Here's something I wanted to do for a while: a very basic guide to create a very simple and minimal recording setup, spending as little money as possible.
While I don't consider myself a good musician, performer or engineer, nor I consider myself an expert in the field, I think I've reached a point where, at least, I understand what the basic needs of someone who's starting to get interested in home recording are.
Therefore, I think that I've grasped a couple of fundamental concepts, both from my experience and from reading others' opinions and experiences' accounts as well, that I'd like to share with whoever might be concerned, in the hope to make their life a little easier.
Even after all my reasearch, I've rarely found any resources that really tried to reduce the matter to its most basic, fundamental aspects, and I treasured them when I did.
I think that a key concept when starting to get involved in self-producing music is to economically invest as little as possible but still leaving yourself plenty of room to upgrade. The reason for me to say this is that I now know that, if used properly, even the most basic equipment will suit the very humble needs of an aspiring producer who doesn't really know much about the craft yet. I'm still pretty much clueless about many aspects of it, and, being economically restricted like I find myself now, I feel every second of the frustration I get when I've invested in something and I can't figure out how to make it work properly. Besides, while making experience, I've only realized along the way some needs I didn't think I had earlier.
Something that really kept me inspired and soothed the inevitable frustration was to listen and read about how some of my favourite records were made, some of which out of really humble, limited or difficult situations. From Black Sabbath's debut, recorded almost entirely as a live take and mixed the day after, to The Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's, recorded on a 4-track device, the examples are many if one's able to find them.
To sum it up, this contribution's aim is to suggest a way to start with an extremely low budget, but still have something reliable to make experience with, without having much to regret if things turn out harder that one had thought.
First and most essential: a computer. Almost anyone already has one and unless it's an Android smartphone or you have to record an orchestra, it's probably at least enough to get started. Therefore, it's a better option than a stand-alone recording device, like a digital recorder.
While granted that if one already has a computer or recording device, whatever its specifics, it's best if he or she uses that for the purpose, there are some basic indications one could follow as a starting point to build or buy a new one.
Considering that a desktop PC is the option that probably gives more "bang for the buck", a laptop PC can work too if one chooses to sacrifice power and the possibility to upgrade for portability and for saving room.
Let's now get more into specifics.
CPU: my current audio interface (ESI UGM96) lists Windows XP and Pentium III 600MHz as minimum requirements. While, theoretically, if one only used few tracks and plugins and printed the effects on the tracks and kept bouncing them, that could still work, the very minimum I would use is any modern processor with a frequency from 2GHz up. For example, any Intel i3 or Pentium G and even some Atom or Celeron could be sufficient for tasks like real-time monitoring at low latency through software or recording multiple instruments.
One point I'd like to stress is that, unlike some other components, in some cases the CPU can be upgraded if the socket version is recent enough and if we're not talking about laptops. Therefore, no need to spend much, for any future bottleneck could be compensated with an upgrade.
Motherboard: I wouldn't skimp for this one. For a desktop PC, having a good motherboard means more possibility for upgrades (newer socket, more drives, more USB devices, more memory etc.). For a laptop this doesn't make much difference, since most laptops aren't easy to upgrade. MSI, Asus, Gigabyte, ASRock are the best known manufacturers.
PSU: I wouldn't skimp for this one, too. Again, a better PSU means more possibility to upgrade and more efficiency, too. I would get at least one with 80 Plus certification and 550w power. Reputable, well-known brands are also an additional guarantee here: Corsair, Coolermaster, BeQuiet!, Thermaltake, FSP, Seasonic, Antec, XFX, EVGA etc.
RAM: for a 32 bit OS, 2 GB could still be enough for today's standards. For a 64 bit OS, I'd get at least 4 GB. RAM is easily upgraded or replaced if the other components support it.
Drive/s: at least 5400 rpm, unless one needs to record a lot of instruments at once. In that case, it could be a bottleneck, but in my own experience drive speed doesn't nearly matter much as a better CPU or audio interface.
Graphics: most modern processors have integrated graphics but in any case one could get a very basic graphics card with passive cooling.
Cooling Fans: for audio recording, noise is obviously a concern. A modern computer case will probably already come with large, quiet fans, but in any case: for less noise, the bigger the fans and the fewer, the better. I can suggest Noctua and Coolermaster products for quiet operation.
Case: a better case obviously has more room for upgrades, so I wouldn't skimp too much on this. But then again, it is the least essential requirement and it is easily replaceable for little.
OS: this largely depends on preference and the system requirements of the hardware, but in any case, once you have settled for one, I'd suggest to go through the many guides to optimize it for audio recording available online. Here's some:
Unless one only uses MIDI instruments, an audio interface is essential for digital recording. To get started, I would suggest one with the least possibile features and inputs to avoid possible confusions. Again, if one has to record an ensemble of some kind and therefore needs to have multiple inputs, the following suggestions wouldn't matter: but even in that case, using only one microphone could work. There are historical examples of jazz or orchestral ensembles recorded like that with good results and some browsing and researching on Google and specialized sites could provide with accounts of such examples.
That said, I highly suggest getting an interface with drivers for which you can find tested round-trip latency values, most probably online. Recording with virtual instruments and amp simulators is a great way to save money, room and hassle and low latency is essential for that purpose.
