so you want to be a rock & roll star
well listen now to what I say
get yourself an electric guitar
and take some time and learn how to play
(So You Wanna Be a Rock and Roll Star, Roger McGuinn and Chris Hillman, The Byrds)

So, you've got the song. You can play it on guitar. You've written the lyrics. Now what do you do with it? You record it! Get it down, play it back, enjoy your creation. Let other people hear it, and bask in the warm glow of their praise. Well, that's the general idea, anyway. However, the recording part of the equation can be a stumbling block to many people. Don't you need special equipment? Isn't all of that gear expensive?

Enter the home computer. Most people have a computer at home, with more than enough power to handle the task of recording music. However, where do you begin? What gear do you need? How do you get started?

Creating Music on your Home Computer - a Beginners Guide

Let me start of by saying, that the information here is intended for the amateur home recorder. If you're looking to release a cd commercially, or produce a professional quality demo, this may not be for you. It doesn't really have anything to do with creating electronic music either...if you're into creating loops and samples, you probably already know far more than I do. However, if you've written some songs, that you want to allow other people to hear, whether friends and family, or over the internet, recording on your home computer can be a great way to produce fairly high quality recordings, for a low cost.

Why record on your computer?

Recording on your computer provides a number of advantages over other methods of recording. These include:
  • If you own a fairly modern PC, you already have the major piece of gear required. It's like getting the most expensive bit of equipment for free.
  • With the right software, you are able to virtually see what you are doing, and have the power to edit your music simply and visually.
  • You are recording directly into a digital device, and your songs will be stored on the computer's hard disk. No worrying about tapes. And your computer can store a huge amount of data, meaning you are able to store everything you record in the same place - including the rough takes, mistakes, and finished product.
  • You can make up each song from a large number of tracks, because depending on the software you're using, you have a virtually unlimited number of tracks available. Really, the only limiting factor is the power of your computer.
  • If it takes 100 tries to get it right, it doesn't matter. There's no rewinding of tapes, no erasing. Just stop, 2 seconds later, you're ready to try again.

Are there any disadvantages?
  • Computers are not nearly as portable as some of the alternatives. It's difficult to take your computer with you, if you want to record out of home.
  • Your computer is unlikely to be a dedicated audio recording setup. A dedicated audio recording unit is designed for one purpose alone - recording sound. Your computer is designed as a multi-purpose device, and its performance when it comes to recording sound may suffer somewhat due to the other roles the unit carries out.
  • Depending on the soundcard you're using, you will probably be limited to one input at a time. This means if you've got more than one musician playing on a song, they'll all have to play their piece seperately, over the other tracks.

Ok, I've got a computer. What else do I need?

Naturally, the computer is the vital piece of equipment. For best performance, your computer should possess a decent amount of power. Some software will run on a Pentium 133, with 32mb of RAM. Of course, it may not run too well... Go for at least a Pentium 3 processor, or equivelent. 256mb of RAM is dirt cheap these days, aim for that. Audio recordings chew up disk space very quickly. A song with four or five tracks will use over 100mb of disk space very quickly. So you'll need a decent amount of space on your hard drive. I have a directory containing eleven original songs on my computer - raw data, plus mixdowns. It uses over 2GB of disk space. A fast hard drive also helps. 7200rpm disk drives are pretty much standard these days - try to get one of those. If you can afford to have a dedicated drive for audio only, that's preferable. The other vital piece of hardware is a sound card, which I'll cover in more detail soon.

You're going to need a few other things as well:
  • Multi-track recording software There are heaps of products available, too many to describe here. Basically, you want something that has an unlimited number of tracks, and decent editing capabilities. For the beginner, simplicity is best. Hundreds of features are nice, but not if it makes the software so complicated that you can't use it. Each different package is different, so I won't even attempt to describe even the basics of what they can do, and how they work.
  • Something to make music. This can be a guitar, (electric or acoustic), a piano, banjo, or didgeridoo. Anything that makes noise really.
  • A microphone. If you're never going to sing, and are able to plug your instrument in using a lead, then this may not be required. Otherwise, try to get a half decent microphone. No, the microphone that came with your home karaoke machine probably isn't a decent microphone... You can use the microphone to sing, or to mic guitar amps, or acoustic instruments, that have no ability to be plugged into anything.
  • Adaptors, for your leads. Most sound cards have 1/8" inputs (the type you have on a walkman), whereas instrument and microphone leads have 1/4" plugs. You need an adaptor, so that you can plug leads into the computer.

