Do you want to make music at home? Do you have music running through your head at 2 am you simply must record? Do you want to to record sound at home but don’t know quite know what you need? Don’t worry – this is my guide to the basics:
Equipment you need:
1 – A computer
20 years ago recording at home meant using a tape machine, something like this….
Check out how the humble 4 track started the bedroom producing revolution here.
Today the average computer opens up a whole world of music making and complex sound design possibilites that even the biggest recording studios could not achive 30 years ago. Your computer does not need to be fancy, it can use Windows or OSX as its operating system, it can be a desktop or laptop, it doesn’t need to be the fastest, latest model; generally – if you can play most games on it, it is fast enough. (so far though Chromebooks don’t run the software you will need, some people do use ipads – but that is another story).
In summary: find yourself a Mac or PC that is at least just a bit faster than what you need to do word processing.
2 – Headphones
You need to be able to listen to what you are making and you need to be able to hear all the frequencies, bass and treble, in the most balanced manner possible. When recording at home this means buying some good quality headphones (you may be thinking about needing speakers, but studio monitor speakers can play nasty tricks on you unless they are set up properly in a dedicated room – and that can mean doing some expensive interior decorating).
When mixing on headphones I would highly recommend buying a correction plugin like ToneBoosters Morphit ( 39 Euro) to flatten and balance out the frequency response.
Models I would suggest buying are:
ATH-M50x from Audio Technica are the model I use and are a modern classic among audio engineers for their low cost and high quality. They are easy to buy and retail in NZ for around $300NZD but good second hand sets can often be found for $200. One note I would make is that they will sound a bit bass heavy without the correction plugin.
HD 280 Pro
Sennheiser’s HD 280 Pro also has a good reputation at the cheaper end of the professional market, many reviewers rate it close in performance to the ATH-M50x. Retailing at $200NZD new they can be a good choice if you are on a tight budget.
The Slate VSX
If you have deep pockets Slate Digital’s VSX are so popular at the high end of the headphone market that new models often sell out worldwide. A set of these will cost you around $1000NZD and will have to be ordered from overseas.
3 – DAW
The DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) is the software you will build your musical life inside and will become the centre of your musical world. You will use it to record, edit, arrange, layer and manipulate your sound and then render it into its final sound files. There so are many good DAW’s to use out there, and they are all essentially so similar that making a choice of which one to buy and spend time learning can be really hard.
My top choices would be:
Pro Tools by Avid ($299USD per year subscription or $34.99USD per month). Has for decades been the “Industry Standard” in post production houses and large scale recording studios. It is powerful and reliable and has held its place in the number one slot by also making the high end hardware to go with the software. Collaborations between commercial studios are always made easy since everyone in this commercial world uses Pro Tools. Apart from the price, many critisims of this software revolve around it being slow to innovate, lagging behind competitors in features. If you have ambitions to work in the commercial post production world, learning to use Pro Tools may get you a job. It is probably also the easiest DAW to learn due to its simple, well designed layout.
Abelton Live (one off price of $109USD / $519USD / $859 USD depending on the features you require) Has become one of the most popular DAW’s with music producers due to its powerful features, instruments, and its emphasis on its ability to be used in live performance.
Reaper ($60USD one off price) Don’t let the low price fool you. Reaper is a full featured DAW that has found favour with many mix and mastering engineers. It is also my favorite DAW to use, being highly customizable and full of features (with powerful MIDI editing and complex effect control) – usually if I can imagine it – Reaper has a feature for it. However, it doesn’t come with its own virtual midi instruments (just heaps of mixing effects) you have to buy those seperately.
Logic Pro X
Logic Pro X ($349.99NZD one off price) If you have a Mac and are looking for the next step up from Garageband (fine for making demos but lacks the features to make it a full DAW) then you might consider Logic. Logic Audio is an old name in the DAW business – bought by Apple in the early 2000’s it is now aimed towards those using the Final Cut Pro workflow or moving on from Garageband. Many composers I know love it.
