RECORDING: Four ways to record electric guitars
As my annual songwriting/recording camp at the school I teach at (Fort Washington School of Rock in Fort Washington, PA) draws near, I’ve been gathering info for the students that plan on attending it. Here are the four common ways to record electric guitars:
1. Miking a guitar amp (you’ll need your amp, a nice mic (Shure SM57 is the industry standard for miking a guitar amp).
This is usually the way to go, as this is the professional musician’s route. But, if you live with annoying parents, or in an apartment, or have roommates who hate anything loud… you won’t be able to do this. Also, recording this way can pose a few issues:
- If you are recording your guitar tracks in different sessions, chances are you’re not going to achieve the same tone. The slightest mic movement can drastically alter your guitar’s tone.
- The volume issue– say you record one song during the day, and you have that perfect overdrive from your tube amp… then, you record another song that requires some more drive, but you’re tracking at 10:30 at night… the roommates say “turn it down!” and you’re stuck with a tone that you didn’t have in mind when you decided to track.
- Everything you are recording is “wet”… that is, if you want to change your tone (or maybe have a little less drive) after tracking, you’re stuck with what you recorded, unless you want to do another take. That’s time-consuming and annoying. What you hear from your amp might sound great, but what comes through your studio monitors isn’t exactly what your amp sounded like.
2. Using a hardware effects processor / amp modeling device (you’ll need only the device)
This is the preferred method for a lot of home recordists, especially when volume can pose an issue. These devices are surprisingly convincing at making you think you actually miked your guitar amp. Some of the most common devices are the Line6 “Pod” series (pedals and the tabletop versions), Digitech’s “RP” line, the GT series by Boss/Roland, and pedals by Zoom. Most of these units have a USB output that lets you plug right into your computer and use the unit as your audio interface, which is handy. But a lot of people already have a decent audio interface, if they’re serious about guitar or recording, so they’ll just run the outputs of their unit into the inputs of their interface.
Also, these days, iphones/ipads are very useful, with special adapters that let you connect your guitar (1/4″ instrument cable) directly to them, and they have great sounds/amp models available.
Years ago, when this stuff first came out, the sound wasn’t terribly convincing. Now, in 2014, I think a lot of these units are quite convincing… and often, on YouTube, you’ll see people fail A/B tests when they do comparisons between the units and actual miked amps.
A major disadvantage to recording this way is, like miking an amp, you’re stuck with your processed signal, so if you don’t like any of the effects used in your take, or the overdrive sound, you’re stuck with it, unless you want to re-record it.
3. D.I. (aka “Direct Injection” or “Direct Inject”) with an amp modeling/effects plugin (you’ll need a D.I. box, and/or #2, and/or #1)
Direct Injection, also known as “D.I.”, means recording the dry signal directly from your guitar with no amplification, and using a plugin to tailor your guitar tone any way you want. But, it’s not terribly fun playing an electric guitar bone-dry with no effects or tone, just to tailor your sound later, so a D.I. box is recommended. What D.I. boxes allow you to do is run two separate signals– one into your effects unit or amp (so you can play normally with the tone you prefer), and another signal to your computer, recording the absolutely dry sound of your guitar. If you don’t have a D.I. box (they can be a little expensive– like $50 and up), you can use an amp-modeling/effects plugin (such as Line6’s “PodFarm” or IK Multimedia’s “Amplitube”, among many others) to get that miked-amp-sound (or at least close to it). If you don’t have your audio interface set correctly, however, you may experience latency, which is hearing the processed sound milliseconds after you play it (which is annoying as hell and will throw off your timing). A D.I. box is definitely the way to go, to get that realtime performance feel. The cool thing about recording this way is… you can always change the tone later, which is called “re-amping”…… for example, say you recorded with a ’68 Fender Twin Reverb model (as you own a Twin Reverb), but after some experimentation, you like the plugin’s Vox AC30 model instead, as it fits your song better. With one mouse click, you can change the tone of your guitar track. Also, a lot of those hardware effects processors/amp modeling units (such as the Line6 POD HD500) allow you to run two outputs– one processed (aka “wet”) and the other, bone dry.
4. The Combination
The fourth (and most common) method for recording electric guitars is a combination of 3, with either 1 or 2, recorded simultaneously. Basically, you record your miked amp on one track, and you record your D.I. (dry) signal on another, using an amp modeling/effects plugin such as Amplitube or PodFarm. This way you have your track with your main guitar tone (your miked amp), but also the option to go back to re-amp, if you find that your miked amp tone just isn’t cutting it.
What I usually do (depending on the time of day) is either mike my amp with a Shure SM57, or I run my guitar D.I., and play through my Line6 PodFarm/Gearbox plugin, and tailor the sound to my needs. Occasionally I might record the signal directly from my Zoom G3, which I feel has fantastic (and totally believable) amp modeling.
Good luck with your guitar tracking! Let me know if this post was at all confusing… hopefully I’ve explained stuff well (it’s 5am and I’ve been up all night). 🙂