In last weeks blog post I took a look at the Behringer GI100 DI box (to take a look at that click here). This weeks posts is focusing on recording guitars and bass direct to your DAW. This lesson is designed cover the basics in achieving a quality input signal and is transferable to any DAW, from the humblest Garageband to the expensive ProTools. The only thing that differs is the location of the input fader so find that and you’re sorted.
Before we get into process itself let’s talk about why you might take this approach. In early recordings most electric guitars and basses were amplified and then recorded with a microphone. And whilst this method is tried and tested and often sounds great there are a number of drawbacks:
- High Recording Volumes – If you have access to a live room in a decent studio then high volumes are so much of an issue. Most people reading this will be producing music at home which unless you live out in the sticks means prolonged periods of high volume are extremely anti-social.
- Available Amplifiers – Access to a range of expensive amplifiers means professional studios can have a versatile set of sounds out. Whilst most guitarists have a couple of amplifiers the sonic options are limited.
- Commitment – An amplifier commits you to a tone, full stop. In the mixing stage you can EQ the sound to a certain degree but you can’t change characteristics such as gain.
There is relatively little volume when direct recording. It also allows for the use of VST amp plug-ins which have often have lots of options and are tweak-able in the mixing stages. For those with a decent amp collection there is the option re-amp at a later date.
There is also the trend for using the pure sound of a the flat DI’ed instrument. Bassists have been using pure DI signals for years and has become is standard practice, even alongside an amplified signal. Guitarists tend to be less inclined to use a dry signal. That said there are plenty of famous tones that are direct including the excellent guitar work of Nile Rodgers. It was also common in the 70’s for guitarists to record a fuzz box straight to the desk (I might tackle that in a later blog post).
I was initially going to record a video on this subject but there are plenty of excellent tutorials out there. I have included three particularly good ones at the end. The first two are from Warren Huart, a well respected producer and head of producelikeapro.com (I cannot recommend his work enough). The second is from Misha Mansoor of Periphery fame who looks at the DI signal from a more contemporary metal/djent stand point.
Here’s my thought process in list form.
- Prepare your guitar and your playing! – I know this sounds obvious but recording anything puts it under the microscope. Make sure your comfortable with the parts before hitting record. Jumping between recording engineer and performer is enough without being concerned about the passage itself. The guitar or bass itself should be recently strung, electronically sound, intonated and in tune (if your out of tune you’ll hate yourself after a perfect take!)
- Pre-amp, DI box or Direct – This choice is down to your preference and available equipment or budget. I use a Focusrite 2i4 which is an interface with a built in pre-amp. That said I still find a DI-box sorts out a lot of noise problems. Here’s why. A guitar/bass sends an unbalanced signal which isn’t isn’t grounded allowing for background noise and interference especially after long cable runs. A DI box transforms the unbalanced signal into a balanced signal which is has a ground, live and return which means the signal is less susceptible to interference and hum. Fender players will know that single-coil hum far to well and this works to remove some of that. Pre-amps shape your instruments tone before it reaches the desk/interface. They often including gain, compression and equalization. Unless I’m really used to the way a pre-amp behaves when mixing I would always record a dry DI alongside most pre-amps in case the sound doesn’t fit in the final mix.
- Let’s begin by preparing the sound on the guitar itself. If you want to use a blend of pick-ups or perhaps roll the volume or tone down for its tone then do this now. This will allow you properly set the gain on the interface. If you decide to change these settings after this point then be prepared to readjust the gain.
- Play your instrument into you interface (with or without DI or Pre-amp) and watch for the level of your device. This is usually shown in the form of LED strip or sometimes a simple clipping indicator. You don’t want clipping. Clipping even when inaudible will affect the tone of the instrument going into the DAW. The aim is to capture the audio with the highest signal level without clipping. This will keep background noise to a minimum.
- If you get constant clipping most interfaces and DI’s have a pad feature which removes a preset amount of dB from the input. Loud and active pick-ups may require this as well as line level pre-amps (some pre-amps have an output level as well which allows you to drive the pre-amp harder and avoid clipping the recording interface input).
- Check for clipping in your DAW – Most DAW’s have a separate input channel strip with an input level (if not look to the track you’re recording on). This will show the signal coming in to the device and shouldn’t be clipping. If the fader is at 0 but the signal is clipping turn the interface down not the fader.
- Record – Keep an eye on your levels when recording as it can get fluctuate with performance.Input faders will often have an clipping indicator that means you can focus on the performance and double check it after.
- If the part contains palm-muting especially of low strings then check the levels with that technique as they can be louder then un-muted parts.
- If you are recording live with other musicians and you intend to kick in a pedal then make sure it doesn’t introduce a volume boost that clips the input. Set your interface for your loudest sound.
- If your mixer/interface has a line/instrument selector then make sure you use instruments for direct guitars and line for DI boxes and Pre-amps.
As promised here are the videos that going into this in different systems and styles. Let me know what you think of this approach. If you have any things add or great gear for this job leave a comment below. See you next week.