In this piece I am going to detail how to record from home with little to no prior experience, with little to no equipment, and with little to no budget. The methods described here are far from the only ones possible, but they are what have worked consistently for me and my band War Honey and the recording of our song “Racehorse”.
I am writing this article primarily from my current perspective of someone quarantining due to Covid-19 (which is why I will at no point suggest a trip to your local Guitar Center), but the information I discuss is still applicable in a broader sense as well. So whether you’re like me and currently trapped to your home or if you’re reading this article in the wonderful future times when we can all again go outside without worries, you should be able to find something of use in this article.
Nowadays it’s possible to record an entire album for free on your smartphone if you wanted, but I’d strongly recommend using a computer if you have one available to you. With a proper computer, you can have the control needed to mix and edit your recording to a degree that can’t quite be matched by even the most sophisticated of smartphone apps, not to mention the fact that you’ll have a much easier time sharing your masterpiece with the world if it’s stored on an actual hard drive (more on that later).
If you are recording on a computer, the most important thing is to pick a production software that you feel comfortable using or learning how to use. Mac computers all come equipped with GarageBand, which is a surprisingly powerful software for something that might have forgotten came pre-installed on your computer. In fact, Fetch The Bolt Cutters by Fiona Apple, the new album that everyone is talking about right now (or rather texting about, due to social distancing), was recorded entirely on Garageband from Apple’s home in California.
For Mac users, my personal preferred software is Logic Pro X, which was exclusively for my own home recordings. Logic Pro X is the software that preceded the less sophisticated GarageBand, and whose core engine was used as the foundation of GarageBand. As a result the design of the two softwares are remarkably similar and it’s an easy jump to Logic Pro X for users already at least somewhat familiar with GarageBand, but Logic Pro X is still a significantly more capable and nuanced program than GarageBand. That being said, the $199.99 price tag and the fact that it is currently unavailable for PC might make it infeasible for many users.
For those with bigger budgets and some computer savvy, the more professionally-oriented softwares Ableton Live 10 and Avid Pro Tools are both available on Mac and Windows. Both softwares are extremely powerful and highly recommended if you’re able to get your hands on them. However Ableton Live 10 will set you back about $520 for the Suite version and about $160 for the Standard version, the latter of which is honestly a little bit lacking, and Avid Pro Tools currently runs at a whopping $599.99, so both softwares can be out of the budget of many a user.
For Windows users not looking to spend on software, T7 DAW is a much beloved recording software that can now be downloaded entirely for free. Although not quite as powerful as the last three softwares mentioned, T7 DAW is entirely capable and user friendly software that’s a great place to start. In addition to Windows, T7 DAW is also available on Mac and even Linux, making it a good alternative for the Mac user whom just isn’t a fan of GarageBand.
Once you’ve picked your software, your next step is to figure out what it is that you actually plan on recording.
If you’re just planning on recording electronic or keyboard-oriented music with no live instruments, then there’s a chance that all you need to record is a MIDI-keyboard. A MIDI-keyboard is a musical keyboard that plugs into the USB port of your computer. You play it like a piano, but on a technological level it works much more like a typing keyboard. MIDI-keyboards send raw note data (called MIDI, hence the name) directly to your computer. MIDI data is super easy to manipulate and has become the standard format for creating electronic music, although it is widely used in other styles as well.
Personally I use an Akai Professional MPK Mini MKII, a trusty little MIDI-keyboard with a fair amount of capabilities that saw me safely through my composition thesis in college. I can’t recommend the Akai Professional MPK Mini MKII enough, but its small twenty-five key range may be limiting to the more adept pianist and not all users may be looking to drop the $119.00 that it costs on Amazon. However the Midiplus 32-Key AKM320 is a solid MIDI-keyboard that will only run you $35 on Amazon Prime.
