You can have a lot of fun making music, but getting a good recording and arrangement of your song requires some work and knowledge. Over the next few weeks, we'll help you set up a small recording studio in your home and learn how to use it to create some great music.
Illustration by David Broderick. Photos by me
About This Morning School Series
Just like learning an instrument and writing songs, the art of recording, arranging, and mixing takes time to master. In this music production morning school series we'll introduce you to the basics, but you'll need to continue to learn, practise and develop a good ear in order to create great final mixes. Today we'll begin with setting up your home studio. In the following weeks, we'll show you how to record vocals and live instruments, add virtual instruments, and create a final mix. At the end of this series, we'll also provide you with additional resources to go beyond the basics we'll teach you.
What You'll Need
Before we can get to work and start learning about recording, you'll need a few things. Recording equipment will cost you some cash, but you don't have to spend a lot to get a lot. Here's what we recommend:
Audio Interface: Although your computer probably comes with a microphone input port and you can buy low-grade microphones to plug directly into your sound card, you won't achieve anything like a high level of quality. Additionally, built-in sound cards provide little to no control over the signal. Among other advantages, an audio interface provides you with the ability to use high quality microphones and studio monitors (speakers). When operating on a budget, expect to spend at least $150 for a decent unit.
When operating on a budget, expect to spend at least $150 for a decent unit. The Focusrite Scarlett 2i2, Presonus AudioBox 22VSL, and Native Instruments Komplete Audio 6 all provide two microphone inputs and good recording quality without a high cost. If you need four inputs but can't spend much, look at the Presonus AudioBox 44VSL or the MOTU 4pre. Those with more room in their budget should consider the MOTU Track16 and MOTU 896mk3, as well as the Apogee Duet and Quartet when working on a Mac. Any interface on this list will work well so long it is compatible with your computer. Check the system requirements before buying.
Microphone(s): If you plan to record vocals or live instruments, you'll need at least one microphone. Most microphones record certain instruments and sound types better than others. For example, the Shure SM-57 is a popular choice for recording snare drums (although it has other uses, too) and the AKG 535 EB produces great vocals. You can get very specific about your mic choices, but since we're just starting we want to find an inexpensive yet versatile option. Almost any condenser mic with a cardioid pickup pattern (we'll discuss what this means in later lessons) in the $100-$200 range will work. On the extremely cheap side, the Behringer C-1 and Samson C01 produce quality recordings. For more money, the Shure SM-27-SC and Rode NT3 will offer a cleaner, better sound under more circumstances. (In most cases you'll benefit more from recording in a quiet, echo-free room than you will from spending hundreds on microphones, but we'll talk about that more later.)
Studio Monitors: Not to be confused with a computer monitor that displays a picture, studio monitors are speakers that do their best to represent recorded sound as cleanly and accurately as possible. If you've never heard music through a pair of decent studio monitors, you'll be blown away by the detail they provide. Even better, you can get a good pair for a reasonable price — much less than you'd pay for high quality entertainment speakers that, most of the time, don't sound as good. The Samson Resolv A6, for instance, work really. For a little more money, look at the Yamaha HS50M. For a further step up, consider the Yamaha HS80M. Regardless of what you choose, you should also invest in a pair of monitor isolation pads so the sound quality of your monitors aren't negatively affected by the surface you place them on.
MIDI Keyboard/Controller: If you plan to use virtual instruments in your arrangements, you'll need a MIDI keyboard to play them. These come relatively cheap, and you don't need anything fancy in most cases. You can pick up the M-Audio KeyStation 49 for a compact keyboard that connects over USB. For a few more keys, get the M-Audio KeyStation 61. These keyboards only provide basic controls, however, so if you plan to manipulate your instruments (a common need in electronic music) you'll want something like the M-Audio Oxygen 49 instead. For those who intend to include a realistic piano, you'll need to cough up quite a bit more money for a good digital one. Most digital keyboards have semi-weighted keys that respond to how hard you push them, but actual pianos are a bit more complex. A semi-weighted keyboard will not feel natural to a pianist so those who want a realistic feel and representation of a piano need to purchase a full 88-key keyboard that incorporates a graded hammer effect. For a long time, the Yamaha P series has been one of the best values. If you plan to use a virtual piano in your work, get the Yamaha P105B.
MIDI Interface (Optional): Every keyboard mentioned in the previous section offers USB MIDI output so you don't need a MIDI interface to connect them to your computer. Some keyboards, however, only provide traditional MIDI ports. Some of the audio interfaces mentioned earlier (such as the Focusrite Scarlett 2i2) double as a MIDI interface and provide MIDI inputs, but if you need a separate device the E-Mu Xmidi 1X1 is about as cheap and simple as it gets.
