The Musician's Guide to Home Recording

 

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The Personal Computer Based Music Studio
Bare Essentials for Your Home Studio

 

The Musician's Guide to Home Recording

 

 

Here's the barest of bare-bones music computer setups to start with:

 

Start with a good quality microphone. No, that $5 computer mic won't do...

There are several kinds of good microphones to start with. Probably the most versatile inexpensive mics are the small diaphragm condenser mics like the AKG C1000 and Oktava MC012 (available for less than $200). AKG, Audio Technica, Studio Projects, RØDE, Oktava, CAD and others are offering large-diaphragm condenser microphones for between $200 and $300. For most people, one of these will be the best choice for the single mic in the studio. There are also some Chinese-made condenser mics available for $150 or less from Studio Projects and Marshall Electronics which may work well enough for you (the Studio Projects B1 is getting rave reviews and costs all of $80). Remember to add a suitable pop filter for recording vocals. Many people prefer small diaphragm dynamic microphones like the Shure SM57 for recording guitar/bass amps and snare drum/toms/hand percussion.

The microphone captures the initial sound, and all mics have their own colorations and non-linearities. The better your microphones, the better sound you'll be able to capture onto tape or disk. Big recording studios use mics that cost $2000 or more (like the Neumann U87 or AKG C12). This is one way they can assure their clients of the best recorded sound possible. Your choice of microphones will have a huge impact on the quality of your recordings.

Check out the
microphones page on this site for more info...

 

 

Of course you'll need something to make musical sounds with.

Some folks just need a couple of microphones and they're ready to go (solo singer/songwriters and acoustic classical ensembles, for example), while others will need more elaborate setups with several microphones, a mixing board and a rack full of MIDI keyboards and synth modules. Just make sure that your instruments sound good by themselves — don't expect to be able to make a battered, out of tune upright piano sound like a Hamburg Steinway by "fixing it in the mix." Obviously, you'll want to make sure that your amplifiers don't rattle or hum, your drum heads aren't pock-marked and your patch cables are in good condition.


 

Choose the right recording system for your needs.

If you're recording acoustic music straight to stereo (recorded "live to two-track"), you'll be able to get by with a simple stereo mic preamp going straight into a soundcard or audio interface in your computer. You can use an audio editing program to edit and tweak the recording to your taste, and then prepare the tracks for burning onto an audio CD-R or for sending to the mastering house.

If you're recording your tracks one at time, overdubbing until you have a complete arrangement, a small mixer (like the Mackie 1202 or 1402, or the Behringer MX or UB series mixers) will give you more flexibility and control over a wider variety of signal sources such as MIDI keyboards, drum machines and effects units, in addition to your microphone(s). A decent stereo soundcard will allow you to use your computer as your digital recorder, as well as an additional effects unit and mixer for final mixdown and mastering to CD-R.

But what if you will be recording a full rock band 'live' and you're using a typical computer audio interface with eight analog inputs, like the Echo Layla, the M-Audio Delta 1010 or the MOTU 828 (or an ADAT for that matter)? In that case, you may need to record more than eight tracks simultaneously. The easiest way to accomplish this is to use a larger "eight-bus" mixer, such as the Mackie 24*8*2 8-Bus mixer. With this type of mixer, you can have up to 24 signals going in, with eight "submixes" (a.k.a. "sub-masters") going out to the eight inputs on your computer's multichannel audio interface. Another advantage is that you can add effects to each channel or each submix before they go to tape or hard disk.

If you don't need to record more than eight channels simultaneously, the 'purist' approach is to use an eight-channel mic pre with an ADAT digital output (such as the PreSonus DigiMax LT) directly into the ADAT Lightpipe digital inputs of a multichannel audio card or digital mixer. This gives you the absolute simplest signal path possible to the recorder, along with the advantages of only one analog to digital conversion while recording.

The "analog" version of the above is to use an analog mixer that has eight mic preamps (like the Mackie 1602VLZ) and use the mixer's direct outputs to feed an audio card with eight analog, line-level inputs.

If you can't afford a mixer with direct outs on eight channels, you can use any mixer with eight mic inputs that has an "insert" in each of its mic channels. (There are inexpensive mixers like this available from Mackie, Behringer, Alesis, Samson, etc.) Use the inserts as an unbalanced "send" to the inputs of your audio interface or recorder, using the mixer's headphone or Control Room (Monitor) outputs to monitor the signals. You'll be limited to a combination of eight microphones and/or line-level sources with this type of setup, and you'll be running unbalanced from the mixer to your recorder, but it is an inexpensive way to get eight simultaneous tracks onto hard disk. Be sure to use high quality cables and connectors!


 

Choose a good sounding space with very low background noise to record in.

Don't underestimate the importance of this — the last thing you want is your perfect take ruined by the rumble of the garbage truck lumbering down the block or a nasty sounding echo from your low-ceilinged, square room. Sound deadening materials can help. The easiest way to make a bad sounding room sound good is to deaden it as much as you can, preferably with professional quality room treatments (like Sonex panels, RPG Diffusors and Bass Traps) and strategically placed curtains, drapes, wall hangings and overstuffed furniture. However, the nicest sounds come from big rooms with nice, high ceilings, where the sound can "breathe".

Yes, this room treatment thing is expensive. Your best bet is to deaden your small room as much as possible, and carefully sweeten your sounds with reverb and/or EQ when you mix down. If you have a loft space, you will need to shut out any traffic noises, and treat the room for unwanted resonances. If you have a large space out in the country, far from traffic noise, then I envy you!


 

You'll want to store your music in a format that other people can listen to.

