Music production has become far more accessible to home users over recent years and more musicians are recoding their bands from home on a modest budget. But just spending some money on a PC and a piece of software alone will not deliver good results so where should you start?
In this article I aim to give some pointers on how to get started and what you should be spending your money on before you hit the record button.
Where should I set up?
This is usually not an option to many people, in some cases a corner of the lounge or a spare box room are the only options to set up both of which require slightly different approaches to how you should spend your money so knowing were you are planning to set up before you spend the money is key.
If you live in the middle of nowhere and noise isn’t so much of an issue then you have a good starting point. On the other hand – if you live on a main road or have lots of surrounding ambient noise then it’s more important to spend extra bucks on sound treating your studio area. Some simple devices like the SE Reflection Filter which can be found at seelectronics.com can help minimise reflection from around the mic, I will speak about this in more detail shortly.
Recording Equipment, what do I need?
Well this depends on what you are wanting to do…. But in essence a good starting point would be this:
- Good quality studio condenser microphone
- Good pair of active studio monitors (like Mackie 624 or Genelec equivalent)
- Recording Software
- PC/MAC with plenty of processing power and memory
- External Sound interface (IO) with built in XLR mic input (M-Audio/Digidesign/MOTU)
- Good quality cables to go between each device (Balanced not Un-balanced)
- Acoustic Treatment for the chosen area
Sound Treatment, how important is it?
Sound treatment is a way of controlling or minimising ambient noise and noise reflection which can bounce off certain surfaces in the recording environment. Hard floors, white walls, glass mirrors and windows all contribute to unwanted reflection, and isolating reflection and noise from your microphone is the first key to getting a good sound in your recording.
It’s worth noting that even though you may not hear certain noises from outside with the human ear, most studio microphones will be far more sensitive and background noise will start to be a problem as you get further into your recording project so be sure to take note of even the most unobtrusive sounds, particularly the lower frequencies as these are harder to eliminate.
In my home studio – I had a studio loft conversion which had plenty of sound proofing and treatment from the outside world plus the house was set back from the road quite a distance, however – every 45 mins or so a bus would drive past the house which to my ear was a very low rumble and barely audible in the studio area, however on the recordings whether it be guitars or vocals the low rumble of the bus could be heard in the playback very clearly….
To fix this problem you would think that you would need to take out the low frequencies that were affected’ however, the problem with that fix is that you loose much of the warmth existed on the initial sound – hence limits your vocal sound and will make it sound more tinny. With guitars this isn’t so much of a big deal on larger projects where they are in the background and tend to be mixed with a brighter sound but with any ip front vocal tracks this is important as they need a very clean (also known as dry) sound with no background/ambient noise or room reflection. In most cases the ‘dryer’ the recording the better as you can add subtle room simulation (known as reverb) afterwards.
Very low frequencies below 100 herz such as from buses and lorries are near impossible to eliminate as you can only tame them by isolating the area around the microphone… sometimes installing another glaze of glass in front of your existing window pane can help minimise the sound getting into your recordings.
As well as placing some acoustic foam tiles on your walls in certain places to reduce the reflection, you could purchase a couple of office partitions/screens which are a mobile solution that you can use then put away at the end of your recording session. These can be picked up very cheaply second hand on Ebay and work very well when placed around the recording space.
If you want a real polish sound to your lead vocal, especially if you are singing your own material, I would highly recommend spending some money on a days studio session with an engineer as it’s far easier for them to hear how your voice should sound on a recording. They will also have far better mics and equipment and the results will blow away anything you can achieve at home.
Most top end studios such as ‘The Chairworks’ in Castleford, West Yorkshire will cost you around £350 for the day but you get the benefit of experience, top end recording equipment and purpose built ‘Live’ rooms to record in, so don’t rule out taking your home project into the Pro-Studio for certain things, these studio’s will always be happy to work with you and know how to make you feel relaxed, they will advise you on how to migrate your project over from home into their studio and can be done very simply these days.
This is a minefield and I would recommend you visit ‘soundonsound.com’ to get to grips with the current models and see what is the best mic that suits your budget.
You will need what is known as a ‘Large Diaphragm Studio Condenser Microphone’ these come in various guises and prices start around £100 for a very basic mic and up up to £10K and beyond for a knockout sounding mic!
Some microphones may suit voice better than instrument, whereas others are the opposite and others again are designed to be across the board. So if you are planning to use it on acoustic guitar and also some vocals you may prefer to get a single mic that covers all bases, the downside to that though is it can tend to sound a bit lifeless on everything and won’t give outstanding results on any one type of application. But you may find some clever tweaking in mixing that will help put some life back into the sound.
If you are looking around the lower end of the market; between £100 and £400 then SE electronics are a good place to start, as they have a very good reputation in home recording and are good all round mics. ‘RODE’ also have a number of good sounding mics, the NT2 is one of my favourites for recording acoustic guitars and the vocal sound isn’t too bad either… they are a very bright sounding mic.
I have heard that the AKG 414 condenser mic which is used alot in professional studio’s and live broadcast is an excellent mic for small studios, although you can expect to pay between £400-£500 for one of those so it’s worth spending some time researching. Most high end mics like the AKG 414 hold their value very well, so if you find you want to upgrade to something else later on you can usually get back what you paid for it if you buy wisely.
TIP: Other high end mics are Neumann U8, Bock Audio ELUX251 (which I have used and loved it)
Studio Monitors (Speakers)
If you ask any professional engineer – what is the most important part of their set-up? they will say their studio monitors (speakers).
Your mixes are only as good as the sound you are used to hearing from your monitors, so for any engineer like myself, to have a great pair of studio monitors means you can achieve a good sound much quicker. If all you listen to is a pair of car speakers then you won’t get the picture of the sound and your ears will mix to that sound.
