I recently got back into the digital home-recording game after years of avoiding it due to computer overexposure. Over the next few columns, I’d like to share a few insights I’ve learned along the way. Being the Frets editor at Guitar Player brings a uniquely acoustic perspective to the process. Whereas it’s possible to get a great electric guitar sound working “in the box,” as Adrian Galysh eloquently explained in his January 2019 Recording feature, the acoustic side remains largely about grabbing great sounds with a microphone, adding yet another layer of complexity to the process.
The good news is that home digital recording is much easier and more affordable than it was just a few years ago. In this column, and in my next few, I’ll share advice that will help anyone who’s still on the sidelines get a strong acoustic recording game going. Watch for future columns on recording decisions pertaining to the guitar, strings, accessories, tracking and mixing.
DIGITAL AUDIO WORKSTATIONS
The heart of the modern home recording setup is a computer running a digital audio workstation (DAW). After years of evolution, DAWs now look and function in similar fashion. While the differences between using a Mac or a PC aren’t as vast as they once were, the choice of a computer platform is still a major consideration. Most popular DAWS — including Ableton Live, Cubase, ProTools and Reason — are available for Windows and Mac, whereas programs such as GarageBand and Logic are strictly for the Mac operating system. Newer Macs also utilize the Turbo Boost feature built into modern Intel processors that can accelerate its performance, which is beneficial for the intense processing required by DAWs. Depending on its age, your Windows PC may have an Intel processor capable of Turbo Boost as well.
THE AUDIO INTERFACE
The audio interface converts analog signals into digital information and vice versa, allowing audio to move in and out of the computer. Some expensive units have no preamps built into them on the assumption that the well-heeled user will want to select and use their own separate preamp. However, affordable interfaces typically incorporate preamps and offer some combination of 1/4-inch and XLR inputs. Two input channels is satisfactory for recording either a pair of microphones or one mic and one direct signal. To do all of that or more simultaneously — or if you’re a singer/songwriter and want to track vocals as well — it’s better to select an interface with at least four pre-amped inputs, such as the Focusrite Clarett 4Pre USB reviewed in the August 2018 Frets section. Audio interfaces have a sonic character of their own, so audition a few to find one you like. Clarity is extremely important to acoustic tones, so buy the best you can afford, but don’t feel you have to opt for the most expensive unit. After much testing, I was pleasantly surprised to discover good options exist throughout the price range.
MICS AND CHANNEL STRIPS
Microphones vary dramatically in quality and cost, and, like audio interfaces, the two are not always strictly aligned. If you can acquire a quality (small-diaphragm) condenser, a ribbon mic and a basic dynamic mic such as a Shure SM57, you’ll have your acoustic guitar bases covered. Enthusiasts of the X/Y miking technique — in which two mics are positioned at right angles with their capsules aligned — may want to buy a matched pair for stereo tracking.
You might also want to consider a channel-strip preamp, which includes a mic preamp as well as EQ and perhaps a compressor, with direct applications for acoustic players and singers. A high-quality analog channel strip can bring out the best in your microphone, so it makes sense to include one in your budget. Some audio interfaces that have preamps may also include an extra line input without a preamp, which is where you’ll want to use a channel strip.
Be forewarned: A home studio can quickly become a money pit. With the possible exception of your guitar, it’s safe to say that a computer, DAW, audio interface, mics and channel strip may be the most expensive music-related items you own if you invest in a home digital recording setup. Research before you buy, and watch your budget. As former GP editor Michael Molenda once advised me, “Get what you need, but be smart about how much you spend. The most important thing is to stay in the game.”