Recording Music At Home On A Computer

Recording music is a hobby of mine, and I enjoy the ease and convenience of recording in my home studio. My studio didn’t cost me an arm and a leg; it’s basically all done with my home computer, recording software (a digital audio workstation, or DAW) and an external audio interface. This article will explain how I record, and hopefully you can take some of this information and adapt it to your own situation.

First of all, what I mostly record are cover songs (songs written and recorded by others). This makes the process much faster and the recording goes relatively smoothly. The song is already written, and the different tracks are already established. Very little in the way of creativity is involved on my part. Therefore, from my perspective it’s pretty easy. By the way, I record one track at a time, usually by myself. Once in a while I’ll have someone record a couple tracks for me, but 99% of the time I perform on all of the tracks.

You see, my patience is limited when it comes to being creative, and also having to wrestle with the real-world technology of putting my ideas into a digital realm. If I had to earn my living writing songs, I probably would be on a steady diet of ramen noodles and generic soda. I often brag that I can record an entire song in 3 hours or less. Most of the time, 2-3 hours is an appropriate amount of time for a typical song. I don’t want to discount my creativity, because I can still be creative to the point that I change instruments used for different tracks and inject some of my own style into the song as I record. But that’s not what this article is about; it’s about the technique of recording on a home computer.

Let’s begin with what you’ll need to do the job efficiently. I started with a laptop running Windows Vista, and only 2G of RAM. It lasted 6 years, and although I had my share of problems with it, it did the job. These days, I’m running a desktop computer with 12G of RAM, and with Windows 8 as my operating system. It’s much easier, let me tell you. If you’re looking for a computer that can handle the rigors of music recording, don’t cut corners if you don’t have to. Many songs and tracks were lost over the last 6 years, because I didn’t save my file and the laptop just shut down. Get the best processor you can afford, and the most RAM. This will alleviate most of your headaches, from a technical perspective. My computer cost me $488 (in June of 2013). There isn’t any special hardware in the computer for recording; it’s just an off-the-shelf box.

When it comes to plugging a musical instrument or microphone in, you need an interface to be able to do that. Sure, your computer probably has a 1/8″ input for a microphone, but that limits the type of equipment you can use and how you pre-process your sound. With an audio interface, you’re looking for something you can plug a guitar and a microphone into, and has a USB output to plug into the computer. How many inputs you choose for your interface will depend on how many simultaneous tracks you plan on recording. If you just like to record playing a guitar and singing, you probably need at least two inputs. This is another one of those things where you could get by with less, but more inputs gives you more flexibility down the road. I actually use my guitar pedal board to interface into my computer. It’s a POD XT Live, made by Line 6, and it lets me dial in that perfect guitar sound, as well as giving me a clean sound for keyboards and vocals. Depending on the recording software you get, you can sometimes create some cool effects during mixing and mastering.

This brings me to the recording software, also called a DAW, for Digital Audio Workstation. This is a great time in the history of audio recording, when a sound can be recorded mostly in a digital state. Sure, some of the audiophiles out there will dispute the digital vs. analog sound. But solely from a recording standpoint it isn’t even a contest. It wasn’t long ago that tape was the only game in town, and every studio was dependent on a big reel-to-reel tape machine in the corner of the studio. Then you had to deal with issues such as tape hiss and track bleed through. Recording and mixing tracks of any quality was an art form and the best engineers & mixers were highly sought after. I went to school to learn how to do that in the late 80’s, and it’s infinitely easier nowadays. When I started home recording, I had a 4 track portable Fostex unit which recorded on cassettes. You would record two tracks on Side A, and two tracks (backward) on Side B. If you wanted to record more tracks, you had to “ping-pong ” (also called “bounce”) tracks. This involved taking a number of tracks, and condensing them down to one track. So if you had 3 tracks, containing bass guitar, drums, vocals, and you wanted to record two or more additional tracks, you had to mix the three tracks down to one. It’s an unforgiving technique at times, so you can definitely make horrible errors. Not to mention the audio degradation that happens when you reproduce analog sources. Enough ancient history, now we have the DAW and recording is a breeze.

There are many free DAWs out there, so I would recommend trying those out first before investing a couple hundred dollars or more for a professional software package. When I started, I used Audacity, which is open-source software available for free. If you’re not familiar with software development, open-source is the equivalent of a food recipe readily available to chefs everywhere, and when one of them makes an improvement, they let everyone else have the recipe. There are constant upgrades and features that make this a viable tool to make some good music. It’s also a good way to find out if this is what you enjoy doing. So I guess I would recommend Audacity. But there are a ton of other free DAWs out there, and read the online reviews to get an accurate gauge from musicians.

If you want bells and whistles, you’ll have to pay for one of the pro software packages. The power of the pro systems is their ability to handle the plethora of plug-ins, and automation that you may be interested in down the road. The system I now use is Studio One by Presonus, and it does everything that I need. To be honest, I don’t even use it to its full capability. But all I know, the controls are incredibly intuitive and easy to learn. Let’s start talking about my process for recording a song.

I often brag that I can record an entire song in 3 hours or less. Most of the time, 2-3 hours is an appropriate amount of time for a typical song. When I get an inspiration or a request for a particular song, I’ll first get a copy and listen to it. I know my capabilities and whether I can perform all of the parts. Sometimes I have to walk away from a song because of vocal range, or complexity before I even try it. The worst case scenario is when I record a few tracks and then realize I’ll never finish the song. The 3 instruments I use are electric guitar, electric bass, and keyboards. My drum tracks are played on the keyboard. I plug everything (including the microphone) into my POD, and control the effects through that. Again, since my POD has only one input, I record one track at a time.

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