Recording Gear Buying Guide
Creating your own home recording setup can be a daunting task! It seems like everything you buy needs something else to work and before you know it you’re over-budget and don’t even have a microphone – plus you burnt the dinner. This buying guide is going to help you make the best choices for your specific situation and get you on the right track to creating an awesome recording or mixing space.
The first thing you need to consider is what exactly are you planning on recording? Do you only want a few inputs to record some acoustic guitar and vocals? Or maybe you want to track your 13-piece drum kit, timpani, and high school rhythm section in the living room. Either way, the first question you need to ask is, “What type of recordings am I wanting to make?” Answering this question is going to help you decide how many inputs you will need, which is a great starting point.
Smaller Recording Formats
Whether you're recording a few acoustics guitars and a vocal or recording the sounds of latest tap-dance routine, you will typically need 2 – 4 inputs that are able to record simultaneously. Whether you decide to use a computer-based system or multitrack recorder, you will need at least one microphone and XLR as well as a microphone stand. Also consider what cables you will need to connect your interface to you computer if you go that route. You will also need some way to hear back what you have just recorded or are currently recording. Headphones are a must for tracking but you will also want to get a pair of monitors to playback your recordings in good quality and accuracy.
Larger Recording Formats
Depending on the amount of recording space you have available to you, you may yourself wanting to do larger sessions with drums, guitars, keys, or bass simultaneously. Obviously, this will require a larger budget and a bit more modification to your available room to make sure it is a good recording environment. You will typically need 16 or more tracks that are able to record at the same time. If you’re looking for a system using your computer, something such as the Pro Tools HD 1 system is perfect as it is expandable as your recording needs change. You must also be sure that your computer will meet the minimum requirements for such a demanding system. You can also use a mulittrack recorder, but they are a bit less expandable and can be limiting in the long run.
In larger recording applications, you will need a variety of microphones for all the different sounds you will be capturing. With a setup like Pro Tools HD 1, you will also need preamps on a mixing console or individually for each of the inputs you plan to use. Effects and processors are important during tracking and mixing. In the computer-based system you can utilize these in plug-in formats or you can get into the world of outboard gear. You also need to account for XLR’s and other cables you will need to connect everything. You will need monitors to hear the music you have recorded as well as a foldback or cue system for monitoring with headphones. To top it off, you will need pop-filters, direct boxes, and plenty of extra XLR’s, 1/4" cables, and other backup cabling for anything you use in your setup.
Choosing your DAW
After you decide which format will best suite your needs, you now need to choose something to record your music with. There are two main types of recorders; computer-based and stand-alone. Computer-based is typically more stationary and much more expandable and more widely utilized among serious audio professionals. The downside is that they take a lot of maintenance and some expertise to really operate effectively. The multitrack recorder offers and all-in-one station that typically has effects and processors built in. They are built specifically for recording and typically have fewer bugs than computer-based systems. The downside is that they are rarely expandable, somewhat limiting, and go out of date relatively quickly.
So you’ve decided to go the computer route – good choice! The first thing you will need is an audio interface. An audio interface is what takes anything your microphone picks up and converts it from analog to digital (A/D Converter) information so that your computer software can understand and record it. When choosing an interface, there are a few basic things to look for.
I/O (input/output) – Like I said before, you’ll need to know how many inputs you need and what types. You want to check if there are XLR, 1/4", MIDI, balanced or unbalanced connectors. Make sure you know how many channels it can record with at once. (Tip: S/PDIF inputs will allow you to connect an external preamp and boost your inputs).
Software – Most of the time your interface will come with recording software like, Ableton, Cubase, or ProTools. I recommend going to your local Guitar Center or a friend’s house and demo a few types of software to see which you feel most comfortable using. The most important part of choosing software is making sure that your computer meets the minimum requirements to record and mix. Sometimes recording software, such as Logic Pro, comes with libraries of audio samples and MIDI instruments to play into your music. Many, such as ProTools, also include a good package of plug-ins you can use for mixing.
Keep an eye out for the bit depth and sample rate capabilities. You will not need anything more than a bit depth of 24-bits and a sample rate of 48 kHz as playback of anything higher isn’t consumer friendly currently. Also be aware of latency -- the delay between when you play or sing a note and when you hear it on the rack -- as it can make digital recording a real hassle. Any quality interface will have a way of monitoring latency so be sure to look for that.
When searching for a multitrack recorder you are really looking at all the same things as a computer-based setup except for the software. Be sure to check the I/O situation, the sample rate and bit-depth qualities, and all of the extra processors and effects it may come with. The main thing you need to watch out for on a recorder is its storage capabilities. They typically record to an internal drive but can sometimes be connected to an external hard drive. The size of audio files really adds up quickly, so be sure to do your math and get one that is going to hold all that you want to record at once.
Choosing the Right Microphones
We’ve got a great buying guide just for picking out the perfect microphones for your studio. Check it out on our microphones page:
Picking out Your Monitors
If you walk in to Guitar Center and ask to see their selection of monitors, you are likely to become overwhelmed with the amount that are on the shelf these days. The good thing is that there are plenty at every price point. The bad thing is there are so many it’s nearly impossible to choose, right? Wrong!
When looking for a good pair of near-field monitors, you want something that has a virtually flat EQ all the way across the board. This is going to give you the best representation of what your recordings will actually sound like. Consumer speakers are boosted in the lows and highs, which is not ideal for mixing. This is exactly why every studio in Nashville has a pair of the old passive NS-10’s – virtually flat monitoring.
Follow these few simple rules and your monitor shopping should go smoothly. First, pick your budget! Then, within that budget, compare frequency response and amp/driver size. Typically, the bigger the driver on the sub and tweeter, the more accurate the representation of highs and lows will be. Pick the monitors that match these descriptions the best and that are in your budget and roll out! The great thing about buying monitors from Guitar Center or Sam Ash is that you have 30 days to test them out and return them if your not happy.
Also be aware that there are two types of monitors - active and passive. An active monitor just means that the amplifier and controls are built into the speaker including the crossover. This is a much simpler setup and takes up less space in a small home environment. Passive speakers will require an external amplifier and are much more customizable regarding the choice of amp and processing in between.
You’ll also want to make sure that you get the correct cables and/or adapters so that your interface monitor outputs can be connected to the monitors correctly.
Ahh, the final piece to the home studio puzzle – accessories. There are so many little things that you will find yourself wanting or needing over the process of setting up and running your studio. Monitor stands, cable wraps, sound foam, racks, mic stands, extra cables, cable wraps, patch bays, music stands, and so many other things may eventually be needed.
If you’re on a tight budget, many of these things, as well as the things listed above can be bought used at a lower price. Keep your eyes open for a local studio going out of business or good sales at your closest music store. Technology changes everyday and so does the gear available for recording. Keep up on the newest gear out by reading our forums and articles as well as our huge pot of reviews!