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While you can just record yourself strumming a guitar directly into a notebook PC, the quality is going to be pretty awful. If you aspire to anything more than knocking out the occasional riff on GarageBand, then investing in some basic equipment can make a huge difference.
This is based on the recommended setup list from Melbourne music consultant Benjamin Last, from a presentation he gave at the Australian International Music Show last weekend. For every option, there's a suggested amount to spend: you can always spend more, but investing the effort in learning to use the equipment you have is likely to be a better choice than spending massive amounts up front for what will almost certainly be a hobby. "What I like to see is people being able to write really great music with the most basic equipment," Last said.
This list presumes that you've already got a computer and some form of software for recording audio onto it (Audacity is always an option if you don't want to spend any money on the latter). While many musicians favour the Mac, Last argues that it doesn't matter whether you go Windows or Mac as long as you're comfortable with the system.
Audio Interface: $250. While you can pump basic audio into your PC directly via the sound card, an audio interface will give you far more options for feeding in multiple sources of audio, including the microphone and MIDI keyboard further down this list. You don't necessarily need a hugely complex design; something with a mass of mixing options onboard is likely to be more confusing than helpful. You can choose between either USB or FireWire interfaces; for the most part, USB is fast enough. If you do choose FireWire, make sure you test the equipment with your PC before purchase, as compatibility issues can arise.
Microphone: $150. Last recommends a large diaphragm condenser microphone (rather than the more familiar and cheaper concert-style mic) for better quality. You can spend tens of thousands of dollars on a microphone, but it won't necessarily make much difference when you're using basic equipment.
MIDI Keyboard: $150. The easiest way to add a variety of instrumental effects to your tracks is via a MIDI keyboard and appropriate software.
Speakers: $200. At a pinch, you can use simple cheap speakers like the ones that come with many PCs. Spending a little on separate speakers will give you a better idea of the quality of your recorded sounds, but this is one area where you could definitely skimp if the budget is tight.
Headphones: $100. The key use for headphones is so that you can listen to guide tracks when recording your vocals -- as such, you want a pair with decent coverage so sound doesn't leak into the microphone.
Shock Mounts & Popper Stoppers: $120. Both will make a big difference to the overall quality of sound you record.
Accessories: $30. You'll inevitably need a few adapters and bits of cabling.
Got your own home recording tips for saving money? Share them in the comments.
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