Power to the People
Outfitting Your Home Studio
Part 1 of a 3 part series on home audio production outlining positive trends for the independent artist and listing basic equipment needed to produce and market your own music.
In the 21st century, musicians are nothing if not empowered. They are in more control of their own destiny than ever before. That's the good news. The even better news is that this empowerment is on the rise. Every month, every year the tide is turning towards a more successful future for artists who had little more than a dream, some talent and their wits to work with before the turn of the century. The dreams and the wits are still important ingredients, but the technological tools are becoming the magic bullet that is turning the tide in the fight against obscurity.
The purpose of most of these tools is to afford you the ability to completely write, record, mix and master musical product in your bedroom (or anywhere else). Then (as if that weren't enough) they enable you to distribute that music to the majority of the earth's population from that same spot, without even leaving your home. Think about that. Not so long ago those ideas would've been laughed at. Now they're part of everyday life. The traditional (read: antiquated) methods of record production and distribution are quickly becoming dinosaurs, and for good reason.
The market is flooded with tech products and devices designed to enable you to record your own music and market it yourself. Everything you need to make this happen is also priced within the reach of the average consumer. How to go about this process is what I'll focus on in this series of three articles covering equipment, the process of recording as well as mixing and mastering your music. I've tried to keep things in the most coherent order as possible, but even so I recommend you give the entire series a quick read before you start any recording just so you'll know what to expect. Time, money, and aggravation is what I'll hopefully be saving you here. The shortest point between the music in your head and your fans ears is what I hope to illustrate. This is just a starting point but it will hopefully better prepare you for the adventure ahead.
Gear-mania is one of the biggest dangers faced by self-produced bands today. For some strange reason it seems that a lot of people think the latest effects unit or magic pixie dust processor from Gottahaveit Gear Corp. is going to make their recording sound like God. I've fallen victim to this disease as much as anyone else in my life and I've always been led to the same conclusion: it's not true. In short, it doesn't matter how much gear you have or how expensive it is. If you don't know how to use it, it's a waste of money and you probably could have gotten by with a lot less and achieved a lot better result. The same is true with all musical equipment. LeBron James is a great basketball player. But if I put a $10,000 Les Paul in his hands, he's still going to sound like LeBron James trying to play guitar. By the same token, if you hand Jeff Beck a two by four and some fishing line he would likely play you one of the greatest solos you've ever heard.
I'll lay out the basic types of gear you'll need but since everyone has different budgets to work with you must be as disciplined and creative as possible when it comes to actually putting your hands on the stuff. Be honest with yourself and stick to your budget. You'll be glad you did. Your mind and your ears are the greatest tools you will ever have and they didn't cost you anything except the time and patience to develop them.
Assembling the Arsenal
Next I will list the major necessary components of your studio. As time goes on you will always be adding to your collection of equipment as different needs arise. The challenge is to determine what it is you really need and if there are any more creative/cost-effective ways to get around buying anything new. As I write this series I'm going to assume you have instructions on how to operate your specific equipment. The reader (that's you) assumes all risk and responsibility for the care and proper use of his/her own equipment and personal safety according to the manufacturer's instructions. We're going to be discussing concepts that will be applied differently depending upon what kind of equipment you're using but most of the ideas mentioned will be things you'll have to consider if you want to end up with a recording of which you'll be proud.
The Recording Device
The first thing to consider in the recording process is of course, the recording device itself. This is your engine room. What will you use? Here we are again with those zany dueling banjos called analog and digital. In analog's corner we have anything that records an analog signal on magnetic tape: 2-track, 4-track, 8-track, 24-track, etc. On the digital side we have computer hard disks, mini discs, and DAT tape. There are various other obscure formats on both sides of the spectrum but for the most part, that's what we're dealing with. If at all possible I recommend you record your music digitally. It ends up being much more inexpensive, accurate, durable, and flexible. Along the way you will see what I mean. If you have to use analog that's okay. At times you just may have to be a little more resourceful to get the results you want.
