PREVIOUS | MAIN PAGE |
Computer Based Music Studio
Bare Essentials for Your
the barest of bare-bones music computer setups to start with:
with a good quality microphone. No, that $5 computer mic won't
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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!
a quick overview of the process of making a multitrack audio production
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