A direct connection to your computer, whether desktop or laptop, Windows or Mac OSx, offers a whole new world of opportunities for experimenting with your guitar playing. Computer applications offer easy access to virtual versions of famous amplifiers, pedals, plugins, and even provide a way for you to develop custom sound profiles.
Getting started is a lot easier than many would think. Hooking up your electric or acoustic guitar directly to your computer (so you can play without an amp) only requires a couple of widely available simple hardware items.
In this KillerGuitarRigs Guide we will:
- Learn about guitar – computer interfaces
- Learn all about the various software and programs available
- Teach you how to rig your computer up as an amplifier
- Guitar – Computer Interfaces
- How to Choose an Interface
- How to Connect an Acoustic Guitar to Your Computer
- How to Use Your Computer as an Amplifier
- Digital Audio Workstations
- Plugins/Amp Sims
- Additional Gear
- Final Thoughts on Connecting Your Guitar to Your Computer
Guitar – Computer Interfaces
Unfortunately, even electric guitars don’t have a way to directly plug into a computer. In order to convert the analog electrical signal that comes from the pickups into a digital one, you’ll need a device known as an audio interface.
There are a few different types of audio interface on the market. Keep reading to find out more about them (or check out our favorites here).
The Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 is a great starting point (or the Scarlett Solo on a tighter budget). Without a doubt, this is one of the most widely-owned USB interfaces, and for good reason. Operation is nice and simple. Once the included software is installed, it’s literally a case of plug and play. You can plug in a standard ¼” jack or an XLR cable, making it a suitable choice for both guitar and vocals.
Another great feature of this interface is the headphones-out option, which allows you to practice playing your electric guitar using all the effects and amp profiles from your software, and plug straight into headphones to play in complete silence (see our favorite headphones for this use here).
The Focusrite Scarlett 2i2is a great option, but if you’re looking for a similar interface and your budget is tighter, the Behringer U-Phoria might be perfect for you. It offers dedicated instrument and mic inputs, allowing you to record both simultaneously. This is a solid value for money option. Even at such a low price, it still includes Tracktion DAW (digital audio workstation) software and 150 downloadable instrument/effect plug-ins.
Better still, the Focusrite and Behringer interfaces are available as home recording packages that include headphones, microphones, and cables – enough to get you up and running.
If you happen to be in the market for something even simpler, consider investing in an interface from the IK Multimedia iRig series. Their products are well made and their Amplitude software is excellent, with tons of amp and pedal simulations available. They offer compatibility with Mac OSx, and even iPad and iPhone.
For simple bedroom noodling, the iRig 2 is a great option. It’s very affordable and is among the smallest and most portable of all guitar–computer interfaces. Despite the low price, this is no toy. It’s simple to use and there is zero latency, so what you play is what you hear in real time, whether using a computer or mobile device.
Anybody looking to record for public consumption should consider the iRig HD 2. It’s an upgraded version of the basic iRig and provides a much clearer sound than the basic model, with no detectable hiss, giving the impression that you are plugged directly into an amp and not a portable interface kit.
Purpose-built interfaces aren’t the only way to connect your guitar to a computer. Here are some other methods that will provide a means of direct connection – some of which you may already own.
Not only are modeling amps a great way to get thousands of different tones out of one amplifier, but some of them also feature a USB output, effectively turning them into guitar audio interfaces.
The Marshall Code series are an excellent choice for live performance, bedroom practice, and even direct to computer recording, particularly the Marshall Code 50.
If you’re not into the Marshall sound for your live performances, the Boss Katana range also offers USB-out computer-recording capabilities. Katana amps are widely regarded for their clean tones, without undesirable breakup at high volumes.
When shopping for a modeling amp with the intent of playing directly into your computer, be sure to check that it has USB output, not just input. Many modeling amps have a USB port to allow the installation of new amp profiles, but not all have the capability to process outbound signals via USB.
