Home Studio: Start to finish
Here's a walk through of the signal chain. There's a million variations on these themes!Microphones
Microphones are a giant topic. Thousands of kinds, many different methods, prices from cheap to the ridiculous. Dynamic
Dynamic mics are like a speaker driver. A membrane with a coil of wire hung in a magnetic field. Typically, they're robust, good with high sound pressure levels, and inexpensive. Dynamic mics are often used for vocals and louder instruments like guitars and drums.
The Shure SM58 is an industry standard live vocal mic, which you can find in practically any bar or stage for good reason: They sound pretty good, are nearly indestructible and cost about $100.
The Shure SM57 is another $100 'legend' and one that i'd suggest owning. It's fantastic on guitar amps, acoustic guitars, drums, all sorts of things. It's cheap, tough and you'll find them in every studio on earth. You can't go far wrong with a '57. Some albums have been recorded completely
with one! The Shure SM-7B is a great rock vocal mic. Many more out there.Condenser
Condenser mics use film membranes and work essentially as a variable capacitors. They need power to operate, either a battery or Phantom Power from your mixing board or Interface. Typically they're very detailed and crisp sounding. Many great vocal mics are condensers, as are drum overheads. Some get fantastically expensive. They come in two basic categories: Small diaphragm and large diaphragm. Small ones are usually instrument based - drum overheads, pianos, room sounds etc., while large ones are for vocals.
Here's some famous condensers:
Neumann U47 / U67 / U87 Used on many famous recordings. Expensive!
AKG C-12 - Equally famous. Expensive!
Sony C800G. $6000-$7000 ! Oh, but how lovely it is.
AKG C1000 - Inexpensive all-rounder
AKG C414 - Mid price versatile mic. Check the year, there's a few different 'flavors' with some better than others.Ribbons
Ribbon mics work by holding a thing membrane, usually aluminum, between some magnets. They're often a bit fragile and you can blow them up if you use Phantom Power incorrectly with them so be careful! Typically ribbon mics are smooth and warm with a bit of high end rolloff. With the crispness (often harshness) of digital recording, ribbon mics help to warm things up. Some famous ribbons:
RCA-44 - used for decades as a vocal mic
Beyer M-160 - The amazing drum recording of Led Zepplin's 'When the Levee Breaks' is done with a M-160 hung above the drumkit in the front room of Headly Grange.
Royer and AEA are the two main 'high end' ribbon mic manufacturers
Nady, Alctron, Shiny Box and Apex all make decent inexpensive onesPZM / Boundary
Some people use PZM or boundary mics, for decent room and ambient capture. Radio Shack used to sell one a while back that was fantastic, and has a cult following to this day. You don't see them too much, but they can be inexpensive and are very detailed in the right situations.What mics should i get?
Tough question, budget is the big factor. Interestingly, China has gotten on the bandwagon and has, uh, emulated
a lot of famous microphones for a fraction of the cost. I personally have three of these: Two 'Alctron' ribbons which are based on the RCA-44 ($250), and an 'Apex 460' which is a tube condenser based on the AKG C-12 ($250). They're all really great mics. The Apex 460 has a huge following with people modding them, and the results are very impressive indeed. The last company i worked for bought a whole pile of them, after doing tests against $4000+ mics. The summary was 'Yeah, it's no Neumann, but for $250, you get surprisingly close for a fraction of the price.' Oktava and R0de are also good choices.
I'd suggest at least one dynamic, the Shure SM57 as it's very versatile. If you want to do decent vocals get a condenser and there's a lot to choose from. Depending on your requirements, you may want to do some room/ambiance or stereo recording, in which you can get a pair of little condensers or maybe even some ribbons.Outboard gear
You don't need
any outboard gear to record something. Technically, you can plug right into your sound card or your Mac, if you have the right adapter.. but the quality won't be overly impressive and you're kind of hosed for options. You'll find in about 3 minutes that there's no way you can actually work this way, so next up is your Interface. The most important piece of hardware you'll buy is your Interface... ok and Monitors Interface
Interfaces are they hub of your studio. They convert analog to digital, digital to analog, they often have microphone preamps, internal mixers, routing options, a pile of inputs, level displays - they do a lot! Since your Interface is capturing your analog signals and converting them to digital, they are responsible for a big chunk of the sound quality. Compare a $150 Interface with a $2000 and you can very clearly hear the difference. However, if you do electronic music and generate all the sounds in your DAW, this isn't as much an issue. One thing i wouldn't skimp out on is the interface. It will probably have your mic preamps in it plus do all the A/D/A conversions, and both of those are pretty key to your sound.
