Beginner’s Guide to Recording Guitar at Home
Setting up a basic guitar recording setup is something you’ll make great use of whether you write your own songs, enjoy jamming, want to record some covers or even to analyze your playing and practice.
There are so many options out there today for recording guitar at home so in this guide we’ll cover the basics to get you going. By the end of this guide you will know exactly what you need to record your guitar to PC and you will be able to choose from the most popular gear options available.
This guide will only cover PC as I don’t have a Mac. But if you have a Mac, you will find that almost all options still apply for you.
Basic Guitar Recording Setup
You’ve probably seen plenty of photos of recording studios with racks, monitors and gear everywhere. They can look overwhelming as well as impressive. In the past, going to a professional recording studio was the only way to produce high quality recordings.
Today the truth is you can achieve the same quality (or higher in some cases) recordings at home on a very basic setup. Thanks to massive improvements in technology, high quality recording gear is now very affordable and you can start recording high quality guitar tracks with only a few extra pieces of gear.
Here is a quick run-through of a basic home guitar recording setup:
- An audio interface – this allows you to connect your guitar to your PC
- Microphone – while you can record electric guitar without one, it’s really handy to have
- A DAW – a Digital Audio Workstation is the software you use to record, sequence and mix your tracks
- Plugins – plugins are software you can use within the DAW to do everything from apply guitar effects all the way to add virtual drums or synths
- Monitors/Headphones – while you could use your normal PC speakers, using high quality studio monitors or headphones will make a significant difference
Pretty simple, right? You basically need a way to plug your guitar to your PC (or a microphone for acoustic guitar) and software to record.
The rest of this guide will take a close look at each component as well as which options to consider. If you have all the equipment you need, check out my tutorial on recording your first song.
If you know all about the gear and software required for a basic recording setup and just want my recommendations, here they are:
- Audio interface: Focusrite Scarlett 2i2
- Microphone: Shure SM57
- DAW: PreSonus Studio One
- Plugins: BIAS FX, Addictive Drums 2
- Monitors: Mackie CR3
- Headphones: Audio-Technica ATH-M50x
There are alternatives to the recommended gear above, so read through the rest of the guide for full details.
Recording Electric Guitar to PC
The first piece of gear you need to consider is what you will use to connect your electric guitar to your PC. If you might need to record an acoustic guitar, skip to the next section as this section will look at options which are designed mainly for electric guitarists only. If you might need to record vocals, other instruments or acoustic guitar in the future, have a look at the next section.
To connect your guitar to your PC, you need an ‘audio interface’. These used to be large expensive units and didn’t produce a good quality signal. Today you can pick up a very high quality audio interface for under $100 that’s significantly better than units worth thousands in previous years.
It’s worth mentioning that you will also see audio interfaces going ridiculously cheap (like $10). I highly recommend avoiding anything that cheap. A lot of people got sucked in by cheap Chinese copies of the original iRig only to get frustrated when they wouldn’t work. Get a good quality audio interface – it’s worth paying a bit more to ensure you get a good quality unit.
iRig HD 2
The option I recommend for electric guitarists is the iRig HD 2 by IK Multimedia. It’s a tiny unit and is compatible with PC, Mac, iPhone & iPad. It records at a 96kHz sampling rate with 24-bit A/D conversion which is the highest available in consumer devices today.
The main reason I recommend the iRig HD 2 over other devices with similar features is because it also comes with the full version of AmpliTube 4 (PC/Mac) and AmpliTube for iOS (iPhone/iPad) for free. This is great because as you will see later, having software like AmpliTube gives you so much flexibility with your recordings. When you consider that AmpliTube 4 costs around $150, it’s a great deal.
Of course there are plenty of alternatives, but if your focus is on electric guitar, I recommend getting the iRig HD 2.
The only times I don’t recommend the iRig HD 2 for electric guitarists is when you want to record other instruments as well (eg: acoustic guitar, drums, piano, etc.) or you want to record your guitar amp via microphone. The iRig allows you to directly connect your guitar to your PC, so if you instead want to mic up your amp, consider the options below instead. Find out more on the iRig HD 2 in my review here.
Recording Acoustic Guitar to PC
If you plan on recording mainly acoustic guitar or you play both acoustic and electric or you want to record vocals as well, you will need an audio interface that gives you multiple inputs. There are plenty of options if you want multiple inputs, but I’ll keep things simple and recommend one of the most popular and highly rated audio interfaces.
