I Have the Audacity
February 6, 2007 10:57 AM   Subscribe

I'd like your tips on recording acoustic music with Audacity.

Hi all. I'm going to home-record my RPM project this year using the free Audacity software. I have a pretty straightforward mike-plugged-into-soundcard setup. And I'm a complete and utter non-gearhead and have very limited recording experience.

So I'd like to hear any advice you may have on settings, strategy, and technique for producing a decent enough recording. The bulk of the project will consist of acoustic guitar and vocal. Should I record these on separate tracks? Should I mic the guitar, or get some sort of attachment to help the signal enter the soundcard direct through a cable? Can I listen to tracks on playback while I record a new track, and, if so, do I just listen via headphone while recording so the recorded sound doesn't bleed through onto the new track? What equalizer settings, compression, and effects would you recommend? I'm going for a stripped-down, countryish, straight and honest acoustic-y sound.

I have read Audacity's tutorial and played around with it a bit, but would appreciate some extra hand-holding. And please go easy on my feeble brain with the audio terminology!

Thanks in advance.
posted by Miko to Technology (25 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
You really want an external recorder/mixer/amp. You can find them here in all price ranges.

Make sure you get one that supports multitrack simultaneous input; I got a nice portable recorder kit from there, but you can only record one input at a time.

If you don't want to invest in a mixer (although I highly recommend it), record your tracks separately so that the levels don't get messed up, clean them up independently, and then put them together, adjusting levels on the way.

What instruments will you be recording? Each instrument has it's own set of quirks, even the voice (get a pop filter, or make one out of an embroidery hoop and some nylon; otherwise, get a really good mic). Micing the guitar will be hit and miss, but it can work depending on your set up.

Always listen via headphones; not only does it eliminate feedback, it also lets you pick up on the little nuances and flaws in the recording.

You can listen to playback while recording another track, and unless your sound card supports multiple inputs, this is the only way to go.

Record when it is quiet outside. Take the phones off the hooks. Cover all doors and windows with towels/blankets/foam.

This is a really hard question to answer without a lot more detail.
posted by JeremiahBritt at 11:21 AM on February 6, 2007

Don't just say that "testing 1, 2, 3" crap when you level your mic (which should be just around peaking, normally around 8 on a scale of 10); you won't be using your singing voice, and, if you sing louder or softer, you'll be doing more harm than good. Do an a cappella warm up while you level, it will give you a more accurate feel for the sound, give you a hint at what might peak horribly, and warm up your voice as well.

Some questions: have you played live, with sound equipment before?

What does your home studio look like?

What is your equipment, exactly?
posted by JeremiahBritt at 11:26 AM on February 6, 2007

Response by poster: I've played live with sound equipment before. I usually plug my guitar and mike in directly to a PA.

My home studio consists of my living room, my factory-standard Dell computer, a cheap mic, and Audacity.

I really don't know anything about this stuff at all.
posted by Miko at 11:29 AM on February 6, 2007

Response by poster: And a mixer.....? What is that going to do for me, exactly? Not trying to sound snotty -- I honestly don't quite know, and I don't have a lot of money to spend on this project.
posted by Miko at 11:31 AM on February 6, 2007

The mic-in on your sound card (if it is standard) is not meant for high-quality input or recording; it also does not have an amp, meaning you might get high levels of white noise by the time your recording is loud enough for satisfaction.

They are not required, however, they just allow for more control over input quality and volume, and can do a lot of the stuff while you record (left to right stereo fade, various simple but powerful sound effects) that you would otherwise have to do in post.

They are also nice because you can record wherever you like, without the surprising loud computer fan in the background strangling all your midrange sounds.

Like I said, though, if you are just starting out, it's not a requirement, just a tool. Expensive equipment won't make a bad musician sound good, or vice versa.

The best thing I can tell you is to experiment with what works for you and then ask specific questions. Just try to limit background noise, watch your levels, and don't over-process anything. It might also be good to take a break between recording and reviewing/editing/mixing. So you approach the sounds fresh.

(I was a sound engineer/DJ for a while. Most of my recording experience is with spoken word/speech, but I have helped out at live concerts, recorded music festivals, and edited music before. Every situation seems to have different rules. The most important thing is to have fun.)
posted by JeremiahBritt at 11:42 AM on February 6, 2007

^"They" refers to mixers. Sorry.
posted by JeremiahBritt at 11:43 AM on February 6, 2007

There's really no definitive answers to your questions IMO, but here are some suggestions:

Should I record these on separate tracks?

Ideally, yes. This will give you the most control over the individual levels when mixing, and you can concentrate on giving your best performance for each.

