I Want To Do Home Recordings! What Do I Need?
So you say you’ve got songs to record, but don’t have the money to go to a major studio? Perhaps you’re just starting out and want to test out your recordings at home before committing to a big studio. Maybe you’re already familiar with recording in a pro studio, and just want something to use for demos at home. Or, maybe you even want to do major level recordings in your own home. Whichever the case, you probably need to know what exactly you need to get started.
There are a few basic items you will need:
– Recording System or Software
– Computer (if using software)
– Audio Input Interface (if using software)
– Pre-amp / Compressor
– Audio Monitors (Speakers)
– XLR (Mic) cable
– Mic stand
– Pop screen
Recording System / Software:
The first thing you’re going to need is a recording system or software. I would personally opt for software every time. Dedicated recording systems (ie: hard disk recorders, etc.) are fine, but they are too constraining. With software, you have endless possibilities to augment your system. And let’s face it, it’s a lot easier to work on a large computer screen, as opposed to a little grey screen on a dedicated unit. And if you’re part of the 99.99% of people in the world who already use a computer, there will be no learning curve for your interface.
My software of choice? ProTools (by Digidesign), the industry standard recording software. Comes in PC or Mac versions. You’ll also need an audio input interface (where you plug in your instruments) to go with your software. ProTools only works with Digidesign interfaces, or with special “M-Powered” interfaces from M-Audio, another company owned by Digidesign. You can buy these in pre-configured packages, or buy your components separately. For a pro-level ProTools system, you’re looking at spending 6 figures. For home level, you’ll spend a few hundred bucks.
There are plenty of other choices for software and interfaces, depending on whether you are using PC or Mac. In fact, most Macs come with software called “Garage Band”, which is perfectly sufficient for demo recording. I don’t want to get too deep into each different type of software available, as this article is meant mainly as a brief introduction into what you need for home recording.
Chances are, if you have a reasonably new PC or Mac, you won’t have a problem running home studio software. However, you do want to check the requirements on the side of the recording software box, just to make sure your specific computer will be able to run the software. Even if it’s not, you may be able to remedy that by simply upgrading your operating system or your RAM. I build my own. But for preconfigured PCs, I would recommend Dell. They used to have a bad name, but their laptops have been pretty good recently. If you’re a Mac person, that will work as well. However, if you don’t own a Mac already, I would personally recommend PC. (One brand of PC that I would recommend NOT buying at all costs is Toshiba. They have had to pay out literally billions of dollars in restitution for selling bad and even non-working products over the past few years alone. And they do NOT refund money unless a judge orders them to.)
This is the input box that will allow you to plug your instruments and/or microphones into your computer. Sometimes this comes with your software, sometimes it doesn’t. If you haven’t already chosen something ahead of time, the pro audio specialist at your music store may be able to tell you what choices they have available for you. I use the M-Audio FW1814, which is an “M-Powered” model, meaning it’s designed to work with ProTools. You can also get Digidesign interfaces made for ProTools. But I found that the M-Audio interface was slightly more affordable and had more options for what I was paying.
HAM recommendation: Amazon.com has a variety of options.
This is a pretty important part of your setup. You can buy several microphones for different purposes, or even just one all purpose microphone if you know you won’t be recording more than one track at a time. For vocals or acoustic instruments, it is usually best to use what is called a condenser microphone. You can get these as cheaply as $100, and spend as much as $5000 or more if you’re a serious, big time studio. You can get pretty good ones starting in about the $300 to $800 range. Studio Electronics (SE) makes a pretty good one, the Z5600A, which I’ve used even in major studios. You can get one for around $600 or $700. One thing to remember, it’s not the price that makes it sound good. It’s the sound. For electric guitar or snare drum, you can use a dynamic microphone, like the Shure SM57 or SM58. These are standard mics that all studios have on hand. Those are available for around $100 each. If you can only afford one microphone, I would recommend a condenser. For high end condenser microphones, I like Neumann. Most studios have at least one Neumann U87 on hand, which is a main staple that’s been around since the 1960s. However, there are other brands/models you can get for less money that also have a great sound. The Rode NTK. Sennheiser and AKG make good lower priced mics as well.