Ok, I've got all of the bits - now how to I rock the world?

These are the basic requirements for recording on the computer. So we'll go on to how to plug it all in, and get going. This will be fairly generic, your particular software may have specific requirements. However these steps will be necessary for any software package:
  • Plug your instrument, or microphone, into the computer. The number of inputs on your sound card will be dependant on it's brand, most have a line in, and a mic in input. The mic in is probably the better of the two to use.
  • You need to tell Windows which input you are using, and adjust it's recording volume. To do this:
    • Open the Play Control window in Windows (double click on the speaker icon on the right hand side of your task bar, or go to the Start Menu/Programs/Accessories/Entertainment/Volume Control). The first display is for playback volumes, which is not what you want. To open the Record Control display, from the Play Control window go to Options/Properties, select Adjust Volume for Recording, and press OK.
    • From this window, you need to select which input you are using, by clicking in the Select box corresponding to it. Then adjust it's input volume. To test your input, open another Play Control window (you can open a new window, and the Record Control window will remain open), and make some noise through whatever you've got plugged in. You should see the level indicator move in the Play Control window.
  • Fire up your recording software package. You will need to set it up in accordance to the manufacturer's instructions. After this is done, you're pretty much ready to go! sounds ok, but....

By now, if you've recorded something this way, you may not be 100% happy with the results. The most common problem is that what you've recorded is fairly quiet, and may be fairly noisy. The main reason for this is that there is nothing boosting the signal going into the soundcard. All soundcards with mic inputs have a preamp built in. The preamp boosts the weak signal that your instrument, or microphone produces, and amplifies it. However, unless you have a soundcard designed for audio recording, the preamp is probably of dubious quality. You may be happy with the results you're getting, and there are other ways of increasing the volume of your recorded sound. If you aren't happy though, a small investment in any number of things can dramatically improve the quality of your recordings:

  • Buy a sound card designed for recording audio. There are many of these on the market, ranging from fairly simple and inexpensive, to ridiculously expensive. Many of the better ones will have a break out box, a unit connected to the sound card, that contains all of the inputs that would normally be located on the back of your computer. This makes it much easier to plug leads in and out. They also often have inputs for 1/4" plugs, negating the need for adaptors. A good sound card has higher quality preamps built in, meaning the card itself is adequate for boosting your signals. The other major factor in sound card quality is the A/D (analog to digital) convertor. When you play music, you are creating an analog signal, which needs to be converted to a digital signal that the computer can understand. Putting is extremely simply, better quality A/D converters result in a better sounding recording.
  • Instead of going straight to your sound card from your sound source, go through a mixer, or external preamp. A mixer or preamp will provide you with the ability to control the level of your signal, before it gets to the computer, as well as boosting the signal strength. A mixer contains it's own preamp's, a dedicated preamp unit will just be a higher quality preamp, and may also have tone controls, as well as volume controls. Some contain vacuum tubes, often said to add warmth to a sterile digital sound. Either of these alternatives will give you a better sounding, stronger signal, with less noise.

Finishing it all off

Ok, you've got your song recorded, and you're ready to play it to the world. The final step is getting it off of your computer, and into a more accessable medium. There are a couple of options. The best one, is to get a cd burner, if you don't have one already, and make your own cd's. Listen to them in the car, give them to people. At a dollar a pop, it's an awesome way to make your own music. Another option is connecting the speaker output on your computer, to an input on a home stereo, and recording the sound onto cassette.

And there you have it. Everything you need to know to produce your own masterpieces, without ever leaving the loungeroom. So what are you waiting for?

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