That said, if you have a nice condenser mic, you could also try a "live" setup and record both guitar and vox, just to see how it sounds. It really depends on the quality of the mic, the mic placement, and your performance.

Should I mic the guitar, or get some sort of attachment to help the signal enter the soundcard direct through a cable?

Some people like plugging the guitar in, but I'm not a fan of that approach; I think it sounds weak and tinny. A condenser mic can give you a full, natural guitar sound and I'd recommend that, but I've also gotten great songs with a dynamic mic like a Shure SM57.

Again, it has to do with mic placement, your guitar and the type of room you're recording in. Spend some time moving the mic around, recording a few strums and listening back.

Can I listen to tracks on playback while I record a new track, and, if so, do I just listen via headphone while recording so the recorded sound doesn't bleed through onto the new track?

That's what I do. If you're just recording DIY-style at home, your recording room is mostly likely also your monitoring room. So if you're using speakers/reference monitors, you'll have to keep them off and listen through headphones.

What equalizer settings, compression, and effects would you recommend?

Recently I've been on a no-EQ crusade after reading an interview in TapeOp of a producer who felt EQ is "corrective" -- meaning most people use EQ to fix tracks that sound bad to begin with. When I do use EQ on acoustic guitar it's usually to roll off some of the low end. Again, it's worth experimenting with mic placement and find those sweet spots.

I usually reserve compression for the overall mix. I use a multiband compressor and mess around with the defaults. I'm not a pro at this stuff -- I just toy around until I get the sound I want. (It also helps to know how compression works -- a Google search will help.)

Regarding mixers, etc. the primary reason I'd suggest a mixer is to get a preamp into your signal path. A pre-amp will boost your mic's input level so you get a richer signal to the soundcard. A mixer with some channel EQ can help compensate if your room is too boomy or bright. And finally, you'll need a mixer with phantom power if you want to run condenser mics, as many of them need a power source.

I personally use a Behringer Eurorack model, which is inexpensive and does the job, although most audio engineers will scoff at your choice :)
posted by scottandrew at 12:02 PM on February 6, 2007

You don't need a mixer. Have you tested to make sure audio is actually being recorded from your mic? Does it come through at an acceptable level? If so, you're ready to go.

First of all, if you're running Windows, I wouldn't recommend Audacity. Kristal Audio Engine will make things much easier.

Yes, you should mic your guitar and record the vocal separately.

There are lots of ways to record acoustic guitar, just be careful that it's not too bassy. If you're putting it in front of the guitar, pointing it towards the soundhole will make it bassier and pointing it towards the neck will roll off the bass. Recently I tried positioning the mic over my shoulder, near my ear, and that sounded nice, too. Experiment with mic placement while playing and listening and see what sounds best.

Record at good levels. Assuming you're not getting a lot of noise, which you shouldn't be, the levels should hang out about 2/3 of the way up the meter. You don't want anything to go all the way to the top.

The plugins in Audacity are not very good - the interfaces are lame and they're not in real time, so you'll want to use them as little as possible. If the guitar has too much low end, or you're getting pops or rumbling on the vocal, you can try hi-passing around 150 Hz. When I've got a bunch of acoustics I often find myself dipping them around 250-400 Hz. Sometimes I'll boost an acoustic guitar around 5k for more attack and clarity.

If the acoustic guitar is really peaky and you'd like more sustain, you could try some gentle compression. Make the attack slow enough so that it still sounds sharp, use a moderate ratio (3:1 or so) and compress for 3-5 dB of gain reduction. Use a similar procedure for the vocal, but you might want to compress it more.
posted by ludwig_van at 12:29 PM on February 6, 2007

Also, two acoustic guitars playing slightly different things panned left and right will usually sound a lot better than one acoustic guitar sitting on top of the vocal.
posted by ludwig_van at 12:30 PM on February 6, 2007

Response by poster: You don't need a mixer. Have you tested to make sure audio is actually being recorded from your mic? Does it come through at an acceptable level? If so, you're ready to go.

Yes; I'm actually very pleasantly surprised at how great (relatively) the sound is playing live straight into the mike and recording with Audacity. I had to turn the gain up somewhat, but the sound is pretty clean, no clipping or pops. So if I'm going to go without a mixer (preferable at this point and for this project), then I'm at the level of fine-tuning the settings to get the best possible recordings.

Thanks everyone -- so far this is all very, very helpful.
posted by Miko at 1:06 PM on February 6, 2007

If you wind up less than pleased with your first round of recordings, it might be worth it to rent/buy a USB/Firewire audio I/O box with balanced inputs and high-quality DACs and ADCs, and a nice mic. In college, I worked with the Tascam FW-1884 (mixer with built-in 8-channel I/O) and M-Audio MBox (2-channel I/O), both of which sounded quite nice with SM57/58 mics. If memory serves, 57s are optimized for instrumentals and 58s for vocals.

