Do You Need a Preamp to Record Guitar?


You may be a professional musician, or you may be just playing around with music and sounds at home. Either way, you’ve probably considered recording your music and sounds. At-home recording doesn’t have to be hard or expensive, even when it comes to recording guitar.

Do you need a preamp to record guitar? No, you don’t need a preamp to record guitar. Preamps boost the original sound of the guitar before feeding it into the amplifier and can produce higher levels of feedback and distortion. Unless you intentionally want the distorted guitar sounds (think Jimi Hendrix), you don’t need a preamp.

To help you make the most out of recording guitar, we’ll walk you through the basics of preamps and guitar recording, and let you know in detail why you don’t need a preamp to record guitar. Time to learn more about home recording!


All About Preamps and Recording Guitar


To help you make sense of preamps and recording guitar (and why you really don’t need a preamp to record guitar) we’re going to first take a look at the basics: what preamps are, what they’re used for, and why you might use a preamp in guitar recording.

Once you’ve got the basics down, we’ll walk you through the fun stuff: techniques for recording guitar at home. Let’s get into it!


What Are Preamps?


In order to know why you don’t need a preamp to record guitar, it’s probably helpful to know what preamps actually are.

The word “preamp” is short for preamplifier. Preamplifiers essentially do as their name signifies: they prepare the signal coming from a microphone or pickup for further amplification.

Preamps have one fundamental job: to take a weak signal (often mic-level signals) and boost it up to a line-level signal. Overall, preamps increase gain.

Okay, so what exactly is gain? There are some terms here you might not be familiar with. Simply put, gain is the level any given track is recorded at. This may also be referred to as the loudness of the audio.

The word preamp can also refer to two different things: the preamplifier circuit within a device, or an external device containing a preamplifier circuit. So, essentially, a preamp can be included in or independent from a device.

The important thing to remember with preamps and amplifiers in general is that they increase gain. Any time an amplifier is used in the signal path of the recording process, it’s referred to as a “gain stage.”

Whenever there’s a gain stage, the volume of the signal is boosted so that it’s useful for the next device in the signal chain.

Something to think about with preamps is that they’re not just a “solve-all” that will help with any type of audio; preamps just help you get more out of the audio you already have. Think of preamps as more of “icing on the cake” to audio you’re recording.


Internal Preamps


Preamps can be hidden just about anywhere, and you may not even realize it! Preamps are built into mixers, USB microphones, audio interfaces, and even some sound cards.

This is extremely useful because preamps are necessary for just about any sound source (although, like you read, they aren’t totally necessary for recording guitar).


External Preamps


You’re probably wondering why anyone would need an external preamp when preamps are already built into so many audio devices.

While you may not need an external preamp, especially for recording guitar, they have differences from internal preamps and also provide some benefits that internal preamps don’t.

External preamps are exactly what they sound like: they’re a preamp that isn’t already built into an existing audio device like a mixer or audio interface.

External preamps can improve the quality of your sound quite a lot, even more so than internal preamps can. They can also provide more sound variety, add more character to the sound, and offer more gain (which is especially important when it comes to lower sounds).

The more professional and ‘nerdy’ you get about your end sound the more you may feel the pull and desire of buying external pre-amps.


Other Types of Preamps


When it comes to preamps, there aren’t just internal and external ones; we can break these categories down even further.

Since internal preamps are already built into audio devices, there aren’t really different types of them; rather, there are different types of devices they’re housed in.

There are quite a few different types of external preamps, however. Just so you can get a better idea about preamps and what they can do, let’s take a look at some of the other types of preamps.


Transparent Preamps


Transparent preamps help produce the sounds of instruments and voices as clearly (or transparent) as possible without altering the fundamental tone or timbre of the instruments or voices.

Those who work to record sounds like classical performances and acoustic instruments may prefer to use transparent preamps in the recording process to make the sounds as clear and crisp as possible.


Preamps That Add Color


Preamps that add color are on the other end of the spectrum from transparent preamps. Where transparent preamps focus on making the sound more clear, preamps that add color do just as they seem: they add color to the sounds.

Color… in sounds? How is that possible? When we refer to adding color in sound, we’re referring to really enriching the overall sound, tone, and timbre of the audio. Preamps that add color will make audio sound more over the top or intimate, depending on how they’re used.


Tube Preamps


Tube preamps are a type of preamps that use vacuum tubes to create gain. This type of preamp can color audio pretty significantly! Tube preamps are often used to add deep bass, airy highs, and warm midrange presence.

