Enter the world of audio engineering. Also known as “how the heck do I record myself, and what the heck is that cable called?”
In this article, I will go over the basic topics of audio recording that will enable you to select your own equipment, and get started with your own recording projects.
A follow-up article will be posted following this one where I will specifically deal with Protools and how to go about setting up and recording a session. I will also go over the basics of recording in the studio such as setting up your hardware, punching in, audio editing, basic mixing, bouncing, and click tracks.
It is no secret that the ability to record yourself and your music has many benefits. As a practice tool, recording is a veritable force multiplier. With recording, you can now listen to yourself and compare what you hear to your expectations rather than assume your playing is somehow conforming to your intentions. Recordings don’t lie. This is why many auditions and job interviews require pre-screening tracks. It would be a shame to have this task count against you. Being able to record yourself can help you in the financial department; as well as allow to you capture your best takes on your own time. Recording rehearsals can help you fine-tune your group sound, produce rehearsal and create demo tracks. The ability to self-produce high-quality audio can be an exceptional promotional tool for the perceptive musician, as well as a financial benefit when producing your own commercial recordings. As a recording artist, being familiar with the recording process can help you to be a better studio player as you get your takes onto the mic.
The world of audio engineering is a combination of confusing jargon, intimidating physics, expensive hardware, and computer science. The good news is that you don’t actually need three post-doctoral degrees in order to get great recordings of you and whatever you happen to be playing.
The reality of audio recording for performers boils down to familiarity with three basic topics.
Terminology and jargon
Signal Flow and hardware
The first category is perhaps the most daunting. Knowing your elbow from your rear is the name of the game in any highly technical field. That which already saves you at the auto mechanic and on tax day now will help you to record.
Now is the time where I list a bunch of words and I then tell you what it all means. Feel free to print this out and use it as a life-reference.
The audio project you are working on. The session file is the item that you click to open and pick up where you left off.
This is an option on audio interfaces that supplies the power that is required by Condenser microphones. It typically can be switched on and off as it can damage other kinds of micriphones. It is 48 volt.
The recording element of a condenser microphone. In general, bigger is better and also more expensive.
Any volume for a microphone channel that can be altered before the signal reaches the volume control at the recording source. (ie: your software).
A piece of cloth that goes in between the instrument and microphone to eliminate bodily noise and button/valve clicks. Mainly for vocals.
When the audio is too loud for the level set on the pre-amp. This is an un-useable recorded sound. The goal is to get the strongest signal that does not clip.
The devise that powers the microphone and ultimately colors the sound that is recorded. These can be extremely expensive or built into your interface.
The device that plugs into your computer and that you plug your microphones into. This is the nerve center of your recording setup.
A volume control that influences the final volume change for all recorded sound.
When there is nothing other than the instrument, being recorded going into the microphone. Hint, if you are recording live, nothing is isolated.
Digital audio workstation. This is your protools or audacity or logic or ableton.
The act of adjusting levels and effects after something has been recorded.
Recording just one part of something previously recorded. This is not acceptable for an audition recording.
How much you hear before you start recording. This can help you know what to play when it is time to play.
Creating an MP3 or other audio file that represents the current state of your audio project.
How much energy is being given to the signal. This results in more volume. The goal is to use as much gain as possible without clipping.
A microphone cable that has three pins. This carries phantom power as well as stereo signal.
The big version of your headphone jack. This can be stereo or mono. Commonly seen as a guitar cable. It does not carry phantom power and is typically not a microphone cable.
Encoding for velocity and attack assigned by a controller and can be given an electronic instrument.
When what you play sounds later than when you play it in your headphones. Latency is bad if you are recording with other sounds. It is not an issue if you are not hearing anything while you play.
A way of lowering the initial volume into a microphone. Typically on the physical microphone.
The second category, signal flow, is also something that can be intimidating for the non-engineer. Have no fear; signal flow obeys the same laws as a river.
Signal flow is simply the pathway that sound travels from your instrument to the recorded track. With a portable recording, the signal flow cannot be changed, and will thus seldom have a problem With more complex recording setups, the signal flow can go from the microphone through pre-amps and into the interface and to the software driver. In live sound, the signal can go through any number of channels to output as well as recording. The important part of signal flow is just to visualize where your sound goes in order to determine where a problem might occur or to troubleshoot.
If you do not hear anything when you play into your microphone, trace its signal to determine the problem. Does the microphone have a pad activated? Is the microphone plugged in? Does it have phantom power (or does it need this). Is the interface-showing signal when you play? Is your recording track set to monitor incoming signal? Does your DAW show that signal is coming in? Is your microphone being sent to the track in question in your DAW? Is your output set to something you can hear? Are your speakers turned on or your headphones plugged in and turned up?
