You may not have noticed if you haven’t been following pro audio for long, but the ways that electronics have improved and proliferated have provided us today with limitless ways to produce music quickly and inexpensively. Never before have we had so many accessible and simple ways to make music, get it to the people and find our audience. Which is why you’re here, right? You want to know how to record at home, with your own music studio. I feel your dream, because once I was itchin’ to get started just like you – to let people hear the artist inside, and pour out the music that starts from within.
So, since I’ve been there, done that, and brought home the T-shirt… I can tell you: you’re in for an awesome ride!!
Rumpelstiltskin Really Played the Harp, ya see…
Imagine with me, if you would, the little imp from the Brother’s Grimm tale today, playing the part of a modern would-be musician: he arrives at Guitar Center one day on his hybrid-woods-hare, pushes the door open and (not even being noticed by the door guard ‘cuz he’s so short) heads right to the “Harps” section.
Yes, there would have to be a Harp section, after all, if gnomes were more prevalent in our culture. Perhaps one day this prejudice shall wane, and we shall stand strong and in the open with our pointy-hat brothers. But I digress….
Little Rump finds the latest 30-stringer that for weeks he’s been G.A.S.-ing for, and starts to play an old Black Forest folk melody with Chicago Blues chords that gets everybody in the store coming over to hear. The response when he’s done is hugely positive – everybody loves this tune. The hooks! The catchy chorus! The freshly anachronistic melodic lilt! This is the hit every A&R guy is looking for right now since “Uptown Funk” left the charts. They’re goin’ more gaga than for GaGa!!
So what does Rump do? He can’t just stay in Guitar Center all the time and play the song over and over. His fingers are strong, but his voice is a little gravelly. Think Tom Waits meets the Albino from the Pit of Despair.
Before he cleared his throat.
You do know who the Albino is, right??
Anyway, the answer is clear: he must record the song. Record it, upload it to Facebook, SoundCloud, Instagram, YouTube, FairyTaleMinstrelBook.com….the works! But how? HOW can he do it? He doesn’t have enough gold for the professional studio downtown. But that’s when he remembers – the iPad and desktop computer he’s got back in his remote mountain cottage has all the power and potential he needs. Time to hoof it back to shack, Jack!
You Can ‘Rump’ It Too!
The same is valid for you, my friend. If you have a goblin’s inkling that there’s music in you going untapped, by any and all means go get something to record it. If you don’t you’ll always regret not following your muse, and we out here in ‘listener-land’ will be denied an entertaining interest in your material. There’s an audience for everyone, so send us your stuff.
The easiest way to do this is to get a desk that you can use just for music purposes in whatever domicile you live in. My first desk was only about four feet wide, but size doesn’t matter here; rather, intent lays the golden egg. Only put in this space music-related materials and machinery. This will be your go-to place for creating, and because you kept it special, uncluttered and compositionally ‘sacred’, it’ll help you quickly and instinctually get in ‘the zone’!
Another good idea is to have things always ready to record. If you don’t, you may have an extra half hour to compose but you’ll think, “Oh, it’ll take too long just to set up”. Have your mics, stands, instruments and machinery left prepped so that all you have to do is turn it on and press record to capture your latest hit. I tell my students the same about practicing their instruments: if they are not handy and easy to pick up, they will tend to not practice as much.
To get started, you really don’t need much. Here’s what you must have on your “I Write the Songs” desk”:
- a microphone
- a microphone cable
- an instrument
- an instrument and /or a MIDI cable
- a recording device
See how small that list is? Not much to it, tho’ as you get more and more into pro audio, you will find Gear Acquisition Syndrome, or “G.A.S.”, coming down hard on you like a lead zeppelin (do you hear those wooden recorders?). If you’re only doing instrumental keyboard music, you actually could get away with just a keyboard, a MIDI cable and a recorder. How’s that for cost-effective?!
Where Ya Gonna Store All That Gold, Rump’??
In the Grimm tale, the king stored all Rumpelstiltskin’s gold in bigger and bigger rooms. Cut to today, where we do the same thing, only the rooms are called…hard drives! Except for rare individuals who have old reel-to-reel recorders (I’m one), almost everything you hear today in music was produced digitally, meaning the sounds were transmogrified into little digital bits and stored on some type of drive. These drives and their accompanying machinery are as legion as hidden Mickeys at Disney World these days, so let’s simplify it by looking at the two basic categories we find in today’s thriving recording market:
- Hardward-based units
- Software-based units
The benefits of using hardware units are:
- They are self-contained, all-in-one machines. They come with everything you need all in one “box” except a microphone & cables, and headphones or speakers to monitor with.
- They rarely, if ever, crash like computers can
- They are extremely portable for recording anywhere you can find power; and 3) they tend to be a little simpler to operate than audio software.
- They don’t change. Even when upgraded, the menu architectures remain totally familiar and don’t ‘lose you’ because the manufacturer decided they could do it better.
Before Pro Tools, I worked for over ten years on a hardware unit by Roland called the VS-2480. I recorded two albums on the Roland platform and got to know it inside and out to the extreme. Did it deliver? Absolutely, and I learned all I needed to about producing, composing, engineering and mixing my music.
Unfortunately, Roland stopped making the VS line. This is the first of several drawbacks to this option, that when it’s gone it’s gone; you won’t find copies of it on the Internet!
