How to connect your electric guitar to your computer
Things change very fast these days, so this is only an overview.
Nowadays all computers have a build-in sound card with a microphone and/or a line-in port. To connect your axe with your computer, you need a cable with a 1/8 ” (3.5 mm) male mini-plug on one side and the standard 1/4 ” (6.3 mm) plug for your axe on the other side, or alternatively your standard guitar cable with a 1/4 ” to 1/8 ” adapter.
For an acoustic guitar without pickup as well as for your vocals you need a microphone.
Now simply connect your guitar to the line-in port of your computer. The following software setup depends on your operating system, I’ll describe it for Windows 7/8/10, XP or Vista. Linux users usually know what to do. I don’t know much about a Mac.
If you open the sound control, for example via a right mouse click on the task bar icon of the sound card, you can enable line-in for both play and record. Now turn the guitar volume knob open and you’ll hear your guitar through your PC as if it is a clean transistor amp. For the first time you can use the build-in Windows audio recorder to record your first song. I can’t provide screen shots because they would be in German…
With a single coil pickup you may hear some noise generated by the computer and monitor, so don’t put your axe too near to it, or use a humbucker (or switch to pos. 2 or 4 of the pickup switch).
Warning: don’t leave your guitar alone without turning the volume knob to zero or switching off the speakers or your amp. A loop feedback can build up and destroy sound card or speaker! Why? Pure physics – the sound from the speaker can cause the string to vibrate, this goes amplified back to the speaker causing the string to vibrate even more, which again is amplified… and so on.
Recording more comfortable, adding effects
The Windows audio recorder is not really comfortable, but there are many free alternatives, for example:
- Audacity, a multi-track digital audio software. You can mix, edit, filter, import, export plus much more. Recommended.
- KRISTAL Audio Engine is a powerful multi-track recorder, audio sequencer and mixer.
I recommend the first two programs, both are freeware and can do more than I want. You can record a rhythm track and play some lead afterwards, then simply put them together.
There are also a lot of commercial software solutions available, just look for Adobe Audition (formerly Cooledit), Cakewalk Sonar, Reaper, Pro Tools, Cubase or PowerTracks. Some high-end sound cards are build for this purpose, with special software like virtual amps packed by.
Usually a good external USB sound card will provide latency-free recording, much better than the build-in cards.
Using amps and pre-amps
If you have a good amp, preamp or pedal you can also connect it to the line-in of your computer. Quite simple.
If you miss the drums or need a steady rhythm to improve your timing you may use a computer drum machine instead of a metronome. Not that they can replace a real drummer, especially a Blues drummer, but it’s better than nothing. There are some freeware rhythm programs available, most of them are more suited for rap, acid, hip hop, techno and other styles I can’t even write correctly. But with the right shuffle pattern they work even with the Blues. Some suggestions:
- Hammerhead Rhythm Station. Freeware and easy to use. Look at Loopexchange and Userbanks and you’ll find some Blues files. Or search the forum for Blues…
- Groove Agent. Not free, but really good.
- Drumstation. Another Freeware to emulate Roland drum synthesizers.
- GiveMeTac. If you just want a metronome, try it.
This is a short, Windows based step-by-step guide on how to use your computer as an amplifier, adding effects and record while playing. We use Kristal, an older free audio software, and a set of free VST plugins (VST: Virtual Studio Technology, a proprietary industry standard for audio effects plugins, developed by Steinberg Media Technologies GmbH). If you want to try more, look at http://http://www.kvraudio.com/. Audacity also has a VST extension (look for “VST-bridge”), but supports only a few applications and no graphic interfaces. There’s also a successor to Kristal called Studio one free.
