Making quality recordings for very little money

I was at a songwriters group meeting several weeks ago and the topic was “producing your own CD”. A couple of people asked about recording equipment, setup, what is a good mike etc. Can you produce a quality recording with your own equipment and spend under $5,000?

I provided a couple of answers and others jumped in as well. I realized we all have different experiences with equipment. Some of us have not recorded much and are surprised at how good a $100 mike sounds these days. Others really like a particular program they use and are blinded to other options. So I decided to write about my own experiences and equipment I have settled on after a few years of experimentation. I hope this might be helpful for a few people.

<BACKGROUND>For those of you not interested in my wanderings in the dessert of recording history, you can skip to the next section which is equipment recommendations. But what is a Blog without personal meanderings?

I did my first recordings on a friend’s Tascam Porta One cassette recorder almost 20 years ago. Wow, really. It was ok but limited in what you could do. You had 4 tracks and had to “bounce” 2 to 1 to free up another. So you could not really mix anything that well. If you bounced the Bass and Drums onto one track, then they were pretty much linked forever. I know a lot of mediocre sounding recordings were made with these devices.

The first recording studio I bought was a BOSS BR8 unit. It was a pretty cool unit and was the first digital recording studio to retail for (just) under $1,000. When I ordered mine from Sherwood music in Kitchener, I had to put my name on a waiting list. They were so hot they were flying out the door!

The BR8 wrote to a zip 100 meg zip drive which meant the signal was compressed. It sounded pretty good if you did not play around with it much. But the interface was not very easy to use because everything was pushed into the LCD menu. It was not bad for recording but terrible for copying a few bars from one spot to the other. I joined a Yahoo Groups devoted to the BR8 and found some very helpful people.

The BR8 made good recordings as long as you did not alter the sounds very much. It recorded “crunchy” guitars best and I hated using the LCD screen to try and copy sections or apply effects etc. I used its conversion utility to convert the tracks to wave files (*.wav) and then imported them into Acid 3.0. Acid was a great program for Windows machines, simple and pretty powerful. I got it bundled with Sonic Foundry which you could use to edit a sound pretty well. Eventually Sony bought Acid and turned it into a crappy DJ-focused program.

Eventually I came up against the limitations of the BR8 and its zip drive even with Acid. I bought a Mac for various reasons (discussed in too much detail in an earlier blog post) and after discovering Garage Band, have never looked back. </BACKGROUND>

I’ve used a 4-track cassette recorder, BR8, Windows and Mac and my advice, for simplicity and power, is “GET a MAC!’ Audio drivers work better on Macs than on Windows machines and the Mac audio hardware is much higher quality than most windows machines.

Garage Band is a simple program to use but contains tons of powerful features. It has decent guitar amp modeling, lots of cool effects, a good selection of keyboards,  strings and drum loops. You can buy additional “Jam Packs” to augment these sounds or go into third party software as well. But the variety of effects that comes with Garage Band is more than enough for any songwriter who wants to record basic demo tracks. It also has an amazing equalizer that I’ve used to take a dent out of one hollow note ‘ping’ in a guitar arpeggio I was playing!

Another advantage of Garage Band is that if you really want to upgrade at some point, you can buy Logic Express or Logic Pro and import all your Garage Band tracks into them. I am paying a professional to record at his studio and Fred uses Logic Pro, so I can record some basic parts and then he imports them and we add additional vocals etc. in his studio. I got excited a year or so back and bought Logic Express because I wanted “more control” but I rarely use it. It is more complicated to learn, and I’d rather spend the time playing and fooling around with music than learning software. (N.B. I make my living training people how to use software so I’m familiar with computers and learning, I just don’t think it is worth spending the time to learn Logic Express).

Macs are more expensive than Windows machines, sure. But you can buy them used, or get a Mac Mini (and re-use an existing monitor and keyboard) and they are not so expensive. When you throw in the fact you get Garage Band for “free” then it is really a bargain. You can set yourself up with a decent Mac for between $800 and $1500. Any new entry-level Mac mini, Macbook etc. is powerful enough to run audio recording software.

