How To Record Electric Guitar On A Budget

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  • What microphones are suitable for guitar recording
  • Learn how to use an audio interface for guitar recording
  • Learn how to use a DAW for guitar recording
  • Learn the basic steps of mic’ing a guitar cabinet

Recording Electric Guitar On A Budget (Full Guide)

Recording guitars for a song used to be something that was very inaccessible to guitarists at home. You had to pay a lot of money to go to a studio to record.

However, times have changed. Today, pro-quality home recordings are all the rage, and with just a couple hundred Dollars your bedroom can be turned into the place where a hit song can be created.

Guitar Recording Equipment

Great guitar parts can elevate a track, but in order for those guitar parts to have that effect, you’ll first need the right equipment. Here’s what you’ll need:

  • A guitar (obviously)
  • An amp
  • At least one microphone
  • Audio Interface
  • A DAW (guitar recording software)

The Microphone

This is where the recording process starts. You’ve got your guitar plugged into your amp, so the next step is to capture the sound of your amp’s speaker.

This is done by placing a microphone in front of the speaker. However, you can’t just stick a microphone in front of your amp and expect things to sound great.

What Kinds Of Microphones Are There?

Microphones come in many different shapes and sizes. Each one with a completely unique sound. In order for you to pick the microphone best suited for your needs you need to know about the three mic types that are most often used for guitar recording.

If you want an in-depth guide to the different mic types you can read this article. For now here’s a small overview of characteristics for each microphone type.

The Dynamic Microphone

The dynamic microphone is a mic that’s used most often in situations where there’s lots of signal bleed (background noises).

They are the least sensitive mics on the list, which makes them great for recording loud instruments, such as snare drums, guitar amps, live vocals, and brass instruments.

A very popular dynamic microphone is the Shure SM57. This mic has been the staple of close-mic recording for decades. Many pro studios have more than one SM57 in their arsenal because they work for so many different things in the audio world.

The best part of dynamic microphones is that they are usually more affordable than the other two mic types.

The Condenser Microphone

The condenser microphone is reserved for situations where mic bleed won’t be an issue. Think of vocal booths, a quiet room, or a closet. They are more sensitive than dynamic microphones, which makes them great for capturing large parts, if not all of the frequency spectrum.

These microphones are great for instruments with a large dynamic range (the difference between quiet and loud), such as acoustic guitars, vocals, and orchestral recordings. A condenser mic requires 48 Volts of power for it to function. This is called phantom power.

The Ribbon Microphone

Ribbon microphones are the oldest microphone design on this list. They have a very warm sound, which pairs fantastically with the sound of a dynamic mic when used together. They are also great for when you want to tame harsh high frequencies.

The ribbon microphone is quite fragile in design, which makes them less than ideal when on the road, or traveling to a different studio for a session.

Good ribbon microphones are also very expensive, which doesn’t make them ideal for home recording with a small budget in mind.

What Mic Should I Get?

Now that you know about the three main mic categories you now have to pick a mic that will fit your needs.

If you’re just starting out with guitar recording I recommend a dynamic microphone to start off with. They are real workhorses, they don’t break, they sound great, and they will only record what you want them to record (trust me, I’ve recorded many guitar tracks whilst somebody was using the vacuum cleaner in the other room).

There are many dynamic microphones out there. I would suggest starting out with an SM57. They are used by everyone in the business, and that’s simply because they sound great.

However, if you are looking for something other than an SM57 the Audix i5 is also a good microphone to consider. Both of these come in around a hundred bucks, so either one is a great first option!

Guitar Recording Interface/Soundcard

This is the heart of your recordings. The audio interface turns analog sound into something a computer can work with. There are many different audio interfaces out there. From mega cheap to insanely expensive. For an overview of popular budget interfaces you can check out this article.

What Audio Interface Do I Pick?

These days even affordable interfaces provide you with great quality recordings. The amount of instruments you plan on recording dictates your choice of an audio interface.

If you plan on just recording guitars, an audio interface with two channels will do the job perfectly fine. However, if you want to record more instruments, like drums, you might want to spend a little more money for an 8-channel audio interface.

I personally use the Behringer UMC202HD, which is a great two-channel interface with MIDAS preamps, and 48V of phantom power, and at a price of 118 Dollars over at Sweetwater it’s a great bang for the buck.