Cables: You'll need a few cables to connect all your hardware. Generally anything USB-based comes with a USB-A to USB-B cable, so you probably won't need to buy any of those. Microphones, on the other hand, use an XLR interface so you will need to purchase an XLR cable for each microphone you buy. Your studio monitors will also need cables to connect. Most work with XLR just fine, but your audio interface may only allow you to use 1/4-inch TRS cables. Check the output options on your audio interface and the input options on your studio monitors to ensure you get a pair that will work.
Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) Software: You can buy all the hardware in the world, but if you don't have recording software you can't do much with it. When it comes to picking a DAW, you have many options. In this series, we've chosen Cubase because it's powerful, and runs on both Windows and Mac, you can get a free trial, and you can buy the entry level version (which offers plenty of power and features) for under $US100. You don't have to use Cubase to follow along with these lessons. We'll stick to broad concepts as much as possible and most DAWs work in a similar fashion. If you want to look at other options, check out Pro Tools, Digital Performer, FL Studio (Windows only), Cakewalk SONAR (Windows only). Mac users may also want to look at Logic Pro 9, but we'd recommend against it as Apple seems to consider Logic a very low priority and nearly all the competition offers a comparable feature set for less money.
Virtual Instruments: Most DAWs come with a few low-quality virtual instruments but you'll probably want to upgrade to something better if you intend to use them regularly in your recordings. You can find some good, free options on DSK Music and VST Planet — or just by searching the web for the specific instrument you need. If you want to recreate the sound of a piano or any other real instrument, however, you'll need to pay — sometimes a lot — for the best. You can build out a large library of sounds quickly by purchasing a software sampler. We like Kontakt. It isn't cheap, but comes with several pianos, a decent orchestra, plenty of acoustic and electric guitars, a choir, electronic instruments, and a lot more.
That's a long shopping list, but in our opinion its the minimum you'll need for most tasks. If you want additional recommendations, read our inexpensive home recording studio buyer's guide.
Set Up Your Studio
For the most part, setting up a home recording studio just requires a lot of plug-and-play. Nevertheless, you'll need to know a few things to get started.
Pick a quiet room: Ideally you'd record in a room that lets in little to no outside noise and you'd acoustically treat that room to remove any reverberation. Realistically, however, you're going to record where you can because you don't have the thousands of dollars necessary to set up a professional recording environment. Carpeted rooms work best, and the fewer windows you have the better. If your walls produce too much reverberation, you can hang dense blankets on them to reduce the effect. Closing the shades on your windows also helps. You won't be able to fix all your sound problems, but choose a carpeted room and reduce as much reverberation as you can before you start recording.
Set up your studio monitors: Place one on each side of your computer display, on top of their monitor isolation pads. The angle at which you place your monitors greatly affects how you hear the sound they produce, so don't just position them facing forward and call it a day. Instead, follow these steps:
Start by placing each at a 45 degree angle facing inward. (If your monitors are more than a couple of metres away, however, a 35 degree angle will make a better starting point.) Sit at your workstation and imagine a line coming out of each monitor in the direction their facing. The lines from both monitors should pass through each ear (left and right, respectively) and intersect around the back of your neck. If this isn't the case, adjust each monitor until it is.
Play a monaural audio track (such as this or most podcasts) and listen carefully. If the audio appears to coming from straight in front of you, you're good to go. If it feels too far to one side, adjust your monitors slightly until it does. Because you won't always sit in the exact same position, the balance of sound might feel a tiny bit off if your have good ears. That said, a little bit of variance shouldn't make a big difference. Just do the best you can to centre the sound.
You may want to calibrate your monitors as well. That's a complex topic we don't have time for in this lesson, but read this tutorial if you want to pursue calibration.
Enable phantom power for your microphones: In order to record you'll need to enable phantom power for your microphones on your audio interface. Nearly all condenser microphones with a cardioid pickup pattern — the kind we recommended you buy — require a power source (specifically, 48V). Your audio interface can provide it, but you often need to press a button or flip a switch. Consult your interface's manual if you can't find a button or switch labelled 48V on the front panel next to each mic input.
Plug in and install your software: Once you've handled the previous steps, you just need to plug everything in and install drivers and software. Depending on the hardware and software you chose, the setup process will vary. In many cases, after installation you won't have to do anything else (aside from authorising your software, perhaps). If not, consult your manuals to find out what additional steps you need to take to get up and running and perform a test recording in your DAW software to ensure everything is good to go.
In our next lesson, we'll learn about basic recording. See you then!