But never fear! Here is a quick and easy guide to recording your electric and acoustic guitar with tried and tested methods that are adapted to today’s recording landscape. But before we start, remember; the only mistake is if the tone doesn’t match the song. There is no right or wrong way!
A New Age of Recording
With so many technologies becoming more and more convenient and accessible, recording a guitar has become less and less of an engineering problem and more of a creative labyrinth.
Take the classic guitar sounds of Pink Floyd or Slash, for example. These tones would have taken days to perfect, having discussions with the engineers and producers whilst simultaneously understanding the limitations of the equipment and hardware.
Compared to now, you have 11-time Grammy-winning artist Taylor Swift re-recording her work in a minimal recording escape, and guitarists recording parts at home and sending them around the world.
You also have bedroom producers (broad definition!) like FINNEAS (Billie Eilish) using Focusrite interfaces to create industry-shaking songs, all whilst the Lo-Fi sound is booming on platforms like YouTube and Soundcloud. All good signs to be experimenting with your tone and recording techniques.
How to Record your Guitar with an Audio Interface
An audio interface allows you to connect instruments and microphones to your computer and send it through to your monitors. An integral part to any recording setup, these interfaces come in many shapes and sizes.
For example, passive guitar pickups emit a high-Z signal. This signal goes through an interface that changes it into a low-Z signal which is able to be picked up and understood by your computer’s soundcard.
Whichever interface you have doesn’t really matter a great deal – unless you really get to know the ins and outs (excuse the pun) of an interface. However, the fact you have one opens the world to your playing.
Features like phantom power for microphones, inputs that accept jack and XLR cables, USB connectivity, headphone jack connectivity and more are also seen on other makes such as Native Instruments, Behringer and Audient, all offering similarly priced interfaces with very similar outcomes.
With anything in a creative space though, it’s all about what you’re used to and what you like. If you understand what goes where, which button does what, and the results sound good to your ears – it really is a preference that every budding recorder must make.
Recording with a DAW
Much like interfaces, DAWs (Digital Audio Workstations) have become ever more available and user friendly. Software like Logic Pro X, Ableton Live or Reaper are used by professional studios all around the world. The power that used to be only for high-end studios and touring bands can now be used whenever, and however you like thanks to it being digitised and constantly streamlined.
When analogue racks and tape presented hurdles and limitations, digital software now opens doors of possibility that allow for endless alterations and tonal manipulation. We are witnessing the creation of recording methods that have never existed before.
This is why recording now is so exciting. The ‘old ways’ of recording were designed due to the limitations of the hardware, placing microphones and routing them in a way to capture them accurately and musically that worked with the equipment. But if the limitations are removed with production moving to software, it’s safe to say the rule book has been ripped up and is open for interpretation.
Want to put something through 4 reverbs? Why not. Fancy using different EQs because you like the warmth of one but the analogue hiss of another? Why not. You could do all this with hardware of course, but would you? But every great end-product starts with a great recording of a performance. And in regard to guitars, a DI recording is a great place to begin.
Recording Electric Guitar Through an Interface
Going directly into an interface – also known as DI (Direct Input) – is one of the cleanest methods of capturing an electric guitar. Using a jack to jack cable to go straight from guitar to interface, it was created in 1998, picking up the raw guitar sound straight from the pickups.
This method was loved by Prince and is currently John Mayer’s preferred way of recording – who’d have thought! (You can hear it in action during the solo in New Light).
This method is loved not only by guitar players but also by producers and engineers, as it gives the most natural and effective starting point for exploring tones, EQ and signal chains thanks to the removal of frequencies that cloud a tone, such as an amp’s natural resonances or pedal noise. Long story short, you can do what you want to it after a take.
Another useful thing about DI guitar recording is the ease with which it can be done without any other gear. By simply plugging in your guitar, you can get started and play right away thanks to an interface’s pre-amp.
Pairing this with the advent of plugins, virtual amps, and endless signal chain possibilities – you can focus on a great take with rhythm, soul and musicality. This not only frees your creative mind after recording a great take, but also helps your playing by keeping your ears focused on the guitar fitting into the track and not getting absorbed by the tone.
