Recording Part 3 – What to Buy
I’ve gotten a bunch of emails asking me what to buy in order to get started, so I thought I’d try to address the issue. GSI doesn’t carry any of the stuff I’m talking about, so I have no bias there, but I still have a few caveats: I haven’t used a lot of the products I’m talking about, so I can only really explain what does what and how it works; you can spend anywhere from nothing (assuming you already have a computer) to tens of thousands of dollars on this stuff; there are so many brands and models of each thing to choose from that there’s no way I can cover them all. Despite my caveats, this should help you figure out what, if anything, you need to buy.
Also, please feel free to use the comments to tell me what you’re using and what you do and don’t like about it.
What to Buy – USB mic or interface:
Either way you’ll need a DAW (that’s your recording program – see my first article for more on this), and that can be anything from Garage Band to Pro Tools, Logic, Cubase, Nuendo, Ableton Live, Presonus Studio One or a myriad of others. I’ve used Pro Tools for about a dozen years now, so that’s what I’m used to, but I’ve played around with Studio One a little and it seems more intuitive than many other DAWs I’ve seen.
Once that’s taken care of you’ll need a microphone. The cheapest option is to use the computer’s internal mic, but you’re not likely to get very good sound from that. The next cheapest (and simplest) option is to get a USB mic. That’s a microphone with an analog to digital converter built into it that sends a digital signal over a USB cable to your computer without the need for any kind of audio interface. Most mics are not USB, so make sure if you go this route that the mic you choose specifically states that it is a USB mic. There are a lot of companies making USB mics these days, but I would probably get one from Blue, since they know how to make really good microphones.
One of the limitations of a USB mic is that you can only record one at a time, whereas an audio interface can let you record two or more mics at the same time. Generally, the average not-too-expensive interface will have between 2 and four inputs (the amount of inputs will translate to the amount of tracks you can record simultaneously) along with monitor outputs, headphone outputs, volume control and maybe one or two other features. In most cases, you will have two or more mic preamps built into the interface, but not always, so make sure the interface you are considering has the amount of inputs and mic preamps that you think you will need (some interfaces may have four or more inputs but only two mic preamps or even none, because you may have other non-mic inputs you want to use or have your own mic preamps).
I’ll go out on a limb and say that if you’re spending in the $100 to $300 range for your interface, the analog to digital and digital to analog conversion in most audio interfaces will be about the same, which is pretty good these days. The Avid (formerly Digidesign) M-box is one of the most popular interfaces out there, and comes bundled with Pro Tools, which is a powerful DAW. And there are a bunch of versions of it ranging from around $250 to about $1000. I’m partial to Pro Tools, but that’s mainly because I’ve used it for so long and it’s what I know. There are a lot of other really good alternatives made by companies like Presonus, M-Audio, Focusrite and MOTU.
The important thing is to know what features you need:
Compatibility – First thing is to make sure that the interface will work with your DAW. Compatibility in this area is less and less of an issue these days, but being sure will make things easier.
Also, make sure the interface you’re buying works with your computer’s operating system – especially if you have an older computer, and make sure the interface’s digital output matches your computer’s digital inputs (if not this can generally be solved with an adapter, but it can’t hurt to make sure).
I/O (inputs and outputs) – Most of these interfaces will only have two outputs, for your two monitors, along with headphone outputs. Some may have more than one headphone output, which is nice if two people want to record with headphones at the same time.
Inputs are more complicated: Probably the most common configuration is two inputs with two mic preamps, which will allow you to record two mics (or two of something else) simultaneously. The reason some interfaces may have more inputs than mic preamps is that many people will plug in an electric guitar or a keyboard, which don’t need mic preamps, and some people run their mics into an outboard preamp and from there send a line signal to the interface. So the bottom line is that you need to know what you want to record to determine whether you need more than two inputs and if all of those inputs need to have mic pre’s.
How do you power the interface? – Many interfaces these days are bus-powered, which simply means that if it’s plugged in to your computer via USB it’ll get power. Not all interfaces are bus-powered, though, and that may be a consideration if you want to record on the go with your laptop.
Once you’ve made that decision you’re ready to go, so here are some thoughts on other gear:
In theory, every little piece of gear and every cable along the way can and will affect your sound, but some pieces of gear can really make or break your sound and your ability to make a great recording. The way I see it, the most important things in your signal chain are the beginning and the end, i.e. your microphone and your monitors (speakers). In my studio the monitors are the single most expensive piece of gear. The reason for this is that if you can’t hear what your signal really sounds like, you have no way to know if you’re making a good recording, so none of the other gear matters.
Studio monitors are a little different than stereo speakers in that we don’t want them to sound good, but rather we need them to sound transparent. For example, some people like speakers or headphones with a lot of bass. That’s fine for your home, but if you make a recording using those speakers as a reference, then the recording will appear to have more bass than it really does, and that may not sound good on most people’s non-bass-heavy speakers.
This doesn’t mean that you can’t make great recordings without fancy or expensive monitors. But it does mean that if you have $XXX to spend on a setup, I’d personally consider spending 25-50% of that on good monitors. Another option is to use a good pair of headphones, since you can get really good headphones for a lot less than the cost of decent monitors.
You could easily argue, though, that the microphone is as important, if not more so, than the monitors, since this is the element that actually captures the sound. Whatever sound will be converted and processed, edited and mixed, etc… has to first be captured by a capsule and sent along as an electrical signal, and that’s what the mic does.
Microphones – The good news here is that the one mic that every engineer will agree you should have costs under $100. The Shure SM-57 is probably the most popular microphone in the world, and that’s because there’s pretty much nothing it doesn’t sound really good on. That’s not to say that it’s the best at everything, but no matter what you’re recording, you should probably own at least one – even if you have a huge budget for mics.
There are zillions more mics out there, and a lot of them are probably better suited to recording guitar. Some of the all-time classics for recording guitar are the Shure SM-81, the AKG 451, and the Neumann KM84 or KM184 (newer, less beloved version of the KM84). These are somewhat pricey mics, but they’re all great. If I could own only one of these I’d pick the KM84, but it’s the most expensive of the bunch. I really like Rode mics – they’re relatively inexpensive but they sound like expensive mics – I’ve used the NT1 and the NT3, which are both reasonably priced, and they sound great.
Remember that many (most, all?) state laws prohibit returning microphones (under the assumption you’re going to sing into it and spit on it, which is unsanitary), so be sure to ask about that, and if you can’t return the mic then go to a store and listen to it there.
I’ll write an article about mics soon, since they’re a slight obsession of mine.
Monitors – there are a million choices out there, and most of them are active (also called powered), which means they have amplifiers inside of them, versus passive, which don’t, so you have to have an amplifier for them. Of the ‘budget’ monitors out there I love the Mackie HR series, and I imagine that the newer, less expensive MR series are good too. But my advice here is this: Don’t skimp on your monitors. Go to the store and listen to a CD you know by heart on the monitors you’re thinking of buying – listening to something really familiar will tell you if anything sounds exaggerated on the monitors. A lot of less expensive monitors try to sound better by bumping up the bass and the high end (known as a smiley face curve) to make the material sound more exciting, but as we discussed, this won’t help you make better recordings.
(And whatever you do, despite anything you’ve heard, do not buy Yamaha NS-10s as your only pair of monitors – they serve a very specific purpose, which is why they’re talked about so much, but they also will not help you make better recordings).
I’m sure I’ve missed a ton of stuff, but I hope that helps you figure out what, if anything, you need in order to get started recording at home. Feel free to ask about anything I left out or that was unclear.
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