With the constant innovation of digital recording systems, putting together a full-fledged home recording setup has never been easier—or cheaper. Let’s see what options are available to the guitarist who wants to start exploring the wonderful (or terrifying) world of audio recording.
All in One Solutions
An easy way to get one’s feet wet without investing too much money into equipment or software is to go the handheld recorder way. There are countless models available, starting at just around $100 and climbing upwards with the addition of more features and higher quality components. Things to look for: a decent pair of built-in stereo microphones (either cardioid in XY configuration, or omni), the lowest possible self-noise, and the possibility to record uncompressed audio at higher bitrates for ease of editing. While some of the fancier models allow you to use better external microphones, and could be considered a sort of modular, expandable solution, I am a bit skeptical of the quality of the built-in preamplifier and converters—if you want to use external microphones, I think it’s better to invest on decent pres and interfaces as well, and use an all-in-one for live recordings, scratch tapes, practice sessions, and the likes.
Editors Note: I’ve had some nice success with the Zoom Zoom Q3
Computer and Interfaces
If you already have a functioning and relatively up-to-date computer it makes sense to consider using it as the core of your digital audio workstation (DAW). To do so, you will need to purchase an audio interface. Like digital recorders, interfaces come in all sizes, price ranges, and feature sets. You want to make sure the interface you choose is compatible with your computer and OS, and you want to get at least two microphone inputs with 48v phantom power available. Interfaces can get expensive, but entry-level ones by Focusrite, M-Audio, and Presonus are perfectly serviceable. A step up on the price ladder, something like the Apogee Duet (Mac only) will effectively put you on par with many semi-pro studios.
You will also need software for editing. Again, your OS and computer will dictate what’s available; keep in mind that free software DAWs are perfectly fine for learning the ropes. You can always upgrade at a later time once your needs become more sophisticated.
It’s NOT all about the gear
The greatest peril of getting the home recording bug lies in the allure of higher quality, more expensive gear, and its promise of “magical” results. The truth is that mid-level microphones and converters would be perfectly fine for the vast majority of situations that require serviceable, professional results, and that a good recording depends in a much greater way on the abilities of the engineer (in this case, YOU) and the acoustic qualities of the room than on the minute differences between the performance of a $500 mic vs. a $1000 one (hint: the second one is generally NOT twice as good). Conversely, I think it’d be unlikely for someone to produce a truly commercial grade recording in their home studio without investing some serious money in acoustical treatment and noise isolation (we’re easily talking a few thousand dollars).
Another overlooked caveat: when self-recording the musician has to act in the three roles of producer, engineer, and performer. Although some people can juggle the necessary and different skillsets (Tillman Hoppstock seems to be able to do so just fine), I would suggest that an extra pair of ears end up making the guitarist’s job much easier. A good producer can help you see through the haze of technical perfectionism and tell you that yes, we do have a real solid take of that passage; if necessary, they will also draw attention to the kind of tiny problems that would become much greater were they to go unnoticed until the editing stages.
The real benefits of having a serviceable recording setup lie in getting more comfortable in front of microphones, learning how to best capture one’s guitar sound by exploring various microphone placing techniques, and, in the case of a mobile setup, the possibility to do location recordings. As you continue to develop your engineering and editing skills you may get to the point where you can rent a quiet, acoustically pleasant location (such as a remote church or a well-insulated performance hall), bring your own gear, and go to town. In light of all of these benefits, it may well be worth it to invest in a standalone recorder or an interface+microphones setup to start experimenting—just don’t end up spending all of your free time reading microphone shootout threads on Gearslutz.com.