Why pay for expensive studio time, recording engineers,
producers and CD mastering when you may already have everything you need just lying around your house?
Since almost everyone has access to a computer, I'm going to show you how to turn your old computer into a modern
recording studio on a "real-world" budget. Given that computers have become so powerful and affordable these days,
it is extremely easy to have a personal recording set-up of your very own. This article is going to show you how
to produce your very own demo quickly and easily.
Here's a list of the basic gear you're going to need:
- Audio interface/Sound Card
- Audio Recording/Editing software
- CD burner
Let's start with choosing a microphone. Shure makes some very good inexpensive mics; the SM-57 for instruments and the SM-58, which is optimized for vocals. Both sell for around $100 new and are great utility mics. Sure also makes the PG-57 and PG-58 mics which sell for about $59. The PG models have basically the same electronics as their SM series counterparts, but cost about half the price. The main difference is both the PG-57 and PG-58 have an on-off switch and the SM-57and SM-58 models do not. I would recommend the PG series microphones as a good quality alternative to the higher priced SM series mics.
The next step is the hardest part of the entire process. How are you going to get the sound into your computer? Although most computers ship with some type of sound card already installed, these are not usually sufficient to do a decent job of recording. While great for gaming or listening to MP3s; most consumer sound cards lack to necessary processing power to produce high quality audio. I recommend purchasing an inexpensive external audio interface. M-Audio and PreSonus make very high-quality, compact and comparatively inexpensive interfaces. The advantages of choosing an audio interface over a stock sound card are:
1. Professional grade audio interfaces are equipped with better quality microphone preamps than are supplied with most internal sound cards.
2. They come in various multi-channel combinations. They are available in 1, 2, 4, 8 and 16 channel versions, which is needed to record more than one instrument at a time. Eight channel versions are the most popular.
Microphones are equipped with a 3-pronged connection called an XLR connection. The sound coming from a microphone is an analog signal, whereas a computer can only process digital information. Before a computer can process an analog signal, it must first be converted into digital data. Audio interfaces can handle this operation with ease. Simply plug one end of an XLR type microphone cable into the microphone and the other end into an XLR input of the audio interface. Now that the signal from the mic is successfully inside of the audio interface, how are you going to get it into the computer?
Digital audio interfaces are equipped with either a standard USB or Firewire output. If your interface is equipped with both types, use ONLY one. If you connect both the USB and the Firewire at the same time, your computer will be confused as to which input to read and will not function properly. In most scenarios Firewire 800 is much faster than USB 2.0, however USB is a very reliable choice. There are numerous audio interfaces designed to meet every budget and situation, so do your homework and choose one that is designed to meet your specific needs.
Now, just plug one end of the cable into your audio interface and the other end into your computer. If your speakers are hooked up properly, you should be able to hear whatever you say into the microphone. As a precaution, be sure to always turn-down the volume to your speakers whenever connecting or disconnecting equipment.
Now that your sound is properly going into the computer, you need something to capture and edit the information. There is a host of usable recording programs; including various free ones. A Google search for "free recording software" will produce some surprising results. Audacity is a free program that has been getting a great deal of attention lately. Although these programs work quite well, you'll eventually want to upgrade to a more feature packed program, such as, Cubase or Pro Tools. These are both cross platform programs and work with either PC or Mac.
You'll be happy to know your initial learning curve will NOT be as severe as you may think. Just play around with the programs and pretty soon you'll be recording like the pros. Most recording programs are very similar. Once you learn the lingo, it's all downhill from there. The recording process is surprisingly simple. If you can get the sounds into the computer cleanly, there is a very good chance you can make great sounding recordings. The better quality your equipment, the better your recordings will sound. I recommend learning on cheap equipment first and then, as your skills increase, increase the quality of your equipment. By making your mistakes up front, while it doesn't cost much, you may avoid a major money catastrophe down the road.
To get started you have to:
- Create an audio track
- Route the sound from your interface to that track
- Arm the track by pressing record
- Press play to start the recording
- Press stop when done
It's that simple! Just keep adding instruments until you're done or you run out of available tracks; whichever comes first. After you finish recording all of your tracks, you'll have to edit them. This involves: cleaning-up intros and endings, removing unwanted sounds (i.e. false starts, background noise, etc.), fixing bad notes, re-arranging tracks, or anything else that makes for a tighter performance. You can also slide tracks around to make the instruments "groove" better together.
Most Digital Audio Workstations (DAW's) include a full-featured set of editing features that will be well suited for your editing needs. These built-in editors are adequate for most situations. If there is a need for more extensive editing, we recommend Sony's Sound Forge or WaveLab from Steinberg. These editors also allow you to compile one killer track from multiple tacks. This technique is known as "comping tracks". By using this technique, you can record yourself singing the same verse to a song (each time on a different track) and then take the best sections of the individual tracks and compile or "comp" them together into one great track. You could double (record the same part twice) a guitar track or vocal to make them sound thicker. The possibilities are endless.
When you're done editing, you can delete all unnecessary files (just to tidy things up a bit) and you're done. Try not to get bogged down in the technology, remember you are doing this to make music. So, let the machines do what they were designed to do and you concentrate on making great music!
Finally, after you've recorded and edited your tracks, you have to mix those tracks down to a two track master (one track for the left speaker and the other track for the right). Your DAW will do this automatically via some type of export function. Just make sure you set your computer to export the file as a 16bit wave file at 44.1 kHz (which is CD quality) and you're done.
Why is this step necessary? It is necessary because, you might have recorded 3, 4 or maybe more tracks into your DAW and a regular CD player cannot compile all of those tracks in real time. It's just too much information. A consumer CD player can only play two tracks at a time. So, your multi-track master has to be mixed down to a two track master. Don't worry; it's a lot easier than you might think. Just have fun and don't sweat the small stuff.
The very last step in the recording process is the "Mastering" phase. In simple terms, mastering is the process of taking all the songs you've recorded and mixed for a certain project and making them act as one cohesive unit. It's when you arrange the songs to play back in a certain order and at relatively the same volume. In this phase, you can fade one song in while the other fades out, and so on. Global equalization is done at this time, as well as, compression and side-to-side balancing. In general, once the mastering process is done, all that's left is to enjoy the wonderful music you've spent so much of your time making. Enjoy yourself and don't forget that a recording is only as good as the music that was created.
Shoot for the stars!