Digital audio recording is all about having the right tools—that, and a great sound.
From microphones that reproduce the finest acoustic details to audio interfaces that allow creative manipulation, hardware has a significant effect on what your end product will sound like. Rounding everything out is the machine you plug all that gear into: your computer. Here's what it takes to ensure that your Mac or PC can handle its role at the center of your home recording studio.
Choosing a computer to record music
With all of the advanced hardware on the market geared toward digital music recording, you might think that a computer with especially impressive specs would be necessary. The fact is, when it comes to handling audio recording tasks, most any consumer-level computer can do the job.
Recording software uses a technique called multitrack recording, which requires numerous audio files to be open and running at the same time. However, the relatively modest size of audio files (in comparison with video files) means a modest impact on your computer's CPU and RAM. Massive multitrack projects (ten or more tracks running simultaneously) could require some more oomph from your computer, but if your system has a modern processor from the past few years paired with 2GB to 4GB of RAM, it should be able to handle any music project you throw at it.
For example, a 2007-era MacBook Pro, with a 2.2GHz Intel Core 2 Duo processor and 2GB of RAM, can conquer all but the biggest multitrack projects. Similarly, the Dell Inspiron E1505 laptop from 2006 (2.0GHz Intel Core 2 Duo CPU, 1GB RAM, Windows XP) looks ancient by today's computing standards, but still has enough zip to hold its own in most home recording studio setups.
Beyond processing speeds and RAM specs, you should keep an eye on one other hardware component: the hard drive. Although one audio file doesn't take up much space, file sizes can add up fast in large music projects featuring multiple tracks; for example, a typical GarageBand project file containing eight individual tracks could come in at a few hundred megabytes. Fortunately, extra hard-drive space is easy to come by. Even if you're firing up a laptop from 2006, hard drives and other forms of external storage are relatively cheap ways to ensure that you have enough capacity to store your music projects.
One last element to consider is the assortment of ports on your computer. If you've had your eye on a FireWire audio interface, remember that a lot of older computers (and newer Macs) may not have FireWire capabilities.
Finding affordable software
Every home recording studio needs music-production software too.
The good news is that multitrack recording software has become extremely powerful. Many programs include virtual instruments, pitch correction, drum machines, effect plug-ins, and other editing tools. The bad news is that in many cases such software can be expensive, costing anywhere between $200 and $700—about as much as a new instrument. Popular programs like Avid Pro Tools ($699) and FL Studio ($199) hold nothing back, offering tools suitable for even professional users and recording studios.
Fortunately, although it's hard to match the power and flexibility of more-expensive applications, a few software options out there will give you control over your audio without breaking the bank.
Audacity (free) is simple, easy-to-use software that can handle most audio-editing tasks. If you're just getting started with music production, Audacity's small effects library, virtual mixer, and cut-and-paste editing tools might even be more than you need to get your musical ideas recorded.
Shipping with Apple computers as part of the iLife software suite, GarageBand is a feature-packed digital audio workstation with tools that rival those in much pricier applications. GarageBand comes packed with a massive library of virtual instruments and drum loops that turn your keyboard into a virtual synthesizer. If you own a Mac, chances are good that you already have GarageBand. But if you need to purchase it, you can buy Garageband '11 in the Apple App Store for $15.
The music-production application Reaper takes audio recording a step beyond GarageBand, further blurring the line between expensive professional software and wallet-friendly amateur apps. A full license for this powerful software costs $225, but developer Cockos offers a $60 discounted license for individuals using the program for personal projects or for commercial use where yearly income doesn't exceed $20,000. So until you hit the big time with your music, Reaper is a great option if you want a professional-quality application at a price the average person can afford.
Bringing an iPad into the mix
Any discussion of modern home recording would fall short without a mention of the iPad. Bringing portability to levels even small laptops can't reach, the iPad is now an established go-to tool for on-the-go music creation.
While the tablet's small size presents obvious benefits for musicians with limited space, the iPad's real music potential becomes obvious when you pair it with a powerful audio-production app such as GarageBand for iOS, which has impressive features that are tailored for touchscreen use. For starters, the app's virtual touch instruments and samplers tap into a huge library of sounds, essentially turning your iPad into a fully equipped synthesizer. And at $5 on the Apple App Store, the price is right, especially in comparison with high-end desktop versions of audio-production software.
Other useful iOS apps include the $15 Music Studio, which provides loads of virtual instruments and sounds, and MultiTrack DAW ($10), a great option for recording live gigs thanks to its ability to record up to 24 stereo tracks simultaneously (with an in-app upgrade).
Not surprisingly, hardware manufacturers are catching on to the iPad's potential in the recording studio. Some audio interfaces, such as the $160 Focusrite iTrack Solo, are specifically designed for use with the iPad, featuring all the things you might expect on an audio interface (multiple input channels, phantom power, volume control knobs) along with specially designed connectors for iPad input.
You’re not out of luck if you already have an audio interface or USB mixer. With converters such as the iPad Camera Connection Kit from Apple, it's easy to connect any device with a USB output to your iPad.
Putting it all together
It's easy to get overwhelmed when you're considering the seemingly endless combinations of hardware and equipment geared toward recording music. Be sure to take a step back and think about what you really want to accomplish with your home studio. For most people, a computer paired with basic audio-production software, a microphone, and an audio interface of some kind provides more than enough flexibility to make music. Factor an iPad into the mix—either as a primary recording tool or as a portable backup—for even more recording power.
Have you had success recording music in ways we didn't mention? Care to share your own setup? Tell us about it in the comments.
This is the last of a three-part series on how to set up a home-based music-recording studio. Part two, which ran yesterday, talks about mixers and audio interfaces. Part one, which ran on Wednesday, January 2, focuses on microphones.