Tools for recording music

There are almost as many ways to record music as their are individual pieces of music, which makes it hard to recommend any kind of recording tools to anyone. Bulletin boards where producers and engineers discuss their tools often are consumed with acrimonious debates over which mixing board, preamp, microphone, software synthesizer or mic cord is the best at capturing individual expression.

But let’s say you don’t have the budget for a Neve console, a Studer tape machine and a Neumann microphone. (Like 99 percent of the rest of us). What are some basic tools for capturing audio passably well?

I assume since you’re reading this you already have a computer. Which is a good thing – a modern computer gives you a huge head start when it comes to capturing audio and creating music.

I’m going to suggest you focus on three hardware components: a microphone; a preamplifier; and a soundcard or audio interface. With some careful shopping, you should be able to obtain all three for somewhere south of $1,000.

Recording with your computer, of course, also requires software. But that’s a post for another day.

Books have been written about each category of recording gear, of course, and dozens if not hundreds of different options exist. Many people far more experienced and talented have opinions about this. All I can share are my thoughts about a few pieces of gear I have personal experience with and can vouch for.

1. Microphone. For your first “recording” mic, you’re looking for something that can record a wide range of different sources – vocals, guitar, percussion, etc. Many people start with the Shure SM-57 dynamic mic, a rock music standard for many years, or its older sibling, the Shure 545 SD. They’re often labled “instrument mics,” but don’t let that cliche fool you – they can record most any sound. While rarely the best mic for a given source, they have a pronounced mid-range that makes them decent for many sounds. (Brian Wilson used the 545 for many of his classic Beach Boys vocals, for instance). If you’re looking for a low-cost microphone that is more sensitive than the Shures, you should try a condenser microphone like an Audio-Technica 4040 or 4047 (a personal favorite). These are large-diaphram condensers, characterized by a response curve flattering to voice. But they are more sensitive than dynamic microphones, and often more expensive. Recession alert: Sometimes you can find a very decent microphone second-hand, expecially if it’s an older dynamic. I’m partial to Electro-Voice models like the RE-16 (a model used by Elvis).

2. Preamplifier. This is the device that amplifies the extremely weak signal that comes out of a microphone so that it can be recorded. A very good basic option for this is the M-Audio DMP-3. It gives you two separate inputs, volume control and some basic metering for under $200 – a real bargain. Other options I have tried, and liked, include the Joemeek threeQ (one channel, but includes compression and basic EQ) and the Groove Tubes Brick, an old-school “tube” device that imparts what some people call “warmth.” What’s warmth, you ask? Well that’s a whole other can of worms, best left for another day.

3. Interface. Here’s where things get complicated. You need something that will take those analog signals — i.e., “sound” — and convert them to digital information so that your computer can understand and manipulate them. The device also needs to take the digital signal back out of the computer and convert it back to analog, so you can hear it. Most every computer comes with a “sound card” that, theoretically, can perform this task. But most stock soundcards are just not up to the task of recording music. Trust me on this. You need a dedicated recording card like the M-Audio Audiophile 192 or Delta 44.

Well there’s lots more to say — and a lot smarter people to say it! For beginners, I find a great resource is the homerecording.com bbs, in which hundreds of recordists trade tips on gear, techniques and practices that work.

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