This post is the first part of what will ultimately form an e-book available free to download from this blog, forming a Beginners Guide To Home Recording.
Recording music has never been easier. Year by year, the scale of the equipment you need to record a piece of music gets smaller, no matter what genre of music you’re making. It’s now possible to have a compact, portable recording studio that would cost thousands of dollars to assemble in a traditional recording studio, at a fraction of the price, (and it’s a very small fraction). Oh, and congratulations, you’ve probably already made the biggest decision you’ll face on your journey from beginner to becoming someone who records and produces music.
You’re looking at it. You’re reading these words on it. The decision? PC or Mac. There are those people who will tell you that you can only really produce music on a Mac, but I’m not one of them. In fact, I’ve never used anything Apple at all – I graduated from my trusty old Atari ST1024 to recording on a Windows PC and I’ve never felt the need to consider an alternative. You have a computer and you’re used to it. You know how it works and how to read this article on it. And you can make music on it. It doesn’t matter if it’s a PC or it’s a Mac.
Of course, it’s not that simple. You do need to add some software and hardware to produce something that you’ll be proud of. But the good thing is, you don’t have to do it all at once. You can add on the bits for “the next step” when you go along and once you’ve completed your first song and get more confident, you can upgrade what you’ve got. If you want to.
The absolute essentials
What you need to get started is a software recording package and a computer with enough memory and a powerful enough processor for your needs. You probably are going to need an audio interface, but we’ll get to that. And headphones would be good. Good headphones would be great, but, (as you might expect), some are better than others.
So how powerful is “enough”? Well, that depends on what you want to record. If you are recording an acoustic singer-songwriter, the minimum spec for the software you choose may be more than adequate, (but you will need an audio interface). If, on the other hand, you’re going to be producing electronic dance music, the audio interface might be a little further down your shopping list than upgrading your computer. In short, the more complex the music and the more instruments you want to record, the better your computer needs to be.
So you need to pick your software package. For anything other than recording live to the finished stereo track, you need a Digital Audio Workstation, rather than a sound recorder such as Audacity or Goldwave. Digital Audio Workstations, (DAW for short), come in a range of prices, starting at free, (Garage Band for Mac and Studio One Free for Mac/PC), all the way up to the full-fat versions of “professional” programs such as ProTools and Cubase. I’ve put “professional” in quotes as these tend to be the programs used by major artists and studios, but plenty of good music is made using other DAWs.
The more you pay, the more you get, but only you can decide what’s right for you. Some products, (for example, Cubase and Studio One), have more than one version, with the option to upgrade from the entry level product to the full version in two or three steps, adding extra features as you do so, allowing you to learn the package as your skills grow, without having to pay for the full version from the outset. I’ll look at some of the leading DAWs in a future post.
Finally, (for now), the audio interface. You can’t use the audio inputs and outputs on your computer for this, as they simply aren’t designed to work with audio equipment in the way that you will need. The audio interface connects to your computer by USB or Firewire and provides inputs and outputs that allow you to connect microphones, line level sources such as keyboards, guitars, headphones and (powered) speakers. Which interface you choose will depend on what you want to record, or, (more accurately), what you want to record all at once. We’re talking about recording real instruments and people, so if you’re only going to be recording one sound source at a time, (one microphone, one guitar), then the most basic interface will meet your needs. If, on the other hand, you plan on recording a full band live, then you’re going to need an interface with the right number of the right sort of inputs. Just as with DAWs, there are a lot of interfaces available, with varying features, and you have to pick the one that meets your needs and your budget.
A lot of audio interfaces come with a “Lite” version of a DAW and, if you have no particular preference for which DAW, (or can’t decide), I’ll let you in on a secret the manufacturers won’t like – for a beginner, the best DAW is the one you have. All of the DAWs have their own advantages and disadvantages and if someone’s going to give you a free version to try, you have nothing to lose in starting your recording career with it. At best, you will chance on something with the potential to give you everything you want, (or need – there is a difference), whilst at worst, if you find you don’t like it, you’ll know what you don’t like about it and this will help you to decide which one is right for you later on.