Now that CD burners and blank discs are so inexpensive, the most logical way to store your music is to CD-Recordable disk. All you'll need to do is to mix down your music to a stereo (two-channel) Wave or AIFF audio file with a resolution/sampling rate of 16-bit 44.1kHz, which is the only format that is compatible with Compact Disc audio. (Note that you cannot burn an MP3 or other 'data-compressed' audio file to an audio CD without first converting it to an uncompressed, 16-bit 44.1kHz audio file.) Use your favorite CD-burning program to make an "Audio CD," not a "Data CD."


 

Create a comfortable working environment.

Place your controllers (mixing board, recorder, computer, etc.) within easy reach of your listening position, where the 'sweet spot' is between your monitoring speakers. You'll be looking at the computer screen during editing sessions and moving faders and twirling knobs while tracking (when you're recording basic tracks), and you want to be able to see and hear what is going on the entire time.

A good pair of closed-ear headphones will come in handy, especially during "tracking" (the process of recording basic tracks onto tape or hard disk). I like the Sony MDR-7506 'phones because they're not too expensive and they're rugged, sound decent and do a good job of shutting out the outside world. They're pretty much the "NS-10" of headphones...


 

Here's the simplest computer-based setup, using a standard stereo soundcard:

Plug the sound sources (microphones, DI for electric guitar or bass, outputs from MIDI synths) into the appropriate inputs on your mixing board.

Plug the mixer's stereo line-level Main Outputs (L-R) into the LINE IN of the computer's sound card/audio interface. Some mixers have a 2-Track output in addition to the Main Outs. Either one can be used, though in most mixers only the Main Outs are controlled by the Main Out output level fader.

Plug the LINE OUT from the computer's sound card into a line-level stereo input (or pair of channel inputs) on your mixing board. Be careful not to set up a feedback loop by routing the output of your soundcard through the mixer back to the soundcard's input!

It helps to use a mixer with an ALT3/4 output, which routes the signal from a mixer channel with the MUTE switch engaged to a separate set of outputs from the mixer. This can be used as a Record Enable switch for whichever channels you want to record. You'll be able to monitor the ALT3/4 outputs by switching them to be heard through the MAIN OUT L/R on the mixer (read your mixer's owner's manual for info).

Another way to wire up a small mixer to a soundcard is to use the AUX SEND's as recording outputs to the soundcard's LINE IN. This gives you level control on each channel to be recorded. Set the AUX SEND's to Post Fader if you want to be able to record your insert effects and/or EQ along with the source.

Plug the mixer's Control Room (or Monitor) outputs into a pair of line-level inputs on your stereo amplifier or powered speakers. (Typical line-level inputs on a home stereo receiver will be labeled "CD," "AUX" or "TUNER").

To record a track to the computer, enable the soundcard's LINE IN as the recording input in your recording software. Assign the outputs from your recording software to the soundcard's LINE OUT.

There are some (more expensive) computer audio interfaces that come with mic inputs and mixing controls built in. If you have one of these, you should contact their tech support for advice on how to set up your studio with their product.


 

CABLES!

Use good quality, clean cables and connectors ONLY! You'd be amazed how many pops, buzzes and hums are caused by crap cables. Look for Neutrik or Switchcraft connectors and Belden or Mogami cable. Monster Cables are good but way over-priced (that's my opinion at least). Community Sound, ProCo, Horizon, Whirlwind and others make good quality cables out of Switchcraft connectors and Belden cable, available at reasonable prices. Don't be tempted by those $5 cables on "special" at the music store... they're nothing but trouble!


 

 

Here's a quick overview of the process of making a multitrack audio production for distribution on Audio CD:

 

Tracking: Record basic tracks onto tape or hard disk. As you go, you'll make a working mix, often called a "rough mix.". You'll use this rough mix as a "guide track" for the performers to play along with, as additional tracks are added to the production.

 

Overdubbing: Record additional tracks over (and in synch with) the original tracks, while listening to ("monitoring") the rough mix, as desired.

 

Editing: Once all the basic tracks are recorded, you can edit those tracks, if desired. This is where pitch-correction is applied to vocals, wrong notes are replaced with "right" ones, "comp" tracks are created out of multiple takes, etc. The editing stage is where the computer-based DAW can really strut its stuff — edits can be performed with 'copy and paste' ease and precision.

 

Mixdown: Add effects, perform last-minute edits, make tonal adjustments to individual tracks or groups of tracks ("equalization" or "EQ"), adjust levels of tracks, add reverb or delay effects, place tracks in the stereo field ("panning"), etc. Once everything sounds like you want it to, you record the playback from the multiple tracks (with all your edits, levels, effects, panning, etc.) onto a new stereo pair of tracks. This is the "final mix."

 

Mastering: Once you have a collection of selections mixed down to stereo, you will want to begin the assembly of the final CD (what we used to call an "album"). You'll want to make sure each selection sounds in character with the rest (similar tonal balance, amount and type of compression, reverb levels, etc.) and that the selections are of appropriate relative loudness (the soft tunes aren't so quiet compared to the loud tunes that you need to adjust the volume between selections). At this point, many people will add a few final EQ tweaks and a final pass through a "mastering limiter." Then you'll want to make the CD layout, with appropriate silences between selections, etc. Then you burn the final CD (the CD "master"), and your production is done.

 

 

Background Information

Computer necessities

Studio necessities

High octane options

IDE vs. SCSI vs. USB vs. FireWire

Sound Cards and Audio Interfaces

Introduction to Microphones

Basic Concepts of Digital Audio

MIDI, Synths and Drum Tracks  

 

 



 

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