The Basics of Recording your First Guitar Song February 13 2014

microphoneSo you're pretty happy with your guitar setup and want to start recording your own songs? But what's that; you don't know where to start? Well hopefully this step by step beginners guide will help, and you'll be creating and recording songs in no time.

Recording your own songs is something that all guitar players consider at one time or another. For some of us it may be the start of attempting to break into the music business professionally. For others we may be looking to hear exactly where we can improve as players. However for the vast majority of us it's just for the fun of being able to write a song, record it, and say “I made that!”.

1. Introduction & Aims

Our aim is to actually make these recordings sound pretty good. So we won't just be sticking a microphone in front of the amplifier which you bought from the pound shop! We'll be using a real line in. The songs will have one (or more) guitar parts, drums and bass. You can even add vocals if you wish. Hopefully thinking about the different instruments in the song will make you a better guitarist

2. What We'll Need

No luckily you don't need to buy a range of studio equipment. But you may need to buy one or two things first. They shouldn't cost too much though, although more expensive options are available if you're after a little bit more quality. You'll need:

  • Your guitar.
  • A computer.
  • A set of headphones.
  • A jack to 3.5mm cable / audio interface / jack to USB cable.
  • Recording software such as Audacity.[Free]
  • Drum software such as Drumtrack.[Free]

Accessories such as guitar pedals are optional, although definitely recommended if you don't want to sound awful. 

You'll also need to have actually written a song with at least one guitar part. Don't rush things and think “It'll come together during recording!” Know the parts you're going to play perfectly. 

3. Recording

Ok, we've got everything we need. Let's start recording!

3.1 The Drums

As you probably know, the drums form the base of most songs in modern guitar songs. They keep time and make sure everything stays in order. But they also can sound amazing too, and really complete a song. If you listened to your favourite songs, minus the drum parts, they'd probably sound empty or hollow.

3.11 Using Drumtrack

So we're going to create a simple drum track for our song. And don't worry, you don't need a drum set. We're going to create one using software. I personally use one called Drumtrack (linked above). It's free and does the job pretty well.

So load up Drumtrack. Actually making the drum part of your song may be quite hard if you literally have zero knowledge of the drums. But if you've played Rockband before, or can just play a simple beat, making a drum track shouldn't be too much of a challenge. Just choose your timing signature (let's say it's 4/4 for simplicity) and tempo and begin to make your drum track. You click in the box to hear one instance of the beat. If two circles are vertically in line, they get played at the same time. Here's a simple beat I've made if you don't know where to start:

drum beat

Just make sure whatever you make has a consistent recognisable beat. Don't make it like one crazy drum solo!

You work on the “bits” of the beat in your song, and then but these different bits together via the top part of the screen under "Song Editor".

3.12 Exporting

Are you happy with the drum track you've created? Don't skip over this part of the process – it's very important! Get it as close to perfect as possible. Play over the drum track with your guitar and make sure it sounds good. Once you're 100% happy it's time to export. To do this just click file, then export WAV. Choose a memorable file name and click save.

3.2 Guitar

At last – on to actually recording the guitar.

3.21 Using Audacity

For recording we're going to use a program called Audacity (linked above). There are other options available which do very similar things (Garageband is good if you use a Mac), but for the purpose of the tutorial let's stick with Audacity. It's really easy to use – I’ll explain how to do stuff as it's needed. Firstly let's get the drum track we just made loaded up. Just click on file, import and audio. Then find and click on the drum track and click open.

import

You should see it populate the screen. This will now play in the background when you're recording. Now we can begin recording the guitar.

3.22 Connecting Everything

But first we need everything set up so we can play our guitar parts. There are a few ways you can do this. All work equally well at this level and which method you use will mostly depend on the number of 3.5mm slots available to you.

Do you have two free slots? Great, use one to connect the guitar to the computer (using a jack to 3.5mm cable. Tip - you can alternatively buy a 3.5mm to 6.35mm adaptor which slots on the end of your standard jack; these only cost £3), and another for your headphones. You need headphones so you can hear what you're playing and what's currently recorded – the drum track in our case.

Do you only have one slot? Then your headphones will need to go in here. So then you'd need either a jack to USB cable (to connect to one of the spare USB slots) or an audio interface.

If in doubt pick up a cheap audio interface – they're designed for making song recording easier. They just need one slot to connect to your computer - the headphones and a standard jack cable then plug directly into the interface. You don't need a jack to 3.5mm / jack to USB cable.

Now you should have everything connected – your guitar and your headphones. If you have any pedals / multi effects you want to use just set them up normally. However instead of plugging them into the amp you plug them into your computer / audio interface, and then connect your guitar to the pedal as normal. Don't worry if you don't have any pedals, you can add effects after you have recorded the guitar part via Audacity. But they won't sound as good.