On the low end of the analog spectrum you may be dealing with a 4-track recorder. The high end of analog would be up around a 24 (or more) track 2-inch tape machine that no one reading this probably has access to. Digital devices can range from a 2-track DAT recorder to a full-blown, high-end Pro Tools computer system with a very large price tag. I'm going to bet that most of you are dealing with either a 4-track recorder, a digital studio-in-a-box workstation, or a computer program like Garage Band which comes included with most Apple personal computers. I personally recommend using Garage Band if at all possible. It's a good basic system that is user friendly and it also provides non-linear editing capability that will be invaluable to you later in the process. More about that later.
A more inexpensive way to go that also taps into modern technology is the Tascam DP series of digital recorders which provides you with almost everything you need to get started on a budget. All those systems are pretty self-contained with most everything you need to go from one or more signal inputs to a final mix.
A Word on Computers
If you're using a computer as your tracking device a few common sense words to the wise are in order. The faster and more powerful your machine is the more powerful and versatile your studio capabilities will be, the more tracks you will be able to record and play back at the same time, and the more real-time effects you will be able to use at once. When using higher end multi-tracking software such as Logic or Pro-Tools be sure and know the minimum and recommended system requirements prescribed by the manufacturer. This will not only insure that the software will run on your computer, but it will help you get the most out of your system. If you intend on having a computer that is dedicated to music only (which is a good idea) get one with the fastest processor, the most RAM and the largest hard drive you can comfortably afford. Be sure those three components are also more or less evenly matched. You can have the fastest processor on the planet but if you have very little RAM to go with it the system is not going to be that powerful.
If you're using a computer as your tracking device you will need an audio interface in order to convert the analog signals you are recording to digital code. This is an essential item and depending on how many inputs you need prices vary. A decent one can usually be bought for a few hundred dollars.
You may also want to consider putting all of your data (audio/MIDI) files on a separate hard drive than that of your primary CPU. This doesn't work the main C: drive as hard and leaves it free to more efficiently manage the multi-track program itself, the basic operating system and any other programs you may be using. While you are running your MT (multi-track) software it's a good idea to not be running any other unnecessary programs in the background. This of course cuts down on processing power and you will usually need all you can get. Save your work often and back it up often, either to a CD or DVD that may come in very handy if your system gets corrupted by a virus or crashes.
MIXERS (come together...right now)
Mixers organize, alter and act as traffic cop to all incoming and recorded signals during both the recording and mixing stage of production. Aside from the recording device itself mixers are the most important part of your studio. Stand alone devices such as 4-tracks and digital workstations come with mixing features built-in. Software packages such as Garage Band come with "virtual" mixers that act in the very same way. Depending on what you want to record you still may need an additional "physical" mixer to consolidate signals before they are routed through the interface. For example, if your recording a whole band at once, that's potentially a lot of inputs. As we will see later, drum kits alone usually have four or more mics on them at any one time and if you have a limited number of inputs to your recording device you're going to have to create a "sub-mix" in order to save tracks. If you're recording by yourself or just adding parts one at a time this isn't a concern.
Simply said, mixers control the level, and EQ (equalization) of a signal. They also control the place in the stereo picture where that signal is located (pan). In addition, any effects or other signal processing that needs to be done is taken care of (at least in part) at the mixer as well. Whether your needs are small or a large, a quality mixer (either real or virtual) that is also easy to use is an absolute necessity. More on this later...
MICROPHONES (ears to hear)
The basic essentials of microphone technology for our purposes can be broken down to frequency response, polar response, and dynamic vs. condenser.Every mic we will use has characteristics in all three categories.
Frequency response is an analysis of how faithfully a device passes the timbre, tone or E.Q. of a signal through itself across all frequencies. A frequency response chart gives us an idea of a microphone's fidelity, or how faithful the output is in relation to the original signal. Human beings typically have a hearing range between 20Hz and 20kHz. Most general purpose mics like the ones we're discussing simulate this range.
