After many years of experimenting with different types of gear and mics and software I think it’s pretty safe to say that there is no right or wrong way to go about recording music. In the digital world we get extremely overwhelmed by choice. Just yesterday I spent what was supposed to be a 30min guitar lesson teaching my student how to use their new Boss GT-1 multi fx pedal. 60mins later we wrapped up and only touched the guitar a couple of times, but how enriching was this experience? This brings to mind a couple of things: a) Music is much more enjoyable when you experience it with other people, whether you are teaching, learning or playing.
b) Give yourself limitations! Limitations give you a ground or base floor from which to build your musical house. Without limitations you are tying to build a house on quicksand! Example: When you open up Xpand in pro tools and are confronted with what seems like an endless sea of synths and software instruments. Just pick 2 and try to construct your sound, work with one that you hate the sound of for longer than 3 seconds and really listen to it. You can construct anything you want once boundaries are set. If it is always changing, you never create, you just spend all of your time searching...
The limitations in the multi fx pedal scenario were: Choose 1 amp and put reverb on it for channel 1. Channel 2 is the same setup but with an overdrive pedal for a crunch sound. Channel 3 is the same thing but with some delay added for solo’s. You get the gist right?
The first thing to mention before this is that the signal coming from a mic is analogue. To get this into your computer to edit, it needs to be converted into a digital wave. This is called Digital-Analogue conversion (DA). There are also AD (analogue – digital) convertors but they come in later.
Another word on digital and analogue, digital is like taking individual pictures and splicing them together (sample rate) analogue is a smooth flowing silky wave of audio bliss.. I digress...
Low Budget (Under $100)
Honestly there is no reason why you can’t record music with the digital device that sits in your pocket. Yes, your smart-phone. There is a usable mic in every smart phone. If you look for a multi-track recording program or simply use garage band (comes with Iphones) you can record any sound. There are even pre loaded stock drum, piano and other sounds. Remember to create, not search...
Second to that would be a cheap USB mic on Ebay for ~$50 or a decent USB mic on Ebay Under $100.
After the USB mics you basically have to go the interface route.
*Side note* If you don't know what an interface is. It is a piece of hardware that sits on your desk and is plugged into your computer via (most commonly) a USB, Firewire or Thunderbolt connection. An interface contains a few key steps in the recording process.
Mic Preamps - The XLR or sometimes combo XLR/TRS (guitar lead) inputs. A mic preamp is the physical circuitry that takes the audio signal from your mic or guitar and converts it into a useable wave form.
After this wave or voltage has been created it gets sent to the A-D Convertor. Once this happens, your interface is ready to send the signal to your computer via the above mentioned cable.
You will need a DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) to get this wave file and save it. The first port of call is Garage Band for Apple users. This is a great program that is mostly easy to navigate and work out. Just make sure you select the right input when you first open up the program. Audacity is a free program that can do this and does a decent job for people starting out on a low budget. After Audacity is getting maybe an old version of Sony Acid Pro or a program like Reason, Ableton, Cubase (Nuendo), Apple Logic or Pro tools. Have a read on these.
Low to Mid Budget Interface ($100-$250)
Bare minimum interface would be a 2 channel M-Audio, Presonus, Focusrite, Apogee etc..
One website I use quite often to look up gear is Turramurra Music, they have competitive prices and friendly staff. If you don't live in Australia, Sweetwater (USA) have a comprehensive website. As well as trusty Ebay.
A little about Mic's
First mic would be a Rode NT-1A (~$250). This mic allows you to record decent drums, vocals, guitar amps and even bass amps. You could record a whole album with this one mic alone…. Read my Mic Blog for more info.
Second mic is the trusty old Shure SM57. Great on snare drum and guitar amps. (read my "miking guitar amps" tutorial for mic placement). I bought 2 many years ago and they have had a solid workout! I can't ever see myself selling these.
That's all I need to mention about mic's in this post. People that know more about mics won't be reading this post because they already have chosen themselves a decent interface.
Mid Budget ($200-$500)
This is where you get into the 4 channel interfaces. 4 channels is quite handy due to the fact that you can record 4 sound sources at one time. You could realistically put 3 mics on a drumkit and DI the bass and track your rhythm section in one go. Other setups might be a stereo keyboard and 1-2 vocal mics.
Again, Focusrite, Presonus, M-audio, Apogee.
I might also mention that in this budget is where you can really score some bang for buck on used gear. Used audio gear is a GREAT way to start out. Everything is cheaper and you don't pay for the polished sheen on the casing, but it's about what is inside that counts!
Mid-High Budget ($500-$1499)
Before I even start, if you are in this bracket there is no point looking at anything other than the Soundcraft UI24r. Read My blog post on it..
Entry level 8 channel interfaces, High-end 2-4 channel interfaces (better preamps) and pretty good 8 channel interfaces.
This bracket is where things blow out a little.
The "in-the-box" producers fork out around $500-$1000 for a 2 channel interface that has 2 great preamps for recording vocals and keyboards like the Apogee Duet or Universal Audio Apollo Twin. Other recording enthusiasts use their $500-$1000 to get a pretty good 8 channel interface. Not to say you couldn't pickup a decent 8 channel interface for around $250-$500 if you shop around. I used a Presonus Firestudio for along time and it served me well.
This is where you can really start doing more in-depth multitrack recording like multiple mics on a drumkit or a rock band or a small ensemble. For instance you could put 2 OH (overhead) mics on a drumkit, a kick mic (D112 or D6) and an SM57 on the Snare, an SM57 on the guitar amp, DI the bass and then have 2 channels left for vocals or keys. This is a great setup for tracking demo’s. You want to just punch out the recordings and get it done. No one wants to sit around overdubbing (re-recording) tracks because your interface doesn’t have enough inputs. You just want to capture it once and move on.
#Just a quick in-depth note about preamps if you still don’t know what they are. A preamp is the electrical circuitry that amplifies the microphone signal coming into the interface. Every preamp has it’s own characteristic or “sound”. Some may sound clean, some warm, some crystal clear etc.. Basically, the more money the preamp costs, the cleaner, warmer, brighter and noisier you can get your mic. Cheap preamps sound gritty and tinny/lifeless. You can still get a pretty decent sound from most of the preamps in the aforementioned interfaces. It’s only when you start forking out thousands of dollars for preamps that you really hear a difference… or do you??
High Budget, Getting into Semi-Pro and Pro Gear (Above $1500)
These interfaces are the cream. The one’s that you only really own if you can justify it or have money to burn. These interfaces have superb preamps and great digital-analogue convertors. But if you are reading this, you either don't know about these or can't afford them yet. Lynx, Prism, RME, Universal Audio Apollo 8.
I’ve been watching a lot of studio interviews and pro rigs consist of mostly stand-alone preamps like BAE, Neve, SSL, Universal Audio etc... They would then run these into some rack gear (rack mounted hardware) such as a channel strip (EQ, Compressor and preamp in one) or a compressor like an LA-2A or Avalon. Then they send this signal to an AD convertor (this is a piece of hardware that converts the analogue signal into a digital signal) and finally into Pro Tools through a high-end interface as mentioned above. People seem to be raving about Burl Audio. One of the most popular engineers in the world uses Focusrite Rednet. A lot of these engineers use desks or consoles such as an SSL (Solid State Logic) or an API to mix their sessions. The only person I have seen not use a console is Greg Wurth in his personal studio. He uses an analogue console in Steve Vai's studio.
SO there it is.. A semi-quick breakdown of interfaces for the "home" studio.
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