There is a phenomenon known as ‘mixing fatigue’ and for many professionals that mix for days and weeks at a time, just a few hours of mixing can leave you disorientated and unable to hear if the mix sounds any good or not… so having a good pair of studio monitors helps minimise that aspect as well as give you confidence to know that if your mix sounds good in those monitors, the likelihood is it will sound good.
For me personally in the home setting it’s down to two brands, I’ve owned a pair of Genelec Monitors for a number of years and highly recommend them, I’ve also used the Mackie 624s and 824s and these are also great monitors…. There are other brands on the market but these are recommended by professionals everywhere and the Mackie 624s can be picked up second hand for around £350.
What Recording software should I get?
There are two avenues to go down at this point:
The purely audio recording software package which is designed with that in mind only
The production/Midi and Audio based system which gives you to tools to create your music without the need of a live band.
- Ableton Live
- FL Studio
Are there any free recording options?
Yes there are other free recording options if you are prepared to move onto a Linux OS Platform (Ubuntu or Mint) on a PC instead of Windows or Mac OSX. Then there are a number of free options for music production within their Software download centre which is built into the operating system. Using a Linux operating system means you get a very secure and stable running operating system to work on.
If you are looking for a free basic recording package to work on Windows, Mac or Linux then I suggest you try audacity.sourceforge.net.
This is ideal if you simply need to record in audio and have some built in options for audio editing, I have used this for live recordings and got some excellent results. This does have midi capability but doesn’t have any usable software synths for doing music production like Logic and Cubase.
Computer power – what is the best machine to get?
Well, if you speak to many professional engineers they prefer a MAC based system for various reasons, however if you have never used a mac before and work with windows you still have plenty of options out there. I personally use a mac but have used PC based systems in the past and in this specific application I prefer the Mac to do a more reliable job. However the outlay for a mac is bigger and there are many arguments for and against both the PC and MAC camps, but I can only draw on my experience and the experience of other professionals I’ve worked with.
First of all you should check what the requirements are for your software before you buy a machine as choosing the right software is more important than choosing the software to work on the machine you just bought that may not be up to the job.
As far as Macs are concerned anything with an Intel based processor above a 2GHZ and with at least 2GB of memory will work well, the popular home based models are iMacs and PowerMacs, some people use a Powerbook which is the Mac laptop equivalent which can be handy if you need a portable solution to take around with you.
As for PCs you need to be looking at least a Dual Core Intel based system with a minimum of 4GB memory.. the reason you need more memory on a windows system is that some of the memory is used to run the system resources and can interfere with your recording software which is something you need to avoid. Windows can be more troublesome in the day to day running but will still give the same results as the MAC if set up correctly.
External Sound Interface, do I really need one?
Yes, the sound interface or IO as it’s known in the industry is a very important part of the chain. Not only does it provide a way of connecting your microphone to your software but depending on how good the interface is depends on the quality of the reproduction.
There are many complicated factors with IOs, far too many to mention in this article.
But here are some key things to look for in an IO:
- Bit conversion: at least 24 bit
- Phantom Power: 48v for powering the Studio Mic
- Simultaneous Ins and Outs: at least 2
- Sample rate: at least 44.1Khz
Sample Rate: Most IOs have a switchable sample rate ranging from 44.1khz up to 96khz Most people stick to 44.1 which is the rate a standard CD uses when it’s played in a CD player. Video and DVD’s use a sample rate of 48khz so for any video work I do I record at 48khz, but don’t allow this to confuse you, for most home music studios 44.1 will suffice and you can convert afterwards to a different sample rate if needed. But it is very rare in a home studio setting so you would never need bother with it.
Bit conversion: Is the amount of data it collects in a set amount of time… Standard CDs work to 16bit but most studios record at 24 bit which tends to give better results even when downgraded to 16bit onto CD. This is something that will be set in your software too and will be something you will need to investigate and have a little understanding about.
Phantom power: Is simply a way that the microphone can be powered via the sound card… many studio mics work on a phantom power only feed supplied by the IO, so be sure that your IO has this function on the microphone inputs.
Simultaneous Ins and Outs: These are how many individual microphones or sources you can record at once. Simply put, a normal CD has 2 channels known as Stereo Left and Right, however in a recording environment you may find you want at least 2, most studios have far more and can record anything around 48 channels of simulteaneous audio at the same time. So if you want to record a drum kit for example – you would require around 7 microphones on the drum kit and then you would need to have 7 inputs available on your sound card to allow that.
If all you are planning to do is record your own voice and a guitar through your sound card then 2 inputs channels would be all that is needed.
Good Quality cabling
So you have bought all this nice gear and you string it together with cheap mic cable…. My beef with cables is not so much the cable itself but the quality of the connectors on the end which can ‘oxidise’ within a few weeks of use and create drop out and noise. I’m not a great believer in buying expensive cabling because in my experience it doesn’t make any difference but do buy some reasonable cable with Neutrik connectors on the end as these will give you years of good service.
All in all – planning is the key to production success and knowing what you want to get out of your gear is essential. If you are fortunate enough to be able to demo some software and equipment at your nearest store then it sure is worth it. But be equipped with some good information before you go.
About MusicView Services: My name is James Oliver and I have been working in music and video production over 10 years and have been involved in many 100s of recording projects either in my own home studio or elsewhere in other studios.
Music and hearing protection: For performing artists or musicians, musician hearing protection is a priority. A highly tuned sense of hearing is quite possibly one of the most important keys to success. Unfortunately, the very sounds that provide the basis for a career, and personal enjoyment, have the potential to cause permanent damage to your delicate hearing structures.