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Over the past few weeks I’ve been interacting a lot with a lot of you over email, which has been great! A lot of you seem to have questions about getting started with recording, so I want to talk about the basic tools you need to start recording yourself.

There are three main components to a home recording setup:

  1. Mics – to capture the sound of whatever instrument you’re recording
  2. Audio Interface – this converts the mic signal to digital to be used on a computer
  3. Computer/Software – this is where the recorded sound is manipulated and mixed

Mics

SM57There are tons of mics to choose from at many different price ranges, but I do have a few recommendations for those of you starting out. If you plan on using electric guitar anywhere in your recordings, then you absolutely need to have a Shure SM57. This is the industry standard for recording guitar, and it’s cheap! It’s also useful on many more things than electric guitar.

The SM57 is a dynamic mic that’s good at capturing loud sources (among many other things), but a good complement is a condenser mic. Condensers are typically thought of as good on vocals and acoustic sources. In the $100 range, I recommend the Behringer B-1. If you’re willing to spend a little more, the Rode NT1A is a great mic that will be useful for a long time.

Audio Interface

The audio interface is what the mics get plugged in to, and is typically attached to your computer via a USB or Firewire connection. Again, there are many to choose from, but for starting out (and again in the $100 range) I recommend the M-Audio Fast Track USB interface. This interface has one mic input and one direct input (for a bass or other instruments).

Typically the way an interface works is that you plug the mic in, and you have a knob to control the volume of the mic in order to compensate for the loudness of whatever you’re recording. The software you’re using should recognize your interface and let you choose which input you want to record from on a particular track.

Computer/Software

In all likelihood, the computer you’re using to read this blog is probably sufficient for getting started with home recording. If you’re on a Mac, I’d really recommend starting with Garage Band which is already installed on your computer and is very powerful! If you’re on a PC, one free option is Reaper. It’s free in the sense that the evaluation version is uncrippled and does allow you to save, but they do ask that you pay for a license later if you like the software. Other popular packages are Logic (Garage Band’s big brother, it’s what I use), Cubase, Sonar, and Pro Tools.

One thing to remember is that a lot of audio interfaces come with a free version of one of these recording programs. For example, the M-Audio Fast Track that I mentioned above comes with a free version of Pro Tools. It will be a little limited, but it will give you a chance to try out the software and see if it will work for you. The limited license will be more than sufficient to make some full recordings and learn about the process.

My Experience

When I first started, all I had was a couple SM57 mics, a cheap MXL condenser mic, an M-Audio MobilePre interface (mostly like the Fast Track above, but with one extra mic input), and Logic Express software. This is what the entire Seafront album was recorded with. Now, I realize that the overall quality of the album can’t compete with the sound of a real studio and whatnot. But the reality is that I worked hard with what I had and made an album that I’m still proud of, and that people still buy and enjoy.

My advice to those of you just starting with recording: don’t spend any more money than you need to. Get what you need to get started and devote yourself to learning how to use the tools that you have. Once you learn enough to realize the limitations of your gear and it’s getting in your way, then it might be time to look at upgrading. But with a little over $300 (given my recommendations in this post) you can get two killer mics, an interface and some free software. I truly believe that that’s all you need to make some recordings you’ll be proud of.

Now, using these tools is a completely different matter! I do plan on talking about recording software and other tips very soon, so stay tuned. And if you’re interested in what I currently use to record my music, sign up for the mailing list to the right of this post and you’ll get an eBook that lists everything I use!

Also, for those of you that read this far and are interested in hearing just what you can do with a $300 recording setup, you can use the code ‘blog’ during checkout when you buy my Seafront album and you’ll get it for 95% off. Bandcamp wouldn’t let me do a 100% off code, so if you can spare 20 cents, it’s yours.

Question: If you’ve had a little experience with recording, what are some other recommendations you’d have for beginners?

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  • http://www.facebook.com/logan.webb.750 Logan Webb

    Develop a workflow. Nothing worse than spending half an hour setting up your mics and DAW before you even hit that little red circle (unless you’re tracking drums, which is a science in itself). Make a template in your DAW that you can pull up in seconds with all your tracks pre-routed to your interface the way you like it. I always keep an sm57 on a mic stand plugged into Input 1 at all times.

    • http://www.andyothling.com/ Andy Othling

      Definitely agreed! Nothing like losing the creative spirit because you’ve got to set something up or you find some connectivity problems.

  • http://twitter.com/shoecifer eric schumacher

    What you had to record Seafront (which is still my favorite lowercase noises album) is basically exactly what I have now… an SM57, a cheap StageWorks condenser mic (that actually sounds pretty good!), an m-audio mobile-pre and Logic Pro. I’ve started recording some things but wanted to ask you what (if anything) you used for monitors when you were working on Seafront? I imagine you have something pretty nice now, but did you have a monitor setup when you started out? That’s the only piece I don’t really have in place yet… decent headphones work for now and I listen to things in different places (iPod, car, etc) which helps. Thanks for the article… knowing you did Seafront with no more than I already have is inspiring.

