Thirty years ago, I recorded my first full-length LP, cutting it in a studio, with expensive equipment and (really expensive) hourly rates. It was pretty much the only option at the time. I was excited to be putting down tracks at last, but I’ll never forget the feeling of mounting pressure as I tried to beat the clock and use as little time and tape as possible. Only the most well-funded musicians had the luxury of time to experiment and refine their sound. I wasn’t in that category, in case you wondered.
Digital technology, accessible at home, has changed this equation. Now, a sophisticated home-recording studio—with the ability to capture, process, and distribute music electronically—is within the reach of anyone with a smartphone, tablet, laptop, or desktop. Equipment has never been more reliable or affordable, and the process has never been more intuitive and transparent. Today, musicians can concentrate more on achieving their creative vision than on recording quickly so they don’t break the bank.
But advances in technology bring pitfalls, too. Having unlimited do-overs is fantastic, but it can also lead to musical paralysis and over-thinking. And sorting through the bewildering array of options for capturing sound can be frustrating and expensive. Still, free of the limits of tape and studio time, you can keep trying, and learning, over and over, until the magic happens. In this digital world, the only real boundary is your creativity.
Basically, what you need is a device to capture your sound and, depending on how much you want to spend, some additional tools to expand your options. Here’s what you can get on your specific budget, along with some basic rules for recording yourself.
If you don’t have an extra dime, but you do have a smart phone, you can download free recording software and play straight into the phone. You could even just use the included IOS, Android, or Windows voice recorder. Smartphone voice memos software records to a compressed M4A digital format.
You can make a pretty good guitar/piano vocal recording by experimenting with where you place the phone. Upload to a site like Soundcloud or Bandcamp and, just like that, you’ll be sharing your music with the world.
Now, a sophisticated home-recording studio—with the ability to capture, process, and distribute music electronically—is within reach of anyone with a smartphone, tablet, laptop, or desktop.
If you already have a computer, most retailers offer beginner-level recording packages that start at around $200. This will get you the basics: a microphone, stand, and basic interface/preamp that will plug in to your computer (see sidebar, “Computer Interfaces”). Download your choice of free recording software and you’re ready to go. Audacity is one freeware option that has a lot of devotees and is relatively easy to use.
If you don’t already own a computer and you’re willing to do a little looking around, you could pick up an iPad Mini, a preamp/interface/converter, two microphones, boom mic stands, and one microphone windscreen—all for around $500. Apple has done a terrific job making its free Garage Band recording program intuitive and sophisticated, so it is a great jumping-off point for the beginning recordist. Garage Band (free on some Apple products and just $10 for the basic app) will run on the iPhone, but the display will be small enough that I recommend at least an eight-inch tablet. Garage Band is an easy-to-use multi-track software program that has enough options for anybody and exports to 44.1 KHZ 16-bit audio for transferring to more expensive software programs or using in the final mastering and production process.
For less than the price of a decent meal, you can find digital-audio workstation (DAW) apps like MultiTrack DAW ($9.99), Audiostar ($4.99), StudioMini Recording Studio ($4.99), and Sonoma Wireworks 4-Track ($4.99) that offer basic multitrack-recording capabilities allowing you to stack multiple-layered parts and produce a CD-ready recording.
If you are not an Apple user, or just want to use a different DAW with a more flexible interface, there is a myriad of products available at entry-level prices that still provide world-class performance.
Windows users will find a lot to like about Presonus Free, Reaper, and Zynewave Podium. These DAWs provide a free-trial/limited-features period in which to decide whether to purchase the full software (prices range from $39 to $60).
Android options are more limited, but include the highly rated Audio Evolution Music Studio ($6.49 from Google’s Play Store).
Alternatively, you can download the free open-source program Ardour, or one of the well-known, tried-and-tested (also free) programs like Audacity.
Many of the less expensive recording programs offer fewer options when recording, including a limit to how many tracks can be recorded concurrently, but still allow a singer-songwriter to make a professional-sounding recording.
Almost everything you can do on an analog mixing board is available through the virtual interface of even the most basic DAW, including virtual buttons, knobs and sliders for recording, playback, and muting of individual channels. You’ll be able to use a wider range of built-in effects. During mix-down you’ll be able to use automation for EQ, panning, and volume levels. Most apps and DAWS also include in-app purchases and add-on options so you can expand your software as your budget increases, adding more sophisticated reverbs and delays and more tunable EQ.
