I wrote this guide about 2 months ago and kept forgetting to post it up, so here it finally is!
This will be an absolute beginner's guide to recording at home, hopefully of use to musicians and songwriters who want to build a home studio to record their material but don't know where to start. I won't be going into too much detail because this will just get ridiculously long, and I won't be covering "deeper" subjects such as the advantages of dedicated preamps and convertors, the pros and cons of the various DAW's, room acoustics and treatment etc. The question that gets asked most regularly on this board is "How can I record my own songs at home on my PC", usually under a tight budget, so that's what I'll hopefully explain; the basic gear and setup you'll need.
First of all before you start spending your cash on hardware you need a basic understanding of how an audio signal is recorded through a computer and a general overview of what a typical home recording studio looks like. The important parts needed are: microphone(s), sound card, computer, software and monitors.
: From the dirt cheap to the ridiculously expensive, this is what picks up the analogue audio signal and sends it to the sound card. If you don't intend to record acoustic instruments or vocals you won't need one. But most people will find at some stage they'll want to record real-world sounds, so at least one mic is usually required.
: Also known as an audio interface, this piece of hardware takes the incoming analogue audio signal from an instrument or mic, and converts it to a digital signal that your computer can understand and store, and which you can manipulate with your audio software. It also converts it back again to output the audio to your monitors (speakers). An audio sound card will also more than likely have one or more XLR inputs to a preamp for connecting a microphone.
: The computer processes all digital information to and from the sound card. For this reason you should get the fastest CPU and most RAM you can afford. Hard drive speed can also be an issue but this shouldn't be a problem with home recording.
: This is the program that lets you edit, mix and playback the audio you've recorded to the hard drive. There are many different DAW's (digital audio workstations) available, ranging from the free (Reaper) to the expensive (Logic).
: You have to be able to hear the results of your work as clearly and as uncoloured as possible in order to make changes to it. Monitors are the speakers over which you'll hear the audio.
Here's a dodgy diagram of how all these components connect together in a basic home studio:
So let's look at things in a little more detail:
Most PC's have an internal sound card, but even at entry level you should invest in an external sound card dedicated to recording audio. There are many reasons for this, mostly down to sound quality, the availability of drivers and latency issues. External audio interfaces can connect to your PC in a number of ways, with USB, Firewire and PCI/PCIe being the most common. For this guide we'll concentrate on USB and Firewire interfaces, as most products aimed at the home studio are in this format.
Your sound card determines how many inputs and outputs will be available to you, what the maximum sample rate and bit rate you will be able to record in, and in some cases will be a major factor in the DAW software you will be using. Generally, the more inputs an audio interface has the more expensive the unit.
When looking to buy an audio interface, the most important question to ask yourself is "What will I be recording?" Are you recording just yourself playing guitar? Are you recording acoustic guitar and vocals at the same time? Are you recording a full band? Basically, how many simultaneous inputs will you need.
So before you go looking for an audio interface, it's good to know what features to look out for, namely the number of inputs/outputs, number of preamps, latency, phantom power, USB or Firewire, and supported sample rates. So let's have a look at these features:
- Inputs, Outputs and Preamps
While keyboard, synthesizers, samplers, CD players and other line level devices can be connected to the Line In of an audio interface, a microphone requires a preamp to boost its signal to an acceptable level. Be careful when buying an audio interface to check how many preamps rather than inputs a device has if you are intending to use a microphone to record, as it is sometimes not made clear by the manufacturer. For example, the MBox 2 Mini is often advertised as simply having 2 analogue inputs, but there is only one Mic level preamp XLR input.
- Sample Rate and Bit Depth
The sample rate is how many times per second an audio signal is sampled. The higher the sample rate, the more accurate the digital waveform is compared to its analogue counterpart. CD audio quality is 44.1kHz (44,100 samples per second) and is generally regarded as the minimum sample rate you should record at. Higher sample rate of 88.2kHz, 96kHz and even 192kHz are used in professional studios, and in many cases even sound cards aimed at the home studio will be capable of recording at 96kHz.
The bit depth is the amount of information (in bits) contained in each sample. The higher the bit depth, the more accurate the dynamic range of the digital signal compared to its analogue counterpart. CD audio quality is 16 bit, and is generally regarded as the minimum sample rate you should record at. 24 bit is also common on most audio interfaces, and when it is available should definitely be used, as it can make a huge difference to your signal-to-noise ratio and available headroom while recording.
An audio interface will specify it's maximum sample rate and bit depth, although you must also take into account what sample rate your DAW is capable of using.
Some microphones and active DI boxes require a power source to work. "Phantom Power" is a feature on most audio interfaces and mixers that sends an electrical voltage through the microphone cable to the microphone or DI. If you plan on using a condenser microphone, make sure your audio interface can provide phantom power (sometimes marked as "+48v").