However, if you're recording in a noisy space to begin with, all that extra gear won't buy you too much.

Also, you might want to check out Ardour for multitracking. It's a bit less mature than Audacity, but does basic multi-track mixing and editing quite well.
posted by Alterscape at 1:41 PM on February 6, 2007

Practical Recording Techniques by Bruce and Jenny Bartlett can be a good resource for a lot of these questions, and there's an emphasis on DIY practicality.
posted by klangklangston at 1:56 PM on February 6, 2007

A few things:

Using a mic on a guitar usually sounds better than using the pickup. In a live situation pickups have less feedback problems, but in a recording environment this isn't an issue.

Don't get too hung up about dynamic vs condenser mics, there are good options with either. Something to consider: a microphone that costs thousands of dollars can be hired for $50-100 per day, sometimes less.

Where do you point the mic? A good way to start is to get someone to play the guitar in the recording environment. While they play, bung a finger in one ear and move around the room until you find a spot where it sounds the way you want the recording to sound. You will probably need to tweak the mic position but it's a good way to start.

A dedicated preamp and A/D convertor will prevent a lot of problems with hum/buzz.

Regarding compression/EQ, start with no EQ and concentrate on getting things to sound right straight to tape. Gentle compression might help things sit together, it might not. Experiment!

What are you listening to your recordings on? Decisions about audio quality are difficult without good reproduction.
posted by the duck by the oboe at 2:41 PM on February 6, 2007

Record when it is quiet outside.

And inside. If you're in New Hampshire and you're recording during the winter, what kind of heating system do you have? Hissing radiators? Clanking baseboard pipes? Forced air with audible fans?

Just something to consider that might not otherwise occur to you until your perfect take gets ruined...
posted by staggernation at 3:09 PM on February 6, 2007

I was playing around with audacity a while ago, and had an annoying amount of white noise in the background. Yes, I was using a pretty cheap mike, but I had a good sound card.

I finally found out that it was the noise my computer was making, cooling fans, hard discs etc. I moved it, then added a fanless power supply. Much better.
posted by tomble at 5:17 PM on February 6, 2007

if you can get VSTs working with audacity, these are some alright free plugins: kjaerhusaudio.com, though there is probably a better free compressor, some compression on the vocals will help a lot, even if you are going for a stripped down sound. when your mixing your tracks, try to use eq to get each tracks best frequencies to stand out.

especially doing this RPM thing, dont get bogged down trying to make it perfect, just get your songs down and have fun, if you get a little hum or hiss just say youre doing your lo fi thing, it'll be cute.
posted by yeahyeahyeahwhoo at 11:37 PM on February 6, 2007

"Always listen on headphones" is not good advice. You should go backwards and forwards between speakers and headphones.

If you are mixing pop music, you should check it in mono and you should listen to it on "car speakers" too if you possibly can. It's very easy with today's clever toys to use some effect that makes, say, your vocals cancel and disappear when you listen to the track in mono.

I'd add that headphones increase fatigue on the listener so you can work a lot longer if you use speakers. Most famous engineers do most of their work on speakers, only going to earphones for "tricky bits".

Here's my deep secret of mixing. Think of each source you're mixing together as having three numbers attached to it:

-- frequency "range" (around what frequency most of the energy of this signal occurs. there might be a couple of these frequencies).
-- wet/dry balance (how much reverb)
-- left/right panning

When you are mixing multiple sounds, if their three numbers are similar, they'll blend, otherwise they'll be separated from each other. Start by deciding where to blend and where to separate in each moment. Then adjust these three numbers accordingly.

If you do this right, you'll end up with a mix where all the parts are hearable even if the relative levels are not right. Now you can tweak the final levels of the tracks to get a nice balance, in confidence that you won't be killing one track if you tweak another one down.

The classic example is "Are You Experienced?" Listen to how Jimi's voice, dry and between the speakers, is so very clear when he speaks. During the guitar solo, the bass and drums are high, at about the same frequency as the bottom end of the guitar, so the guitar solos in the upper range and then dives into the bottom range to blend for a bit with the rhythm section. Awesome, Jimi was just a kid too.

Oh, and one more tip: more or less every time you turn something up, you need to turn something else down. For example, if you turn up the guitar a little bit, you should crank down the whole mix just a hint. You are going to set the overall level of the song at the very very end to exactly what you like -- before that you're only concerned about the relative balance. You don't have to be anal about it, but the third time you need to turn up the guitar and voice, why not turn down the bass and drums instead and crank the master level slightly?

