You’ve just came up with a great new riff or song on your guitar, but you have no way to record it properly. Well, at least record the idea on your phone for later, as to not forgot it. But how can you actually record a guitar to a professional level though? So, that it sounds the real deal, the bee’s knees, a sound will blow away your fellow musicians, friends, or producers. This is a broad topic, but no matter what you’re after, whether that be a bright acoustic, shimmering, and lush acoustic guitar sound, a distorted, beefy electric guitar, or a thundering bass, this guide will cover it all. I’m going to explain exactly how to record any type of guitar on a computer, laptop, or tablet.
Recording Guitars with an Audio Interface
There are two main ways to record any type of guitar onto your computer, via an audio interface, or with a microphone of some sort. An audio interface is the heart of any home recording set up. As there are no inputs on your computer for microphone cables (XLR), or instrument cables (1/4 inch). An audio interface is in-between device that allows you to connect them to your computer. Depending on the audio interface configuration, they also have inputs/outputs for studio monitors, headphones, and external gear, such as effects units, compressor etc. To read in-depth about audio interfaces and their inputs and outputs, check out my full guide.
So, how do you connect your guitar to an audio interface and to your computer? It’s very simple really. Audio interfaces have two levels of impedance for their inputs, line level that we use for microphones and instruments level, which you guessed it, we use for instruments. You just have to plug your guitar cable into the audio interfaces instrument input, press the instrument button to select the right impedance, and then set up a track in your DAW with the corresponding input number. What’s a DAW? It is the music software that you will need to do everything, from recording, editing, mixing, and so on. Feel free to read my full guide and DAW recommendations for beginners, where I cover this topic in more detail.
Now you have a guitar signal going into your audio interface and then to your computer via your DAW. But how will it sound? Well, to be honest, not great, because you will just be hearing your dry guitar signal, with no processing, amps, or effects. What’s the solution? Plugins! Oh, how I love plugins, as do many musicians, producers, and audio engineers. Plugins are also pieces of software that you use in your DAW. They can be everything from effects units, like reverb, delay, phasers, flangers etc, processing units such as compressors and limiters, virtual instruments, virtual synthesisers, and there are plenty of plugins that replicate other gear such as guitar amps/pedals, or vintage analog gear.
How do they sound though? Modelling plugins that replicate instruments and real gear have evolved extensively over the years, to the point that they can be hard to distinguish from the real thing. Which is great news for you. You can literally have hundreds or guitar amps and pedals at your fingertips, all located within your DAW. Most DAWs come with stock plugins, but there are also hundreds of companies that make their own. You’ll never be short of them, Be careful though, it can be addictive buying them! Read more about plugins in my article ‘What is a VST plugin?’.
Types of Microphones
Before we move on to recording guitars with microphones, you need to first know about what types of microphones are available. There are two main types of microphones recording engineers like to use for this purpose. Condenser microphones and dynamic microphones.
Dynamic microphones are a lot less sensitive than condenser microphones, making them well suited for miking up guitar amps. This is because they’re robustly built and can tolerate loud sound sources exceptionally well without any damage being caused to them. Condenser microphones on the other hand, are much more sensitive, which is why they’re often used for acoustic instruments, where more detail and nuisances need to be captured. The downsides to this are that they cannot tolerate loud sound sources, are more prone to feedback, and will pick up background noise more easily. That’s great if that’s your goal, like when you want to record a lush reverb in cathedral, but if you’re recording in a noisy space then a condenser microphone shouldn’t be your first choice.
The opposite is true of dynamic mics, they feedback less, which is why they’re used for live environments, and due to their less sensitive nature, they will barley pick up any room ambience. If you want to read more about condenser vs dynamic microphones, read my post comparing them both. Regardless of which mic you use, you’ll still need an audio interface, as both microphones types use XLR cables which you can not plug in to your computer.
How about USB microphones? USB mics are a great budget alternative, they also come in either condenser or dynamic form, plus there is no need for an audio interface. What’s the catch then? USB microphones are not as versatile as studio quality microphones. They are also not as powerful and even if you went for a more expensive one, they still usually sound inferior to XLR mics. Don’t be put off though, you can still achieve professional sound quality with a USB mic. Personally though, if your budget allows for it, I’d pick an XLR mic and audio interface.
Recording an Electric Guitar with Microphones
Now that you know about microphone types, which do you think is more appropriate for a guitar amplifier? Well, if you’ll be recording a very loud guitar for rock or metal, then a dynamic microphone. But sound engineers frequently also use condenser microphones on guitars amps and cabinets when a cleaner guitar tone is in use. Or they’ll place one further away from the amp to capture the sound at a distance, with the room’s ambience in mind.
A typical approach to record a guitar amp or cabinet would be to close mic it. This is to avoid unwanted background noise and room reflections. Try to experiment by placing the mic between 0-5 inches (0-12.5cm) from the speaker. Where you place the microphone on the speaker is also as important. In the centre of any guitar speaker is a cone, depending in the amp it may be harder to see than others. You can use a torch to look through the mesh, or possibly even feel around to under the cloth grill to find it. Then try recording with the microphone half way between the edge of the speaker cone and centre.
How does it sound? There are no rules of course but generally speaking this is a sort of ‘sweet spot’. When you place the mic in the middle of the speaker, the tone can be quite bright, or even harsh and muddy. Moving it close to the edge will create a duller and darker tone. Play around with the distance and position of the microphone on the cone, and if you have two mics, put both at various points on the cone, or one close up and the other at a distance. How does it sound? Try it and see. The key is to experiment and enjoy the experience. That’s how humans learn right? Trial and error.
Recording an Acoustic Guitar with Microphones
Recording an acoustic guitar with microphones is quite a complex topic. Why? Because there are a tonne of microphone recording techniques (mono and stereo) and positions you can choose from. All of which have their own unique sound. For the purposes of this article and to keep things simple, I’m just going to talk about the basics. More specifically, using one large diaphragm condenser microphone to record an acoustic guitar. You can read about the differences between large and diaphragm and small diaphragm microphones in my article ‘What is a Large Diaphragm Condense Microphone?‘.
This is a pretty standard budget approach when you can only really afford one microphone, or just want a good quality mono recording. Remember the microphone types we looked at earlier, which one was preferable for acoustic instruments? You got it, condenser microphones as they pick up much more detail and nuisances than dynamic microphones. But how do you get a good sound?
How should you position your mic then? Placing your microphone at about 12-16 inches (30-40 cm) from the 12th fret is a good starting point. This area is close to the sound hole, but not close enough that you’ll pick up all the rumbling frequencies. Instead you should be able to capture a balanced tone with plenty of mids and high-end. Just think of a microphone like an ear. If you moved your ear along different areas of an acoustic guitar, whilst it was being played, you would hear big difference with just the smallest movements.
So, experiment. You can also place the mic higher, above the sound hole for a bassier sound. Or point the mic towards the bridge end, angled towards the players hand for a brighter tone with more midrange. There are no rules really. Just try a few different positions to see which sound you like the most.
Recording Guitar Doesn’t Have to Be Complicated
Now you know how to record guitar on a computer. Regardless of whether you have an electric, bass, or acoustic guitar, you either plug it directly into an audio interface, or use microphones and plug them into your audio interface. If you just want the basics go for a USB microphone, otherwise shop around to see what the best fit for you is. I have plenty of gear recommendations on my website to help you out with that. I hope this article was useful, if you have any questions then please feel free to write them below in the comments.