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HOME RECORDING GUIDE
GUIDE FOR ASPIRING MUSICIANS AND PODCASTERS
HOW TO BEGIN RECORDING MUSIC AND LECTURES AT HOME AT A VERY REASONABLE COST
Even if your financial resources are limited, opportunities are available to jump start your recording career by using the cheap technology that is now on the market. All it takes is your own creative spark, a little money, and an Internet connection.
This guide points the way for artists, composers, DJs, and musicians who would like to move their recording careers from ground zero. The advice in this guide is based upon our experience with certain kinds of equipment and software. It does not represent the final word in recording at home. We may recommend a certain computer program or piece of equipment, but our recommendation does not mean that other kinds of equipment and software are bad choices. Quite the opposite is true, in fact. Although we do not guarantee the results you will get, all of the software listed below, as well as much of the equipment available on the web sites we list, is worth using. In addition, we do not have any commercial connections to the companies or products listed here. For a longer list of links to online reference materials for home recording see Home Music Recording.
You can learn a lot from looking through what is available at a site like Musician's Friend.
Creativity cannot be scheduled. There are few things more useful than a portable audio recorder, where the recordings can easily be transferred to your PC with a USB cable.
The Sony PCM-D50 is remarkable. It's twin, very high quality condenser mic can be positioned in an X-Y or wide stereo manner....very useful in difficult recording environments! It is also capable of playback in 320 kbps, MP3 format! Also notable, it comes with a tripod and a wind screen. It is truly portable. For those who would find a built in speaker for recording reference (especially for field recordings) the Marantz PMD620 is a good choice. It features a 150mw 8 ohm speaker for instant playback reference. Another good recorder is the Olympus LS10 Linear PCM Recorder. It features not one, but two 16mm, 200mw, 8 ohm, dynamic speakers for even better playback clarity.
In recent years, the number of available software titles marketed to home recording musicians has exploded. Several major companies, including Sony (Acid, Sound Forge), Cakewalk (Cakewalk, Sonar), Digidesign (Pro Tools), Adobe (formerly Cool Edit Pro, now Audition), and Steinberg (Cubase) currently manufacture the software most musicians use for home recording.
For the purposes of this guide we are limiting our discussion to Cakewalk's Sonor, Sony's ACID and Sound Forge, not because these are necessarily the best software, but because they are the titles with which we are most familiar. Any of the software products listed below can be used to create good to superior quality home recordings. We recommend that readers of this guide research each product while keeping in mind his/her individual requirements and budgetary limits.
Here are a few links to free audio editing software you may want to try out. We are not satisfied with these but we list them for your attention.
DJ Audio Editor
Power Sound Editor Free
Expstudio Audio Editor Free
Cakewalk is a Massachusetts based company that has been making audio creation software since the early 1990s. Cakewalk currently offers several software choices for the home recording musician. We describe these here based on affordability, starting with the least expensive software and moving to the most expensive.
Cakewalk's Music Creator 5 is a good budget option for anyone who has basic home recording needs. MC 5 allows users to score music, edit audio, and mix their compositions using an intuitive Windows interface. The low price of MC 5 derives from three sources. First, MC 5 lack the large number of high-quality special effect plug-ins (different forms of reverb, choruses, flangers, phasing effects, etc.) that are available in more expensive versions of Cakewalk's software. A few of these do come with MC 5, just not as many as in the higher-end versions. Second, MC 5 also comes with a limited number of drum and other instrument loops. This will limit the flexibility of the software if you are a musician working alone. Third, MC 5 only allows composers a limited number of audio tracks. Therefore, if you have a large recording project you will want to get another software. In sum, if you want the largest number of special effects and loops and recordable tracks you will have to pay for them in a more advanced version of Cakewalk's software.
Sonar X1 Essential
The next step up in home recording from Cakewalk is
Sonar X1 Essential. Sonar X1 Essential, a more advanced audio processor for higher quality sound, more
effects, more available loops, and more flexible editing tools that allow
for a higher degree of complexity in your music. This software can
easily be used for anything from a basic home demo to a full-scale piece
of professionally orchestrated music.
Acid is a recording and looping program specifically designed to allow musicians and DJs to work with pre-recorded loops. The recording function of Acid is basic, allowing the user to record loops that the artist generates him or herself. You can use Acid as a recording and mixing program. One of the benefits of Acid is that users can use a grid setting to create drum and beat tracks using "one shot" single sounds or entirely premixed drum loops that come with the program. Instruments and vocals can then be recorded over the drum track and mixed. Although theoretically any musician can use this, it is mostly geared towards Electronica and Hip-Hop users.The Sony ACID Music Studio 8 is a complete home recording studio. Users can plug their instruments directly into their soundcard and then edit their music afterwards with the professional mixing tools and custom effects.
