I want to record my own music, where do I start?
October 14, 2005 7:47 PM   Subscribe

I want to record my own music. I have no idea where to start. What would be a fairly inexpensive and good beginner's setup hardware and software-wise?

My friends and I cover all sorts of genres of music, and as of now our only instruments are a guitar and djembe drum. We just recently had a couple jam sessions and realized we'd like to start recording our music in the near future.

Thanks Mefi.
posted by petah to Media & Arts (23 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: by the way, right now we have in our possession one acoustic guitar, one electric guitar, and three computers with windows xp.
posted by petah at 7:48 PM on October 14, 2005

FL Studio is a relatively cheap program and has all the functionality you will need to make the greatest record ever made, regardless of what snobs might tell you about it. You can record audio into it (ie record your accoustic guitar, the drum, vocals and whatever else) and you can record MIDI keyboards into it. It also hosts VST instruments, which you can either program in FL Studio or play via a MIDI keyboard.

You're going to need some microphones... if you want to record several things at once, it's going to be much more complicated and a little more expensive than if you can deal with recording one thing at a time. You might consider a Shure SM-57 mic, as it can be used to record both your accoustic and the drum, and is at times used for both in pro studios. But I'm sure others will have many other mic suggestions.

You're going to need a good soundcard or external sound interface. It is absolutely imperative that it supports ASIO, so that you can minimize latency issues. If you don't know anything about latency, read up on it because it's pretty much the number one issue in audio recording on computers. I would suggest you look at products from M-Audio, like the Audiophile line. Which one to get depends mostly on how many inputs you need (how many instruments you need to record at once). You may want to consider getting a combined keyboard and audio interface. I use the M-Audio Ozone, which is a USB audio interface with two octaves of keyboard and several knobs from which you can control things in software programs like FL Studio or Reason or whatever else.

If you have the money, I'd also recommend Native Instruments' Guitar Rig (v2 is either out now or coming soon, so maybe you could get v1 cheaper) for your electric guitar. It's a pedal thingie that sits between your guitar and computer with a software interface you can load into FL Studio or other VST hosts. The software simulates any effect pedal/amp/mic combo you can imagine, and does it quite well. A less good but still viable alternative is the Line 6 Guitar Pod, and a couple of other manufacturers are coming out with similar things these days.
posted by edlundart at 8:58 PM on October 14, 2005

Oh, you should also get a decent sample editor like Adobe Audition. This will let you accurately edit whatever you record in easier and more versatile ways than what can be achieved within a sequencer like FL Studio. But honestly, you can download Cool Edit 96 (yes, it's from 1996) for free and it will do everything you need. There are other good shareware/freeware alternatives as well, I think Audacity is one (?), though I haven't used it.

I would not bother using all 3 PCs and interlinking them and jamming that way, I am suggesting you build your studio around one computer. It's cheaper and will cause far fewer headaches.
posted by edlundart at 9:35 PM on October 14, 2005

Response by poster: Yeah that was the plan, I just wanted to point out that my computer(s) have Windows XP and not OSX.
posted by petah at 10:19 PM on October 14, 2005

Native Instruments' Reaktor 5 is pretty much the best thing ever if you have ~$550 or so and feel like tackling a staggering learning curve. Your reward for the appreciable initial investment is the most versatile tool on the market: you build your own synths, filters, samplers, sequencers, anything & everything, all by virtually wiring together parts on a scale from full machines down to circuit-board level simple switches. It's standalone and also VST, meaning you can plug it in to other programs like the aforementioned FL Studio to combine powers and summon captain planet.

There's a demo on the above link and I think it lets you use a lot of functionality but not save, iirc, ymmv.

