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Help me become a bedroom musician
October 9, 2011 5:37 AM   Subscribe

I'm a professional musician, but specifically a classical musician with essentially no experience with sequencing, recording, amplification, or anything to do with electronics. Can you tell me how I become a bedroom musician?

In addition to the violin, I play piano passably well, and know the basic chords for guitar. I used to play with a band in college, but it was mostly, "Hey, for this song, why don't use solo over this part?" type of deal.

I have some questions about equipment:

1. I'm planning on buying an iMac, the cheapest option. I figure I can upgrade the memory later if need be. The main reason I'm paying the hefty premium on the price, and not building my own, which probably would be kind of fun, is that I'm operating under the assumption that a Mac will make it easier to get started with making music without much hassle. Is this a correct assumption?

2. What kind of (musical) keyboard should I get? I assume I'll need one. Is there some kind of threshold, in your experience, where having less than this number of keys makes it a hassle to work with?

3. Should I buy Logic Express right away, or should I see what GarageBand is like first? (The reason I ask is that a friend can pick up a copy for slightly cheaper while he's in the US this week. I'm going to the US myself in December, so I could do it then as well.) Or do I try some other software?

And beyond this, anything else you want to tell me? Where to begin once I get my stuff? What to read? What sites or videos to check out? What to think about? I'm not set on a particular genre, at this point I just want to see what else is out there and try my hand at something different. Thanks.
posted by Busoni to Media & Arts (18 answers total) 29 users marked this as a favorite
 
I just realized, at some point, I'm probably going to need a microphone. (This probably tells you a lot about where I am in this process.) So, 4. any recommendations? Or can I skip the mic for now?
posted by Busoni at 5:39 AM on October 9, 2011


1. ... I'm operating under the assumption that a Mac will make it easier to get started with making music without much hassle. Is this a correct assumption?

Yes.

2. What kind of (musical) keyboard should I get? I assume I'll need one. Is there some kind of threshold, in your experience, where having less than this number of keys makes it a hassle to work with?

I'm currently doing a lot of home recordings where I'm covering other pop/rock songs (fairly close to the original studio versions), and I use the M-Audio Keystation 49e. I've been completely satisfied with it. If I need more than the range of the keyboard, I'll record two different performances. Of course, some people would look down on a keyboard recording the left separately from the right hand, but I'm not worried about that. There are buttons that let you shift the octave of the entire keyboard up or down 1 or 2 octaves, so basically no piano part is out of reach but you only have access to 49 keys at a time.

3. ... Should I buy Logic Express right away, or should I see what GarageBand is like first?

Considering that GarageBand comes packaged with the iMac so it's essentially free relative to any other program you'd buy, you might as well start with GarageBand. You'll get used to recording and not have to deal with the steeper learning curve of Logic. GarageBand itself is quite powerful and similar in many ways to Logic (and I'm saying that based on using Logic Studio, which is a step up from Logic Express). You can also make a decision based on actual experience about whether you need something more advanced; it's hard for us to make that call based on essentially no knowledge of what kinds of music you'd be making. Another reason to start in GarageBand: GarageBand files work in Logic, but not vice versa — so with GarageBand, you can always switch to Logic later and pick up where you left off.

I just realized, at some point, I'm probably going to need a microphone. (This probably tells you a lot about where I am in this process.) So, 4. any recommendations? Or can I skip the mic for now?

That depends on which acoustic instruments you want to record: violin, guitar, voice?
posted by John Cohen at 6:29 AM on October 9, 2011


My opinion:

1. Yes. They're great, low-hassle computers for the money, and Garageband is a great entry-level DAW. By all means, build a PC if you want to, and that can serve you very well too, but you have to be selective about your hardware options. An iMac is definitely a great option. One crucial thing is that it's very quiet, which will be extremely handy when you come to record.

2. Well, this is a difficult one. There are tons of different MIDI USB keyboards around. I'd recommend going into a music shop and fiddling with them until you find one that you like. If you're in the US, Guitar Center usually have quite a few on display.

To be honest, the size of the keyboard is really going to depend on your preferences. Plenty of electronic musicians are happy with something as small as an M-Audio Oxygen 25 or even a Korg NanoKey for simply inputting chords and riffs. Obviously, you're not going to be able to let rip on one.

