Distortion is cool, but not always...
February 1, 2008 4:09 PM   Subscribe

What's the best way for me to record music with my computer for under $100?

This question reminded me of something I've been meaning to ask.

I own (and can somewhat play) an electric drumset, electric bass, and an electric guitar. I've also think I can sing, somewhat. I'd like to experiment with recording music from these various instruments onto my computer and turning them into a song.

I thought, well, this is easy, I'll just plug a cable from the line-out on the amp to the line-in on the PC, and be done with it! As you guys probably know already, that didn't work well at all. I haven't tried it with the guitar, but when I did it with the bass, the resulting recorded sound was very distorted. Definitely not a good solution. I don't think it's the amp or the instrument--the bass sounds fine when I use headphones with the amp or the amp speaker.

So I need something else. I was originally considering a USB-based solution like this, but recently realized that a small mixer might work as well. Here's what I see to be the pros to each:

USB thing:
- Built in effects (are these useful?)
- Small size

- XLR inputs for a better mic
- Ability to plug more than one thing in (if I wanted to play with others, maybe?)

So, which of these is a better solution? I'm not even sure if the mixer would fix my distortion issues, but figured one of the musicians here might be able to help me out. I realize that there are $300+ devices that are made to do this stuff, but I'm a college student and not really sure how serious I am about all this yet, so I want to start small. If it's relevant, I have a Crate amp that has a 1/4th inch headphone out and a 1/4th inch output with a speaker icon by it.

Thanks, any help would be great!

Sometimes I wish you could ask a question over at MeFiMu...
posted by DMan to Technology (14 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
I personally feel you're better off with a mixer, with meters, than with anything else.

You, however, might want to consider saving up some money (bithday gift, perhaps?) to get a compressor/limiter as well, a sold quality single-channel one.

That way you can use the mixer to adjust the level for recording 95% of your music, and the occasional overplayed chord or hard-struck string that makes up the other 5% will get compressed or (worst case) clipped with better quality than a digital solution after the fact.
posted by davejay at 4:16 PM on February 1, 2008

sold == solid
posted by davejay at 4:16 PM on February 1, 2008

The Line6 device you linked to would suffice, though it is guitar-centric. You could also look at M-Audio products such as this, which has both instrument and mic inputs. The M-audio product that i bought (this) came with a free version of Live Delta, which is an adequate piece of recording software.
posted by googly at 4:16 PM on February 1, 2008

M-Audio Fast Track USB
posted by rhizome at 4:23 PM on February 1, 2008

+1 on the M-Audio device that googly and rhizome linked. It ought to do the trick. It sounds like the distortion problem that you were experiencing was due to the output level from your amp being way too high. The Fast Track will allow you to trim the level down before it goes into your computer.

If you get more serious about it and want to experiment with different guitar and bass tones, check out the PodX3. Some of the amp models actually sound pretty decent -- certainly good enough for demoing out song ideas. Unlike previous Pod models, it also has an XLR input (but no phantom power, oddly), and some mic preamp models if you want to give your vocals a little compression, reverb, etc.
posted by redshifter at 4:56 PM on February 1, 2008

I'd get a USB "thing".

If you get a mixer, you'll be stuck using the (presumably) crappy inputs on your built in soundcard.
posted by davey_darling at 5:04 PM on February 1, 2008

Another vote for the M-audio device. The reason things didn't work with your soundcard isn't because the soundcard sucks (although built-in ones usually do), but because it's a microphone input, not a line input. Mic level is a quieter than line level by 30 or 40 dB. If you plug in a guitar, which outputs at line level, the soundcard tries to amplify it like a mic and distorts it.

Oh, and don't just get a mixer and plug that into your soundcard, because you'll have the same problem. Mixers output at line level too.
posted by echo target at 5:26 PM on February 1, 2008

Because nobody's said it yet: mic your amp. That way you get to hear what the amp sounds like.
posted by General Malaise at 5:46 PM on February 1, 2008

Response by poster: Okay, so it sounds like the M-Audio USB device is the way to go. I'll definitely look into that. Any other input would be greatly appreciated, too.

General Malaise: Mic'ing the amp isn't a bad idea, I'll experiment with that sound at some point as well.

Thanks guys!
posted by DMan at 7:04 PM on February 1, 2008

I thought, well, this is easy, I'll just plug a cable from the line-out on the amp to the line-in on the PC, and be done with it! As you guys probably know already, that didn't work well at all. I haven't tried it with the guitar, but when I did it with the bass, the resulting recorded sound was very distorted.

There's no reason that shouldn't work. If it's distorted you've just got something turned up too high somewhere. See if you can lower the gain on your line-in or turn down the output of the amp.
posted by ludwig_van at 7:05 PM on February 1, 2008 [1 favorite]

I worked at a mom 'n pop music store for 5 years, so I've answered a lot of these sort of questions. I personally use a Tascam US-122 (older USB interface) running into my laptop with a large diaphragm condensor hooked into it. As mentioned here, you can obviously expand that by using a mixer with it. The M Audio device mentioned here is also decent.

As far as quality goes, as long as you are running into the USB port of your computer (NOT your microphone jack!), then you will be getting a decent sound quality--or at least as good as you can expect for your price range.

I like Audacity for a free multi-track recording program that is plenty flexible to handle most home projects.

One very good option for you to stay in your price range would be a small mixer with USB output.
posted by mikeo2 at 12:09 AM on February 2, 2008 [1 favorite]

you could get an audio interface, or it may be easier just to get a USB mic & recprd one channel at a time. (You are better off adding FX after the recording).

Once you have the inour device, I'd recomend REAPER to capture your audio. It's multitrack audio & midi, plus FX, for cheap.
posted by the_very_hungry_caterpillar at 9:16 AM on February 2, 2008

The Line6 Toneport. You'll not be able to get recorded guitar sounds nearly as good without buying $1,000+ preamps and mics (not to mention a better amp), having a great sounding room... and the preamp sims will make your electric kit "sit in the mix" more easily as well I'd bet.
posted by raikkohamilonso at 11:08 AM on February 7, 2008 [1 favorite]

FWIW, I bought the M-Audio device everyone is referencing here but I think it kind of sucks.

I thought it was plug-and-play with my Mac but I ran into problems setting up with Garageband which seemed like an obvious application. Also, I don't seem to be able to fix the lag problem on a very fast, well-endowed macbook pro. Finally, the fact that it's so lightweight makes it difficult to position with the rest of my gear and the fact that it has so few ports makes it seem like kind of a waste of product.

Sorry to rain on that parade but I was just hoping someone might mention a different solution. I don't understand why no one like Behringer makes a small, cheap mixer with a USB or Firewire out. Maybe I don't comprehend the technology there but it seems like it would b a perfect match to my laptop for recording live in different situations.
posted by metajc at 3:52 PM on May 17, 2008

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