Technology, specifically home recording, has progressed in leaps and bounds in the past few years. Thousands of dollars of equipment and years of schooling were once required to produce professional sounding recordings, but no more! There are many examples of powerful, easy to use software, which make it easy and convenient to multi-track record in the comfort of home.
The software has become relatively cheap and in some cases free, however this is only one piece of the puzzle when building a home studio. The computer is the most important part of this puzzle and by far the most expensive, but who doesn’t already own a computer in this “point and click” world? Computers are as common as television sets and telephones in most American homes so I am going to assume that you at least know someone with a computer and have basic computer skills. So with this in mind lets look at a few essential pieces of the home recording puzzle.
* Computer (or access to one)
* Audio Interface
* Recording software (Pro Tools, Sonar, Garage Band, Audacity, etc.)
With these basic tools, you can produce decent sounding recordings with minimal cost but please keep in mind that in general, “you get what you pay for.” This does not mean that the more you spend on hardware and software, the better your recordings will sound. I wish that was all it took but unfortunately there is no substitute for knowledge. Someone with a lot of knowledge can take a cheap home studio and make great recordings but someone with little to no knowledge probably couldn’t walk into a million dollar studio and make anything sound good.
This simply means that when you record a song in your home studio, there will be a noticeable difference when compared to your favorite CD’s. Your favorite bands have unlimited time and money to put into their records and have the best, most knowledgeable engineers at their disposal. A home studio is fantastic, however for producing high quality demos for use in press kits or to share with friends. It is also a very powerful way to write and create music. Recording your ideas and playing them back is the only way to tell how the music will sound to other people’s ears.
Now lets look at the individual pieces in more detail.
* Computer – If you don’t have at least a general understanding of computers then you must have been hiding under a rock for the past 10 years. I recommend picking up a book on basic computing or finding a 6 year old to teach you.
* Microphones – There are literally hundreds, maybe even thousands of different types of microphones available at every price imaginable, which can be intimidating to some people when recording at home. Trying to explain the difference between these microphones would be impossible within the realm of this article so we will just briefly explain them. I highly recommend, however to do some research on the different types and find someone with experience in recording to help you decide what microphones are best in each application.
All microphones, generally speaking, do the same job. They take audio information (noise) and convert it into a signal, which can be moved through a cable to another location (amplifier, computer, etc.) where it is then converted back into noise. All microphones do this job well, but some are better than others for certain applications. Since this is a basic article and I want to help set up a studio without spending an arm and a leg, I will simply recommend finding microphones within your budget and experimenting with them to find which work best for you. I also recommend that if you only buy one microphone, it should be a SM 57, which is in my humble opinion the most well rounded microphone available and can be purchased for around $100.
* Audio Interface – This is a piece of hardware, which takes the audio information from your microphone and converts it to information that can be used by your computer and recording software. It is the link between the music and your computer. There are many different brands available at many different price ranges but all do the same job. The difference between them is basic quality of components and construction but also in amount or numbers of input/ output channels. An interface with a single stereo input allows you to take one microphone and record onto one single track. This is great for vocals or guitars or any other instrument in which only one microphone and one track is needed. This however limits you greatly if you want to put multiple microphones on a single instrument or when recording drums, which have many pieces and need many microphones and tracks.
This can be fixed in two different ways. Either buy an audio interface with multiple inputs (this is where the interface gets extremely expensive) or buy a small mixing board and mix all of the microphones together before they are put into the interface. This is a very cost effective way to record but it does have its limitations. Once the drums (for example) are mixed through the mixing board, then put into a single input interface, they will be recorded onto a single track within your recording software. This means that you have no way to separate the different drums once the track is recorded.
If you can’t hear the snare drum, you can’t just turn up that track because they have already been mixed together and cannot be separated. The drums have to be perfectly mixed at perfect volumes in the mixing board before the recording happens. This can still produce quality sounding drum tracks but can be quite frustrating when you start adding all the other instruments and realize that one of the drums is too loud or not loud enough. You will have to decide what types of instruments you will be recording and how many inputs you will need and at what budget. Most audio interfaces also come with recording software, which means that you can simply buy an interface and start recording immediately.
* Recording Software – Most of the popular software are similar in many ways. The very basic procedures when setting up your recording software (and studios in general) is to understand where your audio is coming from and where it is going. What is the path the audio is going to take to get from the instrument, through your hardware and software, then to your ears? Some recording software will automatically set up and recognize the input and output drivers but in many cases you will have to find the driver settings somewhere in your software and set the appropriate drivers for your inputs and outputs. Input drivers- How is the audio getting into your computer? When you buy an audio interface, it usually comes with a disk to upload the appropriate software and drivers. When you open your recording program and find the driver settings, you must select the drivers that coincide with the audio interface that you are using.
Some programs also have buttons labeled I/O, which are your input/output settings. This tells the computer where the noise is coming from and where it is going. Once your software knows where the music is coming from and where it should send it so that you can here it (computer speakers, mixing board, headphone amplifier, etc.), then the actual recording can take place. All software comes with some form of equalization and effects, which can take the dry music and add/subtract things to make it work best in the overall song. Again, this is an extreme over-generalization of what EQ and effects can do to a track or an overall recording, but for this article I will simply tell you that there is no substitution for finding someone with knowledge and asking them to share. There are also hundreds of tutorials available online and other articles and forums specifically dedicated to explaining and sharing recording knowledge. If you are reading this article, then you must be interested and excited by recording your own music so I think the best and most fun way to understand these concepts is by experimenting.
Now with a little trial and error, you will soon be proficient at multi-track-recording and will no longer need to spend $60+ an hour at a studio to share quality recordings of yourself or of your band. It has been an extremely fun and rewarding hobby for me not to mention somewhat lucrative. Once you become proficient at recording, you can charge others bands to record at your home studio. You can also run your software with a laptop, which allows you to create a mobile studio. Start asking bands in your area if they would like you to record their next demo album or record their live show for a small fee. With a small investment in hardware, software and time, you can begin to earn money for doing something that you love in your free time!