How I Record Electric Guitars Without an Amp

In this tutorial, I explain how I record electric guitars without an amp, and discuss several reasons why you might also want to stray from traditional electric guitar recording techniques.

I record electric guitars for fun, and have done so without a real amp for close on a decade at this point. There are several reasons why. First of all, my boyfriend and I are blessed with nice neighbours; it would simply be impolite of me to subject them to the volume of a real Vox AC30 at all hours of the day. Secondly, I don’t have a physical work space that is especially well-suited to recording with microphones. Finally (and most importantly), I find modern digital modeling more inspiring and flexible for recording than traditional amp and pedalboard setups.

If you are also a bedroom guitarist with a budding interest in home recording, you may have your own reasons why you want to record your guitars without an amp. Fret not if you don’t know where to start, however. In this beginner-friendly tutorial, I’ll help you out by outlining how I record electric guitars without an amp via digital modeling.

A Brief Note on Digital Modeling

A longer post on digital modeling is available here. For the purposes of this tutorial, all you need to know is this: digital modeling simulates various effects pedals and solid state/tube amplifiers via software plugins or physical hardware. You don’t need to use external speakers with digital modelers if you don’t want to, and can instead monitor yourself with headphones. The beauty of this is that you can record at any time of the day without disturbing the people around you — something to consider if you want to start a YouTube guitar channel of your own, but worry about noise complaints from your neighbours.

Learning Objectives

By the end of this tutorial, you will understand how to:

  • Correctly connect and set up your audio interface
  • Add a digital modeling plugin to an audio track in your DAW
  • Properly adjust your guitar’s input levels
  • Monitor and record a basic guitar track

If you are unable to meet these objectives, feel free to reach out for assistance via email. Be sure to include the title of this tutorial in your email, so I’ll know which one you’re referring to.

Gear Requirements

To complete this tutorial, you’ll need the following equipment in addition to your guitar:

  1. Computer
  2. Digital audio workstation (DAW)
  3. Digital amp/effects modeler (plugins or hardware)
  4. Audio interface (optional if using digital modeling hardware)
  5. Headphones

If you need assistance with purchasing any of the above gear, the internet is full of beginner-friendly guides I can link you to. Just ask. You can also check out this site’s Gear category in future for more information about the gear I personally recommend.

Tutorial

Step 1: Download and Install Any Necessary Drivers

Before you plug anything into your computer, you need to download and install your physical hardware’s required drivers (assuming you use a Windows PC). Your device’s product manual will explain exactly how to do this and direct you in the right direction. Always be sure to download drivers directly from the manufacturer’s website.

Step 2: Connect Your Audio Interface or Digital Modeler to Your Computer

Steinberg UR12 rear view.
Rear view of my Steinberg UR12’s USB ports.

Once you have installed the necessary drivers, simply use the USB cable provided with your hardware to connect your audio interface to a free USB port on your computer.

Most audio hardware connects to computers via USB 2.0 or USB 3.0. My old Steinberg UR12 connects via USB 2.0, for example, as does my Line 6 HX Stomp. I primarily record with my HX Stomp in conjunction with Helix Native, but will reference the UR12 from here on out, as most people start out with audio interfaces and plugins. The steps below all apply to digital modeling hardware as well.

Step 3: Ensure Your DAW Recognizes Your Interface

Open up your DAW to make sure that your software recognizes the interface you just connected. Each DAW and operating system will handle this step a little differently.

I personally use Cubase Elements 12 on a Windows laptop, so it will be the example I use throughout this tutorial. To ensure that Cubase recognizes your interface, simply do the following:

  1. Start a new project.
  2. Click Studio > Studio Setup.
    • In the Studio Setup window, check under Devices > Audio System and look for your interface.
      • Click on your interface.
      • Check to see that your inputs and outputs read “Active.”
    • Return to the Studio Setup window and click on Control Panel.
      • Set your preferred sample rate for recording (I personally use 48 kHz).
      • Lower your buffer size to 128 samples (if your computer can handle it) to reduce latency during recording.
        • Note: while mixing after recording is complete, it is safe to increase your buffer size back up to 512 samples or higher to reduce CPU loads.
  3. Close the Studio Setup window and click Studio > Audio Connections.
    • Ensure your interface’s inputs and outputs are set to their respective ports.

