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Home Recording on a Budget

Getting Started

So you've got a great song and you have to record it or you're just going to be a tortured soul for all eternity. You're going to need to do a little work, and spend at least a little money (although I will try to point out both the "cheap way" and the "expensive way") to get this thing off the ground. At the bare minimum (assuming you're doing digital recording, here), you'll need:

1. Your instruments, amplifiers, cables, and lots of spare strings. Trust me on this one.
2. A microphone.
3. Multitrack recording software, or dedicated recording hardware (4-track, 8-track, ADAT, etc.).
4. A stand-alone audio (.WAV) editor, if recording to hard disk.
5. Lots and lots of hard disk space. Disk is cheap, buy as much as you can afford.

Depending on your setup, you might also need multiple microphones and a mixer (if recording live drums, for example). If you're a solo project, though, there's a good chance you don't have a drum kit to record. Chill. There are plenty of software packages that let you sequence drums (and no, you won't sound like 80s synth-pop, unless you want to). Try Impulse Tracker, it's my old standby (although you'll probably need to use something like ModPlug to dump your drum tracks to .WAV.) Another highly-recommended (but not free) package is Fruity Loops. It rocks, and is my new favorite software.

In any case, let's get started choosing equipment.

Microphones

You're going to need a microphone. But which one? Let me tell you a secret: even a $5 computer microphone can sound perfectly acceptable. I swear to you this is true. It's all a matter of technique: learn how your mic sounds and learn how your position and volume affects this tone. More about that in the vocals section, though. What you need to know is this: you will get better sound with a better microphone, but you can get acceptable sound with even the worst-quality mic. I have been recording vocals with the tiny mic that came with my roommate's SoundBlaster, and it is surprisingly transparent and crisp. However, you might want to use something of better quality. You will probably want to stick to dynamic microphones, as they are cheaper and usually don't require phantom power. Shure makes some great mics that are quite cheap. The SM-58 is a wonderful mic for vocals, and will run a little under USD 100. If you're planning on mic'ing your guitar amp, you'll probably want to go with an SM-57, which is quite happy to do double duty on vocals and guitars. It's a little cheaper than the SM-58, but still nears the USD 100 mark. These are my two favorite mics, although there are plenty that will sound just as good, and maybe be a bit cheaper. Radio Shack makes a line of affordable mics that aren't too bad. You might want to check them out.

Software

The market for prosumer multitrack recording software has exploded in recent years, which means that you've got choices to make here. In my mind, the choice is simple: the only option is n-track Studio, a wonderful multitrack recorder whose pricetag is actually lower than a video game. The interface is simple, but powerful, and it supports both DirectX and VST plugins. Other software you might consider is Cakewalk Pro Audio, Cubase, and, believe it or not, Sonic Foundry Acid (this last one has extra perks, at the expense of multitrack features the other packages have). I believe that all these packages offer trial versions so you can get a feel for what you like (and don't) about each one. Be conscious that multitrack recording is CPU-intensive, relative to most other applications; if you're running on a 266MHz machine, don't expect to record more than 6 or 7 simultaneous tracks. You'll also need a stand-alone audio editor. Pick one you like; they're all pretty much equivalent. Cool Edit Pro is both a multitrack and single-file audio editor, and also has some pretty bad-ass noise reduction algorithms. You may want to have a look at it.

You might also want some audio plugins -- to do reverb, compression, etc. Steinberg makes some great plugin packages, but they are quite expensive. n-track Studio comes with a few plugins that you can use as Aux sends in a pinch. I'll discuss more about plugins in the mixing section, but if you've got money to spend on this project, expect to spend a sizeable chunk of it on audio plugins.

Hardware

What you've got right now is probably sufficient. No, really. You'll need RAM, of course, the more the better, but your sound card -- unless it's real crap -- won't make much of a difference. There are sound cards that record 24-bit audio, and that's all well and good, but for the hobbyist, it's not really important. You'll definitely want lots of disk space, though. Audio is big. Bigger than you can imagine. You will fill up a 40GB disk in a month or two. So get as much as you can afford. Get fast disks, too. 5400 RPM is probably not sufficient. You'll be reading and writing large amounts of data simultaneously, and your disks will have to be able to deal with that. See also notes in the software section about CPU load. You can mixdown periodically to compensate for a slow processor, but the more horsepower you've got, the better. A P-III class machine of any MHz rating should be sufficient; my 1GHz machine only hits about 30-40% CPU usage when recording to a song which already has 10 or 15 simultaneous tracks with two Aux effects and a few track inserts. So, really, no sweat. But please don't try this on a 266MHz K6, unless you're really patient (trust me. I've been there).

Plugging In

So you've got some guitars, and a mic or 6. How do you plug them into the computer? It depends. You probably don't want to plug your guitar directly into the computer. It will sound terrible, I promise; more on that in the guitar section. If you don't have a modelling amp with a speaker simulator (like the Line 6 POD), you will want to mic your guitar amp. Your microphone might have a balanced XLR connector; there are cables that will convert this to an unbalanced 1/4" plug, which you can then convert to an 1/8" mini plug to stick into the sound card. Complicated, but it will work. Alternatively, you can buy yourself a cheap microphone mixer (available from Radio Shack) and plug it into your sound card's line-in. This might give you a better signal-to-noise ratio, but isn't strictly necessary. You will also probably need a 1/4" to 1/8" adapter so you can plug your bass guitar in. You're free to mic your bass amp as well, of course, although you'll probably get better sound going in direct. It's a matter of personal choice if you want to go through the amp or not, though (and plug the amp's headphone output into your sound card's line-in). As I mentioned above, if you're recording live drums, you will need multiple microphones -- I would use 6, but that gets expensive quickly -- and a mixer. You'd then go out of your mixer into your sound card's line-in.

Wrap-Up

That concludes the "getting started" section. You should now have a pretty good idea of what you'll need to get started recording your music. Some of this stuff is cheap, and some of it will set you back a little. You can keep the costs down, however, if you're not too picky. Besides, it's just for fun, right?


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