You’ll want to look at how each DAW transfers files in and out of the app. Most apps offer a choice of options, including email transfer for smaller files and Wi-Fi sync via Dropbox or Google Drive for bigger files.
Keep in mind that your results will be only as good as the memory and processing power in your device, so don’t load up your machine with memory-intensive programs that bog everything down. A little internet research can help you figure out how to make efficient use of your device or computer.
This is the sweet spot for the home recordist. At this price point, you can splurge a little and get a better microphone and a higher-quality preamp.
Ben Surratt, owner of Nashville recording studio The Rec Room, suggests the Audio-Technica 4033 condenser microphone. But there are many options, new and used, that have their fans. Many terrific records have been made with just the industry workhorses, the Shure SM57 and SM58.
For a significant upgrade in sound quality over entry-level preamps, consider units like those made by Focusrite and Apogee. All preamps have their own sound, so look around for one that suits your tastes.
Another great option for the home recordist is a “studio-in-a-box,” available from such manufacturers as Boss/Roland (BR-800, $449), Tascam (DP24SD, $399; DP32SD, $599), and Zoom (R16, $399). These all-in-one units eliminate the need for additional preamps. Just plug in your mics and go. Some also provide drum samples, effect patches, and mastering presets. You can mix and master accurate, professional sound using just one unit, and then easily download individual tracks to your computer for additional processing. These units are portable, so they’re great for live recording.
If you have more money to spend, you can step up to industry-standard recording software like Pro Tools or Apple Logic, which will give you almost unlimited options for recording, processing, and mastering your music. They take longer to learn than the freeware options, but they’re worth the trouble because they’ll let you create recordings that can stand on their own or be integrated into recordings at a professional studio. Remember, the software is only as good as the computer it runs on, so you may have to upgrade your computer first.
Use this bigger budget to add more and better microphones. You don’t have to spend a lot of money to expand your options. John Mock, long-time Nashville studio professional and musician, suggests you us extra funds to purchase the best microphone you can afford, and then build your collection as you go. The Shure KSM32 ($549), and the Audio-Technica 4033 ($399) are good jumping-off points, but microphones by Blue, Sennheiser, and industry-standard Neumann can all be had for a more substantial investment.
If the fidelity of your original recording is compromised, you’re limited in what you can do in the following stages of production. Choosing the best mics and preamps for your dollar is never a bad way to spend your hard-earned money.
Don’t be afraid to buy used equipment from reputable sources. I still record my vocals with a Rode NT1 condenser microphone that I purchased used for less than $100. After seemingly endless A/B tests, I’ve found that my scratchy, rough voice isn’t improved by a vintage Neumann. In fact, the much less expensive NT1 brings out a warmth that is missing with more expensive microphones. Avid recordists are always upgrading and switching equipment. Take advantage of their trading up to trade up for yourself and build your microphone collection until you have several options for each recording session.
In Part II of this series, “Recording Yourself to Sound Like Yourself,” I’ll focus on the techniques that work best for capturing the sound of acoustic instruments, especially the many styles and sizes of acoustic guitar.
While Portastudios, flash recorders, tablets, and smart phones all are viable options for DIY recording, most guitarists are utilizing their own computers as home studios. The following electronics companies offer two-channel and multi-channel digital input/output interfaces that can link your guitar and/or mic to your desktop or laptop computer: Focusrite (Scarlet series); Universal Audio (Apollo series); Tascam; MOTU; Roland; PreSonus; Behringer; iK Multimedia; and Apogee.
Those convenient, affordable options include iK Multimedia’s new iRig Acoustic Stage, an advanced USB-ready digital microphone system designed for stage and home studio that features six selectable tone presets, instant feedback suppression, and a high-def, 24-bit audio interface for recording ($99.99). The iRig Acoustic Stage is simple to install and works with both steel- and nylon-string guitars, as well as ukuleles (in fact, any instrument with a soundhole).
Nathan Bell is a singer-songwriter from Chattanooga, Tennessee. nathanbellmusic.com
This article originally appeared in the August 2017 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.