Final, final tip (I realize I have too many for here)... HAVE FUN. You can break every single rule and still come up with an awesome track. It's important to learn rules like the above ones but only use them to solve problems that might come up, not to organize your work around them.
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 9:34 AM on February 8, 2007

I second the Kristal Audio Engine suggestion for multi-track recording.

Its a really quick download and seems to work really nice.
posted by pettins at 11:34 AM on February 9, 2007

Response by poster: OK, I did a little looking at mixers. At this point I think I am going to get a really, really low-end Behringer mixer. I am recording only 1-2 acoustic guitar tracks and 1-3 vocal tracks with incidential fills from other acoustic instruments here and there. I will plug the guitar in direct to the board , I think, and use my Shur SM-57 mike for vocals. (Unless a better idea is to mike the guitar, too -- could do that, either way).

My question now is - what do I need to do to connect the mixer to my computer? I am running Windows, and I have a standard Dell dimension machine with some sort of sound card. There's a line in input that I currently use for the computer mic, no problem there. Will the mixer be able to plug right into the computer, or do I need some MORE stuff in order to use it?
posted by Miko at 1:24 PM on February 11, 2007

At this point I think I am going to get a really, really low-end Behringer mixer.

Why? What are you going to use the mixer for?

I will plug the guitar in direct to the board , I think, and use my Shur SM-57 mike for vocals. (Unless a better idea is to mike the guitar, too -- could do that, either way).

Try it both ways, but I'd expect the guitar to sound better miked.

Will the mixer be able to plug right into the computer, or do I need some MORE stuff in order to use it?

You'll need some kind of adapter, depending on what kind of output is on the mixer.
posted by ludwig_van at 2:32 PM on February 11, 2007

Response by poster: What are you going to use the mixer for?

I'm under the impression that it can act as a pre-amp, boosting the mic signal to the internal soundcard, and also give me better control over the sound pre-production.

If not -- if this isn't what I should do -- then I guess I still need to buy a piece of hardware that is some sort of pre-amp. But I'd like to get something with the most versatility in function, since I'm broke. I have a feeling I would enjoy working with levels on the mixer more than on the computer. I don't want to learn a new software program right now, because I have only two weeks left to record. Audacity is easy, but it's a bit slow to change settings, have them apply, and listen back. If I can save some time with a mixer, it would be good.

But I really just want to get the best possible sound into the computer for cheap. So if you think some other kind of pre-amp is a better choice, I will look at those instead...

I wish I could just do the right-brain side of music and forget all this techie stuff. I need a producer!
posted by Miko at 9:00 PM on February 11, 2007

I'm under the impression that it can act as a pre-amp, boosting the mic signal to the internal soundcard, and also give me better control over the sound pre-production.

Yes, the mixer will have a pre-amp, but if you're already getting an acceptable level from your mic, you have no need for a preamp. You'll be able to use the EQ on the mixer, but on a cheap Behringer I doubt it'll be any better than software.

I know I already said this, but just use Kristal (which has real-time effects) and mix it there. That'll be the easiest, cheapest, and best-sounding solution.
posted by ludwig_van at 10:10 PM on February 11, 2007

Response by poster: OK. So I'm looking at Kristal and it looks good, much more closely suited to audio production than audacity, indeed. I still have to say, though, that I'm not sure I'm happy with the cheap 'line-in' mic I have. When you say 'acceptable levels', what does 'acceptable' mean?

I'd still love to be able to use my Shur mic, which I love. So if I want to just use that, and then mix with Kristal, do I just get a simple preamp interface?
posted by Miko at 7:24 AM on February 12, 2007

I wasn't sure what your mic situation was - you said before your mic sounded good, so I thought you were all set there. Acceptable levels means loud enough to work with.

To use a dynamic like an SM-57, I'm pretty sure you can get away with buying an impedance matching cable. Or you can buy a mic preamp which will take the XLR input from the mic and output to 1/4"; then you'd use a 1/4" to 1/8" adapter to go into the soundcard.
posted by ludwig_van at 8:28 AM on February 12, 2007

Response by poster: If anyone's still listening (and thanks, ludwig_van) -- I got an audio interface/preamp, one that takes a 1/4" input and changes the signal to USB. This works well.

Meanwhile, working with Kristal: There's some serious delay when I am recording a new track while monitoring an old one in the phones. I assume this is due to latency. Is there anything to be done about this, other than to slide the entire new track to timeshift it back into sequence with the first one?
posted by Miko at 1:33 PM on February 18, 2007

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