Focusrite Scarlett Solo (2nd Gen)
As you can see below, the Focusrite Scarlett Solo gives you more flexibilty with inputs compared to the iRig HD 2 above. This means you can record anything via microphone, electric guitar with the line in or other line level instruments such as keyboards.
If you do buy one of these units, make sure it’s second generation (like the ones I’ve linked to) and not the first generation. The second generation has better quality preamps and converters.
These units also come with a Lite version of Pro Tools and Ableton Live Lite, so it does give you software to get started recording straight away. But as you will read later, most Lite versions won’t give you the features you will want.
Alternative to an Audio Interface
While I highly recommend getting a dedicated audio interface, there are alternatives. Many modern amps and multieffects units can be used as an audio interface. For example if you have a Line 6 amp or pedalboard, you will see a USB port on it. Simply plug it into your PC and you’re good to go.
One benefit of using your existing gear as an audio interface is that you can record the tones and effects you already play directly into the DAW. So if you have a preset on your multieffects pedal you want to use in your recording, use the pedal as your audio interface.
If you only plan on playing electric guitar and will plug your guitar directly into your audio interface, you won’t need a microphone. But if you plan on recording your amp, other instruments, acoustic guitar or vocals, you’ll want a microphone (and an audio interface with microphone input).
There are countless microphones available today and quite a few different types. As this guide is meant for beginners, I’m not going to talk about the pros and cons of dynamic vs condenser microphones or anything else on mic types.
Instead, I’m going to suggest one microphone to get you started, the Shure SM57. The chances are you have heard of it and have probably seen it. It’s the most well known microphone to guitarists and can be found in every studio.
To many guitarists, it’s the gold standard for recording a guitar amp. But it also works very well for other instruments and vocals. For a beginner recording at home, this is the perfect all-round microphone. Fortunately, it’s really cheap so even if you don’t plan on recording much with a microphone, I recommend getting one.
At some point you may want to buy another microphone more suited for acoustic guitar or other instruments, but the SM57 will always be useful so it’s a worthwhile investment.
DAW – Digital Audio Workstation
Once you have an audio interface set up to connect your guitar (or a microphone) to your PC, you will need a DAW. A DAW – Digital Audio Workstation – can be thought of as an entire recording studio in one software program. You know those massive mixing boards you see in all studios? In a sense a DAW gives you a virtual version of that. So you won’t need massive mixing boards to record and mix multiple instruments and tracks, you just need a DAW.
I know the above screenshot can look overwhelming, but it won’t take you long to learn how to use any DAW.
There are few popular options available and each one I’ve listed below has a strong following which means there are plenty of tutorials on YouTube. You may be wondering what is the best DAW, but the reality is there isn’t one. Each one gives you a different layout and experience so it’s comparing apples and oranges when comparing different DAWs. Many people will swear by a certain DAW, but it depends what type of music you want to create and how you want to use it.
You’ve probably heard of Pro Tools before. In the past it was the gold standard and many artists still feel that way today. While a lot of high profile artists may use Pro Tools, I don’t really feel it’s as good as other DAWs for home guitarists.
I have tried Pro Tools in the past and I don’t recommend it. It feels clunky and feels like a remnant of the past. One of my students had a ridiculously hard time with the iLok (a security device that unlocks the software) which meant he couldn’t even use the software. Unless you have a specific reason to use Pro Tools, I highly recommend any other DAW listed below. The only reason I’m including it here is because everybody has heard of it.
Studio One is fairly new compared to other DAWs. The maker of Studio One, PreSonus, also make excellent audio interfaces and originally created Studio One to sell more audio interfaces. As of writing Studio One is in version 3 and is just as powerful as any other DAW that has been around for decades.
I recommend Studio One as your first choice for a DAW because it feels like it has been developed by guitarists rather than electronic music people. That’s important because the types of features you will want as a guitarist won’t appeal to somebody wanting to produce electronic music. It’s why I generally don’t recommend Ableton Live for guitarists because it was designed for DJs.
I switched to Studio One as my main DAW after many years using Cakewalk Sonar and it’s been fantastic. In my opinion it’s one of the easiest DAWs to learn. If you feel overwhelmed when you see screenshots or videos of different DAWs in action, Studio One is quite easy to get the hang of. I also love the ‘scratch pads’ which is an easy way to experiment with different riffs or rearranging a song.
