How to Record Music on Your Computer, Part 1 – Hardware – Computer Article

The processing power of the modern PC means that any aspiring musician can record their own music at home, to professional standards, and on a limited budget. What ever genre you’re into, you can start making your own music with just a modest amount of time and investment. In this first article I’ll guide you through the hardware required to get you started.Wired for SoundAll PCs come with some kind of sound card built into them. Typically this is a chipset built into the mother board, which will control both what you hear from your computer, as well as any sound input by you, e.g. if you’ve ever used Skype you’ll have used your computer’s microphone input to communicate.However if you’re serious about its use as an audio tool this standard internal sound card is unlikely to be up to the task. Take a look round the back of your PC, or in the case of a laptop possibly round the front. You should see a few inputs, typically ones for accepting a microphone input, a line input (for accepting an external signal, such as from a guitar), and a line out – for sending the output from your computer to, for example, an external amp and set of speakers.So, if for example you’re a guitarist you can just plug straight in to the Line In socket and start recording, right? Well certainly there’s nothing to stop you doing so, except you’ll more than likely be disappointed by the resulting sound quality. Also, once you start recording with dedicated audio software (we’ll go into this in the next article) you’ll run into major latency issues. Latency is the lag time between the input and output of a sound in a computer, e.g. the time between you hitting a note on your guitar, the computer processing it, and then hearing the output. Using a standard PC soundcard this lag time is likely to be so big as to render the recording software useless.What’s required is a sound card or interface dedicated to music recording. Fortunately not only are you spoilt for choice in this area, the technology in these units has advanced so much that even the ones at the budget end of the scale will be up to the task in most cases, particularly if you’re a musician working solo. The interface for these units will usually offer dedicated audio inputs and outputs for audio recording, such as microphone ins (known as XLR inputs) and ¼ inch jack ins/outs – the cable type you’ll be familiar with if you’re a guitarist.The other good news is that many of the modern units are self contained. They connect to your computer via USB or Firewire (the latter is more common for Mac users), after which software and drivers are installed and, hey presto, you’ve got a PC ready for recording music!A good interface to get you started will cost something in the range of £50 to £150 (80 to 240 USD approx.). A few specific ones to consider are the Alesis IO/2 Express, the M-Audio Fast Track USB V2, the Tascam US-200, and the Yamaha Audiogram 3.Monitoring the SituationAs well as getting a good quality recording in to your computer, you want to ensure that the resulting output sounds as clear as possible. For this you’ll need a good pair of speakers, or more specifically, studio monitors. These are speakers with music production specifically in mind, designed for the user to sit close to (unlike conventional hi-fi speakers, which are designed to fill up the room with sound) and monitor the playback of an audio recording. They’ll allow you to pick up any imperfections in the recording and remedy them. This will be particularly important if you ever starting mixing your own music (more on this in the next article).To avoid unnecessary hassle, particularly when you’re just starting out, you should probably consider a set of active monitors. These are monitors that have their own built in amplifier, eliminating the need to purchase a separate amp to drive them, as is the case with passive monitors.How much to spend on a pair? Assuming your serious about recording, I’d have to say this is one area where being overly budget-conscious could turn out to be a false economy, so quite simply get the best pair you can afford. That being said, their price can spiral well into four figures and beyond, which is obviously completely unrealistic, especially if you’re just starting out.Having used them for several years, one brand and model I can strongly recommend are the Tannoy Reveal series. They’re active, and the price for a pair of them in their latest incarnation, the 501a, will set you back about £250 (400 USD approx). There are however other models in a similar price range worth considering, such as theMackie MR 5, Yamaha’s HS 50M Active, and M-Audio’s BX 8A Active.HeadphonesA good pair of headphones is also a must have. These should be of the closed-back variety as this will minimise sound bleed from the headphones – when you come to record with a microphone (see below) you’ll want to ensure the mic is only picking up the sound of your instrument, and not extraneous sound from you headphones, such as the track you are playing along with.A decent set doesn’t come particularly cheap, however AKG, for example, manufacture some in the £20 – 50 (30 – 80 USD) range, which should be adequate to start you off.MicrophonesWhatever type of music you’re recording, investing in a decent mic is a good idea. Most obviously it would be for recording vocals, however a single versatile mic can also be used for capturing all kinds of acoustic instruments, such as guitars, brass instruments and hand drums. You could also, for example, use it to capture the authentic sound from your guitar amplifier, simply by positioning it in front of the amp and running it to an input on your audio interface.The two most common types of mic you’ll likely encounter are the condenser and dynamic. Condenser mics are more common in the studio, owing to their generally high quality audio capture, perfect for recording. Dynamics mics are more common in a live setting as they’re able to accept much higher volumes than condensers without causing feedback. They also don’t need to be powered, unlike condensers.If all you’re concerned with right now is home studio work, then I’d recommend a good condenser mic to start with. Some names to consider are the Rode NT3, the AKG Perception 170, and the sE Electronics SE-1a. These are all in the £50 – £150 (80 – 240 USD approx) price range and should be versatile for most applications.That said, don’t discount dynamics mics totally at this stage. One in particular, the Sure SM58, these days prices around £110 (180 USD approx), has been a staple of both studio and stage for decades and is well worth considering.Keys to SuccessIf you’re a keyboard player you may already own a keyboard with USB capability, if it was purchased relatively recently. If not you should certainly consider investing in a controller keyboard as this will open up all a whole range of musical possibilities.Controller keyboards do not contain any sounds of their own, but instead send the signals they receive by you playing the instrument as digital data, which is then triggered as a sound source on your computer. This data is known as MIDI data, which on modern controller keyboards is sent via USB.If that all sounds a bit technical, don’t worry. Basically a controller keyboard will give you the capability to work with a whole array of sounds triggered from your computer as opposed to the keyboard itself. This could be synthesizers, samplers, drum modules, or just about anything you can imagine. Even if you’re not a keyboard player you might see some advantages to owning one, as it’ll allow you to trigger and work with sound sources in a much easier and more intuitive way.Controller keyboards are made by a whole plethora of manufacturers, from the famous names of Korg, Roland andYamaha, to brands specialising in controllers alone such as M-Audio, Behringer and CME. Which particular model you go for very much depends on your ability. There’s no point in investing £500 in a controller if all you’ll likely need for it to do is trigger the odd drum sample. If that’s the case there are plenty of mini controllers in the sub £100 bracket that’ll do the job just fine.SummaryThat about covers it as far as the basic hardware’s concerned. Having read all that and totalled up the price for all the necessary gear, you might be feeling a bit daunted. But let’s put it into context. For an outlay of about £500 you’ll essentially be buying yourself your own recording studio. That’s about what you’d expect to pay for a couple of days at a pro studio. While there’s certainly a bit of a learning curve – you won’t become a master producer and engineer overnight – giving yourself the ability to record and mix your own music for a relatively small investment to me really is a no-brainer.In the next article I’ll cover the software you’ll need, and the good news here is a lot of it won’t cost you a penny!