Help Key: Home Recording, Part II

I live in a neighborhood of burgeoning artists and musicians, and an endless stream of people ask me, “How do I set up a cheap, quick, and easy home recording studio?” I’ve actually got it down to a science at this point, so here it is. Keep in mind that your favorite indie rock band has probably used a less sophisticated setup. I recently spoke with Sam Endicott of The Bravery, and he says the band recorded its first album in band members’ bedrooms.

Typical Needs
Most people who want a high-quality low-budget setup are either singer/guitarists with a bit of keyboard experience. If you fit this description, listen up. If you don’t, listen up anyway, but make small adaptations to your rig if you’re, say, a trumpet player like me. You can even email me at “mike at crunchgear dot com” for further advice.

You need five basic things to make excellent recordings besides your instrument or voice: A mic, a mixer, headphones, an audio interface for your computer, and recording software.

The Hardware
Behringer makes great mixers for the price. All you need to figure out is how many inputs you’ll need. For most people, the four-channel Behringer Xenyx 802 (also called the Eurorack UB802 in some places) is plenty; it’s got two XLR mic inputs with high-quality mic preamps, as well as six guitar cable (quarter-inch) inputs.

Singers and horn players know that microphones are absolutely critical to sound quality. I strongly recommend investing $99 in an industry-standard Shure SM58. Vocals and instruments sound warm and rich, and the mic can take a beating. You’ll also need a stand–you can get a sturdy boom-style stand for around $20; I use an On-StageOn-Stage Stands MS7311B ($26.95) kick drum mic stand because it’s small enough to take on the go, or I can put it on a table for more height. For even more compactness, you can get a desktop stand instead, like the Mainline MDK10, or just make your own.

Headphones let you know what your recordings sound like, or so you can play along with loops tracks you’ve created. Sennheiser’s HD 280 Pro sound very clear, and they block out a lot of ambient sound by completely covering your ears. Grado’s SR60 are also excellent-sounding, but they don’t block out any noise, which can be handy for singers or horn players.

An audio interface is just an external USB sound I/O card for your PC. I use an M-Audio Transit USB because the components won’t add noise or latency to your audio, and there are no knobs to tweak.

Recording software basically comes down to usability and features, but price is also an important consideration. ProTools and Digital Performer are great for experienced recordists, but setting up something quick, easy, and inexpensive requires nothing more than Apple’s GarageBand (free for Mac users), M-Audio Session, or Audacity (a powerful, free, open-source audio editor for Mac OS and Windows).

Put your mixer on a desk or table and plug it into an AC outlet. Plug your mic and/or instruments into the appropriate mixer channels. (The Shure SM58 doesn’t require phantom power, so be sure that feature is off on your mixer.) Plug your audio interface into your computer’s USB port (or FireWire port for some interfaces), and use the appropriate cable to connect your mixer’s Tape Out or Line Out jack to your audio interface’s line input–the setup above uses an RCA-to-stereo minijack cable. Then use an identical cable to connect your audio interface’s output to the mixer’s Tape In or Line In jack so you can monitor everything through the mixer’s headphone output.

Optional hardware

A few other items can be very handy for home recordings. A good set of powered desktop monitor speakers will give you a good idea of what your music sounds like; I recommend M-Audio’s Studiophile DX4, since they’re inexpensive, compact, and quite accurate. Connect your mixer’s main outputs to the speakers.

A MIDI controller keyboard is also useful for triggering tons of cool sampled sounds like bells or virtual drums that come with most recording software (not Audacity though). Look no further than the USB-powered ultracompact M-Audio O2 two-octave keyboard. If you need more keys, try the larger but cheaper M-Audio Keystation 49e.

Finally, you might want to consider buying a few panels of Auralex acoustic foam. These will dampen the sound in your recording room so the bass doesn’t turn to mud. You can get a box of 24 2’x2′ panels for just $99, or you can get panels individually. Even just a few will make a big difference. Also, consider using small nails instead of glue to put them on your wall if you live in a rented apartment.

Plug In, Turn On, Rock Out
Make sure your computer’s audio settings sees the USB audio interface and that it is the selected input and output source. Also be sure to open your recording software’s preferences and do the same–you’ll usually find it under a tab called something like “Audio/MIDI”. Also make sure your computer sees the MIDI keyboard if you’ve got one.

Your mixer’s output and input gain knobs shouldn’t be turned up higher than about three-quarters of maximum. The input gain on your audio interface (if it has one; the Transit USB doesn’t) should follow the same rule, though you can crank it up close to maximum if you absolutely need to. All recording software packages have a levels meter, so just make sure that the loudest sounds you make don’t put the meter into the red (though right up to it is fine).

Budget Breakdown
Here’s a breakdown of the setup I use (based on what I paid), but you can find most of it even cheaper online or used. Of course, you can spend thousands of dollars on any one of the components below if you’re filthy rich, or you can simply omit components you don’t really need or already have.

*Mic stand————–$13
*Audio Interface———$80

TOTAL (Basic)—————–$340

*MIDI keyboard———-$130
*Acoustic foam————$100

TOTAL (With optional)——————-$730