If you buy Studio One, make sure you don’t get the ‘Artist’ version. It’s a Lite version that cuts out the most important feature – plugins. It might look like a great way to save money, but it’s not worth it. Make sure you get the Professional version and get version 3 (or higher if available).
Cubase is possibly the most popular DAW for musicians focused on audio rather than MIDI. It has been in development for a long time and has evolved to an extremely powerful DAW. I don’t use Cubase because I prefer Studio One’s layout and tools, but many guitarists swear by Cubase. It is the most expensive option I’ve covered here, so unless there’s a specific reason why you prefer Cubase, I still recommend Studio One.
Be careful if you get the Artist version as it may not contain the features you want. I wouldn’t even consider the Elements version.
FL Studio was originally called Fruity Loops and was popular with beatmakers as at the time it didn’t record audio at all. It eventually evolved into a full DAW with audio recording and exploded in popularity. It’s now one of the most popular DAW but still has a massive following in the electronic music circle.
I personally use FL Studio as a way to experiment and come up with songs. As FL Studio was originally meant for beat creation, it’s step sequencers and loops makes it really easy to come up with drum parts for riffs as well as loop and move riffs around to work on structuring a song.
FL Studio may not be the best choice for beginners or people who just want to record straight forward guitar based music. On the other hand if you like the idea of mixing loops and beat creation with your guitar, it’s great fun to use.
Other DAWs worth mentioning
Ableton Live – this is an extremely popular DAW for electronic music. It’s radically different to other DAWs and designed for DJs and live performers. While you could use it as a guitarist and some guitarists do, I highly recommend a more traditional DAW. But if you’re a live performer who experiments with loopers for layering, you might want to consider Ableton Live. Check Ableton Live out here.
Logic Pro – while this guide is for recording guitar on PC, it’s worth mentioning for any Mac users reading this that a very popular Mac only option is available. I don’t have a Mac so I can’t talk about it, so check out Logic Pro here.
Cakewalk Sonar – I used to use this DAW for quite a few years before switching to Studio One. I’m sure it’s made a lot of improvements since last time I’ve used it, but I doubt it’s at the same level as Studio One or Cubase. Check out Cakewalk Sonar here.
Plugins for Guitarists
Once you have your audio interface and DAW set up, you’re ready to start recording. But unless you connect your amp to your audio interface, you’re only going to be recording a dry signal. Fortunately there are countless plugins you can use to craft the perfect guitar tone. Let’s look at some of the essentials to consider.
The plugins below are ‘VST’ plugins and your DAW needs to be able to use VST plugins for them to work. This is why most Lite or Artist versions of DAWs aren’t worth your time because they usually don’t allow VSTs.
AmpliTube 4, Guitar Rig 5, BIAS FX
The most valuable type of plugin for you as a guitarist will be one that allows you to shape your tone with amp & effects models. These plugins allow you to record a dry signal from your guitar, then set up any type of amp and effects rig you want. It’s ridiculously easy to achieve high quality tones for your recordings with any of the most popular modelling plugins.
If you buy the iRig HD 2, you receive AmpliTube 4 in full for free. Otherwise, the best way to figure out which plugin suits you the best is to download the demos for all three and try each one out. You’ll quickly get a feel for which one you prefer.
Out of all three listed above, BIAS FX is regarded as the highest quality plugin. Guitar Rig 5 is the oldest so it is starting to fall behind other plugins. I’m looking forward to Guitar Rig 6, but there’s no word on when that is due out. AmpliTube 4 is fairly new and stepped the quality up quite a bit from AmpliTube 3. Find out more about AmpliTube 4 in my review here.
There are plenty of other alternatives when it comes to amp and effects modelling. For example your guitar amp or multi-effects pedal may include software you can plug into your DAW. For example, some Line 6 multieffects pedals include software like POD Farm, which works just like AmpliTube.
Drum Kit Virtual Instrument
The quality of any drums you use will make or break your recording. Nothing screams ‘amateur’ more than poorly recorded drums. If you don’t have a drummer to use in your recordings or you want super high quality sounding drums, you’re in luck. There are quite a few ‘virtual instruments’ available with high quality samples of drum kits.