I think we all know guitarists like this, and if you don’t, it might be you…
Recording an Amp
Your amp, your guitar, your tone. It is a signature sound that only you can create. In the room, it sounds just like you want it to sound. However, a microphone picks up sound waves differently from a human ear (that’s not even mentioning the fact that we probably think it sounds better than it does!).
Here is a great opportunity to do a small overview of two microphone choices and understand what would best suit your needs (we’ll ignore ribbon mics for now).
These are most useful for strong, loud sounds that are best heard loud. They can take these sound pressures due to the way it picks up sound. Without going too technical, it is in essence a speaker turned inside out.
Using magnets and wires, the air surrounding the diaphragm vibrates, which in turn vibrates the diaphragm – the part that picks up the sound. With the magnet turning this vibration into an electrical current, the signal can then be sent through an XLR and outputted through monitors.
The diaphragm in dynamic microphones are relatively sturdy and thick (in diaphragm talk), hence its durability in loud environments. This reliability does have its downsides, however, as it can lack sensitivity, hamper its dynamic range and sometimes miss finer detail of a performance.
If you want to capture grunt, force and volume though, this is the microphone you need. A great example of this is the Shure SM57 – a recording legend that is known throughout the industry and is in every single studio drawer for good reason.
A condenser microphone is the fragile relative of the dynamic. Using a plastic diaphragm that is usually plated in Nickel or Gold, phantom power (+48v on most audio interfaces) charges the backplate. When the air around it vibrates, the diaphragm moves back and forth from the backplate to create a signal, which is then converted by the interface and comes back through the monitors.
Due to its thin plastic diaphragm, it’s a much more sensitive microphone that captures dynamics and tonal nuances incredibly well. Finer details such as finger movement on a fretboard or the sound of a pick on a softly played acoustic guitar are all sounds that are favoured by a condenser.
The downsides to this, however, are that they are overwhelmed by loud sources, aren’t usually a go-to in live situations and are (most of the time) more expensive.
When you choose…
It really depends on the type of music you’re going for and what you want to get across to the listener. Dynamics have power, but lack a finer touch. Condensers can pick up presence and fidelity, but lack a thunderous grunt.
If you’re really pushing the boat out, you can pair the two together, capturing power and weight with a defined articulate presence – fancy talk for capturing the full effect of your tone.
Now you’ve got your microphones sorted, let’s get recording!
How to Mic Up an Amp
Taking the lead from Taylor Swift, you don’t need to break the bank or have an Audio Engineering Degree – you mainly need the know-how and a bit of elbow grease.
With a microphone (or two) you can start finding your amp’s sweet spot. A lot of producers have go-to methods that have become their signature sound. Some like to capture the most in-your-face sound possible through close micing, or some like to have it placed a few feet away to capture the cab and get an overall impression of the tone.
Again, this all depends on what you’re after. What this guide can tell you is where you start and what choices you can take for different outcomes. First, though, the tone needs to be in the ballpark of what you’re after in the room first before you begin to mic up. This gives you an aim in your head which can then influence your micing process and direction.
When you feel you have it, take a look at your amp’s speaker. A guitar speaker has two points that move to produce the sound – a ‘dust cap’ in the middle and the surrounding ‘cone’.
The dust cap produces higher frequencies, whilst the surrounding ‘cone’ pushes more air and therefore produces lower frequencies. A great starting point is aiming the diaphragm of your microphone directly between these two parts. You want to have the microphone a few inches away too, giving you room to move it later on.
Now it’s miced up, you can record a taster and see what you think. Listen critically and with an active ear. If you landed on the money, great! If not, never fear!
Small, incremental changes might not look or feel like much, but they can drastically alter the sound of your guitar through your monitors. Moving slowly and diligently, you can find the tone that fits the song.
Not capturing the mid-high range of your tone? Move it slightly more towards the dust cap. Not giving you enough low end? Move it slightly more towards the cone and the speaker edge.
What about if you fancied a spacey sound with a hint of a room that sounds like you’re standing in front of it? Mic the amp from a distance, aiming the microphone at the entire amp rather than one of the speakers, playing with distance and perpective. What about a tight, dry, and in-your-face tone? Close micing is your friend.
