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An Introduction to recording music at home.

With the arrival of the digital age, and the personal computer, home recording has stepped out of the noisy scratchy tape and LP zone and has also become more affordable and easier to do than ever before.You can now record, mix and edit an entire album without stepping into a commercial studio.You can even do your own artwork and burn your masterpiece to CD and get professional results provided you take the time to learn some basic skills.

The basics of your home computer based recording studio.
Here is a brief rundown of the components you need.

Your Computer:
At the heart of your system you are going to need a computer with a reasonable amount of processing power and ram. This will determine how many tracks you can record and play back on each song you create (ie each instrument, bass, guitar, vocals, drums etc will occupy a track and layer together to form your complete song).Plus on top of this you'll probably be adding some effects.

All this will require your computer to to do multiple calculations in order to add and read information you are laying down on your hard drive. Most computers available nowadays are able to cope with this although I would recommend getting more than the usual 256 megabytes of ram - 512 or more - in music recording the higher the better. While we're on the subject of RAM (memory) you can, to a certain degree compensate for a slower computer processor by increasing the amount of RAM.

Storage space:
Something else to consider is that music files are large (a five minute recording can be two to three hundred megabytes in size) and that you will need to allow for this and get a hard drive with plenty of storage. Another good idea is to have TWO drives (one for your operating system and where your recording program will be and the other for your actual songs and recordings.
The idea behind doing this is that your computer will be more efficient in accessing files and reading them (and your hard drives won't have to rev out in order to keep up with your computer
Note: It is also worth getting an external drive so you can back up your work

You also have 2 main types of computer "platforms" or operating systems to choose from.
Windows or Macintosh (Apple). I personally have used both for recording although my Old G4 Mac has proven itself to be far more reliable than any Windows machine I have used (yes I do own a Windows machine) but I'll blatantly blurt out get a Mac. Most music / video/ graphic design people prefer Macs and I tend to agree based on several years of experience.

Next to your computer there are other items you'll need.

The Software:
There are several producers of audio recording software (also called sequencers or sound editors), each with it's advantages and features. Yes there is freeware out there some of which is great for beginners who want to record just a couple of tracks (one such product is Audacity) without much in the way of effects and limited editing capabilities.

If you are planning on purchasing a Mac you might want to consider the iLife software package which includes a program called Garage Band. I have heard good things about this program and that you can get some excellent results with a few tweaks. Apple also produces Logic and Logic express (the latter being a scaled down version for beginners) which are higher end programs.
Perhaps the two best known programs available on the market today are Cubase and Pro tools which both have a reputation as being professional recording products. I personally use Cubase and have found it to be an excellent program.

Some companies bundle hardware and software together (such as Protools) so before you plonk down your hard earned cash It's worth doing some research.

The hardware:
When recording an analog signal (what our ears hear) from an instrument you need a way of converting this signal into a form that your computer can work with (a Digital signal). The item that does this is an audio interface called a Digital to Analog converter. Most commonly this is the sound card in your computer which takes your microphone or other input signal you have plugged in and converts it to a digital form.
For simple fun recording this is usually adequate and your sound card will do the job, however for a decent "broadcast" quality recording that you are going to eventually burn to CD and sell you will need a better unit that can convert your signal more accurately and won't introduce lots of unwanted noises and distortion.
This can be either a "High end" soundcard that you plug into the motherboard of your computer (these usually use your computer's processor power to run and only have one stereo (left and right) input and maybe a microphone input. Or you can choose an outboard D-A converter such as a MOTU828 which has it's own box and power supply and is connected to your computer via a usb or firewire cable.

High end soundcards are usually cheaper and are great for beginners on a tight budget while seperate "D-A" converters, having their own case etc can have several inputs/outputs with controls on the front panel and usually are less processor hungry.
I personally began my recording using a high end soundcard and then upgraded to an outboard unit. My current system's "heart" is a Macintosh G5 with a 1.8 Dual Processor (which I purchased as a second hand unit) and a MOTU 828 D-A converter which is very stable, reliable and produces exceptional quality sound. In both cases above the companies usually have bundled with their product some recording software so check out what is on offer.

Some words about MIDI - what is it?
MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface). MIDI is a protocol (or way of sharing data between devices). What MIDI does is to allow computers, synthesizers, MIDI controllers, sound cards, samplers and drum machines to control one another, and to exchange system data or information. MIDI itself is not music (audio) but digital data or messages that "tell" a device what notes to play, how long etc and then the device converts this information into audio that you can hear (and record on to a CD for example). Most good recording software incorporates a MIDI editor in their program that allows you to record, manipulate and play back MIDI data. Most decent keyboards are designed to work with MIDI and will plug into your computer via a MIDI interface and cables.
More about MIDI is on the Articles page.

