Recording Guitars at home – The Essentials

Done right, home recording can not only be a rewarding and cost-effective process, but one that promises high-quality audio without the budget and labor of a major studio.

 

Done wrong, it can be frustrating, taxing, and quite discouraging.

 

Fear not, engineers: there are so many seemingly little things  that’ll work wonders for your guitar recording process, and straightforward steps you can take to ensure you set yourself up to succeed.

 

For some, this may be a refresher or friendly reminder. For others, this is a perfect opportunity to craft your own checklist with all the right bullet points to hurdle any audio or guitar obstacles.

 

So here’s a list of the core essentials when recording guitars at home, to ensure you have a positive experience. It’s worth noting that many of them could be boiled down to being prepared and patient!

1 – Maximize your Sonic Space


 From humble bedroom setups to elaborate production facilities overlooking the city skyline, good recording space are equipped, set up properly quiet and distraction-free. For the DIY enthusiasts, make this a room with all your musical equipment readily available and make sure said equipment is prepared, plugged in, easily reachable, and taken proper care of.

 

Ideally, this will be one of the quieter rooms in your house to begin with, but a few tips & tricks can optimize your space and create soundproofing ability from scratch. One suggestion? Weatherproof your door and cover it with a door curtain, to minimize any hiss, feedback or unwanted noise from the outside world. Finally, leave distractions elsewhere.  Put down the Apple remote and close out of Instagram, because when you’re in the zone, you want to be entirely committed to your craft to avoid distractions and silly mistakes.


2 – Locked & Loaded with your Gear


Being accessible and in position is covered above. Here, ‘“locked and loaded” means in good working order, all guitars fully strung and in tune, effects pedals working and suitably powered, with working capos in position, batteries in tuners, a box of different plectrums, and so on.

This is about avoiding a situation that regularly occurs – where you come to record, and find actually you need to re-string a guitar, buy some new plectrums or find a capo.  This puts a damper on your creative flow, putting you in a bad position to remember spur-of-the-moment ideas all because of a faulty string or busted-up ¼” cable.

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3 – Warm up!

Recording is an inherently exposing process. And simply put, just as a live performance is better after warming up, a recorded one is too. (Especially because a recorded performance is essentially a live performance, captured with all of the nitty-gritty nuisances in your playing

Even if it’s only noodling for 10 minutes, comping a few chords or a run-through of the song you’re going to capture, you’ll hit the ground running, warmed up and ready to go. If you don’t do this, it’ll likely just take you a couple of takes longer to record well. Not to mention, it’s better for preventing injury to your hands, wrists, forearms and fingers.


4 – Understand Your Software


Spend some time getting to know your software – how it works, what it does, what its strengths and limitations are. This means that a) You can work quickly when inspiration takes hold, and b) Your musical ability is not restricted by your technical knowledge – a source of great frustration for many musicians.

What often stops musicians from doing this crucial step of learning to use the software first, is impatience (wanting to get started immediately) and perfectionism (being unwilling to create random, messy, inconsequential recordings – never to be released – for the purpose of learning how the software works). Programs like Pro Tools are considered the industry standard for instrumental and vocal tracking, given its no-nonsense layout and impressive arsenal of audio production tools. Some DAWs (Digital Audio Workstation) like Logic Pro, for example, come with an entire library of pre-mixed, pre-rigged, pre-edited guitar amps & channels for creative expression. There are options for all guitarists and engineers!

If you’re using analog mixers or multi-track recorders, the same principle applies. You have to know how it works!

 

5 – Setting it Straight with Studios and Stages

Often we discover when we come to record a guitar part, that we have to change it slightly. Sometimes a guitar part that works well in rehearsals or live needs tweaks to make a great recorded guitar part.

Perhaps it leaves a space, or creates interesting noise or feedback at a certain point in time, that is swallowed up by a live atmosphere but is exposed on a recording.  Perhaps that lick you thought worked well with your live band doesn’t pack the same punch as the way you have your other instruments tracked and recorded – in a nutshell, recording can be an exposing process. So make sure you listen back to your guitar part, identify any questionable moments, and then revise what you play to make it work. While this may initially come across as frustrating, it’s an opportunity to learn and grow on your guitar, as being confident on-stage and behind a monitor gives you a much wider understanding of such a unique instrument.


6 – Demos vs. Recordings
It’s ideal to record a song twice, if possible. –It’s helpful to start with a demo, where you try layering parts, learn what does and doesn’t work, experiment with sounds, and try new ideas out – a practice attempt, essentially. Consider this something of a drawing board for your final masterpiece.

During the recording process, you apply everything you learned in demo mode to create a polished version that fits exactly what you’re looking for. This is highly recommended to ensure you get the best possible recording. So often we record a song, then later think about what we would’ve changed. Working with a demo gives you the chance to actually make those changes, flesh out potential ideas and let the creativity flow Just accept that it’s probably going to take a bit of time to get that “perfect” take – take a deep breath, stay patient and don’t be afraid to crank out multiple takes of the same guitar part. Rome wasn’t built in a day!


7 – Set limits


Recording for 12 hours straight is not healthy! And it isn’t good for the song either. Take regular breaks to ensure you’re focused and fresh. This is also important to keep in mind as far as ear fatigue is concerned, which can lead to your overall listening experience becoming muddled and foggy.

Furthermore, a recording session can involve getting quite deep into a certain mindset and it’s so easy to lose clarity, and the bigger picture, when you’re hypnotized by a blue-light monitor for too long.

A little bit of time away from the session means returning and hearing things you’d previously missed, and renewed energy for what comes next. Don’t go crazy! A good rule of thumb: if you know you’re grinding all day, take a 15 minute break every two hours.


8 – Mix in simple steps


Mixing is a vast, complex art form that it takes many years of dedication to truly understand and master. We could write an entire library of articles about it, and that’s no exaggeration.

So for the home recorder, it’s about how good a job you can do without that deep expertise or top-notch gear.

The key to this is – besides research, seeking advice, and practice – is to break down your mixing into simplistic, small steps.

It’s really easy to pile on all of these techniques, plug-ins and effects when mixing, and suddenly find yourself with a mix that doesn’t sound how you want it to. While it’s always important to grow and educate yourself with mix jargon, you should never use something just because an expert said so. Take the time to learn what something does, and why you’d use it.

Take mixing one step at a time, meaning every decision is reduced to a binary, comparable, “Do I want it like A, or B?” – This way you can gradually, manageably work towards a mix you’ll love!

9 – Research recording techniques

Hopefully recording is something you enjoy, want to continue doing, and want to improve at. There is so much material available on recording techniques, different schools of thought, even how expert bands, producers and engineers work, so you can learn from the best.

Spend some time researching this topic and practicing and applying anything you learn along the way. This is about immersion in the subject and art form of recording. Hopefully you’ll enjoy it, and you’ll come out a better musician and home recording engineer.

 

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Alex Bruce is a writer for Guitartricks.com and 30daysinger.com.