Back in April, Orien, one of our listeners, asked us what kind of starter kit of recording gear we’d recommend for someone without a lot of money who wants to get good results. Fortunately, it’s quite possible, if you already have a computer and some instruments, to get yourself going for $500 USD, or maybe less, as we discuss on IHR #18 today…
Here is Orien’s original email:
I've wanted to start into the world of home
recording. The problem is that I don't have
a lot of money to get started.
Can you please talk about what to buy to
put together a "starter kit" for home
recording, given the following assumptions:
1) The person already has all the instruments
they will be using.
2) The person already has a fast enough
computer with enough hard drive space
and enough RAM.
3) The person has no other recording software
than what might have come with their
4) The person will need at least one mic for
voice and/or real instrument recording.
5) Besides the mic, the person will want to
either be plugging in their electric guitar,
or plugging in their MIDI keyboard to the
recording system and will need the
5) The person cannot spend more than $500
on the project.
It’s a great question, but among all the emails Paul and James hadn’t had time to address it. Since I’m more of a “low end” guy (check out the den setup I used to record the entire album I released last year), I thought I’d try to tackle it.
Background and Assumptions
Now, just so you know, you could cobble together some used gear—maybe even some old analog stuff like a four-track Fostex cassette recorder or something else you’ve scrounged up—but I’m going to focus on modern, brand-new digital home recording equipment, since we’ll consider this a starter setup that you might want to build on, and you might also want such niceties as warranties and return policies in case any of the stuff doesn’t work for you.
I’ll also treat it as the kind of home recording setup where you’ll generally be recording one or maybe two tracks at a time and then overdubbing, not trying to get a whole multitrack band mix live off the floor. If you have that many people involved, you can get them to chip in so you can spend more money on a mixer and more microphones!
I’m assuming, as Orien did, that your computer has enough horsepower, RAM, and disk space to support the gear I mention here. I’m also assuming that you already have either some fairly good computer speakers or some decent headphones. If not, see if you can get some slightly lower prices on the items below and pick up some Sennheiser PX100 headphones (about $50), which are the best low-end headphone value out there today. (I’ll be reviewing headphones and studio monitor speakers in detail in a future IHR episode, by the way.)
Finally, I’ll use U.S. dollars, since that covers most of our listeners and gives more leeway than the slightly lower-valued Canadian or Australian dollars. Finally, I’ll use shipping street prices, not sometimes-inflated list prices, and won’t count taxes or shipping either, because those vary by where you are and whether you buy online.
The Starter Kit
If you already have a computer and instruments, I recommend only seven or eight things: a couple of microphones, a mic stand, a pop filter, an audio interface and a mixer (or two in one), some cables, and good recording software:
Microphones: MXL990 and Shure SM57 ($170 total)
Here’s where recent innovations in manufacturing really help you. Even a decade ago, a good condenser microphone, suitable for recording vocals and acoustic instruments, would have broken the $500 price barrier by itself. Now you can pick up both an MXL990 condenser ($70 USD street price) and a Shure SM57 ($100) for less than $200 combined.
I got my MXL990 free with my FireWire audio interface (too pricey for inclusion here), but even at $70 it’s a steal. For both my wife’s voice and my own, whether speaking or singing, it has a nice warm vocal tone, with good frequency response and little of the “graininess” I sometimes find in other mics like the USB Blue Snowball or even the $200 AKG C1000S I used to use. (It’s what I use for my segments on Inside Home Recording, in fact.) I’ve used it as an overhead for drums, and on classical and acoustic guitars—I’m sure it would do well for a variety of other instruments too. The MXL990 is not fancy, with a single polar pattern and no level pad or other adjustments, but it does come with a very nice case and shockmount. A great deal.
And it’s hard to go wrong with the classic Shure SM57 dynamic mic. The design has been around for decades, and for good reason: there’s hardly a better, more economical way to record electric and acoustic guitars, snare drums and tom toms, or even singing in a pinch. As a dynamic mic, it’s also nearly indestructible and requires no phantom power: with the right cable or adapter you can plug it straight into your computer, which is what I did for a surprisingly long time. Its sibling, the SM58 (also $100), is the most popular microphone in the world and is also an option, but it’s designed more directly for vocals and not as much for guitar amps and such.
Mic Stand and Pop Screen: K&M or generic ($100 total)
I’ve learned the hard way that spending a bit of money on a mic stand is worth it: earlier this year I picked up a couple of cheap boom stands for the basement studio, thinking that since I wasn’t schlepping them to gigs, they’d be fine. But one of them broke at the boom joint a few weeks later, dropping my condenser mic to the ground while I wasn’t even in the room. (The mic’s okay.) So I went for a much pricier, but solidly built, German made K&M stand with a boom ($80). I recommend you do the same, or if you’re going to get something less expensive, look for a couple of boom stands (straight stands aren’t nearly as useful) with metals parts at all the joints.
