How do I connect a guitar and mic into a MOTO soundcard?
October 12, 2004 10:23 AM   Subscribe

Guitarists and gearheads! I need assistance connecting an electric guitar and a microphone directly into a MOTU 828 soundcard.

Here's the situation: parents are away on a week's vacation, and I've got an Ovation Breadwinner Limited solidbody electric (if it matters) whose signal I'd like to get directly into my computer, and hopefully monitor simultaneously. I am planning to add effects realtime via software, and at the moment, I play primarily rhythm -- lots of open chords. Soundcard wise, I'm using the original MOTU 828 (not the Mark II). Everytime I plug directly into the soundcard, the signal 1) doesn't seem to be hot enough (hope I'm using these terms correctly -- when I say hot, I mean the levels on the guitar are SUPER low, even when I use the gain on the soundcard) and 2) seems to lose a lot of top end. I also have a SM57 mic that, when DI'ed into the MOTU is SUPER-BASSY (to the point where anything one might sing/say into it is just about totally unintelligible: total Charlie Brown teacher here) -- this is with the MOTU gain cranked. (i don't think the bassy sound from the mic is due to any sort of feedback -- when I run it through my mackie it sounds semi-reasonable, but again, I'd rather not do that. I'll probably just be headphone monitoring the mic anyways once I get everything properly set.)

I've got a Mackie 1202vlz, but I'd prefer not to run through this board as it would 1) ruin my current synth setup and 2) generate some nice hum.

I'd prefer in price over perfection. If $100 can make a noticeable difference in my sound quality, it's worth it to me. If I have to spend $1000, I'm not interested. I have looked into this before and have heard that the Zvex Super-Hard-On is supposedly the shizz, but if there's a solution that's going to work for my mic *and* my guitar (and potentially an electric bass in the future), that'd be, well, awesome.

So what do I need? a new mixer? pre-amp? Solutions under $200 are key.
posted by fishfucker to Technology (10 answers total)
Are you going into the XLR or 1/4" connector for the mic? Is phantom power turned on? (It shouldn't be, for an SM57.) According to the linked article, the unit has built-in mic preamps (which apparently don't totally suck), so you definitely *shouldn't* have any trouble with that.

As for the guitar, things are a bit dicier. I've recorded electric guitar straight in through a mic port before on a cheap soundcard, and it seems to work just fine. It's far from ideal, but it works. And with decent mic preamps, you should have no trouble at all, provided that you're plugged into one of the mic inputs. Just watch the level -- I think electric guitars tend to run a bit hotter than dynamic mics (or I could be misremembering).

As for a DI box for the guitar in the future, you might want to look into a used Line 6 POD 2.0 (well under $200). It's overkill -- does effects and whatnot -- but you might be pleasantly surprised by it. (The new PODxt is very nice, although it sounds a bit odd when not in a mix, and quite a bit pricier.)
posted by uncleozzy at 10:49 AM on October 12, 2004

I honestly am not that familiar with the sound card. But my advise is to get a dedicated input box. These usually connect via USB or firewire to the computer and have microphone, instrument, and line level inputs. I have a lower-end Tascam one of these, perhaps $150. Sound is quite decent. The firewire ones are more expensive but have much higher bandwidth. Most of them will support multiple inputs at once, if you need that.

I've gone the preamp route as well. It helps. Plugging an instrument straight into a sound card will simply never work well, you'll have the problems you mentioned. A pre-amp will bring the instrument to line level. There are lots of acceptable 2 channel pre-amps in the $150 range. Joe Meek makes one, ART makes one, etc. They usually support mics also, including phantom power.

A small powered mixer will also probably work, something like those little powered behringer mixers. Make sure it has an instrument level input and a mic input. Most have those in the first 2 channels. They include EQ, a slight db boost button, phantom power, blah blah.

Have fun.
posted by RustyBrooks at 10:51 AM on October 12, 2004

I'm in a similar situation (SM57 and a Strat). Mic is an extremely quiet source, guitar is stronger but still quieter than line. My sound card (Audigy 2 something or other) only has a line in and a mic input. I'm not familiar with your card, but on most the mic input is uselessly bad except for tinny computer condenser mics. And of course the line input isn't suited for either unless the level is boosted. Most people solve this problem with a mixer, but I mix on my computer (as you seem to want to), so I decided to go with a preamp.