At first, download:
- Kristal Audio Engine
- the VST plugins
- ASIO4ALL (an “Audio Stream Input/Output” audio driver for your sound card)
and install ASIO4ALL and Kristal Audio Engine. If your sound card has a driver which already supports ASIO then don’t install ASIO4ALL, use the driver that comes with your card. Then unzip the plugins into the plugins-folder of Kristal (or the general VST folder on your hard drive). You can keep the sub-directories. Connect your guitar to the line-in of your sound card (not the mic in!) like described above. Be aware that ASIO usually bypasses the Windows XP or 7 volume mixer, so you can’t adjust the volume that way.
- start Kristal, read manual, set preferences (Engine -> Preferences)
- click on audio input 1 of the mixer, choose LiveIN
- the LiveIN rack will appear
- click Input, select line in of your audio card (ASIO, not MME!)
- now you can already hear yourself playing!
- click FX1 (1st channel of the mixer) and select an amp (i.e. JVM900) or pre-amp effect
- play with the knobs while picking!
- you can use FX2 to add other effects
- to record, select TapeIt on the master channel FX1 (on the right side of the mixer)
- to play to a jamtrack, open the Waver on the second channel (Audio Input 2 of the mixer). MP3 is not yet supported.
- you can also use Audacity to play a (mp3)-jamtrack while playing and recording with Kristal
Known problems and solutions (Win XP/7, should work with other versions, too)
Some general tips:
- use the latest drivers for your sound card, de-install old drivers first, clean up registry
- don’t use the Windows MME driver, install the ASIO driver
- stop unnecessary background tasks, clean up the task bar
- ASIO4ALL comes with a manual. It’s worth reading! The website has more information, too.
Most problems are related to latency (delay) and crackles. Latency itself is unavailable, because the signal from your guitar must be processed serial:
- the analogue line in signal must be converted to a digital signal (A/D converter)
- the audio is buffered to get a constant timing, so it’s stored in memory for a short time before being processed further
- the signal must be routed to your application, i.e. Kristal
- the effects (VST) must be applied to the audio stream, this takes most of the CPU usage
- the processed audio stream must be routed back to the sound card
- the digital signal must be converted back to the analogue signal for the speaker
The most critical part regarding the latency is the buffer setting – number and size. The default Windows MME driver has latency of about 750 milliseconds and can’t be adjusted, so you have a big delay. Using the ASIO driver enables you to adjust the buffer size and number of samples. Open “ASIO4ALL off-line settings”, switch to advanced and try different settings for “ASIO buffer size” and “Latency Compensation”. 512 samples at 44.1 kHz result in 512/44100 * s-1 = 11,6 ms. Be sure to highlight the application before adjusting the sliders! In most cases the default values work without problems. If you get crackles or the audio becomes distorted, the buffer size is too small. Sometimes other applications in the background can cause strange signals if they are using the audio device, too.
If you have problems with an AC97 sound card (like most on-board cards), try switching the “Always Resample @44.1k” and the “Force WDM driver to 16bit” controls. For more troubleshooting, read the ASIO FAQ.
Another VST host is Minihost, allowing to record.
Recording with Audacity (without vst plugins)
If you want to record using your amp, pedals or interfaces like the Line6 PODs (see below) you can also use Audacity. With Audacity you can play a backing track and record at the same time. Simply open the backing track, move the cursor to the point you want to start and hit record. A new track will start. If you press shift+play, you can also loop a selected region, great for practice before recording. Be sure to adjust the preferences (ctrl-p) to your needs and to include the LAME MP3 encoder.
Some other products (not free):
Although the build-in soundcard can do the job, an external USB interface usually gives much better results and has a lower latency.
The Line 6 POD (formerly TonePort) family is great for simple and advanced home recording, especially when your sound card isn’t the best or you have an older PC. It’s a USB sound card with software amp and works nearly latency-free for only a few bucks. It also works as a usual sound card. Other brands like Roland or Tascam have similar products, often with a DAW software like Sonar LE, Cubase or others.
Using software like Guitar Rig, Amplitube or POD Farm gives you two choices, either running them as stand-alone program or as vst plugin. Be sure to have ASIO enabled to avoid latency.