There are actually a number of different ways to go about recording your first song. You could record on your own. You could collaborate with a friend with some technical savvy. You could book some time with a professional studio engineer. Is there a right and a wrong? Not really. It just depends on the quality you’re looking for, what you hope to achieve with the song, and how much money you have to spend.
For the purpose of this guide, we’ll assume you have a laptop or a desktop computer, and you’re going to record the song yourself. Here’s what you need to know, and what you need to do to get started.
P.S. If you’re not sure if you which kind of studio you want to use, you can compare home and professional studios here.
What You’re Going To Need To Record Music At Home
It isn’t much fun when you’re following along with an instructional manual and you suddenly realize that you don’t have a necessary piece of studio equipment to complete the process. Let’s try and avoid that here.
Don’t worry; you’re not going to have to spend thousands of dollars just to get up and running (unless you want to invest in higher quality gear). Here’s what you’re going to need to record your first song:
- A Digital Audio Workstation (or DAW). This is a piece of software that you can use to record, edit and mix your audio. If you happen to have an Apple computer, it already comes with GarageBand, and despite being free, it’s a great piece of software. Ease of use is of the essence here, and there probably isn’t an easier DAW out there. For PC, you can download Audacity entirely for free. Unfortunately, it isn’t the most user-friendly program. If you have a little bit of money (i.e. $60), I would recommend taking a look at Tracktion, which is among the easiest and most powerful DAWs in the price range. More options can be seen here – those mentioned apply to recording vocals as well as making instrumentals.
- A microphone. Believe it or not, you do not need a microphone to record your first song. You can use the built-in mic on your laptop to record audio, and in some cases, it doesn’t sound half bad. I have friends that have recorded entire albums this way. However, you definitely can’t expect to capture the best quality audio this way. A Shure SM57 is a relatively cost-effective option at about $100 to $120, and can be used on just about any instrument. It’s definitely not the best mic for vocals, but it can be used on practically everything, and is considered one of the best mics for distorted guitar.
- A microphone cable (or XLR cable). A microphone requires a microphone cable. You’re probably going to want a cable between 15 to 25 feet, which shouldn’t cost you too much more than $10 to $20.
- An audio interface. Unless your computer happens to have an XLR port (and most do not), you need a way to convert your signal from your microphone to your computer. This is where a USB audio interface comes in. The more you pay, the better the quality of the sound is going to be. The Focusrite Scarlett Solo Compact USB audio interface (and similar interfaces) runs for about $80 to $130, and since Focusrite is a known name in preamps, even at this price range, you can expect the sound quality to be half decent.
How To Get Set Up With Your DIY Home Studio
Follow this simple four-step process to get your gear set up and ready to go.
Step #1 – Install Your DAW
Install your DAW of choice on your machine. As long as it’s compatible with your machine, this should be a straightforward process. If you’re using GarageBand, move onto step two!
Step #2 – Connect Your Audio Interface
More than likely, there are only two cables you’ll need to connect to get your audio interface up and running. One is an AC (wall plug), and the other is a USB cable. That much should be pretty easy to figure out.
Whether or not your computer immediately recognizes your device depends on your machine as well as the interface. You may have to install drivers, which typically come loaded on a CD with your hardware. If not, they can usually be found on manufacturer websites.
Also keep in mind that you may have to restart your machine after installing new software.
Step #3 – Connect Your Microphone
Connect your microphone to the audio interface with your XLR cable. One end goes in your microphone, and the other goes into your audio interface. Your cable has a male end and a female end. You should be able to figure out what goes where.
Step #4 – Check For Levels
If you’ve done everything correctly, and your software and hardware are cooperating, then you should be able to check for levels on your mic. The exact procedure depends on the software you’re using.
In Tracktion, you would simply record enable the track, and you should see the meter bouncing up and down as you talk or sing into the mic. Oh, and don’t forget to turn the gain up on your audio interface. If that’s sitting at zero, you’re not going to get any volume out of the mic.
One other consideration would be whether or not to activate 48 volt phantom power. Some mics need it, while others do not. If you purchased an SM57, it definitely does not!
You’re all set up and ready to go, and the only thing you need to do now is to hit record.
Now, it is a good idea to give a little bit of forethought to the structure of your song before you start tracking. For example, you might get your drummer to lay down a beat before everyone else plays their parts, so that everyone stays in time. Then bass. Then guitar. Then vocals. Of course, you can experiment and try your own process too.
Thanks to multi-track technology, there’s no need to record everything at once if you don’t want to. You can record one track, then another, and then another. If your computer is reasonably fast, you’ll probably be able to lay down hundreds if not thousands of tracks without bogging down your processing power.
Of course, bands like The Beatles used to record around one microphone, and recordings like that have their own unique charm too. This is not a bad option if you have no plans of fixing anything in your recording later.