In past decades, to get a studio quality recording you would need to spend a lot of money and time at a professional studio. The equipment and expertise needed to produce a quality recording in the analogue era were simply not available on a budget and in the comfort of your own home. Today this has all changed, however, and you can start making home records with just a computer, some software, an interface, microphones, and some musicians, with none of the extensive training required in past decades.
In this article I will take you through some basic techniques and principles, to help you start recording electric guitar from the comfort of your own home.
The first thing you’ll need to consider before you start recording is what equipment you have available on your budget. Of course, quality is key, but good quality equipment isn’t as expensive as you would think. One of the most used microphones for recording guitar is the Sure SM57, and it can be picked up online for just under £100. Of course second hand you can get it for much less, but I wouldn’t recommend it, as wear and tear due to daily use could have affected the frequency response of the microphone, despite the fact that on the outside everything may appear perfectly fine.
You will also need an interface. There are many good options to choose from online for a decent price, both new and second hand, but make sure that they are compatible with your software and your laptop/PC, and that that they have enough inputs for whatever you will be recording before buying one.
When micing up a guitar amplifier, we usually place the microphone close to the grill* (the speaker cover) at a distance of about an inch or so, but the part of the speaker you place the mic in front of will depend on the sound you’re looking. As a general guideline, the closer to the centre of the speaker you place the microphone, the brighter the sound, and the further towards the outside edge of the speaker you move it, the darker it will sound. Additionally, like with vocals, the proximity effect means that the closer the mic is to the speaker the bigger the bass response you will get. Experiment around with different positions until you are happy.
*You can use a flashlight to see the speaker cone so that you can see where your mic is placed.
An area that is very important, but often overlooked by musicians recording at home, is gain staging. Gain staging is the process of managing the input level, so to avoid unwanted distortion and produce the clearest possible sound.
On your interface, there is a knob for each input, which will either be labelled “Level” or “Gain”. Open your session in your DAW, and record enables the channel that your guitar is on so that when you play, the signal level should be visible. Play the loudest thing that you will be recording, and check that at no point does the signal go into the red* (known as clipping), but also make sure that the quietest thing you play is also at a sufficient level.
This is quite a crude and simple description of gain staging, as I could go into a lot more detail, but for first-time recorders, it is enough to produce a good quality recording.
*Make sure to also leave enough headroom for processing.
Unwanted earth buzz
When recording guitar there are points in the signal chain that may cause an unwanted buzzing sound. To try and minimise the possibility of this make sure to only put the pedals you will be using on your pedal board, as the more pedals you have, the more opportunities there will be for problems. Sound quality will also deteriorate more the longer your cable, so this is another reason to keep things minimal.
When processing guitar tracks the most important plugins are EQ and compression. This is a huge subject area and there are many different approaches and principles to mixing, so experiment around to tailor your mix to each track you record. There are lots of great tutorials on YouTube explaining in great detail the principles involved.
There are however a few important key points to keep in mind:
Firstly, make sure not to boost the EQ in multiple tracks over the same frequencies, as this will just muddy up the mix and reduce the clarity.
It’s also a good idea to apply a high pass filter to each track to remove a lot of the bottom end mud. Where you cut off will vary song to song and depending on the instrument, but generally, you will set the threshold of the HP filter somewhere between 60-100HZ*.
For bass instruments, this will be much lower
Compression is also quite a wide subject so make sure to check out some YouTube tutorials, but make sure you don’t over compress, as you want to keep the tracks sounding natural.
Recording guitar is a trial and error approach, and the processes involved will change from recording to recording, as will the pitfalls you will have to overcome. The purpose of this article is to give you some good grounding to get you started, so get out there and get recording!