OK, computer is purchased, what else do you need?

The minimum is a good vocal mic and an “interface” (the interface is to turn analog sound that you sing and play into digital sound that you save on disk and manipulate). This interface can be called things like “audio interface”, “USB interface”, “pre-amp”, “analog-digital converter” etc.

A very good initial mic is the Shure sm58.  This mic is commonly used on the stage for live performances but you can also use it for recording your voice and it is tough enough to put in front of a guitar amp if you want to record that “live” sound. It is a great versatile mic to have and should probably be everyone’s “first mic”.  You can buy this for around $100.

The Shure is a decent vocal mic for recording demos or playing around with harmonies etc. but if you want to get a much richer and fuller sound you will have to step up to a “condenser mic” which is just a lot more sensitive and nuanced. This is how those great vocalists sing so softly and you can hear so much tone. Now a great condenser mic can easily cost more than a thousand dollars! It can easily cost more than $4,000! But let’s be reasonable, what can the budget conscious consumer get? Well I bought a Studio Projects B3 and it is a very good mic and if you look at the picture you will see it has a switch to get warmer and more neutral sounds. It is a pretty good mic but you will also need “phantom power” for it and you can research that on your own.

My favorite inexpensive mic however is my CAD M9. There are lots of good reviews of this mic on the web and I love the sound I get from it. In fact, I am singing most of the album I’m recording through my studio guy’s $4,000 mic, but for a couple of songs I’m using the tracks I recorded with my CAD M9 because they sound just great for their style! I find the Studio Projects mic a little “live” for my taste and the CAD M9 is quiet, yet gets a really full sound. Perhaps if I had a larger and better home recording room, I’d use the Studio Project more.

Here is a very basic recording I made with the CAD M9 and put on YouTube and you can hear it picks up the guitar and vocals pretty well.

So you can buy the CAD M9 for around $300 and now you need some way to connect it to your computer and convert the analog to digital. I used different devices for a few years including the MAudio Mobile Pre. It was ok, but was not much of a pre-amp. I bought an ARTV3 to warm up my vocal and guitar sounds but that is getting into a lot of cables and it’s pretty complicated. And the sound was still mediocre. For example, I recorded my bass and it sounded ok, but when I walked into the professional recording studio and plugged everything into Fred’s preamp and board I thought “holy crap, now THAT is how a bass sounds on a record!”

So after more research I found the best interface at a reasonable price: the Apogee One. For around $250 it is brilliant! It comes with a mic which is perfect for podcasting and is surprisingly good for recording acoustic instruments and rough vocals. It is a great interface for recording guitars direct to computer and I also plug my CAD M9 into it. (Note for die hard Windows folks: the Apogee One only works with Macs). Mike, at Long and McQuade explained to me that it has a “very decent” preamp, but what Apogee are known for is their extremely accurate analog to digital conversion. If you really want to record in stereo you can pay a lot more for the Apogee Duet. It is still a deal! I plugged my bass into the Apogee One and thought “wow, it’s not as good as the studio setup but it is a really decent ‘pro’ sound!”

OK, those are my recommendations. You can record professional quality demos or even an album for under $2,000 with a Mac, a CAD M9 and an Apogee One.
There is a great deal more to talk about regarding mixing and studio monitors, mastering etc. etc. But I think this combination of hardware and software gives you lots of sonic and creative options at a decent price point!

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3 responses to “Making quality recordings for very little money

  1. amazing what you can do now with a laptop and a bit of gear; replaces studios that back in my day cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. for recording acoustic piano i use a dedicated laptop with two AKG 420 mics, Presonus Audiobox 22 VSL, and Studio One DAW. not counting the laptop the whole setup (with mic stands) was less than $800.

  2. Ed: thanks for the comment. It is indeed a wonderful world. But those studios often had simple, but very good quality microphones, boards etc.

  3. Pingback: Album Release: “My Neighbourhood” | Ted Parkinson's Weblog

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