Guitarist’s Guide To Recording

Recording your music is easier now than ever before. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t challenges involved. There’s more gear on the market, with more affordable options, and everything is relatively within reach thanks to the internet age. But to get a convincing sound, you’ve still got to put the time in – so how does it all work? We put together this handy guide to cover some of the most commonly asked questions…

Sam Beattie

Sam Beattie

When it comes to recording guitar, preference plays a big part. Different playing styles and genres require different approaches. But generally speaking, there are a few universal considerations. In this article, we’ll be exploring some of the following points – click the links to jump to each section:

  • Essential guitar recording gear
  • Hardware vs plugins
  • How to mic a guitar amp
  • Best way to mic an acoustic guitar
  • How to record bass guitar
  • The best audio interfaces for recording guitar

Without further ado, let’s begin…

Essential guitar recording gear

We’ll be going into more detail about the different ways of recording your guitar later on. For now, here’s a list of some of the gear that you might need, depending on the method that works for you:

Audio interface for guitar - Andertons Music Co.

(above: an audio interface is arguably the most crucial element in your guitar recording setup!)

Hardware vs plugins for recording guitar

There’s so much to talk about on this topic that we’ve written a whole darn article on it. Ultimately, it boils down to the fact that plugins are so good nowadays, many guitarists have thrown in the hardware towel. Ok, perhaps that’s a little dramatic – but plugins are a genuinely viable option for quality guitar recording.

Having said that, there’s a certain magic to recording a cranked amp or using your own pedals to craft your sound. There’s far more to it, but there’s an undeniable sense of satisfaction. Let’s delve into the main differences between recording with hardware vs plugins.

What are the best guitar plugins for recording?

Guitar plugins essentially offer amp sounds, effects and other mixing tools in software form. They’re most often used in the context of a DAW (digital audio workstation), as a kind of add-on that you can apply to any audio track.

There are loads on the market these days, each covering a different price point and having different options available. Here’s a selection of some of the most popular:

  • Native Instruments Guitar Rig
  • IK Multimedia Amplitube
  • Positive Grid Bias
  • Logic Pro X Amp Designer

For more info on these options, check out the article we mentioned earlier: Are Guitar Plugins Better than Amps for Recording?

Recording with a modelling amp

Recording with a Kemper - Andertons Music Co.

A modelling amp treads the line between plugin and full-blown amp. It comes in hardware form, either an amplifier complete with speaker and controls, or a practical desktop/stompbox format.

The term ‘modelling’ refers to the ability to reproduce sought-after sounds with ease. Classic amps, timeless effects, signature artist presets – the works.

On the one hand, you can easily pick up an affordable modelling amp like the Boss Katana or Fender Mustang, which offer a concise but handy selection of sounds. At the other end of the spectrum, units like the Line 6 Helix and Kemper Profiling Amp offer an under-the-hood approach. You can emulate a never-ending number of amps, effects, cabinets, rooms, microphones and more. This in-depth type of amp modelling can be intimidating, but it’s undeniably powerful and versatile.

Many modelling amps are pretty much recording-ready out of the box. This could include direct outputs to your audio interface, built-in cab simulation, even direct USB audio connectivity (negating the need for an audio interface). This makes modelling amps a practical, versatile solution for home recording and practice.

Best modelling amps for recording

What is guitar cab simulation?

Ever plugged a guitar preamp or distortion pedal directly into an interface or mixing desk? It leaves a lot to be desired. That’s because a power amp section and speaker cabinet plays a huge part in the guitar tone that you know and love.

In a similar way to modelling amps, a cab simulator does exactly what it says on the tin. It’ll emulate the power stage and cabinet characteristics, bringing your preamp, distortion or effects chain to life. Many modelling amps have this component built-in (as mentioned above), but you can pick up cab simulation pedals or standalone units starting from around the £100 mark. Failing that, many guitar plugins will have cab simulation options, so you can mix hardware with software to find your sound.

 

How to mic a guitar amp

One alternative to recording with plugins is using an amp – the traditional method. This might mean using a microphone to get a direct front-end sound. To get the best mic’d guitar amp tone, you’ll ideally need to consider four things:

  • Guitar tone
  • Amp volume
  • Microphone type
  • Microphone position

We might be stating the obvious here, but if any one of these is amiss, your recorded tone could be in serious trouble.

