Looking back over nearly 30 years of guitar playing experience, from school to stage to studio, I can honestly say that developments in our instruments since the early '90s pale in comparison to the evolution of recording technology. And this relates to every conceivable level or purpose of audio capture; mobile phones have replaced microcasette recorders or dictaphones as basic sonic notepads, book-sized (or even pocket-sized) digital multitracks have superseded those C90-loaded devices now lying dormant in dusty cupboards, and professional studio desks are almost exclusively hooked directly to computer-powered DAW's with virtually unlimited track counts, rather than the hypnotising reel-to-reel recorders of yesterday. Frankly, the only better time to try recording yourself than today is - well, probably tomorrow, or at least after next year’s NAMM expo...
As with any new realm of experience with your guitar journey, the staggering amount of choice when it comes to recording options can be seriously overwhelming. So, this week’s blog is all about helping you think about what's right for you...
Why are you recording?
A less stupid question than it might sound. Are you trying to capture a full band? Trying to replace Ed Sheeran with an intimate release destined for Spotify? Or simply curious about what you sound like when not actually holding your guitar?
This last reason is actually one of the best for a rookie player - hearing your own playing coming through a speaker or headphones is a superb way to bolster confidence, identify areas of weakness, and generally sense-check your own skills. And all the equipment you need to achieve a basic audio capture (other than your actual guitar) is probably sat in your hand right now.
Even old and basic smartphones feature rudimentary audio recorders, which work brilliantly as notepads for capturing tune practice or perhaps new musical ideas. My own iPhone currently contains about 50 brief clips of simple off-the-cuff ideas - 5 of which have been developed into studio recordings at a later date, and all of which have seriously raised my respect for the standard of microphones built into mobile devices.
For anything more challenging than capturing an informal musical sketch, more serious consideration is needed on how to get the best results. This naturally starts with your instrument, which you'll want to sound its absolute best. Start with making sure it's in tune, set with correct intonation, and ideally wearing a fresh set of strings.
Electric instruments should have zero wiring faults, the best quality jack-to-jack cable available, and be kept well away from ceiling lights, monitors, or anything else that could cause pickup hum.
And here's a pro tip; stay seated. You'll be more relaxed, less likely to cause accidental noise from movement of the guitar itself, and be working the same way as practically EVERY guitar legend you've ever listened to...
Making the noise
So how do you turn your guitar wizardry into a useable, recordable audio signal? Let's examine a few options...
For those of you with electro-acoustic instruments, the DI (direct input) technique provides a simple method for plugging directly into recording devices with zero fuss. However, remember that piezo pickups - although usually excellent - will never truly replicate the pure acoustic tone coming from the wooden front of your guitar.
It's here that microphones come into play for a truly high-quality result, and condenser mics (such as the excellent Rode N1) are king when it comes to acoustic guitar audio capture. Set the mic on a stand so it's positioned in front of your guitar, keeping it roughly in line with the 12th fret rather than hovering around the sound hole.
Weird though it seems, this will give a far superior result - you'll get a far broader and cleaner spectrum of noise rather than a colossal low-frequency 'boom'. Remember too that condenser microphones need phantom power, but this will almost always be supplied by whatever recorder you plug into.
The DI option also naturally provides the shortest and most hassle-free route from a solid-bodied electric guitar to a recording device, but only if you're happy with the raw sound produced by the instrument itself. If not then it's also usually possible to take a DI output from your amplifier, or alternatively use an external hardware amp modelling device (such as the legendary Line 6), to add extra tonal colour directly into the recording mix.
You can now even get actual physical amps that model other amps - check out the Blackstar ID:Core or Fender Mustang for two great options.
But for those of you seeking to capture that carefully crafted killer tone coming from your amplifier, a microphone can definitely give a certain edge to the sound quality. This can be achieved even more easily than with acoustic guitar recording, simply by close-micing the amp with a dynamic microphone (we'd suggest the classic, industry-standard Shure SM57) that will largely reject noise coming from anywhere else in whatever room you're working in, and don't require phantom power.
Keep the mic a few millimetres away from the amplifier grille, and experiment with the tone you get from having the mic facing either dead-centre or slightly off-centre (an inch or two) in relation to the speaker cone.
Capturing the noise
This is where the technology choices become a little bewildering, so let's break it down into two main options...
Devices purely designed for single or multi-track audio recording. These range from tiny pocket-sized studios (such as the BOSS BR-80) all the way up to desktop devices with multiple channel controls (like the TASCAM DP32SD), capturing hours of high-quality audio onto internal SD memory. Many modern portable recorders also feature built-in, high-quality stereo condenser microphones, basically giving you an all-in-one solution straight out of the box! Most of these devices will accept inputs via standard guitar cable (TRS) or mic cable (XLR), with little extra equipment required.
DAW (Digital Audio Workstation)
This usually refers to software designed to capture, edit, and produce audio files - and as you'd probably expect, the choices here are enormous! Alongside the well-established options for Windows and Macintosh computer systems (ProTools, Logic, Cubase, and hundreds of others), there's an ever-increasing range of DAW's for iOS and Android devices (Garageband is a superb free option). Not to mention online systems that can be used via a web-browser - SoundTrap is one great example.
You'll naturally need the ability to connect your guitar, amp/modeller, or microphone to whatever device is running the DAW, which usually means attaching an audio interface. Once again, the options are very wide-ranging; USB/Thunderbolt interfaces exist for computers (along with PCI/PCIE cards for expandable desktop machines), and a variety of small mobile interfaces can hook directly up to your iPad or Galaxy tablet.
Whichever option you choose, don't forget the final essential component - a pair of headphones! You want to ensure that the recorded sound meets your expectations after-all...
Wrapping it up
This article only just scratches the surface when it comes to all the intricacies of recording guitar, but we've hopefully covered enough basics for you to get started with confidence. And don't forget to send us your first killer track - it's always nice to hear the noises our readers make! Until next time...