How To Record An Electric Guitar Without an Amp


Youn woman playing black electric guitar

Generally, recording an electric guitar is a simple enough process that most of us are familiar with. You plug your guitar into your amplifier, make sure it sounds good and move on to setting up the mic. You mic up your amp with one or two mics, do some testing, and there you go. Ready and set, right? 

Not quite, if you’re producing music at home or in a small space cranking up an amp might not be possible. Or maybe you don’t even have a guitar amp – but still want to record guitar.

How can you record these killer riffs in your head without an amp? Is it even possible? 

Read on to find out how!

How To Record An Electric Guitar Without an Amp

To record without an amp you need an audio interface, (or an external soundcard), and digital modelling guitar amps installed into your DAW. You can also use a DI Box plugged into an audio interface or mixer for the same result.

Keep reading to find out more about how you can record your electric guitar without needing an amp or microphone, what the pros and cons are of either method is, and what software you can use for the best results. There are a few things to watch out for and techniques that can help you get the best results that we’ve outlined below.

Recording An Electric Guitar directly into your computer with an audio interface

You may be used to recording with an amp and microphone, however, switching to recording without an amp is a lot simpler and less time consuming than setting up the amp and mics every time you want to record. If done right it can also yield a better, more creatively flexible result. 

The recording set up without an amp is as simple as plugging your guitar directly into either a direct box connected to your interface or plugging your guitar directly into the audio interface itself. Once plugged in, you can use software called digital amplifiers to set and alter the sound of your guitar.

Let’s discuss digital amplifiers, direct boxes, and audio interfaces in more detail to further understand how this method of recording works.

Direct Boxes

One of the two ways you can record your electric guitar without an amp is by plugging it into a direct box, or DI box, which will be connected to an interface.

The “DI” in DI box stands for “Direct Injection” or “Direct Input” and it functions by transforming the unbalanced, high impedance signal from your instrument into a balanced, lower impedance signal in order to be processed smoothly by your interface.

Once the signal reaches the interface through the XLR output of the DI box it can be transported to your DAW with, most commonly, a USB connection depending on your interface. There you can use a digital amplifier to transform it into the sound you want!

Audio Interfaces

The second way you can record your electric guitar without an amp is to use an audio interface. An audio interface is simply an external soundcard. These are essential tools for any audio producer, especially those working from a laptop or tablet, to transform sound into a digital signal and back again. 

An audio interface generally comes with a few input options, including both XLR and TRS compatible inputs. Some audio interfaces even come with a built-in DI input, although it is not usually as powerful as a separate DI box. 

You can also adjust the gain of whichever instrument you have plugged in to get an optimal recording level, high enough for a low noise level and low enough to avoid distortion. These gain knobs are referred to as pots. 

On the other end of the spectrum of these devices are the output jacks and the volume knob. The output jacks are located on the back of the audio interface and are generally compatible with both studio monitor speakers and headphones as well.

Another important feature that makes these devices a must-have for any producer is the phantom power built into the device. Phantom power is essential if you are using a condenser microphone as the mic can’t function without external power. 

All you would need to do if you use this method is plug your guitar directly into the audio interface, adjust the gain, and hit record on your DAW. You can experiment with the sound using different digital amplifying plug-ins. 

Digital amplifiers

The last piece of the puzzle when you record without using an amplifier is, no surprise, a digital amplifier. This part of recording is possibly the most important as it is where you can personalize your sound and get your guitar sounding professional.

A digital amplifier is an amp plug-in, or amp simulator, in your DAW that you can use to adjust your guitar sound in many different ways. The simulated amps, or amp plug-ins, will have all the bells-and-whistles that an analog amp will have.

The main thing to look out for when using a digital amp is choosing a good one as they are not all created equal. For a professional sound, you want to use a well-built plug-in that can give you the sound you need. A lot of the time, the paid plug-ins will be better, however, there are some good free digital amps you can try.

Some examples of good digital amplifiers include:

These three digital amps are just three of the many popular, good quality plug-ins you could try. For a longer list check out this Guitar Amp Simulators 101 guide. The best thing to do is try a few out until you are happy with the sound you can achieve.

What Happens When You Record Without an Amp?

When you record without an amp your signal records directly from the electric guitar into your interface and DAW instead of relying on a microphone to record the sound. This lowers the risk of picking up interference, noise floor, and background noise.

A direct signal is clear and often sounds a lot brighter than when you record using an amp and a mic. 