To those not looking to spend any money on a MIDI-keyboard, many softwares (including both GarageBand and Logic Pro X) have a feature called “musical typing”. Musical typing allows you to use your computer keyboard like a MIDI-keyboard, literally typing out the musical notes you want to play. Musical typing comes free with the softwares and is convenient, but it is not the most efficient way to program your synth sounds, so if your music relies heavily on keys I still recommend getting an actual piano-style MIDI-keyboard.
Although a MIDI-keyboard might be all you need if you’re looking to record music that consists of nothing more than synths, chances are you’re always going to want to get some live instruments or vocals in your recording as well. If that’s your aim, then you’re probably going to want a microphone, and you’re almost definitely going to want an audio interface of some sort.
An audio interface is a device that’s essentially a middle-man between your instrument/microphone and your computer. You plug the interface into the USB port on your computer, then you plug your instrument or microphone into the interface. The interface then processes the signal that your instrument is outputting and translates it into an audio file that your computer can understand.
A common favorite audio interface and my personal recommendation is the Focusrite Scarlett 2i2, which can cost you anywhere between $100 and $300 depending on where you buy it from and how many inputs you opt for. If that’s a bit more than you are looking to spend, The Lexicon Alpha is a perfectly capable interface currently priced at $59 and was once available for about half that price.
Any electric instrument that uses a conventional cable (or with the proper adaptor) can be plugged directly into an audio interface without the need for any sort of microphone or even an amplifier. This process is called going direct-in, and is sometimes referred to as DI. Going direct-in is convenient, easy, and does not require any gear past an electric instrument, an audio interface, and a cable.
However many instruments lose a lot of their tone and vitality when going direct-in, especially electric guitars. Electric basses however tend to sound pretty good when going direct-in to the point that some bassists will choose to record direct-in even when a quality bass amplifier is readily available. The same goes for most acoustic-electric instruments (including acoustic-electric guitars) and electric cellos.
But for most electric instruments, I would not recommend recording them direct-in in order to get the possible tone from them. To get the best recording tone from your electric guitar (or similar electric instrument), I would set a microphone over your favorite amplifier then connect that microphone to your audio interface. This will then record the sound of your amplifier instead of just the raw audio of your instrument. It’s worth mentioning that micing an amplifier will work just as well for recording bass guitar or acoustic-electric guitar as going direct in, and at the end of the day, it really is just about personal preference.
But in order to do all of that, you will need a microphone.
Any modern personal computer will come equipped with a built-in microphone nowadays. While these built-in microphones are functional, their audio quality is exceptionally poor by musical standards, so unless you’re looking to make a recording so lo-fi that it makes Daniel Johnston look like a polished pop star I’d recommend investing in at least one external microphone.
There are lots of different microphones designed for different purposes, so your first step in purchasing a microphone is figuring out what exactly it is that you’d be using it for. A Shure SM58 is the most popular vocal microphone in the world and for good reason. They currently cost $99 from most vendors, with the Shure SM48 being a cheaper but similar option at as little as $39.99.
A Shure SM57-LC is a great choice for recording both amplified electric guitars and basses and acoustic instruments (I promise that Shure is in no way sponsoring this article) and run for around the same rate as the Shure SM58. If you plan on recording both vocals and instruments, I’d recommend getting one vocal mic and one separate mic for your instruments.
Make sure to also get a hold of the appropriate cable for whatever microphone you end up settling on. This will most likely be an XLR cable, but if your audio interface does not have an XLR input then you may want to instead get an XLR to ¼ inch cable. Cables tend to be inexpensive and can usually be purchased for under $20, and sometimes less.
In order to record vocals or acoustic instruments, just mic them and then plug that microphone into your interface, the same way you would record an amplified electric guitar.
Once you have your instruments, software, audio interface, and microphone(s), you should have everything you need to start recording in the comfort of your own home!
NOTE: This piece is part of a broader article on staying musically active during the current climate of social distancing. You can see the other currently published pieces on the topic by browsing through the “Blogs” section of the NYCGS website.
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