With tube preamps, as the signal level increases, the tube creates some mild distortion. This distortion results in the different types of color that can be added to the audio.


Benefits of Using Preamps


You don’t need a preamp to record guitar (which we’ll get into shortly), but preamps still have benefits that can be taken into consideration.

Keep in mind that, as we discussed, there are essentially two main types of preamps: internal and external preamps. We’ll discuss a few benefits of each of them.

Those who use preamps in the recording process can expect some benefits like:

  • Being able to record lower noise and quiet sources
  • Getting a special “flavor” of sound like the 70’s vintage feel or 60’s style tube sound
  • More gain
  • Better sound quality

So, while you don’t need a preamp to record guitar, you may consider using one for other audio sources during your recording. You may also consider using a preamp if you want to tweak or distort the sound of your guitar.


Why You Don’t Need a Preamp to Record Guitar


By now you know that preamps help increase the gain of audio. This is great for recording lower noise and microphone signals that operate below the normal operating level (therefore needing more gain).

However, when it comes to sounds like a guitar, not much gain is needed – and that’s the main reason you don’t need a preamp to record guitar.

To put this into perspective, microphone signals need anywhere from 30-60 dB of gain, but guitars only need 20-30 dB of gain – and that’s only if you prefer your guitar recording to have gain.

When using a preamp to record guitar, the preamp will create higher levels of distortion and feedback.

Those who are recording guitar typically don’t want those higher levels of distortion and feedback unless they’re trying to create the distorted sounds like those of rock legends Jimi Hendrix and Jimmy Page.

Additionally, it’s important to keep in mind that preamps are still hidden internally in a lot of audio devices, like mixers and audio interfaces. So, while you may not be using an external preamp, you may be using an internal preamp (sometimes without even realizing it). That’s something to make sure to pay attention to as you record guitar audio.

So, all in all, you don’t need a preamp to record guitar, but you may want one depending on the sound you’re attempting to produce.


Recording Guitar at Home


At this point, you know all about preamps and why you don’t need one in order to record guitar. That’s great, but maybe you’re curious for a little more – like how to actually record guitar at home.

Preamps or no preamps, we’re going to walk you through some of the most basic steps of recording guitar at home.

You likely know that you’ll need an equipment setup in order to record just about anything at home. You’ve also probably seen some crazy intricate setups with gear everywhere, some you might not even know the name of.

The good news is, thanks to improvements in technology, you can record guitar at home and get the same (if not higher) quality with just a basic setup! That means you can start recording and making great sounds with less gear, and therefore, less money. Who can argue with that?


The Basic Gear to Start Recording Guitar


To start recording guitar, you’re going to need a basic setup as we talked about. But what exactly does that entail?

To start recording guitar at home, you’re going to need the following gear:

  • An audio interface that allows your guitar to connect to your computer
  • A microphone (not totally necessary for electric guitars, but necessary for acoustic guitars)
  • A Digital Audio Workstation – the software used to record and mix your audio
  • Plugins – software used with the Digital Audio Workstation to apply guitar effects and add other virtual sounds and effects
  • Monitors and headphones
  • Your guitar!

To put it bluntly, all you really need to start recording guitar at home is a way to plug your guitar into your computer and software to record it with. If you’re looking to record the sounds of an acoustic guitar, all you need is a microphone and software. Don’t forget that, naturally, you’re also going to need your guitar so you can produce sounds.


Techniques for Recording Electric Guitar


First, we’re going to start with techniques for recording electric guitar. If you’re looking to record acoustic guitar, skip down to the next section.

As an overview, we’re going to be discussing three techniques:

  • Recording directly from your guitar to an audio interface
  • Recording by connecting your guitar to your amp
  • Recording the sound of your amp with a microphone

Let’s get into all the details.


Record Directly from Your Guitar to an Audio Interface


To record the sound of your guitar directly to your audio interface, you’ll first need to start by connecting the audio interface to your computer. Make sure to follow any directions from the audio interface’s manufacturer to get everything properly connected!

Next, connect your guitar (using a guitar lead audio cable) directly to the instrument input on the audio interface.

It’s important to research the type of audio cable you need; you want the cable to properly fit and work with your guitar.

As a side note, you might not like the sound that’s being produced at first, and that’s okay, because that’s where your software comes in. You can enhance the signal coming directly into the audio interface by playing around with your plugins and your software.

