I want to record my musical ideas with a computer recording studio but I don’t know where to begin. What gear do I need? How does it work? — Sarah, Omaha, NE
A songwriter’s computer studio can be pretty simple. In addition to a modern computer, you need recording software, an audio interface, a good mic and mic stand, a pop filter, powered monitor speakers, headphones, cables, and some acoustic treatment. Musicians who compose with a keyboard need a MIDI keyboard and an audio interface with MIDI connectors.
The recording software also is called a Digital Audio Workstation.
Related to recording software is music creation software, which comes with samples of musical instruments. You set up loops (repeating drum riffs and musical patterns), play along with them using a MIDI keyboard, and record that MIDI sequence. Examples: Ableton Live, Propellerhead Reason, Sony ACID Pro, and Spectrasonics Stylus RMX.
Here’s one way this system could work. This explanation is very basic.
1. Play music on an acoustic guitar and pick it up with a mic.
2. The mic is plugged into an audio interface, which amplifies the mic signal and converts it into a PCI, USB or FireWire signal.
3. That signal goes into your computer.
4. The recording software records the signal on your computer’s hard drive.
5. The software can play back recorded tracks and record a new track at the same time. So you play the guitar track, listen to it with headphones, and record yourself singing with a mic.
6. The mic signal is recorded on your hard drive.
7. Play back both tracks and mix them with the recording software’s controls, which you can adjust with a mouse. Use the powered monitor speakers while mixing, not headphones.
8. The software also lets you adjust the bass-midrange-treble (equalization) of each track, the panning (left-to-right position), the type of effects (reverb, echo, chorus, etc.), and the amount of effects (aux send levels).
9. Once you are happy with the mix, export (bounce) it to your hard drive in 16-bit/44.1K format. Now you have a stereo wave file of your song.
10. You can burn that wave file on a CD or convert it to an MP3 file with MP3 encoder software.
Some software records MIDI data as well as audio. Here’s the basic procedure:
1. Plug the keyboard’s MIDI OUT into the interface’s MIDI IN.
2. Set the MIDI sequencer’s input to your keyboard. Set the MIDI sequencer’s output to a soft synth. That’s a software synthesizer that comes with the recording software, or is a separate download. Many soft synths can play samples, which are recordings of real instruments.
3. Using the MIDI sequencer software, start recording.
4. Play the keyboard. It generates MIDI messages (signals) that are recorded on your hard drive. Those messages also play the soft synth or samples.
A PCI audio interface costs $100 to $400, a 2-channel USB or FireWire audio interface costs $150 to $500. An alternative to a microphone and audio interface is a USB microphone — the audio interface is built into the mic. Typical recording software costs $0 (freeware) to $500.
Good luck starting your home studio!
Please comment on this blog to ask a question about recording techniques. Any subject is fair game — from miking to mixing, from direct boxes to digital audio. If I can’t answer your question, I’ll point you to someone who can. Sorry, I will not recommend specific equipment.
Want to learn more about recording? Bruce Bartlett has written a textbook used in recording schools titled “Practical Recording Techniques 6th Edition.” Bruce designs and sells microphones at http://www.bartlettaudio.com.