In this article, we'll walk through the essential gear you need to record yourself in 2020. In each section,we'll offer up some suggestions based on different needs or situations. Let's get started!
1) What do you want to record?
The first question that we ask someone when they tell us they want to start recording audio, is what they want to record. The answer to that question can drastically change the recommendation that we make for what gear and equipment someone should get. Someone looking to record a full band will have very different needs than someone who is looking to improve their game streaming setup. Start by determining what you want to record, and who your audience is.
2) Which recording device should you choose?
In this day and age, many of us already have a computer, phone, tablet, or even a recorder that we can use to process and record audio. Each one has there own strengths and weaknesses and can be used for different applications. Here are some of the reasons you may want to choose one device over another.
Using a phone or tablet:
With your phone, you can use the microphone built into your phone, although its quality and practicality are somewhat limited in what you can record. There are better microphones that you can purchase to improve the audio quality of your phone, but these are largely aimed at recording a single person speaking at one time. This can be a great entry point if you are looking to start a vlog or video podcast, but is not really designed to record vocals or instruments to get the best results.
There are also some interfaces that can connect to iPhones and iPads, such as the Apogee One or Duet, or the PreSonus Audiobox iOne or iTwo. These interfaces have special cables or connectors that allow them to connect to a table for recording into an app that allows it. This can open up your ability to use your phone or tablet as a recording device, although your processing power and ability to add additional channels are still limited. These are great if you want to do some solo vocals, or a singer/songwriter setup. Using one of these interfaces, you will also need to get a dedicated microphone (or two) in order to capture your audio. Another advantage of this setup is that its very portable, so you can take it on the go and record, well, anywhere!
Using a computer:
For most musicians, podcasters, streamers, and voiceover artists, a computer is going to be the central hub of the entire recording process. The ability to record, edit, process, and export your audio all revolves around the computer, so it’s a key component for most home studios and recording setups. Editing and processing audio can take lots of power, and if a computer isn't powerful enough, your sessions can have delays, popping, and may even freeze up. So make sure you have a computer that can handle your project and what you want to record. For a basic setup with only a couple of channels of audio recording, almost any computer built within the last 10 years should be sufficient to get started.
One of the major advantages that computer offers, is just pure flexibility with your audio. The ability to run plugins for effects processing, or to emulate an entire studio of outboard gear (we won't get into the digital vs. analog argument here) give computers a major edge for recording audio. A computer can also offer a greater number of channels that you can record at one time, making it possible to record an entire band, or symphony orchestra (although you probably won't be doing that at home), with a single computer!
You will need to have either a USB microphone or an audio interface and additional microphones that can convert your voice or instrument (an analog signal) into something that the computer can understand (digital 1's and 0's). Just like with a phone, having a way to record quality audio is important, so we'll take look at the gear you will need a little later on (or you can just skip down to the section that interests you). A basic computer setup can either be as simple as a USB Microphone with a set of headphones to monitor your audio, or it will have an audio interface, microphone, and headphones or studio monitors. Both setups require software (a Digital Audio Workstation or DAW) in order to setup and record your audio.
Using a recorder:
Another option for recording is a dedicated digital or analog recorder. Products like the Zoom HandyRecorders allow you to record audio anywhere you happen to be, or take your recording setup on the go. The advantage of these are obviously portability, and the sound quality is great right out of the box. Some of the options even have different capsules you can choose from to apply to your specific recording situation. Some of the more advanced options give you more channels that you can record at one time. Whether you are recording to a cassette tape with an old Tascam or Fostex recorder, or using an SD card in a digital recorder, the concept is the same. Using a recorder can get some great results, but in the end, all you have is an audio track, and you'll still need to have a way to process and edit that audio to finish it up and get it out into the world, which means you'll need to transfer that audio to a computer. This is great for Electronic News Gathering, or Content Creators looking to record their audio in the field, and finalize their audio on a computer later on.
3) What about the gear?