First up, guitar tone. Your tone will sound different in a mix to how it sounds by itself, so think about how you’re using your guitar. Playing lead parts? Consider boosting the midrange and add a little extra gain or compression for great sustain. Playing low-register riffs? Again, give the midrange a kick so that it cuts through, but don’t overdo the bass frequencies, as the guitar might sound muddy in a mix.

In terms of volume, you’ll want a healthy amount of noise for your microphone to pick up a strong signal. Sticking a microphone in front of a quiet amp will potentially leave room for unwanted noise and make for a weak sound. With valve amps, recording volume is particularly important; they’re widely perceived to sound better at high volumes. This is because the valves are pushed harder, resulting in a (literally) hotter, more responsive sound.

How does a guitar amp attenuator work?

A guitar attenuator will divert unnecessary power from your amp, reducing your volume without compromising your tone. These are particularly great if you’ve got a valve amp, giving you a cranked, hot tone at lower volumes. You can enjoy rich tube-driven tone without blowing holes in walls!

Boss' Tube Amp Expander - Andertons Music Co.

(above: Boss’ Tube Amp Expander combines a guitar attenuator with cab sim, effects and powerful recording tools)

What’s the best type of microphone for recording a guitar amp?

There’s a whole lot to think about it when it comes to microphones. But in the context of recording guitar, you can narrow it down to three main groups:

  • Dynamic – durable, directional microphones that are great for close-micing
  • Condenser – more sensitive, great for picking up more detail, often require phantom power
  • Ribbon – great for detail without being too sensitive, so also good for close-micing

One of the most common microphones for guitar amp recording is the Shure SM57, and with good reason. It offers an extremely direct sound, with minimal unwanted noise. This means that you get a clear, accurate reproduction of your tone that can be easily mixed.

Some, however, will prefer a bit more character in their recorded guitar sound. That’s where condenser and ribbon mics come in. You might want a close sound with more dynamics – go for a ribbon mic like the sE Electronics VR1. If you want to capture more natural space, use a condenser mic like the Aston Spirit.

Best electric guitar microphones

What’s the best microphone position for recording a guitar amp?

If you’re close-micing, you’ve got two main position options:

  • Pointing at the centre of the cone
  • Just off-centre (by 1-2 inches)

Having your mic a few millimetres off the amp’s grill and at the centre of the cone will offer a brighter, more direct sound. Off-centre will ease off some of the higher frequencies and give your sound more ‘body’. A similar principle applies to ribbon microphones, provided you’re using them up close.

When it comes to condenser microphones, using them close up won’t do you many favours. As mentioned earlier, they’re more sensitive, so they’re better suited to a bit of distance. Experiment in the room you’re in – a foot or two away will be enough to add some space to your sound while retaining the close-up detail. Try going a bit further, or even into a different room, to capture a more abstract tone!

What is re-amping?

Re-amping is when you take your dry, unaffected audio track and channel it through an amplifier, modeller or plugin. The advantage of doing it this way is that you’re not committed to any one sound.

Once you’ve mic’d up your guitar amp or plugged your modelling amp into your interface and pressed record, that sound is committed to the mix. Re-amping gives you tonal flexibility, even after you’ve recorded your guitar parts. Not sitting right in the mix? Perhaps your track has changed style? No problem, just send those dry stems through a plugin, or back out into an amp.

Record producers have used re-amping for years as a way of recording musicians remotely, then picking sounds afterwards. If your preferred guitarist lives on a different continent but you want them to play through your prized vintage amp, get them to record into a DAW and send you the stems. Then you loop it back through your amp, mic it up, and voila – you’ve cracked it!

Electric guitar recording hacks

Here are a few handy electric guitar recording tips that don’t necessarily go by the book:

  • Carefully wrap a bandana, scarf or sock around your headstock/nut/lower frets to dampen string noise when recording. This is particularly useful for leads parts or fiddly techniques.
  • You can improvise acoustic treatment with cushions, blankets and clothing on drying racks. This is particularly useful when micing up an amp, preventing a boxy or bouncy sound.
  • If you’re micing an amp, raise it off the floor and, if possible, angle it diagonally into a room. This will offer a tighter sound with less natural reverb.
  • If you’re working with plugins in a DAW, create your own custom templates and presets to save time. Don’t dial everything in from scratch every time you work.

For more hacks, check out our article here!