After you’ve recorded the audio of your guitar, you can keep playing around with and enhancing the sound. You can add distortion, delay, chorus – the options are limitless. Therefore, you can really do whatever you want to do with your guitar audio!

Below is a screenshot from Ableton live showing the selection of effects you can add to a clean guitar sound.


Here is a quick recording of a clean acoustic guitar directly into an audio interface with no effects:


And then here is exactly the same clip with some effects added, see what you can do without needing to buy lots of expensive amps and equipment. Yes, the audiophiles will tell you it’s not the same but it’s a start:


Record by Connecting Your Guitar to Your Amp


In this technique, you can record guitar by connecting your guitar to your amp, then connecting your amp’s line output to the line input of your audio interface.

Wait, what? That seems a little intricate. To put it more simply, you’ll connect your guitar to your amp, then connect your amp to your audio interface. This method simply has another connection than the first method we discussed.

To use this technique, you’ll need to make sure you have the correct audio cables to connect your guitar to your amp and to connect your amp to your audio interface.

To start, you’ll simply need to connect the appropriate cables and start recording guitar in the software you prefer.

It’s also important to note that if you use this technique, you’ll have three different volumes to control: your guitar, the amp, and the audio interface. You may need to spend some time tweaking the volumes to get everything right, and it’s important that you do so!

This method is handy if you really like the sounds of your guitar amp but don’t want to mess around buying microphones or trying to get the acoustics of the room to sound right.

Note you will probably still need to add some effects such as reverb in your DAW because the sound from the amp using a line-out will lack the realistic live sound you get if you were listening to the amp in a live setting.


Record the Sound of Your Amp With a Microphone


The last technique we’ll discuss for recording guitar is recording the actual sound of your amp with a microphone.

If you like the actual sound of your guitar through your amp, this technique is probably going to be your favorite.

When it comes to this technique, you can use either a dynamic mic or a condenser mic. A dynamic microphone will be able to deal with loud sounds better and so if you are recording distorted or heavier guitars this is probably your best option. If you are recording a softer, cleaner guitar a condenser microphone will capture more detail and so is worth considering.

To get the best sound to be recorded, place your mic anywhere between 2 and 12 inches from the cabinet. Make sure your mic is pointed towards the center of the amp’s speakers.

That’s just about it – once you’ve got your microphone properly placed, you can begin playing and recording!

For more tips on recording guitars check out this detailed article or for recording distorted guitars specifically check out this one.


Techniques for Recording Acoustic Guitar


The techniques for recording acoustic guitar are a bit different than the techniques for recording electric guitar because of the difference between the two instruments.

If you want a full article on the subject click here, but I’ll also give a quick summary here.

When it comes to recording acoustic guitar, we’re doing to be discussing two (of the many) techniques:

  • Recording using a condenser mic and audio interface
  • Recording using a USB microphone


Record Using a Condenser Mic and Audio Interface


For this technique, you’ll need a large-diaphragm condenser microphone, an audio interface, and (of course) your acoustic guitar.

Large-diaphragm condenser microphones are good for recording acoustic guitars because they can pick up all the depth in the guitar’s tone.

To get started, you’ll need to place the microphone about 3 feet away from your acoustic guitar. Make sure it’s pointed directly at the sound hole. Then you’re set to play and record!

A few things to keep in mind with this technique are that you may hear some “booming” from your guitar. If this happens, you’ll need to adjust the microphone so it points more toward the neck of the guitar rather than the sound hole.

You’ll also want to keep in mind that any sounds in the room you’re recording can be picked up – and that’s something you’ll need to be aware of when you’re planning on recording.


Record Using a USB Microphone


This technique for recording acoustic guitar is great for anyone who is recording on a budget. It’s a low-cost option!

For this technique, you’ll really just need a high-quality USB microphone, a microphone stand, and your acoustic guitar.

To get started, simply set up your USB microphone according to manufacturer instructions, try to position your microphone 3 feet away from your guitar and facing the sound hole, and begin playing/recording!




So to conclude. Pre-amplifiers are everywhere and you may not even have noticed. They are built into audio-interfaces and even some microphones boosting signals when required. But do you need to buy a stand alone one for recording guitar? I don’t think so, and certainly not until you are at an advanced stage where you are getting geeky about your guitar sound. To start with just concentrate on writing good music and use the amazing tools available for cheap in DAW software and you will be just fine.

Rob Wreglesworth

Rob has come to terms with the fact he will probably never be a famous rock star....but that hasn't stopped him from writing and recording music in his home studio. Rob has over 15 years experience of recording music at home.

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