Also, seconding old Cool Edit, that shit is bananas.
posted by moift at 10:29 PM on October 14, 2005

A second on the M-Audio ADCs, they're good. However, you probably want to put some money into high quality microphones and sound damping material for the room you're recording in, that will make more difference to the quality than just upgrading from a cheap stereo 44100/16 sound card.
posted by polyglot at 10:51 PM on October 14, 2005

I guess I kind of glossed over the "inexpensive" part of the question, sorry, but the price of Reaktor is not at all out of line in the realm of music production software, and the awesomeness per dollar (or APD, in many respects a more important number) is considerable.
posted by moift at 10:57 PM on October 14, 2005

Or you can buy a $70 cassette-based four-track recorder (think the first couple of Iron and Wine records) and a Shure SM-57 microphone ($100 new and $40-70) used. The big advantage of this system is that it's dead simple and allows one to worry about playing music rather than dicking with audio gear. The fundamentals of recording remain the same (mic placement and good ears) regardless of how complicated the system is and, if you end up the next P. Diddy, I guarantee you'll look back to things you learned on the four-track.
posted by stet at 11:07 PM on October 14, 2005

*deep breath*

First, the software. The software to do recording is called a DAW, or "Digital Audio Workstation." These include Logic, Digital Performer, Cubase and others. They let you record MIDI and audio tracks, move audio elements around, set the volumes on the tracks, patch in external software ("plugins") to perform effects on the tracks, etc. On the PC Cakewalk is the clear leader for DAW software. They make a professional-level product called SONAR but they also offer several slightly hobbled consumer-level versions at various price points and levels of hobbling, Cakewalk Home Studio being the most popular for, if I recall, around $100.

As to hardware, let's start with the mics. There are three major types of mics: dynamics, small diaphragm condensers and large diaphragm condensers.

Dynamic mics are fairly cheap type that are relatively insensitive to sound and fairly coloring (meaning they lend their own sound to the source, as opposed to transparent); usually the type for noisy situations (live vocals) or certain loud sources, or to reinforce another mic. The Shure SM57 is the archetypical mic for this, and the most popular mic in the world. You can use it on every instrument in a rock group live and it's almost impossible to break. There are many dynamic mics which can be argued to be better than the 57, but virtually no one thinks it's bad. It's the standard first thing to try for micing an electric guitar amp, and almost as standard for drums. There's also the SM58 which is the vocals version - the same thing but with that round pop filter, but you can buy your own anyway. (Wow, lot to explain here - a pop filter is some type of foam or other insulator placed around or in front of a mic to prevent "p" and "b" noises from being deafening, as they produce a lot of air. It also helps with sibilance, which are the overemphasized "s" sounds). The 57 goes for around $90.

Condenser mics use a different operating principle and are much more sensitive and expensive. Small-diaphragm condensers are precise and unforgiving, and are therefore often used in a stereo pair to get a realistic stereo image of a sound and hence are often sold in pairs. There's no clear leader in this type, though for instance the Oktava MK012/MC012 (it's been marketed as both) is a popular hobbyist-level one. It's about $100; the quality control is rough so you have to test them in Guitar Center (the exclusive American distributor) to avoid a dud, or get a pre-matched pair from The Sound Room. (Every mic is a bit different, and if you want to pair up mics for stereo recording that don't come pre-matched, when buying you test to make sure you get two that are at very close volumes so you don't have to compensate in the mix).

Large-diaphragm condensers are the main thing for recording acoustic instruments and voice, as they tend to smooth out and color the sound in different ways. The most popular large diaphragm condenser and probably the most popular studio mic period besides the 57 in the Neumann U87. Its sound is legendary (very transparent, but sculpts the tone in the tiniest of utterly pleasing ways) but it's $3000 and up until recently there were no decent offerings in the home studio market for LDCs. Many have come out in the past three or four years, the most noteworthy being the Studio Projects C1 which despite being $200 and made in China is considered to sound nearly as good as that at the top end and is the clear leader. Another similarly excellent and cheap mic is the Rode NT1000 for $300. I recommend the C1; the tone really is comparable to the vastly more expensive U87, though it's a little harsher on the treble. It and an SM57 is all I currently own, though I'm going to buy a small-diaphragm condenser pair one of these days.

As to getting that sound into your computer, you probably want a sound interface (external sound card) with preamps. Ppreamps are used to boost the signal of a device with low output like a mic or electric guitar. The favored tool for this is probably the M-Audio Firewire 410 for $300, but that only has two preamps. That may not be enough if you're ever going to record with more than two mics at once. I favor the tricked-out MOTU Traveler for a four-preamp option, though that's a big jump up in price ($850). M-Audio also make cheaper USB products but if you do go with them you're going to want one of their Firewire options because those use better-quality preamps.

