So you’re itching to start recording your music, but don’t have a clue where to start? First off, you’re awesome. In my experience, people willing to dive in are generally more driven, so yeah…kudos to you.
That said, there’s a lot to learn, so rather than throw out a few vague definitions, this article explores what each recording component does, why you need it, and offers several suggestions that I hand-picked out of hundreds of hardware and software options on the market. Keep in mind that there are countless alternatives that may very well fit you better than what I’ve shown below.
First, the basics – I think it goes without saying that you’ll need a microphone and/or instruments. From there, you will need a D.A.W. (Digital Audio Workstation) to get your sounds recorded and processed. DAW is a generic term for any group of digital-based devices/software that are combined to record and produce audio. Though, people are typically referring to the recording software when they mention the phrase “DAW.”
I could go into the history and different types of DAWs, but for our purposes, I’ll focus on what you’ll most likely be using — a software-based DAW on your computer.
Whether you use a Mac or a PC, at MINIMUM, you’ll need the following components to record:
Computer – Mac or Windows (or LINUX, but…ew)
It’s quite possible to record on a very modest personal computer. My primary recording PC is an Intel I5 with 6GB of RAM…EXTREMELY low-powered compared to some of the power-house machines out there.
I typically produce with 8-12 drum tracks, 3-5 guitar tracks, 1 to 2 bass tracks, 5+ vocal tracks, and even keyboards/electronics in a sync’d up program called Propellerhead Reason. All tracks are processed individually (EQ, compression, effects, etc.) as well as combined processing. All of that with my little I5 PC.
Sometimes called a soundcard, this is a box that connects your live instruments and your computer. Interfaces come in all shapes, sizes, and purposes, from tiny single-input budget units to chainable, 8+ track devices.
Your choice of soundcard is usually based on two factors – budget and number of inputs. Live drums or live band recording will require many microphones and instruments, so the interface will need many inputs for simultaneous track recording.
One quick side-note — there is a difference between number of simultaneous tracks and possible total software tracks. Your interface may only let you record two tracks at once, but you can keep overlaying more and more tracks in your DAW software.
Interface cost spans from the comically low $40-$100 range to thousands. Preamp quality, expandability, number of tracks, and many other features contribute to the extreme price difference. Here are several popular options in various price ranges:
Presonus AudioBox 2×2 ($100)
With its price recently lowered, the AudioBox 2×2 is a jaw-dropping deal – 2 preamp’d mic inputs that double as instrument cable (1/4″) inputs and MIDI I/O. During research I came across several quality/reliability complaints, but for the level of hardware you get for $100, it’s important to consider the trade-off.
Focusrite 18i8 ($350)
When recording many signals at once (drum mics, full band, etc.), it’s hard to match the value that Focusrite gives with its 18i8. It offers 4 preamp’d channels, 4 line inputs, and MIDI I/O. Better yet, this unit is expandable, giving you the option of up to 18 total inputs. I’m currently using its big brother — the 18i20, which has the same mic preamps, and I couldn’t be happier.
Mbox Pro with Pro Tools Software ($1000)
If Pro Tools is more your flavor, the MBox Pro is the best balance of features and cost that I’ve seen. While you aren’t spoiled with the gadgets and features of the pro line, you do get 8 inputs and 8 outputs, pro-level mic preamps, and a full version of Pro Tools, which cancels out the DAW software cost (below).
NOTE: Many audio interfaces actually come with “light” versions of popular DAW software, which is basically a watered down version of the software, but still an excellent starting point. Even better, many of those software companies offer discounts on upgrades to the full version if you already own a “light” version. When shopping for an interface, keep an eye out for bundled software options…it just might save you hundreds.
Moving on, DAW software is the key to bringing your hardware to life.
At its core, DAW software allows you to create virtually unlimited tracks and record a signal on each track, whether that be a guitar, an individual drum mic, a vocal mic, or a MIDI instrument. Each track has its own volume and panning (left/right). Once an instrument is recorded, additional effects and sound modifiers (plug-ins) can be added to each track (or multiple tracks) to dial in the perfect sound.
Most, if not all DAW software comes with a basic set of plug-ins, usually including EQ, compression, reverb, delay, chorus, noise gate, and more. Additional plug-ins can be downloaded (free and purchase) for additional effects and sound manipulation. In fact, there are software standards that allow many plugins to be used in any DAW software that supports that standard.
Like interfaces, there are TONS of DAW options, including a few free suites. I’ve highlighted a few of the more popular options below.
Audacity is a VERY limited but completely free DAW option. This may be a great choice if you’re just getting started, don’t have any software, and just want to get your feet wet. There are a few free and share-ware options.
Reaper (Free to try, $60 non-commercial use license)
Reaper is fully-functional DAW software that is free to try, and simply nags you to buy it after the trial period. I personally do not care for the workflow, but I’ve heard nothing but rave reviews about its stability, so there’s something to be said about that.
Logic Pro / Garageband ($199 / Free)
For Apple fans, there’s Logic & Garageband. These DAWs are two sides of the same coin. While Garageband focuses on ease-of-use, Logic is feature-heavy, but still has the familiarity of the Garageband user interface. There is quite a price difference (Garageband is free vs $200 for Logic Pro), but even Logic’s cost is fairly reasonable in comparison to some other DAWS.
Cakewalk SONAR ($60 – $320)
Cakewalk Sonar is actually the DAW software that I use. It does a great job of keeping things simple while still offering most of the big-dog features that producers have come to expect. I have heard of stability issues with certain hardware, but I have only experienced this with Tascam interfaces. As with most DAW software, you can get it in different levels — X3 Standard, X3 Studio, and X3 Producer.
Cubase ($66 – $500)
Cubase is a popular option for all levels of studio – from extreme budget (thanks to the “free” bundled Cubase LE software with some audio interfaces) to more professional rigs. The interface is extremely clean and feels familiar to Sonar.
Pro Tools (Pricing depends on bundle)
Pro Tools is one of the most popular professional choices due to its stability and exhaustive flexibility. While many 3rd party interfaces work with recent Pro Tools versions, only “certified” hardware made by Avid is guaranteed to provide full integrated functionality. This may seem like a draw-back, but Avid did this to fine-tune the hardware for maximum stability and interactivity with the software.
Beyond The Basics
Additional hardware can also be added, such as control surfaces to manage on-screen controls, as well as additional sound processing units. The options seem endless, but these aren’t at all necessary for laying down quality tracks.
To get started in audio production, simply take some time to pick the right interface & software to fit your needs, and make sure you’re working on a computer that isn’t an absolute dinosaur. Anything beyond that is simply tools to expand your core DAW.
Don’t worry, I haven’t forgotten listening devices. In an upcoming article, I’ll discuss headphones and studio monitors.
If this article was helpful or if you have anything to add, let me know in the comments below. For more great FREE content, exclusive tips, and exclusive MusiciansFriend.com coupon codes that I don’t share with anyone else (I’m a Musician’s Friend partner), sign up for the CG Newsletter.
Pricing in U.S. dollars, accurate as of 09/17/14