Thursday, 29 July 2010

Guide to home recording studio: Your need

So, you've picked up your first guitar, learnt few cool tricks, and wrote awesome song that will change the history of rock and metal forever. Only one thing left before playing in Wembley Arena - Recording the song.

These days you hear so many songs that are produced in "Home studio", but what the hell does that mean? To be honest with you, it could literally be anything. It could be a cupboard with a laptop mic, it could be a bed room with fancy reference monitors and a mini mixer, or literally a acoustically treated studio with top-end equipments that just happens to be at home.

For this post I will try to focus on setting up a recording environment that will be good enough to produce a record for releasing - By this I mean that the end product will be close enough to big budget recording to most listeners' ears that quality of listening will not be disturbed by its recording quality.

You will (Given that you are dealing with experienced producer) get better quality recording with better equipments. You can't expect to achieve exactly the same result as $1000000 studio by using $100 recording equipment. However you CAN get close enough to them with much smaller budget if you know the trick.

Because we are trying to achieve good enough recording for releasing CDs, the budget for the setup shown here isn't cheap. But don't be put off by it, by choosing right things to buy first, you can slowly expand and upgrade your setup when you got some cash.

So here are things you need, in order (Please note that this is completely subjective opinion of mine!):

1. Computer.
If you don't have one, beg your mother to buy one saying that you will need it for your coursework in few years anyways.
Choice of computers are extremely personal so I will just give guidelines from my personal experience.

- If you are still in education for foreseeable future then get a PC
- If you want flexible computer that can do all things with wide option, get a PC
- If you know that you will only want best performance on creative things (arts, music), and don't mind having very small selection of software available to you, get a Mac
- If you think Mac is cool and it's worth the inconvenience it comes with it. Get a Mac.

I have a Mac. And I probably use about 3 programs regularly: Logic, Safari and Skype.

2. Recording program
You are ready to make a recording. QuickTime can record audio or video. Press "Record" button and start recording music. Widows comes with audio recorder software too.
This is the cheapest, simplest option to recording. But of course it's not particularly flexible. You have to play everything at once, and you can only do very basic editing.

You want a bit more than that!
So, here is where your choice comes in.

a. I have no money to spend on recording program
Mac comes with GarageBand, but PC doesn't normally come with DAW(Digital Audio Workstation). But there is a freeware called Audacity. And of course, you can torrent programs if you really want, but I don't recommend it because they hardly ever work properly, and more importantly, it's a crime - thousands of dads (and moms) are working for these programs, and his families are supported by him. To steal the software means stealing money from the company, meaning that employees will suffer from lack of income, meaning that their family will suffer.

b. I have very little money, but want a bit more than above
There is a program called Reaper, which offers personal licence for $60. It's pretty awesome program for money!
For Mac users, Logic Express isn't too bad either!

c. I have fair amount of money
Number of choices explodes here, and each programs have its own advantages and disadvantages. All of them are good enough to do what you want for sure. You just need to learn how to use it. To name few popular ones - Cubase, Logic, Sonar, Record(Reason)...There are so many! They roughly cost $500.

I use Logic Pro, which I don't see any problem with doing what I need to do.

d. I have plenty of money
Then you can go for Protool or Nuendo. Protool is "The industry standard" software. However you can only use Protool hardwares, and also you will have to pay extra money for buying effects designed for Protool. I have no idea about Nuendo, but I assume it's worth the money : P

Now that you have these program, spending little time studying how to use them should get you to be able to do multi-track recording!

3. Microphones
You can use built-in microphones on your computer, but they sound terrible. So let's look at microphones.
Most computers have "mic in" socket that you can connect microphones with - You plug a new microphone into these and you should be able to use them.

a. I have no money to spend on microphone
Tough shit. Get a job or work with built-in microphones

b. I have very little money, but want a bit more than above
There are microphones you can buy in electrical shops (e.g. Radio Shack, Maplin). They at least look like a microphone. If you feel you can perform better by holding a microphone, by all means buy them, but they won't get you the best results. You can pick them up for $25-$100

c. I have fair amount of money
Fortunately, decent mics aren't all that expensive. For dynamic mics, Shure SM58 (Standard microphone for most live shows - Even for professional gigs) is around $100. Lots of people who prefer singing with holding mic would actually use these to record in the studio too. SM58 also is ok for recording instruments, although normally people prefer SM57 for instrument as you can get microphone capsule much closer than SM58. So if you mostly record instruments, and occasionally record vocal, SM57 would be good, if you record vocal mostly, and occasionally record instruments, SM58 might be better choice.
For condenser mics, Rode does decent ones cheap. NT-1A is often recommended as beginner's condenser mic and they cost around $200.

I use SM57 for recording the guitar.

What are difference between dynamic mics and Condenser mics? To keep it extremely simple, dynamic mics can only pick up sound from only one direction, and they aren't great with picking up high frequencies. Condenser mics are more sensitive, and they can pick up more high frequencies, but it picks up so much small noise that if you are surrounded with unwanted noise(e.g. on live stage) it's not good idea to use them. Condenser mics also need powered.

