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Direct Electric Guitar Recording Techniques
Written by Bill Gibson - 2006, Cengage Learning. Reprinted with Permission.
This article is an excerpt from the following book: The Audio Pro Home Recording Course.

When recording an electric guitar, we have the option of using a microphone at the speaker, running directly into the mixer or combining both of these approaches. Each technique offers advantages and disadvantages. Running direct into the mixer produces ultimate separation. If you process the direct guitar sound, you don't risk altering the sound of another instrument since no other instrument has had the opportunity to bleed into a microphone.

Miking the guitarist's speaker cabinet, although allowing for leakage of another instrument into the guitar mic, typically produces the best sound. Using a microphone on the electric guitarist's cabinet captures the essence of the sound the guitarist designed for the part they're playing. Since sound plays such an important role in what and how a guitarist plays, miking the cabinet is often the only way to capture the guitar part in a musically authentic way.

For the sake of understanding some of the more fundamental variables involved in recording the electric guitar, we'll first plug directly into the mixer. When running a guitar directly into the mic input of a mixer, plug the guitar into a direct box first, then plug the direct box into the mixer. The signal going into the direct box can come straight from the guitar or from any effect or group of effects that the guitar is plugged into.

As an alternative, simply plug the guitar straight into the line input of the mixer. When using this technique, the level from the guitar might be a little low, especially if you are using a mixer that operates at +4dBm. Plugging a guitar into Line In works best when using a mixer operating at -10dBV.

Some guitar amps have a line output. Line Out from a guitar amplifier can be plugged directly into the line input of the mixer. This technique lets you capture some of the amplifier's characteristic sound while still keeping the advantages of running direct into the mixer.

Advantages of Running Direct
When you plug directly into the mixer instead of miking the speaker, the recorded track has no leakage from other acoustic instruments that may have been performing at the same time as the guitar. The tracks typically contain less noise than if the amp were miked. Guitar amps have a bad habit of producing their own share of noise. This can be a problem in mixdown.

Sometimes you must run directly into the mixer simply out of consideration for your neighbors. How sensitive are your neighbors to loud guitar amps screaming raucous licks into the wee hours of the morning? Once you've gotten your neighbors angry because of volume, it's all over. It's best to avoid that conflict altogether. If you are recording in an apartment or in a compact residential area, you may have no choice but to record all electronic gear direct and monitor at low levels.

If you must run direct into the mixer and you're experiencing difficulty getting a good sound, try using a direct box that will receive a powered signal straight out of the speaker output of the guitar amp. This will give you the most guitar amp sound you can get without using a mic. Be careful!! Never plug a speaker output into any input until you've been assured by someone whose opinion you trust implicitly that the input is designed to accept a powered output!

Remember, guitars are high-impedance instruments and the total length of cables between the guitar and the amp or the guitar and the direct box should be less than 25 feet. If the guitarist plugs into several effects chained together, then plugs the output of the last effect into the DI, be sure the cables are all as short as possible. If the cables are too long, you'll hear a lot of noise and radio interference along with the guitar track.

If you get into a situation where the guitarist needs to run a long cable length from the guitar to the amp, try this:
1. Use two direct boxes. Plug the guitar into the high-impedance end of the first direct box.
2. Connect a mic cable to the low-impedance output of that direct box.
3. Connect the other end of this mic cable to the low-impedance end of the second direct box. This requires either a special cable with female XLR connectors on both ends or a female-to-female XLR adapter to plug into the low-impedance end of the second DI.
4. Connect the high-impedance end of the second DI to the amp or line in of the mixer.

This procedure lets you take advantage of low impedance within a high-impedance system. If you're connecting two direct boxes together, be sure to use high quality DIs. Each transformer can rob the signal of life and add noise. This technique requires informed judgment concerning the value of adding cable length versus your need for sonic purity. For more information, see The Audio Pro Home Recording Course.


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