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Recording Gear Buying Guide

Recording Gear Buying Guide

Recording Gear Buying Guide

How to choose the right audio recording equipment to match your skills, music, and budget

Are you looking for a piece of recording equipment or maybe an entire recording setup, but are having trouble deciding what you should get? Well, your search stops here.

Our guide will introduce you to the basic equipment and terminology of recording music and help you make the choices that are right for you.

There are a few pieces of gear that every musician interested in recording will need, and when you break it down, it's pretty straightforward. Basically, you'll need something to record and edit your music, a way to listen to what you've recorded, and a way to share your recordings.

Aside from these basics, the gear you need will be based specifically on the type of recordings you'll be making.

 

What Types of Recordings Do You Have Planned?

The key to choosing your gear is to focus on the types of projects you have planned, then select the equipment that has the features and functions you need.

So, let's start by breaking down the types of equipment you'll need based on what types of music you'll be working on. Keep this question in mind as you read and think about gear: What features do I need based on the types of recordings I want to make?

1. Recording solo or duo performances: Small Studio

If you're working on a small solo- or duo-based project, your needs might be pretty basic. Whether you choose to use a computer-based recording system or a standalone multitrack recorder, you'll need two to four tracks of simultaneous recording capability, at least one microphone, and headphones and/or studio monitors for playback and overdubbing. You'll also want to get the proper cables for connecting your gear and probably a mic stand or two.

You'll need enough inputs to handle all your vocal and instrument microphones as well as inputs for electronic instruments such as an electric guitar, bass, or keyboard. Your computer recording software or multitrack recorder may have effects built in, but you also might want an external signal processor. More on them later.

For recording solo or duo performances, an audio interface that includes one or more mic preamps may be all you need to connect to your computer or standalone recording equipment.

Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 USB Audio Interface

Along with its acclaimed mic preamps and 24-bit/96kHz definition, the Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 USB Audio Interface packs features to make it the heart of your mobile recording rig.

 

2. Recording groups: Medium Studio

For recording a group, you'll want a recorder with four to 16 channels or more of simultaneous recording, a selection of various microphones, studio monitors and headphones for playback and overdubbing; the appropriate cables and connections for hooking it all up; some mic stands; one or more dedicated mic preamps, and a compressor or recording channel or two to use on vocals and solo instruments, especially acoustic instruments.

This should be enough to record the entire band, depending on how many mics and inputs you use for the various instruments and vocals. You may need a mixer with 12 channels or more and several buses, depending on the inputs and mixing capabilities of your audio interface or recorder. Keep in mind that a full drum kit can require five or more mics and mic inputs all by itself. You also may want some extra processing options, such as dedicated computer software effects or an external signal processor or two.

And naturally, once you’re set up with the basics, you can also expand to some recording-related accessories such as direct boxes for recording instruments such as electric guitars, basses, and keyboards directly into your recorder. Other accessories such as pop filters, studio foam, monitor stands, racks and recording furniture to help keep things in order and refine the quality of the sound you capture.

As you have probably realized by now, putting together a recording rig can be challenging. 

 

3. Recording larger projects: Project Studio

Is recording more than a hobby for you? If you've got a space set up specifically for recording and you're working on professional-level projects, you should be considering a hardware recorder, computer-based interface or DAW software that delivers 16 tracks or more of simultaneous recording.

Pro-level project studios should have a several pairs of monitors and a selection of headphones available for critical listening. You'll also need a varied collection of microphones that includes dynamic mics as well as ribbon and condenser types to cover most vocals, instruments, and situations. An array of signal processors such as microphone preamps, compressors, limiters, recording channels, equalizers, and effects processors add versatility and polish to your productions. You'll also want to consider purchasing a high-quality, recording mixer with 24 channels or more, and at four or more buses and mix groups in addition to the main outs.

Think about the space you are recording in as well. Proper use of acoustic foam and other acoustic treatment materials will help you tame unwanted echoes and resonances inside the studio and improve the quality of your recordings. You’ll also hear more accurately in an acoustically treated room, which can lead to better mixes.

As your recording setup gets bigger, it gets more complicated and will benefit from some organization. Accessories like monitor stands, monitor isolation pads, multichannel headphone amplifiers, direct boxes, pop filters, studio foam, racks and studio furniture should help keep your setup in order.

 

Choosing a Recorder

You have a number of options for how you approach recording audio, and each has its own advantages. For many, a computer-based recording setup using audio software is the most versatile and convenient solution. Others like the physical control offered by hardware. We will take a look at these different approaches and walk you through the buying considerations for each.

Computer

Currently, many (if not most) home-based recordings are made using a computer rather than hardware-based recording consoles. Specialized software makes it easier and more affordable, offering a lot of features and capabilities that would otherwise be quite expensive in a hardware-based setup.

Now, you most likely already have a desktop or laptop computer that you have thought of using for your recordings. However, you’ll want to take note of some specs that are important when it comes to deciding whether your computer can handle the job.

