DAW; depending on your workflow, this is either great or not ideal, because it involves some pre-production decision making while recording. But lots of people prefer to work this way, committing their initial ideas to tape.

Another pedal up for the job, which is a little more wallet-friendly, is the Zoom AC-3 Acoustic Creator. This pedal works differently from the Aura, giving you 16 source-guitar presets and 15 target-guitar presets.

Zoom AC-3 Acoustic Creator Pedal

The operation is interesting: You get a broad picture of an overall miked sound with the 16 source presets, and then do fine tailoring of the timbre with the 15 target presets. Also, if you’re not quite set on committing the sound to tape, this might be the floor-box for you, because of the pre/post switch on the XLR output section, which bypasses the effects on the XLR end of things. One could probably plug 1/4" with effects into one channel, and XLR without effects into another, for safety.

A Final Word on Tweaking

These images, impulse responses, and processors are quite good, but they do require some further tweaking for a more believable sound. I can’t offer specific rules of thumb, because I don’t know what you want to do with your sound, but I can provide an approach.

Think of these processes as analogous to amplifier emulations for electric guitar. If you’ve ever worked with those, you’ll know it takes a different EQ approach to make them sit like amped electric guitars, with narrower notches at certain offensive frequencies, or even dynamic EQs for dipping out unwanted resonances when the guitar gets louder and nastier. The same holds true for acoustic guitar emulations, so keep that in mind.

Another thing to keep on hand is a reference track—an audible example of the sound you’re going for. Have that cued up, and it’ll be easier to approximate the tone with any effect.

That about covers it for how to make DI acoustics sound more like their miked cousins. Do you have your own tips and tricks you’d like to share? You’re certainly welcome to, in the Comments section.

1 Comment

What works for me probably falls under Option 3, "Try a new DI"...although with my Martin D-28, it has nothing to do with the preamp, which I don't even use. The secret is the transducer itself. I had a Fishman piezo installed under the bridge by a guitar repairman who specializes in Martins, and I don't even bother to use the preamp that came with the transducer. There's enough output from the pickup to drive any decent input preamp on a mix board for live work, or an audio interface in the studio.

I use a Focusrite Clarett 4Pre...although when I want extra brilliant, lush tone, I use an API 512b and API 550b EQ in an API Lunchbox, and then into the Clarett 4Pre. But plugging straight into the Focusrite alone still gives me awesome sound.

Of course, the ultimate sound comes from a Neumann TLM-170 mic into the API 512b+550b, but this is about DI, so if I can't use the Neumann mic (like on a live gig), the piezo is fine. If I want to add effects or otherwise color the sound, I use a Vox Tone Lab...the old blue desktop model with 12AX7 tube. But in the studio, I try to avoid coloring and other FX as much as possible when recording. I can do all that in the mix.

No disrespect intended to the Aura Spectrum and Zoom AC-3; I've never tried them, and they might be fine problem solvers for folks who don't want to go with a new transducer. But for me, it's all about the pickup, and the under-bridge piezo beats everything else I've ever tried...at least that's the case for my D-28. YMMV.