Sunday, February 18, 2007

How to Record [good sounding] Guitars Without a Good Room

I have spent the past year or so of my life as a "bedroom studio hobbyist", a label I'm sure many of you who might come across this article would probably give to yourselves. I get off on the endless creative possibilities that exist when a microphone and hard disk are available. I have done just about everything short of recording a full drum set in my bedroom.

I would say that home recording enthusiasts fall into two different categories when it comes their mentalities regarding the capability of their bedroom studio:

a) Category A people recognize the limits and shortcomings of the project studio, and use their equipment and resources (tastefully) in a way that reflects these limitations.

b) Category B people are frustrated with any kind of limitation whatsoever, and their fascination with the possibilities of digital recording leads them to continue to seek to push beyond the constraints of the home studio.

[warning: adopting a category B mentality could lead to hundreds of sleepless hours and lost time that could have otherwise been spent contributing to either society or at least your own well-being]

What I will be covering today is most likely old hat for many of you, but I'm sure there are those out there trying to make your home recordings sound as good as possible who can't seem to get past the massive obstacle that is guitar tone.

As a disclaimer, let me state that my favorite recordings (although I am open to being proven wrong) still exist in the form of a) as much live tracking as possible to capture the vibe of the band as true to form as can be, and b) guitar tones achieved using good guitars, good players, tube-based guitar amplifiers, and careful miking technique.

However, one thing that all aspects of recording have in common is the human ear - and my favorite recordings are not the result of an engineer blindly following tradition or prescribed techniques, but rather learning to capture what sounds best - therefore, I submit this information simply as a way to add to the ever-growing list of possibilities for capturing guitar sounds.

Computer-less methods

Now, I do all my tracking using a digital audio interface and a laptop computer so for me there exists no "computer-less" method but in terms of the way you are processing the guitar, these methods fall into the above category appropriately.

A simple and (generally) affordable solution would be a multi-effects processor which acts as a preamp - there are all sorts of guitarists who use this as a live solution too, from Sunday morning hobbyists to professional touring players. Line 6 has long enjoyed a loyal following with their POD hardware, and the PODxt "Live" model is quite a versatile and hard-working piece of gear. Other brands include M-Audio's "Black Box" and the Behringer "V-Amp." I don't have much experience with the latter two, but also be aware that manufacturers are more and more likely to include USB capability (the POD does already) to make it easier to bypass a few steps in your path to excellent, albeit simulated, guitar tone.

Keep in mind the differences in level between various types of audio signals. I use an MBox so I can switch my preamp mode between "mic", "line", and 'instrument' effortlessly, but you may need to have a direct box standing by if you do not have such convenience.

"In The Box" Methods

Those of us who were initially fascinated with the possibilities of plug-ins in our sequencing/multi-track software were no doubt prone to wonder what else could be done with this concept - if we can use a piece of software to perform standard audio processing tasks like compression and equalization, why stop there? Hence, a new generation of software was born, what I like to call 'softamps.'

The two leaders in the field are Cakewalk's Amplitube and Native Instruments' Guitar Rig. I personally favor Guitar Rig right now but most software developers offer pretty full-featured demo modes of their software on their websites so you can feel free to feel them out for yourself if you decide to expand in this way.

My favorite way to use this software is in "Standalone" mode - your computer in a sense then becomes your amplifier, as well as your pedal board or rack, and can even act as your engineer, changing microphone placement or any number of variables.

Keep your signal chain in mind. I have an older PC laptop that I use as a host for programs like this so I don't have too much running at the same time - but there are many different ways to use this software. Before I had two computers I used the PC laptop as both, though I had two audio interfaces - one would power Guitar Rig and the other would power my sequencer.

You can also use this software as a plug-in in most sequencers, (they generally come in VST, RTAS, and AU formats as well as standalone mode) something I have done once in awhile but not often because of CPU load, etc.

Some amplifiers also have a "pre-amp out" output in the form of a 1/4" jack that will enable you to capture the sound of the guitar (minus the tonal characteristics given to the sound by the speaker - which, depending on your gear, could be something you shouldn't bypass) without using a microphone. Combining a method like this with tasteful processing in the mixdown can have great results.

Also, make sure you're not missing any of the basics in the first place when it comes to recording guitars, and hey, might as well get some more advice from a great site like TweakHeadz Lab before you dive in too deep.

Happy trails!!!


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