So if you want a keyboard you can actually play approximating a piano, I'd look into something above 49 keys. M-Audio's Oxygen range are pretty ubiquitous. Here's a review of the 49 key one. If you don't mind spending a bit more, the Novation SL series have a good reputation. But investigate properly for yourself. Sound On Sound are a good trustworthy review source.

3. I'd say to stick with Garageband for now. It's really rather good. If you find it limiting, look into other DAWs. Logic is very good, but it may well not be the best fit for you. If you do decide to branch out, I'd recommend trying demo/trial versions of at least the following DAWs: Ableton Live (my personal fave), Cubase, and Reaper. Unfortunately, there's no trial version of either Logic or Pro Tools. Once again, the ultimate choice is a matter of taste.

4. This is an even biggest question than number 2! You're almost certainly going to have to invest in an outboard soundcard if you want to do this even semi-properly. What do you anticipate recording? If it's the violin, have a look at this Sound On Sound article about recording strings. It's about 12 years old, but the techniques and theory are very sound, and are IMO far more important than the actual mic used. Which is also very important. Don't forget about the room that you record in - that's going to have a bigger impact on your sound than almost anything else. There's a metric ton of info about room treatment out there, and I'd take it quite seriously.

Apologies for the length, but you asked a big question!
posted by Magnakai at 7:02 AM on October 9, 2011


There is no "hefty premium" for a Mac, and you can't build your own. Macs are ubiquitous in music production for good reasons, although they don't have any sort of exclusive.

Put your money into microphones if you need to record acoustic instruments. The bottom of the line iMac will do you fine; a mic decent enough for recording violin will cost you nearly as much.
posted by spitbull at 8:00 AM on October 9, 2011


1. I would agree. I use linux for everything else, and bought a macbook specifically for music production. Samplers, VSTs etc seem to be mostly available on Windows/OSX, so that is a good choice. You might want to consider a macbook pro as well for portability.

2. Difficult to say... I'm currently using an Akai LPK 25, and while it seems like a very popular option, I'm probably going to get at least a 49 key down the road, the two octave range is quite tight. Plus, I find the response of the keys somewhat non-linear. I've used a Keystation 61 previously, and I thought for the money it was pretty nice.

Alternatively, how about getting a digital piano with midi outputs?

3. I'm using garageband with the idea to move on to logic studio down the road, however it seems to do exactly all I need

- Bring in midi tracks and play them back with good samples
- Record x1 alto saxophone.

Tried to do some notation on garageband but I found it ho-hum and bought Finale Printmusic for that purpose instead. I hear logic is much better in this aspect.

4. I'm currently using a Onyx Blackjack for my audio interface to my mac, it has two mic pres, giving 60db of nice clean gain, direct monitoring, plug and play with OSX, works well with garageband. Microphone wise, I am pretty much a newb, I have a SM57, owned a SE X1 Condenser, and a Heil PR31BW. My room is untreated, and surprisingly my recordings are actually quite dry. I attribute this to using dynamic mics. With a condenser like the X1 or an inline mic pre, it does pic up alot of the room, so I'd suggest getting a good dynamic vs a condenser. That said, I'm not sure if a dynamic would be idea for violins - I haven't read that much about recording violins, you may want to check out gearslutz.com - I think remember reading about using small diaphragm condensers for violins. *shrugs*

Good luck!
posted by TrinsicWS at 8:04 AM on October 9, 2011


You might want to consider getting a combination keyboard/audio interface like the Novation X-Station. It won't be the best possible keyboard, or the best possible interface, but its simple and good enough to get you started. Plus its got enough knobs and sliders to fly a combat drone.

Microphones - the Audio Technica 2020 is pretty well-liked as a general-purpose cheapo condenser mic, though I don't have a lot of experience with it.

Don't worry about having great gear; there are millions of bedroom engineers out there with great equipment and nobody to record. Put together some good songs and you will have no trouble finding someone to help you record polished versions when the time comes.
posted by modernserf at 8:36 AM on October 9, 2011


I record and produce music on a PC and like it very much, but I'd still recommend a Mac to you. I haven't used GarageBand, but I'm sure it's much more intuitive for a beginner than a program like Logic is. Logic is a great program though, not available for PC (I use Sonar, but that would be hard for a beginner to learn also). Since you are completely unfamiliar with the recording process, and using a computer to record, see if the library has a basic recording book to read through and at least tell you what you need to get it set up. Like if you get a condenser mic, you'll need a preamp that generates phantom power. There is a lot to learn.
posted by wondermouse at 8:55 AM on October 9, 2011


Thanks so far, everyone. So 1. I'm getting an iMac. 2. I'll look for a 49-key keyboard. 3. I'll try GarageBand, and other trial versions for now. 4. I'll probably hold off on the mics for now, but I'd probably want something for voice at some point.

