Music & Entertainment

Home Recording Studio 101: How to Record Instruments

Written by MasterClass

May 29, 2019 • 7 min read

With the advent of digital technology and affordably priced microphones, today’s musicians have the ability to track any instrument they like in a home recording studio.

When it comes to the instruments used in popular music, drums are traditionally the trickiest instrument to properly record—and as such, worthy of their own tutorial. So, too, are vocals, which are typically recorded with only a single microphone, yet are greatly affected by the slightest bit of nuance.

Other instruments—like guitars, bass, keyboard, and brass—are easier to record, provided that you have the right equipment and a little bit of technique.

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How to Record Electric Guitar

Electric guitars are some of the most commonly tracked instruments in rock, jazz, R&B, and country recordings. They’re also quite easy to record if you know what you’re doing.

You’ll need at least three—and ideally four—pieces of hardware to track electric guitar:

  • A microphone
  • A preamp (optional)
  • A digital audio converter (DAC)
  • A recording device (typically a personal computer)

Microphone. When it comes to microphones, there is one particular standby for tracking electric guitars: the Shure SM57. This is a dynamic microphone that can handle practically any level of volume. It’s what most live engineers use to feed a guitar amplifier into a venue’s PA system. Some studio engineers favor large diaphragm condenser microphones when recording electric guitar, and these work great as well—as long as you set your amplifier to a reasonable volume. The Blue Microphones Bluebird SL and the Audio Technica AT4040 are relatively affordable condensers, and if you want to scale up, consider the do-it-all AMG C414 microphone.
Preamp. Pro sound engineers like to feed their microphones into a preamp, which adds subtle levels of analog distortion for a pleasing “warmth.” You can get away without using a preamp, but if you have the budget, you’ll quickly appreciate what they can do. The ART ProMPA II is a bargain-priced preamp that, if used properly, can sound like something costing far more. The Universal Audio SOLO/610 costs about three times as much as the ART, and only has one input instead of two, but it produces amazing sound. The UA SOLO/610 is actually considered affordable in the pricey world of preamps.
Digital audio converter. Once your audio signal has passed through your preamp (which is sometimes abbreviated to just “pre”) it’s ready to be converted into a digital signal for use on your computer. For this, you will need a digital audio converter. The Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 is relatively cheap and gets the job done. Remember, you aren’t getting your “sound” from this device; that’s what your microphones and preamps are for. If you need more audio inputs, consider the Tascam Celesonic US-20x20. Tascam has been an audio industry leader since the magnetic tape era.
Recording device. Lastly, you’ll want to connect your digital audio converter to a recording device. In nearly all cases, this will be a personal computer, but there is a growing trend of recording on smaller devices like an iPad or any number of smartphones. Digital audio converters use USB outputs to connect to a computer. Once you’re on the computer, you’ll be using software known as a digital audio workstation (DAW) to actually record, sequence, and edit your audio tracks.

Once you have your equipment set up, it’s easy to start recording. Simply place your microphone about three inches from the grill cloth of your electric guitar amplifier, and be sure it’s centered over the middle of your speaker. In your DAW software (Logic, Pro Tools, Garageband, etc.), make sure that your audio signal never peaks (which would be indicated by an audiometer flashing red, as opposed to green or yellow). A peaking signal will distort in an undesirable way and cause your recording to sound unprofessional.

If your microphone is properly placed and your signal is coming in at an acceptable volume, you’re all set to record electric guitar. It’s one of the easier instruments to track in a home studio.

What Is the Best DAW to Use?

If you’re primarily interested in recording live audio in a studio, Pro Tools by Avid is the industry standard for DAWs.

  • Many producers also use Logic, Digital Performer, and Steinberg Cubase for live audio and even Ableton can be used for this function.
  • If you’re on a real budget and can’t afford to pay several hundred dollars for a DAW, many of these programs have limited versions that are available for free. Some of the best free programs include Cakewalk and Garageband (which is a stripped down version of Logic). Note that Garageband will only work on a Mac and Cakewalk will only work on a PC.
  • Audacity is another popular free program for audio editing, but it’s not suitable for digital instruments. All of these programs can handle multitrack recording, where more than one instrument is recording simultaneously. Most have plenty of effects built in, such as EQ, autotune, compression, reverb, distortion, chorus, echo, and delay.

