How do I get a hobby studio going inexpensively?
April 16, 2012 2:01 PM   Subscribe

I'd like to get into recording. I've played with Ardour, but it's way over my head. I've played with Hydrogen for drum sounds, and it was way too complicated for me. Ideally, I want to record directly (I'm in an apartment), perhaps using something like a Line 6 Pod. A four-track feels more manageable to me than a computer and software. Is that crazy? If it's not, I'd love to hear about some cheap digital four-track recommendations. Also, I'd love to hear about some decent, inexpensive drum machines that'll let me easily create simple rock beats. And again, I'm open to the idea that this is better with a computer.
posted by puckupdate to Media & Arts (17 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I feel like I do this whenever a recording question comes up, but if you don't get enough answers here, I think is what you want. My partner more or less lived on that website when he was spending more time in the studio and says there is pretty much no recording-related information you can't get on their forums.
posted by Stacey at 2:15 PM on April 16, 2012

Garage Band on an ipad.
posted by empath at 2:17 PM on April 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

An audio interface and garageband on a Mac....
It is about as easy as this gets. There are zillions of tutorials online. imashine on an iphone can get you started. See the demos online.
posted by StUdIoGeEk at 2:32 PM on April 16, 2012

If you have an iPad or an iPhone, I strongly recommend Nanostudio. It's not great for recording audio, but the drum machine is pretty straight-forward, and you can upload or sample your own drum sounds to play with. I think it's $14.

Nanostudio plus Garageband is a pretty bad-ass combination; simple, inexpensive, intuitive and flexible enough to use for most of what you'll want to do.
posted by Pecinpah at 2:44 PM on April 16, 2012

its all about the microphones. I'd get a 4 track recorder and an SM-57 to start. Make it a Hard Disk recorder.
posted by Ironmouth at 2:45 PM on April 16, 2012

It depends on how hip you want to get, and how much money you want to spend.

Honestly, most studios these days have huge boards these days that go unused, as most things are just done on logic or pro tools. DAWs are generally pretty easy to use, and offer lots of flexibility.

If you have a mac, garage band usually comes pre-installed. You can get a mic interface, like an M-audio, with a single mic input for about $100. A decent mic (I too love the SM57), runs about $100. Add a cord for $20 and you could be set right there. Logic will do you one better, but runs around $600, so I'd start with something like gband until you know how serious you want to get.

Four tracks are still fine, and are really cool if you want to replicate hip indie music from the 90s, but honestly, a DAW set-up will be easier and offer you much more room to mess around.
posted by Lutoslawski at 2:50 PM on April 16, 2012

Oh, and DAWs have drum machines built into them, you just have to have a midi controller. So you could buy a four track and a drum machine, or just buy a cheap midi controller and run it through gband and you're set. Logic offers a lot more flex with drums, and has everything from the old school Roland sets to really whacky stuff. It maybe isn't as easy to use keys on a midi controller to manage drum loops, but drum machines sort of seem like they are on their way out too.
posted by Lutoslawski at 2:52 PM on April 16, 2012

Thanks for the reminder, Stacey! I've had that bookmarked but keep forgetting to visit.

Is it viable to make music on non-Mac/iPad gear? I don't anticipate getting some any time soon.
posted by puckupdate at 2:56 PM on April 16, 2012

Ardour and Hydrogen are actually pretty great, but I agree they are not easy to get going on at first.

The Tascam DP-004 and it's 8 track brother are awesome, great sounding, affordable stand-alone solutions. The built-in mics are quite good, and you can export your tracks and mix them in a DAW if you want to add effects etc.
posted by quarterframer at 3:04 PM on April 16, 2012

Hi puckupdate. I'll give you some tips based off my experience.

Easy recording, sans computer- The Tascam DP-004 or DP-008. I have the DP-008 and I can confirm that the built-in microphones are good. It's also powered by AA batteries, so you can bring it with you to the woods and get a good recording session with lots of bird and insect ambiance.

Easy computer recording- Garageband. It's so good. It's almost all you need. An advantage that computer editing has over a 4 or 8 track is that with computers, you can SEE the tracks, and you can see how they line up measure for measure, and you can take your cursor and split a track at an exact moment, which is good for moving the part around to rearrange the song, or for copying and pasting the part to have it repeat. Garageband is fairly intuitive. When I first started using it, I found that just dragging piecing together loops from the loop browser was a good way to get comfortable with the basics.

Garageband is also good for making drum beats. You can use your computer keyboard instead of an external midi keyboard and hit certain keys to get different drum sounds. Record yourself doing this to the ticking metronome for a few measures and you'll have a rough foundation of a drum beat. You can then go to the track editor and enhance timing so that the drum sounds you tapped on your keyboard sync perfectly into time. You can add another track of drums (as many as you want really) and layer the drums to get really intricate beats.

Beatmaking software- I have Beatmaker, it's an app for my iPod touch. It was easy to pick up and you can make nasty beats on the go with it. You can also loop the beat back and modulate sound, like lo and hi pass filter with your finger, which, when doing it while the beat's looping, can end up being a really cool way to manipulate sound live. However, the process of transferring your beat to your computer to load it into a Garageband track can be annoyingly arduous.

