Recording on a Shoestring Budget
By Tom Canning
Finding information about recording on a shoestring budget isn’t easy. Sure, there are plenty of articles online that can guide you through buying sensibly and cheaply, but very few that actually, from start to finish, give you an idea of how to record your songs with the most merge of funds. There must be thousands out of people out there in the same position – many of whom have never even tried to record for this very reason. Cost can be prohibitive, but in fact, excluding instruments and assuming you have a desktop computer, you can get pretty good results for less than £100 ($150).
When I started recording I didn’t have the funds to invest in a microphone, mixer, soundproofing, mic stand, pop shield, monitors, keyboard, low latency sound card – the list goes on! I found this incredibly frustrating. I started with nothing but a cheap electro-acoustic guitar and wanted to find a way just to get some songs recorded and learn about making music in the process.
My first recordings were incredibly basic. My cheap ‘Encore’ electro-acoustic had a terrible pre-amp, my microphone came free with a children’s home recording kit and I was laying tracks down through my record player’s pre-amp! I would plug my guitar or mic into my pre-amp and then my pre-amp straight into the back of my desktop computer’s line-in socket. I would then use Audacity (a free recording program, but not a sequencer) to form my tracks. The vocal track would have to be chopped up and arranged over the guitar, as my computer’s sound card produced a delay (latency) that meant by the end of the song everything was out of time!
Using this method I recorded nineteen tracks across 3 mini EPs. The sound quality wasn’t great, and yes sure there was buzzing, hissing and mistakes, but what was noticeable was the improvement in quality just over those three discs. None of my equipment changed in that time, it was just that I had to learn what worked and what didn’t. Through mainly trial and error I had to learn how to use the mic to the best of its abilities, how to set-up the levels on the guitar and the levels required to satisfactorily mix the tracks. This is a very important point, as it highlights that however good your equipment is you need to know how to use it to get the most out of it. As I say, the best method I found for this was trial, error and practice. I would still recommend this ‘have a go’ method, but today there are so many videos online that can help with the individual tasks of recording a vocal track and mixing down etc.
Despite all the problems and labor intensive nature of the process, I was able to get my ideas down and condensed to mp3 files that I could share with family and friends. And, as a novice with no idea what I was doing I was pleased with the results. More importantly I had begun a learning process that continues to this day.
By the time I was thinking of recording more songs I felt I wanted to upgrade a few bits and pieces. I picked up a ‘Yoga’ dynamic mic from my local electrical supplier for around £34.99 (around $52). Of course a condenser microphone would be the better option quality-wise. However, the problems of providing a phantom power source and the prohibitive cost that comes with it meant that this wasn’t an option. At the time you would struggle to purchase a condenser mic for less than £100 (around $150) which does not include the phantom power unit to get it going. Although, like my last mic, the Yoga was still a dynamic mic, there was a big step up in quality. Plus, the fact that it came with a detachable XLR cable improved the quality and gave me the option of upgrading or replacing the cable if necessary.
At the start of this year I thought I would have another go at recording again. I had written a few scrappy ideas for songs and when I bought a new electro-acoustic I decided to give it a go. The guitar was a Tanglewood TW145ASC, picked up for the reduced bargain price of £280 ($413). The solid top and bottom to the guitar and fantastic pre-amp gave me a big improvement in tone. At the same time I learned of M-Audio’s range of audio hardware. I ditched my now ailing record player pre-amp and plumped for the M-Audio Session Make-Music-Now Software for the PC. It was the cheapest option at around £20 ($30) and as I had just shelled out for my guitar it seemed the most sensible option. With a USB plug on one end, and inputs for headphones and a mic or guitar on the other, it acts as an external soundcard, bypassing your computer’s internal soundcard, to provide very low latency (delay when recording). The package included a perfectly adequate sequencer too. I also purchased the cheapest midi keyboard I could find – an Evolution eKeys USB keyboard. The cost from eBay was about £25 ($36). All I needed was a device that would allow me to easily record and drop midi lines over the top of my music – nothing fancy. At the same time I bought a perfectly adequate mic stand and pop shield, both for around £10 ($15) each.
If anything my home studio was now looking a little more professional! The improvement in sound quality was instantly noticeable, and although I still feel I am a little way off in terms of getting the best out of the equipment I have, I am enjoying the process of tweaking to do just that. As funds become available I will upgrade to a condenser mic (possibly the highly affordable Behringer C1) together with a phantom power supply, both of which have come within the grasp of cash-strapped amateurs in the last few years.
The key message, particularly for young musicians, is do not be put off. Enjoy the process of tweaking and finding out what works and what doesn’t with the kit you have. Above all be inventive. If you don’t have a pre-amp to record through – try a guitar pedal, if you don’t have a pedal see what else works. You hear a lot about studio quality being the ideal, but don’t get hung up on achieving it. Just give it a go and remember that, whatever the quality of your kit, a well written song will always shine through.
Favourite book: Without doubt – ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude’ by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. If you haven’t read it beg, steal or borrow a copy!
Favourite bit of gear: My Tanglewood TW145ASC – an excellent value but high quality guitar.
Thing I couldn’t live on the road without: I’ve only had a handful of gigs and don’t tour. However, in the one or two gigs I have done I have found that having really good friends helps!