Updated: Dec 6, 2021
Recording and music production can be an amazing world of learning and fun. Whether it’s as a hobby or with the intention of growing it into a career – music production is a specialised and complex process which can be both challenging and exciting.
With the world of recording being made so much more accessible due to the incredible teaching resources online and affordable equipment you can use in your home, there has arguably never been a better time to get started.
Simple, right? Let’s start!
Well, maybe not quite. The biggest question I get from budding engineers to be is “where do I start?”
If you go on to any of the big recording equipment stockists’ webpages, you will see 100,000 + pieces of recording equipment. You will also see 20 different brands selling different versions of the same equipment but of course, theirs is ‘the best’.
With that in mind, let's break it down into the actual elements you need to get started and where to go from there.
In its simplest form – the aim of recording is to capture the sound of an instrument or vocal. If it’s a vocal or acoustic instrument you will likely need a microphone, if it is an electric instrument this may be a cable or ‘line input’ as it’s called.
So very quickly we’ve established the first piece of equipment – a microphone. There are countless options, but we’ll get into that shortly.
There are no right or wrong answers on how you should record music, some will argue relentlessly that analogue is best, whilst others will argue digital is the way forward but, you have years of learning ahead of you in which you can decide for yourself what the best professional equipment is, for now, we need a basic set up to get you started.
In my opinion and generally the most widely adopted set up for beginners is as follows:
Microphone – Interface – Computer – Monitors
And this is the home recording set up we're going to discuss.
Your microphone, like many stages in this process will have a huge effect on the quality of your recording. There are numerous types of microphones available from condensers, to dynamics and ribbons. I have them all in the studio and use them for their individual qualities on a daily basis. But let’s not get bogged down with that, there are hundreds of fantastic websites explaining the difference between them and I highly recommend you visit some of these.
For the purposes of your first microphone. You won’t be wanting anything ‘overly specific’. Does it make sense for you to have a microphone that’s only sounds good recording a kick drum? Eventually yes, but for now, we’re assuming your budget is small and we’re just looking to get started. That being said, we want an ‘all round’ great microphone that can capture most things.
I would recommend a large diaphragm condenser. This will be able to record vocals, acoustic guitars, any string instruments for that matter, it will work as a room mic on a drum kit and so on. Which exact microphone you go for depends entirely on your budget. Where possible, I would recommend not scrimping on your microphone budget as unfortunately money talks in the world of recording equipment.
My top recommendation would be the “Aston Spirit”. A fairly new company who have produced a range of microphones that rival the big names but at a fraction of the price. You can pick one up for around £280 but to put this into perspective – I use microphones costing £3000 each on recording sessions, but I still use the Aston Spirit I have on many recordings because it sounds great. Make sure when you’re ordering your microphone to also order a sturdy microphone stand and an XLR cable to plug it in.
On to the interface. We have our microphone, but we need something to plug it into. This requires and audio interface. Your audio interface will have pre-amps on it. The pre-amp brings the microphone signal up to the correct level for your recording purpose. As well as this, your interface will convert your audio signal into a digital one and transfer it onto your computer, ready to record.
I recommend you go ahead and read some articles on the purpose of the pre-amp.
The first thing you’re going to decide is how many inputs you are going to need. This is an important decision as it dictates how many lines, microphones or instruments you can record at once.
But you’ve bought one microphone, so you just need one input, right? Well, I wouldn’t play it that safe. The problem there is, as you grow your passion for recording, you will likely soon decide you need to record multiple microphones or instruments at once. You may record a drum kit, I regularly use upwards of 14 microphones for this, you may want to record your friend singing and playing guitar at the same time etc. The great thing about a good microphone is that no matter how far you progress in your recording journey, a good microphone is always a good microphone and let’s face it, you can never have too many.
Different story with the interface. If you have one input, you have one input. That’s it, you are done. If you wish to record more inputs you are going to have to give up on your interface and go buy another one.
So, I recommend purchasing an interface with a little thought to your future needs. Anything with 4 inputs or more should keep you busy for a while, but this decision is up to you. Make sure your interface has both XLR and line inputs. The XLR inputs will be used for your microphones, line if you are plugging an electric instrument straight in, such as a keyboard or bass guitar.
Here is one of my current favourites although there are many good options:
If you are keeping things simple – I highly recommend the SSL 2+. It’s currently around the £200 mark and has 2 inputs that can be used as microphone or line in. The thing I love about this interface, is it’s so simple. There’s the bare minimum amount of buttons, bells and whistles. Your interface doesn’t need to be complicated. Save the complicated stuff for your recording and mixing techniques. A lot of companies add extras to these things that are just gimmick. Keep it simple!
If you’re looking for more versatility for the future, I would look for something along the line of the Focusrite Scarlet 18i8 3rd Gen. Focusrite are a great brand and again, like SSL, they’ve kept it simple. 4 inputs on this one and it comes in around £320 at the moment. Focusrite also offer more inputs but with more inputs comes more cost so you need to find what’s right for you.
Before purchasing your interface, be sure to check its connecting cables are compatible with your computer's inputs and that it will run on your computer.
People will argue to the ends of the earth what type of computer is best for recording. Mac VS Windows, what models, processors etc. Yes, to run one of the top studios in the country you need an incredible computer set up. To get started in home recording, in my opinion, the best computer to use is the one you have. Providing its relatively modern and works well. You’re likely only going to be processing very few channels of audio at a time at this stage so it shouldn’t be too tasking for your computer.
Here’s the important bit – your recording software. There are many options in the world of recording software and many free versions. If you want to ‘play around’ with some recording software, by all means, download one of the many free options and have some fun. Reaper, for example, is great. My advice would be to think to the future. If you are hoping to get very involved in recording, then I would start with the software you intend to use for the long term.
I say this as you will be learning a lot of key skills, processes and shortcuts. Do this on a free software, then have to re-learn your thinking when you make the inevitable jump to something more professional.
My recommendation is Avid’s “Pro Tools”. Arguably the industry standard in recording software, used in huge studios across the world. In years gone by, this software would be un-attainable to the average beginner. Not now though, you can use Pro Tools on a subscription basis that costs around £25 a month. Paying monthly for a hobby may not make sense for everyone but that’s a personal choice. It really is fantastic.
Monitors, or more plainly put, your speakers, are how you are going to hear your recording. The quality of your speakers will drastically affect your end result. The more accurately you can hear, the more accurately you will be able to mix your recording to sound its best. Luckily there are countless good quality options on the market. There are of course numerous types of speakers which again, I suggest you do some research on but your best bet to get started is “Active Nearfield Monitors”.
I can’t recommend “Genelec” monitors enough. They have a vast range to suit many budgets although their cheapest options can often still be little high for a beginner’s budget. That being said, if Genelec’s are slightly out with your reach for now, check out: KRK RP5’s RoKit bundle for around £220 at the moment.
That’s the bare bones of what you need to get started. There are some key accessories you will need. If you are recording vocals you will need a “pop shield” and as you learn you’ll find a few more.
If you have any questions, feel free to get in touch, I love to help.