Home Recording Tips: When to Record Direct and When to Use a Microphone

By Ben Andre, iZotope Contributor | October 23, 2018

Home Recording Tips, When to Record Direct and When to Use a Microphone

When it’s time to lay down an idea or roll a take for a recording, we’re typically faced with a number of choices: Which guitar should you use? Where should you place your microphone? Which room should you record in?

One choice that comes up frequently is whether to record direct (i.e. plugging in your guitar directly into your interface) or with a microphone. And when should you? The short answer is: it depends. For the long answer, check out the following home recording tips.

What is “recording direct?”

Unlike some esoteric recording terms, recording direct is pretty much just what it sounds like. It’s taking an instrument that has an output, like an electric guitar, bass, acoustic guitar, or keyboard, and plugging it directly into your interface.

Pro tip: When recording direct, it’s important to make sure that your interface’s input “matches” the output on whatever you’re recording. For instance, electric guitars require an “instrument” input while keyboards require a “line” input. Interfaces like Spire Studio can automatically accommodate both! If yours doesn’t, you can look into “direct boxes” that can help with matching.

Electric guitar

Electric guitar might be the first instrument to come to mind when recording direct. With the advent of higher quality amp simulations, it’s easy to get a great sound without an amp on hand. Tools like Spire Studio’s “Verb ‘65” are a great way bypass your amp, leaving less in the way between you and getting your ideas down. On the flip side, recording direct also opens up an opportunity to get unconventional guitar tones as well.

Spire-studio-effects

Sometimes, however, there can be no replacement for a real amp live in a room. From the “feel” of an amp physically moving air around you, to the unmistakable sound of some classic amps, there’s a time to plug in to your amp. But of course you’ll have to make sure that your neighbors are down as well.

The bottom line:

Recording electric guitar direct can be great for your creative flow and sound excellent with the right amp simulations, but sometimes nothing can beat the sound and energy of a real amp and microphone.

Acoustic guitar

Many acoustic guitars come equipped with internal electronics and a guitar output, and can be tempting to just plug your guitar in and call it a day. However, you’d be leaving a lot of tone on the table!

Unlike electric guitars, which can sound great recorded direct with the right amp simulation, acoustic guitars tend to sound unnatural, plucky, and thin when recorded direct. Electronics within acoustic guitars (whether pickups or microphones) don’t capture the sound the way that we’re used to hearing it; the familiar sound of an acoustic guitar that we all know and love is the sound from outside of the instrument. So if you’re looking for a natural sound, a microphone is the way to go. That’s not to say that a direct sound doesn’t have its place, however. It all just depends on the playing and context and what sounds right to you.

Pro tip: If you’re feeling adventurous, you can even record both the direct and the microphone signals and combine them. This combines the articulation of the direct sound with the naturalness of the microphone. Just remember to think critically about the results; just because your doing more doesn't mean it’s automatically going to sound better! Try it and see how it works with your music.

The bottom line: Recording acoustic guitar direct is quick, easy, and eliminates the possibility of unwanted noise making its way into your recording, but generally sounds thin and unnatural when compared to the sound a microphone.

Bass

Bass guitar has a long history of being recorded direct—in fact, much more often than guitar, many of the bass sounds in popular recordings we know and love were recorded without an amp. This is pretty convenient as the low end signals from bass amplifiers have a knack for passing through walls and bothering your neighbors or roommates!

That being said, not unlike guitar amps, sometimes the sound of a live amp is just what you need. From bringing energy into your room, to the warmth and roundness of a real speaker, an amp can sound excellent in the right contexts.

The bottom line: Recording bass direct is easy and results in a punchy, articulate, and familiar sound, while bass amps can add heft to the tone, and breathe some energy to your recording session.

Conclusion

Above all other home recording tips, the most important thing is to be able to record your instruments in a way that doesn’t disrupt your creative flow. Ideally, you can do this all while finding a sound that inspires you. So when it comes time to make the choice between recording direct or with a microphone, be open-minded, try new things, and see what works for you!