Computer - This can be either a PC or a Laptop, running Windows or Mac, but it has to have a good processor and a significant amount of memory. Don't go with anything less than a dual core processor and 4gb of Memory, unless its unavoidable, these specs aren't so essential for recording but will be needed later for mixing and mastering. Budget Tip: A Computer is pretty essential, the only way around this if you don't have one is to ask family or a friend if they will let you use theirs, failing that see if you can pick up a cheap digital multi-track recorder on something like eBay.
Monitors and Headphones - Get the best set of monitors you can afford, they will give you a much greater sense of clarity than normal speakers will and this will help you hear whats going on far better when mixing, mastering and just playing back raw recordings. Headphones are essential so you can hear what is going on whilst you are performing and so you can hear your click track to stay in time. Get the best headphones you can afford, but so long as you can hear what is going on, you can use cheap ones as it is not critical to hear every little detail. Note: Never try to mix your songs using headphones, use your monitors for that. Budget Tip: If stuck you could use the speakers from your home stereo, I mixed both The Masked Musician's albums without monitors and used decent Hi-Fi speakers. Having done it both ways though I'd recommend using monitors if you can.
Recording Software - Essential to capture your recordings that come through your sound card. You can get big name software for a few hundred pounds (consider the hardware bundle option mentioned above) that will act as your Digital Audio Workstation (D.A.W.). Within this it is possible to capture your recordings, edit, mix and master them though it can be desirable to use a different application for mastering. Budget Tip: There are some free applications you could download that have basic recording features, have a look around online. Even if they only have 2 channels you could record on those, then send a pre-mix out, re-import it, record another channel alongside and send it out again. This method is known as bouncing tracks, as you are working in a digital medium there should be no loss of quality however many times you do this.
Once you have your basic kit you need to set up your hardware and install/configure your software (see below). Hardware setup is fairly straight forward for home recording:
1. Connect your monitors/speakers to your soundcard. If using an external soundcard this is just a case of connecting left and right outputs on the soundcard to the left and right monitors/speakers (if you are doing this the Budget Tip way you will probably need a splitter lead so that both speakers can be fed independently off one stereo output).
2. Connect your soundcard to your computer (usually by a Firewire or USB port). Some software installations may tell you not to do this straight away and wait until the installation is at a certain stage).
3. Connect your headphone lead to the headphone socket on your soundcard. Personally I prefer to use remote headphones for this so connect the transmitter input to the headphone output, that way you don't get tangled up in leads when moving around the performance space.
Ok, now the Hardware and Software is setup, now we can look at laying the foundations for your project. Whether you are looking at producing a Single, E.P. or full Album:
1. Create a folder with the same name as your Album/E.P./Single within Windows/Mac Os.
2. Create a set of subfolders within this main folder, one for each song you plan to record and name then accordingly. When you start recording this will help keep all the associated files in the same place and reduce the chances of you losing recordings from your file.
3. Open up your Recording Software and find the Project Settings, these will include Sample Rate and Bit Rate etc. For Pro Quality you want to be no less than 48K Sample Rate and 24 Bit Audio but go as high as your kit will let you (Budget Tip Producers may be limited to less than this by free software).
4. For each file you need to work out the tempo's (BPM) and time signature for each file, these will give you the correct time references for your click track when recording:
Notes on Tempo and Time Signature:
Time Signature: Most songs you do will tend to be in '4 time' meaning a 4/4 or 2/4 time signature will be needed, sometimes it could be '3 time' which can be common for strummed acoustic song or ballad tracks, this could be 3/4 or 6/8. Count the beats as you play to work out whether 3 or 4 time works with the song and then try setting a click track signature in one of the groups above to see what feels most natural to play along with. If none of the above works, you may be playing in an irregular time division, these could include 7/4 or 9/4 amongst others. The first beat of each bar in a click track is usually noted with a higher pitch than the others.
Tempo: This is speed at which your chosen time signature plays and is usually a number of Beats Per Minute (BPM). Play along with your chosen time signaure at the default BPM and see if it feels too fast or too slow (or maybe about right). This is a process of trial and error, so keep altering it until you find something that feels right. Once you have something that feels right, try fine tuning it by experimenting a few BPM either side of your chosen tempo. You'd be suprised what small adjustments like that can make to the feel of a song.
Tempo Mapping: Once you have a Time Signature and Tempo for the beginning of your song, you need to check through the rest of it for any changes in Time/Tempo in other sections of the song. If there are none, then you are set so save your file and move onto the next one. If there are changes, you will need to work out what these are as above for each point of change in the song. Your software should have a way for you to record these changes and when they occur on the timeline, this is known as creating a Tempo Map.
You are now ready to move to the Production Stage
This section is about making sure you have the right kit, laying the foundations for your recording sessions and organising your work on your computer in order to make your recording sessions go more smoothly. Think of this as Housekeeping, re-arranging the cupboard so you know where everything you are going to need is in order to save time. It may seem mundane if you are really itching to get recording, but a bit of time spent organising and planning now will save you a lot of headaches later.
This section also contains notes on setting up your hardware and software if you haven't already done this, before setting anything up it may be worth considering re-installing your operating system to clear the cobwebs out of your computer before starting or at the very least, run a system defrag to help your computer run more smoothly.
Pre-Production is broken into the following sub-sections:
A Note On Costs...
Although these notes are all about recording pro quality on a tiny budget, some spending is necessary for kit to get the best out of your recordings. For those of you who have next to no money spend, I have marked sections below as Budget Tip: which will tell you how to do things ultra cheap though it will be at the expense of quality. Use the budget tips if you just want to get started with some low/no cost demo's and then you can expand over time as you can afford to expand your kit.