Knowledge of signal flow can make or break your recording session. Never assume any part of your signal flow is foolproof and always allow extra time to work through signal problems before your recordings session. More than one amateur recording session failed to meet the mark due to excessive time spent with setup and troubleshooting. When in doubt, read the manual. Actually just search google as that will get your answer faster. All of the knowledge you need is on the internet, you just need to know what you need to look for!
The second part of this second category is one of hardware. Hardware is the actually pieces of equipment that you use to record yourself. Hardware can be divided into three categories.
DAW and software
For microphones, there are three basic categories that you will deal with.
Condenser microphones are very sensitive, require phantom power, and are generally the most common type of microphone. They are not suitable for live performance, and are an excellent and versatile category of recording device. This is probably the first kind of microphone you will own, and they range from the affordable to the crazy expensive. A good condenser microphone can be as cheap as $100, and you can spend several thousand dollars on them. They can be greatly altered by the type of pre-amp you plug them into (again another expenditure), and work well in a variety of circumstances. I have a pair of $100 condenser microphones (AT2020) that I have used for just about everything.
Dynamic microphones are characterized by not needing phantom power and by being less sensitive. They are ideas for live audio as well as for extremely loud applications. Bass drums and snare drums are frequently miced by dynamic microphones. In fact, the most common microphone in the world is the Sure SM87 and SM58. Everyone reading this article has come across one at some point in their lives. Outside of percussion, dynamic microphone are seldom used in the studio environment and so I do not recommend you purchase one unless it is for live or percussion use.
Ribbon microphones are the more expensive and more exotic of microphones. They literally have a small piece of metal that vibrates to the sound you produce. This means that they color the sound they sense more than condensers. They also are very good for loud and dynamically diverse sound sources. Ribbon microphones are a favorite for brass instruments. However, Ribbon microphones must never be given phantom power. Some have protection circuits that keep them from being turned into miniature light-sabers for fractions of a second. Be careful, they are delicate, but they are nice! I recommend the Cascade Fat Head II as an excellent ribbon microphone. The Royer 122 is the cream of the crop but also very expensive. On the budget end, the MXL 122 is an excellent microphone for brass.
In the arena of audio interfaces, you will find yourself in one of three categories.
If you are recording with your cellphone all hope is not lost. You will certainly not get the studio quality experience of a real microphone setup, but if you get your phone in the right place and with the right things in between it and your instrument, you can maximize your results. Experiment, typically getting indirect sound is better than direct sound. Your phone as a very small microphone element and will magnify anything you dislike about your sound. Furthermore, you will not gain any warmth as a result of a large capsule or nice preamp. This method is foolproof and portable. It, however, cannot compete with the other categories.
With a portable recorder, you enter a world of pleasure. You have at your disposal devises with reasonable microphones that sometimes have video and that are nearly impossible to get a poor result with. Many of these output into formats that you can put into your computer and further process if that is what you want to do. Portable recorders make excellent archival recordings but are nowhere near sufficient for studio quality recordings. Portable recorders suffer from the same problem of small capsule and poor preamp that you cellphone does. Albeit about 10x the size of your cellphone, but still inferior to studio grade equipment. This method is portable and sounds good. But for the money you should go for a real microphone.
If you are recording with an audio interface, that means you have your computer and some sort of DAW software. Good for you! With this setup, you can achieve a need-studio quality recording. With the right gear, you can get as good as or better than studio quality. The pros here are that you get the best possible quality and flexibility. The conns are that it is complex and time consuming to figure out and set up.
When choosing an interface, fist take note of what company has the best driver support for your computer. The driver is what lets your interface talk to your software. This is IMPORTANT. For windows, I recommend Focusrite and Presonus as they have excellent windows drivers. For Mac, I recommend M-Audio and Alessis. Most interfaces will have one or two pre-amps for you to plug into. IF you splurge and get one with more pre-amps then you can record more things. Many interfaces also have extra inputs for MISI and ADAT and SPIDF and other things that you don’t need to worry about just now. Also make sure you get a USB one if you don’t have a firewire port. It does really matter what port you use. USB interfaces tend to be a little cheaper, and USB is definitely here to stay.
After you install your driver, plug in your interface and install your software. I like Protools. It is the industry standard. Other good packages are Adobe Audition, Apple Logic, and Ableton Live. Free platforms include Garage Band and Audacity. They work very well and I recommend you start with them. Many times, your interface will come with software. Anything will do. Boot it up, read the manual, watch tutorials, and get recording! Remember signal flow and give yourself time to figure it out.
So get out there and start recording. It is not as complex as the engineers want you to think, and you can get it done! Youtube is an excellent resource, as is Lynda.com (pay-wall). Get some gear and commit to recording. The benefits are there, and the technology has evolved. Make it happen!