Setting up a basic home recording studio
So you’ve learned a few chords and scales, composed a selection of melodies and have pieced together the basics of your first fully-fledged songs. Be a shame not to get them recorded, wouldn’t it? Fortunately, this is a lot easier than it perhaps seems at first.
In days gone by, recording studios were the sole domain of producers and engineers, who worked their magic on all manner of arcane equipment to get the results they, and you, were after. Now, pretty much anyone with a computer and a few bits of affordable kit can get great results if they’re prepared to invest the time in learning the basics.
Consider the picture above. With just those six items (well, five really, as speakers come in pairs) you can access all manner of different instruments and effects, and begin piecing them together into coherent, high quality audio recordings. Let’s break it down.
1. External hard disc drive.
Perhaps the most important, yet boring, item in any studio is the external hard disc drive. These can be picked up relatively cheaply now, and are your safety net against crashing computers. It’s a sad fact of life – even the most expensive, hifalutin machine will occasionally have its wobbly moments. The law of sod says it will be when you’ve spent three hours crafting the most amazing, ethereal synth line to crown off your signature track. Protect yourself against these kind of unavoidable facepalm moments with one of these. You simply won’t regret it.
2. Monitor speakers
In order to hear the sounds you’re recording, you’ll need a pair of decent quality monitor speakers. If you think you can get away with only using your built-in laptop speakers, or headphones, you need to have a serious word with yourself. If you want to do a proper job, you need the proper tools.
Monitor speakers come in all shapes and sizes, to accommodate all budgets and listening requirements. The basics are the same though. Monitor speakers are different from Hi-Fi or iPod speakers in that they boast a ‘flat frequency response’ to aid mixing. Whereas regular speakers will boost (raise the volume) or attenuate (cut the volume) of certain frequencies to make for a more pleasurable listening experience, monitor speakers aim to keep things as neutral as possible. This ensures when you come to mix your track, it will sound balanced and professional.
Monitors can be passive, meaning they require no external power, or active. Most probably, if you’re using a USB audio interface (more on those soon) you’ll be needing a pair of active speakers. These have built in amplification to boost the signal coming from the audio interface.
The old adage that you get what you pay for is true here. Professional studios will generally run at least two sets of monitors, for accurate referencing, and their cost can easily run into five figures. For the purposes of a home studio, a decent pair of M-Audio or KRK will provide performance and reliability, ensuring your mixes sound great no matter where you listen to them.
This is the brains of the operation, the hub around which everything centres. This blog isn’t the place to get into a PC vs Mac debate; whichever you currently have, or are looking to buy, should however come with enough RAM (4GB and over) and a speedy processor to ensure you can spend more time working and less time looking at status bars.
On the computer, you’ll need a Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) of some kind. These are the programmes into which you will be recording and editing your music, as well as adding effects and mixing, so find one you are comfortable using and that has the full feature set you require.
In the image above, the Macbook Pro is running a copy of Ableton Live 9, known as Live. This programme, while traditionally aimed at electronic musicians and DJs, has found favour with bands and artists on account of its intuitive workflow, relative ease of use and unique ability to construct songs ‘on the fly’.
Make no bones about it – these programmes do have a learning curve, and you should expect plenty of struggles as you get to grips with their various facets. Learn the basics first, and make use of YouTube and the various forums to get yourself up and running. There are countless other musicians in the same boat, and if you come up against an issue which is hampering your progress, write your problem into Google. Guaranteed, someone somewhere will have had the same problem and you’ll be back making music in no time.
As well as a DAW, you can also begin to make use of various ‘plug-ins’, which can either be instruments or effects similar to guitar effect pedals. By using your DAW’s built-in sounds and a selection of plug-ins, you can literally access any sound known to man. Just remember to save your work often, and back up after each session.
4. Audio interface
Unless you’ve bought a dedicated music production computer, the chances are you’ll need a way of physically getting your sounds into your DAW. Step forward the audio interface.
Effectively an external, high quality, dedicated sound card, these take an audio signal from your guitar, microphone or keyboard, and convert it into one which can be captured by your computer.
What you’ll be looking for here is an interface which can record as many ‘inputs’ as your require. If, for example, you need to record a vocal and a guitar, you’ll need two inputs. If you’re multi-miking drums, bass and guitar to record a full-band take, you may need eight or more.
The audio interface also outputs the audio signal to your monitor speakers, and controls the different incoming and outgoing volume levels.
5. MIDI controller
With most DAWs, you’ll encounter different built-in instruments. These are controlled using a language called MIDI, which takes information from an external source and translates it into musical notes or commands.
MIDI keyboards and controllers can tackle all manner of tasks, from basic piano playing through to controlling multiple effect levels. In the image at the top of the post, there is a basic 25 key keyboard, powered via USB. It contains one rotary knob, which can be assigned to control virtually any parameter in a DAW. With this, the user could play a basic piano line, or add a synth bass to a song.
So there you have it. Contained in the list above is everything you need to start recording, mixing and producing your own music at home or in your rehearsal space.
If you have any questions, let us know in the comment box below.
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