Guitar Recording Software (Your DAW)

You’ve got your tone dialed in. The mic is pointing at the speaker. The mic is connected to the interface and has been adjusted to have a sufficient amount of headroom. You’re almost ready to record your guitar.

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The only thing you’ll need now is a Digital Audio Workstation (DAW).

What Is A DAW?

The Digital Audio Workstation is the program on your computer which allows you to mix the sounds you’ve just recorded. A DAW usually comes with a selection of plugins to start you off on your recording/mixing journey.

What DAW Do I Pick?

There are many different DAWs, and there’s a lot of debate online on which DAW is the “best DAW”. Let me start by saying that I believe there’s no such thing as the best DAW.

We work best when we know how every piece of equipment works. If you prefer the workflow of an inexpensive DAW to that of an expensive DAW, go for the inexpensive ones.

Having said that, here is a small selection of well known DAWs.

Pro Tools First

The first DAW on the list is the baby brother of the most used DAW in the music industry. This DAW is completely free, but this DAW comes with a few limitations.

You can only have 16 tracks in one project, and you can only record four tracks at once. This makes this daw less than ideal for bigger productions.

When recording a song you can easily end up with twenty tracks, so that would render this DAW useless for those purposes. If you want to learn more about Pro Tools First you can look at their website.

Reaper

My DAW of choice. It is a fully equipped DAW with a lot of flexibility. You can customize everything in the DAW. From custom track colors to custom keyboard shortcuts completely unique to your demands.

Reaper offers a lot of flexibility, and efficiency. With its small installer size of just 10 megabytes and quick start-up time it is ideal for working as efficiently as possible.

Reaper comes with a large arsenal of plugins from standard digital EQs, compressors, reverbs, delays, synths, and stereo imagers to emulations of analog hardware such as the 1073 preamp, the 1176 compressor, and many more.

The best part is that it’s yours for just 60 Dollars! If you want to learn more about Reaper you can check out their website.

Logic Pro X

Logic Pro is an IOS only software with a great reputation amongst producers. You often see people record demos on Logic.

Logic is known for its easy to understand user interface. You can have a track set up to record in just a few seconds.

It’s also great for mixing due to Logic’s vast selection of plugins to aid you in the mixing process. With a larger file size than Reaper (1 gigabyte) computer space might become an issue.

Coming in at two hundred Dollars Logic Pro X is the most expensive DAW on the list, but a great DAW nonetheless. For a closer look at the features in this jam-packed DAW check this website.


How Do I Record Electric Guitar?

Now that you’ve got your gear, it’s time to set it all up. There are no rights and wrongs in recording. If it sounds good it is good.

However, there are a few basic principles you can adhere to to ensure your recording process is off to a good start. Here is a basic 3-step guide to recording electric guitars on a budget:

  1. Setting up your audio interface
  2. Correct mic Placement
  3. Setting up your DAW

Step 1: Set Up Your Audio Interface

After placing your mic you need to set up your audio interface for recording. A typical audio interface will provide you with control over how much signal you want to put through.

Setting up an audio interface can sound a little daunting because it isn’t as simple as plugging in one cable. There are multiple inputs and outputs on an audio interface.

Inputs are used to plug in microphones with XLR cables, or instruments with a standard jack cable. These inputs are usually located at the front of an audio interface.

The outputs of the audio interface are most commonly located on the back of the interface, although the headphone output is usually located on the front. These outputs are for plugging in your speakers and headphones so you can listen back to what you’ve recorded.

Depending on the interface there can also be MIDI inputs for your MIDI instruments, and also multiple sets of speaker outputs.

However for recording guitars I recommend using headphones to listen to the tracks when recording. This is to prevent signal bleed. Nothing is more annoying than hearing the metronome clicking through your guitar track.

It is very important that you leave a good amount of headroom for your recording. This will ensure that your mixes won’t get muddy because of signal clipping.

You can tell whether or not it’s clipping by watching the lights on your interface. If the lights are green your signal is fine. If it turns red your signal will start clipping.

If you record a guitar with a microphone you have to select line level on the interface. When recording a guitar plugged directly into the audio interface you have to select instrument-level on the interface, then adjust the input volume again to prevent clipping.

Step 2: Mic Positioning

Mic’ing a speaker is one of the most fun parts of recording. By moving the mic just a tiny bit you end up with a completely different sound. There are many ways to mic an amp, but for now, let’s keep it simple.

