Are you looking to take your music career to the next level, or maybe you just want to save a song you’ve written so you can listen back to it and pick out those areas that still need some work.
One of the most important tools you’ll ever acquire as a musician is good recording software. You can buy the same software used by commercial recording studios, and most of the big names in the game have free or vastly cheaper lite versions that still have all of the same core functionality.
However, since there’s so many of them it helps if you pick the right one the first time. There’s no way of telling exactly which software you’ll prefer until you play around with it a little, but knowing the capabilities of each one in advance can help you sort through the pile a little faster.
To help you with this we’ve put together a comparison of the five best bits of recording software for guitar.
Our favourites at a glance
If you want to be able to completely record, mix, master and edit a song the clear choice is going to be Ableton Live. The fact that you can take it with you onto the stage and use it almost as another instrument (or the world’s most complete effects board) only gives it more points.
The downside is that the full version is quite expensive. However, the cheaper versions still offer all of the core functionality, and you can make up a lot of the gaps in the software with free third-party developments.
Budget / free options
If you're looking for something free, Audacity wins hands down. It’s easy to use and it’s far more powerful than you’d initially expect.
Presonus Studio One 3 Prime is also free, but is more of a DAW than guitar recording software, so it can seem a little extraneous if you’re not primarily an electronic producer.
If you have an iPhone, iPad or Macbook, GarageBand is a fantastic choice. You’ll be able to record on one device, and then come back and edit it later if you prefer to have the time to sit and puzzle through every little detail until the recording sounds just right.
Ok, let's look at each in more detail
Best Guitar Recording Software
1. Ableton Live
Ableton Live is far more than just recording software. It’s used for everything from mixing and mastering to full on music production, and it’s this power that makes it so great for recording guitar. As a fully fledged digital audio workstation (DAW) you can use it for a whole host of jobs beyond simple recording.
The software is very beginner friendly too, making it an ideal option for somebody who just wants to focus on playing guitar and not get bogged down in technical difficulties. If this is you, then go with Ableton Live Intro, as the features are far more stripped down and this lets you focus on the job of recording. With this package you can easily figure out anything you need to know in the space of an afternoon. If you want more complexity and the ability to edit and change your recordings in all sorts of mysterious and arcane ways, the full version is definitely worth a spin.
The other strong advantage of Ableton Live is right there in the name. Sure, you can use it as guitar recording software, but you can also bring it with you to gigs. Being able to use your guitar as a synth controller, being able to bring in effects as and when you need and even trigger recorded loops or sounds on the fly is an incredibly liberating experience. In this sense, Ableton Live does more than just let you record music, it also gives you the tools you need in order to become a more well-rounded musician.
With the previous example we took a look at a DAW, one of the most powerful and essential pieces of software used in the music industry today. Audacity is… not like that. First of all, it’s completely free. As in, there are no trial versions. The whole package is just there to use.
With that said, let’s take a closer look at what you can achieve with Audacity. In order to record with Audacity you’ll need to use a microphone or have a virtual instrument which can be connected to a MIDI guitar. These are generally the easiest options, although there are a couple of other methods that you can find - but we’re straying off topic a little there.
Using Audacity is about as simple as you could hope for. There is a big record button. All you have to do is press that and start playing, and then stop when you’re done. As you play you’ll see a graphic representation of the sound file begin to appear. When you’re done, hit stop. You can then export the file in whatever format you want, but before you do that there are lots of other things you can do.
Like any guitar recording software, you’ll have all the basic editing tools at hand, letting you cut and move different parts of the file around. This is perfect for making sure that each iteration of a chorus or any other part of a song is exactly the same each time, and saves you a lot of time as you only need to record each part once.
Audacity also comes equipped with a huge range of more advanced editing tools that let you create some truly weird and wonderful effects. If you feel the included tools aren’t enough, you can always download more. There are literally thousands of videos and articles that will walk you through creating just about any effect you can imagine.