Some models I would suggest:
- Focusrite Scarlett Solo (Second Generation: this is important, the first generation had preamp that were too hot for D.I. recording and clipped).
- ESI UGM96. This is the one I have, and it has some advantages and some disadvantages compared with the one above. First, it doesn't have direct monitoring, so you can't monitor the unprocessed input while using a higher buffer the avoid stressing the CPU, it doesn't have phantom power, so you can't use condenser mics, it doesn't have line inputs and its drivers aren't very good for multimedia purposes, so it's better to use it alongside the built-in soundcard. But, it's more affordable, smaller, can record two direct Hi-Z signals or one direct Hi-Z and one microphone signal at once and has two outs for headphones, one of which can be used as a line out as well. Besides, it has good low latency drivers, usable even with the buffer set at 128, that support every OS from WinXP to Win10 and it comes with CubaseLE and a very versatile and lightweight amp simulation software, Studio Devil's Virtual Guitar Amp, which has been very well reviewed.
Other options I would consider for particular cases:
- Line6 GX Pod Studio GX: one Hi-Z/Mic input and one line out. The advantage of this is the peculiar monitoring software which allows for very low latency with guitars and such, but it's useless for virtual instruments.
- Lexicon Alpha: while being very affordable and, in my experience, reliable, it doesn't have good low latency drivers. The best you can squeeze out of it is 10ms using Asio4All, not even its native drivers. Therefore, I would suggest it only if one doesn't have the need to monitor in real time through software effects and only uses the direct monitoring option.
The next most important part of a basic recording setup is a monitoring system. The best affordable option is a pair of closed headphones so the backing track or metronome doesn't leak onto the recording through the microphone. Again, if one only works with MIDI or doesn't do any recording that isn't D.I., this requirement doesn't matter and anything can be used to listen back to his or hers material.
At the moment, I'm using a pair of Behringer HPM1000 and that's because at less than 20 euros or dollars they're the most affordable closed studio headphones on the market. Besides, they don't sound much worse than the highly-recommended Sennheiser HD280 Pro I had before, at a fraction of the cost. What I like about relying on cheap equipment like this is that I wouldn't have to complain much if it wouldn't last long or if it broke, and in the meantime I would have had something to learn on without worrying about malfunctions and having money to replace it. It's a matter of actually finding something that works for this little: and, for my experience, these will.
With virtual instruments is nowadays possible to emulate more or less any real instrument, and if one wants to actually play those and not only programming MIDI tracks a USB keyboard is the way to do it. The one I have and suggest is the Alesis Q25, because it's the most affordable around and it has only a few controls, so less things that can break or cause confusion.
The next part is some software to produce music with (a DAW, VST effects and instruments, samples). The best I can do is point to the most useful resource about this subject I've found: http://bedroomproducersblog.com/2015/11/11/free-daw-software/.
For free VST effects and instruments and samples there is a universe of options for every need if one does some research online, so I won't go any further about this.
As I've mentioned, not everyone but most will need to record with a microphone. At barely 20 euros, the most affordable, reputable model on the market is the Behringer Ultravoice XM8500. Unlike some others, I think a dynamic microphone like this is the best to start with because its limitations can actually be an advantage for someone who isn't in a ideal situation for a home studio to begin with. That's because it's less sensitive than a condenser mic, so it's less prone to pick up the resonances of a bad sounding room and unwanted noise of any kind.
Again, not everyone is a guitar player, but a lot of home recording enthusiasts are, so here's something else that I think it's important for them: while most instruments can be reasonably emulated in a virtual environment, in my experience that is not the case with the guitar, for complex reasons that frankly I don't fully understand myself. Therefore, the best option is to actually have an electric guitar. I say "electric" because, using impulse responses or software simulators and sensible mixing strategies, it's even possibile to make an electric guitar sound like an acoustic (or even a bass guitar, for that matter).
The most affordable guitar made by a reputable brand is probably the Squier Bullet Strat, but there are plenty of options with brands like Epiphone, Ibanez, Yamaha and Peavey.
Personally, I wouldn't skimp much on this, though. The reasons being that a guitar, unlike some of the equipment listed so far, is a complex instrument and it can be affected by many more problems, than, say, a pair of headphons or a microphone, which basically just either work or don't. If one is an experienced player, I think he wouldn't want do deal with an instrument not built to last for years, that has a shoddy wiring, poor electronics or doesn't stay well in tune. Besides and, again, unlike some other recording equipment I've mentioned, a guitar is a bigger investment and it can't just be thrown away if it breaks or doesn't work for any reason, which is less problematic with a pair of headphones or a microphone that barely cost 20 euros. It's also nice to have the option to resell it, which will be easier if the guitar is made by a well-known brand (which is the case for anything that can be bought and sold, of course).
Last, I would like to stress that this is my personal take on the matter. I'd understand if someone preferred to start with more high-end tools to see how much mileage can be had from them, but for me it's always been that the bigger the investment, the bigger my frustration when I realized it was wasted for my skills. Instead, I've learned that for me it's more gratifying to make work something better suited for my capabilities than pretending, or hoping, to be better than I am just because I have better tools. Besides and therefore, to me saving in the beginning can mean saving for upgrades in the future, whenever the need arises, not necessarily being stuck forever with mediocre equipment.