Because of this, condenser mics are often seen recording vocals in studio, and dynamic mics are seen on stages or recording percussions where low-mid frequencies have more important function than high frequencies.

d. I have plenty of money
Price for microphone for high end mic are a bit like buying high end guitar. Spend as much as you want, but most mics above $800 should be good enough if you know how to record!

For vocal, I used to use few mics including S.E.Electronic Gemini but now I just use vintage Shure SM-7 I picked up on Ebay. New SM-7 Beta costs around $350.

4. Interface
So you bought good microphone, connected to computer and recorded your music. But...It sounds rather average...How come?
This is because built-in AD/DA(Analogue to Digtal/ Digital to Analogue) converter in your computer is rather crappy.

What the hell is AD/DA converter? As you know, sound is an analogue wave. But computer doesn't understand concept of analogue signal. Computer only understand binary (machine language) consisting of 0 and 1. So this converter translates analogue sound wave to binary, and binary to analogue wave. But because the translation isn't done very well, it sounds crappy.

Imagine American guy and Japanese guy talking with translator who can speak Japanese and English. Both American and Japanese guy has to talk to the translator and trust him to translate their conversation correct. If translator is crappy, the conversation may still be possible, but quality of the conversation would significantly reduce compare to having a translator who is good at his job. It's the same thing.

a. I have no money to spend on interface
I guess you have to do with built-in mic in...

b. I have very little money, but want a bit more than above
Unfortunately there aren't anything I feel I can recommend for less than $200. ..

c. I have fair amount of money
Important thing you have to think about buying the interface is number of inputs you need. If two American people are talking to two Japanese guys, you need two translators, not one, at a time. But if one American can wait until other American guy finishes talking, then you only need one translator.
The same way, if you only record one input at once, there is no need to spend money on interface that can record 8 inputs at the same time.
If you record drums, you normally need at least 8(Over heads, Bass Drum, Snare, 3 Toms, hi-hat), If you record guitar two inputs would be useful sometimes (DI & Mic). There is no point paying for 8 inputs when you use only 2 at most, and it is wiser to pay for quality of input, rather than quantity. But if you record drums, you need at least 8 inputs.

For me, there was no point paying for more than couple of inputs, so I went for Apogee Duet, two input interface - It costed me around $500. But if you went for 8 inputs, Apogee Ensemble would be around $1800. The quality of the inputs are identical, so I saved $1300 : )

So there, think how many inputs you need, and there will be plenty of choice for most price range.

d. I have plenty of money
Really there are so many variation that I can't recommend! Remeber that important thing is to really think about what you need. However if you use Protool you will need to use their hardware so it won't give you much option!

5. Effects
a. I have no money to spend on effects
There are so many free effects. In fact, there are so many that it's hard to choose one!

b. I have very little money, but want a bit more than above
Again, there are so many for cheap price effects that it's hard to recommend one!

c. I have fair amount of money
Once you start to pay few hundred bucks, there are some established names, Waves products packages are the industry standard and I use them too. I also use PSP products.

d. I have plenty of money
Waves plug-ins are really "the" high-end plug-ins, and they are expensive, but worth the money in my opinion.

6. Monitors
a. I have no money to spend on monitors
That's ok, as long as you have something to playback music. Obviously it is easier to spot the problem with good speakers, but speakers won't actually affect the quality of recording since it's only playing back the recording. The key is that you listen to the music with as many speakers as possible. They reveal a lot about what's wrong with your mix.

b. I have very little money, but want a bit more than above
I personally think if your budget for montiors are small, you should go for earphones with the same price. You get far superior sound quality. A lot of music expert say any monitors are better than earphones, but that's a lie. So many people listen to music with iPod and earphones that not using earphones as part of mixing is just stupid idea.

c. I have fair amount of money
I'd still say go with earphones. Quality of playback is incomparable with monitors and earphones with the same price.

d. I have plenty of money
Then buy monitors by all means, but don't forget to acoustically treat the room as well. Good monitors in untreated room would sound much worse than alright monitors in well treated room.

7. Outboards
a. I have no money to spend on outboards
Don't worry.

b. I have very little money, but want a bit more than above
Don't bother. Buying plug-in effects with the money would get you far superior audio effect.

c. I have fair amount of money
Then you might want to look into finding effect that you almost always use for any track. I say this because by using Outboard, you can free up CPU usage of the computer hence it will perform much better. I would say EQ and compressor are two most frequently used effects. I have outboard compressor. I also bought preamp, since I wanted to make the signal into the computer as good as possible (And had no intention to take the signal out of the computer once it goes in). Every time A/D or D/A conversion happens, the error in audio increases. So it is best to keep number of conversion minimum.

d. I have plenty of money
Some people swear by analogue effects. I think they are better, but the money they charge isn't particularly worth it. Most average audience would hardly hear the difference. Still, there are difference, and for those who can hear the difference it does matter.

Also, there is a very simple rule that I think is very true:
"Further signal goes away from the computer, bigger the difference it makes to the sound".
Meaning that, performance, or choice of guitars have far bigger effect on audio than upgrading interface. (This also means that upgrading monitors have much bigger effect than upgrading interface, however, it only improves quality of playback, and not the actual recording - You can't expect everyone to use good speakers to listen to your music).

So upgrade things that are further from the computer first! i.e. Improve your skill first more than anything!
So if you want to upgrade things

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