How to Record Acoustic Guitar and Other Acoustic Instruments

The method for recording acoustic guitar and other acoustic instruments (like brass or strings) is similar to the method for recording electric guitar. Like before you’ll need three (or possibly four) pieces of equipment:

  • A microphone
  • A preamp (optional)
  • A digital audio converter (DAC)
  • A recording device (like a personal computer)

The main difference between tracking a guitar amp and an acoustic instrument is that you’ll almost certainly want to use either condenser mics or even ribbon microphones to record acoustic instruments. These don’t handle high volumes as well as dynamic mics do but they bring out more texture and nuance. (They will also require an external source of power, which can be provided using the 48v phantom power button on a device like the Scarlett Focusrite.)

Here are some microphones to consider when recording acoustic instruments:

  • Rode NT5. The Rode NT5 is a small diaphragm condenser microphone, which makes it good for recording instruments. An NT5 hovering 12 inches over the bridge of a violin will provide excellent sound with natural reverb.
  • AKG C414. These large diaphragm condenser microphones, which are often used in stereo pairs, can do pretty much anything. They’re equally popular as a vocal microphone and an instrumental microphone. You can select many shapes for the C414’s recording field, from cardioid to omnidirectional to figure-8. And while they certainly aren’t cheap, they can be paired with a good preamp and sound like top-of-the-line microphones.
  • Neumann U87. If money is no object, look no further than the Neumann U87. The level of detail it can pick up is truly remarkable. But make sure to use it in a truly silent room; otherwise, you’ll be accidentally picking up the sound of a car driving by half-a-block away. The U87 is that sensitive!
  • Royer R-121. The R-121 is a ribbon microphone and is typically considered the industry standard. Ribbon mics provide remarkable detail; they can make it sound like you’re in the same room as the recorded instrument. But expect to pay over $1,200 per microphone (and note that they’re often used in pairs). Note that ribbon microphones are not recommended for extremely loud instruments—the sound waves can literally tear the mechanical ribbon that cycles through the center of the mic.
  • Cascade FAT HEAD. A comparatively affordable alternative to the Royer R-121. Expect to pay $400 for a pair.

Once you’ve got your mic selected, you’ll follow the same process as you did for electric guitar: The mic feeds an optional preamp, which feeds a digital audio converter, which goes via USB into your computer. Check your levels, make sure you aren’t peaking, and then play around with your microphone placement. There’s no right or wrong way to mic an acoustic instrument, but most audio engineers keep the microphone somewhere between six to twelve inches away from the instrument they’re recording. They might also set up additional microphones at a greater distance to record an overall “room sound.”

How to Record Keyboard and Electric Bass

Keyboards and electric basses tend to be easier to track than guitars and acoustic instruments for one simple reason: they typically don’t use microphones—and sometimes not even preamps.

  • Typically, keyboardists and bassists will plug their instruments directly into either the preamp or the digital audio converter, and forego amplifiers and microphones altogether. In the case of keyboards, this is because they tend to produce their own sounds that don’t need to be integrated with amplifier circuitry.
  • Meanwhile, most electric bassists like to record as pure of a signal as possible, and only later add effects using software plugins.

Remember This Rule When Recording Instruments at Home

As a general recording rule, remember this adage about recording instruments: make sure you’re recording the cleanest possible signal you’d want to use for your song.

  • You can always take a clean electric guitar track and add distortion during the editing/mixing process.
  • But if you record a distorted track, there’s no way to get rid of that distortion when you’re mixing.
  • So when in doubt, get a pure, clean signal (sometimes called a “dry” signal) and add your effects later. Otherwise, you may be stuck with some tracks that are noisy enough to be flat out distracting.

As long as your audio signals are audible and don’t accidentally peak (producing undesired distortion), you’ll be able to do just about anything you want with your recorded tracks. And this can lead to a lot of fun in the mixing stage!

Learn more about music production in Timbaland’s MasterClass.