Effects Pedals and Stomp Boxes
Another effective way to connect your guitar to a computer is via an appropriately equipped FX pedal. Many modern pedals and stomp boxes have built-in processing to convert analog signals to computer readable digital sound.
Line 6 have been pioneers of all things digital in the guitar realm, and their HX Stomp multi-effects pedal is proof of this. This compact box offers hundreds, if not thousands, of FX and modeling profiles. In addition, it has USB-out, allowing you to hook up your guitar to your computer and play or record through your DAW.
A benefit of connecting via an FX pedal is that you can make recordings sound more like a live performance by playing using the effects you normally would use onstage. If on the other hand, you want to send a dry signal to the computer for processing in the DAW, the Line 6 HX allows for this, too.
Connecting your guitar to your computer isn’t always about practice and recording. Line 6 also offer their Variax Series guitars, which take the concept of a modeling amp and apply it to the actual guitar. These guitars feature a dial that allows you to digitally alter the sound profile of the guitar depending on the style you want to play. You can connect your Variax guitar to your computer via the adapter box provided and an ethernet cable. The Line 6 Workbench software allows you to download new profiles and create custom ones.
USB Guitar Cables
There are guitar cables on the market that offer direct ¼” jack to USB, like this one from ATNY. Results can be mixed with these cables and the biggest problem is latency. Latency is the number one issue to avoid when connecting a guitar to a computer. If you’re not familiar with the term, latency is the delay experienced between playing a note and that note registering with the software. It is extremely distracting and can make it impossible to play along with drums or a metronome. Fortunately, they are extremely inexpensive. If you want to try one for experimentation purposes, the risk is low – your mileage may vary!
How to Choose an Interface
The products discussed above are all great options, but how do you begin to choose one? Here are some questions you should ask yourself before making a decision:
- Will you be recording several instruments simultaneously?
- Are you planning to record vocals?
- Do you plan to record an acoustic guitar?
- If so, will you be recording line-in or with a mic?
- Do you already have DAW software?
- Would you like the option to play/record through a cell phone or tablet?
Your use case is the biggest deciding factor. If you’re recording and intend to sell your music and send it to record labels, stream, or generally make it available to the public, you should be looking for the highest quality possible. In almost every circumstance, this will require a purpose-built USB interface. The Focusrite Scarlett Solo is our number one recommendation here.
For recording multiple instruments/microphones at the same time, you’ll need a USB interface with multiple channels. The Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 3rd gen offers 2 inputs for simultaneous guitar and mic or dual guitar input.
If your only intention is practice and you’re looking for an option that will let you play electric guitar and experience the sound of different amps without bothering your neighbors, the IK Multimedia iRig 2 is a great option. It offers a huge number of amp profiles and effects, and their mobile app is super simple to use, even for beginners.
Dual-purpose devices like modeling amps are solid options if you’re already in the market for a new amplifier and you’re thinking of ways to connect to your computer. Similarly, if you don’t want to build a pedal board and a multi-effects pedal is more appealing, looking for one with computer interface capabilities can add real flexibility to your rig.
No matter which interface you choose, you should be looking for something with low, or zero detectable latency.
How to Connect an Acoustic Guitar to Your Computer
Because both electric guitars and electro-acoustic guitars have a built-in output jack, the process for connecting them to a computer is exactly the same as described above. If you’re looking to connect a standard acoustic guitar to your computer, you have 2 options.
- Install a soundhole pickup
- Use a microphone as an input
Using a Soundhole Pickup
If you decide to use a soundhole pickup, like this excellent Fishman single-coil model, you’ll be able to plug straight into your USB interface, multi-effects pedal, or modeling amp. The advantage of doing it this way is the reduction of background noise and therefore a reduction in any editing required if you’re recording. The downside is you’ll lose much of the woody warmth that comes with an acoustic guitar.
Using a Microphone as an Input
Your other option is to rig up a mic and run the mic through a USB interface. While a modeling amp or FX pedal might work, the way they are profiled will definitely not yield the best sound quality.
