Computer Recording for The Guitar Player- Part One | B&H Photo Video Pro Audio
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Computer Recording for the Guitar Player- Part One

By Tony Wilson

Besides the instrument itself, the most important aspects of recording guitar or bass to a computer are the analog-to-digital conversion, and the tone or sound produced. The conversion is accomplished with an audio interface. The higher the quality of this conversion, the more accurately the natural sound of your instrument will be captured and reproduced. This conversion can be made quite "elegantly" with a good-quality, general-purpose audio interface, but for the purpose of this article I will concentrate on some offerings designed with guitar (or bass) in mind. 

These interface packages bundle software and/or plug-ins made specifically for guitar or bass with an audio interface featuring the appropriate guitar/bass inputs. Many plug-ins use modeling technology to replicate the sounds of various amplifier/speaker combinations, distinguishing them from the "general use" audio interfaces, and provide the player with the other crucial aspect of the process, the tone or sound of the instrument. A few of the most inexpensive options for guitar interface packages are the Behringer Guitar Link UCG102, The IK Multimedia StealthPlug, The Line 6 POD Studio GX, Native Instruments Guitar Rig Mobile and Cakewalk Guitar Tracks Pro 4 USB all under $150.

The Behringer is the lowest-cost, most basic option covered here. It is a small USB 1.1 interface with a ¼-inch guitar input, and a ¼-inch stereo headphone output that can also be connected to a monitor. A built-in USB cable then sends signal directly to your computer for recording 16-bit to 48kHz and processing with the bundled software. Energy XT2.5 BEHRINGER Edition is included for recording, Native Instruments' 'Guitar Combos' amp-modeling plug-ins (30-day trials of three, choose one for free) for processing, and Audacity for editing. This package features basic hardware and a basic software package.

The IK Multimedia StealthPlug bundle is also quite cost effective. It has a ¼-inch input on one end and USB 1.1 on the other, and records at 16-bit 44.1 or 48kHz. It features an arrowhead-shaped plastic section near the 1/4-inch side, which houses a stereo 1/8-inch headphone output, volume control, and a green "USB active" LED. The StealthPlug is bundled with AmpliTube 2 Live, standalone and plug-in versions. AmpliTube features 15 guitar and bass amp models, 11 effects, mic modeling, a built-in tuner and over 128 custom user presets.

The standalone version also features SpeedTrainer, a really useful audio player with pitch and speed control that can assist you in learning your favorite guitar parts. The package also includes Tracktion (audio/midi sequencer), T-RackS 3 EQ (6 band mastering EQ), SampleTank 2 SE Sound Workstation, plus access to 500MB of Sonic Reality audio loops. This package features basic hardware and a really complete, varied software package.

The Line 6 POD Studio GX is a small single-input, low-latency USB recording interface bundled with the Pod Farm Plug-in. The interface is quite easy to use and features a single ¼-inch input, a 1/8" headphone/line output, and a volume knob. The Pod Farm plug-in features over 80 guitar amps, bass amps, stompboxes and preamps—capable of delivering to you most any tone or sound you can imagine. The hardware also separates itself from the pack with a high signal-to-noise ratio and the ability to monitor a processed tone while recording a dry signal, which means you're free to audition tones until you're ready to mix. This package includes simple—but quite capable—hardware, and a focused, comprehensive software package.

The Native Instruments Guitar Rig Mobile is an ultra-compact, bus-powered USB 2.0 audio interface. The package features Guitar Rig 4 Essential Amp modeling software and award-winning 24-bit/192 kHz Cirrus Logic converters, perhaps the highest-quality converters of these lower-cost bundles. As far as connectivity, it includes one instrument input and one ¼-inch stereo output. The unit is about the size of a pack of cigarettes, there are dials for the levels, and the input LED turns red if you clip the signal.

The included software package includes 8 amps for guitar or bass, 19 cabinets and 27 effects, providing the player with quite a varied palate of classic tones to work with. You get: Dynamic Effects—volume adjustment pedal, stomp compressor, noise gate; Filters—auto filter, real wah, graphic equalizer; Time Based Effects—studio reverb, delay man; Modulation Effects—chorus/flanger, phaser nine;  and Distortion and Overdrive—skreamer, demon. The software expands its functionality by including helpful tools such as 2 onboard tape decks, a tuner, a graphic EQ and a metronome.

Cakewalk Guitar Tracks Pro is a multi-track recording and editing package designed for guitarists and bassists. Its approach emphasizes ease of use, and gives you the option of adding virtual bandmates with programmable drums, bass, keys, and strings—built in. The package includes loads of effects, great editing capabilities, CD burning software, notation, and the ability to record and mix up to 32 audio tracks and 64 virtual instrument tracks. It works with Windows XP, Vista, and Windows 7.

Guitar Tracks Pro 4 ships with several instructional videos with industry heavy hitters such as Joe Bonamassa, Dave Mustaine (Metallica), and Jimmy Herring (the Allman Brothers, the Dead, Widespread Panic)  sharing some of their vast knowledge of anything guitar related.

