Sometimes genius strikes you when you least expect it, and you have to rush home and crank out that tune in your head before you lose it completely. However, it can feel likes ages before you get to recording when you have to go through the tedious routine setting up the mic (or multiple mics) in front of the amp and sound checking the whole rig multiple times till it’s perfect. By that point, that genius may have completely abandoned you all together. To avoid this scenario, it is extremely useful to learn how to record guitar without the need for an amplifier.
How do you record guitar without an amp? Recording without an amp can be done with the use of audio interfaces, direct boxes, and amplifier simulator software. You plug a line in from your guitar directly to whichever you plan to use.
Having dabbled with these alternative options, I would highly recommend learning how to record without the use of an amp. Not just to avoid the painstakingly long process of setting up your amp & mic recording set up, but because of the endless amount of variety and musical changes at your disposal with a non-amp recording set up.
Pros and Cons of Recording Without an Amplifier
There is so much more latitude given when recording without an amplifier than recording with. Here are just a few key reasons it is may be the better move for your guitar recording needs.
- Plug & Play – when you record straight into an audio interface, or through a direct box, you don’t have to spend all that time mic’ing up your amp and checking the levels to make it perfect. With no amplifier, you can just plug your guitar line in, and play.
- Tone is changeable – When you record through a D.I box or straight into an audio interface instead of an amplifier, you’ll be able to change the tone and settings of the sound recorded easily.
- No Interference – sometimes when recording into an amp, you can catch interference of other instruments while recording (or even buzzing from other electrics). However, when plugging straight into an audio interface, there is no risk of sound interference – we’re only catching the sound of our guitar.
- Noise Control – when recording or playing with an amp in general, you are limited in how much sound you can make without totally disturbing your neighbors. The digital version of recording sans amps means you can plug your guitar into your interface, open up your amp simulator software, start recording, and crank up your headphones as loud as you want and totally jam out, without having the cops called on you.
- Direct Sound – sometimes when recording, you don’t even desire that thicker, amplified sound. Sometimes you want a sound to be face forward, direct, and at the front of your speakers. There is no better way to achieve this than without the use of a mic, and instead, through a D.I box or directly into an interface.
- Lacks Pure Sound Quality – the downside to recording without an amplifier, is that the actual sound of the recording is lower quality than using a mic and amp set up. Sometimes, depending on whether you are using a D.I box or just an interface, and barring whether or not those items run off phantom power or not (and if you’re running a passive or active instrument), you could experience some sort of clipping sounds during recording. This can occur when the D.I box or interface isn’t well paired with the type of active/passive instruments you’re using. This problem aside, the sound quality can end up sounding harsher, or in some instances even like a totally different instrument (i.e., your guitar sounding so plucky that it people would think it’s a banjo.) If you prefer to record in such a way that you don’t need to heavily change or edit your guitar recording, and if you like a pure, crisp and clean sound, recording without an amp may not be your bag.
- Risk of Latency – when recording without an amplifier, and relying solely on digital software, you can run into some latency problems.
What is Latency? And Why Does that Effect the Way I Record my Guitar?
Latency is the delay caused by the internal processing of a digital signal inside a computer. This means the signal can give feedback (as in, repeat the sound being played, back to the player.) Have you ever been on a phone call, and all of the sudden you can hear everything you’re saying being said back to you, just a hair later than you said it? It is totally jarring and off putting and makes it very difficult to continue talking. The same is true for latency on a computer when recording guitar without an amp.
This can be avoided by making sure you buy a decent audio interface.
Pros and Cons of Recording With an Amplifier
To play devil’s advocate here, let’s talk about reasons you may not want to record without the use of an amplifier.
- Sound Quality – some argue that the sound quality of recording with a microphone and an amplifier makes for a much purer sound. The romantic musician in us all may like to believe the live quality cannot be replaced or replicated.
- Capturing the room – although as I’ll come onto there are many digital solutions to this, sometimes replicating the sounds of a room, from the echo to the reverb can be hard to do without an amp. Recording with an amp and microphone can capture the room sound too if that is something you desire.
- Time Intensive – it can take a long time to set up your microphone properly next to your desired amplifier (though I recommend using two different kinds of mics to pick up your amp sound, which obviously then requires even more time.) Checking your levels of the mics and the amps can take anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour. If you have song your burning to record, this can be pretty annoying (unless you are able to keep your mics and amps set up in a more permanent situation, where you are able to just plug in and record at the drop of a hat.)
- Less Latitude to Change Sound in Post – unlike recording with an interface or D.I box, you cannot as easily retroactively change the tone of the amp in your recording software. The challenge of working with an amp is that you have to play the exact tones and style you want in the recording live, as the sound won’t sound as good when you try to tweak it in post.
Options For Recording Without an Amp
Depending on the type of guitar you’ll be using (whether it’s an acoustic, acoustic-electric, electric, or bass guitar) will depend on the type of equipment set up you need to record your guitar lines without the use of an amplifier. The type of sound you are trying to achieve also determines the type of equipment to invest in. If you are an Ed Sheeran type, you’ll want to invest in high quality microphones, pre-amp pedals, loop pedals, and interfaces and editing software.
If you are in a band whose sound is more electric or gritty, you will probably want to use a D.I box or an interface paired with an amplifier simulator software.
1- Microphone and acoustic guitar
When recording the clean sound of acoustic guitar or even an acoustic electric, sometimes all that is required is a high-quality microphone. Whether you are plugging that microphone directly into your computer, or channeling that microphone through an interface, a simpler, softer sound (like an acoustic) does not require all the pre-amp, post-amplifier technology, and software.
Here are some excellent, high-quality microphones I’d recommend using for acoustic guitar recording (all under $500.)
- Shure SM81 – This is, without a doubt one of the most popular mics on the market, and for good reason. It’s been considered an industry standard for decades thanks to its incredibly uniformed frequency response – which means that its off-axis patterning is super minimal. This mic helps compensate for the natural nearness effect that occurs when recording a guitar with an up-close mic. This is usually priced around $350.
- AKG Perception 170 – This is an excellent example of a great microphone for under $100 (that doesn’t stink.) If you read the comments and user reviews, you’ll notice that it has even higher customer ratings than most other microphones in its category… and it’s usually around $80. That’s crazy! If you are on a budget, this is the perfect mic for you, because it’s sound quality is so wonderful, and you can use the rest of your money you’ve saved up for other important in home studio items (like a rad DAW system or interface).
- SHURE KSM141 – This superior Shure design is capable of omnidirectional recording thanks to its omnidirectional condenser design. Typically, true omni condensor mics are usually in the thousands of dollars to purchase. But this one is typically priced near $400, which is a great price for such technology. One common user complaint to be aware of, however, is that the capsules in the mic are easily breakable (which is no good.)
- Rhode NT2A – the Rhode NT2A is a great option for larger diaphragm condenser mics. This is especially ideal for acoustic guitar recording. For the high-quality large diaphragm design, and the price point, you really can’t beat this mic option. This is definitely the microphone for the singer-songwriter, as it doubles as an appropriate vocal mic as well. Its price is usually comparable to the Shure.
- Blue Microphone Yeti Pro – Most people are skeptical of a USB microphone (and for good reason). When they first came out on the market, they just were not very good. However, this Blue 1967 is the exception. This mic combines the ease of the USB input with the high-quality sound of a professional studio microphone. Blue mics are also notoriously good, in general. Perhaps the best thing about this particular microphone is that it offers dual-channel recording, like the Rhode NT2A… but without the need for an audio interface. Pretty rad. And about half the price of the Rhode or Shure.
Interfaces are the best way to record your guitar directing into your recording software, without having to fuss with an amp (and the poor-quality sound of an amp.) There are also so many recording interfaces on the market these days, and all range in price, so you can find an affordable interface that will help you achieve that sound clarity you desire and the ability to.
You can then either record clean guitar into your DAW software and add effects later, or you can use amp simulator software to add the effects immediately.
There are some top of the line guitar and recording software that come with really rad presets that will completely change up your recording game. The most positive aspect of a guitar specific software is that its focus is solely on perfecting the sound of your guitar, and specializing in sound presets and tracks that will optimize your guitar playing.
- Guitar Rig 5 Pro – Comes with an Elements recording package. Lots of fun presents from ACDC sounding electric guitar, to more bluegrass type sound twangy guitar sounds. Guitar Rig 5 Pro has17 amps, 27 different cabinets, and 54 effect presets. Expect to pay $100.
- AmpliTube 4 – Has really awesome reverb and fuzzy/out their tone and present setting options. Comes free with an interface. Slightly more user friendly, due to the GATE option, and you can position the ‘software’ microphones in the program how you would if you were a musician in real life adjusting a mic while recording your guitar. It comes with a ton of effects and great presets, my favorite being the ‘modern rock lead.’ It also now comes a ‘hyper realistic cab room, which is pretty sweet. Similar price point to the Guitar Rig
- Positive Grid’s Bias – Strangely, the grittier sounding tones were way more well developed when amplifier sims first came out, so most other amp sims sort of neglected the clean tone. However, this is where Positive Grid Bias really outshines the other amplifier simulator software. PGB has a really crisp, clear “clean” tone option that the other amp sims just can’t quite compare to. PGB comes with thousands of custom amps, pedals and effects. Price can range depending on where and when you buy it.
- Line 6 Amp Farm 4.0 – This amp sim software features sound models based on classic Marshal, Fender, Vox, and many other amps. It has 48 different cab models and four different mic setups. Also, its setting and pre-sets are 100% compatible with ProTools. The most expensive option.
- Ampire XT Estension – An extension pack like this is an awesome option if you’re looking to save a buck, but still want that freedom to record without an amp (and make effect changes in post.) It offers 11 different guitar amplifiers, 9 different guitar cabinets, and other cool presets. It is obviously more limited in what it offers – but for the price comparison, if you’re just looking for some simple presets, this could be ideal for you and your home system.
3 – Reamping & D.I Equipment
Before I get into what a direct box is, I need to explain what the process of ‘reamping’ a guitar means. Reamping is a process that has two stages. The first stage is recording a clean track on your guitar, and the second stage is then sending that recorded track back through your amps and effects.
What are the Benefits of Reamping?
The old method of recording involved a guitar player playing the same song and notes for hours while the technicians behind the glass pulled and pushed nozzles to change the tone and sound live, to perfect the sound as it was happening. While this is kind of a group effort, and a magical process at that, it is an exhausting process.
The perks of reamping, is that you are able to record a guitar track in the raw, and do all the mixing in post-production instead of in real time. This saves the guitarists fingers, and it allows the mixers to really curate the sound in new, remarkable ways.
What are Reamps and Direct Boxes? How do they Differ?
The difference between a reamp and a direct box can be confusing. However, it has a lot to do with the way each respective item can control, import, and export sound, and at what level of frequency (and whether they are active or passive.) But essentially, they do a reverse process from each other.
While a D.I box takes high impedance sound and converts it to low, a Reamp does the opposite (converts low to high.) Also, a reamp is an active box with a balanced line. Whereas the passive D.I box, for example, is on an unbalanced guitar line.
Many people have inquired as to whether they even need a reamp – can’t you just use your passive D.I box in reverse? And while this notion is really quite clever, it is not correct. The way a D.I box works (and I explain it in better detail below) is that it transforms the volume of sound from your instrument down to microphone level. If you were to reverse the D.I box, it instead turns UP the signal and sound of your instrument. This will, unfortunately, result in a lot of clipping and harsh, extremely loud guitar recordings (which you do not want.)
A reamp is a box specifically made to convert a line level signal to a signal that can then be sent to a guitar amp (or other interface.) Your reamp box takes low impedance sound, through a balanced guitar line and re-channels the signal into a high impedance, and now unbalanced instrument level signal. A reamp box is meant to amplify sound in the exact same way a live amp can, but through a pre-recorded audio interface and through software.
