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Making Tracks
February 6, 2006 12:08 PM   Subscribe

What is the absolute cheapest, simplest, lowest-to-the-ground, home audio recording system I can set up?

The very hip local arts & culture paper is running this project called the RPM Challenge, in which bands and artists record an album start to finish during the month of February. I decided to dust off the singer-songwriter element of my identity and jump back into the music scene after years of watching from the floor.

I've got material, no problem, and instruments and vocals, no problem. The problem is I've got no real recording technology. I have a couple of lines out to friends who might be able to help me out, but if they don't pan out, I'll need a backup plan. And it has to be something something really simple (because I'm not a techie) and really cheap (because I'm a nonprofit scrub with a really small disposable budget).

My specs: First of all, pretend I'm a geriatric technophobe. I use computers to communicate, but I totally do not understand them and am not a gearhead. I have a standard Dell Dimension desktop as it came from the factory, and it does have a CD burner. I have one Shur 57 mike, and I guess I can just mike the guitar since I don't have a pickup for it right now. I don't have anything to connect the mike to the computer -- not sure how that's done. I've used the program Audacity to record spoken audio from minidisc, and I'm comfortable mixing on that program once I get some audio into it. But I'm not even sure that's the way to go. For what it's worth, I can borrow a basic Sony minidisc recorder any time.

The material I'm recording is very simple, and I really want a stripped-down, unvarnished result anyway. It'll be acoustic-guitar centered, Americana-style. There will be at most 2 vocal tracks, 2 guitar tracks (rhythm and fill), and perhaps a little fiddle or banjo laid over here and there. So the mixing shouldn't be anything too fancy.

I would so appreciate any help with this. Thanks!
posted by Miko to Technology (13 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
 
Want super simple? Get yourself a used cassette tape 4 track recorder on craigslist or other used stuff source. Record on that, then mix down to Audacity through your computer's audio in.

If you go for more sophisticated than that, you're looking at more of a learning curve. For what you want to do, you basically need 4 to 8 tracks. I'd recommend more sophisticated gear and whatnot, but a 4 track is so easy and so cheap (below $100), and it will do exactly what you say you want to do.

One good tip: When you're done with it, and it's mixed down to Audacity, make it into a wav file and have somebody master it. It is impossible to overstate the importance of good mastering.
posted by JekPorkins at 12:18 PM on February 6, 2006


I have a standard Dell Dimension desktop as it came from the factory, and it does have a CD burner. I have one Shur 57 mike, and I guess I can just mike the guitar since I don't have a pickup for it right now. I don't have anything to connect the mike to the computer

A few possible routes:

(1) If your computer has a 1/8" stereo line-in jack, buy a mic preamp and a cable and plug adaptor or two from Radio shack to connect it to the computer. You could pick up an ART mic preamp or M-Audio DMP2 or something like that for less than $50-$80. See here for example.

(2) If you've even got a bit more money and a USB port on your machine, inexpensive USB audio interfaces aren't that much more. In fact, I'm surprised to find out it looks like there's an Art preamp with USB for under $100.
posted by weston at 12:27 PM on February 6, 2006


Go to an Apple store and pick up the M-Audio Solo

It's got mic and guitar inputs and I believe it comes with a demo of Ableton live, which will get you started on multi-track recording right away. You may need to buy a firewire card for your laptop first, though. If you need to record more inputs simultaneously, there are other m-audio interfaces in the same price range.

The advantage of something like that is that you get 0-latency recording and playback, and ableton live is a breeze to pick up and get started on.
posted by empath at 12:27 PM on February 6, 2006


For the absolute cheapest solution: Your Dell PC of course has a soundcard, and it most likely will even have an 1/8 inch input. You need an XLR adapter (to adapt the mic from XLR to 1/4") and probably an 1/8" adapter to take the 1/4 down to an 1/8

This should get sound into your computer from your microphone.

If you really want to be CHEAP, forget about all the preamps and m-audios and things. They cost money. I've so far only spent about $15 of your money.

Last thing you need if you're going to multitrack is software. As you know, these cost money. In fact, they can be quite expensive. However, you are an artist and cannot be stifled by cost. Use Bittorrent to download a multitracking software. Many folks suggest Ableton Live as an easy to use software. I use Cakewalk Sonar, which is easy for me, but may be a bit more difficult for a geriatric technophobe.
posted by poppo at 1:04 PM on February 6, 2006


One cannot just "adapt" a microphone from an XLR connector to 1/4" or 1/8" jack, the signals are completely different. XLR is balanced, the other is not. The microphone has some funny impedance (depends on what mike type it is) and probably requires power, the 1/8" jacks expect a voltage source on the other end. Sorry, but electronics are required for this part. There is a reason that preamps exist and it's not to pad the pockets of their manufacturers.
posted by polyglot at 3:52 PM on February 6, 2006


Get yourself a Blue Snowball microphone, which is USB powered and plugs straight into the computer. Costs about $150. It's an oustanding mic, and will blow away your SM57 for recording acoustic guitar, vocals, or pretty much anything else you throw at it. The only exception I can think of is that the SM57 is pretty much unbeatable for recording a really loud electric guitar amp.