Latency is the delay between the sound that is being created and the resulting sound that is heard back through the monitors. Latency is measured in milliseconds (hopefully..!) and in general anything lower than about 12ms is acceptable. Anything higher is at best distracting, and at worst impossible to work with. One of the reasons why stock-PC sound cards are not good for recording purposes is because they generally have high latency. When looking for an audio interface, try to find out as much as possible about the latency of the unit and the quality of its drivers. http://www.asio4all.com/
is a general purpose ASIO driver, but it's best to use the most up to date driver released by the manufacturer of your sound card.
At a home recording level it's really not important whether your interface is firewire or USB. Just make sure if you are using USB it's USB 2!
Enough talk, let's have a look at some of the available audio interfaces suited to a home studio, sorted by number of inputs:
If you are simply recording one source (eg. vocals, a guitar amp, keyboard), a sound card with a single input should do the job. Some examples of popular single input audio interfaces:
Line 6 Toneport
M-Audio Fast Track
M-Box 2 Mini
If you want to record two sources at one (eg. yourself playing acoustic while also singing, or would like to record in stereo) you'll need an audio interface with at least 2 inputs:
Alesis IO 2
M-Audio Fast Track Pro
M-Audio Firewire 410
REM Fireface 400
If you want to record multiple audio sources at the same time (eg. drums or a full band), you'll need more inputs. Here are some audio interfaces with 4 or more inputs, and which are also expandable for even more inputs/outputs:
RME Fireface 800
Most people when they start recording use whatever computer they have available. For the most part this is fine, and any reasonable computer can get you started. The most important thing to look at is your CPU speed and amount of RAM. Getting the fastest CPU and most RAM as your budget will allow will make a big difference to how many tracks you can run, how many plugins you can use, how smooth your DAW's performance will be etc.
An external hard drive is usually recommended, as recording to your system drive is not only bad for your internal drive but also keeps your work a bit safer. A large firewire drive with a speed of 7200rpm will do the job.
Most people start off with whatever computer they have, but if you are buying a system solely dedicated to audio you might want to consider more carefully whether you want a Windows or Mac based system. Macs are generally regarded as being more stable, and you will find Macs used in preference to Windows systems in most professional studios for that reason.
This is a personal choice, but at a home studio level I think the general answer is no. Some people like to mix physically with faders and use analogue desk EQ, and the routing options on a desk can be a big advantage. But unless you have the budget to buy quite a nice desk you really don't need one, and your sound may even suffer with a poor quality desk. A control surface can be a good compromise.
A DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) is the program that displays your recorded audio as a waveform. It allows you to edit and manipulate your tracks and mix them on a virtual mixing desk. There are many DAW's available, all with their various pro's and con's. It really is a personal choice as to which DAW you use, so without recommending any one in particular, here are a list of the most popular with links to their manufacturer's site.
Software plugins are effects that can be used in your DAW to process your recorded material. The most common format for these plugins is VST. Plugins can range from the free, to packages that cost more than a car. All DAW's come with their own plugins which will be enough to get you started before buying 3rd party plugins.
For the home studio microphones will fall into 2 categories, dynamic and condenser.
Dynamic microphones are for the most part cheaper than condenser microphones. They are generally less sensitive, have a narrower frequency range, can withstand high SPL's (sound pressure levels) and don't require phantom power to operate.
Condenser microphones are usually more expensive than dynamic mics, are more sensitive and capture a broader frequency range. They require phantom power to operate.
Shure - The SM57
are industry standard microphones, and are also well within the price range of a home studio owner. The SM57 is an extremely versatile mic that can be used on guitar amps, snare, toms etc and even vocals (Red Hot Chili Peppers for example...ok maybe that's not a good endorsement...), while the SM58 is a standard vocal mic both live and in the studio (Bono for example...oops...).
SE Electronics - SE Electronics offer a good range of budget condenser mics that are great quality for their price. The SE 2200A
is a Large Diaphragm Condenser microphone that is perfect for vocals in a home studio.
Rode - Rode also offer a good range of budget condenser, the most notable models for home studio recording being the NT1-A
Other manufactures to consider are Naiant
Monitors are an important link in achieving a professional sound from your work, but at the same time choosing a monitor is a personal choice which makes a particular model hard to recommend. You really need to "know" your monitors; what frequencies theyexaggerate or suppress, how "coloured" they are (preferably not at all in an ideal world).
- Can't I just use headphones?
My personal opinion is that yes, when starting off using a pair of good quality headphones is fine. But you should be aware of the effects of headphones (an artificially wide stereo field, in many cases exaggerated bass, discomfort if wearing for long periods etc) and try to move on to monitors as soon as possible.