Pros and cons of Recording without an amp

Although in most cases recording without an amp can sound very good, leaving less room for set-up errors, this method still has its upsides and downsides. Let’s discuss some of the pros and cons of recording without an amp to help you decide if it will work for you.

Pros

  • Quick and simple set-up
  • No interference thanks to plugging in directly
  • Less noise pollution for neighbors thanks to volume control and headphones
  • More creativity thanks to being able to change the tone easily in your DAW
  • Brighter sound from a clear, direct recording
  • A direct, forward-facing sound

Cons

  • Latency problems: aka. delayed sound (We’ll discuss how to improve latency in detail below)
  • Inferior guitar tones, especially with poorly paired instruments and equipment

Is Recording Electric Guitar With an Amp Better?

Just like recording without an amp, there are pros and cons to recording an electric guitar with an amp and mic set-up. Neither method is better than the other as there are things that recording with an amp can achieve that recording without one can’t and vice versa. 

Deciding which method is right for you depends on several things like equipment available to you, the sound you would like to achieve, and the space you have to record in. Recording without an amp is better for home studios with less room for recording, and recording with an amp is better for higher quality, fuller sounding guitar.

Both methods can yield professional results when done correctly, so it comes down to preference and circumstances at the end of the day. 

Pros And Cons of Recording With an Amp

To help you decide whether you’d like to make recording without an amp work for you, or whether you want to make room for the extra equipment, let’s go through the pros and cons of recording with an amp.

Pros

  • Better sound quality with a naturally authentic feel
  • Captures natural room sound and reverb

Cons

  • Tedious, time-consuming set-up including setting levels and doing sound checks
  • Less flexibility to alter the tone and sound of the recording in post

How to Avoid Latency When Recording Without an Amp

Now that we have gone over the pros and cons of recording with and without an amp, let’s talk about how to fix the main downside to recording without an amp: latency.

Latency can be a massive downer when you are in the zone and suddenly face a noticeable lag between your strings and hearing the note, so, how do you fix it?

To fix latency you have to figure out what is causing it. Some of the biggest causes of latency when recording is poor quality or damaged audio interfaces, monitors, or plug-ins. Try and rule out each problem one-by-one until you notice a difference.

If you suspect that none of your hardware or plug-ins are the problem then it may be something a bit more complicated like a setting or a driver. Here is a useful source with some easy fixes for problems with latency regarding drivers.

Bonus Hack To A Great Guitar Recording

If you are on the fence, there is a bonus hack for a high-quality, full-sounding electric guitar recording! Simply combine two recordings of your guitar, one through an amp using a microphone, and the other directly through your interface or DI Box.

This method will give you the quality and density of the mic recording and the clarity and adjustability of the direct recording giving you full reign over the sound you want to create.

If you have the means and equipment to record with an amp and microphone, you may as well make use of this tip to get the most out of your guitar recording. Maybe it’s more effort, but give it a shot and see how it sounds. It may just be the best of both worlds you’ve been looking for!

Conclusion

If you’ve recently found yourself stuck without a mic or an amp, hopefully, this article has shed some much-needed light on how to record without an amp.

At the end of the day, recording without an amp is much easier and straight forward than recording with one. You can start playing in seconds and let your creativity flow without the set-up hurdles you may face when recording with an amp and mic.

If you were just curious and have access to an amp, why not try something new and play around with combining both recording methods? You’ve got to keep up that healthy creativity, right?

FAQ

Can electro-acoustic guitars be played without an amp?

Yes, electro-acoustic guitars can be played without any form of electrical output as they still have an acoustic body.

An electro-acoustic guitar can also be played without an amp by plugging it straight into an audio interface, exactly like an electric guitar, while using digital amplifier plug-ins. You can also plug it into a DI box connected to an audio interface. 

Because electro-acoustic guitars are electric, they have pickups to allow their signal to be carried in the same way as an electric, hence why they can be recorded and played in the same way as well. 

Make sure you have headphones or speakers plugged into your audio interface to be able to hear your playing amplified without an amp.

How can I record my electric guitar at home?

An audio interface is the best way to record your electric guitar from home. They take up very little space and are simple to use.

Simply set up your interface with your computer, then whenever you want to play or record your electric guitar you can plug it straight in and instantly play.

Why do you need a guitar amp?

You need a guitar amp to amplify the signal of an electric guitar. If you want to record an electric guitar using a microphone, you will also need a guitar amp. Without an amp, you won’t be able to hear the true sound of an electric guitar.

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