An alternative to computer based recording:
There is another option to going the computer based route -multitrack recorders. These are usually portable units with their own recording hardware and software built in to do a lot of the editing and adjustments you need to do to get a nice sound. They range in features, quality and price from a few hundred dollars to thousands.
With most units it is simply a case of plugging in your instruments and hitting the record button - some of the more expensive units contain a CD burner so you can create your final masterpiece on the spot. Many of the better units can produce excellent results although you may not always have all the editing capabilities you would have on a computer.

For people who want to do simpler recording (Multitracks cannot work with MIDI) a multitrack recorder can be a better option than a computer based system. The step up from this is a "stand alone" studio workstation which is also growing in popularity. Basically these consist of all the hardware and software you need encased in a single unit - they often include a computer screen, hard drive, editing software and even a burner to put your masterpiece to CD.

Unless you are feeding into your computer direcly fron a jack in your guitar or keyboard and not using any vocals or drum it it is more than likely you will need microphones for your studio. Microphones come in various types and pricetags and are suited to different purposes.
There are mics designed specifically for vocals and others for instruments. There are also studio mics specifically designed for drums and clip on the actual kit eliminating a lot of unnecessary clutter with stands.
I personally use a number of different types of microphones:

A Shure SM58 (a dynamic mic) which is primarily a stage vocal mic - but also works well with many instruments and is less sensitive to outside noise- it's cousin the sm57 is very popular as an instrument mic.

A Behringer B1 studio condensor mic for vocals and harmonica (this is more sensitive).

Two AKG C100 condenser mics (these I use to pick up ambient or environmental noise) I position these in front and above a choir for example to capture a broad area of the group) and also in the outdoors for recording nature sounds.

Depending on what you are recording it is worth having a selection of a few mics for each type of instrument you are likely to be using. You don't need to spend thousands of dollars on equipment in this area (on the other hand a 20 buck microphone bought from your electronics store just won't cut it).

Cables and Stands:
Also don't skimp on microphone or instrument cables and get ones that use braided shielding with sturdy connectors that suit the microphones and instruments you are using.
Along with cables comes microphone stands (you will need at least one). The best kind to choose is a boom stand as these are the most useful for micing up acoustic instruments and vocals. The better ones are solidly built with metal adjusters instead of plastic which tend to break with regular use.

Monitor Speakers: Hearing what you have recorded.
Regardless of how good your material is it's pointless trying to mix and adjust anything without a decent monitoring setup.Basically "monitors" are high quality speakers constructed specifically for the recording studio.
The difference between these and your average Hi Fi system boxes is that they are designed for the relatively "flat" output of sound across the spectrum that the human ear can pick up with an output that does not increase or reduce some frequencies more than others. (Hi fi speakers on the other hand are designed to make music sound "better" by boosting or reducing certain frequencies).
Monitors provide an accurate way of listening to your recording and any adjustments that you make along the way. I personally use a set of KRK monitors which give me a good audio "picture" of what I have recorded and mixed. Other brands of good repute include Tannoy,Yamaha JBL, and Event.

Headphones! Yup, you'll need em:
A good set of headphones are probably even more important than a set of monitor speakers, in fact if you are wanting to record on top of your first track without picking up any background noise from your speakers they are vital.
They will also be invaluable if you want to record or practice without annoying your neighbors. Choose a good quality sealed pair that don't let too much sound leak out from the sides as your mic will pick this up).Note: At a pinch in a really tight budget you can get by temporarily with earphones just so you could hear something - although these are not ideal for mixing (you would not use them for this purpose).

Mixers - Do I need one?
This is a question I asked myself a few years ago when setting up my studio (I was beginning to get the occasional person calling me wanting to do their own album). Perhaps the best way to answer this is to ask yourself what kind of work are you intending to do.
To newbies out there I need to explain what a mixer is and does:
Basically a mixer is a unit full of knobs and sliding controls that allows you to adjust the sound input of several instruments, singers etc at once (think of it as having a separate volume control for each person plus other sound tweaks). Mixers allow you to also route individual instruments to various effects and adjustments before they are recorded

If you are recording a band playing live or jamming all at once then you may need a mixer (with as many channels as their are instruments, vocals etc). Typically if you are recording a drum kit you'll need to mic up kick, snare, hi hat and toms. Most bands will also have bass, guitar, maybe keyboard and perhaps a lead guitar and vocals so you will possibly need at least a 12 to 16 channel mixing desk. You can then adjust these inputs to the right levels so nothing drowns out another instrument or vocal add effects etc and then feed this into your computer as a single stereo input.
If you are doing studio recording (ie not live) you may or may not need a mixer depending on what and how you are recording. For example, I'm a solo artist so I generally don't use a mixer since my inputs are adjusted by my analog to digital converter.

I also have 8 inputs and can mic up everything from there and my mixer with all it's effects is handled inside my computer by the software (the mixer is displayed on my screen and I can make adjustments from there via the mouse and keyboard). I usually record my material one track at a time (this is how the pros do it) and make adjustments and editing later once everything is recorded.