In this section I'm assuming that you already have the instruments that you want to use and if they are electric, you also have amplification and leads of some sort. For recording music though, these are the bare essentials you need:
Soundcard/Mics/Leads - Your soundcard is the device that allows you to record sound into your computer and play it back. I'd recommend spending a few hundred pounds to get an external soundcard that can take both standard jack and XLR inputs. This would usually connect to your computer by a Firewire or USB port. Some external soundcards come bundled with recording software so these are worth considering too. Its best to have a few microphones of different types as some are better for recording different types of instruments (we will go into this more in the Production section). Leads to connect these to your soundcard should only cost a few pounds. Budget Tip: Most computers have a soundcard built in, it is not really designed for high quality recording use but if you are penniless you could use this, you may have to adapt the connectors on your mics and instruments as they usually only take 1/4 inch jacks. There are adaptors available for this. Make sure you have at least one mic, use it on everything and seperate your instruments using EQ in the mix. Its not good practice to do that, but one way is better than no way.
Acoustic Room Correction (A.R.C.) - When you hear sound back on your monitors/speakers for mixing, the properties of sound waves and the shape/size of your room can affect the sound you are hearing, meaning that what you hear is not accurate to what was recorded. Usually a recording studio would be treated with absorbant materials to dampen the acoustics but this is often not possible for practical reasons when home recording, also the recording and mixing rooms in a studio are usually custom desgined to get the best out of the space.. The next best thing is to use A.R.C. you calibrate it prior to mixing by letting it play out a set of test tones in the room you're using and it reads these back with its own mic to work out the acoustic errors in your room. It then uses EQ to offset these and cancel them out. Budget Tip: If hard pushed you could mix without this, but it is recommended that you play back your mixes over several different systems to compare how they hold up eg. Home Hi-Fi, Car Stereo, Laptop Speakers and really something with a low reaching bass like a home cinema system would be good as it will show up any problems in the low end.
Firstly you need to install the driver/software for your sound card. To do this either use the disc that came with your soundcard or if you have bought an older/second hand soundcard, go to the manufacturers website and check for a more up to date version. If there is one you will be able to download it for free, just make sure it is the one that is compatible with your version of Windows/Mac Os. Note: When installing it may tell you not to connect your soundcard to the computer until it says to, if this is the case, disconnect it before starting and re-connect only when it says to do so.
IMPORTANT NOTE: If you are using a Firewire input , don't EVER pull the plug out while the Soundcard and Computer and still switched on, doing so could permanently damage your Soundcard. First, shut down your computer the normal way, switch off your Soundcard and then disconnect it.
Once your soundcard is installed, you need to install your recording software, if you have bought software use the disc provided. If you have downloaded recording software off the internet, the file should contain all that you need. Just follow the instructions given.
Now you have your recording software installed, you need to check that it can 'see' the Soundcard. This is usually under some kind of Project Setup option in the menu options. If you can't find it, use the software's help files to locate it. When you have this box open there should be a drop down menu for inputs, choose the option that says the name of your Soundcard on it. If you can't see it then you should try re-installing the Soundcard.
A Note About Latancy: Your Software may have a Latancy Buffer setting, Latancy in effect is playback delay, the time is takes between you either playing a note or pressing play and hearing the result back through the monitors. Whilst the software has a natural Latancy built in (usually in milliseconds), sometimes its necessary to add an additional small delay known as a Latancy Buffer. Adding this prevents pops and droputs on your playback, but as mentioned also adds a small playback delay. Generally it is better to have a small buffer for recording and a larger one for mixing, but small buffers will cause your computer to work harder. If your computer isn't so powerful it may cause it to struggle and you will have to increase the buffer slightly. Latency Buffers are often measured in samples rather than seconds.
I. I recommend getting a surge protected gang socket to power your kit with, this will prevent any spikes in the electrical supply interfering with your recordings. Most homes usually have RCD circuit breakers in their mains box (the type that can be reset at the push of a button if they trip) so these will keep you safe in the event of an electrical fault. If you should happen to have the older ceramic fuses in your mains box, you should also buy an adaptor plug with an RCD breaker on it. This is important for safety reasons.
2. Check all your kit is in full working order, look for dodgy leads and connectors in particular (if you are taking your gear out to do live gigging in between recording sessions, you will need to keep checking this before commencing a session).
IMPORTANT: If you do have kit that is at fault, you must not take apart amplifiers and other mains connected kit to try and fix it unless you are qualified to do so, otherwise you will be risking your life! Take faulty kit to a qualified professional for repair.
3. If you have any kit such as Effects Pedals or battery powered Mics, make sure you have a good stock of batteries to hand.
4. Make sure you have a good stock of instrument consumables to hand such as guitar strings etc.
5. Run a couple of recording tests to make sure your gear/hardware/software are all working correctly with eachother. Try a Direct Input (D.I.) test and a microphone test. If your mic needs to be powered, make sure you have the Phantom Power switched on on your Soundcard (if you are doing it the Budget Tip and your Soundcard doesn't have Phantom Power you will either have to use an unpowered mic (easiest and cheapest) or get a battery operated Phantom Power box to run your Mic through.
6. Make sure you have a way to back up the project folder you created, an external hard drive is good, 2 of them is even better, if you do use an online backup facility, make sure it is secure. If you are working on a project for a long time files are bound to get lost or corrupted at some point. So get into the habit of religiously backing up your work at the end of every session, whether you are recording, editing, mixing or mastering, ALWAYS BACK YOUR WORK UP. With this set up, it can be as simple as copying your project folder from one place to another, but make sure there's plenty of space as your project files will grow a lot in size as you keep recording.