If you plan on recording using a mic, to truly capture the acoustic sound profile, it’s recommended to use a standard XLR mic through a USB digital interface. This is the best way to get a clean recording. We have a whole article here on the best microphones for recording acoustic guitars.
If you’re not too worried about getting the perfect recording, a good quality USB mic is possibly the most direct way to connect an acoustic guitar to a computer. The Audio-Technica AT2020USB+ is an excellent choice for this application. It’s a cardioid condenser USB mic that should be plug and play with most computers, allowing direct access to your DAW for recording.
How to Use Your Computer as an Amplifier
Whether for space-saving reasons, cost, or courtesy to your roommates, family, or neighbors, it has never been easier to ditch the traditional amplifier in favor of a virtual rig hosted in your cell phone, tablet, or computer.
In order to do so, you’ll need to find software that functions as a standalone, not just as a plugin. Garageband, Ableton Live 11, Amplitube 4, and Bias Elite are all great options for this.
When it comes to dialing in the perfect tone, having a virtual rig puts the world at your fingertips. Physical versions of the amps and FX you can set up on your computer can run into thousands of dollars. While purists may say there is no replacement for the real thing, it takes a serious audiophile to be able to notice the difference in a blind test.
Not only will you have access to cheaper versions of the world’s best gear, but you’ll also be able to play with the settings for each, sometimes in ways you couldn’t with the actual equipment. Another benefit is the fact that you can save multiple versions of the same amps and FX. For example, if you’ve set up 3 profiles for your virtual Marshall Silver Jubilee, you can pick and choose between them at the touch of a button. With the real equipment, you’d need to buy 3 amplifiers to be able to do the same!
Controlling Effects While Using Your Computer as an Amplifier
Of course, using a computer as an amplifier does have its drawbacks. Adjusting controls is typically more fiddly than using a physical version with a pedal board, and of course switching between FX requires you take your hands off the guitar and click on the virtual controls.
We can fix this by using a midi controller. This is a device that looks just like a stompbox or multi-FX pedal, but it’s programmed to control your predefined virtual FX. The Behringer FCB1010 is a great option if this is an avenue you’d like to pursue. It has 10 banks of presets and an expression pedal, making it incredibly versatile.
You can use your midi controller to switch between amps, to control your virtual effects, to change volume or tone, to control wah-wah and other expression pedal-based FX, and even to control any virtual looper pedals you may have set up.
While not essential to using your computer as an amplifier, having the kind of control that a midi foot switch offers makes it a much more natural playing experience and is highly recommended.
Digital Audio Workstations
The software and hardware are important in equal measure when connecting a guitar to a computer. Now that you know more about the various devices that can be used as interfaces, it is time to learn more about the software that powers them.
Given that Garageband is a free app that comes with every Mac, it is a surprisingly powerful piece of software. It is a digital audio workstation that is compatible with all of the mainstream interfaces, amps, and pedals discussed in this guide, and offers a lot of its own free amp models, stomp box effects and plugins.
Garageband also features an amp designer that allows you to select an emulation of a famous amplifier and modify it to your preferences. You can also choose from different virtual speaker cabinets and even microphones. With the pedalboard plugins, you can apply numerous effects and customize their settings and routing.
Ableton Live 11
Live 11 is the latest version of Ableton’s world class DAW. For those just getting started, Ableton Live 11 Intro is an affordable way to get access to the world of music recording and production. It features over 1,500 sounds, multitrack recording, basic amp effects like chorus and delay. And best of all, it allows you to connect third-party plugins like amp profiles and effects pedals.
Most devices that are capable of connecting to a computer come with a free software download. Some allow for standalone use, while others require a separate DAW. Read on to learn more about these inclusive applications (or check out our full guide to free amp sims here).
Amplitube 4 Plugin
Amplitube 4 is the software that comes with the IK Multimedia iRig series devices. It offers a wide range of amp and pedal simulations, and can be used on both mobile devices and desktop/laptop computers.
