I participate in a good number of music related online forums and what’s super cool is how many people are interested in getting started recording themselves playing guitar. I think this has a lot to do with the explosion of awesome content on YouTube for the budding musician, but also the ease of getting into recording yourself now.
Back when I started recording myself (in 1992!), the only real options a hobbyist had was something like a TASCAM 4 Track Cassette recording module, and needing a mic to record your amp. It was certainly awesome to do that, but these days, there are a myriad of incredible options available. And that make it much easier to get into it. There is even a whole industry based on releasing your own music on your own now. Something I couldn’t have dreamed of 26 years ago.
This IS NOT meant to be an all inclusive guide. This is a basic starting guide for those interested in recording themselves on guitar, but have no idea where to start. The rabbit hole is very deep with this. All I’m offering is a basic guide in one place. Questions are welcomed, and if I missed something, send me a message, and I’ll try to do more research.
This is what my recording area looks like.
I have a 2017 Macbook Pro connected to a 27 inch Monitor, mouse and keyboard, M-Audio BX5-A Studio Monitors and a Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 Interface. Darth Vader mug required! No, you do not need all of this, nor need these exact components to make yours work, but I wanted to show you what I personally use. Believe it or not, with this set up, you can record professional quality music. All by yourself, in your basement.
Let’s get started breaking things down. The MOST IMPORTANT question to answer is your BUDGET. As I said, the rabbit hole can get very deep, and establishing a reasonable budget will avoid you falling down into it.
This is what is likely to cost the most and if you don’t know anything about computers at all, it would be useful for you to learn a bit about them. The three most important aspects of the computer you need is the Processor itself, how much Random Access Memory (RAM) it has, and how much and what kind of storage is in it.
You do not need the latest, greatest, fastest processor unless you are looking for a recording and gaming machine. If you are looking to use your machine to run the latest games, then yeah, look for the fastest Intel or AMD processor you want. One thing to keep in mind is that some of the most famous sound engineers out there are using 10 year old machines to record the most successful artists out there. Does that mean your 10 year old machine will do? Probably not, because those engineers bought machines that were much better than yours all those years ago.
That being said, get the best you can afford, as the process will speed up your workflow, particularly if you get into multi tracking, adding a lot of effects in post production, and mixing and producing. For the very beginner, that may not be necessary, but it is always better to get something you can grow into and only spend once. Many will only buy the very basics of what they need, and within a couple of years realize they’ve out grown it, only to buy again. THAT’S the rabbit hole you want to avoid.
The next thing to evaluate is how much RAM your machine needs. The more RAM you have, the more instant access you have to information you need to record and manipulate your recordings with.
To make workflow manageable, you should look at at least 8GB of RAM. Any less, and your system may bog down running the Operating System of the computer, your Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) playing your recordings. Especially if you start multi tracking and getting more into the recording, mixing, producing and mastering process. I would probably recommend between 12 and 16 GB if you can afford it, but my system has 8GB, and is doing great. I only use my Macbook for music, though. No gaming or anything like that. It is exclusively for music and creating content for this blog, and eventually a YouTube channel.
The last thing to decide is storage and how much space you need. I would highly recommend for anyone looking at a new machine to consider the Solid State Drives (SSD). They are much faster at getting information for you, much faster booting up, and just all around a better option. What many people do is get an SSD drive within their system, and then get a conventional Hard Drive to store their stuff on. Very good option. I would recommend 512GB of storage on an SSD drive, but if you can only afford 256GB for now, then consider getting a cheap external hard drive to store your data on. Music files can get very big so having as much storage as possible is great. Also, the price of SSD drives is really coming down, so soon, this may not even be a consideration.
I’m not going to get into the Mac vs. PC platform discussion. That is a completely personal decision based on what you are comfortable with and your budget. Macs tend to be more expensive and also can’t really be upgraded over time. However, Macs come with an excellent DAW, Garageband. I’ve been using it exclusively for 10 years and it is not only simple to understand for a beginner, but can be very complex and deep. Macs also come with iMovie, which if you ever decide to get into YouTube and developing a channel, is a very powerful video editor.
With a PC you have to put a DAW into your budget as well, although there are free ones on line, like Audacity. I have no experience with those at all, but have read that they are a stable way to get into the hobby at no cost. There are many options for DAWs, and if you’re not buying a Mac, do some research on which one you should start with based on your budget. I would recommend at least trying one of the free ones, just to see what it’s like using a DAW and going from there.