The included drum parts were played by some of the best drummers in the business, including John Blackwell (Justin Timberlake, Prince), Jerry Marotta (Paul McCartney, Peter Gabriel), Nick D'Virgilio (Genesis, Tears for Fears), Ed Greene (Steely Dan, Barry White) and Danny Gottlieb (Sting, Pat Metheny Group).

The package also includes Cakewalk Publisher so that you can share your music online, Virtual Amp to carve out your tone, Virtual Drummer, Bassist and Electric Piano and String Highlights for parts you play or pre-recorded accompaniment, and much more.

The UA-1G interface included with the package is a compact USB digital audio interface. It features a 1/4″ jack with Hi-Z option for recording guitar and 24-bit/96kHz Stereo I/O for playback. This package features the most complete software of the hardware/software bundles and one of the more basic audio interfaces.

If the budget for your setup is a bit higher, there are many more-expensive interface options. The Native Instruments Guitar Rig Session, the IK Multimedia Stealth Pedal, the Apogee Gio, the Line 6 PODxt Live, the Line 6 BASS PODxt LIVE, the Digitech GNX4 and Digidesigns Eleven Rack are all worth consideration. I will cover options for larger budgets in a future article.

Although many of these options include decent recording software, many may want to upgrade the lower end programs bundled for recording to (at least) reduced cost lite versions of industry standard recording software (If not the full versions). If this becomes a career for a beginner, it will be advantageous to have spent your time learning software that is commonly used in studios worldwide.

Logic Express (Mac only), Ableton Live Intro, Cubase Essential, Pro Tools M-Powered Essential and Cakewalk Guitar Tracks Pro 4 (PC only) are all "lite" versions of industry standard software and are my suggestions in place of or in addition to some of the bundled recording/sequencing packages. All these packages are available for direct purchase except Pro Tools essentials which is available only as a package bundled with specific M-Audio hardware such as the new M-Audio Fast track.

 Logic Express is quite a bit more full featured than Garageband but lacks a few of the features found in the flagship Logic Studio 9. The user experience is however quite similar to that of Logic Studio 9. Some of the high end features are Flex Time (a collection of features that lets you manipulate timing and tempo of audio) and Drum Replacer. For guitarists/bassists you get Amp Designer (25 amps, 25 speaker cabinets, and 3 mics), Pedalboard (30 effects stompboxes),  notation, chord grids (tablature) and hundreds of presets which give you Amp Designer and Pedalboard classic sounds that are instantly ready to go. You also get over 1200 royalty free loops, 2500 plug-in presets and over 1000 sampled instruments. It is often quite easy to forget you are using the lite version of this software. In my opinion Logic Express feels more like a full version than any other "lite" version software package.

 Live Intro replaces Live LE in the Ableton product line and represents new ways of thinking about audio recording and sequencing. It is full featured, quite "Live" performance friendly and cost effective to boot. Live Intro allows you to utilize up to 64 audio and unlimited MIDI tracks, and supports audio of up to 32-bit/192kHz. A 7GB library of sounds is included, and those new to Live will appreciate the comprehensive built in tutorials and Live set templates.

Cubase LE is quite close the full Cubase 5 software, and utilizes the same interface and audio engine. New features for this version include HALion One, which contains almost 240 instrument sounds, Beat Designer and the PitchCorrect plug-in. This is an entry level application but one can easily do professional work in it.

Pro Tools M-Powered Essential gives you access to many of the same Pro Tools software features that are included in the full version. It is easy-to-use and lets you create mixes with up to 16 mono or stereo audio tracks. You also get 60+ virtual instrument sounds and effects including built-in SansAmp classic guitar amp modeling and distortion effects. It even comes with over 5.5GB of music-making tools including 3GB of Loops to play along with.

With all of the options above you can use headphones to monitor while tracking and for playback. Ultimately you are going to want a pair of good studio monitors but what is suggested above will surely get you started.

In closing I'd like to mention a few things to look out for. Before purchasing your hardware/software system, read the minimum requirements suggested by the manufacturer for your computer. If you use a Macintosh, any Intel based machine will likely run all of the software mentioned above without any special configuration. Choosing and configuring a PC is sometimes a bit trickier. Make sure to do a bit more research before your purchase.

When you play your guitar into your interface, the initial sound is analog. When you hear that sound in the headphones or monitors, that sound is also analog. Everything that occurs in between is digital and takes time to occur. The time it takes for an analog signal to be fed into an interface, be converted to digital at the interface, be sent up the USB cable to the computer, be processed by the software layers and sent back to the interface to be converted back to analog (so you can hear it) is referred to as latency and is usually measured in milliseconds.

Finally, if you are a beginner, I cannot over stress how helpful a great teacher can be. Get out there and find yourself one. Have fun, and stay tuned.


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