Home Recording Set Up
So you want to start recording and you want some advice on what gear to buy? Well let me help you as much as I can with the essentials. If you are struggling with any of the terms then check out the next lesson on Home Recording Jargon Busters which will get you up to speed with the terms used!
If you want to get into recording you will have to buy some stuff. What I will outline here are some essentials and some options. Everything like this is subject to a million opinions, so all I have done here is look at products that I know, spoken to friends that have budget set ups and read some reviews - but there are hundreds of manufacturers making new cool stuff all the time, more often than I can keep this page updated!
Do beware the sales people in 'Pro Audio' stores, I'm sure there and many that know what they're talking about, but at the same time they are there to sell stuff and I've had more than a few try and sell ice to Eskimos... and many students bought stuff on recommendation of the store guy who did not sold them the right stuff. I would recommend researching thoroughly, don't buy in a shop without looking at reviews and consulting Gear Slutz or my forum.
There's going to be lots of cheaper options, but my advice is not to go too cheap, because you'll buy twice. Buy the best you can afford and look after it!
Buying second hand is a great way to get started too - people are always upgrading and buying new stuff, so there are many bargains to be had on ebay if you know what you are looking for!
You will need a computer and most likely you will use the computer you already have regardless of what brand, speed or age it will be fine.
Apple computers have always been the leader of the pack for AV (Audio Visual) use and have the additional bonus of coming with Garage Band software for free, and it's pretty awesome! You can also get Logic Pro which is a seriously amazing bit of software and it's dirt cheap for what you get, really quite incredible.
So if you are buying a new computer with recording in mind, get the highest spec Mac you can afford, otherwise, use what you got.
There is a LOT on the market now, I imagine it would be baffling to a new comer to get the right thing! So first off, unless you are recording drums or want to record a group of people playing at once then you only need one or two inputs. I know it's tempting to think that more is better, but if you are not using them it's a waste of space and money. Seriously. If you are starting off, get something with 2 in and 2 out at 24bit/96kHz. You want "Phantom Power" which will power a nice microphone later, you want a jack input to plug your guitar in (useful even if you have a mic) and you want it simple. Lets chat about a few options:
1. Universal Audio Apollo Twin £579 / $699
I just got one of these to use when I travel as I use the Apollo Quad in my main studio setup. The Twin has a dedicated guitar input, microphone with phantom power input, outputs for speakers and headphones, is super simple to use and also runs UAD Plug-Ins, which are a special effect that uses the processor in the Twin rather than using the computer processing power, and I use these UAD Plug-Ins a lot. If you've got a budget for it, then this is a great bit of kit and I have a bunch of pro friends using it for their home studios, it needs it's own power so not quite as portable as the Apogee below, but it's a whole different beast.
2. Apogee One £299 / $349
Now this thing is clever - and best if you are on a budget. It has a built in microphone that is really good. Like really good, you can see video of Tommy Emmanuel recording with it on their web site and I used it a lot for recording demos, it just sat in my backpack so I could record anywhere I got an idea. It's bus powered (gets the power from the computer) which means you can be properly mobile. It's also got a guitar input too. And the new one plugs into an iPad too so you can use it for Garage Band on that. Incredible! I had the first edition one of these but it was stolen in a break in, it was my touring companion and I think it's great. I only switched to the Apollo for the UAD Plug-Ins, and sometimes I wish I'd bought another Apogee One for the portability.
3. Focusrite Scarlet 2i2 £119 / $149
So I've not owned one of these but it's looks awesome at this price. Really good. It's got the essentials, 2 in 2 out, Phantom Power, it's Bus Powered and has good audio resolution and comes with some Focusrite Plug-Ins too which is cool (though I've not used them). It doesn't have a microphone like the Apogee One but it's cheap enough to leave budget for one...
4. AVID Fast Track Solo (with Pro Tools Express) £109 / $149
This unit from AVID (the makers of Pro Tools software) has some great advantages. It only has one pre-amp, so you can only record one input at a time (but they have a slightly more expensive Duo version) but it ticks all the boxes and includes Pro Tools Express software which makes it great value.
If you want to start recording you will probably need to get a microphone. There are two main types you need to be aware of (there are others to look at later) and they are: Dynamic and Condenser. Dynamic Microphones don't need power but Condenser Microphones usually need Phantom Power (+48v) but you should find that on most decent Audio Interfaces.
It is usually possible to plug your guitar directly into an Audio Interface and use Plug-Ins to get your sound, but most times putting a microphone in front of a real amp will sound better. I only plug in my electric direct when I'm feeling lazy! Plugging in an acoustic guitar direct usually doesn't sound too good, so I'd recommend not doing that, get a mic!
There is a HUGE range of microphones available, but here are a few that I would recommend.
