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If you’re like me, it’s happened more often than you care to remember. For a long time, I subscribed to the theory that if something was good, I’d remember it. And if I lost it, it wasn’t worth keeping. But after losing a number of ideas that I thought were great, I debunked my theory, and began a quest for a good way to instantly capture inspiration—some method or technology that would allow me to quickly and easily save an idea before it vanished into the ether.
First, I simply tried using notation and tab to write down my ideas. This works, as long as you’re fairly fast at transcribing, and always have paper and a writing utensil at hand. But in the heat of a jam session or noodling on the couch, who wants to stop everything to find paper and a pencil or interrupt the flow to do a transcription?
A better solution is to have some sort of recorder so you can quickly grab your ideas before they disappear. If you have a studio, then you obviously have the technology. But the problem with studios is that, in most cases, it takes time to fire everything up. I’ve definitely had the experience of coming up with an idea while noodling, and then stopped to boot the computer, get a mic set up, turn on the interfaces, preamps, and monitors, launch Pro Tools, and sit down to record. Voilà—the inspiration is now gone. I’ve streamlined my recording rig so I can get it up and ready to record in just a few minutes (we’ll cover this in an upcoming column), but it still takes time. So my search continued.
I’ve ended up with a three-pronged capture solution. It actually has four components if you count my full studio rig— but I reserve that mainly for “serious” work, not for quickly capturing ideas. Maybe it’s overkill to have multiple solutions and just one will cover it for you. But I like having a few options that let me swiftly adapt to the situation at hand. You could use one of those little dictation recorders, but those don’t have an input for a guitar and the sound quality is pretty dismal.
Line 6 BackTrack
This little box was released by Line 6 awhile back without much fanfare, and it has flown under the radar ever since. It’s a little recorder that’s dedicated to exactly what we’re talking about here—easily capturing ideas played on a guitar or bass. You simply plug your guitar into one side and plug the other side into your amp. Turn it on, and it’s always recording. Play an idea you like, hit a button, and it’s marked for later. When you’re done, and if you’ve got an idea or two you want to keep, it’s an easy matter to transfer them to your computer via USB. Brilliantly simple, affordable, and it really works! There’s also a BackTrack model with a built-in mic for those acoustic guitar ideas you want to save.
There are a number of little handheld digital stereo recorders on the market. I use mine all the time for recording rehearsals and gigs, recording lessons, and for songwriting sessions—especially if there’s more than one musician playing. Just set it up, hit record, and the built-in stereo mics capture whatever gets played. Some of this recorders even have guitar inputs and built-in amp simulation for better tone while recording. It’s easy to transfer the recordings to your computer later for further work or archiving. I happen to use the Roland R-05, which sounds excellent for live recording, but there are great models from Zoom, Yamaha, Tascam, Sony, and more.
Even though I have a well-equipped studio, there are times when you just want to make a quick multitrack recording to preserve ideas. Maybe it’s because I came up in the era of cassette 4-tracks, but I find the new generation of digital all-in-one multitrack recorders to be perfect for this. They boot up instantly, you can plug in directly, and you can quickly lay down a rhythm part and a melody. Some even have amp simulation. I use the Zoom R24, which even has a little onboard drum machine, as well as two built-in mics for those times when you have a vocal line you want to lay down or you’re playing acoustically. You can plug the R24 into your computer to use as a control surface, it works as an audio interface, and you can directly transfer files via USB. In other words, it does everything. But what I really like is that it’s ready to use as soon as you power it on, it sounds good, and it makes it easy to lay down a couple of quick tracks. Roland/BOSS, Tascam, and others make similar devices that work equally well.
These three particular devices work for me. You might find similar (or not so similar) units that do a better job for you and the way you work. It doesn’t matter what you use—what matters is that you capture those ideas quickly and easily before the muse decides to take flight.
Mitch Gallagher is the former editor in chief of EQ magazine. He’s written more than 1000 articles and six books on recording and music technology, and has released an instructional DVD on mastering. His upcoming book is entitled Guitar Tone: Pursuing the Ultimate Electric Guitar Sound. To learn more, visit mitchgallagher.com.