Step 4: Ensure Your DAW is Set Up for ASIO (Windows Only)

ASIO stands for Audio Stream Input/Output. It is a low latency Windows-specific audio driver that bypasses Windows’ slower generic audio drivers. To put that in common English for you: ASIO makes it possible for you to record high quality audio through an interface without creating a significant delay between what you play and when you hear it. If you disable ASIO and use your computer’s generic audio driver, your recording will not be in sync with your backing track, even if you play perfectly in time. ASIO is therefore crucial to any audio recording produced on a Windows PC.

These days, you generally don’t need to do anything specific to enable ASIO in most up to date DAWs once your interface’s drivers are downloaded and installed. In Cubase 12, you’d verify that your ASIO drivers are installed and selected appropriately by doing the following:

  1. Click Studio > Studio Setup.
  2. Under Audio System, click the ASIO Driver dropdown box (to the right side of the window).
  3. Ensure that the appropriate ASIO driver for your interface is checked.
Ensuring ASIO is enabled.
How to ensure ASIO is enabled for your interface.

If your interface does not use an ASIO driver for some bizarre reason, you will need to download one, like ASIO4ALL.

Step 5: Create a New Audio Track

After ensuring that you’ve set up your audio interface appropriately, create a new audio track. This process will be a little different in each DAW. In Cubase, for example, you add a new audio track by clicking Project > Add Track > Audio.

Adding audio tracks in Cubase.
Adding a new audio track in Cubase. I personally like to colour code and label my audio tracks and folders so I know exactly what I’m working on.

The interface you set up in Step 2 should automatically be selected as the track’s audio input in most DAWs. If it isn’t, you will have to manually select your interface as the audio input source. Again, every DAW will be a little different, so consult your DAW’s documentation if the process is not intuitive.

The idea here is to set up the track to record your guitar’s direct signal if you are using plugins. You can also record your processed signal (i.e. your guitar’s direct signal processed through a digital amp and/or effects) if you use a hardware modeler without plugins. Keep in mind that if you use digital modeling hardware released within the last ten years, you most likely do not need a separate audio interface. Most modern hardware modelers can simultaneously or independently record your direct signal and your processed signal over USB.

Step 6: Add a Digital Modeling Plugin to the Track (Optional)

If you aren’t recording your processed signal through a hardware modeler, you will need to add a modeling plugin to your audio track. I know I’m starting to sound like a broken record here, but every DAW handles this process slightly differently. For example, I’ll show you how to add Helix Native to your guitar audio track in Cubase:

  1. Select your track.
  2. In the Inspector window, open the tab for Inserts.
  3. Select an insert to see your available plugins (VSTs), and select Helix Native.
  4. Ensure that Helix Native appears in the Inserts tab after you select it, and that you can click on it to make adjustments to the plugin settings.
  5. Arm the track for monitoring so that you can hear your plugin’s processing in real time while you play. You will find the monitor button (a small speaker) underneath the track title. In the Mix Console, the monitor button is above the track title. The monitor button turns an orange-brown colour when active.
    • Note: If you are using a hardware digital modeler, you do not need to arm the track for monitoring. Your hardware modeler is, essentially, a latency-free monitor. Monitoring in your DAW uses CPU power and can tax your computer significantly, which is one reason why you might want to consider buying a hardware-based digital modeler, like the Line 6 HX Stomp.

Step 7: Connect Your Guitar and Headphones

Connecting guitar and headphones to interface.
Connect your guitar and headphones to your interface.

After completing the initial DAW setup, plug your guitar and headphones into your interface. If your headphones have a standard 3.5mm input jack, keep in mind that you will likely need a 3.5mm to 1/4 inch headphone adapter. You can pick these adapters up cheaply at your local music store, electronics store, or various online retailers.

Step 8: Ensure Your Interface Can Pick Up Your Guitar

Strum a few chords while looking at the meters on your DAW screen. If you’re not sure what you’re looking for, I’m referring to the blocks with vertical green bars in the image below. You should see the audio registering on your input channel, your guitar audio track, and your master output. You should also be able to hear the audio through your headphones.

