There are a ton of variables at play when it comes to at-home guitar recording. The whole process is a combination of many elements before ever pressing record in your DAW.
Fundamentally, a great guitar recording requires the right tone—and tone requires taste. If you haven’t yet developed an ear for good tone, then your sound may not translate well on a recording.
If you’ve been playing guitar for a long time, however, there’s a good chance you’ve established a tone you like. The next step is being able to take that sound—which you’ve probably only heard in the room where you play—and recreate it on a recording.
Recording guitar at home necessitates compromise.
Most of us are limited with what we can do in our home studios; this means that we’ll be making sacrifices along the way to a great guitar recording.
Obstacle #1: Volume
Can you really dime your 100-watt tube amp at home? Most of us don’t have an isolation booth that can handle the insane volume it takes to get an amp to really shine.
A way around this is to build or purchase an isolation cabinet, which is a soundproof box loaded with a speaker of the guitarist’s choice. A microphone can be suspended inside the cabinet to capture the output for recording. Iso cabs can be pricey, but if you’re willing to make the investment you’ll spare you and your neighbors a heck of a lot of problems.
Lots of newer tube heads are built with a direct out you can take straight to your interface for recording. Coupled with a cabinet IR, you can get your amp’s tone you love at a reasonable, or silent, level.
Another option is using an attenuator with your amplifier. An attenuator will let you crank your master volume to cook the tubes while keeping overall levels low.
The other alternative, of course, is using amp sims. Hardware like the Kemper profiler or Axe-FX are fantastic for recording because you can take their output straight to your DAW and monitor through your headphones or speakers without excessive volume being an issue. Logic Pro X even comes with a stock amp designer which is capable of incredible tones.
Obstacle #2: Budget
Let’s assume for a second that maybe you don’t have your holy grail tone established. You’d love to record guitar at home, but your practice amp simply doesn’t sound that great. Amps, cabinets, pedals, and guitars aren’t cheap!
Getting It Done on a Budget
You can make an affordable guitar play and sound fantastic by having it properly set up. From the factory, most lower end guitars are pretty poorly set up, so they’re hard to play and don’t sound their best.
Another affordable upgrade to a budget guitar is swapping the pickups. Pickups are basically microphones, and they’re the first transducer in the entire signal path! Getting a great set of pickups will help your tone tremendously.
Finally, amp sim plugins are your best friend if you’re on a budget. Rather than spending $3000 on an amp and cab rig, you can spend a couple hundred on a plugin. This will also save you from the volume issue previously mentioned.
Basic Recording Technique
With an Amplifier and Cabinet
If you do have the option of recording traditionally through an amp, you’ll need to have some basic miking skills. Firstly, the SM57 is a longtime industry standard on guitar amps/cabinets. It’s also very affordable and virtually indestructible.
You can start by selecting the best sounding speaker in your cabinet. It’s best to try each of them out, recording them, and picking your favorite for the final recording.
Shine a flashlight in your cabinet to find the cone, and place the microphone slightly to one side of the center of the speaker cone. This is common placement, but you can experiment with what sounds best to you!
Using a Direct Out from an Amp
As we mentioned earlier, modern amps are coming loaded with direct outs for convenient home recording. Simply run an XLR from the direct output to your interface. The amp should have a dummy load which means it doesn’t have to be connected to an external cabinet.
From there, you may have to load up a cabinet IR unless your amp simulates one as well.
Using Amp Sim Plugins
This is really the simplest way to record guitars. Plug your guitar directly into one of the inputs on your interface and open an instance of the plugin on a track in your DAW. From there, you can monitor your signal and tweak the tone on the plugin’s interface until it sounds good!