    • http://www.andyothling.com/ Andy Othling

      I did have a monitor setup, but I honestly used headphones most of the time. The monitors I had back then were KRK Rokit 6′s I believe. I didn’t mention it because as useful as it is, I don’t think it’s ABSOLUTELY necessary to get started. Once people start realizing the difficulties in trying to monitor a mix, then it’s time to invest in some decent monitor. But yeah, it is quite possible with that simple of a setup!

  • Kantefier

    I started recording on Cubase 5, but it didn’t really ever get satisfied with it. I guess it’s just because I never learned how to use it right. :)
    Then I switched to Ableton Live 8 and that was a big excitement, because it gave me the interface and sound that I needed. Also it had a lot of useful presets and usefull effects. That reverb is really good, so is compression and auto filter. My music started to sound really nice and full.
    Besides, monitors are essential too. For some time I used cheap earplugs Sennheiser IE-4 and computer 2.1 audio system (some almost 10-year-old over 50W Creative, that sounds awesome) for monitoring. But the earplugs was a bad idea and I knew it. So I bought Shure SRH-840, which are brilliant headphones! That is a thing I’d totally recommend to everyone, who is looking for an alternative to AKG k271 mkII. Actually the reason why I bought Shure was that there were no k271′s in stock in Moscow at all. That was a shock, because those are the most popular headphones here (as well as everywhere else, I guess).
    For those who plan on working with MIDI instruments I’d recommend a Novation Impulse 49 keyboard that I recently bought. It’s awesome, guys! Keys are feeling great, it’s a pleasure to play and it’s costs are good.
    Also I’m using only the condenser microphone myself. I bought a Invotone SM150B. It’s relatively cheap and suits my needs well. There was a russian comparison-review for those mics from a russian soundengineer, where Invotone has showed some great results.
    I’m using M-Audio Fast Track and really satisfied with it, that’s a best sound card for beginners. Though I’d really like to try some Fast Track Pro or so for stereo stuff.

  • Joel

    +1 To everything Andy said. Get yourself a cheap dynamic mic (SM 57, Audix i5 or similar) or two and a cheap condenser mic (Audio Technica AT 2020 or any other you can find under 200$). Match those up with an inexpensive audio interface with 2-4 mic preamps and you will be well on your way to recording some pretty great sounding demos in your room/basement.

    I’ll reiterate something Andy pointed out: DONT BUY MORE THAN YOU NEED. Dont listen to the hype on forums about this expensive mic, that boutique preamp, this piece of gear, bla bla bla. When you’re just starting out, the best way to get the highest quality recording is to learn what you have inside and out.

    Things I would add to to this list:

    1. Buy used, if you’re just testing the waters with recording there’s no need to go in balls deep with brand new everything (I rarely buy anything new anyways).

    2. Learn to solder your own cables. Cables might seem like a small detail, but they can actually cost you lots of money. It’s actually very simple to solder together your own instrument or XLR cables and you can save a few bucks every time to save up for something really worth while. Plus learning basic soldering techniques and electronics will go a LONG way down the road if you want to save money fixing/building your own gear.

    3. Like Andy mentioned, try Reaper. Reaper is basically an open source recording software available for only 60$ if you actually want to pay for the license. What’s awesome is that for that price you can get a fully featured software that can perform the same types of functions as the full versions of Pro Tools or whatever other software, for a fraction of the price. It comes with a ton of great plugins as well, which is a great bonus for a beginner. What’s more, you can download user built themes (to make it look exactly how you want) as well as user built command functions (things like editing hot keys etc). Basically, you can add these user created add ons to make the program look and function EXACTLY how you like it. Better yet, with a little time and effort, you can build your own little tweaks. No other software is capable of doing that.

    4. A little acoustic treatment goes a long way. You dont have to go overboard, a few thick blankets hanging on a wall will do you a lot of good to kill some bad reflections in your bedroom. There’s tons of great little explanations on line to help make your room sound a little better. This aspect of beginner recording is often overlooked, but it can make a HUGE difference if your overall sound quality.

    4. Record as much as you can! Learn your software (it can do a lot of incredible things, watch tutorials on youtube)! Develop your own mic’ing techniques. Best way to do this, LISTEN to what you’re recording. Move around the source and find the places that sound the best/most interesting and put mics there and see what happens. This is the best way to learn your mics, learn your gear, learn your room.. All things that will go a long way. Sure there are “techniques” or “ideal placements” you can learn, but they will do you no good until you actually understand how your mics work and how they sound.

    I’m no expert at recording, but I’ve been playing around with it for about 5 years now and had someone stopped me from browsing every single forum about gear right off the bat, and pushed me to spend a little more time ACTUALLY recording, I’d be much further along than I am now.

    Hope this helps!

    If anyone wants a little more help, links to good sites/resources/ebooks shoot me an email!

    j.blanchfield@hotmail.com

    • http://www.andyothling.com/ Andy Othling

      This is all great stuff Joel! Thanks for your help!