Ready to record.
All systems go!

If you can’t hear anything or visualize the meters responding to your playing, something is wrong with your setup. Check your cables to make sure they’re functional and plugged in properly. If your cables are in good working order, carefully review the previous six steps of this guide, because you probably missed something.

Step 9: Set Your Input Levels Appropriately

Once you know your interface is picking up your guitar’s direct or processed signal, you need to ensure that your input is set at an appropriate level. If your input signal is too loud (also known as “too hot”), your recorded audio will exceed its maximum limit. The end result is a horrible, distorted sound referred to as “clipping.” Conversely, if your input signal is too soft, you will hear the noise floor in your recording, and your digital amps won’t respond to your playing as well as they should.

To change your input levels, simply adjust the input gain knob on your audio interface. Watch how the meters on your DAW channels respond to your adjustments. DAW meters display decibels relative to full scale (or dBFS). I won’t go into the nitty gritty details of what that means, because it’s unnecessary at this level, but basically keep this in mind: the closer your audio gets to 0 in the meter bar, the closer you are to clipping the audio. If you exceed the 0 mark, your audio will clip.

Important: do not confuse 0 on the meter with 0 on the volume fader (which is immediately left of the meter).

All DAWs represent clipping a little differently. For example, in Cubase, the normally grey or black stereo/mono indicator above your channel name will turn red.

Clipping in a DAW.
When you see red, dial things down a notch.

One thing you also need to keep in mind is that some plugins have an input “sweet spot.” In Helix Native, for instance, that sweet spot falls between -12 to -36 dBFS. This region is helpfully highlighted in green on the input meter inside the plugin. If your input level exceeds that sweet spot, then you’re pushing the amps in the plugin too hard and are at risk for clipping your output. If you fall short of the sweet spot, however, you’re not pushing the amps hard enough.

Helix Native sweet spot for input signal.
Helix Native’s sweet spot.

As a general rule of thumb, you should aim to hit between -16 to -18 dBFS on your track meters. This is neither too loud nor too soft, and leaves lots of room below 0 dBFS on the master output when other instruments are added to the mix. This extra room is also known as “headroom,” and it is crucial for making mixes that aren’t squashed and terrible-sounding.

Step 10: Arm the Track for Recording

In most DAWs, you automatically arm a track for recording when you select the track. You can also manually arm or disarm a track for recording by clicking the track record button on and off. Take care to not confuse the track record button with the main transport menu record button. In Cubase, the button to arm a track for recording is directly beneath the track name. You’ll know your track is ready for recording in Cubase if that button turns red.

Step 11: Click the Record Button on the Transport Menu

Congratulations, you’re ready to record! Before you start recording, find your DAW’s transport menu. This menu is usually located at the top or bottom of your DAW’s primary window. In recent versions of Cubase, for instance, the main transport menu is at the very bottom of the screen. You can also often move the menu around to position it wherever works best for you.

Once you’ve found the transport menu, click on the record button and start playing. You’ll know you’re recording successfully if you see an audio track scrolling across your DAW’s timeline:

Successfully recording a guitar track.
Success!

If you turned the monitoring button on in Step 5, be sure to turn it off when listening back to what you’ve just recorded. If you don’t turn it off, you won’t hear anything.

One last tip: to make it easier for you to come in on the right beat when recording, most DAWs allow the metronome to play for a few bars before recording actually starts. Personally, I have my Cubase metronome set up to give me a two bar count-in. I find this extremely helpful for my timing, especially when I’m recording videos, so I strongly encourage you to set up your DAW’s metronome in this way as well.

Conclusion

After completing the above tutorial, you now have a basic understanding of how to record electric guitars without an amp. I have intermediate and advanced tutorials in the works for those of you want to delve a little deeper into the process, so be sure to bookmark the site and check back regularly.


Questions?

Do you have a question about the subject matter of this blog post that I didn’t answer above? Feel free to leave a public comment on my YouTube channel by clicking on the button below, and I’ll get back to you there as soon as I can.

See Also: