Talk with any musician who writes and performs his or her own music and chances are that one of the things near the top of their “to do” list is to regularly record their songs. There’s no better way to improve your performing and writing chops than to routinely record and critique your own music. So when does it make sense to invest in buying and learning how to use a home recording rig and when does it make sense to shop around and use a professional studio? Below, we’ll help you consider some of your home recording options and identify when it may make more sense to hire a professional studio and engineer to help you capture your music.
Sketches and Rough Demos
For a songwriter or band just starting out, there’s an enormous amount that can be learned by recording songwriting sessions, rehearsals, fragments of song ideas, and such. At this point, the quality of the recording you are trying to make is much less important than simply capturing your ideas, good or bad, and having a convenient way to catalog and review them.
Today’s musician can accomplish this with a wide range of pocket-sized digital recorders from companies such as Zoom, TASCAM and Korg to name a few. For as little as $200, you can purchase one of these mighty mites with built-in microphones to record your CD-quality audio and provide you with the software to output the recordings onto your computer’s hard drive in minutes. No mixing board, expensive microphones or recording software are needed to master. When you’re finished simply dump it onto your computer and you’re ready for your next session.
Although the quality of the recording will vary based on such factors as where the recorder is placed, the acoustical environment you are recording in, and how many musicians are playing at once, I’ve heard absolutely outstanding recordings made on these little devices. Another advantage to these units is that they are incredibly simple to operate and literally fit in your pocket!
Live Multitrack Recording
Although some of the hand-held recorders allow you to overdub up to four channels, if you’re goal is to produce a more complex sonic palette then you’re going to need a multitrack recording system. There are ones based on either a personal computer running recording software with the requisite audio interfaces, or an “all-in-one” system that combines all the features of a digital recording studio into one complete unit.
There are very popular “all-in-one” systems available from Boss, Korg, Zoom and TASCAM. They range in track capability from 4 tracks up to 32 tracks. We’ll look at two models that highlight the range of features and options available in this category of home recording system. The Boss BR-600 is an 8-track digital recording system primarily designed for guitarists that features a built-in drum machine with small trigger pads, amp modeling and effects processing. It uses a compact flash card for storage and you can easily dump your songs to your PC via USB. It also runs on either AC power or batteries and includes a built in stereo mic for quick location recordings. Best of all it has a street price of $349. One drawback is that its mic inputs are ¼” rather than standard XLR, so you’ll need an inexpensive adapter to use a typical dynamic mic.
TASCAM’S 2488 Neo is a much more fully featured all-in-one recording system which offers 24-track digital recording, 19 faders, digital processing, including mastering effects to smooth out your final mix, eight mic inputs, an internal 80 GB hard drive and an on-board CD burner. It also features a large LCD display to monitor various functions, making it a bit more user friendly than smaller stand alone units. With a street price of $799, the 2488 Neo delivers a lot of bang for the buck.
Although the all-in-one units offer straightforward set up and operation, the majority of recording musicians instead choose a computer based approach. Using a high powered PC or Mac as the system’s heart, there are a number of recording software programs that offer tremendous power and flexibility. These programs include Digital Performer, Cubase, Sonar, Sound Forge, Logic and Pro Tools to name a few. Programs such Logic, Cubase and Pro Tools also offer a lower-priced “LE” version that gives most of the functionality of their big brother (read more expensive) professional versions. Here are the basic building blocks of a computer-based home recording system:
• Recording software
• Audio interface
• Monitor speakers (or headphones)
• Microphones and cables
As a point of reference, I use a Pro Tools LE system with the M Box 2 Mini audio interface. It runs on a MacBook laptop using a Studio Projects C-1 condenser mic to record song demos and new ideas. I monitor using headphones, so my whole system fits into a backpack. The total cost of my home system was just under $1,500 (about 2/3 of the budget was for the computer, which I also use for many other tasks).
One of the reasons I chose Pro Tools LE is that my demo sessions can be seamlessly opened in Pro Tools HD at a professional studio, so when I have some tracks that require grand piano or a live drum overdub, I’m all ready to go. The only drawback using my M Box is that with only one mic and a second line input, if I want to record with 2-3 friends, we have to each play our parts separately. If I were in a group, I’d want to spend a little more to get a home recording system with at least 8 separate mic inputs such as the PreSonus FireStudio 2626, which offers 8 mic preamps and the ability to set up a variety of headphone mixes, plus great sounding analog to digital converters. It ships with a generous bundle of software including Cubase LE plus some loops, virtual instruments and effects plug-ins.
Your total budget will likely be in the range of $2,500-3,000 once you add up all the peripherals. This may sound expensive at first, but compared to buying professional recording time you can get thousands of hours out of your own setup. Plus, you aren’t constrained by time or dates. Whenever you’re feeling it, you can record it.
Professional Quality Recording
If you’ve already invested in either of the two previous home recording options and been recording for a while, at some point you may have greater needs. Perhaps you haven’t been able to get the expansive drum sound you envision, or you’d like to have an acoustic grand piano to accompany your singing. Don’t despair, the time and money you’ve put into learning how to record yourself at home will pay big dividends when you decide to make a professional recording.
For most artists, the collaboration with a professional studio and a talented recording engineer can help take their sound to another level. Not only do professional studios have a range and quality of equipment that would be outrageously expensive for any home studio to acquire, but they also have years of experience in how to capture the subtleties of any style of music in a way that brings out the best of each artist. A professional engineer can also share tips and advice for making the most of your session time, including getting the best sounds from your instruments. The studio may also have a top quality grand piano, flexible acoustical spaces, a selection of vintage amps and recording gear, or other tools to help enhance your sound.
A final thought on using professional studios is that if you do invest in a multitrack home recording system, you might also consider using your local professional studio to cut basic tracks, and then have the engineer give you the session files on a CD-ROM to import into your own system for overdubbing, solos and such.
Regardless of what options you choose, home recording gives you an edge to refine your music and develop a more polished overall sound. Take some time to consider how you can utilize the power and flexibility that home recording offers to help jump start your own music career this New Year. Stay tuned for more information as in the coming months we’ll delve further into home recording, learn the secrets of making an effective demo, and put together a home recording studio that rocks for $999.
Home Studio Tips from a Big Studio Designer
Zoom Pocket Recorder – www.samsontech.com/products/productpage.cfm?prodID=1916
Pro Tools LE systems – www.digidesign.com/index.cfm?navid=28
Boss BR 600 – www.roland.com/products/en/BR-600/index.html
Tascam 2488 Neo – www.tascam.com/products/2488neo.html
Find a local professional studio – www.studiofinder.com/
In his thirty-plus years working in the music business, Keith Hatschek has been a musician, educator, recording engineer, producer and marketing exec. He currently teaches Music Management at the University of the Pacific, where he recently helped install a Pro Tools HD recording studio as part of Pacific’s Conservatory of Music. He’s the author of The Golden Moment: Recording Secrets of the Pros and How to Get a Job in the Music Industry.