After a lot of research I've ordered the M-Audio DMP3 which is $150-$200 and is very clear and quiet, and has impedence matching inputs for you can use guitar or mic. The Audio Buddy is similar, but isn't quite as clear or even in its frequency response, goes for about $100.

As for software, I use Guitar Rig and Trash. I have a GuitarPort but I think the sounds are kind of fake. GuitarPort and Guitar Rig both come with audio interfaces (GuitarPort uses a USB interface and GuitarRig uses a preamp), but with Trash and most other guitar software you need a preamp or mixer of your own.
posted by abcde at 10:59 AM on October 12, 2004

Response by poster: Are you going into the XLR or 1/4" connector for the mic? Is phantom power turned on?

The mic is going into an XLR, but I totally spaced to check whether phantom power was on. I didn't think the MOTU had phantom ... ah, looking at the review, it looks like the switch labeled "line/mic" is what flips the phantom power. I probably had it on mic, so I'll have to try it the other way and see what I get.

A small powered mixer will also probably work, something like those little powered behringer mixers. Make sure it has an instrument level input and a mic input. Most have those in the first 2 channels. They include EQ, a slight db boost button, phantom power, blah blah.

yeah, i've got one of those tiny footprint behringer's, and I might try that as well (it's how I used to record). Not the *greatest* results in the world, but better than what I'm getting now with the direct connection.

After a lot of research I've ordered the M-Audio DMP3 which is $150-$200

wow, that looks like it might do the trick, abcde. I'm definitely going to look into that. The audio buddy thing you've linked also looks like a great possibility, though I might just try doing some studio re-routing and using my behringer to see how it sounds.

thanks for all the responses so far, folks!
posted by fishfucker at 11:19 AM on October 12, 2004

Best answer: Haven't had coffee yet, so forgive me if I'm not as coherent as I like.

The 57 into the pres on my 896 (one model up from the 828 in Motu's product line) isn't a super high output combination. I have to dime the gain to get a signal out of it. The solution to this is a microphone preamp (not a Super Hard On!) which will boost the signal. As for the boominess of the sound when using the 57: They are not a hugely warm mic, I suspect you'd see better results with placement than with EQ or hardware fiddling. Last time I tracked acoustic with a 57 and my Motu unit, I ended up using the thinnest pick I could find and setting up the mic parallel to the neck and pointed toward the headstock. This gave me the ticky-ticky sound I was looking for. See Paul Burch's Fool for Love for the sound I was trying my best to rip off.

In general dynamic mics like the 57 have a proximity effect which exaggerates the low end response the closer the source gets to the microphone. This works well in live situations but can be problematic in the studio. If you scare up a mic preamp, you'll be able to boost the level of the mic signal into the 828 and play farther back from the mic, thus reducing the low-end and giving a roomier (in the sense of more room sound) and more distant sound.

The Super Hard On is a very cool piece of gear that is designed to do something very different from what you want. It is made to boost the signal strength of an electric guitar and slam the amplifier's preamp tubes with a *very* hot signal, resulting in distortion and overdrive. This is decidedly *not* what you want when recording through consumer-grade solid-state pres.

As for running direct, my 896 has a line level/mic level switch on the input. If the 828 has the same switch make certain it's set to the correct setting. Generally, when one runs direct, a direct input or DI box is required. This boosts the line level signal of the instrument to a level suitable for the board. These start at ~$30US for cheapie Behringers suitable for live applications and go up from there.

However, you will not get a satisfactory sound that way. Acoustic guitar pickups are universally bad sounding compared to a mic. They just work better live so that's why everybody uses them. If you absolutely must record the guitar direct, scare up a Baggs Para DI. They run ~$155US and are indispensible for live performance. Not recommended in the studio because it's still a pickup, but it'll be an improvement.

A third option is to get a different mic. I don't really care for the 57 despite the fact that it's a workhorse mic and I generally have one in my gig kit or glove box at all times. I've got a $200 AT3035 large diaphram condenser mic that I'm quite fond of. It's far more natural sounding than the 57 and is more sensitive so I can play farther back from it. The mic does require phantom power, so make certain your Motu can provide it, which I'm almost certain it can.