You're going to want a relatively un-echoey room - carpeted and as un-square as possible are a big help. Most rooms have one or two sweet spots that have the least echo. Hanging up blankets on all the walls helps. There's actually acoustic foam (Auralex bing the most popular) which gives the ideal diffuse reflection but it costs like $200 a square yard or some other crazy amount. Echo is a big issue - Mike Skinner (The Streets) did his first album rapping into a wardrobe with clothes in it.

So the setup I'd recommend is Cakewalk Home Studio, an SM57, a Studio Projects C1, and an M-Audio Firewire 410 or MOTU Traveler. For a third mic, if needed, I'd get either another C1, a pair of some kind of small-diaphragm condensers, or a Rode NT1000.

The HomeRecording.com message board is probably the best place to ask questions on this topic. There's an awesome Q&A with Harvey Geist (a studio engineer who's worked with the Byrds and others) there about micing pinned in the microphones section.

There, I've answered several similar questions to this one so I figured I'll do a fairly exhaustive answer and link to this from now on.
posted by abcde at 11:40 PM on October 14, 2005 [5 favorites]

I'll just pop in to say that if you want a really nice-sounding, cheap condenser ($50), go with the MXL 990.
posted by ludwig_van at 10:07 AM on October 15, 2005

For initial stuff, I would recommend using Audacity and this microphone. It's a $20 setup and it sounds fairly decent.

I recommend this only because you're in the 'jam session' phase. I use it all the time for that exact purpose, and as a scratchpad for ideas.

My real setup involves Logic Pro with a Tascam USB recording interface, a couple of Shure mics, an AKG condenser, blah blah blah. But unless you're trying to release something for an album, definitely start small.
posted by mr.dan at 11:00 AM on October 15, 2005 [1 favorite]

The MXL 990 seconded. I bought a pair in the summer and have just finished a demo using them extensively. Mail me for an mp3 + details.
posted by goodnewsfortheinsane at 11:10 AM on October 15, 2005

abcde pretty much covered everything.

I've had experience with Rode's microphones, and can't praise them enough -- especially considering their price.
posted by spiderskull at 2:01 AM on October 16, 2005

Also, buy anything other than Monster cables. They (that is, their CEO, being wholly owned) have been suing any company in any industry with the name Monster in it (including Monster.com, Disney for the movie Monsters, Inc. and a small vintage clothing site).
posted by abcde at 6:59 AM on October 16, 2005

I love my Rode NT-1A (~$200) large diaphragm.
posted by ZenMasterThis at 2:43 PM on October 16, 2005

I emphatically second the Cakewalk reccomendation. Sonar is actually pretty easy to use and is definitely worth looking into if you plan on making recording music at home a habit.
posted by honeydew at 1:10 AM on October 17, 2005

The NT1 was pretty legendary, but Rode replaced the diaphragm (or some other component) with a much cheaper one. I don't know whether they undid this when they came out with the NT1-A, but don't necessarily trust the fawning reviews, though that's true of almost anything - use your ears.
posted by abcde at 3:44 AM on October 17, 2005

I can't recommend Tracktion enough. It's an easy to use, innexpensive program that's great for multitrack recording and midi sequencing. Get yourself a couple of cheap microphones and an audio input device (I recommend a firebox) and you'll be all set.
posted by soplerfo at 9:02 AM on October 17, 2005

i'm partial to the AKG c2000B as a good, lots-of-bang-for-the-buck condenser vocal mic. for my money, syntrillium's cool edit pro always used to be the best, most intuitive hard disk multi-track recording application out there; unfortunately, the product was sucked up by adobe and now tries to pack in all sorts of superflous video editing functionality. it's still cheaper than many comparable products. (as soplerfo suggests, traction's probably another of the better less expensive apps, but it's hard for an old-timer like me to figure out, because the interface is completely unlike traditional multitracking apps.) for digital audio input, i personally use the Gina3G, but there are lots of good options on the market these days. best of luck! home recording quickly becomes an obsession (but one of the more rewarding ones)...
posted by all-seeing eye dog at 7:58 PM on October 17, 2005

I like simple stuff, and prefer to record music away from the cold glare of the damned computer I use for my non-music work. So there's the bias.

A good, cheap setup that can actually produce CD-quality music can be had for under $500. And unlike using four-track tape recorders (which served me well for many years), the setup I'm going to suggest is all digital, so everything can be moved to the computer for further mixing / effects / mastering or even to a "pro" studio.

