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The Guitarist's Guide
to Recording on your Computer

Recording Guitars: With Mics, Direct, Amped, Vamped, Re-Amped


Cool Guitar Stuff at zZounds
Shure SM57LC Cardioid Dynamic Microphone (Less Cable)  Tweak: Every studio needs one.  It can do everything, including vocals (thanks to a rich sounding proximity effect).  Perhaps the only issue with the SM57 is that it does not have as much gain as your typical condenser and you have to boost it with the trim at the board quite a bit more.  But, OTOH, the SM57 does not need phantom power, batteries, power supplies.  Just plug it in and it gives the classic Shure sound.  And you can drop it, step on it, whirl it like a helicopter (for bizarre effects, you tweak you) and it will probably survive.  Read the SM57 User Guide

Fender Cyber-Twin SE Digital Guitar Amplifier (2x65 Watts, 2x12 in.)
The Fender design team is proud to introduce the "second edition" of their flagship amp. It's simply called the Cyber Twin SE. It's a 2 x 12 combo with tube preamp, reconfigurable analog and digital circuitry, motorized knobs and a 2 x 65-watt power amp.

Visit Tweak's Guitar Gallery for Revies on of today's new guitars

Roland VG99 V-Guitar System
In the history of guitar modeling, no manufacturer has devoted more time, resources and passion into this market segment than Roland -- from the world’s first guitar modeling processor, the legendary VG-8, to its popular V-Guitar predecessors. Today, Roland proudly announces another milestone in guitar modeling and performance technology: the VG-99.

Fender Vintage Reissue '65 Twin Reverb Guitar Amplifier
Twin reverb guitar amplifier. Fender Reissue amplifiers include such features as solid steel welded chassis, plywood construction, all-tube circuitry, and carefully reproduced cosmetics.

Behringer DI100 Active Direct Box Behringer's Ultra-DI DI100 is your ultimate friend and helper on stage and in the studio. With this active DI box, hum and impedance problems are a thing of the past. Every conceivable sound source š electric guitar, bass, keyboards, or what have you š can be "tamed," sending it balanced and noise free into your console. You can even connect a guitar amp's speaker output with up to 3,000 Watts. No sweat.

More direct boxes




By Tweak

It might seem strange for some of you to think I might know anything about guitars, with my small claim to notoriety being sampling and programming, but the truth is, I was originally a guitar player who played in real bands.  I've been recording acoustic and electric guitars so long I'd rather not tell. I've also gone pretty deep into midi guitar and have programmed guitar patches on synths for MIDI guitars.   The good thing for you is that you get the advantage of some hard won tips on recording guitars and making your playing sound the best it can be.  Lets start with a basic guide to ways to record your guitar on your computer.

First you need a way to get audio into your computer.  The ideal way is to get an audio interface that has a Microphone preamp for recording acoustic guitar, vocals, drums, etc. and Instrument input for recording electric guitars and basses. These don't have to be expensive, and many are custom designed for the guitarist.  They might come with digital models of guitars and amps built right into the interface or in the software that comes in the package.  See my article on audio interfaces for a general overview. 

Guitarist specialty audio interfaces

Digidesign Eleven Rack Guitar Recording and Effects Audio Interface

The Digidesign Eleven is both a modeler and an audio interface.  It can be used on stage to substitute for racks of effects pedals and amp heads and cabs, or in the studio both as a processor and an audio interface.  The Eleven comes with and works with Pro Tools LE software.  One feature is you can also record basses, drums, vocals, acoustic guitars as well as Electric guitars.  Its USB 2.0 so it a bit ahead of the USB 1.1 guitarist oriented audio interfaces. 


Line 6 Toneport UX8 USB 2.0 Computer Recording Interface
The TonePort UX8 is the ideal solution for project and pro studios, providing eight simultaneous channels of 24-bit/96 kHz audio over an ultra-fast USB 2.0 connection.

The Line 6 UX8 offers a ton of i/o for the price.  8 mic pres or line ins, 8 outs, 2 instrument inputs, 2 headphones and s/pdif.  Comes with the line 6 software.  This is not a live processor like the Eleven, its an audio interface that does the Line 6 magic in software in the sequencer of your choice. 