The pre-amp is a device that the microphone plugs into on its way to the Audio Interface. A pre-amp is used to adjust the volume, tone and possibly even compress the signal from the microphone before it gets into your recording setup. Sometimes you can use software pre-amps that come with your recording software, rather than a physical device. My favorite pre-amp of all time is the Neve 1073, but you’re looking at close to $4000 for a new one. I also like Universal Audio. Focusrite and Presonus have some good lower priced models. Some have compressors built in.
Many studio engineers will tell you that a compressor is the single most important piece of equipment in your studio. Just like the pre-amp, it will fall in line between the microphone and the Audio Interface. It’s job is mainly to prevent the input signal from hitting a certain gain (volume) level, which could cause problems with the recorded track. Sometimes, pre-amps have their own built-in compressors. Just like pre-amps, you can sometimes use software compressors that come with your recording software, rather than using a physical device. Avalon and Universal Audio are great. In the lower price range, try to find a Presonus or Focusrite pre-amp with a built in compressor.
These are what most people call speakers. Although, the big difference is that recording studio audio monitors are (in most cases) designed to let you hear the unaltered audio, without any added EQ or frequency manipulation. Most regular stereo speakers alter the audio before it gets to your ears. I like Alesis, Mackie, KRK and Yamaha.
Depending on your recording setup, you may need more than one pair of studio headphones. Headphones are typically worn while recording something into a microphone so that you can hear the pre-existing audio in your recording without having the audio coming through your monitors (speakers) and bleeding into your microphone. That would not only screw up the track that you’re recording, but it may also produce a nasty feedback loop. If you are recording by yourself, one pair of headphones will do. If you are operating the system in one room while someone else plays or sings their part in another room, one pair of headphones is still fine, as you can listen through your audio monitors with the door closed. However, if you are both in the same room, one person operating the system while the other performs, you’ll need one pair of phones for each person in the room. And if you want to sound like a pro, don’t call them headphones. Call them “cans”. 😉 You can pay up to $350 or more for studio headphones, but you can also get some for less than $100. It just depends on your budget.
My personal favorite headphones are the Sony 7506 studio headphones. Chances are, if you’ve been in a radio station, recording studio, anywhere that uses headphones, they have at least one pair of these. They sound awesome. Although, the one thing you should not use them for is mixing. Why? Because they add tone to the existing audio signal, which would trick you into making your mix sound incorrect.
XLR (Microphone) Cable:
For recording, the shorter the cable, the better. Twenty feet or less is optimal. Why? Because the longer the signal has to travel, the bigger the chance of latency (a delay in arrival of the sound to your track), which results in your recorded track being out of line with the others. It’s usually not hugely noticeable, but just keep them short if you can.
You have two main choices here. 1) Straight stand. 2) Boom stand. The Boom stand means you have an adjustable arm on the stand, which allows you to position it in many different ways. This is optimal in the studio.
This is a screen that attaches to the mic stand and gets placed in front of the mic. Its purpose it to reduce the amount of hiss and popping sounds with certain syllables during a vocal performance. I find that the best ones are the ones made completely of metal, not fabric.
Want to learn how to actually use this stuff? One step at a time, Jackson! Get it first, then worry about that.
1. Book – “Asylum Earth” by Charles Bragg. It’s kind of a collage of great artwork, comedy, stories, one liners, etc.
It seems to be sold out on Bragg’s site – http://www.charlesbragg.com/html/asylum.asp, but the site offers some great info on the book and his other works. You can apparently still buy the book from Amazon. I recommend getting it used, unless you have way too much money lying around.
2. Favorite piece of gear – I’d say the Moog synthesizer. It is responsible for a large percentage of the most awesome synth sounds that have ever been laid to tape.
3. One thing I can’t live on the road without – Being that I used to be based out of Massachusetts, I should say Dunkin’ Donuts’ coffee. But I won’t. I guess my major thing is having an internet connection, which can be surprisingly hard to find. If I don’t have internet access, I feel like I’m trapped on the north pole with Sprint cell phone service. ie: None.