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