 

How to record an acoustic guitar

Recording the electric guitar is one thing, but acoustic is a different ballgame. But like the electric guitar, you still have a few options to choose from:

  • Microphone – arguably the best way of capturing the organic tone of an acoustic guitar.
  • Acoustic pickup – the same as an electric guitar pickup, using magnets to detect movement in the strings.
  • Piezo pickup – attached the guitar’s top, a piezo system detects vibrations in the wood. This often gives a more direct sound.

Each one of these offers a different sound, and in many cases, they’re combined to get the best of each option. You might want an organic acoustic sound with the clarity of piezo to make sure it cuts through a mix – and that’s ok!

Microphone vs DI for recording acoustic guitar

Part of what’s attractive about an acoustic guitar is that it sounds great without needing amplification or effects. As mentioned earlier, using a microphone to record your acoustic will capture the essence of its unplugged sound.

Using a DI, either via a magnetic pickup or piezo system, offers more clarity but could be interpreted as artificial. If you listen to this sort of sound in isolation, it bears a lot of similarity to electric guitar. This method is certainly more practical, as it doesn’t involve careful placement of a microphone. It’s down to preference, as mentioned before. Some prefer the crystalline clarity of a piezo system, while others like the pure, earthy acoustic sound. A combination of the two isn’t uncommon.

How to mic an acoustic guitar

There are a number of ways to record an acoustic with a microphone. It’s worth noting that although it may seem counterintuitive, pointing a microphone at the soundhole is not a good idea. It can result in feedback and a boomy, unclear sound, which nobody wants! Here’s a cross-section of the most popular acoustic micing methods:

  • 12th fret – often near where the neck joins the body, this position gets the low-end of the soundhole and the top-end of the fretboard and string noise.
  • 12th fret plus matched mic – same as above, but with a matched mic pointing at the bridge or the body. This provides more bass and low-mid frequency detail.
  • 12th fret raised – again, same as the first option, but with emphasised bass. Great for small-bodied acoustics that need bit more punch.
  • XY – two small mics at a right-angle with eachother, positioned diagonally near the 12th This can provide a broader stereo-like sound.

Shure SM57 for acoustic guitar - Andertons Music Co.

(above: a Shure SM57 aimed at the 12th fret is a popular ‘upfront’ acoustic guitar sound)

Best acoustic guitar microphones

 

How to record a bass guitar

At the risk of riling up the 6-string and bass communities simultaneously – recording a bass guitar isn’t that far off recording an electric. You could use an amp and cab with a microphone, you could use a modelling amp, you could go directly into a DAW and use plugins.

The main thing that separates the bass recording process is the use of a DI signal. You might notice that many bass amps and pedals feature a direct out jack or XLR. This sends a balanced dry signal out to a desk or interface, and is often then combined with your amplified or affected signal. This ensures that your bass tone retains the low-end weight that it needs, while letting your effects add a bit of colour.

It’s increasingly common for bassists to record straight into a desk or interface, completely removing an amp from the process. You can still use a preamp, modelling or plugins to give your tone character, but it’s a lot less clunky than using a hefty rig. Click here to check out bass preamp pedals.

 

What’s the best audio interface for recording guitar?

In terms of an interface, you don’t need too much to be able to record your guitar. Many of the methods mentioned above would just require a single input. If you want to combine methods, for example DI + guitar cab mic, two inputs will obviously do the trick.

With this in mind, there are plenty of affordable easy to use interfaces on the market that’ll suit a recording guitarist’s needs:

Best audio interfaces for guitar

Some manufacturers have taken it to the next level, making interfaces specially designed for guitar. The Line 6 Pod Studio range set the trend, offering a bundle with a simple interface and a selection of great-sounding guitar plugins. More recently, IK Multimedia released the Axe I/O with a built-in tuner, amp output and Amplitube 4 thrown in. Then there’s Audient’s Sono (bel0w), with comprehensive EQ, cab simulation – oh, and a valve preamp!

Audient Sono Guitar Audio Interface - Andertons Music Co.

More info

We hope you’ve enjoyed reading this hefty article. By now, you should feel a little more confident on the guitar recording front, and you may have a few more creative recording ideas than you had before. If you’d like to find out more cool musical gear stuff, check out the rest of our Learn content while you’re here! That’s all for now, folks.

Sam Beattie
Sam Beattie
Sam is one of our content writers, as well as being our resident southpaw. When he's not busy being left-handed, he spends his time composing for music libraries and playing in a post-rock band. Sam plays a Mexican Telecaster and a Vigier Excalibur, and is never more than 5 feet away from his Electro-Harmonix POG.

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