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Future Sound Vol.1 - Gearing Up For Home Recording

Posted by Scott Brown on 12 March 2012

futuresound rockshop

I have had a long romance with music, one that goes back far as I can remember. My parents have embarrassing photos of me as a toddler dancing to Rod Stewart records and in one way or another I can recall music always having an amazing impact on me. I hit my formative years in the 90's so Grunge was the dominant scene at that time - I had the long hair, faded cardigan, and electric guitar and I was ready to change the world, just like everyone else.

Garage bands were in abundance, and I'm not talking about the kind made by Apple. We filled our parents basements with terrible renditions of Nirvana and Black Sabbath songs and our ears pulsed with the distorted tones of rebellion. I have wonderful memories of this era and it was during this time that I discovered the drums, something that would become a huge passion for me.

I played drums for about 10 years in and out of bands but nothing really serious, mostly bad cover bands with big ambitions of writing original material. After having a couple of Kids I didn't have a lot of time (or space!) to pursue drumming so I sold my kit and vowed that one day I would try to write and record my own material and learn how to produce it all myself, and that is what I have been delving into for the last 6 months.

I've always enjoyed listening to electronic music, especially artists that can fuse live instruments and electronic sounds together to create something highly emotive. I remember hearing Massive Attack's "Mezzanine" for the first time back in 1998 and being totally floored by it's brilliance - the dark vibe and heavy beats instantly connected with me, I knew that this was the type of music that I wanted to make someday.

It was around that time that a friend introduced me to Nine Inch Nails and the genius that is Trent Reznor. Over a decade later I am still an obsessive NIN fan and the man is still making fantastic (although much mellower) music.

I knew going into this adventure that I wanted to bring that dark vibe that artists like Massive Attack and Nine Inch Nails capture so well, sometimes it's aggressive, sometimes it's melodic and ambient… there is no real definitive genre that their music fits into and that is what makes it so interesting.

Conceptually everything sounded wonderful, I knew what I wanted to do - then came the learning process, something that I have discovered becomes more and more difficult with age!

To say that learning how to write and record your own music is a steep learning curve is a giant understatement. There is a lot to learn and it can certainly seem like an overwhelming task. I have definitely hit the point where I have considered throwing this pursuit into the "too hard" basket after reading in-depth articles on mastering and understanding compressors.

Sometimes it is good to just dive in and have a play around with your recording setup, try out different things and see what works and what inevitably doesn't but don;t get too bogged down in technical stuff.

Luckily there are some great resources and forums online where people are happy to share what they have learnt and also explain things in a way that a newbie can understand.

In the spirit of sharing knowledge I wanted to start writing about what I have learnt so far. I am hoping to write a few articles to cover the many divergent subjects that a beginner needs to think about - everything from technical stuff, writing process, equipment, getting your music out to the world and whatever else I work out along the way, I am still learning myself so it is also good for me to get all this down in writing.

So once you decide you want to write and record your own music, what comes next? Equipment. Let's take a look at where you should begin and what you need to keep in mind.

 

There is an abundance of equipment out there to add to your home recording setup. A lot of gear looks cool and seems like a wonderful idea, but as a beginner do you really need it?

If you are like me and working to a fairly tight budget you need to purchase wisely. I would recommend not buying the cheapest equipment as inevitably you will grow out of it and need to upgrade, the last thing you want is technical limitations and frustrations turning you off writing your own material. So you might not start out with everything you need, but that's OK, just work with what you have and add equipment to your setup as you can, if you work out a good process you can work around limitations.

For example, I am currently saving for a microphone, so for now my focus is getting the tracks I am working on into a good structure so that when I do get a microphone I can basically go straight into laying vocal tracks.

First of all you will need a fairly kick ass computer. Recording software (Also known as a DAW or Digital Audio Work Station ) is processor intensive and you will no doubt spend a lot of time working to the sound of your computer fan blasting. I am working on a Macbook Pro with 4GB memory - So far this setup runs smoothly with minimal overload.

If you are reading this site then congratulations! You have the first piece of equipment you need. From here it gets slightly more confusing. The diagram below shows a fairly standard home recording setup and how each item works together.

 

When I first started thinking about recording I naively thought that I would be able to plug my guitar into my computer, fire up Garageband and create an epic CD quality recording, this is of course not going to happen.

To get the editing capabilities required to record/mix/master high quality music you are going to need professional level recording software - Pro Tools is a widely used DAW and one that most people have heard of, there are a few other great options out there such as Logic, Ableton Live and Reason.

Finding the DAW that best suits you is really a matter of doing some research and checking out the features that make each one different. I chose Logic as I am a fan of Apple products and I was impressed with the instrument library that it came with. The general specs and operational functions across all DAWs are fairly similar but I liked Logic's interface and capabilities.

I have heard some really good things about Ableton Live and have a "lite" version that I'll definitely check out sometime soon, but for now I am making Logic the core of my musical world (bad Apple joke not intended).

Logic, like all DAWs, is a complicated beast. It is jam packed full of features and you are really going to need to take the time to read some documentation and/or watch some video tutorials about it, youtube is full of helpful videos to get you going. Start simple and build your way up to more complex editing procedures, sometimes it's a matter of hitting a wall with what you are working on and having to learn your way out of it!

 

A midi-controller is essentially a keyboard that allows you to control instruments within your software, this can be done using your computer keyboard and mouse but for a more hands on "real" feel you need a good controller.

