I recently started digging into photography. As I was buying camera gear I saw similar comparisons of when I started recording music. The options are endless. Everyone has an opinion. The internet is helpful to a degree. The rabbit holes are deep. Money will not get you everything you need. There is a big leap of faith.
I thought it might be helpful to just add my 2 cents to someone starting out in recording audio.
These are suggestions.
My best advice is to just start. Dive in. Record something, anything. Keep it. Think about it. And record again. Keep doing that over and over. Be curious. If the advice you get or hear seems harsh or like you’re being scolded, discard it. It has no place in your journey. Any encouragement or feelings of excitement, those are the footpaths to follow when it comes to recording.
If you have an ipad I think Garageband is exceptional. Getting the sound into an ipad can be interesting. If you’re doing guitar work, they make an adapter. There are several options. Just pick one and start. I say that because it is a starting point. You have nothing to compare it to.
I recently purchased a camera tripod. I found something cheap. I could not understand why anyone would pay 80-170 dollars on a tripod. It holds the freaking camera. I thought it was just some way of showing off gear. On my first trip out taking photos I took the tripod. Within a few minutes of setting it up I realized why people buy expensive tripods. I could see and feel the quality of the cheaper model. It was difficult to take down and set up because it was cheap. If I had purchased the most expensive thing I could, I would have never understood why it is better. Now I know. I’ll keep the cheap tripod. In a year or so I will purchase a nicer tripod. I am not afraid to rough up the tripod I have or push it to it’s limit. That is valuable information.
Don’t be afraid to jump in and put an adapter for the ipad. Make a decent guess and go with it. You’ll gain experience and know what to look for down the road. The important thing is for you to start using it and recording.
I would also consider an inexpensive midi keyboard. They typically hook up to the ipad easily. Do a little research on the difference between midi and audio. It is helpful to understand the difference and how to record each. Most guitarist I knew growing up in the 80s and 90s stayed away from midi. I considered that a mistake. Understanding the basics of midi opens a lot of possibilities.
If you want to go the PC route I suggest starting with a free program or something on the cheaper side. You’ll need an interface. The interface simply allows the guitar or vocal to go into the computer so it can be recorded. Most also have a midi input that allows you to do the same with midi instruments.
I really enjoy Focusrite interfaces. Guitar Center will carry used ones. For something like an interface, I like to buy new. There are just things about interfaces that are quirky. Having a warranty and customer support helps. It will take some of the fear out of the equation.
In terms of recording software, I love Reaper. Reaper is about 60.00 to purchase for a single user. You can purchase it right off their website. No need to go to a music store. You can download a fully functional demo and use it up to 30 or 60 days. I can’t remember which. It was a generous amount of time though. Download it over a long weekend when you have time to play with it. Watch some videos first, get a feel for it.
As much as I love Reaper, it can be difficult. Any DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) is difficult. They all have little buttons that have to be pushed to record or enable recording. The vocabulary can be difficult. It is worth it though. Be prepared to be frustrated but keep coming back. The second and third time are better. Take notes. Write things down and get a basic path going.
There are other DAWs out there. There are free ones that will work. Reaper just has a great community online. I like DAWs with resources and people who can assist. The Reaper community is second to none.
There are a ton of effect and instrument plugins out there. I suggest using what your DAW has built in. Start with the stock for now so you know how they work and what they are. I suggest knowing about Reverb, Delay, Compression, and EQ. Those are great places to start. After a while I suggest searching for “Best free VSTs” and follow some of the links. One of the things you’ll have to navigate is how to install those VSTs. It can be a little tricky and it requires you going into your computer’s directories. It is worth it but if you know someone who has done it or you can find some videos online for installation, that is the best way. You can misplace some files and that will stress you out. Tread cautiously.
I have spent days downloading free VSTs. There are some amazing people making things for us to use, free of charge. I love Blue Cat plugins. There are others. I don’t recommend doing what I have done, downloading everything I could find. It is fun at first but then you have too many. This causes you to not know what does what. I think less is better. Rotate some new ones in after a month or two.
Once you get a work flow going and you are able to record sounds and play them back, – that ‘s great place to be. You can use your computer speakers and headphones to listen to what you’ve recorded. Just know that what you hear through those speakers or headphones will sound different in a car or home stereo. Most people who mix their music try to find speakers that do not hype the sound. This means speakers that have bass boost or some other type of built in sound enhancer. I think it is best to find a pair of speakers, whatever they are, and use them to listen to everything – your recordings, other recordings, songs off the internet, etc. You need to know how things sound coming through the speakers. That is the real skill. If you can match a professional recording using computer speakers, you’ve taken a huge step forward. Know what your speakers sound like and you’re golden.
In terms of cables and other items for the studio, go with whatever you can get your hands on. Experiment. Just like the tripod analogy that I used. You don’t know if something is good or bad until you use it.
You will need a microphone. I like Shure mics. They are basic and straightforward. A great starting place is a SM-57 to record guitar amps or other loud type sounds. Singers typically use a SM-58 as a vocal mic. Are these the best? Nope. But like your speakers, if you know how they sound and how they capture sound, you will have a big advantage. I buy a lot of used mics. Those are a good value. Guitar Center always has used mics. Pawn shops have used mics. Get what you can and use it. You don’t have to have 2 mics. One mic can really do everything you need. I like having at least 2 mics. I can get creative with that.
Keep using the same stuff and eventually you’ll know how to manipulate the tools at the sound source rather than sitting at a computer trying 100 plugins to get the sound you want. Put a mic up, record something, listen back. Do you like the sound? If yes, move on. If not, try it again. Where you put a mic changes the sound. There is a lot of experimentation. This is why no one can truly tell you that there is a right or a wrong way. There may be better ways but that comes from just doing it enough times to be able to predict and execute what you wanted.
It will take you about 100 hours of recording to get you at that stage of feeling comfortable. Start a notebook. Log your hours for fun.
It is tempting to think gear makes you better or makes it easier to get better sounds. It is a difficult debate. In my world I have some nice gear, some ok gear, and some not good gear. Someone once told me that each bit of gear does something well. It may take you awhile to figure out what it does well, but it will do something well. I think about that a lot when I have a piece of gear I’m struggling with. I’ll ask myself – what does it do well? And then I ask myself – is that something I need it to do? If not, let the gear go back into the universe or put it in storage. Both are great options. If you trade it or give it away, that ‘s just good karma. Let someone else make meaningful things with it. Thank it for it’s time with you and move on. If you decide to keep it and put it in storage, great. Let it sit for a good long while. On those days where you feel stuck, pull it out and see if it inspires you to do something different.
I’ve kept most of my gear through the years because I get used to how something works or sounds. I don’t like learning new gear. It takes time away from creating. That is my journey. You do what you want to do. Let your energy and enthusiasm be your guide. I had a conversation with someone who was learning a new instrument. They mentioned they should be spending their time on learning the basics. I asked them if that brought them joy. They said no. I suggested they follow their joy with the instrument. That will get them in the practice room more than obligation will. It won’t always be fun and engaging but that’s ok. Show up. Play. Record. See where it goes. I hope this helps. Good luck.