My daughter wants to record herself at home and asked for a studio set up! What do I do? Help!
This is a question often asked by parents. Children love to play with technology and the right gear can make for a wonderful creative and expressive outlet. But what do you go for when confronted by myriad websites, shops and fliers offering the next best thing in the world of recording?
This doesn’t have to be tricky, nor do you need to part with lots of money. The rise of digital technology has been matched with a collective fall in price. This means you can equip your child with some fantastic options on a graded scale from a few pounds to a few hundred.
Where to start? Let’s get a few basics sorted out first. You can break recording down into fives stages:
STAGE 1: Music is played (vocals, guitar, keyboards, violin etc.)
STAGE 2: Music is captured (with a microphone or a lead)
STAGE 3: Music is turned into a digital signal (via an interface)
STAGE 4: Music is recorded, edited, mixed (time to mess around with your music using an app, sequencer or, at the simplest level, a voice memo)
STAGE 5: Music is heard (on headphones or via speakers)
So you could sing (stage 1) into a phone using the built-in mic (stages 2 and 3) and record it with an app on the phone (stage 4). You would listen to your recording on headphones (stage 5).
You can do this right now on the fantastic Apple app, GarageBand!
If you want to take it further, follow the tips below to improve the quality of each stage with our smart tips. Invest in Stages 1 and 2 for the best longterm results.
STAGE 1 – playing the music
Despite the many amazing things technology can do, nothing can beat a cracking performance in the first place. As the immortal phrase goes – practice makes perfect. So take your time to prepare to record the first performance.
STAGE 2 – capturing the music
A good mic is invaluable. You can’t go wrong with a Shure SM-58. They are virtually indestructible and believe me I’ve seen some people try! It was the first mic I bought and I still use it for all sorts of things 20 years later. For a little bit more, the Rode NT-1A recording pack is great value. This is a dedicated studio mic so don’t drop it! You’ll also need to buy a lead that goes from your mic to the interface (Stage 3). Mics use XLR connections (three pins) and then the other end of the lead needs to be able to connect to your chosen interface, whether it’s a smartphone or a dedicated digital interface (see Stage 3). Don’t forget a mic stand.
Recording guitars (and other electric instruments)
For this you’ll need the lead to connect from the guitar to the interface (see Stage 3) – most likely to be a ¼ inch jack-to-jack lead.
You can record a piano live using a microphone, an electric keyboard with a lead from the line output (similar to a guitar).
Controller Keyboards and Devices
Many composers use controller keyboards. A controller keyboard has no sounds built into it – it just triggers the sounds built into a recording app or synth. They are not strictly necessary – recording apps have touch screen music keyboards. However the Akai mini controllers LPK25 and LPD8 are great for punching in sounds and will fit in a rucksack for recording on the go. If you already have a keyboard in the house, check on the back to see if it has a USB output. If it is new, chances are it will, and this means it can probably be used to control sounds on a computer or tablet.
STAGE 3 – music is turned into a digital signal
This is a technical step but it still needs to happen. The sound signal needs to be turned into something the computer can use. We reckon the built in mics on phones and tablets are just not up to the job and there are some great little boxes that will do this without breaking the bank. The school where I teach happily uses Alesis Core 1 USB Audio Interfaces which are around £40 (you’ll also need an Apple iPad Camera Connection Kit if using an iPhone or iPad). For interfaces with more options, Focusrite have some good starter options that start around £100 and for a little more they often have bundles including mic, headphones and cables as well. My favourite brand in this department is Apogee.
STAGE 4 – messing about with your recordings
The many dictaphone style apps will quickly get you set up with basic recording and playback. With an upgrade, there is much more fun to be had recording multiple instruments one after the other, and then getting the app to play the recordings at the same time to create the sound of a whole band. And with an upgrade, you can get into editing, mixing, production, effects and so on. There are many products on the market, but let me steer you to a company where there is great support, a whole community of users sharing tips and something that works straight out of the virtual box: Apple!
Apple’s GarageBand works on iPhones and iPads and on desktop or laptop. The best bit is that GarageBand only costs around £4. And if your child is getting really proficient and wants to upgrade to professional software, Logic X neatly follows on from GarageBand. It has a fully functional, industry-standard suite of tools that would keep many a musician very happy – all for around £150. To get a better idea, have a look on the Apple site, there are lots of demos that give a great overview.
Other software that will crop up in your searches are ProTools and Cubase. These are both good and the former will be found in nearly every studio the world over. I prefer Logic because of all the built-in instruments and effects. It is more fun straight out of the box.
STAGE 5 – listening to your music
A good pair of headphones is a must. Headphones that cover the ears not only give a better sound and bass response than buds, but also help stop the sound of the track leaking into the microphone. To hear the music out loud just plug into the home system. To add icing on the cake and go ‘professional’ use studio monitors. Studio monitors don’t ‘colour’ the sound as much as a home sound system and are better for accurate mixing and balancing of the final recording. Generally the more spent the better but on the beginner end, Yamaha are a reliable brand. Make sure that you have active monitors as these have an amplifier built in. Passive monitors require a separate amplifier.
PRODUCTS AND PRICES
Below are two packages that will turn a Mac or iPad into a mini studio. Do talk to someone you trust at the shop to check all the bits you have work together! Products frequently change so it’s important you know what you’re buying is compatible with what you have. Figures and recommendations are based on availability and cost at the time of writing
Mic – Shure SM58 and XLR lead – £100
Interface – Alesis Core 1 – £40 (Don’t forget Apple iPad Camera Connection Kit if using iPhone or iPad)
Software – GarageBand – £4
Headphones – Closed back big ones that cover the ears! £30
Mic: Rode NT1A studio bundle (mic, cable, stand and pop shield) – £135
Interface: Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 2nd Gen USB Audio Interface – £100
Software: Logic X – £150
Headphones – £50
Monitors – Yamaha Active Pair – £250
TOTAL – £685
And for PC alternative to the software, ProTools and Cubase are both good and often come free with the interface
There is an enormous amount of equipment for sale starting from a few pounds and going up to thousands. It is fun to upgrade bits but thankfully this is not necessary to do all at the same time. The addition of new virtual instruments, channel strips, specific microphones and better monitors can all come if, and when, needed.
We’ve worked hard to make this advice as clear as possible, but please do comment below with any questions you have.