The final software we'd like to discuss here is PG Music's Band-in-a-Box. This fascinating and useful software makes it possible for a solo musician to record his or her music at home to multi-instrument accompaniment generated by the software. As PG Music writes: "Just type in the chords for any song using standard chord symbols (like C, Fm7 or C13b9), choose the style you'd like, and Band-in-a-Box does the rest. Band-in-a-Box automatically generates a complete professional quality arrangement of piano, bass, drums, guitar and strings in a wide variety of popular styles. (Jazz, Pop, Country, Classical and more.) " This provides a world of possibilities for artists struggling to find musicians to play with. The price of Band-in-a-Box is very reasonable too.
MICROPHONES, CABLES, MIC PRE-AMPLIFIERS
Most home computers purchased today come with a small microphone. However, using this microphone for recording music is not recommended. These microphones are barely adequate for voice recognition, much less for music recording. The good news is that you can use practically any mic with your computer. All you need is the proper cable, an adapter, and an inexpensive microphone pre-amplifier.
You should select a mic based upon your budget and needs. There are a number of good, decently priced mics out there that can be used for both vocal and instrument recording. For a good online selection you should check either of these web sites. They offer a wide selection and array of prices: Musician's Friend and Zzounds.
MICROPHONE AND INSTRUMENT PRE-AMPS
If you you want to record via your computer's microphone jack, you will need a pre-amp. Without a pre-amp, the signal from the mic to your computer will be very low. This will inject hiss into your recordings. Basic, affordable mic-preamps that are availabe include the ART Tube MP Project Series or the Behringer Tube UlLTRAGAIN MIC100 . The 1/4" to 1/8" Adapter you'll need is product 274-870 at Radio Shack. It is a gold-plated inline adapter.
A better alternative to connect you microphone or guitar is a USB interface. All are powered by means of a 2.0 USB connection. It also allows the user to control features like volume and gain amongst others. How many microphone inputs should one have on their interface? This is relative, but it is best to assume on the high end as your needs will no doubt grow over time. For example, it would be best to have at least four microphone inputs for recording drums.
Here's an example of a simple but effective
device for home recording M-Audio Fast Track Interface. Here's another example of a more
elaborate interface capable
of recording up to eight channels simultaneously M-Audio Fast Track Ultra.
DYNAMIC MICROPHONES: THE SHURE SM 57
If you are planning to record guitar by placing a mic in front of an amplifier we would recommend you buy a Shure SM 57. The SM 57 has been a studio and live performance standard for many years now. It is renowned for its reliability, durability, and versatility. The SM 57 is a type of microphone called a "dynamic" mic. This means that the part of the mic which captures sound (called a capsule) is a mechanism which moves back and forth in response to the volume of the sound you are recording. Dynamic mics are great for recording very loud sounds like electric guitars and drums. An SM 57 can also be used for vocal recording. It has a wide frequency range, meaning it can faithfully reproduce either soft or loud singing (it is better for the latter than the former).
If spending $90 on a microphone is too much for your budget to handle, consider getting a cheaper vocal mic like the Audio-Technica DR-VX1 (Product # 270430, $39.95), which can be found in the Microphones listing here. A cheaper mic will not give you as high a quality of sound, but it can do the job.
CONDENSER MICROPHONES: THE MXL 990
Although an SM 57 can be used for many different applications, the quietest kind of microphone you can buy for home use is a condenser mic. In contrast to a "dynamic" mic like the SM 57, a condenser mic does not have a moving capsule as part of the mic apparatus. Instead, the microphone recording surface is electrically charged to pick up sounds. Condenser mics are very sensitive so they are great for vocals and for recording acoustic instruments. Condensers are NOT recommended for recording amplified guitars.
A very affordable condenser mic is the MXL 990 Condenser Mic with Shockmount. This mic is a steal for the quality of audio reproduction you can get at home. Condenser mics generally require something called "phantom power" to operate. Phantom power is a low-grade power stream that electrifies the recording capsule. The two mic preamplifiers recommended above both provide 48V phantom power and should be considered viable options for any home recording setup. The MXL 990 also comes with a shockmount. This mounting device allows you to place the mic wherever you want it and it reduces vibrations that can come from the floor and ruin your recordings.
If you have decided to use an SM 57 or similar mic you will need a Microphone Clip (Axman Clip, Product # 276010), and a Microphone Stand (On-Stage Stands, Product # 452061). This stand is also compatible with the shockmount of the MXL 990. You may also want to invest in a foam windscreen (Performance Plus SM57) for your SM 57 or the like. For the MXL 990 try a clip on pop filter. A windscreen or pop filter will reduce the impact of your breathing on the microphone when you are recording vocals or wind instruments.