Because of the amazing level of versatility offered by Audacity, the ease of use and the fact that it’s completely free, it’s very hard to argue that Audacity isn’t the best guitar recording software if you’re on a tight budget. It’s not so useful for incorporating into a live performance, but it’ll certainly be enough for you to release music online or record a demo.
With the more polished and professional audio recording and music production software, guitarists can feel a little bit left out. These are usually the domain of electronic producers and most of the tools are geared towards that application.
Mixcraft is a little different in this regard. Rather than offering you a huge range of synths and patches and whatnot, you’re given a very user friendly experience. For guitar recording, the software really shines due to the inclusion of a large number of amp emulators, effects and more. It’s almost like having access to all of the hardware you can’t afford or have the space to keep.
It’s also great for collaborative projects and group sessions. Recording on multiple tracks at once is exceedingly simple, and the editing process is intuitive enough that you won’t be left scratching your head trying to figure out how to change the cursor from cut to draw.
The software comes in a few different versions. If you’re going to be doing the recording at home and don’t want to spend your life savings on one piece of software, start off with Mixcraft Home Studio. If you absolutely must have the complete package, you can always upgrade later.
Another thing that makes Mixcraft so appealing is the in-depth information available from the makers of the software and the wider community. It’d be a while before anything on Mixcraft actually confused you, but learning some of the more advanced tips and tricks is always helpful, and it’s good to know that you’ll more or less have your hand held the entire time if music technology isn’t your strong point.
Let’s say that you weren’t at home, and you’d just come up with a great lick, or you’d finally managed to come up with the perfect intro for a new song. Whatever it is, you don’t have access to your computer. You do however, happen to have your phone or tablet with you.
This is where GarageBand comes in. Although it’s only available on Apple devices, it’s quickly becoming the king of on-the-go recording software. Since these devices already have a microphone, there’s very little you need to actually do in order to record. Sure, it’s not the same as having access to a full studio set up, but you can always come back to it later when you have all of your resources. Being able to use this in a pinch means that you don’t have to worry about losing anything.
The other thing is that GarageBand is also a full DAW, so not only can you record at any time, but you also have access to a full range of editing and production tools. These can be further expanded with the addition of third party add ons and effects.
As with most software you find on Apple products, it’s very clean and shiny. This doesn’t make recording music any different, but the visually friendly approach can help you find your way around the software very quickly. Complex DAWs can seriously increase your learning period to the point where you completely lose interest due to frustration. GarageBand averts this and takes advantage of touch screen capabilities to make recording and editing as simple as a few taps here and there.
5. Presonus Studio One 3 Prime
The name can be a bit confusing, but don’t worry, the software itself is much easier to grasp. Apart from the rather badly thought out name, what else makes it stand out?
First of all, it’s on par with commercial recording software. Think along the lines of Ableton Live, the full version. Then imagine that it’s completely free.
You get a very nice selection of built in audio effects, including all of the ones you’d look for when shopping for guitar pedals. You also have a powerful sampler that allows you to implement sounds from just about anything you can find online or record.
The recording tools are excellent too. You’re able to use as many tracks, effects and so on as you need. This makes it perfect for recording multiple guitar tracks and mixing them together, or even getting the band’s first demo made.
Actually beginning to record can be a little more drawn out than some other examples, as you’ll have to navigate through a couple of menus here and there. If that all sounds like a lot of effort, it only takes a few seconds longer once you know where everything is, and in a way it’s more useful as you can organise and name recording tracks in advance.
There are plenty of editing and tweaking tools at your disposal here, which you’ll learn about in great depth as you experiment with the software more. For now though, it’s worth bearing in mind that you can add effects in afterwards. You don’t need to actually trigger the effects as you’re playing, and this is the biggest difference between recording and playing live. You can play the song back and mess around with effects that way, or you can create automation clips that will control all of the settings and dials for you after quickly programming them with a simple drag and drop method.
Ged is Founder and Editor-in-chief at Zing Instruments. He’s a guitarist for London based gypsy jazz band ‘Django Mango’ and a lover of all things music. When he’s not ripping up and down the fretboard, he’s tinkering with his ’79 Campervan.