Raw or Polished? Your Choice
Recording your music is one of the most rewarding things that you can do on a computer. The dynamic difference engine is so flexible that your recording can be done as simply as plugging in and recording raw, or it can be tweaked and checked until it is perfect and clean sounding. This article will firstly set out an introduction to connecting your music making equipment to your computer for recording. Then we will have a look at making sure that the recording is sounding good enough to listen to. Future articles will be geared towards tweaks and tricks to polish your jam to perfection.
Let's Think About Devices
In part 1 we looked briefly at software that will be useful and that is free to use, even for profit. Such software is useless without hardware so I will be assuming that your computer has a sound card as mostly all computers have since the mid 1990s. The sound card is the device that we all have that controls the speakers, they are plugged into it usually via a panel on the back of the computer (many modern computers have a connection point on the front of the computer also). Take a look at the panel wherever it may be on your computer, you will notice that it is a 3.5 (1/8 inch) TRS (jack) connector. Now take a look at your music hardware. Something like a guitar or a keyboard will be easy to connect to your computer as they will have a headphone socket or line out on themselves or on the amplifier they require. Acoustic instruments will require a microphone to record them as they have no electronic interface.
Get Yourself Connected
To connect your music device to your computer you will need a suitable cable to connect the output of your music device or microphone (for simplicity I am going to refer to this as "the output") to the "mic in" or "line in" on your computer's sound card (which I will now be calling the input). If you are using a device where the output is a headphone jack (3.5mm TRS) then the cable is a common one that is available in supermarkets and electronics stores very easily. If you are using a microphone you will have sightly more trouble. This is because microphones have a variety of connectors. For the purpose of recording music I would strongly recommend using a professional quality microphone with a male XLR3 output. The cable you will need to connect this will be a female XLR3 to male 3.5mm TRS. From experience I can tell you that owning one of these cables is a complete joy as so many devices have a 3.5mm input these days and to have a cable that will take a signal from pro audio equipment into a mobile phone is powerful indeed.
Worlds most useful cable
Think About The Sound
It must be mentioned that many musicians will prefer to use their particular set up to make their sound and to use microphones exclusively to record a more true interpretation of their sound. This is because in some cases the amplifier shapes the sound so much, such as for an electric guitar. Sometimes the musicians rig is very complicated and connecting it to a computer would be very difficult. In cases like this it is not impossible to do but the computer may need many more channels than are available with a simple stereo sound card. In future articles I will talk about audio interfaces and how they can be a massive help in reproducing a sound with exceptional results but for now we concentrate on a simple single channel mono recording.
Before You Plug In...
Before you plug anything into your computer I have got to tell you a few things. Firstly and most importantly I am not responsible if you break anything. I do not know what equipment you are using or the condition it is in. This bit is also important so excuse my caps lock but, !!!MAKE SURE THE VOLUME FROM THE OUTPUT IS COMPLETELY DOWN BEFORE YOU PLUG IN TO YOUR COMPUTER!!!. this is because if you insert a high level signal into your input it will cause a loud pop. This pop if powerful enough can blow your speakers or circuits on your sound card. It is advisable to plug in before you switch your computer on if possible.
Turn up the volume on the output slightly once it is plugged in and make some test sounds. If no sound comes out of your speakers then your input may be muted. You need to open your sound preferences and turn on the input using the icon on the task bar that deals with volume in normal use. Right clicking this may give access to your sound preferences but your particular system may be different. I cannot write about every flavour of Linux, MacOS or Windows so you you may need to research this a little further. Once you have a signal from the output going into the input you are ready to record.
Audacity is the software I am using to record and as mentioned in the previous tutorial it is free and simple to install and use. It is also very powerful and because its controls resemble those of a tape recorder it is intuitive. If you click the record button you will see that it creates a track that is a recording of your sound card input. Make some sounds and you should see a wiggly line appear in the track. This is in fact a graphical representation of the sounds you just made. If nothing appears this could mean that your hardware and software are not talking to each other. It could also mean that there is no connection so check your cables and connections.
Just like a tape recorder
The sound quality of your recording is dictated by a number of factors and a great many hours can be dedicated to studying this topic alone. To boil it down to its most essential points: Make sure that the volume of the input is set to a good level, make sure the output is set at a good level and check that your cables are not damaged or loose. The recording level that works best will be different for everyone so this will take some experimentation to find the sweet spot. You have to do a bit and then listen back to the track, I recommend that you use some reasonable headphones to do this. Once you have found it you are ready to record.
In the next guide (part 3) I will show you how to make a click track in Hydrogen, a drum machine that is free to download for Linux users so that your songs are all played in time so that we can make the jump to multi track recordings. Until then take care.