Many of us have been there. You recently moved into an apartment with paper-thin walls, and you’re worried about your neighbors complaining about your time spent on the guitar.
I recently had to deal with this problem to some extent. Having lived in a house all of my life, up until recently, I was able to blast the volume on my tube amp to achieve the perfect tone on my recordings.
In an apartment, however, this just isn’t possible. Your neighbors will complain if you’re too loud.
This can apply to living in a home too if your volumes are reaching deafening levels, but in apartments, only a wall separates you between your neighbors.
I recently figured out how to record my electric guitar in an apartment so I don’t get complaints from my neighbors. While I haven’t yet achieved perfection in terms of the tone I want (it’s a never ending journey), I’m ready to share some of what I’ve learned.
In short, it really comes down to recording your guitar in a way that doesn’t produce much volume, or suppressing what volume you do create during your recording process.
This can be achieved in the following ways:
- Soundproofing your apartment.
- Turning down your monitors, or using studio headphones as monitors.
- Reducing the volume of your guitar by using VST plugins for your guitar tone, buying an Axe-FX, or building an isolation box for your cab.
Let’s dive into more detail about each of these options below.
1. Choose the right apartment, or soundproof the one you have
Hopefully, you’re doing some research about how to play music in an apartment before you move.
In my case, I was lucky enough to bring up the fact that I was moving into an apartment with my band’s recording engineer, and he advised me to find an apartment that was made, at least to some extent, of concrete.
Why is this?
Well, unlike wood, concrete does an excellent job of suppressing sound and vibrations. If you have a concrete floor, for example, your neighbors living under you won’t be as likely to hear the vibrations of your footsteps or, even better, your amp.
Very few apartments have concrete floors, and even fewer are made entirely of concrete, but it’s worth asking the apartment complex about their construction to help make moving decisions.
If the person showing you the apartment doesn’t know what the building is built with, ask what year it was built. Older buildings are usually somewhat made of concrete. Alternatively, you can ask about following up later about this, or ask if noise complaints are a common occurrence.
Unfortunately, if you’re reading this, it’s likely that you already live in an apartment and you’re already facing (and trying to solve) the problem of neighbor complaints.
If you live in an all-wood apartment with paper-thin walls, look into Mass Loaded Vinyl (MLV). While there isn’t much you can do about stopping vibrations from going through your floors, hanging this stuff on your walls or laying it on the floor can help reduce the amount of sound that gets through to your neighbors living next to or underneath you.
2. Instead of speaker monitors, try headphones
In some apartments, you can get away with using speaker monitors at a low volume, but in apartments with walls so thin that any amount of volume is frustrating to your neighbors, using headphones is probably what you’ll need to do.
There are a number of resources online that talk about using headphones as monitors for your recording, and while going wireless is tempting, I’d go with a wired set of headphones like the Audio Technica ATH-M20x studio monitor headphones.
I totally understand the struggle of having the wire get in the way of your playing. Here’s how I handle that.
When sitting or standing, to avoid the cable getting in the way of my playing, I flip the cable over my shoulder and run it down the back of my shirt. Depending on where you plug the headphones in, you may need to get an extension cord for this to work, but it definitely works for keeping the cable out of the way when playing.
Make sure you leave some slack at the top of your shirt to allow for head movement. If you put a strap on and it holds the cable in place on your back, too little amount of slack means that turning your head or looking down could yank the headphones off, which will mess up your playing far more than a cable being in the way will.
3. Go digital, or isolate your cabinet
While real amps subjectively sound better than any available plugins, there are some that can give you a tone that’s at least good enough for making demos. If you aren’t as picky as I am about your guitar tone, you might even prefer digital to the real thing once you get them dialed in.
There are tons of VST plugins available for free that you can. Here are a few:
- LePou suite
- LeCab + God’s Cabs IRs
- TSE Audio suite
- Audiffex ampLion
- SimulAnalogue guitar suite
- Ignite Amp suite
If you have more money to spend and want to go digital but still get a tone that’s close to the sound of a real amp, invest in an Axe FX or Kemper system. I haven’t used these myself, but from YouTube demos I’ve heard, there’s a very small difference in tone between these and real amps.
One thing I noticed when trying out all of these plugins, and what I hear from people who use Axe FX and Kemper, is that these amp sims don’t react to your playing in the same way that a real amp will. So if you’re trying to record some heavy metal chugs that cause a swelling sound in your cab when you pick harder, you might not be able to achieve that.
If this is important to you and you’re working on a more final version of your track, one option is to send the files captured by your DI box to a professional mixing and mastering service that can reamp your guitars.
Alternatively, it is possible to use your real amp and cab in your apartment without annoying your neighbors by building an isolation box for your guitar cab.
Here’s a video you can check out about how to do that.
An isolation box is something you can also use during live performances if you’re looking for a more consistent tone between venues.
Let me explain what I mean here.
Often times, your tone might sound different between venues because each one has different acoustic design, which means the microphone in front of your cab will pick up different background noises in different venues.
If you build an isolation box that effectively traps the acoustics of your guitar cab inside the space instead of letting your tone ring throughout the venue, then your tone will sound the same in every venue you play in.
Lots of touring bands, including Avenged Sevenfold, use isolation boxes for their cabs for this reason, and to stop the microphones from picking up any unwanted noise.
If you’ve recently moved into an apartment and are worried that you’ll never be able to record guitar again because of your thin walls, don’t worry, there are options for you. Suppress the sound the best you can, consider using headphones instead of monitors, and think about making the switch to digital.
Nick Rubright is the founder and editor of Dozmia, a site focused on helping musicians develop a livable career for themselves in the music industry.