Absolute Beginners Guide to Home Recording - Part 1 - What you need
Making sure you have the right motives and attitude
For someone who has never recorded a track in their life, this can be a very daunting concept to even consider. Where does one start? What I know for sure, is that it takes a lot of dedication and time to develop an understanding of music production, and gain an ear for sound. I also know that if you do not think that you will enjoy all the time and dedication involved, you're better off asking an expensive studio to record your demo.
I know this because I absolutely love recording at home, and I love the thrill of creating and producing music. But there are still days when I just want to pack up my gear and sell it, because it can be extremely frustrating if you can’t get anything to sound the way you want it to.
You need to accept the following:
- Chances are that anything that you record at home is going to sound amateurish. You will endure a lot of trial and error, and you will probably not get anything to sound the way you want for a long time.
- It will take a lot of investment in terms of time and money. You need to spend time researching, learning and practicing. There's more to sound recording than sticking a mic in front of an instrument or vocalist and hitting record. You will also have to spend a reasonable amount on start-up studio gear.
- Don't waste your money on over-priced high-end gear, especially if you're just starting out. You might notice a subtle (say 20%) improvement between a $100 microphone and a $1000 microphone. Ask yourself if it's worth it as a beginner - you may just give up soon after starting, and will have to sell the whole lot at a loss. (That's why I'm here to encourage you to persevere)
A brief list of what you need
You should be looking to start small. You really don’t need a big variety of equipment to have a decent home studio. Here’s a list of essentials I think one should have. Depending on your goals/budget, you may not need certain things on the list, or you may wish to add others:
- A relatively modern computer/laptop
- Your choice of DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) software
- An external audio interface (USB, Firewire or Thunderbolt)
- Condenser microphones (phantom power or USB)
- Dynamic microphones
- A pop filter
- A pair of studio headphones and/or monitor speakers
- Miscellaneous items such as microphone stands and cables.
- Whatever other instruments you wish to record.
I don’t think that there are many rules when deciding on a computer. However, the important thing is that it is a relatively modern PC. Digital Audio Workstations generally don't require too much processing power, but do consider getting a faster computer if possible. If you start working on multi-track audio productions, with 10 or more tracks in one project, with a huge rack of real-time effects, you may find it taxing on your computer and experience audio dropouts. Also, have enough storage capacity to save uncompressed WAV files and other types of sound files, which can accumulate a lot of space over time.
If you want to record live shows, or record on location for any other reason, you may want to consider getting a laptop for it's convenience. Beware that most modern laptops do not have firewire ports (which are still the most common means of connection between an audio interface and a PC)
An audio interface is a high quality sound card dedicated to the use of recording audio. They are almost always external devices that connect via USB, Firewire or Thunderbolt. All the inputs on your audio interface receive analog signals from microphones, instruments and line-level cables, and are converted from analog signals into digital data.
Ensure that the interface has enough line/instrument and mic preamps for your needs. If you know that you'll never use more than 2 microphones, or one microphone and an instrument plugged directly into the interface, then there's no need to go for something with 8 inputs, but rather something with 2.
DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) software is where everything comes together. All the inputs on your audio interface receive analog signals from microphones, instruments and line-level signals, and are converted from analog signals into digital data. This data is channeled into the DAW software, allowing you to begin recording, mixing and mastering. There are many types of DAW software available, and most come with a generous variety of real-time effects and VST plug-ins which allow you to process and experiment with your music as much as you like.
Condenser microphones use a 48V energy source called 'phantom power'. You need to ensure that your audio interface has microphone preamps with built-in phantom power in order to use condenser microphones.
- Large diaphragm: Large diaphragm condenser microphones are best used for recording vocals. This is because a large diaphragm is less sensitive to unwanted mouth noises - things that would otherwise be picked up more easily by a small diaphragm condenser.
- Small diaphragm: Small diaphragm condenser microphones are best used for recording acoustic instruments. Not necessarily all, but in general it picks up finer details than a large diaphragm condenser would on the same instrument.
Take some time to research microphone polar patterns. It's important to know from what directions the microphone accepts and rejects noise. The polar patterns you choose to work with will be dependant on the nature of your recordings, as well as your studio space.
Most believe that dynamic microphones are best used for live setups because of their ruggedness and minimal sensitivity to surrounding noise. Therefore, they pick up less feedback when on stage. However, vocal dynamic mics can also record high quality vocal tracks in the studio, even when compared to a large diaphragm condenser microphone. Dynamic microphones work well when used to record an amplifier due to the fact that they can withstand a much higher sound pressure level (dB SPL) than condensers. Their frequency range and sensitivity is generally not as good, but a guitar amp for example does not need a wider frequency range pickup, or greater level of detail than what a dynamic mic provides.
Studio headphones / monitor speakers
- Studio headphones: These are used to listen to recordings and monitor real-time inputs (the signal entering the audio interface that has not necessarily been recorded yet) Make sure it has a relatively flat response, so that it gives you an accurate signal, without dramatic boosting or cutting any frequencies that can falsely affect your judgment of the sound.
- Monitor speakers: These serve the same purpose as studio headphones, except that they enable you to hear the same accurate sound in open air with natural room acoustics. Due to the fact that room acoustics cause coloration to the signal, you need to ensure that the great sounding recording in your headphones still sounds great through speakers.
Pop filters/pop shields are used when recording vocals. Its purpose is to reduce the unwanted popping sounds which are transmitted through fast moving air. These kinds of sounds or 'plosives' are picked up when pronouncing certain consonants like ‘P’ or ‘T’. These noises which are filtered out by the pop-filter will otherwise make your vocal recording sound unprofessional.
MIDI controller keyboard
A MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) controller keyboard's main use is to sequence MIDI data into a software sequencer, and playback selected audio samples/synthesized sounds that correspond to the musical note played on the keyboard. There are many fantastic opportunities involved with using MIDI. MIDI can be used to create any style of music, as a MIDI keyboard can trigger (they do not create sound) a synth line, as well as a guitar note or acoustic snare for example.
Acoustic treatment is such a vast topic that I can't cover it in detail here, but it is important to at least understand it's importance at this point. The acoustics of a room affect the signal pickup from microphones, depending on the placement technique and distance from the signal source. Listening to a mix through monitor speakers can be completely different in one room than in another. In one room your mix might find fantastic, and in another it might be completely off balance, with a low-frequency boominess that destroys the track.
It's important to understand that music or any sound can sound different in different environments. No two rooms sound the same, because the sound of the room is determined by the dimensions and building materials of the room. For these reasons, its important to understand the implications that natural acoustics will have on recording and monitoring in order to produce the best recordings.
Stay Tuned for Part 2
Thank you for reading. I hope that this article answered many of your initial questions about getting started with home recording. This was just an introduction, there is much more to discover... Read Part 2 of this Hub series here to find out how everything is set up: http://bandic22.hubpages.com/hub/Absolute-Beginners-Guide-to-Home-Recording-Part-2-Setting-up and read my other hubs to go into the meat of the matter, and start understanding the more in-depth topics that will undoubtedly improve both your knowledge and confidence in home recording.
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