I've got to run now, but I'll check back in if you need clarification of my prose or any of the semi-factual information I've written. Email's in the profile as well.
posted by stet at 11:22 AM on October 12, 2004

Response by poster: In general dynamic mics like the 57 have a proximity effect which exaggerates the low end response the closer the source gets to the microphone. This works well in live situations but can be problematic in the studio. If you scare up a mic preamp, you'll be able to boost the level of the mic signal into the 828 and play farther back from the mic, thus reducing the low-end and giving a roomier (in the sense of more room sound) and more distant sound.

great advice on the SM57 stet -- that's exactly what's happening -- I'm way too close to the mic when I've been recording vocals.

Fortunately, I'm not recording any acoustic instruments (the ovation I'm using is a solidbody electric, not an electric/acoustic, or an acoustic), but i still appreciate the advice regarding their recording -- as I'll probably have one of those lying around at some point in time (and my friend has wanted to record with one).

anyhow, sounds what I need is a preamp under $200 that'll sound somewhat better than what's in my behringer EURORACK MX602A. Or i just need to suck it up and use the behringher. Either way I'll probably need to look into reducing hum somehow. I don't think putting it on a separate circuit is a possibility, as everything in my "studio" is coming in through a pair of outlets (yeah, i know -- it's what i've got to work with though). So maybe power conditioners, etc? i'll do some googling.
posted by fishfucker at 11:33 AM on October 12, 2004

Oh yeah, I can read. I saw "Ovation" and just assumed it was one of their plastic acoustic/electrics.

In general, it's very difficult to get a good electric guitar sound running direct unless you use an amp simulator/DI like a Line6 POD or a Sansamp. On the last session I did, the engineer requested I record through one of the fancy, rackmount PODs (not the little ones used for stage/live sound). I wasn't happy with the sound I was getting but, you know, it wasn't my record and I wasn't the one paying for studio time so I didn't have a whole lot of choice. I have heard that PODs and other simulated gear is the rig of choice for the Nu-Metal sound and other hyperdistorted tones. The gear isn't fully there yet for the clean, Fendery tones I tend to use.

ART makes some preamps that are right around $100US and seem to go for about $60 used. They're not great preamps and they include a 12ax7 tube strictly for marketing purposes, but it might be good enough for your purposes.

I'd recommend perusing the Tape Op message boards for more advice and specific recommendations. There "stickies" in the General Recording forum that should have some more advice that will help.
posted by stet at 12:30 PM on October 12, 2004

fishfucker: I don't think it's your mixer's fault. My guitar is plugged straight into the line-in on my MX1604A, which is just a big brother to your MX602A, and it sounds as clean and clear as you could want - no hum at all. Try a nicer shielded cable for your guitar; if that doesn't work maybe you need a power conditioner.
posted by Mars Saxman at 7:14 PM on October 12, 2004

Response by poster: alright folks!

here's what I've done so far:

got my ovation back, all sweetly tuned by the guys at Steve's Music Center (in Sacramento, highly recommended if you're local -- they've got a ton of vintage synths that are priced quite reasonably if you consider they're retail, and a million or so vintage guitars) -- plugged it into the Mackie, used the insert to go straight out into my soundcard (suggested by some of the folks at TapeOp and in the newsgroups), ran a demo of guitar rig on it, and everything sounds GREAT (ok, my soundcard lag time is a little longer than I'd like, but for my purposes, it's close enough -- I'm not going to be playing "Eruption" any time soon). Really, I didn't know guitars could sound like this, being that I've only ever owned one or two effects pedals and poopy amps. I'm definitely happy enough with the sound that I don't feel the need to purchase a pre-amp for the guitar.

However: the mike is still terribly bassy and distorted. Now, part of it may be that I'm playing it through monitors and can't get the gain up high enough (the phantom power is off on the mackie and off on the soundcard -- the input levels *are* high enough to redline if I want, but they're not clean at all, so signals that aren't hot enough are no longer the problem). I'm actually running a Shure SM58, if it makes a difference, and I've put it through Antares Mic Modeler, which manages to roll off a little of the low end so it's not entirely braying, but it's still *way* more distorted than I think it should be.