A microphone's polar response tells you from what direction(s) it hears, plain and simple. Cardioid mics only hear things directly in front of them (where the mic is pointed). A Shure SM57 is a good example of a great workhorse cardioid mic. SM57's are also dynamic mics which has to do with the way a mic is designed to convert sound into electric impulses. Dynamic mics do not need any external power to work. Just use an XLR cable to plug them into the mic preamp or mixer and they're ready to go. A cardioid dynamic mic such as an SM57 is a great choice for miking amplifiers and close miking drums since they have a tight and focused field of hearing. Something like having "audio tunnel-vision". For this reason, they minimize "bleed" from any other sound in the room and only pick up signal from intended sound sources. (When recording we try to isolate signals from one another so we have better control over them.)
An omnidirectional mic picks up sound from all directions. A Shure SM58 is a good example of a widely used omnidirectional mic. SM58's are also dynamic mics and are used for vocals and ambient miking. One must be extra careful of unwanted sounds that might be picked up when using an omnidirectional mic.
Condenser mics are much more sensitive and have a flatter frequency response, reproducing what they hear more accurately than their dynamic cousins. An MXL 990 is a good reasonably priced condenser mic that I use all the time for acoustic instruments such as piano, winds, strings and drum overheads. A condenser mic sounds fantastic when used correctly. However, these mics are much more delicate and don't really do well with sound sources that are very loud. You'd better stick to dynamic mics for that. Condensers also must be powered by an external source in order to work. Most interfaces and mixers have a function called Phantom Power that takes care of this. No additional power cord is needed. The current is carried through the XLR cable. When hooking up a condenser mic it's best to activate phantom power after the board is switched on and the mic is hooked up. This minimizes the risk that any sudden electrical surges will damage the mic. Also, make sure you turn phantom power OFF before disconnecting a condenser mic. These mics also usually come with a shock mount to minimize any vibrational noise that might be transferred up the mic stand, use it.
Every studio needs at least need one dynamic mic and one condenser mic.
MONITORS (check your work)
A pair of decent studio monitors is essential. Monitors are speakers which are specially designed for studio use because they have a virtually flat frequency response. This means that they do not alter the music being played through them in any way or at least as minimally as possible. If you're recording or mixing a guitar track and your monitors are very bass heavy you will inevitably E.Q. some bass out of the mix to get the sound you want. The problem is that when you're all done and you pop your newly mastered CD into your car system (or any other player) it's going to sound like it needs more bass because your studio monitors weren't telling you what was really going on in the first place. They weren't faithfully showing you what was there originally so you were led to make the wrong E.Q. decisions during the mix. Make sure you either get monitors with built-in amplifiers or that you already have an amplifier for them. Home stereo speakers are not the best choices for monitoring. You can use them but be prepared to allow for your speakers' particular frequency response when mixing. This adds quite a bit more trial and error as well as time to the mixing stage of a project. Also you run the risk of ruining your ears for any other studio you may have to mix in down the road.
I would also advise you to pick up a decent set of monitoring headphones as well. These headphones are also specially designed to monitor studio mixes and have a relatively flat frequency response. At least one good pair is essential. This can be used for mixing and recording vocals. More pairs of at least decent quality headphones will be needed as well depending upon how many instruments you'll be recording at once. If live recording is your thing and you have enough auxiliary sends on your mixer you can create more than one kind of mix for different members of the band while they record. More on this later.
If synths, sampling, and sequencing is your thing you will no doubt be incorporating a MIDI system into your studio as well. Perhaps the oldest technology that is still prevalent today, MIDI allows you to perform music on a variety of MIDI encoding enabled controllers (keyboard, wind, guitar, percussion,etc.), record the performance on your MT (multi-track) program or device, and then play them back through any number of different instrument patches, synths, or sound modules. The simplicity and flexibility of this language is very efficient since it doesn't take a large volume of data to communicate very intricate and detailed performances.
In addition to your MIDI controller of choice you will need a MIDI interface to communicate with either your MT, synth or sound module. If you're operating in the digital realm you can set up your computer program to record the MIDI data itself so, in effect, your computer is your sequencer. You can then mix and match sounds for playback either through soft-synths in your computer or outboard (real) hardware sound modules or synthesizers in your studio. If you are in analog land and wish to record MIDI data you will need a separate sequencer to record and playback the information. Many synthesizers have built-in sequencers which allow you to do this. You can then channel the data to any module or MIDI friendly instrument you wish and then record the audio performance on your analog multi-track.