Don’t be afraid to use multiple microphones on a take, and see how they sound individually and then together too. This can bring about phase issues. It sounds scary, but it’s just about aligning the microphones diaphragms with the same sound source at the same distance. If you’re using two microphones on an acoustic guitar, for example, this could be an issue.
How to Record an Acoustic Guitar
An acoustic guitar’s sound is as sonically broad as an electric guitar, but with nuances that make the instrument the classic that it is, such as fretboard buzz and a naturally resonating body.
This is where the fun is! There are lots of options for you to experiment with. You’ll see tips and tricks, shortcuts, dos and don’ts all over the internet, so see this guide as a helper in simplifying the approach to acoustic recording and giving you practical tips to record an acoustic guitar effectively.
First, check the room. If it isn’t an electro-acoustic guitar that you can DI (what a lovely full-circle moment) then microphones are your only option. And for that, you need to be in a great sounding room.
Great is a loose term here and depends on what you’re after for that recording. For example, a soft, acoustic Folk track might deserve a medium room that adds a natural reverb. In a more Pop-focused song, the drier the better for maximum post-production fine-tuning.
You might want to use the reverb as an instrument in and of itself, playing with performance dynamics to drive the song. Whichever it is, make sure the room suits your needs, as the microphones won’t be forgiving in the end!
Secondly, your choice of microphone. Depending on what the performance is going to entail, you’ll need to think about nuance vs power, finer details vs overall sound. Placement can only help so much if the microphone isn’t going to pick up what you’re after.
Before we go any further: the proximity effect is real! When a microphone is placed too close to a sound source, a bass boost occurs that can distort the natural sound of the instrument. Although detrimental in some recordings, it can be played with to great effect on an acoustic guitar.
Distance is your friend! If you are recording someone else, walk around them whilst they’re playing. It can be eye-opening to see how much the tone changes depending on height and distance in relation to the guitar.
If you’re recording yourself, why not set up a microphone, hit record, play whilst moving to different locations and see what sounds good through your headphones? Once you find a good sounding spot, you can then reference it on your monitors and go from there. Remember: there is no right way!
The main body of sound comes from the soundhole of the guitar, as I’m sure you’re aware. This is where the lower frequencies build up as it is where the sound pressure is greatest. It can be best to avoid directly micing this area as no one ever listens to an acoustic guitar this close. The body is where you get the warmth of the guitar though, adding richness and roundness to your tone.
Moving up the neck, you capture more of the string buzz, finger movement and jangle that adds authenticity. However, you can inadvertently capture too much of this and pick up unwanted noises that would drive someone crazy when listening to it on repeat. Although this can add character and colour, it can be off-putting when overdone.
A great starting point is aiming your microphone at the twelfth fret and placed about a foot or so away. Not only does this mitigate any proximity effect, but it also stays clear of the performance. This has a wealth of tonal benefits too, such as natural harmonics, the string buzz on the frets etc.
Like the amp recording approach, this gives you a middle ground on which to build. If you have one microphone, you can adjust the angle from this point to whichever element you feel is missing. You can then keep this angle and adjust the distance too, playing with proximity and balance to capture the tone that’s right for you.
If you have two microphones, achieving this balance of body and fret can come easier, as you can mic each element independently and balance it later. This can lead to phasing issues which can ruin a take, but by adjusting the phase on your microphones, doing it in your DAW, or by moving the microphones, you can solve those problems relatively easily once you practice these methods enough.
There is no right or wrong way to record! As you’ve read, these methods are put forward as ‘starting spots’ – places to begin searching for the sound you have in your head and how to adjust accordingly.
Don’t be afraid to experiment. If it sounds bad in solo, it might sound great in the mix – nothing is ever listened to in solo. A great take is a great take, and that is always preferable to getting a pinpoint-accurate tone.
The end listener won’t hear the equipment you’re using or how you processed it. It’s all about how it sounds in that moment. All in all, experiment with what sounds good for you and move consciously and decisively.
You can get a great sounding guitar through any means of recording; it just has to be the right recording for the song.
Basically, have fun!