Diagram courtesy of www.michalkaszczyszyn.com

The closer the mic is to the center of the speaker the brighter it will sound. If you move away from the center of the speaker your sound will be less bright.

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When I record guitar speakers I usually aim right between the cone and the cap of the speaker. This provides enough high-end clarity without it sounding too harsh on the ears, whilst still maintaining a nice amount of body.

To get an even less direct tone you can also experiment with the mic angle. This will usually shave away some extra high end. This can be ideal for guitar parts you want to sound like they are further away from the listener.

The picture above displays the several ways you can mic a speaker. Go and experiment! see which position works best for you.

Step 3: Setting Up Your DAW

DAWs are very different from one another, so describing every feature of every DAW would be a hard task, but the basic principles of recording remain the same. When setting up a track for the recording you need to take one thing into account.

Armed for recording

Before you have to worry about how the signal is hitting the DAW, you need to make sure your sound is actually getting to your DAW.

You do this by “arming” your track for recording. Arming a track for recording is usually quite a simple process. You only have to hit one button.

Of course every DAW does it slightly differently, but usually the principles remain the same.

This picture shows an unarmed track in Reaper. If you want to arm a track in Reaper you simply click on the red circle on the track.

Done! Your track is now armed for recording. You can see whether it’s armed or not by looking at the color of the red circle you just clicked on.

The brighter red indicates you have successfully armed your track for recording.

Input selection

When you arm a track for recording Reaper automatically assumes you want to record with the first input on your audio interface. However, perhaps you have a mic you prefer on input two. You’ll then need to tell your track to use the sound of input two for recording.

This is done by clicking on the little downward arrow next to the text “In 1”. A menu will then appear. This menu is really easy to navigate through.

The input selection is the first thing you’ll see, so you can immediately select input 2 instead of input one. If your audio interface happens to have more than two outputs Reaper automatically recognizes the inputs on your interface.

So if you have eight inputs, Reaper will automatically provide you with the ability to select an input from the eight inputs you have at your disposal.

Headroom

This is often neglected when recording, but it’s really important to get this part right. If you don’t leave enough headroom you’ll have a muddy sounding mix which will most likely sound bad.

Leaving enough headroom simply means to leave enough space before you go into signal clipping. Let’s say a signal starts clipping if it exceeds the 0.0 dB mark.

Keeping every track far below this mark will enable you to use plugins on a track without them distorting in an unpleasant way. Usually when recording we try to have a peak level of around -12 dB. This means that a signal in its loudest form will have a level of -12 dB.

To see whether you’ve set this up correctly play your instrument as loud as you are going to play it in context of the guitar part you’re recording. Turn it down if it’s still redlining.

Quick FAQ

My DAW is not responding to the signal I feed into it. What happened?

When preparing a track for recording you need to route your audio interface’s input to the track in your DAW. Now your DAW sees the audio signal coming in and you’re ready to record.

My sound has a lot of low end in it, even though I dialed in a clear sound. How can I prevent this?

There are two reasons your signal has too much bottom end. The first one being your mic is not close enough to the center of the speaker. Try moving the mic closer to the center of the speaker to get back some more high-end definition.

The second reason you’ve got too much low end is that you placed the microphone too close to the speaker. This is called the proximity effect. It basically means that the closer you are to the source of the signal the more bass frequencies you pick up.

Try moving the mic away from the speaker ever so slightly to prevent this from happening.

I followed the tips on gain reduction, but now there’s a lot of unwanted background noise in my recording. What’s wrong?

This means that the signal you intend to record is to quiet in relation to the background noise your audio interface introduces.

This is solved by raising your guitar amp’s volume whilst reducing the volume on your audio interface’s mic input. But try to maintain a peak level of -12 dB!

I can’t play guitar through an amp because of my angry neighbors. Help!

No problem at all. You don’t have to have an amp to get cool guitar tones. A lot of great guitar sounds were recorded by plugin straight into an audio interface. Daft Punk’s ‘Get Lucky’ is a great example of this.

If you still want your sound to have amp-like qualities try plugging directly into your audio interface and put an amp simulation plugin on your track in your DAW.

Charlie Puth’s tune ‘Mother’ has a great guitar tone created by Guitar Rig 5 by Native Instruments. Native Instruments provides a free version of that plugin here.