Signal Processors (icing on the cake)
As we've said before, there is a multitude of signal processors from simple stomp boxes to ultra high-end rack mounted multi-effect units out on the market competing for your attention and your money. You may have some old or inexpensive effect units lying around that haven't been used in a while. So may your band mates. You might want to collect them all in one place and take a look at what you've got, maybe spend a couple of practices trying them out and messing around with some sounds. As long as they process sound relatively cleanly and without much noise you can have them in your bag of tricks for the studio or even your live show. Get creative. You'll never discover what is possible unless you experiment and try new things. Don't be afraid of using pieces of gear that may be old or not look as cool as the newest stuff on the market. The best sounds have come from the oldest, cheapest pieces of equipment and different combinations of old and new gear. You can also try hardware in conjunction with software through your audio interface. This can yield some good things too. We'll take a look at specific types of processors you will definitely want to have in a bit.
Musical Instruments (weapons of choice)
I'm going to include a quick word about your instruments themselves (guitar, bass, drums, etc.) As we've said, you don't need expensive stuff to sound good. Your true music is in your mind and your hands. However, it is a good idea to be able to get the most out of the equipment you do have. Make sure everything is properly maintained and give it regular maintenance when necessary. Change your strings, fix that buzz (grounding problem), keep your drum kit tight and rattle free. Any audible problems you have at rehearsal or a live show is not going to be able to get fixed in the studio. The concept of "fixing it in the mix" is misleading and can get you into trouble later on. Any problems are only going to get amplified and multiplied when the mics go up in a quiet room. You will hear EVERYTHING and the audio mirror doesn't lie either so make sure you take care of your gear. Nuff said about that.
Also, before you even think of starting to record, you must be well rehearsed enough to pull off the performance live to your satisfaction. Being able to over-dub tracks, stop and start, and punch in to fix mistakes is not an excuse for being musically unprepared. If you can't play it well as a group in real life, it's not going to get any better on tape. Do your homework by yourself and as a unit and be prepared.
Cables and Interconnects (black licorice)
A good supply of appropriate cables and interconnects is critical to any operating studio. That pretty much goes without saying. Here's a short introduction to the key players in this ensemble.
Instrument cables are quarter-inch cables are used for connecting instruments to amplifiers and mixers or multi-tracks to monitors. They all look alike at first glance but upon closer inspection there are a couple of big differences, some easily seen and some not. They are mono tip ring connectors which have a shield inside them to guard against outside interference. Since the signals they carry are usually very weak (that is until they get to an amplifier) they are more prone to noise and need this shielding to keep the signal clear.
Speaker cables look much the same as their instrument cable cousins but do not include the inner shielding since the signals they carry are much stronger and do not typically need such protection.
TRS cables or tip ring sleeve connectors are cables which are capable of carrying a stereo signal. These cables can be used between an effect device and a mixer or to provide what is called a "balanced signal" providing a redundant copy of the same signal down both sides of the stereo path to provide extra shielded protection from interference and unwanted noise.
XLR cables (external, line, return) are used for microphones.
RCA cables are two thin mono cables running side by side and split into two separate connectors at each end. They are most often used with home stereo equipment but can also be used to hook up a mixer to a tape machine.
MIDI cables have a five pin connector at each end and are used to connect midi controllers, sound modules, synthesizers, sequencers and computers together for the purpose of exchanging MIDI data.
If you have a lot of outboard gear (effects processors, signal processors, etc.) you might think about getting a patch bay. These are panels where all outboard gear is permanently plugged in and they let you choose how the signal is routed without having to crawl all around the back of your equipment to re-patch everything all the time. Sort of like what an old time switchboard operator used to connect callers to one another.
So there you have it. A bird's eye view of the basic gear you will need to realize your musical dreams. Next we will cover the wonderful world of the recording process itself which is sure to provide hours of fun and (exquisite) madness. Hey, no one said this stuff was easy. Onward and upward!