What You Really Need to Record (in the Digital Age)
Looking to get started recording at home? Here's a guide to what gear you need.
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The last twenty years or so have really seen a revolution in recording, playing, and learning music. Computers have changed everything from what we use to record, to what we play, to where we get our music lessons. But when it comes to recording acoustic instruments, the song remains the same: we still need microphones, cables, speakers, and more.
The good news is there’s more good gear available now than ever before. The bad news is, there is more good gear available than ever before. Unless you have unlimited resources, it can be hard to choose what you really need to get professional-sounding results. We’ve all heard of “GIGO”—Garbage In, Garbage Out. If you’re looking to record yourself, or just a few musicians at a time, what gear is essential? Hopefully, this can help you choose what you really need to get going and avoid some problems along the way.
Just about every current recording program gives the user more than enough computing power to rock the audio world, with results surpassing what was available in million-dollar studios only a generation ago (in terms of distortion and noise). Once you’ve picked your software and digital interface or standalone recorder, the most important thing is electrical power.
Nothing ruins a recording session more than having a take disappear because the power voltage level dropped, or went off completely before the take could be completed—or in the case of recording to a computer, saved. Buy an uninterruptible power supply (UPS) with enough battery backup to power your recorder or computer, external hard drives and computer monitor long enough to save and shut down safely. Even if you record with a laptop computer, which has a battery, you still need the UPS for the external hard drives you’re recording to. You’re not going to record to the system drive where you store all your programs, are you?
Storage is your next big issue. Audio eats up disk space fast—faster if you use higher sampling and bit rates. Backing up is crucial in the digital recording age. Analog tape stores signals semi-permanently and resists erasure. Digital data can disappear in a click of a mouse. Rule of thumb: if digital data doesn’t exist in at least three places, it doesn’t really exist. You should have a fast hard drive (at least 7600 RPM) to record your sessions to, and another drive of some type to back up to at the end of each and every session. Later you can also back up to other recordable media, including CDs (CDRs), DVDs or flash drives. Most current recording programs have a feature to simplify back-ups. If yours doesn’t, it’s a simple matter to copy the necessary files to another drive.
The next most important thing to have is a good pair of speakers. This is the biggest factor in how your recordings will sound when played on other people’s speakers, and in your car. If you already have speakers you’re very familiar with, start with those. Listen to a variety of commercial releases through them to get a good sense of how they sound. Then you can judge more accurately whether your own recordings have a similar balance of bass and treble, depth, width, and clarity.
If you choose to buy new speakers, take the time to learn how they color the sound. A bass-heavy speaker will make you mix “bass shy” and a bright speaker will make you mix “dull” until you get used to them. Powered speakers can be more expensive, but with factory-matched components and easy connectivity to recording interfaces, they do make setup simpler.
If you’re going to be multitracking or overdubbing, you’re going to need headphones. Make sure they cover the ear completely to prevent sound from leaking into “open” microphones. You’ll need a pair for every musician being recorded simultaneously. Common choices include AKG, Sennheiser, and Sony.
Headphones are great for checking left and right panning when mixing, but don’t expect to get the best result if you try to mix your entire project on them. Save them for checking details when mixing, but trust your speakers more. Both speakers and headphones will typically plug into the audio interface you choose if you don’t use a mixer. If you’re using a standalone recorder, you don’t need an interface, and there will usually be at least one headphone out, sometimes two. If you need more headphone outputs, there are inexpensive headphone amps that make multiple outputs available.
Picking the right microphone means picking one that colors the sound the way you want. To keep things simple, start with some time-tested favorites. If you only have one microphone in your toolbox, make it a Shure SM57.A standard for guitar amps, snare drums, even vocals, this is the mic you see in every club.
If you’re recording acoustic string instruments, a condenser mic is a great choice. Most professionally recorded vocals are also done with condenser microphones. These have either a solid-state or tube preamp built in to bring the extremely tiny voltage from the capsule up to “mic level,” but condensers still need a mic preamp to bring the level up to where it can be recorded. They’re typically brighter and more detailed sounding than a dynamic mic like the SM57. Solid-state condensers in the $300 range have flooded the market in recent years, and many sound amazing. AKG, Audio-Technica, and Rode make superior, cost-effective condenser mics. Make sure that your interface provides phantom power (labeled 48V) to power the microphone if it can’t be battery powered. If you use a tube mic, you must use its accompanying power supply to power the tube. Do not apply phantom power to a tube mic.
Ribbon mics have come back into favor; they tend to hear much like our ears do. Recently, several ribbon mics costing under $200 have appeared that rival mics costing five times that. Great for vocals, horns, room mics, and amp cabinets, they deliver an un-hyped natural sound. Most ribbons have lower output than dynamic or condenser microphones, so make sure that your mic preamp can provide enough clean gain to get an appropriate level into the recorder.
Having a good variety of microphones is a luxury, not a necessity. Having one microphone is like having one guitar. You can use it for everything, but it’s not as much fun. Having a lot of different mics is like having a lot of guitars. You may not use all of them every time you record, but having a variety is a very good thing.