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How to choose an audio interface for recording guitars

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INTRODUCTION

When it comes to recording guitars at home there are two things that you want to achieve and these are perfect timing and great tone and it's often a matter of compromise between the two.

It's best to monitor through analog gear and record good tones using some real gear such as amps and effects processors. You dodge monitoring latency and plug-in latencies that can affect your performance.

There are also guitar effects processors that you can connect to your computer to edit tones, record both processed and dry tones and if you're happy with such a device and your recordings, then you probably don't need an additional audio interface.

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GENERAL REQUIREMENTS

In general you'll need an audio interface with two combo XLR/Hi-Z inputs that is capable of handling 24-bit/44.1kHz audio and that supports your operating system. It's also best if the interface has no latency drift.

Read on latency drift

There are technical specifications of audio interfaces which you can compare, but it's not all there is that defines how an interface sounds. It's always good to ask people for opinions and read some reviews before making a decision.

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1) RECORDING REAL AMPS/EFFECTS PROCESSORS

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Line inputs can be used for recording from real gear, but if your guitar effect offers XLR outs then it's better to use an interface with XLRs.

You'll also need XLR microphone ins for recording real amps through microphones. Phantom power is required for condenser microphones, but it can also power most active di-boxes/splitters.

You need Direct Monitor functionality to be able to listen to your playing through the interface outs.

Direct Monitor can be a zero latency monitor or near zero latency monitor - read more on direct monitoring:

Zero Latency Direct Monitoring vs. Near Zero Latency Direct Monitoring

Exemplary interfaces with zero latency monitoring (this really means analog) for recording real gear:

What to record this way:

  • effects processors (Fractal Audio AXE FX Standard/Ultra/MK II, Kemper Profiling Amp... POD 2.0)
  • real amps through microphones or line outs
  • JamUp Pro app running on an iPad or an iPhone

PROS

pic Perfect timing
pic Latency is not an issue
pic You can be quiet when you're recording effects processors

CONS

pic No re-amping
pic It gets loud when you're recording real amps through microphones
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2) RECORDING REAL AMPS/EFFECTS PROCESSORS AND DRY TONE FOR RE-AMPING

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You can use an additional active di-box to feed the guitar signal both into an amp/effects processor and an audio interface. Recording both signals at the same time on seperate tracks allows you to re-amp later if needed.

Exemplary di-boxes/splitters:

There are also effects processors with additional dry guitar outputs. You can use such an effect for monitoring and recording both processed and dry tracks. Examples of such devices:

  • Line 6 POD Pro
  • Line 6 POD XT Pro
  • Line 6 POD X3 Pro
  • Line 6 POD HD Pro
  • Line 6 POD HD Pro X
  • Line 6 POD HD Desktop (S/PDIF)
  • Behringer V-AMP Pro
  • ZOOM G5

PROS

pic Perfect timing of processed/wet tracks
pic Latency is not an issue
pic Re-amping
pic You can be quiet when you're recording effects processors or amp line out

CONS

pic Di-boxes affect guitar tone
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3) RECORDING THROUGH PLUGINS

It's also possible to plug the guitar straight into an audio interface and play and record through guitar amp simulating software like in the example above. Under the Red Sky was recorded in Cubase 7 Artist with nothing else but a Focusrite PRO 14.

Free Guitar plugins

For this you need the lowest possible latency audio interface with an instrument input. You can also use an interface with line inputs and an additional di-box. It's important that there's no more than 12 miliseconds of latency in your setup. It's also worth it to measure your latency and compensate for it in your DAW. Don't trust your audio interface drivers and your DAW which can only tell you driver reported values.

Read more on latency

Low latency audio interface database

Timing with software monitoring is not perfect and that's because of two reasons:

  • Software monitoring doesn't seem to deliver as good timing as direct monitoring does, even without using plug-ins... this is because of some computer mumbo jumbo
  • Plug-ins most often don't report their latency correctly to your DAW and this results in small timing inaccuracies which don't affect your mixes a lot, but they make it harder for you to record layers of guitars - read more on PDC and plug-in latency

Exemplary interfaces for software monitoring:

PROS

pic It's simple
pic Re-amping is very easy
pic You can get some really nice and inspiring tones from plug-ins
pic You can keep it quiet when recording

CONS

pic Timing is not perfect
pic Lowest latency interfaces use Firewire (read - Firewire vs USB)
pic Latency is an issue
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4) Line 6 POD Studio interfaces and ToneDirect Monitoring

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POD Studio interface is a great option to start recording guitars, bass and vocals at home.

Here's what you get:

  • Decent sounding audio interface with high quality noiseless guitar input
  • POD Farm software that simulates famous preamps, amps, cabs and effects
  • POD Farm plug-in for re-amping in your DAW (you didn't get the plug-in with the older TonePort series)
  • Line 6 ToneDirect Monitoring which is a form of direct monitoring that works through POD Farm standalone and its latency is approx. 6.8 miliseconds with ToneDirect & USB Audio Streaming Buffer Size set to "Extra Small"

With software monitoring through plug-ins in your DAW the smallest possible round trip latency of POD Studio interfaces is 15.4 miliseconds in Windows OS and a little bit less than 12 miliseconds in MAC OS X (tested on driver versions up to 4.2.7.1). This doesn't make POD Studio interfaces a good choice for software monitoring with plug-ins.

Recommended POD Studio:

PROS

pic It's simple to use
pic You get a decent sounding preamp, amp, cab and effects simulating software
pic Re-amping is easy, you can record both processed and dry and add plug-ins later
pic ToneDirect Monitoring is easy to use and its latency is acceptable
pic You can keep it quiet when recording

CONS

pic Latency with software monitoring through other plugins is not acceptable

GLOSSARY

  • ASIO - Audio Stream Input/Output, audio interface driver technology introduced by Steinberg Media Technologies that allows low latencies and better quality audio on Windows OS
  • CoreAudio - Apple audio driver used in Mac OS
  • Hi-Z - high impedance input dedicated for connecting electric guitars
  • DAW - Digital Audio Workstation, audio production software
  • dry tone - clean guitar tone captured before being processed through an amp or an amp simulation
  • processed tone - guitar tone after being processed through an amp or an amp simulation
  • re-amping - processing previously recorded dry tones with real or software amps
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