Home Recording Studio Basics

By Seth Lutnick

What are the basic pieces of equipment and software one needs to record at home?

There are so many ways to do this! Well, since you’re reading this, you probably have a computer, so let’s base our home studio on the computer.

We’ll start by understanding the different functions we will need filled in home recording. Then we’ll understand what the best hardware and software products to do it are. In general, the principle I recommend is to use fewer pieces of equipment with more functions. That approach saves time and, usually, money. As you advance in your recording skills, you can go for more specialized equipment.

There are two distinct phases in recording a song. One is the “in” phase, referring to everything needed to get your music performance into a basic recorded form, with however many tracks you need. The second phase is the “out” phase, where you will take that raw music, process it and create the final stereo version.

The “in” phase — sending the music to your computer

Music can be put into your computer either as audio or as MIDI. Audio is actual sound recordings. MIDI records no sounds, but only the digital instructions for an instrument to play. It is much like a combination of a pianist and sheet music. Without an instrument, he can make no music.

With MIDI, you are saving the note and volume instructions to be played on the instruments of your choice later on.

Although some programs let you put MIDI notes into your computer through your computer keyboard, and other programs have music generation features that allow you to create an entire backing band without playing a note, the best solution is a velocity sensitive MIDI keyboard. It gives a much more realistic performance. For example, playing a key softer will record a softer note.

Other features, such as aftertouch, allow you to add vibrato and other realistic effects.

Audio simply means actual sounds. Audio tracks will include vocals, acoustic instruments, and electronic instruments whose sounds you wish to use.

 

You will do well to get at least two microphones. Some microphones are better constructed to record vocals, while others are optimized for instruments. In addition, having two mics allows you to record in stereo, or two soloists performing at the same time.

Receiving the music into your computer

All of this will get your music up to your computer’s door. How do you get it inside?

With an audio interface that has: a microphone jack that fits your microphone cable and preamp function (so that the signal is strong enough to be properly recorded), phantom power (if you use a condenser mic that needs it), a line input for synths and sound modules, and a MIDI interface.

Remember the principle -fewer products that do more.

Some find it simpler to run every audio sound, mics and all, through a hardware mixer (with phantom power and effects) and sending that pre-processed signal to the audio interface’s line input. You’ll still need the MIDI interface function for your MIDI recording, though.

Once your audio and MIDI are inside your computer, software takes over. For our recording we will use what’s called an integrated audio/MIDI sequencer. Famous names include Cubase, Cakewalk and so forth. These programs record multiple tracks of audio and MIDI in perfect synchronization.

Now you have all the equipment you need for the “in” phase. What will you need to take the many tracks of audio and MIDI you have recorded and make a song out of them?

The “out” phase — making MIDI into music

We mentioned that MIDI is simply digital instructions, it is not actual sounds. Now we will need to create actual sounds from those instructions. There are two options for this: external and internal.

External sounds come in little boxes called sound modules (or keyboards with their own great sounds).

Sound modules have hundreds of high-quality patches that re-create every instrument in the orchestra, classic electronic sounds, spacey new synthesizer creations and sound effects.

To use them, you send the MIDI back out from the sequencer program through the audio interface’s MIDI output and into the sound module. You then take the audio output from the sound module back into your computer via the line input on your audio interface and record it on a new audio track in the sequencer. It is now a real sound and is perfectly lined up with the other tracks.

Internal sounds come in lots of different types.

Instruments that you use from within your audio/MIDI sequencer include VST instruments and software synths. The latter may automatically come with your audio interface, or require installation like any other program.

Option two is a full-blown sampler/synthesizer program, such as “Reason”, that you connect your sequencer to through a software function called “Rewire.” And there are also sound modules that come in the form of PCI cards that you physically install on your computer.

Fine tuning and effects

Just about every song will use spatial effects such as reverb and echo. You may find that some tracks are slightly out of tune. On others, there may be a consistent buzz that needs to be removed.

For all of these, you will want to have an audio editing program or plug-in. A plug-in is simply a function you can add to your basic sequencer program. Plug-ins exists for all kinds of functions, including reverb, compression, equalization, noise reduction, pitch correction and so forth.

An audio editing program is a standalone program that does all of these things. With most audio/MIDI sequencers, you can configure your software to call up the audio editing program and fix the track without leaving the sequencer.

Mixing down

Once you have all of your tracks and sounds recorded, you will need to mix them down to stereo.

Again, this can be done in an external or internal fashion.

To do it externally, you would need a hardware mixer. This method limits you to the number of tracks you can send independently through your audio interface and the number of tracks your mixer can handle. Nonetheless, mixers give you a real surface to work on, and often include quality studio effects, reverbs and such.

Internal mixing means using your audio/MIDI sequencer to mix down the entire song to two tracks. The advantage of doing it internally is the expanded number of tracks you can use. The disadvantage is the difficulty of mixing with a mouse on a computer screen. There are, however, hardware mixing surfaces which simply control your software program.

Mastering and burning

Once you have your stereo mix, you want to put the finishing touches on it.

These touches include overall compression, equalization, noise reduction, fading in and out and bringing the recording up to a normalized level of volume.

Your audio editing program should be able to handle these adequately, although there are specialized mastering programs which offer higher quality and many more enhancement features.

Then you’re ready to burn your song to CD. Odds are that your CD writing drive came with a program that does just that and you won’t need anything more. I did mention that you’ll need a CD writing drive, didn’t I? Well, now I did! And if it’s MP3 you’re after, most audio programs encode MP3s as well.

And that’s it! Now you have everything you need to make your musical magic at home. Have fun, but I don’t need to tell you that, because it just is.

 

Seth Lutnick is a singer and songwriter and somewhat of an authority on home music recording.