We've already talked a little bit about the gear you will need, but let's take a closer look at what you will need to record audio. Remember, everything depends on what it is you want to record, and there is not a silver bullet that is perfect for every audio recording situation. Here are the most common pieces of gear that you will need, as well as some suggestions to help you get started.
If you are recording physical (analog) sounds, you will need a microphone to capture it. There are a couple different kinds of mics that work well for different purposes.
A USB microphone can plug right into your computer and send recorded audio directly into your software. These tend to be less expensive, which makes them a great way to start out with recording. Almost all USB microphones have a headphone output that allows you to directly monitor your audio as you are recording, so you can have a pretty good idea of what you are actually recording. Unfortunately, USB mics lack expandability options (you can only have one USB microphone plugged in at one time) and the quality of some of the options out there are much less than professional XLR microphone counterparts.
For podcasting, look toward the Rode Podcaster
For recording vocals and guitar, check out the Rode NT-USB
XLR Microphones are more commonly used in professional recording environments for many reasons. Most audio interfaces have multiple XLR jacks so you can use more than one at a time. These microphones typically have more headroom as well. That means you can record at louder volumes without distortion (this is bad, unlike guitar distortion, which is awesome). There are literally hundreds of different microphones out there, so we won't offer just one option. If you need help picking out a microphone, check out our Buyer's Guides or give us a call to talk to an expert.
The next part of your chain is an audio interface. An audio interface is a unit that takes the signal from your microphones and sends it into the computer. Most of them allow multiple mics to be plugged in, which gives you multitracking capability.
If you purchase a new interface, it will likely include a Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) as well. A DAW is recording software that allows you to record, edit and mix tracks. I have two favorite DAW's and luckily, there are versions that are included for free with certain interfaces!
Focusrite Scarlett interfaces include Pro Tools|First and the Focusrite Creative Pack. Pro Tools|First is great for recording bands. I think the editing features in Pro Tools stand above the rest. You can also buy more plugins from the Avid store and add on to the stock ones! The drawbacks of Pro Tools|First are that you can only record up to 4 tracks at a time and up to 16 tracks total. You can also only have 3 sessions total before you need to delete one.
PreSonus/Studio One Artist:
PreSonus interfaces come with Studio One Artist Version. This version is usually $100 and it comes absolutely free! This is a full version of the software and has lots of great features like VST instruments, unlimited audio tracks and even direct export to SoundCloud. Studio One is highly tailored to electronic music producers, and still has a smooth tracking and mixing workflow for bands.
So you've got a solid signal from your mic to your interface and into your DAW. Now you've got to hear it! Studio headphones are a little different than your average earbuds. They tend to have a wider frequency response and more defined dynamics so you can hear exactly what your audio sounds like. The best studio headphones for under $100 I have heard are the Audio-Technica M40x. They work well with low to medium powered headphone amps (like in audio interfaces) and they truly represent what your music sounds like on other systems.
If you want to hear your sound out loud, or can't stand wearing headphones for long periods of time, it's worth investing in a good set of Studio Monitors. Studio monitors aren't necessary, but can help you identify different places in your recording where you might need to make some tweaks or adjustments. For most situations, we recommend one of these two sets:
All in one Packs:
There are some great bundle packs available that have all of these things in it (except the monitors). One of the more popular options is the PreSonus AudioBox USB 96 Studio Recording Package. For only $199, it comes with everything you need to record, except a mic stand. It's a great deal and a very easy way to get your first recording setup.
4) What if I still have questions?
We get it, there are a lot of options out there, and the right solution for you might not be obvious. If you still have questions about what to get, or where to get started, feel free to give us a call! We offer no-pressure consultations and are happy to make recommendations for you and your specific situation.
As always, enjoy FAST and FREE shipping on every order in the continental US. Feel free to call us with any questions and we can help you get set up!
Would you like to learn more?As an additional resource, our friends at Focusrite have created a comprehensive and inspiring guide which covers subjects like understanding what an audio interface is, setting up an interface for the first time, and then recording with an interface. It even gives advice on how to release your music independently and grow your following!
Best of all, they are giving it way free! Visit the Focusrite site today and sign up to get your free copy of this excellent resource.