If you already have a PC or Mac, see if it will run and do what you want it to do before investing in anything new. For Mac, fire up Garageband and play around. Your system may not be amazing for the advanced stuff, but it may suit you just fine to start out. Give it a go. If you have a PC, download one of the free DAWS, like Audacity, and test it out on your system.
I’m certainly not suggesting you NEED to buy something new to get started. If you have something already, try it before buying anything. Even a five year old machine may do perfectly for starting out. I upgraded to another Macbook last year because my 2010 Macbook Pro I used for work went kapput. The one I have now is only for me and I don’t need it for work at all.
DAWs are incredibly powerful and can put out professional quality recordings. The upgraded DAW to Garageband is Logic, and this one of the gold standards for pro caliber studios. For the home hobbyists, as mentioned, there are free options like Audacity.There are a huge number of YouTube tutorials for any DAW you have, so the options are aplenty.
The amazing things about DAWs now is that you don’t even really need an amp or a mic to record yourself anymore! There are a huge number of plug ins either included, or ones you can purchase online to put in the DAW and use to record. “Plug ins” include amps, amp cabs, all kinds of effects that you can add to your amp signal, or into your signal post recording, bass amps and cabs, drum loops, and MIDI controlled instruments (more on that later).
Some DAWs like Garageband have all that in there already, while others, you have to add them in by purchasing the plug in, and then inserting ith into the DAW. My last Mac had a very old version of Garageband and I purchased EZDrummer, and put that in there for drum loops. The newest version of Garageband has amazing drum loops in there already, as well as guitar and bass amps and cabs. I don’t think the free DAWs have many options in that regard right off the bat, but check them out as I don’t have any experience with them to tell you.
If you’ve never seen what a DAW looks like, here’s a pic of Garageband:
If you don’t have an amp how do you plug your guitar into your computer?? Good question!
There are a TON of options here. There is a company called iRig that makes very simply interfaces for iPads and such, and you can certainly do that. iPads have Garageband in them, and you can plug an iRig interface into your iPad, plug your guitar into the iRig, and jam away! That’s about as simple as it gets, really.
If you really want to get into it though, you will need a more comprehensive interface. The big two companies for the beginner user are Focusrite and PreSonus. Either of those have excellent options for the starting recording guitarist for a very reasonable price. I would highly recommend getting an interface with more than one input, as your needs will likely grow, and again, buy something good once, rather than buy the bare minimum, which really isn’t that much less. For example a Focusrite Solo with one input is $100, while the Focusrite 2i2, with two inputs and few more features is $150. It’s worth the extra $50. And, before buying anything, check on Reverb.com for some deals. B-Stock stuff may be really affordable.
Here’s a pic of my Focusrite Scarlet 2i2:
It has two inputs with gain controls for each, and on the back can either be plugged into a mixer, with two outputs, or directly into your computer of choice with a USB port.
This is where you can plug your guitar directly into to use the plug ins for amps within the DAW. Basically, with one of these, or something like it, you can use all the amps and cabs within the DAW to record with. No external amp required. And you can do this silently by plugging your guitar into the interface and listening to what you play through with headphones, into your computer.
If you want to record your amp, the conventional way, with a mic, this is where you would plug the mic cable into, and use this device to convert the analog signal from the mic, into a digital signal through the USB port to record within the DAW. That is ultimately what these device do. They transfer any signal they get into a digital signal that your computer can recognize.
RECORDING YOURSELF WITH YOUR AMP:
This is where a little knowledge of your gear can go a long way. Many of the newer Amps available now give you options on how to record your guitar.
I recently sold all my digital gear and bought a Blackstar HT Venue 40 Mk II, and it gives me three options to record my amp.
I can record the conventional way with a mic:
I have a Shure SM57, which has been the industry standard for recording guitar cabs for as long as I can remember. I got this used on Craiglist for $50 and it sounds AMAZING. Ideally, you want to record a guitar amp with two mics, but I’m not there yet.
One thing of note if you want to dive into the world of recording an amp with a mic (or two, or three…etc) is that there is a learning curve involved. This is an art unto itself and there a hundreds of YouTube vids by professional recording artists and engineers/producers talking about it. Especially if you only have one mic, like I do, it takes experimentation to get the sound you’re looking for. You have to realize that when YOU hear the sound from the amp, you are listening to the sound waves as they bounce around the rooms and eventually get to your ears. Your ears aren’t right up against the speaker like the mic is. You aren’t really hearing what the mic is picking up directly. Especially with higher gain signals this translates to a certain “fizz” which some find pleasing, some don’t. For any signal, mic placement has a huge impact on the frequencies heard as well. You can alter the treble and bass you hear, and record, just by moving the mic around. As I said, it’s an art unto itself, and since I’ve been recording digitally exclusively for years, this is brand new to me, and I’m enjoying it a great deal. This aspect alone is why I got a mic despite my amp being able to record directly with a DI or USB.