So beyond the gear, any advice you'd like to give on getting started? I have a lot of songs on my playlists I'd like to emulate, but don't know how, and not entirely sure how I'd go about finding out.
posted by Busoni at 8:56 AM on October 9, 2011


It looks like everyone has the technical stuff covered. You might find inspiration here. That's just one of several stellar covers done by a (probably conservatory-aged) double bass player in quite possibly the sort of vein you have in mind. Enjoy.
posted by eric1halfb at 9:04 AM on October 9, 2011


Regarding microphones, there are a ton of them for sure, but the ones that are really versatile, stand up to years of use and have become true reference standards are far fewer. The AKG C414 is such a microphone. Yes, it is $1000, but it is adept for piano, acoustic and voice and you will never regret owning one.
posted by bz at 9:06 AM on October 9, 2011 [1 favorite]


Garage band is basically a toy, but it's okay for getting your feet wet.

You also don't need logic. Depending on what you want to do, there are a lot of options -- Ableton, Reason, Logic, Cubase, Fruity Loops.. They all have free demos I think, so play around with them and see what you're comfortable with.

Also, get this book and read it cover to cover before you do anything, so you know what it is you're actually trying to do.

What kind of songs are you trying to emulate?
posted by empath at 9:56 AM on October 9, 2011 [1 favorite]


Also, there are tons of tutorials on youtube, if you search for producer or song names with 'tutorial'
posted by empath at 9:56 AM on October 9, 2011 [1 favorite]


@Empath:

Some people whose songs I have in mind: Pharrell, RJD2, Timbaland, The Bird and the Bee, Frou Frou/Imogen Heap, The Postal Service, Casiotone, The American Dollar, Daft Punk, The Glitch Mob, Radiohead, and Band of Horses. Not that I'm extensively famliar with their oeuvres, it's just that I've heard a song or a couple songs by them, and thought I might want to try making something along the lines of what they made.

I imagine Band of Horses and Pharrell have very different workflows. Obviously I don't know what I'm doing at this point, I just want to give it a try.
posted by Busoni at 10:25 AM on October 9, 2011


If you want to do serious electronica like Daft Punk, you'll want either Cubase or Logic. If you want to do live performance and looping like Imogen Heap does, you'll want Ableton Live. If you want to do hip-hop, you can use pretty much anything, but Fruity Loops is fairly popular for hip-hop and easy to get into.

The book I linked to will give you the basics you need for engineering any kind of music, though (especially the vocabulary and basic theory).

You'll also want to get a book on sound synthesis, but I don't really have one to recommend. You'll you want to learn the basic principles of subtractive synthesis at a minimum.

It seems like a lot of the stuff you're interested in is heavily loop based, so I would look hard at Fruity Loops and Ableton Live. If you're more interested in synthesis and sound design, you'd probably be better off with Cubase or Logic, but these days all the DAWs can handle pretty much anything, and you'd be doing a lot of your work with plug-ins that they all can run anyway.
posted by empath at 10:33 AM on October 9, 2011


1. I'm planning on buying an iMac, the cheapest option.

I would say: whatever on this one. For basic stuff, you could get by with any non-virus filled windows computer and a 2 channel USB box. A nice new computer would be great, but I would spend the money on getting some microphones. To record a couple of tracks and learn how to do something, pretty much any computer made nearer to 2006 or so is going to be fine.

Reaper/audacity are awesome and cheap/free. There are so many free VSTs for windows, it's not worth talking about. Garageband is great, I'm told. But you can live without it.

2. What kind of (musical) keyboard should I get?

Depends on what you want to do. What are you going to do? For sequencing stuff, or playing in drum parts, you don't really need much. For playing keyboard parts, you are going to want more keys.

