Music Recording: A Brief Overview For Beginners
? Music recording might be a pretty niche topic to some, but to anyone whose passion is music, sound creation, or audio work, it is of the utmost interest. There are so many variables when it comes to almost every aspect of recording, from sound source to the final mixed and mastered file, that learning the most effective ways to record music at home as a beginner can be confusing, but also amazingly empowering. The days of having to rent even the cheaper rooms in a commercial studio (often starting at $500 or more per diem) are over, and home music recordings can now be made cheaply and efficiently on even a moderately powerful PC or Mac desktop or even laptop computer.
The first step, even before buying recording equipment, is to make sure your computer has a DAW, or Digital Audio Workstation program. Pro Tools is usually regarded as the industry standard DAW, although other popular choices include Reaper and Logic, the latter being Mac-only. These programs convert analog audio from a microphone or musical instrument output (a synthesizer or keyboard, for example) to digital information that can be stored in the DAW via your hard drive. This data is displayed in individual tracks, and can be edited, altered, and mixed with audio plugins inside the DAW.
As software developments have advanced, these plugins have begun to accurately imitate expensive outboard analog gear to the point where many professionals have started using them over vintage hardware compressors and equalizers. In fact, many finished mixes heard on the radio or on record in 2017 have been produced with little to no physical outboard equipment. Software developers have been working on unique software instruments (often called softsynths) that are becoming a preferred way to create music for many musicians and producers. This is because of their low price, at times 10% or less of the cost of a physical instrument, and ease of use. Softsynths take up no physical space and can be quickly and efficiently programmed with external MIDI knobs, or controlled by a mouse and played with MIDI keyboards that simulate the keys of a standard synthesizer or piano. Given the price and convenience advantages of working, "In the box," as they say, it's no wonder home music recording using only a computer is steadily gaining popularity.
Because most computers lack the proper connections and sound card quality to record audio, an audio interface is necessary to record audio from external sources and play it back over monitors. Some important factors to consider when choosing an audio interface are the number of inputs and outputs that you require. If you're only recording yourself singing into a microphone, a simple unit with one or two microphone preamps is all you need. However, if recording drums or multiple guitars is what you plan to do, you'll need a microphone preamp for every microphone on the drums or guitar cabinets, although there are software plugins that convincingly imitate amplifiers available as a cheaper, quieter substitute. Audio interfaces typically come with one, two, four, six or eight microphone preamps, although some include line inputs for signals that don't require the amplification that a microphone preamp provides. While the quality of these interfaces and their preamps vary, all current ones are capable of recording at 24 bits, higher than the 16-bit quality that is standard on CDs.
It's an exciting time to be a musician. For a modest financial investment (less than $1000 in some cases), one can make a home studio with nothing more than a cheap laptop, an audio interface, a microphone, and a pair of monitors (or even headphones). Much of this gear can be acquired used for even more savings, although I'd advise that a used laptop or computer be purchased at a store with a return or exchange policy. After that initial cash investment and learning curve though, you should be off to the races, recording as much high-quality audio as your hard drive can store.