Actually, no one has asked me that question, but I thought I’d be helpful and answer it just the same. Last week, I got a brand new Behringer Guitar Link off of eBay for the low, low price of about $40. The Guitar Link is a nifty little device that lets me plug my guitar into my computer through a USB port.
The Guitar Link is a wonderful thing, to be sure, but the software that comes with it – the stuff that can actually make it useful – is complete garbage. First of all, there’s a scaled back package of guitar amp models from Native Instruments (the people who brought us the formidable Guitar Rig 3 package that will honestly allow you to pull about any sound you want out of your guitar.
The “Behringer edition” of that software gives you but three models and no “pedal effects” at all. To make matters worse, you can demo the models for 30 days and can only keep one. Want more? You’ve got to pay for it, folks.
The mixer – EnergyXT2 – is just about to bad. In addition to being hard as hell to use, you’ve got to send in some cash if you want to unlock some of the better features of the software (that includes plugging in drum tracks and other things). Seeing how terrible the scaled back version of the software is, I don’t think I’m going to send them any money.
In fact, I decided that spending a lot to be able to record tracks on my computer is ridiculous. Once you drop about $300 for Guitar Rig and a decent mixing/recording package, spend some more cash on monitors and do something about the crummy stock soundcard in your computer, you’re starting to talk about some real money. Oh, and plan on spending some more if you want a pedal to easily control those effects in Guitar Rig.
For that kind of cash, you could get a heck of a good modeling amp, a four-track recorder and a microphone. You could record and mix all day long the old fashioned way (and the way I prefer, frankly).
No, what I want to do is just bang out some ideas, loop some guitar tracks I can practice against and generally mess around with my beloved Fender Deluxe Stratocaster. I’m not going to spend a lot of money to do that. Besides, it just plain irritates me when I buy a piece of hardware and a lot of crippled software comes with it. Bah!
So I looked around and found some free recording solutions. First of all, you’ve got have a good mixer and the best free one out there for my purposes is Kristal Audio Engine. It doesn’t cost a dime unless you’re going to use it commercially and it supports both ASIO and VST.
ASIO a great sound driver for instruments that features wonderfully low latency – high latency means you’ll hit a note and wait a bit for the computer to process it. That’s a pain to deal with if you’re recording multiple tracks (and, yes, Kristal is great at handling multiple tracks). VST is a standard plug-in format and it’s a wonderful thing. There are a lot of great, free amp packages and effects for guitar and bass in that VST format.
The amp package I picked up is FreeAmp 2.5 – it’s got seven amplifier models to choose from and plenty of effects – compressors, wah pedals, overdrive, chorus, delay, reverb, flanger and phaser. It’s a very solid package that is more than good enough for fleshing out ideas and making your guitar sound like everything from a fine instrument to a piece of trash with a couple of strings missing and a short in the electronics.
Thanks to Kristal’s ability to easily handle VST effects, there are plenty of free amp models and effects. Yeah, most of them suck, but there are some really great ones if you’re willing to dig around for them.
There are a couple of major drawbacks to Kristal. First of all, you can’t record what the VST plug-in is processing. You record clean and then slap effects on later. That’s not that much of an issue for me, really, as I’ve spent so much time practicing with my guitar unplugged that I’m used to it. Besides, you can run the VST-processed tone through your headphones after you’ve stopped recording it – great for multitracking purposes as you can lay down a basic track, process the right hell out of it and then play along with it on additional tracks.
Second, you can't output a track to MP3. Fortunately, Audacity is free and I can output tracks in Kristal to Ogg Vorbis (or WAV) and convert them to MP3 in Audacity (that requires the LAME MP3 encoder, but that's also free).
Also, Kristal is very easy to use and that’s a great thing. Back when my roommate had a four-track recorder, it was an easy to matter to mic up my guitar and play some tracks. Kristal makes things just about that easy.
I’ll admit I was very tempted by all the guitar models available in Guitar Rig after fooling with the scaled down version of it. Then I remembered something – back when I was actually halfway decent at playing guitar, I got by with a simple amp with reverb on it and a Boss HM-2 distortion pedal. What am I really going to do with a ton of effects, anyway? I’ve got more sounds available through my FreeAmp than I’ve ever had and that’s more than good enough.
So, there it is. Save that money and grab a copy of Kristal and some VST effects/amps that cost you absolutely nothing. You’ll be glad you did.
If you'd like an awful example of my lame guitar skills, just click the player below. We've got three tracks in there (main pitiful riff, terrible lead and some jangly thing at the end) that I processed through Kristal and FreeAmp then converted in Audacity. Yeah, I know I need to practice and learn how to use Kristal, but I hope to be able to brag about being competent or reasonably decent on guitar one of these days.