In 2006, I stumbled upon sound engineering. This was back when YouTube was in its infancy and I had no idea what I was doing. There were some resources out there, usually long and tedious articles, but no “simple steps” or “quick start” videos that were easy to digest like there are today. Even though there are plenty of videos, articles and podcasts dedicated to the subject, I find that there are many newcomers unsure of how to begin. In this two part series, I want to show you what gear you need to get started and share some vocal recording tips.
Tools of the Trade
Microphone. Get the right microphone for the job. For now, you only need to know about two types of mics, Dynamic and Condenser. A dynamic mic, such as the Shure SM58 are great for handling loud sound signals and great for live sound use. Dynamic mics are rugged work-horses that don’t require batteries or any external power supply. Without breaking the bank, you can get some industry standard dynamic mics, such as the Electro-Voice RE20 or the Shure SM7, to get you started.
Condenser mics are slightly more complicated, but that may not be a bad thing. Due to the design of condenser mics, they require some form of power, such as an external power supply or “Phantom Power” (displayed as +48V). Phantom power can be provided by the mixing console, a stand alone mic preamp or an audio interface (external sound card with a preamp). Other condenser mics may require batteries or a USB connection. Condenser mics are more delicate in the sense that they need to be handled with care, they cannot take loud sound signals like a dynamic mic and they are designed to pick up greater detail with better accuracy, especially in the high-frequency ranges. You can find some good condenser mics such as the Audio Technica AT2020 or the AKGP420.
REMEMBER: BEFORE YOU BUY A MIC… TEST THEM FIRST!
Audio Interface. An audio interface is an external sound card that acts as the front end of your recording system. They are easy to connect to your computer by using a USB, thunderbolt or firewire cable. An interface preferred for studio recording because the sound card that is installed in your computer is limited in sound quality. Also, because your recording gear (mics, guitars, bass, keys, etc.) connect to your computer, you need a dedicated sound card that has added input and output capabilities. You can get started with a good quality audio interface for about $200 - $300, such as the Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 or the PreSonus AudioBox USB 96.
Speakers. There are two types of speakers you want to become familiar with, Active and Passive. Active speakers have a built-in amp within the cabinet. Passive speakers don’t. Passive speakers draw their power from an external amplifier and you have to make sure the speaker and the amp are compatible in impedance and power rating. That’s getting to be too complicated you say? I agree! So to make things easier, I recommend getting started with an active speaker because they are pretty much plug-n-play. I had a pair of the M-Audio BX5 active speakers for years and they worked great for my studio. Which is proof that you don’t need to spend more than $300 - $400 on your first pair of speakers.
Digital Audio Workstation (DAW). Lastly, you need some recording software. This is one of the easiest and cheapest things you can get for your studio when you’re just starting out. In fact, if you operated on the minimum (consumer-level speakers, a dynamic mic that plugs into your computer (whether USB or mini-jack)) and wanted to start recording now, you can probably get away with about $200 or less. How is this possible? If you have a Mac, then you already own a free copy of Garageband. If you have a PC, you can download the free open-source program Audacity. I’m not telling you to do that, I’m merely stating that it can be done with little up-front cost if you wanted to lay down some track right now. It wouldn’t be ideal, but it works (to an extent). However, if/when you feel your production might benefit from more options, functionality, and control then yes, do yourself a favor buy a copy of Logic Pro, Studio One, or Pro Tools and get your hands dirty with a more robust platform.
At the end of the day, I recommend two things: the first thing is to consider your budget, you don’t have to go hard on your first pieces of gear. Buy some gear that isn’t too expensive and work your way up to better equipment. This allows you develop an ear for what you think sounds good or bad and it allows you to get to know your gear well and maximize it to its full potential. The second thing is to have a microphone shoot-out. The reason for this recommendation is because you don’t want to be stuck with a mic that isn’t a good fit. One mic may sound good for one singer, but may not sound as good for you. So, if you can, go to your local music store and ask them to set up two or three (or more) microphones and try them out. Take your time. Don’t rush and decide to buy a mic based on some Gear Slutz review, or what other people say, or what I say for that matter. Decide to buy a mic based on your budget, your needs and what your ears say.
To wrap up this first part of the series, I want to share with you what my studio, from humble beginnings, looked like. My first microphone was an MXL USB.006. I paid about $100 for it and it was a decent mic for my studio as a beginner. I recorded male vocals, female vocals, rappers, delicate singers, heavy rock screaming (from a distance) and spoken word. And because it was a USB mic, I plugged it in every where I went with no headaches. I must confess, for the first 6-9 months, I did not have an audio interface. I plugged the mic and my midi keyboard directly to a USB docking station that was connected directly to my iMac. I also connected my guitar and my bass directly into my computer via an instrument input on the back of the computer and my speakers were connected with a ¼” to ⅛” Y-splitter to the back of the iMac, HA! In time, I picked up the Focusrite Saffire Pro 14 and, boy, did I hear the difference.
So, yes, it can be done! But I say that to say this, you can get started with recording without buying expensive equipment. With today’s technology, and a little bit of research, you can get good sounding recordings with a few hundred bucks. Truth be told, it’s not about the gear, it’s about the ear. Let me repeat that, it’s not the gear that determines the end product, it’s how you use it. If you know how to use what you have with proper gain staging and good recording techniques, then you too can get good recordings.
In part two of the “How to Get Started With Audio Recording” series, I will go over some easy vocal recording tips to help you start sounding good with the gear you already own.