Recording at Home
Recording equipment has come a long way since I was a high-schooler recording Pink Floyd covers on my buddy’s Tascam 4-track. Anyone with a decent computer and about $500 can assemble a setup that will record at near-professional quality.
I’ve put this together for students of mine who want to start recording at home. Please let me know if you see any errors or would like to offer suggestions–this page is very much a work in progress!
Here’s what you need for your home studio:
- A PC or Mac computer
- A soundcard with multitrack recording capabilities or an external recording interface
- Recording software
- A mixer (if you’re using a soundcard)
- A mic
- A mic stand
- Audio cables
- A recording room
Macintosh computers are the industry standard for digital recording, but PC’s work great too. One benefit of using a Macintosh is that they already come with soundcards, and lately with software, that will enable you to do multitrack recording
I hear your computer can be as slow as 333MHz and still do OK, but the faster the processor, the more you can do.
You’ll want a big hard drive–ideally, two. I’ve got two 120-Gig drives, but that’s sort of overkill. A 20-gig drive will do fine.
Beyond this, you’ll want to check your soundcard (or external recording interface) and software’s requirements to see what kind of computer you need.
You’ll need a soundcard with multitrack recording capabilities, unless you go with an external recording interface. Soundcard quality depends mostly how high a resolution it records at (192kHz/24-bit is the current standard) and the kind of input/output jacks it has. Minijacks (like headphone jacks) are the lowest quality. RCA and 1/4″ unbalanced jacks are medium quality. 1/4″ balanced and XLR jacks are where it’s at.
External Recording Interfaces
These are standalone units that you plug into your computer’s USB port. They usually do everything a soundcard will do, and also have a mixer built in. Quality not only depends on recording resolution and the quality of the jacks, but also on the number of channels available. If you’re just going to record one instrument at a time, you only need one channel, but if you’re going to record a whole band, you’ll probably want as many as you can afford.
If you have a laptop, you’ll need to get an external recording interface (there’s no room in that thing for a soundcard), but if you have a desktop, a soundcard will probably be cheaper.
There are so many choices for recording software out there–I recommend going to Guitar Center and letting that knowledgeable young fella with the pierced neck and shaved eyebrows help you.
But here are a few things to think about. Are you just going to want to record sound, or do you also want to make music with your computer? For instance, there’s software that will not only record your vocals and guitar, but also enable you to program drum tracks and produce keyboard-triggered MIDI sounds.
Also, who’s going to be using the software, and how much manual-reading are they going to want to do? Some of these programs are incredibly complicated.
A mixer performs several functions, but think of it as a device that lets your microphone communicate with your soundcard. Mixers have preamps, which boost your microphone’s signal so that your soundcard can hear it. They also have knobs, which control the tone of the signal (the EQ), and the volume of the signal (the gain and level controls). Finally, depending on how many channels your mixer has, it can “mix” two or more audio sources into one stereo audio signal.
These come in two varieties, dynamic and condenser microphones. If you don’t know what to get, dynamic mics are cheaper and more durable, so start with one of those.
Get a stand with a boom–they’re a lot more versatile.
Prices depend on how well the cables are shielded (which cuts down on electromagnetic interference) and how durable they are.
A Recording Room
If you’re not too worried about pristine audio quality, you can record wherever you like, but here are some things to consider:
- Computers are noisy - The closer you record to your computer, the more fan noise you’re going to get in your recordings. I’m picky about quality, so I record in a spare bedroom, controlling my computer with another monitor, keyboard, and mouse connected to a KVM switch.
- Houses are noisy – Refrigerators, air conditioners, and furnaces all make noise
- Electromagnetic sources are noisy – Dimmer switches and CRT monitors interfere with electric guitar pickups
- Bare walls echo - Small rooms with bare walls and floors make your recordings sound like you’re in the shower. At least try to use a room with a carpet or rug. I also hang moving blankets ($10 each) on the walls to cut down on echoes.
If you’re buying a computer for a child, I recommend a Mac so that they can use Garageband. Otherwise, buy whatever you’re used to.
I can’t say enough good things about my Audiophile 24/96 sound card ($100) made by M-Audio. Great sound quality and easy to install. There’s a 24/192 model out too, but I think it’s overkill.
External Recording Interfaces
If you’ve got a laptop, I recommend checking out the M-Audio Fast Track ($99).
Unless you’re a real high-fidelity geek, go with a Behringer UB802 mixer ($49). A higher-quality alternative, if you’re just going to record one source at a time, would be to just get a mic preamp, like the ART Tube MP StudioV3 ($90).
If you want to get a really nice condenser mic for vocals, I’ve heard great things about the Rode K2 ($700). I have a similar mic, the Groove Tubes GT-66 ($700, available only at Guitar Center), and I love it.
Tweak’s Home Studio Guide – I’ve learned so much from this website. It’s geared toward electronic musicians, but has a wealth of information for anyone who wants to record at home.
I hope this information gets you started in the right direction. A salesperson at your local music store will help to fill in some of the blanks. Good luck and have fun recording!