There are a lot of midi-controllers around and they range from a simple 25 key to the more complicated 61 key with additional features like faders, knobs, drum pads etc… a great start is the Alesis Q25, it has a 25 note keyboard, modulation/pitch wheels, and one fader that controls the track volume, you simply plug it in and play. Most controllers are USB powered.

I recently upgraded to a Novation Impulse 61 - this has a 61 note keyboard, drum pads, knobs and faders to control various DAW and instrument settings, The extended features of this controller mean less time using your mouse to click tiny controls on screen, there is definitely something nice about getting more "hand's on" and it has definitely helped my writing process.

Again, it is really a matter of doing your research and also checking out some controllers in-store so that you can get a feel for how they work, many of them have semi-weighted keys to give them a more natural feel so find one that suits you.

Read some online forums and see if people are having any issues with certain brands of controller and also try and find people that are using the same DAW as you. Sometimes there can be controller/software issues that may create problems while you are trying to record.

Also check out the company that makes the controller and see if they regularly release bug fixes for their software - more complicated controllers come with "mapping" software that will map the controls on your midi-controller to functions within your software, the easier it is to setup the better!

If you are lucky enough to own an iPad there are controller apps available that will provide you with some really experiemental methods of working in your DAW. Lemur and TouchOSC are two great options.

 

This little box will be the main go-between from your live instruments/monitors to your computer. You can think of this device as an external sound card made for studio quality recording and playback, rather than for home users.

The Audio Interface plugs into your computer via USB and has all the plugs on it that you will need to track guitars, vocals, keyboards and output the audio from your DAW to your studio monitors.

With home recording you probably won't be tracking more than one or two instruments at a time so you only need a couple of inputs to get the job done. As long as it has good quality pre-amps, low-latency (a short amount of time to get the data from your instrument to the computer) and 24-bit or higher resolution you should get a good result.

A little research will show you that there are loads of options out there, so just compare the specs and see what comes out on top. One that has grabbed my attention is the Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 - they have packed a lot of high quality features into this interface and I can't wait to get mine!

 

Studio monitors or reference monitors are speakers designed for audio production, they produce a flat signal so that you get an accurate representation of how your music will sound when you create your final mix.

Hearing an accurate version of your music is absolutely crucial to getting a good consistent sound. Your music will be listened to on a huge array of devices so you what to ensure that it sounds good in all possible situations.

Different brands of monitors will give you slight variations in sound, some have a tendency towards a more low end reproduction and others have a higher peak. You will often see a wall of monitors in a studio so that they can test songs on the most popular options.

It is always a good rule that if a company specialises in only one type of product, then they are going to know what they are doing - KRK Systems have a great reputation and have everything from entry level to high end options. Go to your local music store and check out some different monitors, see what your ears can pick up and what you feel gives you the best playback.

A new and really price friendly option is the Focusrite VRM Box - it is a virtual monitor system that allows you to mix your tracks through headphones, It uses mathematical formulas to reproduce the sound of some of the top brands of monitor. It should give you hints as to where your mix might be off. You also need a really good set of headphones to get the full benefit from it.

 

Microphones are complex little devices and you can easily spend a lot of money on them. For home recording you want a decent quality condenser mic, this will let you record vocals and achieve relatively good results recording live instruments such as acoustic guitar.

A condenser microphone has a greater frequency response which means it is better at reproducing the speed of an instrument or voice. Condenser mic's are typically used in studio setups and dynamic mic's are more geared towards live performance.

Initially I really underestimated the importance of a good microphone (and admittedly, vocals in general) - the way your vocals sound within a song will make it something special or a complete failure, it is not something that you can go back and fix within your software, if your microphone isn't up to the job your music will never reach a professional level.

There is also a great deal you can do with layering vocals within a song, and also manipulating vocal tracks with effects to create interesting soundscapes - essentially your vocal tracks can really shape the sound and flow of your song.

Companies like Shure and Rode make great microphones that are generally considered "industry standard". The Rode NT1-A comes highly recommended and it is packaged with a shock mount and pop filter - basically everything you need in one box.

 

So there you have it, a breakdown of the basic equipment that you will need to start thinking about if you want to put together a home recording studio.

Depending on the style of music you are creating there are probably certain items you can skip over but generally speaking these are the basic things you need to record and mix effectively. For me, it's about fusing electronic and live instrumentation so things like microphones are required.

The best thing you can do is hit some online forums and start reading up and comparing the specs of the products you are considering purchasing. Familiarize yourself with the terminology and basic functions of recording equipment so that you have some idea of what achieves a good result.

There are some great resources out there where real people (non-endorsed) are talking and comparing products and aren't afraid to tell you what sounds like shit. Always try and find people that are using your DAW with the equipment you are thinking of purchasing to ensure that there are no driver or compatibility issues.

The market these days is quite competitive so companies are fairly quick to release bug fixes if you do happen to encounter issues.

Get down to your local music store and try everything out, most places will have monitors and equipment setup so that you can listen and compare brands and talk to the staff about what they recommend.

All the equipment I have talked about is available at your local Rockshop, I have been dealing with the Tauranga branch and the guys there have been great, very knowledgeable bunch of people!

In Future Sound no.2 I'll talk about the writing process, admittedly this is something I am still learning but I am starting to work out methods that help move things forward.


Scott Brown is the Creative Director at one of New Zealand's premiere web development companies, he maintains a blog at www.scottbrown.co.nz

He has been a drummer for over a decade and is now turning his attention to writing and recording original material under the name Fake Empire.