Basically what these virtual instruments do is play whatever you want. In the DAW, you simply enter in the drum beats and fills in a track, and you will hear a realistic sounding drum kit play it. The good plugins will sound just like a real drummer on a real kit.
The speakers or headphones you use when mixing your recordings will play an important role in the end result. The reason professional musicians and sound engineers specifically use studio monitors is because regular speakers or headphones add too much color to the sound. Most consumer headphones completely change the tone you hear to make it sound more impressive. They usually increase the bass, cut some of the mids and raise some higher frequencies to make music sound different.
When you mix a song in a studio, you don’t want to hear an ‘enhanced’ version through your speakers or else you won’t mix the song properly. If your speakers add bass to what you’re hearing, if you mix the song then listen to it on different speakers, you’re likely to be disappointed with the results. A good set of studio monitors will ensure you hear the ‘real deal’.
Choosing a good studio monitor is a big topic that causes a lot of heated arguments among audiophiles. If you thought guitarists argue a lot over guitar amps, it’s significantly worse with studio monitors. So to avoid getting a constant stream of emails telling me off, I’m simply going to recommend the monitors that were recommended to me.
The Mackie CR series are incredibly popular and praised for their quality at a very good price. When you consider that some people pay thousands for monitors, these are a steal for the quality you get.
The series offers 3″, 4″ & 5″ monitors at 50 watts. Two of the models (CR4BT & CR5BT) also offer bluetooth streaming.
If you will be recording acoustic guitar, vocals or any other instrument with a microphone, you will need some good quality headphones. Just like monitors, headphones is a touchy topic as everybody seems to have a different opinion on which headphones are the best. If you already have headphones, it’s up to you whether you feel like an upgrade would be worthwhile or not.
My recommendation if you already have a good set of headphones is to invest in some good monitors to use when you’re not actually recording.
The top rated studio headphones on Amazon at the moment are the Audio-Technica ATH-M50x as shown below:
They’re rated overwhelmingly positive so if you’re after the best, these will probably suit you.
Alternatively, the Sony MDR7506 are just as popular and a bit cheaper.
Either option will likely be a big upgrade from whatever headphones you currently use, but whether it’s worth the upgrade is up to you.
Getting Started With Your Home Recording Studio
So you’ve now got all the hardware and software you need for your home recording studio, now what? First I recommend going through my Tutorial on Recording Your First Song at Home. The tutorial will show you how to get started with all the above equipment and software so you can record a full song with all instruments.
Here are some things you can do to get started:
Record guitar parts to your favorite song
This is a good way to get the feel for using the DAW and your equipment. Pick a song you know well and load the song into the DAW. Then create a new track, set up the amp tone you want and record yourself playing along with the original. If there are multiple guitar tracks in the song, create multiple tracks in your DAW and record each part. If you have a bass guitar, try recording that on another track.
After you record all your parts, mute the original track and hit play. Now you can experiment with mixing your guitar tracks, adjusting the tone and effects and possibly add the drum tracks if you have a plugin such as Addictive Drums or EZdrummer.
Write a song from scratch all in the DAW
Learning how to write a song from within the DAW is a great skill to develop. Not only will it help you come up with creative ideas and quickly put songs together, but you can easily save any ideas you come up with for the future. You will never have to worry about forgetting a great riff or idea again as you will be able to record and save everything.
Record a riff or chord progression and copy and paste the idea over and over so it loops. Now you can practice coming up with solos, lead lines, melodies or other riffs over the top of your idea. Record your ideas and keep layering more ideas. After a bit of practice you’ll get the hang of it and will start coming up with really interesting ideas for songs.
Record other musicians
Once you get the hang of recording guitar using a DAW, ask another musician to come in and record something. This will teach you a lot about other instruments, mixing and editing. If you know somebody who sings, prepare a backing track before they come in. Practice editing the track using multiple takes, try recording harmonies and backup vocals and use effects such as reverb to make the vocals shine.
Not only is it a lot of fun recording other musicians, but you will learn so much from the experience. Reach out to as many different musicians as you can and learn how to make each type of instrument sound great.
Guitar effects course
The more you understand about how different guitar effects work and how they interact with each other, the easier it will be to create the tones and sounds you want. This guitar effects course digs deep into all common types of guitar effects, how they work and how to use them. Check it out if you’re interested in learning more about guitar effects.
Updates and More Guides
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