Other DAW’s are:
FL Studio Producer ($199USD) , Reason ($20USD per month – and comes with some fantastic virtual instruments). Cakewalk Sonar ($99USD or $119USD depending on features), Digital Performer ($195USD), Nuendo ($1,649USD – this DAW is aimed at the video / film post production world), Harrison Mixbus ($149NZD – A DAW that aims to reproduce the workflow of a analouge mixing desk), Adobe Audition (A$31.53 per month or comes with Adobe Cloud) is a pretty good DAW with a fantastic waveform editor but no MIDI.
4 – Microphones:
Choosing a microphone is a bit like choosing a lens for your camera, one will give you a great wide shot, another will give you that perfect closeup. Some are designed to give you an artistic softness around the edges, others are just fuzzy and blurry – perhaps because they are made of cheap plastic instead of glass.
For your first microphone you are looking for that great all rounder, the microphone that will record all the kinds of audio you want to record at a price you can afford.
The great thing about a USB mic is that you don’t need to buy a Audio Interface (see the next section below) to connect it to your computer. Just buy the mic, plug it into your computer, and you are away laughing!
There is a catch though: To fit the electronics of a microphone and the analouge to digital converter into a small microphone sized space (and make that affordable) the manufacturers are going to make shortcuts somewhere, so generally, USB mics don’t sound quite as nice as the traditional microphones that are designed to only do one thing (capture sound vibrations and turn them into voltage).
Blue yeti ($349) has the reputation as being the best of the bunch when it comes to usb microphones, with a clear sound and many useful options and features for the beginning music producer. Its a great mic for those who want to explore what a mic can do without buying any extra gear.
Shure MV-5 ($199) doesn’t have as many features as the Yeti but is still a great choice in the USB mic Catergory.
Dynamics work by moving a coil of wire past a magnet, typically they are good at picking up close sounds and good at rejecting distant ones – thats why they make such good stage microphones. They also can be great mics for recording really loud sounds (like drums). You will need an interface to connect these mics to your computer.
Shure SM58 ($209) is the worlds most popular live vocal microphone found on stages everywhere, from your local church to the biggest music festivals. It is robust, reliable, and delivers a clear solid sound with a frequency range that matches most male singers. In the recording world some singers have perferred its sound to the usual more expensive studio mics. The SM58 is pretty easy to find second hand at a good price – but watch out for the occassional chinese fake – they don’t sound so good.
Shure SM57 ($209) is actually the same microphone as the SM58 with changes made to the front grill to match the fequency response to that of most female singers. It is also great on snare drums, trumpets and electric guitars – for this reason you will sometimes find it described as an “instrument mic”.
Shure SM7b ($874) is kind of like a supersized SM58 that can capture better detail. It is designed for radio, to get that up front announcer sound and for this reason has found its way into the vocals of many Hip Hop records. You got a clear message to deliver? This mic will deliver it. It is also a favorite in the podcasting world and there are singers in other genres of music who love it too. The earlier version of this mic is also famous for the vocal work on Michael Jackson’s “Thriller”. However – because its output is a bit lower than many other mics on this list you will need a good quality Pre-Amp (either built into your interface or plugged in externally) or a mic booster (either the industry standard Cloudlifter or cheap KlarkTeknik) to drive it.
The condenser mic works by incoming sound vibrations varying the distance between two metal plates charged with 48volts (this is really the subject of another blog). Condensers can be designed to record distant sounds or designed to record sound in a balanced way across a wide frequency range.
Audio-Technica AT2020 ($189) is an entry level microphone that exhibits the typical qualities people love about a condenser mic at a low price. Its a good mic but will produce more hiss and noise than the more expensive models – so its not that great for recording quiet sounds.