One of the nicest features of Amplitube 4 is that it can be used on its own or as a plugin within a DAW like Garageband or Ableton Live. The virtual interface looks like a real amp, and so it offers a familiar view, making it very user-friendly.
Even Fender created licensed models of their most famous amps to be used within Amplitube 4, giving you access to that Princeton Reverb sound without the large price tag.
The pedalboard function within Amplitube 4 also looks like a real rig. By simply dragging and dropping, you can rearrange the pedals however you like to create the perfect sound profile.
Anybody with a Mac, iPhone or iPad can download Amplitube from the App Store as a paid app, but if you purchase an iRig HD 2 device you will get the full version included. There are different packages available with different amp and pedal add-ons.
Helix Native Plugin
Helix Native is Line 6’s interface program. It comes stacked with dozens of amp models and virtual FX.
Line 6 software like Helix Native is heavily branded and designed to look just like the display you’d see on the Helix hardware. This makes it familiar in appearance, but a little more intimidating to newcomers, as you’ll be adjusting sliders rather than turning knobs.
On the negative side, Helix Native is one of the few companion plugins that can’t run as a standalone and requires a separate DAW, even if you don’t need to record. Additionally, it’s very expensive given its limitations. Although if you do buy the HX Stomp Box and register your purchase, you can purchase Helix Native at a 75% discount.
Bias Elite Combo Amp and FX Modeling Plugin
Bias Elite is a great piece of software from Positive Grid. It can be used on its own or as a plugin within your chosen DAW, making a versatile option. It’s feature-rich and has incredibly accurate simulations of the world’s most famous amplifiers and pedals. Making them easier to recognize, the virtual representations look just like the real things.
This is a bundle package that includes everything from Positive Grid’s Combo Amp and FX Modeling programs, offering better value than standalone purchases. The download includes 100 amplifiers, 100 effects, 18 rack processors, 18 modeled guitars, and much more.
There is little point in spending time setting up the perfect tone from your modeling amps and FX rig if you are unable to hear the sonic differences clearly. If you’re connecting to your computer in order to record, you should consider investing in a couple of additional items to get the best possible quality.
Your computer’s speakers (and the majority of regular speakers) won’t do a good job of accurately representing the true sound profile of your recordings. This can lead to a loss of clarity in the mix. There’s no need to spend a fortune here. These Mackie CR3-X 3” studio monitors take up very little space, offer full-range response with no breakup, and feature a headphone-out jack for occasions where you need to keep the noise down.
Much like the difference between studio monitors and regular speakers, there is a noticeable difference between regular headphones and studio headphones.
The biggest difference is the sound isolation. If you’re using regular headphones, you’ll most likely experience sound bleeding into the space you’re recording in. This isn’t a big deal if you’re recording with a direct line in, but if you’re using a microphone for recording, it has the potential to be noticed in the mix.
Regular headphones are set up to provide a pleasing audio experience across a wide range of genres, whether bass boost, treble boost, or some kind of volume enhancer. Whereas studio headphones are set up to be sonically neutral. Their design ensures there’s no additional coloration in the sound, which helps to reveal any tonal flaws and give the most accurate representation of your actual recording. Again, they don’t need to cost a lot. These Mackie MC-100 Professional Closed Back Headphones represent phenomenal value. If you don’t have the desktop space or you’re looking for something a little more portable, these are a great option.
Final Thoughts on Connecting Your Guitar to Your Computer
Connecting a guitar to your computer isn’t all about recording. Modern amplifier-modeling technology means you can now simulate many famous amplifier models without the expense associated, not to mention the space required to have multiple amps. USB technology has also made the process so much easier in recent years. In many cases, it’s a completely plug and play affair with little to no setup required. Whether it’s for recording a song you’ve just written or for simple experiments with your sound, I thoroughly recommend hooking up your guitar to your computer.