    • Pauldub67

      “I’m no expert at recording, but I’ve been playing around with it for about 5 years now and had someone stopped me from browsing every single forum about gear right off the bat, and pushed me to spend a little more time ACTUALLY recording, I’d be much further along than I am now”… This is so true, I’ve been reading so much that actually recording something has become so secondary.. This blog is however very inspiring to get the finger out !

  • http://stanmanx.com Matt Smyczynski

    I’d recommend trying out as many demos as you can find before you get used to a particular piece of software. I’ve had to switch a few times over the years, and it’s a painful, painful process when your hotkeys stop working.

    I’ll also second what Joel was saying about not buying into forum hype. My current process is literally, “Plug guitar into Line 6 GuitarPort, hope for best” (plus drums and synths courtesy of FLStudio). It’s not going to win me any awards, and I don’t actually recommend it as a setup, but I was listening to some stuff I recorded in 2010 and comparing it to stuff from 2011 and was actually quite pleased at how much better 2011 sounded. It’s all about knowing your gear and figuring out how to get the best sound out of it.

  • http://claimid.com/janiscortese janiscortese

    You forgot one vital piece of equipment: a quiet cat. :-)

    I’m curious though about how to work with sound taken directly from a line-out. I’ve got a Clavinova, and can record as I play, and then pipe it from the line-out directly to the line-in on a computer, obviating any concerns about mics, blankets, and ambient noise. What advice might I find for how to clean up or otherwise spiff up that sort of thing and make it suitable for burning a CD?

  • http://twitter.com/DavidMantel David Mantel

    Something I found out too late is that some interfaces don’t have great driver support. i.e. Avid. I have the hardest time using my interface because I run OSX Mountain Lion on my Macbook, but Avid doesn’t bother to update the drivers for their slightly older interfaces. This is something I didn’t know about going in to recording that I wish would have been explained to me. Find a company that has good tech support/driver support. It’s invaluable when it comes to time.

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  • JLDead

    What would you recommend for getting a good drum sound? More specifically, do you use software, or are you tracking live drums?
    I’m personally pretty fond of the control that programming gives me, but am always on the hunt for bigger, more aggressive drum samples.

  • http://twitter.com/lucasgillan Lucas Gillan

    Thanks for this great post. I’ve been wanting to get a home recording setup for years now but have let ignorance and money issues get in my way, but I really like your advice to just go for it with a budget-minded setup right away and leave the upgrading for later. I do still have a bit of a reservation, though: I’m a singer-songwriter who wants to make good-sounding demos on my own, but I’m actually a drummer first and foremost, so, naturally, I’ll want to record drums as well as guitar, bass and vocals. I currently have zero gear (except for my MacBook Pro and musical instruments, obviously), so I do definitely want to keep things pretty budget-friendly. Would you advise against getting a 2-input interface (like the Focusrite Scarlett 2i2), which would force me to record drums with a 2-mic setup? According to your sm57/Behringer B-1 setup, I’d probably put the 57 on the kick and use the Behringer for overhead in that scenario. Is a 2-mic job a bad enough idea that it’s worth paying hundreds more for more mics and an interface with 4 or more mic inputs? Thanks for any input you might have!

  • Peter

    Hi Andy , very helpful article . Maybe you can write an article about some “budget” gear that you recommend for a guitar player of any music genre to buy at first for live and recording purposes . Something like a minimum requirement , a distortion / overdrive box , a delay , tuner etc. ; a good but not so expensive guitar amp , and some good for the money guitars , maybe with some price sections. It would be nice to have your opinion on this and maybe help out people :)

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  • Miguel

    I got 2 questions! First of all i noticed that you didnt talk about mixers(like the Alesis Multimix 8) is it necessary to get one or is it pure luxury? Also i would like to know how do you deal with all the single coil related noise while you record your music? im really curious about this cuz i have about 10 pedals running on my setup and it usually gets really noisy, i wouldnt like having to spend more money on a noise gate or something similar because its going to be more than 300 dollars. Thanks! Usefull post!

    • http://www.andyothling.com/ Andy Othling

      A mixer is not necessary at all. Most interfaces come with a software mixer, but most of it is done in the DAW (for me, anyway). And regarding noise, my best advice is just to invest in a good power supply, quality cables, and quality pedals. If you have to during recording, remove the pedals that you aren’t using to try to remove some of the noise.

      • Miguel

        Thanks! When you record in your DAW do yo use your looper to record the whole thing? or record each track separately with Logic and use your looper exclusively for videos? cause im considering not buying a looper again(sold mine) if i can record with Logic and have more control of each track

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  • http://twitter.com/perlepumpa joao miranda

    Andy do you think I would go good with a clone version of the SM57 like a tbone micro?
    and with my toneport GX from line6?

  • Collington

    Bon Iver recorded For Emma Forever Ago with an SM57, mbox (1st generation) and an “old” mac. I found his story encouraging recording ona budget because not only was this album very succesful for him but it also sounds GOOD. Many wonder if it was done analogue too. Goes to show that the SM57 Isn’t bad on vocals either!

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