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Home Recording on a Budget

Wall of Guitars: Recording (you guessed it) Guitars

If you're making rock music in the home studio, there's a good chance you play guitar. And there's a good chance you're going to want to use that guitar. When recording your guitar, you're simply not going to get a good sound without decent equipment. This means an amp that doesn't sound too bad, a guitar that doesn't hum like crazy when you crank up the gain, and (maybe) a mic that can do it justice.

Decisions, Decisions

Your first line of attack when recording guitars will probably be to shove a mic in front of your speaker cabinet. How you do this is really a combination of a few things: the tonal quality of your amp; the tonal quality of your mic; and the tone you're going for.

Let's talk about your amp. Solid state amps are cheap and, nowadays, can put out some thoroughly decent tone. There are plenty of tube purists out there who'll say you can't get good tone without tubes, but they're the same ones who will tell you that if you're recording to anything but 1/2" analog tape, you're missing out. Fuck 'em. I'll admit, there's something nice about analog equipment. The tone can be a little nicer. Or it can just break more often. But hey, it's up to you. What I'm saying is, if you've got a solid state amp, don't worry. It'll sound good, I promise. Whatever the case, crank your amp up until it sounds really, really good. This will, likely, be somewhere in the range where it will damage your hearing, so beware. Listen to this sound. This is the sound you'll probably want to record. It's not always practical, of course, to keep the amp cranked this loud, but remember this tone, and aim for it.

Now let's talk mic placement. The Shure SM-57 is a tried-and-true workhorse for recording guitar amps, and it works rather well. And the best bit is that you can pick one up for well under USD 100. If you don't have one, don't worry; other mics will do an alright job too, although you might need to play with the EQ a little more. Most likely, you are going to want to close mic the speaker, getting the mic in as close to the speaker as it can handle. Pointing it at the center of the speaker cone with give you a brighter tone, while putting it a little off-axis (that is, not pointed directly at the amp) will probably give you a more pleasant, warmer sound. In any case, it's going to sound big and be exciting. I promise.

If your amp really sounds like crap, though, don't fear. You can always plug directly into your sound card (experiment with which input sounds best). This isn't recommended, though; a good deal of the tone in a recorded electric guitar comes from the air moved by the speaker cone itself. You're going to need to fiddle with the sound a little to get it right; might I recommend Sonic Foundry's excellent Sound Forge? It now comes with acoustic mirror, which can (sort of) put your recording into a "space" -- and there are people on the web who have made "impulse files" of their favorite amps. Use these, and your direct-recorded guitar will sound (almost) like the real thing.

Laying down the funk

Remember that tone we listened to before? Set up your mic until you're close, and then go to town with the track EQ -- but remember, EQ isn't like air freshener; don't just use it to cover up bad sounds. Always turn a band down before turning another one up. The key here -- as always -- is to keep the track from sounding muddy. We'll deal more with EQ during the mixing section, but what you should take away from this section is that you need to keep it clean -- it's going to need to fit in the mix and not take up all the sonic space. Maybe tone down the low end (below 200Hz or so) a little, and brighten it a little above 4KHz (if necessary).

If you're having trouble controlling the hum on your guitar amp when the gain is high, there are a few things you might want to try; we don't want too much of that nasty stuff on the recording. First, you'll probably want to turn off your computer monitor while you're actually recording. Next, make sure there aren't any fluorescent lights in the area. If there are, turn them off. Or hit them with a baseball bat. Your choice. Basically, we're trying to get rid of interference here. Just being close to the computer, unfortunately, is going to cause hum, but what are you gonna do? Last thing to try is simply rotating yourself while you're playing to find a "quiet" spot; in most rooms, there are "noisy" areas and "quiet" ones. Find your quiet area before you start recording.

Most of all, though, be patient. You're playing with a beat already laid down, or at least to a click-track. Lock into this. If you're navigating a particularly difficult passage, learn to use your recorder's punch-in punch-out feature. This will (usually) let you automatically do multiple takes of a section and choose the best one. Definitely a killer technique when recording anything; worst thing is to get 4'25" into a song and flub something. This will (often) save you the hassle of re-recording everything.

Got a little extra cash?

Another great idea for recording guitars is an amp modeller, like the Line6 POD. If you don't have a room full of sweet-sounding amps, this will get you a little closer. Best of all, they've all got some sort of speaker simulation, meaning that you can run your guitar right through the modeller into your sound card's line-in. Can't be beat for ease-of-use, and the price-performance ratio is pretty good, too.

Bass-a-ma-bob

Recording electric bass is as simple as it gets. Plug it in to whichever input will take it (or through the amp, if your sound card likes that signal better) and record. You might want to apply a compressor / limiter to the recording, to even out the spikes from slap bass playing, and brighten up the top end (5KHz+), but you should be pretty set with a straight line-in recording.

Of course, those more experienced with recording bass might tell you different. (This is a plea; if you have something to say on this, please add your USD0.02!)

Wrap-Up

Recording guitars is sort of a no-brainer. You stick the mic in front of the amp and wail away. The most important thing to remember is that this recording has to fit into the mix. It doesn't need to sound huge; in fact, you're probably going to make it sound sort of "thin" in the final mix to keep it from getting muddy. Rock on, Ted.

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