Slate Digital ML-2 ($293AUD) this could be the perfect first microphone as it is so versatile. The ML-2 is designed as the instrument mic companion to the more expensive ML-1 vocal mic. When connected through special software it can pretty successsfully emulate a whole pile of other microphones, especially dynamic mics. This could be a great way to explore what different mics will do for you and give you different qualities for recording vocals and instruments. If you buy one of these you will also need an ilok usb dongle ($100) to run the software. The other hassle is finding one in stock in NZ, if you can’t find one at STL Audio you will have to try and source one from overseas.
Warm Audio WA-47jr ($500) Is an attempt to recreate the sound of the vintage version of the famous U47 microphone at a fraction of the cost using cheaper materials.
AKG C214 ($899) is a wonderful workhorse of a condenser. Its a good solid well built microphone with no fancy frills. Its not attempting to be anything else except for a clean large diaphram (great for capturing detail) cardioid condenser mic that you can use on everything. Its the kind of mic that will just get the job done. Read a review on it here.
Warm Audio WA-14 ($814) is based on the AKG C214’s more expensive sister, the C414. The C414 is a great all rounder of a mic and this interpretation attempts to recreate these qualities while making changes to the electronics to give it a slightly warmer sound. Read a review here.
Telefunken U47 ($16,599.00) is the world most coveted vocal microphone. Its sound can be heard on “A list” pop recordings everywhere, on singers from Taylor Swift to Nick Cave. If you have a well trained singing voice and want to hear every single detail, this is the microphone you are looking for. And, while it is very expensive, it might not be quite as out of reach as you might think as it is sometimes possible to hire one for that very special recording.
Taylor Swift rockn’ the U47
Ribbons are the other main kind of mic at work in many studios. I wouldn’t recommend any of these to begin with. They are delicate, require a mic booster or additional pre amp and have some strange requency responses. They are fun to use if you have a particular sound in mind (kind of like using an old Hasselbad or Bolex 16mm camera in the visual film world) but are generally not all that versatile.
you will need at least one XLR mic cable, a mic stand, and a pop filter is also a cheap and useful purchase.
5 – Audio Interface
If you want to use any of the traditional kinds of microphones (the non USB kind) you will need some way to plug it into your computer. A interface is a box with mic inputs, built in pre amps, volume controls, analouge to digital converters (to turn your mic signals into digital code and send it via usb to the computer) and digital to analouge converters to send your audio back from your DAW to to your headphones or speakers.
Cheaper interfaces typically cut corners on the pre amp and converter circuits so tend to sound hissy when turned up. A more expensive box should sound cleaner and more detailed.
My top choices:
The Focusrite Scarlett
The focusrite Scarlett is possibly the worlds most popular beginners interface. Solid quality at a low price make it an obvious first choice. They are easy to buy (check out the Rockshop as well as Rubber Monkey) and its possible to find good examples second hand at a decent price as people upgrade to more expensive boxes.
The SSL 2 & 2+
SSL are the manufacturers of some very famous mixing desks. In 2020 they downsized some of their excellent low noise circuitry into these little boxes. The main difference between these models is that the 2+ model comes with more outputs (including MIDI). Both units also come bundled with software – including Abelton lite.
6 – Plugins:
A plugin is an extra bit of software that fits into your DAW and allows you to do something your DAW can’t already do.
Plugins could be instruments, virtual instruments, that make sounds – things like drum machines, guitars, pianos, synths, etc…. (your DAW will need MIDI to work with virtual instruments).
Or plugins could be effects – delays, reverbs, compressors, eq’s, etc…….
Once you have got used to the plugin effects and instruments that have come with your DAW (and these will be perfectly excellent to use for the bulk of what you make). You might want to get into expanding your sound by collecting these little pieces of software made by the very many other software manufacturers out there in the world.
There are heaps of free plugins out there to collect – just about every manufacturer puts out free versions to get you hooked.
MJUCjr my choice as the best beginners compressor plugin. Download it free here.
Could this be the best free beginners EQ? Download it here.
The best free virtual instrument to begin your collection? Download it here.
Valhalla – makers of some of the industry’s favorite reverbs – have a free Delay / Reverb here.