3. Should I buy Logic Express right away, or should I see what GarageBand is like first?
Reaper is stupid cheap and works really well. I seriously would put any money you have into buying a nice USB box and some microphones.

I've had good luck with Audio Technica AT2020 mics and a pretty basic Roland US-25ex box. You could get both off ebay pretty cheap. The Roland I think is superior in reliability to other cheap 2 channel boxes. I haven't had any problems with it. A pair of Sony 7506 headphones is pretty smart.

And beyond this, anything else you want to tell me? Where to begin once I get my stuff? What to read? What sites or videos to check out? What to think about? I'm not set on a particular genre, at this point I just want to see what else is out there and try my hand at something different. Thanks.

Don't spend a lot of money until you know what you want to do.

Sweetwater is great to deal with.
Read Tape Op Magazine and if you want to splurge, Sound-on-Sound

Gear Slutz is a good forum.

There's all kinds of stuff on youtube.

You may want to look into learning Ableton Live. A lot of people use it. Also Reason. I would not spend so much on your basic DAW software, and maybe put more money into some of the more creative software options (like Live). DAWs, in my very limited experience, are all very similar. But Live/Reason/other shit like that, they all do really different things.

Mostly, I would say get some basic stuff and then see what you can do with it. Garageband is great for that...I do have to admit that. However I don't think that's your only option. Having Live Intro for $99 might be a good place to put the money you'd save on buying a mac.

Um, you must have a computer now, right? That computer will most likely work well with Reaper, will most likely be able to handle two channels from an Edirol box I mentioned. It will definitely run audacity (not the greatest thing, but handy). So...I'd stick with what you have for now and move out from there.
posted by sully75 at 2:53 PM on October 9, 2011


If you have an ipod touch or iphone, then Nanostudio is a phenomenally good introduction to sequencing, drum patterns and synthesisers.

I pimp it mercilessly for two reasons - one, it helped me understand how filters, envelopes and LFOs really work after many years of filing them in the 'too complicated to bother with' box and two, it gives you the ability to work on stuff in tiny slices of time like waiting for a bus or whatever.

Also, it has some lovely sounds.

Mic-wise, I record on a PC with a Shure SM57 - gets a lovely rich sound from my cello. Second recommendations to spend money on a nice mic rather than big fancy computer setup.
posted by Sebmojo at 4:41 PM on October 9, 2011


Everyone here is suggesting budget options, and it's true that you can get started with not very much. On the other hand, you don't mention any budget issues, and given that you're already a professional musician, it seems likely that you're a person who could take advantage of good equipment. I mention this because I've been pretty frustrated with some of the cheap junk I bought, and I've never regretted shelling out for something quality. Buying cheap means buying twice.

The cheapest iMac will be plenty adequate for a computer. On the other hand, since you can actually play piano, I wouldn't hesitate to buy a 61 key MIDI controller with weighted keys, like the M-Audio Axion or the Akai MPK61. Ideally, you should go to a music store and try some MIDI keyboard controllers and choose the one with the keys that you like the feel of. You also won't regret spending a little money on a nice USB or firewire audio interface. I bought the Focusrite Saffire 6, which has two nice mic preamps and can do all the low latency full duplex stuff you need. The Onyx Blackjack is similar and so is the M-Audio Fast Track Pro.

As for the DAW and the mic, it's hard to know exactly what you need until you get your feet weet and learn some techniques. I agree that you should get trial versions of two or three DAWs before shelling out big money for one of them. Your audio interface will come with a stripped down version of Ableton or ProTools, plus you've got GarageBand, so that should keep you busy for awhile. For a mic, there are quite a few choices I've heard good things about in the $200 to $300 range, like the Rode NT1a, the Studio Projects C1, and Audio Technica AT4040. Depending on what you're recording, that may be all you'll ever need. You won't regret buying a used Shure SM 57 because you can easily sell it to someone else for whatever you paid for it and it's just kind of an industry standard thing. It'll be about $50 and you can get good results with it in a kind of lo-fi kind of way. I have a much nicer mic, but I still use the SM 57 all the time for doing quick scratch takes.
posted by chrchr at 5:33 PM on October 9, 2011


Where do you live? Maybe there's a music venue or some other community that has home recording classes? It will make figuring all this stuff out more fun.
posted by victory_laser at 2:33 AM on October 10, 2011


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