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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Which interface you use will in part be determined by which software platform you use to record. Digidesign’s Pro Tools requires you to use one of their approved interfaces to run the software, as it acts as the copy-protection dongle. At this point, most other interfaces will work with most other software, but make sure that they’re compatible with both your computer and recording software. This info is available on the manufacturer’s websites and from knowledgeable sales personnel.
Most audio interfaces come with solid-state mic preamps. Having an additional tube mic preamp will give you another choice of sound. Like a good tube guitar amp, tube mic preamps can add even-order harmonics to your mic signal and can even be intentionally overdriven to add a little grit if desired. The humble SM57 takes on a whole new life when plugged into a good tube preamp. Even an inexpensive one can bring a new quality to a mic’d sound. Remember that if you’re using a separate mic preamp, you must now plug its output into the line level input of your recording interface to properly match levels to your recorder.
In these days of recording into a computer, it’s not uncommon to record without a mixing board. Audio interfaces provide the analogto- digital and digital-to-analog (A/D and D/A) converter and connections for your microphones and line level sources. The software provides a virtual mixing board for playback and monitoring only.
Real life can exceed the dynamic range of recording equipment. When recording digitally, it’s essential to keep the level below zero DBFS (dB Full Scale) or you’ll create unmusical noise. Some newer interfaces provide some kind of level limiter to make it easier to stay below zero. However, to really bring the sound of your instrument front and center, you need a compressor/limiter. (For more on this see “The Truth about Compressor and Limiters,” PG May ‘09). Not only can this be used to keep your levelsfrom going into the red, but it can bring the softer and louder levels of an instrument closer together, and help them to stand out in the mix. It’s especially useful on vocals and other acoustic instruments, and can help glue an overall mix together. Budget-conscious versions come in mono, two (or more) channels, and stereo versions. Some two-channel versions can be linked in stereo. Alesis’ 3630 and FMR Audio’s RNC (Really Nice Compressor) are great affordable options, along with several dbx models.
For every microphone you use on a session, you’ll need a mic stand. Boom stands make it easy to place a mic where you want it, especially those with telescoping booms. Tripod bases can support more weight on the boom arm, but be careful to always position one of the legs under the boom arm to prevent the stand from tipping over.
It is amazing how a mic cable can improve or degrade the sound quality of your recordings, even if it’s a short cable. This is not the place to skimp if you care about sound. Have at least one pair of good quality cables. If you’re recording vocals, get a pop filter. It’s a good idea to have a bunch of audio adapters: 1/4” stereo to 1/8” stereo phone plugs; XLR to 1/4” phone plugs (male XLR and female XLR); RCA female to 1/4” male plugs; and a Y-cable with a 1/8” stereo plug on one end that splits into RCA plugs. As manufacturers cram more features into small boxes, the 1/8” plug is becoming more common.
Although most interfaces have 1/4” D.I. inputs (direct input on the US side of the Atlantic, direct injection on the other; it’s often referred to as “going direct”) to plug in electric guitars, keyboards, and other electronic instruments for mic-less recording, it’s a good idea to have a direct box. Make sure to buy one with a ground lift switch to deal with ground hum problems that can arise when taking signal from the instrument directly and from an amp at the same time. Many records have been recorded taking the bass guitar direct only. These days, guitar is often taken direct, so as to process the sound through software virtual amps and effects, or to “re-amp” later. Pro users favor units from Countryman, Radial, and Whirlwind, among others, and there are tube versions available as well. You should also have a few three-prong to two-prong plug adapters to solve ground hum problems with guitar amps (and other gear), especially with vintage amps that may or may not have functioning ground lift switches.
If you want to record different microphone signals to one track in real time, you will need a mixer. If you want to equalize a signal before you record it, you’ll need an outboard equalizer or a mixer. Of course, these things can be done after they’ve been recorded, but having a mixer can make things easier. Even if your interface only has two mic and two line inputs, you could plug the left and right outputs of a mixer into the line inputs and record a set of drums live to two tracks.
In a professional studio, the mixer is the hub of the control room that, among other things, allows the engineer to send the mix to different sets of speakers and control the volume. This feature alone has spawned a new category of gear: monitoring stations. These can range from simple, external volume controls so you don’t have to hover over your interface to submixers, multiple speaker pair selectors with mute, dim, and mono controls, to multiple mix outputs with sample rate converters. Rather than buy a complete console, you can buy a channel strip that can combine a mic preamp, EQ, compressor and output control. Some have extra features, like an additional de-esser and output limiter. If you’re only intending to record one thing at a time, this can be a useful addition.
Modeling amps and their ilk can make recording guitar, bass, and other instruments easier as well, especially if you’re recording while others nearby are trying to sleep. As much as I don’t like to admit it, they do a great job of channeling the sound of the many vintage amps I own and record regularly. In the final mix, anyone would find it nearly impossible to say with accuracy which guitar was recorded with an amp and which one wasn’t.
When you rent time at a recording studio, you’re paying for a controlled acoustic environment. Recording at home is another story. Remember to turn off phones and any other noisemakers in your recording area. If you hear a noise, so will the microphone. If a room booms or echoes, those reflections can be diminished by hanging packing blankets, comforters, or bedspreads on extra boom stands, positioned like a big ‘T’. You can even make isolation booths with them for recording vocals and other acoustic instruments. Having a blanket over the amp may not make it quieter in the room, but it might keep other unwanted sounds out of the mic on the amp. “Bagging the kick drum” (draping a packing blanket over the mic and the front side of the drum) is another common studio technique.
If you thought Guitar Acquisition Syndrome was bad, Gear Acquisition Syndrome can be exponentially worse. Words like boutique, vintage, reissue, and classic can bring on bouts of lust for recording equipment we must have to capture that elusive thing called “great sound.” Buy quality whenever possible, and that means spending a little more sometimes, but many of the newer budget items do a great job—and in some cases deliver results that exceed vintage gear. Software plug-ins emulate a lot of the vintage standards that recording engineers and producers demand. Although some are pricey, they are a lot less expensive than buying one each of the real vintage units, and you can usually use more than one instance of them in a session without having to pay for extra for each one.
Reading articles about recording techniques and interviews with those who record for a living can be extremely valuable. I’m frequently asked, “What’s the most important thing to making a good recording?” Sir George Martin said, “All you need is ears.” My answer is, “A good performance, a good-sounding instrument, and a good microphone, in that order.” Great gear makes the job easier, but you can get the results you want with less—you just might have to work a little harder. It’s not the machine, but the monkey who runs it. Knowing what to use and when to use it comes with experience. There are no hardand- fast rules, and even if there were, well, you know what they say about rules. Besides, if it sounds good, it is good.
If you have questions about specific aspects of recording, email me at: firstname.lastname@example.org, and I’ll do my best to accommodate you.