1. Shure SM57 £89 / $99 (Buy at Amazon UK, Amazon US)
This is THE guitar microphone and I still use one nearly every time I record my guitar, so even if you end up getting a more expensive condenser mic you will probably want to get yourself one of these anyway! They're used live too, a very robust microphone and useful on drums too, very versatile.
2. Rode NT-1A £149 / $229 (Buy at Amazon UK, Amazon US)
Rode brand make excellent value microphones and I've had a few over the years and found them to have a great sound for the money. This one is a condenser microphone which is what you want for recording vocals or acoustic guitar. If you're just going to buy one mic then this is probably the one to go for, it'll be ok on electric guitar too (just not quite as good as the SM57). There's a great value pack around that includes a Pop Shield and a cable which makes this a great deal.
3. Neumann TLM-103 £749 / $1099 (Buy at Amazon US)
This is a great microphone, obviously a lot more expensive than the others here, but it sounds great. I have one of these that I use all the time, for vocal demos, acoustic guitar, electric guitar (as well as a SM57). Lots of my friends prefer it to it's big brother the U87, even though it's more than twice the price!!
As well as the microphone you will need the following:
1. Microphone Cable
Get a reasonable quality one and look after it - not for the sound, but because it will last if you look after it.
2. Microphone Stand
Again, no need to go crazy and spend a lot, but getting a good brand will mean it should last forever. I personally use the German brand K&M and everything I've bought from them I still have and is going strong - they are 3x more than a cheap one but all the cheap ones I ever bought broke or got wobbly after a year or two. You can probably get away with one normal high stand with a boom but if you record a lot of electric guitar you might like to get a shorter stand too.
3. Pop Shield
This can be home made by stretching a stocking over a bent coat-hanger if you are on a tight budget, but easier to buy one, they're not very expensive. These help stop the "plosive" when you sing, the T and P sounds that push a lot of air out of your mouth and make recording vocals sound bad. Again I like the K&M brand, but any one will do.
This is totally up to you. You can spend nothing and use your computer speakers if you like, but it won't sound too good. Headphones will sound better and you can spend a little or a lot on these. If you decide to buy speakers, try and get some "Studio Monitors" rather than home stereo type and they sound more real and should sound good on most systems - if using high end home stereo speaks you might make it sound great on them, but your recording won't sound good on other systems.
I personally use Focal speakers and love them but they were not cheap! Genelec is a great brand that many friends use and they do a wide range of budgets, KRK also have a great range (and I love their headphones too!).
Headphones are not just important for listening to your finished product, but also for hearing a click track or backing while you play or sing, because you don't want that sound getting into the microphone when you record. Classic studio headphones are the Beyer DT100's, but they don't sound great. Best to go to a store and try a few and see which ones you like, that feel comfortable and sound good!
The other thing you'll need to buy is the software. There are many options available now, but I'm just going to discuss the ones I know here. For the series of lessons that follow I'll mostly be using Pro Tools because that's what I know best, but Logic has an amazing range of features and I do use both.
This is the commonly found software in pro studios and I've been using it for a long time now. For recording audio it is considered by many to be the best around. It comes with a range of cool Plug-Ins but not as many as Logic. I prefer it because it handles audio really well, it's really intuitive to use and everything seems to be in the logical place and easy to see and use. If you want to mostly record things and edit them, then Pro Tools is probably the way to go. They do an "Express" version too which you'll find bundled with budget audio interfaces which is more than enough to get started with. Pro Tools runs on both Mac and PC.
This is only made for Apple computers as Apple bought the company! The amount of content you get built in is quite incredible, LOADS of Plug-Ins, software synths, loops, sample engines - really quite staggering, but I think that can be part of the problem for people just getting into it. I find the system of editing confusing but for programming drums and loops it's better than Pro Tools. For people making modern music, using a lot of effects, loops and programming then it's the way to go. The albums I make with my band We Came As Strangers is done in Logic because Owen (band member and producer) prefers it.
This is another Apple only thing and is included free with all Apple computers. It's a great introduction to recording and it's real easy to get a track going in no time (as you'll see later in a tutorial) with the built in loops and samples, but it is quite limited... that's it's beauty I guess, no frills to get confused, it's all easy and a fun place to start.
There are many others available too, Ableton Live is very popular with dance music creators, Image Line FL Studio is also very popular - but because they have such different work-flows I'm not going to be able to cover them in this series - I don't have the time to learn them well enough to teach them!
If you play piano or want to program drums, having a USB Midi Keyboard is a really handy thing, and they're not too expensive. There are many different ones available. I use a Novation SL25 and it's fine, it's just a small desktop thing, but if you play piano then you'll want something bigger. Perhaps wait until you know why you might use one!!
So you can see that there is a bit of cash to be spent, and I feel I should warn you... having a studio can be a big money pit because you are likely to want to upgrade stuff all the time. I do and most other studio owners I know are the same, always looking at new gear, new Plug-Ins and new pre-amps... it never ends!!
Hope this lesson helps you make up your mind about what gear to buy!