They attach to your computer through Firewire, USB or PCI slot on your motherboard. Here's a brief and non exhaustive list of Interface manufacturers:
M-Audio, Presonus, MOTU, Lexicon, Mackie, Apogee, Digidesign, Metric Halo, RME....Microphone Preamp
Some people like external preamps. There's some very good ones out there, and they can get expensive. Typically they fall into two categories 'Colored' and 'Transparent'. Like amps and speakers, mics and preamps have magic combinations. Avalon, Neve, Ward Beck, Hamptone (DIY!), all make great mic pres. There's many more. If your Interface has mic pres, you need to ask yourself: Do i need more? Do i need higher quality? Mixers
It doesn't hurt to have a small mixer around, as they can provide you with all sorts of options. If you're an analog guy and use a lot of midi driven keyboards, a mixer might be just the right thing to handle them all. They can work well to mix a bunch of mics for a live session, run a talkback mic to the Live Room, who knows what you'll be doing! Handy. Mackie and Behringer make lots of different sizes. Effects
Outboard effects have diminished a fair amount. There's some great stuff out there, but so much of it can be done well, inside your software. That doesn't mean that some outboard FX gear is obsolete, but that the stuff on your computer is easier to use. Film analogy: Outboard FX is like shooting film - there's some great looks possible and you can do some stuff that's hard to do digitally, but for convenience digital wins hands down.
Some types of Effects are still very popular as outboard hardware, and that's typically dynamics based ones like compressors / limiters. Many feel that software hasn't yet got the sound of certain ones like the Teletronix / UA LA-2A compressor. Unless you have $3k for just your compressor, don't worry about it Control surfaces
Many cool midi/usb/firewire control surfaces about, which give you a keyboard and control over sliders, knobs, buttons etc., in your software. They're great for improving the human->computer interface. Without a remote keyboard/control surface, it's pretty hard to do 'play' anything on your computer!DAW
Digital Audio Workstation (your 'puter)
MAC or PC? MAC or PC? Nikon or Canon? Tubes or Solid State? Ford or Chevy?
This is nearly a religious debate. Truth is, both MAC and PC work great for audio. MAC has been doing it better, for longer, but PCs are a very capable system also. There's hardware and software that just works on the MAC, there's software that just works on a PC, you can argue it until you're blue in the face. If you ask me, i prefer
MACs for audio, because they're stable and easy to use and you don't fart around with drivers and viruses as much (or at all) They just WORK. A good friend of mine has a PC studio and it works great for him.
Some software and hardware is MAC only, as well as PC only software. Be warned!
Your computers CPU power will dictate how many simultaneous tracks and effects you can run, while you hard drive speed will dictate (to some degree) how many tracks you can playback. Any CPU over 2Ghz should be fine. If you work in 24 bit record mode (and you should) then expect to gobble up a fair amount of hard drive space. I'd set aside at least 50Gb to get started, and you may need more than that if you record like a banshee.Software
Lots of options here too. I'll list the main ones:
Nuendo - Very highly regarded complete package. Good sounding mixers
Logic - Full package, probably the best for MIDI control. Great effects and synths included
Pro Tools - The industry standard!
Reason - Good for trance and electronica
Audio Mulch - Weird but popular little program
Cakewalk - Been around a long time, popular
Garage Band - FREE! Not a ton of options, but what it does, it does very wellMonitors / amps
Many studio monitors are now self powered. Generally, you're looking for something with a flat response and nothing too fatiguing. It's also not bad idea to have an 'Auratone sound cube' around, which emulates the typical listening environment of a boom box or bad car stereo. Your mixes have to work everywhere! If the monitors are too small, you'll need a sub too. Mackie, Genelec, Yamaha, Adam, all make good monitors.