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Preamp? Mixer? Receiver? Audio interface? External sound card? Breakout box? DAW?

I've been trying to record audio of my guitar for a long time, with no luck. The microphone that came with my computer makes very fuzzy/static-y recordings, and the mic on my camcorder doesn't even pick up the guitar.

Various people have told me I need any one of the above devices, sometimes making mention of "ADC" or "phantom power." I assume I'd need a nice mic too; but I refuse to believe that I need to buy seven $100+ devices for simple, amateur home-audio recording.

An explanation of what these things are and what they're for would be nice, but secondary to my real question: What's the minimum I need to buy to make a nice-sounding recording of my guitar (electric and/or acoustic) on my computer?

I'm looking for expert advice on what to look for and understand. Recommendations for specific devices would be appreciated but are not necessary.

[Edit] Even here, I've been told I need "a sound card with buffered inputs and low-latency ADAC" (whatever that means), an "all-in-one digital recorder," and a "condenser microphone with a battery or phantom power." I am more confused than ever.

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3 Answers

Short answer: get a Korg Sound on Sound.

There are two main routes to recording your guitars:

  1. Acoustic recording
  2. Direct input recording

Assuming your acoustic guitar doesn't have a built in pickup, you will need a microphone and some way to record that microphone. There are many different paths, but ultimately you are building a signal path that goes from a microphone to a recording device.

For your electric guitar, you may want to plug directly into your computer or recording device, but then you lose the sound of your amp and room.

To keep things simple and low cost, you should consider starting with an all-in-one digital recording solution. Examples include the Zoom H2 or H4n, or the Sony M10. There are plenty of other similar recorders, all in the $100-$400 price range. Because they are solid state recorders, you can easily take them to a room that has great acoustics, push the record button and just start jamming away. You will get better results if you have a friend put on some headphones, monitor the signal, and adjust the levels appropriately. You might also consider the Korg Sound on Sound recorder. The Korg has a number of guitar-oriented features, including a guitar input port. It also has mics, so should be good for acoustic recordings as well.

Stepping up from an all-in-one digital recorder to a component based system (mics, cables, preamps, FX, etc.) is a very big topic, and one that I don't have much experience with. The short answer is that there are different kinds of mics, and each kind of mic has special properties that make it more or less suitable for a particular application. Recording isn't just about making a perfect copy of the soundwaves in the air - people have become used to the imperfect equipment that has been used over the decade, so there's a lot of demand for gear that colors the sound in particular ways. Keep this in mind as you dive into the esoteric details.

Some things to keep in mind:

  1. Recording is a discipline, just like playing your guitar. You can certainly learn how to make nice recordings of your guitar work, but don't expect perfect results immediately. Take small steps, listen carefully, and learn from your mistakes. Also learn how to incorporate your "mistakes" into your sound.
  2. Gear matters, but don't become obsessed with gear. You can spend your entire life collecting guitars. You can also spend your entire life collecting mics, compressors, preamps and mixers.
  3. The space you record in matters too. If you have a noisy PC in the room, you will hear it in your recordings. If your friend sneezes in the next room, you may hear that too.
  4. Be creative and have fun. There are no right or wrong answers. Start with cheap equipment and definitely abuse it. If you can afford to break it, you can afford to abuse it, and you will learn interesting things.
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The key item you need is a sound card - M-Audio do a very cost effective range that is good enough for gigging or studio recording. Their kit provides buffered inputs, low-latency ADAC and decent quality outputs.

This will give you inputs suitable for electric guitar, microphone etc. You won't need separate preamps etc if you have a suitable soundcard.

You will also want to look at the options for mic'ing up your acoustic. A normal vocal mic on a stand can be all you need, or you may want one which clips onto your guitar to give you more flexibility and freedom.

Depending on what you want to do, you could run something as simple (and free) as Audacity to record and do basic editing, or you may want to go as upmarket as Cubase, Sonar (or even Pro Tools) but they all have a high cost associated with the wide range of features.

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Acoustic guitar

There's no getting away from the fact that a good microphone costs a reasonable amount of money. For acoustic guitar and voice, a reasonable quality condenser microphone is what people recommend. $50 or so gets you a Behringer that'll do the job.

Professional mics have XLR connectors, and condenser mics need power - either from a battery or from phantom power on the lead. So you have two issues: one, connecting it to your sound card, two getting power to it.

You could use batteries, and get a simple unbalanced convertor lead to the 3.5mm mic socket on your sound card.

Or you could use a pre-amp, which will power your mic, bring the signal up to line level using (probably) better sounding circuitry than your sound card, and take proper advantage of the balanced XLR lead. Then connect the line-out of the pre-amp to your sound card.

More conveniently, you can get a nice external audio interface, with XLR inputs and built in pre-amp. These often have a compressor in as well, convenient knobs for adjusting levels, multiple inputs suitable for mics and instruments, and so on. It will also do a much better job of A/D and D/A conversion than your standard sound card, so it's a good investment. Also you can expect it to have good latency. I think it's the best way.

Alternatively, you could get a USB mic. You can think of these as being a mic, pre-amp and audio interface all in one unit. It's cheap and there's not much to go wrong. One consideration here is that you won't be able to use the mic for analogue purposes. That is, if you one day decide to gig, your USB mic won't be much use there.

Positioning the mic is important; but if you Google you'll find plenty of advice on that.

One further option is a pocket digital audio recorder. Many of these have a pair of stereo mics configured to record room audio. You can either use the device to record onto an SD card, then transfer your recording to your PC, or use the line-out from the device into your audio interface.

Electric guitar

You can, of course, use the same kit to mic up an electric guitar amp, and that's how it always used to be done.

Nowadays we have amp modelling. That is, software that emulates an amp, cabinet, effects, room reverb etc. So if you choose, you can record the dry output of your instrument and have all the rest done in the digital domain.

Purists say they prefer real tube amps and real speakers, but you're asking for a budget solution, and I would argue that budget amp modelling sounds better than a budget amp.

The advice about sound cards above still stands. You can get reasonable results using an ordinary sound card. You can get better results with an external musician-oriented audio interface. It's also more satisfactory dealing with 1/4" jacks and XLR leads, than fiddling with little 3.5mm jacks.

Your big choice is between having your PC do the amp modelling, or doing it externally.

PC amp modelling: using software such as AmpliTube, Guitar Rig, GarageBand. Just plug your instrument directly into the audio interface, and let the software make it sound nice. One disadvantage is that it can work your computer pretty hard, and add latency. One advantage is that it lets you record the dry signal, and change effects and amp settings on a recording you've already made.

External amp modelling: using a stomp box containing amp modelling, or something like AmpliTube for iPad, connect the amp to the modeller's input, and the modeller's line-out to your audio interface.

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Phantom Power? Compressor? Line level? XLR Lead? What? –  BlueRaja - Danny Pflughoeft Jan 11 '12 at 22:27
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Explaining these terms would turn a 600 word answer into a 6000 word answer. All of them have Wikipedia entries that give the depth of detail you need in the first paragraph. To get a (nice) recording of your guitar, you need to understand these terms. It's worth 30 minutes reading. –  slim Jan 11 '12 at 23:05
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