The $4.00 Digital Studio

Tuesday, February 13th, 2007

On the acoustic guitar forums I visit, one common question goes something like:

How do I record my guitar so I can judge my progress (or lay down a rhythm track or even make a CD just for family and friends). I have a pickup in the guitar, I don’t need great quality, and I don’t want to spend a lot.

Since this person is posting on an internet forum, I will assume they have a computer. If it’s a PC type, it almost certainly has some kind of built-in soundcard, with at least a mic input. So all we need to do is hook the guitar pickup to that mic input and use some sort of program to capture that input and save it to a file. It just so happens that there are some very effective recording programs available to download for free, so that leaves as our only problem some way to connect the guitar pickup to the mic input. And here it is:

This is a 1/4″ phone female to 1/8″ mini male adapter. A normal guitar cable like the one just above the adapter in this picture (male 1/4″ phone plugs at both ends) fits into the hollow side. The pointed side plugs into the mic input of the computer. It costs about $4.00 at any store or web site that sells electronic geegaws (like Radio Shack). This is all you need to connect your pickup to your computer (assuming you have a guitar cable).

Now, on the software side what are the options? Unfortunately, the built-in Windows Sound Recorder is not very useful. It’s limited to about 1 minute of continuous recording without intervention. There are not effects or editing features, no click track or metronome, no metering, and certainly no multitrack overdubbing and mixing.

The easiest free program I’ve found is Audacity – it’s a little clunky but it is full featured. It includes plenty of editing capability and built-in effects, and you can save your recordings to various formats like .wav for burning to CD and (with some free extra software) to .mp3 for your portable music player or web site. I’ve used this little adapter and Audacity to record new song ideas on our laptop when we’re traveling. I’ve also used it to create practice loops when I’m trying to nail a tough section of a new song. Compared to a decent microphone, preamp, and audio interface these recordings are fuzzy, noisy, and crude, but they do the job, and the price is definitely right.

Here’s one verse of an old Hawaiian song, “No Ke Ano Ahiahi,” recorded as a solo guitar instrumental using the the 1/8″ mini plug adapter and Audacity.

And here’s the same track with some reverb added.

Obviously these are not “major label quality” recordings by a long shot. The direct output from a pickup is not very close to the natural acoustic sound of your guitar. But we’ve looked at a tool that can help get your pickup based recordings much closer to a natural acoustic sound in a previous blog entry: “Better EQ Through Software”. And, as we stated at the beginning of this entry, the whole purpose of using this simple, cheap adapter is to get simple, cheap recordings, not Grammy awards.


About the Blog

    Howdy, my name is Fran Guidry and this is my Homebrewed Music blog.

    I play Hawaiian slack key guitar and recorded my solo acoustic CD at home. Most of the recording information I find on the internet seems focused on bands, drums, multitracking, and so on but my main focus is recording solo acoustic guitar. Lately I’ve been enjoying video recording along with audio, so that shows up in the blog as well.

    I’m also a guitar nut. I love big ones and little ones, handmades and factory guitars, cheap ones and expensive ones. So I’ll be sharing the fun of exploring guitars as well, along with the challenges of amplifying acoustic guitars for live performance.



    My recording philosophy is pragmatic, skeptical, not super critical. After all, the performance is by far the most important component of a track, and every aspect of any recording is a matter of taste.

    But I do like to know “about stuff.” Back in hifi days I learned about double blind testing. I learned that we humans can easily hear differences that don’t really exist. The more I’ve learned about our human auditory system, the more I’m skeptical of what people say they hear, especially if they claim that a particular microphone or preamp or cable has some magical property.

    I’ve only been recording since 2001, and when I started I found the usual places on the internet. I sought advice and accepted it, thought I would improve my recordings by using more expensive equipment. It didn’t work.

    Two things that did seem to lead to better recordings were experience and room treatment. Getting an appealing sound is the combination of many small details, and learning those details only comes from experience. Amd the sound of the recording space is obviously a big factor.

    I’ve only recorded seriously using digital technology, but I remember trying to record rehearsals and gigs back in analog days. I don’t have any nostalgia for analog recording and playback systems at all. I think even low end digital systems can capture marvelous recordings. So when I look at gear, I look for good specs: low noise, broad flat frequency response, wide dynamic range, low distortion. I’m not interested in colorful components, mics and preamps with a sound, I want the sound to be the sound of my guitar.

    But the last word is that I’m just learning and I hope you find something useful in my posts.