Verdict- You can record music fine on a 4 track or 8 track like the Tascam DP-004 or -008. It's a classic, linear, trial and error recording process. But really, I would suggest getting into Garageband. The extent to which you can manipulate sound with it is awesome. Almost endless. It's a truly underrated program. Just get Garageband and you can record your beats and your songs all in one place.
posted by qivip at 3:53 PM on April 16, 2012

Puck - I have been doing the DAW thing since the dawn of uh... DAW. You don't NEED a daw to make musics, but it can make your life easier if you want to make more complex musics, or in some cases, simply save you time. But there is no reason you couldn't make something plenty good with self-contained multitrack recorders if you wanted.

Also [mini rant = on]: you don't need a mac or Apple gear, geez, to record. What's nuts is that if you had asked me this in around 1994, I would have said "for somewhat affordable computer recording, yes, you do". Yet now that Apple is more popular than ever - you need Apple products WAY LESS THAN EVER to make excellent sounding music products come out of a computer. I have used just about every DAW out there, on both Mac and PC, and at this point, except for the fact that there are a few Mac-only audio interfaces that you might eventually like, and that the Apple hardware looks really nice, I can no longer think of any good reason to make yourself use it over a PC, other than if you had to deal with a crapload of people you needed to work with who all typically use mac, all the time. Plus, it's more expensive. I also no longer believe that it is even 'way more stable' as the fanpeople like to put it, than my Windows 7 64bit box.

Luto mentions that "DAWS have drum machines built into them, you just have to have a midi controller". This is not true across the board, although most of them do typically have at least one in there, or if not drum machines, then mini virtual drum kits that you can trigger from a midi keyboard. Also I don't believe the explicit number of tracks you use is going to automagically give you a 'hip indie music from the 90's' sound... at least, not these days, where 4 track recorders are typically digital. Maybe if you went and found a used 4-track cassette machine : )

A lot of people like using external controllers to trigger drum sounds, where the external controller resembles a drum machine but does not have any sounds built into itself. You could also avoid all that by just buying a drum machine. : ) There's some that are not that expensive, and you are likely to find some that are used if you check the usual suspects (ebay, maybe craigslist).

I wish I had a good suggestion for the absolute easiest way to get started... I started out using tons of Radio Shack adapters and kluging gear together to record things live to 2 track stereo cassette deck, after which i graduated to 4 track and 8 track cassette, and finally DAW. But there's no reason you couldn't jump right in with a computer if you wanted; there's plenty of entry level interfaces you could get. The barriers-to-entry that might stop you (some people work with less power than I suggest as a minimum) might be if your pc is really old. If you have at least a core 2 duo or amd dual core, with a few gigs of ram, and at least a 7200 rpm hard disk, you could get started. Some interfaces use Firewire instead of USB, and in that case you'd need a Firewire card for your computer since it's unlikely that you have one built in. There are DAWs you can get that are great for about/under $100; I believe Reaper is currently still less than $100 for a personal license (although some people complain about its learning curve), and you could get Ableton Live Intro - which comes with a truckload of software instruments built in - for about $100.

good luck!
posted by bitterkitten at 3:55 PM on April 16, 2012

(Pecinpah, how do you use Nanostudio with iPad;s Garageband? or is that not what you meant? )
posted by DMelanogaster at 4:20 PM on April 16, 2012

For the record, my sound is neither hip nor indie :-)
posted by puckupdate at 4:28 PM on April 16, 2012

What is your budget, and what percentage of your music is acoustic (i.e. in need of microphones) as opposed to midi/electronic and direct input?

It sounds like software being "over your head" or "too complicated" are definite concerns. What other concerns do you have? Cost? Number of tracks? Available expansions?

Garageband is incredibly easy to use. Onboard software effects are numerous (something you probably won't get with a plain-old 4 track)

If, on the other hand, you've already got pretty much exactly the sound you want with your existing gear, then a Tascam 4 track may be just what you need.
posted by ShutterBun at 4:26 AM on April 17, 2012

I don't intend to record any acoustic music. I'm just looking to document some ideas with guitar and drums. Ideally, I'd love to bring this in for less that $500.
posted by puckupdate at 3:52 PM on April 17, 2012

DMelanogaster - I make whatever tracks I need (beats, baseline, synth, whatever) using Nanostudio, then transfer those tracks over to my MacBook using the (free, downloadable) Nanostudio app Nanosynch. Then I arrange the tracks using Garageband, and use Garageband to record whatever other instruments I like. I used this technique here to good effect, I think.

I actually didn't know you could make beats with Garageband, though. I'll have to try that.
posted by Pecinpah at 3:49 PM on April 18, 2012

Just to check-in on this: I got a Zoom R8 and it's pretty perfect for what I'm doing. If I decide to move on to using a Mac, the R8 is actually a controller/interface, too. Thanks to everyone for the great advice, though!
posted by puckupdate at 3:53 AM on June 20, 2012

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