Note the differences here.  Some interfaces have onboard DSP (digital sound processors).  Others do not.  


Roland VG99 V-Guitar System


The VG99 by Roland not only has amp models but guitar models as well.  You can connect to a computer by USB and use it to record your guitar into recording software.  However, there are no microphone inputs on the VG99. It is better to plug the outputs of the VG99 into an existing audio interface.  You can connect via s/pdif or analog line level. While you can plug in any guitar to its instrument input and use the various amp and effects models, the VG99 is designed to be used with Roland's GK pickup, which can be retrofitted to most guitars.  (See my review).  What differs here from the previous two interfaces is that the VG99 can work totally without a computer.  All the guitar, amp, cab and effects models are inside the VG99 so it can gig with no problem.  When you do connect it up you can edit the innards of the VG99 on your computer screen.  And just to get that extra bit of authenticity you can connect it to an amp and record it back with a microphone. 


Inexpensive USB audio interfaces for Guitar

These are typically USB 1.1 devices.  They may be restricted to recording at 16bit/44.1 (CD quality) but they are designed to get the job done at the smallest possible price. 

Alesis GuitarLink USB Audio Interface
GuitarLink makes it easy to direct-connect nearly any guitar, bass, or other line-level audio source to USB for mono recording. The AudioLink Series USB-audio cable outputs studio quality 16-bit, 44.1 kHz digital audio thanks to its internal analog-to-digital conversion system. GuitarLink connects plug-and-play to your Mac or PC for an all-in-one USB audio solution.
Behringer UCG102 Guitar to USB Interface
The GUITAR LINK UCG102 interface is an amazing practice tool that lets you hook up your guitar to your computer in a flash, giving you the best of both worlds.
IK Multimedia StealthPlug Guitar/Bass USB Audio Interface Cable with Plug-Ins
StealthPlug is the first compact 1/4 in. jack to USB audio interface cable for Guitar and Bass players to plug into the world of software-based amp/effects modeling and recording.




Recording Acoustic Guitars with Microphones

Once you have your audio interface or soundcard and mixer setup, you need to hook up the microphones.  Microphones I tend to like for recording steel stringed and nylon stringed guitars are of the small condenser type.  My personal favorite is the Shure SM81, which captures a wonderful wooden sound with exceptional clarity.  I like this mic because it is long and thin.  This allows for placement close to your strumming hand pointed at the area between the bridge and the sound hole.  A larger condenser mic will sound almost as good if you can get it to the right location without knocking it with your hand.

It takes a bit of experimentation to find what woks best for your style.  The guitar can be hugely dynamic and if you are too close you can overdrive the preamp, which is not a good thing.  We can add processors later in the chain for an overdriven sound.  Even though many preamps can be overdriven the converters on the audio interface cannot be overdriven with destroying the signal.   

Stereo recording


sm81+octava m012

Many of the "New Age" guitarists get their sound by recording in stereo.  Typically, one uses the classic "XY" technique with ideally 2 matched small diaphragm condenser microphones.  I find you can use different mics, sometimes with surprising results.  Using this technique the mics are put at a 90 degree angle.  The Mic on the right will point towards the sound hole and the one on the left will point at the bridge. 

K&M 235/1 Stereo Microphone Bar
Easily mount two mics in one stand. Perfect for use with stereo pairs or for percussion micing. Fits any 5/8-inch - 27 male thread. Made in Germany.




Through a Direct Box to a Mixer's Mic Preamp to an audio interface

Recording the electric axe can be done direct. When we say direct, we mean without an amp.  Particularly today, for the guitarist with an audio sequencer like Sonar or Cubase SX, there are many reasons to do so.  By recording a clean sound, one can add effects later with plugins, when the song takes form enough that you know exactly what tone you need the guitar to be.  Of course you could record your Tube Screamer direct to a sequencer, but in the end you will have to deal with making the screamer fit in the mix.  Cubase SX and Sonar have some great valve plugins that can fool the ear convincingly.  If you do go direct, perhaps the biggest obstacle is getting a good level out of the guitar.  As these are HiZ outputs, they are meant to go to an amp.  You can plug it into the line input of your mixer and sometimes it sounds good.  However, you might notice some interaction with computer monitors and other electrified fields providing you with your old friend, Mr. Hum.  Using single coil pickups hum is at its worst.  Humbucking pickups reduce the chatter a bit, but if you boost your signal there you are again.