In Audacity locate the audio symbol. Click on the drop down next to it:

line-in

This is where you select that you want the audio to come out of your headphones. Now we need to find the microphone symbol and change this to a line in so Audacity know the type of signal it's going to receive.

Note: If you want to record your acoustic guitar, and don't have an acoustic pickup, you're going to need to record via a microphone. This process is pretty simple – just connect any sort of microphone to your computer and place it close to your guitar. Remember to make sure that microphone and not line in is selected in Audacity.

Hit record and make sure everything is working as it should. Remember you can adjust various levels, and amounts of distortion later if you're not using pedals.

3.23 Recording

You can now begin recording. Try and play your song through perfectly. One problem you may have is playing it through perfectly, especially if it's a technical song. If you do have trouble just split the song up into segments. So get the intro perfect, then the chorus, then one of the verses. You just need to make sure everything is synced up properly. Luckily with the help of the drums, this shouldn't be too hard.

3.24 Syncing

Play the drum track and the first guitar part back. One thing you may notice is that the first guitar track, and the drums don't seem to be properly synced. That's OK – it happens sometimes. There is a time lag between when you play, and when the guitar is actually recorded. What you can do is make the necessary adjustments by dragging either the guitar or drum track left or right so it's in line with the other track.

3.3 Second Guitar, Bass & Vocals

Now everything is in sync you can record your second guitar part. Once this is recorded you'll probably need to drag it in line with the drums and first guitar part.

I like adding a bass part to my songs too. Don't worry, you don't need a bass guitar. I simply played the root note of the rhythm parts and then increased the bass with either an equalizer pedal, or in the Audacity options after recording. As before you'll need to drag the bass track and sync it up with the others.

Optional – record the vocals, but remember to select microphone and not line in.

4. Editing

Great – that's all the tracks recorded! Now you can start to mess around with things a little bit more.

First let's clean everything up a bit. If you see any bits of unwanted noise you can remove them. Highlight the part you want silenced and click “generate” then “silence” and hit OK.

There may be bits of the song which are causing a problem - for example a spike in volume or other unwanted noise. It will look a little bit like this in Audacity:

audacity repair

But you can't remove them using the method above, because it results in a small gap where no audio is audible. In this case you can use the Repair tool. Highlight a very small section of the problem audio and go to “Effect” and “Repair”. This will remove the problem, but hopefully keep the rest of the audio intact so there won't be a gap in your song.

If you want, you can also make one guitar part come out of the left, and the other out of the right. To do this find the relevant guitar part and move the L-R slider here:

panning

It's best to have the drums and bass coming out of both speakers, so keep those sliders in the middle.

5. Mastering

Now everything is nice and neat we can start messing around with some of the effects on Audacity. This bit is essential if you've not used any effects pedals while recording. I don't want to give a full lesson on Audacity here (experiment with it yourself!), but here are a few of the essentials for mastering your song. It's best to mute all tracks but the one you're working on. This makes it easier to hear the changes you've made.

  • Distortion – To add distortion highlight the relevant section, go to “effect” and then scroll down and click on “SC4”. Adjusting the bar which says “Makeup Gain” will increase the distortion level. It's best to use a distortion or overdrive pedal prior to recording because you can adjust your sound much more.

  • EQ – The equaliser is an important part of the mastering process. If you don't have an equaliser pedal it becomes even more essential. Again, highlight the section you want to edit, go to “effect” and click “equalization”. Here you can boost or reduce specific parts of your sound. For example, you could increase the bass of the rhythm guitar, and maybe increase the mid range of the lead guitar. You especially need to do this for the bass guitar section.

  • Compression – Compression is a good tool for evening out the volume of your sound. This makes everything sound nice and consistent. When using compression you'll want to highlight relatively large sections of your song (preferably entire instrument segments), then go to “effect” and “compressor”. You should keep similar settings for the other instruments so the overall sound is even. Compression can also be done (better in most cases) with a pedal.

6. Exporting

Now you're pretty much done! Save the project so you can make more changes in the future. This format isn't easily shared. But luckily we can use Audacity to convert your song to an MP3 file. Click file, export, and then select “MP3” from the drop down list.

Conclusion

That's it. Your first song is done and ready to share. Hopefully, as well as learning the basics of how to record, you learnt a little bit more about the construction of songs. Remember that practice makes perfect. If you want to get a little bit more professional you can start investing in paid tools & equipment, or a better selection of pedals. Generally speaking pedals are going to be better than any effects which are added after recording.