If you want a really clear cut video explanation of reamping, look no further than this video here. (produced by Radial Engineering, who is one of the leading, industry level reamp companies.)
A direct box converts high-impedance unbalanced instrument signals into a low- impedance mic signal. The guitar line, instead of going into an amp, goes straight into what’s called a D.I box (direct injection box). So the guitar lead goes into the input jack of the D.I box. Then there’s an XLR line (like what you use for a microphone) that will be plugged into the output jack of the D.I box, which plugs into the interface, and ultimately your computer program.
A D.I box is an ideal method to use when you know that you’ll want to change the tone, clarity, or sound of the guitar recording later. Maybe you want more drive, grit, or sustain. In this case, the D.I box lends itself to post-production better (whereas the amp gives immediate gratification at the exact time of recording by letting you hear the quality of guitar you want at that moment.)
There are two types of D.I boxes. Active and passive boxes. Active D.I’s require phantom power (which you’ll be deriving through the audio interface) to power a pre-amp. Active D.I has a pre-amp that boosts the signal.
Typically if you have a passive instrument, you’ll want to use an active direct box. Similarly, if you have an active instrument, you’ll ideally want to use a passive direct box. However, there are certain brands of D.I boxes (like the Radial J48 Active) that accommodates both active and passive instruments. I would recommend this particular D.I box as it is an industry standard and that way you don’t have to buy two different kinds of direct boxes to record within your home studio.
Determining Whether an Instrument is Active or Passive?
Typically if your guitar or bass uses a battery, then it has a built in pre-amp, which makes it an active instrument (which would use a passive D.I box.) Conversely, if your guitar or bass uses traditional guitar pickups without the use of a battery pack, then your instrument is a passive instrument (and would require an active D.I box.)
Recommended D.I Boxes
- Hughes & Kettner Red Box 5 – this direct box comes with excellent authentic cabinet emulation, and it has filters that can sound-shape. Usually around $125.
- REDDI Tube Active DI Box – This active DI box is the real deal, though its price point can be an obvious deterent. However, this direct box colors sound unlike any other D.I box can. It can reproduce the sound of such classic amps like Ampeg B15, and it works especially well with bass guitars. It is also capable of being used with electric guitars, keyboards, and drums. It also has extremely high ratings from customers and DI experts. Expect to pay around $800.
- Radial Pro D1 Passive Direct Box – this passive DI box is a top pick for a lot fousers, and is reasonably priced as well. It is superior in its impedance conversions, and offers low distortion. It also comes with an XLR input. You can also guarantee vrituall no phase distortion, which makes it an excellent choice for your home studio, and for a non-amp recording option. Similar in price to the Hughes & Kettner
Have Any Successful Songs Been Recorded Without the Use of Any Amps or Amp Sims?
Yes! In fact, some of the most famous bands of all time, like The Beatles and Led Zeppelin recorded some of their greatest hits without amps or amp presets of any kind. Led Zeppelin’s “Black Dog” was created by playing guitar straight into a desk, and then through two vintage compressors. The Beatles “Revolution” song was created with a D.I box. In fact, a large collection of Motown songs were recorded with direct guitar (no amp.)
Key Take Away?
Modern music-making technology has come a long, long way. You are no longer limited to only the sounds your live instrument can produce… you now have access to hundreds of thousands of music presents that can change the sound of every recording you make. While the sound quality of a microphone and amplifier set up produces high-quality sound, it is a time-suck to set up and perfect to ensure the quality of sound is indeed premium.
Amp-less guitar recording has made leaps and bounds, and the use of D.I boxes, audio interfaces, and amplifier simulator programs make recording without an amp easier, and more exciting due to the amount of options you have at your disposal for enhancing the post-production of your guitar recording. The connection line from your guitar to an interface into your computer is also incredibly user friendly, to the point where there’s really no reason not to give it a go.