The time honored solution for recording direct is to convert the HiZ signal to a balanced XLR mic signal with a cool device known as a direct box.  The direct box, in combination with the mic preamp on the board, provides a crystal clear hi-output signal suitable for recording.  There are many models of direct boxes, some with amp simulators, and now some with digitally modeled amp simulators.  I simply use an inexpensive Behringer DI100 and enjoy the hundredfold improvement in the signal to noise ratio of my Ibanez Cardinal which is a guitar of great tonal diversity.  


Amped then Mic'd back to your audio interface

Sometimes nothing will do better than the sound of a recorded amp.  As we know, amps have particular gain stages that allow for a wide variety of crunchy tonalities.  Digitally modeled amp simulators can go a long way to creating the beloved buzz, but not with the same fluidity, organic-nature or ok, lets say it, "warmth".  The micing of a guitar amp opens a number of things to consider.  Newbies should note that, first off, you don't have to crank the volume to get a great sound.  You do have to boost the initial gain, so the amp delivers the preferred amount of overdrive.  Small amps actually can do as good of a job as a stack, and you get the advantage of not having to crank to 11 in the wee hours of the night.  To record your amps sound you need a good mic for the job, not a great $2,000 condenser, but a common Shure SM57 dynamic mic works great.  Placement of the mic is also a variable.  I like to stick the SM57 right up about 2-3 inches from the cone, that way I get a little more bass in it due to the proximity effect of this mic.  If you want more of a "room tone" you can begin by slightly angling the mic away from the cone towards a wall.  Indeed, careful experimentation can give you some unique ambient tones.

The Amp to Mic kind of recording chain also benefits from a compressor/gate.  If you turn on your amp with nothing connected and it hums, you will need a gate to get rid of that part of the signal.  The Compressor can give you a more sustained, balanced audio signal that is optimized for the recorder.  See my article on compressors.  

When modeling is combined with real amplifier gain circuits and tubes it takes some of the digital artificiality out of the equation.  Check out the sound of the Vox Valvetronix series.  Amazingly, the prices on the Vox are reasonable. The output sounds fantastic, and you don't need a lot of room in the studio for it.  Put a mic on it and tell me if it satisfies the analog purist in you.

Vox VT30 Valvetronix Guitar Combo Amplifier (30 Watts, 1x10 in.)
Sophisticated modeling technology combined with the Vox Valve Reactor power amp circuit that uses a 12AX7 vacuum tube results in sound quality that overwhelms the competition. Announcing the VT series --- the latest combo amps in the Valvetronix series, featuring simulation sounds of famous guitarists.



V-Amped to the line input of your audio interface

Over the past few years there have been a landslide of virtual guitar amp simulators on the market.  These work by taking the direct sound of your guitar and running them through a mathematical model that imparts the sonic characteristics and artifacts of particular amp models.  These devices usually have some effects added in, such as the typical chorus, flange, delay and reverb in various combinations that we have grown to love.  I have the Behringer V-Amp, which i reviewed here.  There are many others out there. The Line 6 Pod units grew up parallel to the V-amp, then dramatically took a big share of the market.   Do these units really sound as great as a vintage amp as they claim?  Yes and no.  In the mix with other instruments, few will be able to tell.  The great advantage of these is that one can record clean and apply the modeler later, as an insert on a mixing board.  Behringer V-Amp 3 Guitar Amp Modeling Processor  Impressive cabinets and tone colors of distortion.


Line 6 Pocket POD Express Guitar Amp Modeling Processor


As with plugins, you can dial up the amp model./effects combination you need at mixdown and try others.  That's pretty cool in an of itself.  However, a careful detailed examination of the quality of these sounds is revealing.  The models always sound the same, they are quite consistent.  An amp never sounds the same exactly.  As it warms up it might get crunchier or darker, and there might be hot pockets in the sound that the modeler does not reproduce.  Heh, I am reminded of some guitar tweaks who would keep a stock of "almost depleted" 9 volt batteries around because their chorus pedal sounded best right before the batteries gave out.  But let me not get sidetracked.  The digital modeling amp simulators do a great job at providing extreme tonal diversity for a modest amount of cash.  They have changed the way guitarists' record themselves forever. 


