Recording Guitars: Using a USB Audio Interface


Electric guitar is an extremely versatile instrument that’s fun to play and has a wide variety of genres and styles that it fits into. Even more eclectic is the guitar playing community with hundreds of thousands of players worldwide – each with their own playing style, inspirations, and experience. But what I’ve found over the years is that regardless of any of those things, guitarists share the same passion for sharing their music with those around them. They’re a creative bunch – just like every other musician and creative occupation.

As a result of this desire to share their work, many guitarists today are seeking out ways to record their music at home. By recording their own guitar parts without the need for a full-fledged studio, guitarists can unlock a whole slew of opportunities while becoming more dexterous at their craft and building new skills that they can leverage for years to come.

Just think about all the things you can do when you’ve got a good recording rig to work with… Not just the basic things like recording a single take and sharing it with others, but the things like multi-tracking guitar layers, producing music around your guitar playing, and accessing all the digital-exclusive effects and amps available in-the-box.

It’s a lot to aspire to; fortunately, the setup is simpler than ever. 

The Basics 

Even the simplest audio interfaces today give musicians a way to record instruments directly, making the requirements list short:

  • A computer
  • A digital audio workstation
  • An audio interface
  • A ¼” Cable
  • A guitar

You could also add some monitors, headphones, and/or 3rd party virtual guitar rig like your favorite Toneforge plugin, but they’re optional – the above list will get you off the ground with recording your guitar playing.

Picking the Right Interface

There are many USB interface options on the market today that offer 2-channel recording for under $250, with the lower end of the quality range bottoming out around $100.

If you’re on a tight budget and need to keep your spending on the lower end of that range, stick with the popular names like Focusrite and Presonus and you can’t go wrong. Spending on the higher end of that range will open the door to some premium options like SSL and Audient, as well as additional features and more channels from Focusrite, Presonus, and other brands. 

Pricing continues to climb from there with an interface for any budget – there are some 2-channel interfaces on the market fetching $1,000 or more, though the quality improvement they offer won’t likely justify the extra cost to anyone just getting started. Find an option that fits your budget, make sure it’s compatible with your computer’s operating system, and you’re good to go! 

Hooking Things Up

While recording can be a big, complex process of signal routing and mic placement, one of the benefits of recording your guitar directly into an interface is that you can cut all that extra effort out. If it’s your first time tracking, you’ll want to hook your interface up to your computer before anything else and make sure you’ve got all the drivers you need. A bunch of options today are considered plug-and-play, though some will ask that you visit their site to install some supporting software.

Once your computer recognizes your interface, plug your guitar into the ¼” instrument input, usually located on the front of the device. A modern trend has been to use combo jacks for newer interfaces that combine the XLR input with the Instrument input. If your input looks like a standard XLR (3-pin) with a hole drilled into the middle of it, you’re working with a combo jack that will intelligently switch between Mic and Instrument levels when you plug in. Pretty convenient, huh?

Start Recording

With everything wired together, all that’s left to do is launch your digital audio workstation (DAW) and create a new track. Assuming your drivers were installed correctly, your DAW should recognize what inputs are available and you’ll need to select the appropriate input if using anything other than Input 1 (the default). Start playing guitar and you should see levels appearing on the mixer. If you can’t hear yourself as you play, you may need to enable a feature called Input Monitoring in your DAW. This is usually an “I” button on the track you’re recording to, though some DAWs approach it differently.

From there, you’ll want to adjust the gain knob up or down on the front of your interface until you see a solid signal that doesn’t hit the red (indicating clipping) but also has a decent enough level where noise floor and hiss isn’t an issue. A good rule of thumb is to shoot for -6 to -10 dB on the peaks as you play. This amount of signal will be plenty to work with as you record and mix, but also leaves plenty of headroom for effects and other processors that can end up raising the level further.

Once you’re comfortable with the levels going into the computer, Record Arm the track by clicking the circle icon near the meter, then start recording. Congrats – you’re successfully set up to record guitars with a USB interface!

Adding Some Tone

Your first reaction to this recorded guitar tone isn’t probably going to be anything to write home about – it’s a raw signal recorded as if it’s going through the cleanest-sounding amp of all time without any pedals. That’s exactly what we’re aiming for – something clean we can start to work with.

A great, clear signal is perfect for tracks recorded directly into your interface, and the sound can easily grow into something much more massive with the right virtual guitar rig. Just check out the tone Brunno Henrique was able to add to his guitar recorded through a Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 using the Toneforge Misha Mansoor plugin:

Brunno is an amazing guitarist whose playing is top-notch, but without the right amp and effects in his signal chain, the performance would sound harsh and brittle. Remember – recording guitars through a USB interface is cutting out the amp and mic from the chain. We need to add them back within our DAW for the best sounding results.

Finding Your Sound

One of the best things about working with guitars in-the-box is that they’re super pliable. I can bend and shape the tone of any track I record through an interface a hundred times over – experimenting with different amps, mics, effects, and more.

If you’re interested in learning my process for getting the guitar tones I envision in my head with each and every session, make sure you check out the Toneforge Metal Starter Pack. It includes the Toneforge Misha Mansoor plugin demoed in the video above, a virtual bass rig for better bass tone, over 6+ hours of video training through Toneforge Bootcamp, and tons of other resources to get you up and running fast!

Get started.

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