Other hardware cons are:
- No more updates or upgrades to keep up with industry progress
- No more parts for repairs
- No more tech support by people still using the product
Still, if you want to wade a bit in the water to test your mettle in this fairy tale world of summoning up the musical spirits, it’s a fun way to investigate. Current available options for low-cost hardware recording include, but are not limited to:
- the Tascam OD-03SD 8-track Portastudio
- the Boss MICRO BR BR-80 8-Track
- the Zoom R16 16-Track
- the Tascam DP-32SD 32-Track Portastudio
There will probably always be a few hardware units around, but by far today there are more and cheaper options available if you simply own….a computer.
The Recording Genies in Computer Bottles
Whether you’re an iPad gal or desktop dude, you have lots of available apps and software options for recording your music. The benefits of using software for recording are:
- It can usually go on your desktop and other tablets you may have, so you can work anywhere.
- Most recording softwares stay viable for decades so there are ample upgrades available that improve it even more.
- The menu options in software, which equates to the ways you can capture and then manipulate your audio, tend to be more numerous. This enables you to do really anything you can possibly think of to shape your audio efforts, so it helps you keep your options open.
- More programs to choose from. I just did a quick check and were thirty-six different audio recording softwares available right now, and that was without even really digging. There’s certainly more, but…you see my point.
Software cons are:
- It can crash. It’s usually quick and easy tho’ to just reboot and keep going….if you saved your work!
- Latency issues. This means your computer might not be fast enough, or strong enough, to handle all the audio you’re trying to cram into it. You know you’re having latency problems when you’re listening in headphones and trying to record new tracks over parts you already recorded, but the timing of what you’re playing sounds off, usually late compared to the already-recorded tracks. This typically means you need more RAM in your computer and/or a bigger hard drive.
- The menu options. Yes, I said that in ‘pros’, but the fact of the matter is that many artists find the myriad of choices popping up in professional software really confusing to navigate through, and would much prefer a simpler, more stream-lined set of selections that use simple terms they can understand, rather than twenty-million complex commands.
- They change. I’ve known several artists who totally abandoned the recording software they worked years on because the manufacturer ‘upgraded’ (read that ‘changed’!) the software so much and made it so different that they were too frustrated to stay with it, so they switched to another software program. Hopefully your choice of software won’t do that, but you just never know…
Because there are so many audio recording software choices for us, I’m going to tell you about a few good ones rather than overwhelm you with them all. I can personally vouch for and recommend:
- Garage Band
- Cubase Pro
- Pro Tools
I personally use Pro Tools HD and Reaper currently, but if you’re reading this you’re probably just starting out and that might be a little much for you to bite off and chew. If you want something easy, Audacity and Garage Band are both very intuitive and don’t get you lost in ‘menu hell’ like the others can.
As for cost, three of them are free, at least up front: Audacity is free forever, Pro Tools First is free for up to 3 ‘projects’ or songs, and Reaper is free for the first 60 days.
Pro Tools has probably been the recording platform on most of the successful songs of the last 20 years if they were digitally recorded.
As always, when looking into software or apps, you must keep in mind what platform and operating system you have. Are you on a Mac? Some of these only work on that. Do you prefer PC? Then you’ll be limited to the PC options. Some are compatible with both. Just be sure to look at that first, before you fall in love with something that doesn’t even work on the computer you have!
Any of the programs above will get the job done well for someone just building their first home studio. Each of them will feel different and have things laid out in different ways, and each of them will have different levels of audio quality, tho’, because they’re all digital, you’ll have pretty clean, clear audio on all of ’em. I suggest you download the free ones AND download trials of the ones that cost and check ’em out.
The Big Bad Wolf-rum!
One personal anecdote I’d like to share with you: because I live near Detroit, MI, the birthplace of Motown, I have been lucky enough to spend some time with a very uniquely-skilled and talented man who has influenced my pursuit of quality audio greatly. His name? Dr. Edward Wolfrum.
A short bio of him is available on his website, but it hardly scratches the surface of the true audio sage that he is and has been for many of us in this community. Ever heard of a Direct Box, something you’ll find on every stage across the globe, pretty much? Ed invented it. Want to know how Motown got that ‘Motown sound’? Ed was one of the engineers. I could sit around him for hours just to hear him drop stories of Marvin, Smokey, Kendricks, Stevie….it’s a looooong list, my friends.
Suffice it to say that in a world where the term usually stands for ‘someone who can twiddle the knobs on audio hardware’, Dr. Wolfrum is a true audio engineer: he could build whatever he uses…a rare unicorn in these fairy tale forests.
I mention him here because his skill and hearing in the world of audio is so tested, advanced and experienced, I trust his opinion implicitly, and ya know what he told me? Out of all the software programs he tested with his PhD tools and gear (i.e. the major software players) he has concluded that by far the best audio quality comes out of one choice: Reaper. So, if this titan of music history has recommended it…by Rumple, I think we should boldly consider that path.
Regardless of which path you take through the woods of merry audio, just remember that what’s really important is that you set your desk up, choose your tools, and get recording. Many get so caught up in HOW to spin sounds into gold that they fail to actually DO it. Don’t be that guy, or girl. Sit down, and get down to business, like good ol’ Rumple. Who knows, you might even move on from gold…to platinum!