Re-Amped from and back to the audio interface

This is a technique where a track already recorded (for example, a clean tone) is sent back out the audio interface to an amp, pedalboard, or stack, microphoned up, and sent back o the audio interface for re-recording.  Working this way allows the final tone of the axe to be delayed to when the mix engineer can decide which tone will work best.   To re-amp you need to be able to take your audio interface line output and knock it down to HiZ (high impedance) like a typical guitar output. 

Radial Pro RMP Reamping Device
The Radial ProRMP, a transformer coupled reamping device that allows a prerecorded line level signal to drive a guitar amplifier and pedal effects by properly matching impedance and allowing the user to determine the appropriate level.

Going Soft all the Way

Perhaps the most amazing method of adding guitar processing is using a software amp modeler plugin.  When the software revolution began there were plugins that attempted to emulate distortion and tube screamers and of course the common flangers, delays, and compressors.  But things have gotten quite complex.  Native Instruments Guitar Rig wins the award for letting the user custom design their stack of amp/effects models, just like an arena rock star might.  The version of this software that I have lets you select among 12 amps, 15 guitar cabs and 4 bass cabs, 4 rotary speakers and 9 mics, along with 44 effects.  And they sound great.  Especially the delay called Psychedelic. Groovey Baby! We'll get into making guitar tones in software in detail in the next class.

Native Instruments Guitar Rig Software Edition (Macintosh and Windows)
GUITAR RIG 3 is the ultimate guitar and bass solution. GUITAR RIG 3 software grants you access to an incredible number of perfectly modeled classic amps, cabinets, mics and effects - all arranged in a super-simple drag-and-drop rack format. Any style, any time - the perfect solution for professional studio and live setups.


Modern Amps

With the onset and deluge of amp modelers came the logical next step.  A real amp with a built in modeler, offering the best of all worlds.  These are the priciest of the amps out there today but have features that are truly revolutionary.  An amp with Presets, like synths have?  Reality.  Check out the specs on the Fender Cyber Twin.  There's plenty of digital amps available in all price ranges from Behringer, Line 6, Roland and more.  This just goes to show you that modeling is not going away. 

Fender Cyber-Twin SE Guitar Combo Amplifier (2x65 Watts, 2x12 in.)
The Fender design team is proud to introduce the "second edition" of their flagship amp. It's simply called the Cyber Twin SE. It's a 2 x 12 combo with tube preamp, reconfigurable analog and digital circuitry, motorized knobs and a 2 x 65-watt power amp.

Summing Up

Which to do?  Why limit yourself? Use all the techniques.  Let the artistic considerations of the piece dictate which approach to use.  Recording the electric guitar is about making a tonality speak from the heart, and as with many other studio practices, the more you experiment, the better the odds you will know how to get what you want. 

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Cool Links

Tweak's Guitar Gallery

Getting a Great Guitar Tone in a Computer

Review of the Roland VG99 Guitar Processor


Cool Quote:

"The soul of music slumbers in the shell
Till waked and kindled by the master’s spell;
And feeling hearts, touch them but rightly, pour
A thousand melodies unheard before!"

Samuel Rogers (1763–1855)

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More Articles on Recording and Composition by Tweak

Recording and Composition INDEX
Recording Process Made Simple
Inspiration and Style
Step-by-Step: How to write a Song
Write Drum tracks without a Drummer
Hip Hop Beat Construction Made Simple
Hip Hop Production and Mixing
Hip Hop Drum Tweaks
Using Electronic Drum Kits
How to Record Vocals
Preparing for a Vocal Session
Vocal Processing
Recording Guitars
Using Compressors
Using Effects Processors
Buying a MultiTrack: Watch Out!
Using an AW1600 Recorder
Podcasting from your Home Studio
MultiTrack Recorder Price List
Outboard FX Price List
Studio Racks List


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