I'm going to try the headphone thing and turn up the gain to the max, but if anyone has any further advice on getting my mic to sound a little better, I'd definitely love to hear it. Right now, the gain is at the point where I need to be within an inch or so from the microphone to get good levels (or sing louder, I suppose).

Thanks again for all the advice! I'm going to go lay down some more rhythm lines.
posted by fishfucker at 11:48 PM on October 12, 2004

I've heard that the 57 and the 58 are identical mics except for the 58's built in windscreen. The windscreen is a layer of foam inside the mesh ball that protects the mic element from, well, the elements. It is possible that the mesh and windscreen are seriously crapped up. I've learned to sing back from the mic after playing a couple of venues where one *really* doesn't want to touch ones lips to the mic. I'd suggest unscrewing the mesh bulb from the mic and seeing what effect that has on the sound. If it is seriously full of junk you can either leave it off or replace it inexpensively.

Without the windscreen in place you accept the risk of plosive "P" sounds and whatnot overdriving the mic with loud pops. You will not damage the mic. It is commonly said that one can hammer nails with a 57/58 and, while I've never tried that, I'm not averse to using them as doorstops. If removing the windscreen works but you're plagued with pops, you can either purchase a popscreen from a music store that's built to prevent precisely that from occurring (for about $30US) or you can go to a sewing store and buy a little wooden hoop with what appears to be the material used for pantyhose in it and cobble together a popscreen with a coathanger and some duct tape. I have no idea what seamsters/seamstresses use these hoops for, but they sell them.

Have you tried this particular mic in other situations and with different hardware? It seems to be behaving atypically for a 58, though they are notoriously inconsistant mics. Point of interest, Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings use 57s and 58s for live applications despite having higher quality/fidelity options available to them because they can select from their quiver of mics the one that best suits the room/system they're playing that night. I also have heard that Nora Jones tracked the vocals on her first album with a 57.

It is also possible that your board may be broken in some way. I'd try and test the board itself before spending money on a power conditioner or other gear.

It should also be noted that the 828 is a fantastic piece of gear. It's very good for its price point and has the ability to grow with your "studio" and abilities as you invest in more hardware. It's certainly not the weak point in your setup. If memory serves, the 828 has two onboard XLR pres and six line-level/quarter-inch inputs, which is about as many as you'll ever need if you can scare up eight decent-to-good microphone preamps. Or hook up an external board as you've done.

The monitor delay through phones is a problem. The 896 I use has hardware monitoring built in that has no or negligable latency, as opposed to monitoring through software. If the 828 has a similar capability, it'll be more than adequate for recording a single player at a time. If you want to track an entire band live, there'll be complications.

If such a thing doesn't exist on the 828 you may be able to monitor through the board. I don't personally know how, but it's real doable.

In general, with digital recording you don't want to hit the red at all. If you clip something digitally it will sound absolutely terrible. Tape is far, far more forgiving and actually likes to be a bit overdriven. As another aside, Avalon (I think) makes an A/D converter (for ~$7,000US) with soft compression built in that is designed to mimic the effect of tape. Try setting your level so that you clip the top yellow indicator once in a while, but never the red. You can bring up the level of the track in whatever software you're using.

Also, if you're going to be continuing with recording, you can purchase a subscription to Tape Op magazine by exchanging a little marketing data and no cash at all. I'd recommend doing so, it's a good resource for the home-to-indie label recording set. The message board is incredibly useful as well and I'm glad you've checked it out. Once you cut through the normal message board noise, there's an incredible amount of information there.

And to get a little Yoda on you, I've been around enough sessions (and it didn't take many) to learn that the difference between good recordings and mediocre recordings has very little to do with gear. (Within reason, of course) It has more to do with an engineer who's willing to take the time to put the mic, be it a Neuman or a 58, in the right place and mix it to where it sounds right. I think you're very much on the right track. My rule of thumb is to never buy a piece of gear until I've run through every permutation I can conceive of mic placement, level fiddling, and signal chain.

On preview: I'm incredibly longwinded and a little pompous.
posted by stet at 1:08 AM on October 13, 2004

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