All professional recording studios however,use a mixer of some sort of at least 16 channels or more since they may record several tracks at once just for the drums. Again it's worth thinking about what you are recording. Remember also that mixers vary in quality and price and the cheaper ones can sometimes introduce unwanted noise so do your homework.

Do you need a Preamp?
preamps are designed to boost a low level signal from a microphone or guitar pickup for example to something that is usable for recording. Many of the better quality soundcards and audio interfaces have at least one preamp built in (and mixers usually feature at least 2). For those that don't there is the option of buying a standalone preamp which will do the job nicely - and they need not be expensive.One essential feature to look for is phantom power (typically 18 to 48 Volts) as this is what is required to run most condenser type microphones.

A DI box - a problem solver for audio noise and other issues.
The DI box, (Direct Injection Box) or DI for short is simply a electronic circuit that allows you to match the signal from an electric guitar, bass or keyboard to the input requirements of a mixer. They can be used in a number of different ways.
For example if they are the active or powered type they can be used to boost the signal as they usually feature a preamp. The other application is to reduce a higher level output (such as from a keyboard) so it is suitable to go into a microphone input. But perhaps the most common application is using the DI to split a signal between a guitarist's own amplifier and the input of a mixing desk. This eliminates problems such as picking up hum coming from the amp because the mixer is getting a clean signal that does not go through it.

Getting a good mix without a blender:
Here are a few tips in getting a good mix for your recording. I like to look at mixing like blending colors or creating a cake.

* First you need quality ingredients - your recorded sounds which should be the best you can create.

* Secondly you enhance and refine to bring out the "flavors" of each instrument with equalization and effects.

* Thirdly you add them together in different amounts to get the desired effect (you want to be able to hear everything in the recording).

* Fourthly you create your final mixdown into one track (usually stereo or sometimes surround) ready for burning to CD.

To get your quality ingredients:
Record in a quiet environment - particularly if you are using condenser mics - they are highly sensitive and will pick up traffic sounds, barking dogs and even the fan noise from your equipment. You can lessen this by adding heavy curtains or drapes to your windows and placing a barrier between your microphones and your equipment to cut down on noise. Also keep an ear open for mains hum which you can avoid by keeping audio leads away from transformers.

Make "room" for your instruments by keeping bass, guitar and drums at a lower level so you can hear vocals and softer instruments. Having said that, record each track at as high an input as possible without going into the "red" and introducing distortion. It's better to bump the levels down than to try and boost them up because they were recorded too soft.

Use effects sparingly and sprinkle not drown or you'll turn everything into a mushy noise.

Adding a little reverb to vocals can make your singers stand out but too much will kill it.

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Audio recording software. This enables your computer to record and edit audio and MIDI tracks. You can also purchase plugins which are programs designed to add effects and various instruments to your recording toolkit.

Sound card designed for audio and MIDI. Types are available for both Windows and Mac computers. If you already have a fairly recent computer and are on a very tight budget this can be the least expensive option.

Outboard audio interface. This unit is designed to run on a Mac and uses a firewire connection. Other units are produced to work with a USB connection for Windows. These usually are more capable than a sound cards. The larger units can have several inputs for microphones and instruments as well as adjustments and effects.

Multitrack recorder. An alternative to purchasing a computer - ideal for putting together quick recordings and burning a CD. Most allow you to transfer your recordings to your computer for further work.

A dynamic microphone - SM58. This is an industry standard for vocal recordings on stage.

Professional monitoring headphones. Designed for comfort and good sound. Invaluable for recording over a backing track and keeping your neighbors happy.

Mixing desk. When you have several instruments playing at once you'll need one of these to set levels and tweak each input to get the best mix before it goes any further.

Monitor Speakers. These are designed to reproduce your recordings faithfully so you can then work on your adjustments to your final mix.

Audio Workstation. These units are a step up from the cheaper Multitrack recorders and produce better quality sound with more features overall.


Most recording software allows you to actually monitor the music you are recording so you can have a virtual recording studio within your computer. This is a screenshot of my recording software in action.


A studio condensor mic with shockmount.

Helpful Books On Recording


Microphone and instrument cables come in different grades of quality. The better ones are shielded with a woven wire braid under the rubber casing and have durable XLR connectors.


A boom Microphone stand. This is a shorter unit which makes it ideal for acoustic guitars and placing in front of drums and electric guitar amplifiers.


An instrument preamp. Notice the outputs at the back for both quarter inch jacks (ie on a guitar lead) and XLR (microphone leads). Microphone preamps use XLR inputs so keep this in mind when choosing your preamp.


A Direct Injection box (DI) Most commonly used to route signal from a keyboard or guitar to a mixing desk and also to the player's own amp at the same time. this helps to prevent any hum from the amp going to the desk and reduces or increases the signal so it is usable for recording or live playing.