And you’ll need a pop screen for any kind of vocal or speech recording. You can spend $20 or so for a nice commercial one, or try James Devon’s classic technique of wrapping an old nylon stocking over a coat hanger, which he posted to this blog back in January.
Audio Interface + Mixer: M-Audio/Behringer or Alesis ($150 total)
I recommend two approaches here, depending on what kind of computer you have, although either one will work for Windows or Mac, and probably even Linux if you’re so inclined:
- If you have a Windows PC, M-Audio’s Fast Track USB interface comes wwith their new Session software ($100), which is an apparently solid attempt at creating a GarageBand competitor for Windows. (Make sure you get a bundle with Session, though: older packages of the Fast Track USB might not include it since it is no new.) Since the Fast Track doesn’t provide phantom power for your condenser mic, and since you might want a bit more control over your audio chain, adding a low-end mixer like the Behriger UB802 ($50) would be wise too. I have a UB802 and find it a fine little mixer, especially for the price.
- If you have a recent Mac that came with iLife ’05 or ’06, and thus a recent version of GarageBand, you don’t need M-Audio’s software and can go for a different interface (although the Fast Track USB and Behringer would work fine for you too). One very cool option is the Alesis MultiMix 8USB ($150), which is an eight-channel mixer and USB interface in a single unit. That saves space and cabling, and will impress your audio geek friends too. If you use a Windows PC, it comes with Cubase LE software too, or you can choose to use free DAW software for Windows, Mac, or even Linux (see below).
You can also forgo an audio interface entirely if you want to plug directly into your computer’s audio-in jack, either with a mixer or directly from your instruments. (MIDI can go straight into the USB port too.) I don’t necessarily recommend that because the sound quality isn’t usually as good, but it will work, and I did it for a long time myself.
Cables and Adapters ($80 total)
Don’t forget the cables! You’ll need a couple of XLR mic cables (get 20-foot lengths so you have room to run them), likely a couple of 1/4″ standard patch cables (also 20″), and perhaps a MIDI-to-USB adapterif you use a MIDI keyboard that doesn’t have a USB connector built in. Shop around and they should all fit into the $80 limit.
If you’re not following my advice and won’t get yourself an audio interface, either the USB MicPlug (better) or an XLR-to-1/8″ cable (not so great) might do for your dynamic mic. Similarly, for guitars and other patch-cable instruments, the GuitarPlug or a 1/4″-to-1/8″ cable will also work. But buying both a GuitarPlug and a MicPlug ($50 each) costs just as much as the M-Audio interface, which is a much better idea.
Good Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) software is worth paying for, but it’s out of our price range here. Fortunately, GarageBand (included with new Macs since 2004) and Session (for Windows, and newly included with the Fast Track USB) are quite serviceable—I used GarageBand, for example, for my entire 2005 instrumental album Penmachine Sessions and all the tunes I’ve recorded since then too. Session is a bit more limited, as GarageBand was in version 1.0, and is likely to improve over time—but it does require the Fast Track USB interface it comes with, and will not work with interfaces from other manufacturers, or (apparently) even other M-Audio interfaces.
Another approach is to try a completely free, open-source audio editor or DAW, such as the very popular Audacity or the more full-featured but more complex Ardour. Both run on Mac OS and Linux, while Audacity also supports Windows. They can do the job for you if you’re willing to work through their eccentricities. I use Audacity for final stereo mixes, often applying the last steps of leveling, compression, and fade in/out there before I export to AIFF or WAV format. With a plugin, Audacity can also export to MP3 directly.
Grand Total: $500 USD!
See? That wasn’t so bad.
What Should You Save Up For?
Once you’ve spent your $500, what should your first priorities be for upgrades? Or what should you consider saving up for so you can get an even better bang for your buck in the first place?
- A better DAW. The M-Audio interface supports Pro Tools M-Powered, which is compatible with all the other industry-standard Pro Tools setups out there. Other options include Apple’s Logic Express (which I now use) and Logic Pro (which Paul uses and teaches) for Mac, and for both platforms: Cubase, Nuendo, Digital Performer, Samplitude, and Sequoia.
- A better interface. USB interfaces usually have fewer features and more latency than FireWire interfaces or (if you have a Windows PC or Mac tower) interface expansion cards. The options here are myriad, and range from mid-range boxes like M-Audio’s FireWire 410 (which I use) to FireWire-powered mixers and control surfaces from Mackie, Alesis, Tascam, and others. Other brands like Focusrite, Presonus, Edirol, and MOTU are also good.
- An outboard compressor. Avoiding clipping and noise before your signal goes digital is a great benefit, so an outboard compressor-limiter-gate is a worthwhile purchase. I have a stereo dbx 266XL rack unit that also includes a noise gate, and it does well for me. There are many others at moderate prices from many of the same brands above, as well as Samson, Rolls, and ART.
- Those headphones or speakers I mentioned near the beginning. But again, I’ll talk more about those in another episode.