Beginner’s Guide To Home Recording: Part 1

So you’ve got a PC (or perhaps a Mac), some tunes you want to share with the world, and have decided to enter the exciting world of home recording – but you don’t know the first thing about it.  Well this guide is for you – the complete beginner.  Just two decades ago, multi-track recording wasn’t possible without purchasing a room full of expensive gear or paying sky high studio rental prices.  But now, with some basic equipment and a bit of knowledge you can knock out some half decent recordings at home all on a shoestring budget.  Here’s how to do it…

Getting Started

I can use the microphone socket on my laptop, right?  Not really.  The built-in sound cards on most computers might be alright for recording a quick voice memo, but they aren’t up to the job of recording a studio microphone or instrument with an acceptable quality.  This brings us to the first essential piece of gear you will require for home recording – an audio interface.  This is basically a sound card designed specifically for recording music with specialist features to help facilitate this.  Like your typical sound card it will have one or more inputs and outputs, but it will also have special connectivity, preamps and direct monitoring, as I’ll explain later on in this article.

For recording an acoustic sound source, like an acoustic guitar, vocal or guitar amp, you will require a microphone.  Microphones come in all shapes and sizes and many can be used for multiple applications, however to get the best quality you might want more than one microphone in your inventory, and of course recording two audio sources at the same time usually means two microphones are required.

In the context of recording, speakers are called ‘studio monitors’ or just ‘monitors’ because you use them to monitor what has been recorded.  Whilst the computer or hi-fi speakers you are using at the moment might be an OK starting point, sooner or later you’ll need to purchase specialist studio monitors.

You’ll also need some headphones to listen to yourself whilst recording – studio monitors are no good for this purpose as the microphone will pick up whatever is playing over the speakers, creating a feedback loop which causes squealing noises and ruining the recording (and possibly your ears too).

So far we haven’t mentioned what you might call the heart and soul of a modern home recording set up – the software.  Software for recording music is called sequencers or digital audio work stations.  Sequencers serve a variety of purposes, allowing you to record the signal from your audio interface onto multiple ‘tracks’, edit this audio, combine it with synthesized or sampled audio from internal instruments and apply a variety of processors or effects, all in one piece of software.  This is the giant leap forward of home recording, since in the past doing this would require tons of expensive equipment, such as tape machines, outboard effects and mixing desks.  Now you just need a computer which does almost everything by itself.

Now we’ve had a quick glance at the essential gear required for home recording let’s take a more in depth look at each element, talk about how it works and what to consider when making a purchase.

Audio Interfaces

As mentioned above audio interfaces are special sound cards used for recording in a home studio.  An audio interface will have a number of ‘channels’ of ‘inputs’ and ‘outputs’.  For a small scale home studio rig you only need two output channels, simply a stereo signal to listen back to what you’ve recorded, however you should pay close attention to how many input channels your interface has.  The number of signals you can record simultaneously depends on the number of input channels the interface has.  If you are only recording a guitar and vocal at the same time only two inputs channels will be required (one for each microphone), however if you are recording a full drum kit with four or more microphones you will need an audio interface with enough channels for each microphone you are using.  Each channel will usually have a number of sockets and switchable options to allow for the connection of a variety of sources.  3-pin XLR sockets are used mainly for connecting microphones. ¼” jack inputs are used for connecting line level signals (for example the output of a drum machine or keyboard) and guitars.  Guitars require a high impedance input to be recorded so a ¼” socket which allows for guitar recording will have a switch for going between a line level signal and a signal from a guitar.  Condenser microphones require phantom power so microphone inputs may have a phantom power switch.  When choosing an audio interface you’ll need to make sure it can take the type of devices you want to connect to it. The final important note to make about audio interfaces is about ‘direct monitoring’.  When making a recording you’ll want to be able to listen to what you’re playing as you record.  This can be done in software, the software simply routes the input from the audio interface back to its outputs, however this is problematic since it introduces latency.  Latency means that the signal you are getting back from the software is significantly delayed, making accurate timing impossible.  To get around this most interfaces are equipped with direct monitoring, the input is directed back to the output in the interface itself, almost instantly, eliminating any latency.  Interfaces with direct monitoring allow you to mix between the direct signal and the signal coming back from the sequencer so you can monitor both what you are playing and also what has been recorded previously.

Microphones

Studio microphones come in three flavours, dynamic, condenser and ribbon.  When you’re just starting out, a basic dynamic vocal microphone can be a low-cost solution that will give you a half decent recording of a variety of sources including vocals, instruments, guitar amps and percussion. Before long however you’re probably going to be wanting something more high-fidelity, and should be looking to purchase a large diaphragm condenser microphone.  These will give you crisper, more detailed recordings and are used mainly for vocals, though they can also record acoustic guitars and other instruments.  For any music where the vocals are a main element, getting one of these microphones should be a priority.  As mentioned previously condenser microphones require phantom power, so it’s a good idea to plan ahead and purchase an audio interface equipped with this.

Monitoring

The reason why I said you should ditch your current speakers and buy a pair of specialist studio monitors is all down to accuracy.  Whilst hi-fi and other consumer audio speakers might sound flattering, studio monitors need to be accurate, in that they need to honestly represent what you are playing through them.  This way you can be sure your recordings still sound good when they are played through a different system. As with all studio gear the sky is the limit on the price of very high quality equipment, however these days you can get an alright pair of monitors for around £100.  The main thing to watch out for is the driver size. Smaller driver sizes, 3” or 5”, will not put out a lot of bass and are best suited to recording acoustic music or the spoken word.  Monitors with larger driver sizes (7” or 8” being the most common) will have a better response at the bottom end of the frequency spectrum and be more suitable for recording dance, rock or other bass heavy genres.  Many manufacturers also produce subwoofers to go along with their ranges of studio monitors, which can be a worthwhile investment when you want to upgrade your monitoring system.

Headphones

Again, for the most part, the headphones you have at the moment will probably not be up to the job of doing home recording. Whilst accuracy again plays a role, here it is also important that sound does not leak out of the headphones whilst you are recording. The type of headphones most useful for recording are called ‘closed back’, referring to the large cups around the drivers which isolate the sound from the headphones from the outside world.

Sequencers

There are many popular options for sequencers in the home studio market, both paid for and free, with many developers of paid for software offering the same software with less features at a much lower price tag.  Often these ‘light’ versions of software come bundled with audio interfaces meaning you don’t need to fork out any more for the software.  For those just starting out, I’d recommend you purchase an audio interface that comes bundled with software – it will certainly be enough to keep you going and you can pay an upgrade fee to get the full software later on.

In this article we’ve looked at how home recording works and the basics you’ll require to make an informed purchasing decision. In Part 2 we’ll look at doing your first home recording, all the way from recording a track to doing a final mix down.

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