One of our most frequently asked questions is how to record a guitar on a PC, Laptop or Mac. There are a range of ways, depending on your budget, from purchasing a simple computer guitar cable to dedicated USB solutions or upgrading your sound card set-up:
The Simple Computer-Guitar Cable or Adaptor
There are several ways of recording your guitar directly onto the hard drive of your computer. If you play an electric guitar, then the simplest way is to connect the headphone/line out from your amp to the line in of your soundcard. All you need to do this is a simple Computer Guitar Adaptor which has a standard jack input for your guitar lead on one end, and a mini-jack on the other. You can try out how this sounds by using the built-in Windows sound recorder software although better still download Audacity which is free and easy to use recording software. It’s also possible to buy a guitar cable with 1/4″ jack on one end and 1/8″ mini-jack on the other.
You can also experiment by plugging your electric guitar directly into the mic-in socket on your sound card (or the mic in on your laptop). This will work but it may not give the high quality performance needed for a more professional sound. In general, electric guitars need a high impedance input, but although most computer soundcard’s mic inputs have a high impedance, it is not as high as a normal guitar input. This lower impedance can result in quality problems.
To help you find your way around generally if the sockets on your sound card are colour coded then the microphone will be pink, the standard single channel line-out or headphone will be green, and line-in will be blue. If you are using a laptop then usually there is a mic input next to the headphone socket.
If you have a standard generic sound card, then you may find that the above solution gets you going but the recording quality is not too good. Ordinary sound cards are better at sound output than recording and will often produce noisy low-quality recordings. You may also find that many laptops and macs do not have any line-in socket at all, and that the microphone socket, if available, is quite noisy. If this is the case or you want to make a huge improvement, then there a whole range of specially designed USB solutions for recording your guitar on your computer. The price range is huge so there should be something that suits your budget.
Although the computer guitar cable is a simple and cheap solution, there are a whole range of dedicated devices which will offer massive improvements in quality. For the guitarist with a slightly bigger budget seeking a higher quality solution, there are a tremendous range of USB devices which have been specifically designed from the ground up to with your recording needs in mind. All of these eliminate the need to use your existing sound card for recording and provide a dedicated external solution with all the hardware and software you need to record your guitar. We are big fans of these dedicated devices, they are easy to use and install, have special inputs for guitar, usually come with a great software package and will massively improve the quality of your recordings.
If you are right at the budget end, and just looking for a simple connection, take a look first at the Alesis GuitarLink Plus. This is as simple as it gets – a guitar-USB connector that is just plug and play. Perfect for PC and Mac. Works on an iPad with Apple’s USB adaptor. And for less than £20 actually comes with Guitar Rig LE software too. The GuitarLinkPlus has been so successful, Alesis have now launched AcousticLink Acoustic Guitar USB Interface which has a pickup for acoustic guitar, USB connection cable and Cubase LE recording software all in the box.
Many guitarists also want to be able to record vocals, so prefer to look for a device which will successfully record both guitar and mic. Fortunately there are plenty of dedicated interfaces available especially designed for guitar and microphone to USB recording and there is something to suit every budget.
All the USB audio interfaces that have guitar and mic input can be used to record guitar alongside a dynamic vocal mic. Look for devices which also have on-board phantom power if you want to use a condenser mic too or instead. These all-in-one devices offer great value because you need very little additional equipment to get started – just the device, a guitar cable, a decent microphone and then a pair of headphones or powered speakers and you’re away. The idea is they are all the computer hardware a guitarist needs to record guitar and vocals and most come with software too.
If you want to build a small guitar recording studio around a condenser mic, you’ll need to spend a bit more to get a device with phantom power and also the condenser mic will cost more too. As a suggestion, try combining the Alesis IO2Express with the Samson MTR101 or the M-Audio MTrack is also a good budget device .
Don’t forget, these devices bypass your built-in sound card to give a great result, but you will need to listen to them through headphones or powered speakers (monitors) , as the sound will no longer come out of your existing computer speakers. Newbies often plug them in, start recording, then contact me because they can’t hear anything! But the added benefit of buying one of these USB audio interfaces for recording your guitar and/or vocals is you can also set it up as your default audio output device (or sound card) so it gives your whole audio set-up on your computer a complete upgrade. Great for YouTube video and general music playback
Spending a bit more
We have looked at a couple of real budget solutions. What do you get if you spend more? Well you may want more inputs and outputs, more expensive devices often have a larger number of microphone inputs for example so you may have to consider how many things you want to record at once. And of course high end devices will have better analogue to digital conversion for a more pristine result. The old ‘you get what you pay for’ is true. On the other hand, if this is your first time out then you will find many of the sub £100 devices offer fantastic value and will get you up and running. Plus they have a great resale potential on eBay or Gumtree when you are ready to upgrade.
Another option is to use a microphone to record the output of your amp (in the case of electric guitarists), or your acoustic guitar. A dynamic microphone is usually the first choice if you want to record your amp. For real ease, choose a USB mic then you don’t have to worry about any other equipment. The Samson Q2U Recording Kit is a particularly good choice because you can use it either as a USB or a standard mic, and you can monitor what you’re doing with the headphones it comes with. Any of the devices we have already looked at that take a microphone as well will be just as good for this recording scenario. If you want to record your acoustic guitar then you should buy a condenser mic and an audio interface with phantom power – or consider a USB condenser mic such as the Samson C01U Studio Condenser USB Microphone.
More information about recording using a microphone can be found in our sister article on connecting a microphone to your computer .
Listening to the results
With all the above guitar recording solutions you can monitor your results using headphones , but sooner or later it is likely you will want to play your masterpieces to your friends and family. Again, dedicated speakers will greatly enhance your music making experience, and there are speakers at a range of price points which will work well whichever route you opt for.
Once you are getting a satisfactory recording from your guitar, then you will probably want to think about the best software for recording and then adding backing tracks, effects etc. There is lots of fantastic music making software around, some of it free or very low cost. Take a look at our article where we look at some entry level recording software. Most come with huge libraries of loops and riffs to help you create complete performances behind your killer guitar tracks.
If your main aim is to improve your playing then we think that it’s really worth giving guitar tuition software a go. Especially as you can get a whole course for the price of a couple of lessons. So much easier than just working through books.