1. Fostex MR-8 digital multitracker. I love this thing. It is as simple as an old Tascam 4-track cassette recorder. Two mics or lines in, four tracks of recording, then four other tracks for mixing down (8 tracks total), and simple but useful mastering presets so you can hit the button and convert your mixed song to a stereo WAV file. The storage media for my 2-year-old version is a compact flash card, same as a digital camera. My 1GB card holds a half-dozen songs with various tracks. It's got a USB cord; you plug it into your computer and move the tracks over for CD recording or more mixing / mastering. Oh, and the damned thing runs on a couple AA batteries if required, so you can take it to a show or just set it up in the practice room and record stereo 2-track.

(There's a new version out that I might buy. It's the same basic thing, but with a 40GB drive and two more mic inputs. And, thank god, it's got phantom power for the mic inputs. My old version doesn't, so I have to either use a little preamp-mixer or (usually) a condenser mic that also runs on 9v battery.

2. A couple of low-end consumer mics. Mics have gotten crazy cheap. Check out zsounds of musiciansfriend and you'll see tons of decent "project mics" in the hundred-dollar range. I've got some of those MXL mics mentioned above, and I love 'em. They're not $5,000 mics, obviously, but they do a great job and with good EQ and mixing can make fine CD quality recordings.

3. An all-purpose Yamaha or Casio full-size-keys electric piano thing from Costco or Best Buy or Wal Mart. It is absolutely amazing how good a $100 electric keyboard sounds today, and how many things you can do with it. I like the Yamaha's "portable digital grand" sound, and the 200 or 300 voices (from cheezy to realistic to outrageous) and the old-school synth simulations and such. Plus, hundreds of drum and percussion choices, all kinds of styles, etc. You'll use it even when you don't want to.

4. A Roland Micro Cube amp. Great trashy sound, tiny amp, worth the $75, use it for everything ... put the keyboard through it, put percussion through it, mic your vocals, etc.

5. Any old guitar is fine. I keep a cheap pawn-shop electric and my decent acoustic nearby, and use them with a mic or thorugh the amp or straight to the board, use the acoustic as a bass, etc.

6. About $50 worth of cords and mic stands from an online music retailer.

7. Some kind of mixing software for your computer. Everybody has a favorite. I like whatever's cheap, because they are mostly the same in terms of interface and what they do. I used to have a free 8-track version of Pro Tools and that was fine. The Sony / Sound Forge stuff was nice, too. Cool Edit is a good choice.
posted by kenlayne at 9:42 PM on October 17, 2005 [1 favorite]

While we're at it, I get most of my wisdom from Sound on Sound, EQ, Recording, and Mojo Pie.
posted by goodnewsfortheinsane at 10:02 AM on October 18, 2005 [1 favorite]

Tape Op is also an excellent source of advice on home recording (they don't offer much on-line content, but you can get a free subscription from their website).
posted by all-seeing eye dog at 1:06 PM on October 19, 2005

One thing first-timers always get wrong is they spend a whole bunch of money on microphones, but almost none on pre-amps. In fact, given the inexpensive but ludicrously high-quality options available in the rest of the soundchain, primarily the computer interface and microphones, you're almost certainly going to find your pre-amps are overmatched. If you're trying to do it on the cheap, I second the M-Audio recommendations, which contains pre-amps that are at least on par with anything you can pick up in the same price range. Even at the $100 per channel level, you're going to find almost nothing but pre-amps which are known primarily for their hum. In digital recording, it becomes extremely important to keep the noise down.

The other mistake people make is thinking condenser mics are naturally superior to dynamic mics. This has resulted in a flood of cheap condenser mics which sound like crap. If you're in the lowest price range of quality microphones, which is near $75, head straight to the SM57 and don't look back. They really do use this microphone on a daily basis in the highest of the high-end studios.

Once you've got these basics, you're to the hard part where technology helps only incrementally, and you're going to find your recordings are helped most by better arranging and performing. The rec.audio.pro group is a fantastic information source, but not much of a place to ask questions unless you like getting blasted. Also, learn the handful of basic stereo record techniques and record everything but vocals in stereo, then pan the stereo image just like you would have panned the mono; this trick works wonders. OK I'll stop now.
posted by Nahum Tate at 4:54 PM on October 27, 2005

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