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Making great recordings on a budget

Getting Started
Selecting a computer
Recording software
Microphones
Audio Interfaces
Self-contained Digital Audio Workstations
Resources


      With today's technology, you can make great recordings for very little expense. All you need is your instrument, one or two good inexpensive microphones, a computer, multitrack recording software (free versions are available), a place to play, your chops, and of course, a great song!

Getting Started. You will need:

      1) A computer with as much memory, storage and speed as you can afford. Sound files,usually in the form of files with the extension .wav are large and require ample storage. A four-piece band with four instruments, four vocals recording a three minute song with eight tracks can easily consume half a gig of storage. Luckily, most modern computers with 80 or more gigabytes should provide enough space to record an album.

Rain Recording
Livebook
      Recording audio and transforming it into digitally stored information also requires a fast computer. This means not only processor speed, but overall speed resulting from well-matched components. The fastest microprocessor in the world would be useless if matched with other computer components that cause signal bottlenecks along the way. Often times a computer with a slower processor will out-perform one with a faster rating. This means that a more expensive computer may actually be slower than a lower-priced computer with well-matched components. There are several companies that specialize in building high-speed computers with matched components designed especially to record music. I have used Rain Recording, a very professional and customer-friendly company in Massachessetts. I've used my Livebook laptop for three years now, recording everything from my own personal guitar tracks to two full CDs of live concerts sponsored by the Seattle City Hall, featuring everything from jazz ensembles, rock groups, classical piano, to rap . The computer has worked without fail.

      With today's recording software and hardware, it matters little whether you have a Mac or a PC. There are excellent choices for peripherals for both platforms. Many manufacturers, in fact, produce for both, although more often than not, performance and features favor the platform that the original product was develped on. One consideration is whether you plan ultimately to use Pro Tools, a software and hardware suite that is used by many professional studios and producers. On the other hand, many professional studios also choose from the variety of other software/hardware choices (e.g., Sonar, Cubase, Logic (for Mac)).

      2) Recording software.

Sonar 7 screen shot

      Recording software allows you to make multi-track recordings, edit them, mix them down into final digital audio stereo or mono files for listening, and master them for final publication (for example, on CD or on the web). Most recording software allows you ample ability to mix and master your recordings. This includes volume adjustments, equalization (adjustment of bass, mids, and treble), splicing of parts and tracks, and the addition of effects such as reverb, compression, autotune, and others. The edits are performed using your computer's mouse through virtual representations of mixing boards or effects units on your computer's screen. These representations offer LED level meters, oscilloscope type graphs, and audio wave meters that operate in real time as you edit.

      There are many software options available in a broad range of prices, from the free, yet powerful

Pro Tools
Audacity, to the industry standard Pro Tools. Other great options include Sonar, Cubase, Logic (Mac), and others. BerkleeMusic Online recommends Audacity to its online students who don't have or can't afford to purchase a commercially available option, to record their performances and compositions to meet their assignment requirements. Berklee also offers courses on Pro Tools, Sonar and Cubase.

      I have recorded and mixed two years worth of live music by various artists for publications on two CDs for the City of Seattle using both Sonar and Cubase. The mixes were later mastered using Pro Tools, with excellent results.

      Most of these products perform the same editing, mixing and mastering functions very well. The differences lie mainly in the learning curve it takes to master each one, as well as the power and flexibility each one offers. Essentially, though, they all do the same thing: allow you to make as good recordings as your skills and talents allow. It's just a matter of which one(s) you are most familiar with and are able to work with best in a crunch (such as in a live recording situation).

      3) One or two good mics. Good mics are essential for a good recording, as your sound will only be as good as the original audio that you capture. You can accomplish much with equalization and compression effects, but these will only go so far if you have a mediocre recording to begin with.

Shure SM 58
Fortunately, you do not need to spend a fortune to purchase professional quality mics. Two of the industry standards are the Shure SM58 vocal mic and the Shure SM57 intrument/vocal mic, two workhorses of the industry. Each one sells for about $100 each, are tough as nails, and I have not met a single recording professional who does not have a handful of these in their cases, along with whatever expensive boutique mics they use in special situations. These mics have been used to record everything from drums to guitar amps, to grand pianos, and it is common to hear an engineer comment on a great recording by saying that he simply tossed an SM57 in front and, "voila." Of course the recording quality has a lot to do with the engineer's skill in mic placement, but each of these mics' ability to perform is broad and consistent. Two qualities that are essential in getting great recordings.

      3) Optional: A recording interface unit. At a basic level, you can record your music by simply plugging your mic into the mic input of your computer. This may require you to puchase a 1/8" phone plug adapter to plug your mic cord into the computer. If you are using a professional mic such as the SM57, you will need a cord with an female xlr connector at one end to plug into the mic,and a 1/4" phone plug at the other end to plug into the adapter.

     

Presonus Firestudio

For high quality recordings, however, you will want a good USB or firewire recording interface. The internal mic input that comes with computers is not designed for high quality recordings. A good interface, however, allows you to capture excellent recordings using well-designed circuitry and mic preamps.

      There are many options available for interfaces, from single input models that will allow you to record overdubs, to eight input rack-mounted units that can be daisy-chained together to allow you to record 24 simultaneous tracks at once! Some interfaces also serve as control surfaces, offering you actual physical mixing boards with volume faders and level knobs that you can operate without the use of a mouse.

      Optional: Self-contained recording units. An alternative to using a computer based recording system is the self-contained digital audio workstation. These self-contained units are computer based machines, usually containing a mixing board with faders,level knobs, meters, and inputs for mic and line connections. With these units, you would simply need to plug a mic into one of the

Zoom Stereo Recorder
multiple inputs on the unit. The units' controls are a mix of a standard tape recorder controls with play and record buttons, as well as the mixing console. There are even self-contained hand-held recording units that allow you to make stereo recordings from internally mounted microphones or by plugging intruments or mics. The units also can act as an interface by plugging the mic into the unit and plugging the unit into your computer via USB or firewire.

      Making the recording. Now that you have the necessary equipment, recording your music is a matter of learning to use the hardware and software in conjunction with your musical performance. A full treatment of recording, mixing and mastering techniques is beyond the scope of this article, as each these subjects can and do fill books. Suffice it to

Art of Mixing
by David Gibson
say that good recording techniques comes both from technical knowledge as well as experience, and one of the quickest ways of learning what works and what does not work as well is to simply try it. There are standards and conventions, of course, that have evolved over the 50 or more years of the recording industry and much can be gained by consulting written resources or by taking classes. On the other hand, audio recording, like the music that you play, or like other disciplines such as painting or sculpture, is an art, measured subjectively by most listeners, and many great recordings have been made by discarding the conventions. Of course, many more bad recordings have resulted as well, which is why it is important to learn and do as much as you can. There are excellent resources available. Some of these are (in no particular order):

Mastering Audio - the Art and the Science, by Bob Katz
The Mixing Engineer's Handbook, by Bobby Owsinski
The Art of Mixing, by David Gibson
The Musician's Home Recording Handbook, by Ted Greenwald
Making the Ultimate Demo, Edited by Michael Molenda
The Songwriting Sourcebook -How to Turn Chords Into Great Songs, by Rikky Rooksby


Carlton Seu works in Seattle, Washington. He has recorded and mixed both studio and live recordings including two CDs in the Seattle Presents series for the City of Seattle Office of Arts and Culture.

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