And your SM57 is a dynamic mic that doesn't require phantom power.
posted by JekPorkins at 4:37 PM on February 6, 2006


It seems to me that you have everything you need to record an album. You need a way to connect your mic to your PC, and you'll need a way to boost the levels from your mic before it goes in. As long as Audacity allows you to multitrack, then you are in business.

Incidentally, instead of a preamp, I have used a guitar footpedal compressor. The key is to use it more as a volume boost than as a compressor, so turn the output up at least half way and the compression down below half way. I use wires I build (you can buy them) with male XLR on one end and a 1/4" jack on the other end. Works great.
posted by tcobretti at 6:01 PM on February 6, 2006


One cannot just "adapt" a microphone from an XLR connector to 1/4" or 1/8" jack, the signals are completely different. XLR is balanced, the other is not.

I'm pretty sure in my poorer and more ignorant days before I bought the preamp I got some combination of adaptors that did in fact do this. In fact, for a while, I had a cable that had two XLR ends and combined them into a 1/8" stereo plug. I'd take two battery powered C1000s and plug them into just about anything I could use to make little crummy demos direct to cassette tapes on my home stereo or later, live shows to a portable DAT recorder...

So I think poppo may be right. However, it's also possible many of those devices had their own onboard preamp of sorts, where a computer soundcard may not.

And finally, I never started to approach satisfactory quality until I started using a preamp. Even the cheap preamp was enough to give production quality a serious boost.
posted by weston at 6:13 PM on February 6, 2006


One cannot just "adapt" a microphone from an XLR connector to 1/4" or 1/8" jack, the signals are completely different. XLR is balanced, the other is not.

I guess I stand corrected. FWIW, what I use is a cheap Radio shack mic that already ends in a 1/4" jack. This goes into my Soundblaster Audigy card.
posted by poppo at 6:16 PM on February 6, 2006


On rereading Polyglot's post, I'm gonna say that it isn't correct. It's not entirely wrong, but it's not entirely right. Certain types of microphone wouldn't work when converted to 1/8" (or 1/4") unless used with a special unit to supply power to the microphone. These are called condenser mics and you should be careful when buying one to make sure it'll work for you. Some take batteries, some need phantom power, some are USB. Just carefully study what you're getting into. Other types of microphone will work if adapted to 1/8", these are dynamic mics like your SM57. The only problem with all this is that any microphone plugged into a phone type plug (even if it has phantom power supplied to it) will be very quiet, so some hardware is necessary to boost the recording level so you don't get a track full of hiss. This is where the preamp or compressor comes in.

The fact is that if you want to buy a mic specially for this project and/or other PC recording projects, you might be better off buying one of those USB mics. It just seems like the simplest solution. Your SM57 will work but you need some kind of processor to boost the level going into your computer.
posted by tcobretti at 9:08 PM on February 6, 2006


I picked up Samson's new USB mic a while back, and was pleasantly surprised - I'm not sure how it compares to the Blue yet, but it's not bad at all for $40 - $50.
posted by sluggo at 4:27 AM on February 7, 2006


I'll second the recommendation for a secondhand 4-track off ebay. I tried going down the software route several times, but in the end I found it much easier to just buy a piece of hardware that was made for the job. I picked up a Tascam 4-track recorder in great condition for about £30 (~$50). Since digital multitrack machines are now affordable, old cassette machines are now incredibly affordable.
posted by primer_dimer at 5:11 AM on February 7, 2006


Jesus. There is some scary advice going on around here regarding recording.

What is the absolute cheapest, simplest, lowest-to-the-ground, home audio recording system I can set up?

This is your first mistake and the worst attitude to have if you are actually considering an investment in a recording space. You will never be happy with your sound this way and you will be discouraged to take it any further.

The quality of your sound is directly proportionate to the quality of the properly treated acoustic space you will be recording in, amount of money spent on quality gear and time spent on learning how to use that quality gear.

The first thing to consider is the acoustic space you will be recording in. Fix that first. No amount of gear or knowledge can fix a bad/noisy room.

I recommend spending some time here.

I may sound harsh, but I am just trying to save you the heartache of doing things wrong.

If you really just want to get a song out there this one time, go rent a day at some local pro studio. You will be much better off.
posted by roguescout at 2:58 AM on February 19, 2006


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