The other option is with a Direct Input (DI). Here’s a pic of the one on the back of my amp:
As you can see, there are two options of cables I can use. An XLR cable or a conventional guitar cable. There is also a Cab emulator which allows me to select either a 1×12 guitar cab, or a guitar 4×12 cab. Either of these cables would plug into my 2i2 and that’s how I can record. I can even record without hearing the amp speaker by leaving the amp on standby on the front panel.
The last option is recording the amp directly through a USB connection right into your computer.
There is also guitar cab emulators through this method as well, which are adjustable within the DAW itself.
Why would I even consider using a mic, all those cables and the interface if I can just plug in directly with an USB cable? It sounds different. To me. When you are recording with DI or via USB, you are getting what a chip in the amp thinks the amp should sound like. When you record with a Mic, especially if you have two, you are getting how the sound interacts with the room in the sound you record.
Now, if you have more experience with DAWs and plugins, there are thousands of ways to manipulate the signal within the plug ins.
For example, there some Amp cab signal plug in packs (better known as Impulse Responses or IRs), where you can pick the configuration of the cab speakers, 1×12 vs. 2×10 vs. 4×12, the actual type of speaker, like Celestion Greenbacks or Celestion V30s, and finally how many mics you are recording with, and where they are placed. Do you want two mics right by the speaker cones in different areas of the cone and one mic placed a foot away from one of the 4×12 cones and another in the corner of the room? Well with some plug ins, you can do that precisely. And it’s AWESOME. If you are interesting in that rabbit hole, check out the Universal Audio (UA) website and the vids of their products on YouTube. Pete Thorn has some amazing vids on how he uses his UA interfaces.
If you are in the market for any Amp, many of the newer models, even high end tube amps, like Mesa Boogie have DI options within them. Most of the modeling style amps like the Fender Mustang GT series of Boss Katana series also have direct recording option built right in making it incredibly easy, and very affordable to get started recording yourself.
Obviously, if you have something vintage or are looking at more vintage style reissue gear, your only option will be to record with a mic. Most of the amp reviews you hear on YouTube are recorded via mic to interface to DAW.
GUITAR/AMP DIGITAL SOLUTIONS:
The other option that many have used, including myself, and continue to use are the huge number of multi effects units that have amps, cabs and effects in one little box. I had an Axe Fx II for years and only recorded through that. Things like the Kemper Profiler and Line 6 Helix are other options, but they cost a good bit. There are certainly smaller, cheaper options, like the Line 6 HX Stomp which is getting good reviews and getting a lot of attention. Once again, lots and lots of options. Base your decisions on your budget and needs.
The last but equally important piece of the puzzle is how to listen to your recordings after you make them. This is generally overlooked, but it shouldn’t be. Studio Monitors are designed to listen to music through, and to produce and mix your creations. The basic computer speakers won’t give you the auditory information you need to make your recordings sound great. Neither will headphones, not matter how good, because they eliminate that “sound wave bouncing around the room” signal. Once you mix and produce your recording, and master it, THEN you can listen through headphones, because you’ve already incorporated that withing your finished product. It’s hard to explain, but I hope you get what I’m saying. You can certainly get started without these, and you will enjoy yourself, but at a certain point, you will want to hear what you record the way it should be heard. And once you do, you will see why these are so important. If it’s not in your immediate budget, don’t worry about it. But start saving!
NOTE: Don’t be intimidated by words like, “mix”, “produce” and “master”. That’s just what it’s called when you adjust levels within your recording, make the end product and then finalize it in your DAW for others to listen to.
Okay, one more thing:
One final thing to keep in mind, is that if you want to add things like pianos, bass, and other instruments to your recordings, you will need something like a MIDI Controller to use those instruments within your DAW. I personally prefer a MIDI Keyboard, and you can get one for as little as $35 online. This is completely optional, but something to know and keep in mind down the road. Watch that rabbit hole, though!
Ultimately, the idea is…record yourself and have fun! It is incredible rewarding to hear what you sound like and you learn a tremendous amount about your playing and how to improve yourself in that regard. You may have a talent for songwriting you kept to the side as you are learning to play. This is a great way to foster that talent.