CPU

The computer’s central processing unit (CPU) is the component that processes instructions sent from your computer programs. How quickly and efficiently a computer can do this is determined by its clock rate (measured in GHz), and the number of processing cores it has. Since you will be plugging in a number of peripheral devices and layering multiple tracks, it's important to have plenty of processing power. That means you'll want a minimum of two cores (preferably four) running at a minimum of 2GHz.

 

RAM

Random access memory (RAM) is a type of memory that programs use to perform audio processing tasks. Typically, audio software and the devices you plug into your audio workstation will require a lot of this type of memory, so more is better. For your recording setup to run smoothly, you'll want a computer with a minimum of 4GB of RAM, and preferably more for complex recordings. Look for a computer that offers plenty of RAM expansion capability.

Storage

The audio files you'll be creating are quite large, taking up roughly 800MB per 80 minutes of recorded audio. To store all this, you will want a hard drive with a minimum of 1TB of storage. You can also purchase high-speed external hard drives designed to work well with your audio files.

 

 

Mac or PC?

Deciding whether to go with a Mac or PC person is a little different for audio recording than it is for other computer uses. While a Windows PC is certainly capable of the tasks you'll need to perform, you'll find that Mac has become the industry standard, and the preference for many musicians and recording engineers.

The reason for this is that Mac has a strong track record of reliability and stability, partly owing to its strictly controlled designs and application standards. Additionally, many professionals are drawn to Mac-exclusive hardware and software products due to their excellent integration with Apple products.

That said, many applications and USB audio interfaces are compatible with both PCs and Macs.

Hybrid multitrack recorders/computer audio interfaces

Even though computer recording may rule the day, there are still advantages to dedicated hardware for recording, and one of the most important is portability. Keep in mind that if you plan to do a lot of recording on the go, rather than primarily in a single location, you might want hardware that can record audio without an attached computer.

One option that is both portable and versatile is to buy recording hardware that can act as a USB audio interface when you use it with your computer. You will find many interfaces with this capability.

Zoom R16 Multitrack Recorder and Interface

The very portable Zoom R16 Multitrack Recorder/Interface records to SDHC cards of up to 32GB, has 8 balanced XLR/1/4-inch inputs, more than a 100 studio quality effects, and works with most DAW software.

Mobile recording with iOS

An alternative approach to mobile recording that can yield excellent results is to use your iPad or iPhone with peripherals designed for the job. You'll see a range of options available on the Musician's Friend site to turn your iOS device into a miniature recording studio on the go. With hundreds of recording, mastering, and effects apps to choose from, the sky’s the limit in terms of of iOS-based recording possibilities.

Alesis iO Dock 2

The Alesis iO Dock II transforms your iPad into a powerful recording and music production workstation while delivering versatile I/O as well as 30-pin plus Lightning connectivity.

 

Multitrack recorders

If you opt to go for dedicated hardware for your recording rather than a computer-based system, you have plenty of options. One of their greatest advantages are dedicated physical knobs, buttons, and faders that can be much easier to use than delving through the often complex multi-layered menus of computer-based software.

When you're choosing a multitrack recorder, pay attention to how many tracks you get: audio, MIDI, actual and virtual, as well as how many you can record and play back simultaneously. All but the most basic multi-trackers should give you some editing and mixing features to polish your recordings.

 

While you're browsing the selection and kicking the tires, here are some additional specifications to pay attention to:

I/O (Inputs/Outputs)

The number and type of inputs and outputs should be a principal concern. You need enough inputs to plug everything in with all the connection types you'll want to use. Among the options for connection types, you'll see balanced, unbalanced, phantom powered for condenser mics, XLR, 1/4", TRS, MIDI, Hi-Z, surround sound, RCA, S/PDIF, word clock, ADAT and AES/EBU to connect your gear. Most recorders also include USB, FireWire, or Thunderbolt ports for computer connectivity.

You'll want to take an inventory of the mics, instruments and other gear you'll want to connect and understand the types of connections they use. This way, you'll know what kind of specs to look for among the many available options.

Audio Quality

Make sure you check the specs for sampling frequency and bit rate, handled by the analog-to-digital (A/D) converter. Generally speaking, the higher the number, the higher the audio quality, with 16-bit/44.1kHz being the standard for CDs, and 24-bit converters the standard for professional recording. Higher sampling frequencies offer more headroom and high-frequency response—important audio factors for professional recordings.

Controls

Examine the mixer section to see what type and quality of controls it gives you. Look for meters, faders, knobs, EQ and sends. If it doesn't have a mixer section, you'll need to buy a mixer.

Storage

Multitrackers record internally to either flash memory or a hard drive, and some will let you record to an external storage device or upgrade the storage with a bigger storage device. Multitrack audio can take up a lot of storage, so keep that in mind.

Extras

Some of the features that can increase your recording options are things like an internal MIDI sequencer, modules that generate instrument sounds, a built-in effects processor, a separate mastering section, and an onboard CD burner. You should also give some thought to how intuitively it is laid out and how easy it is to use.

Handheld/Field recorders

If your recording needs are simple—for instance, perhaps you want a tool for recording practice sessions or podcasts—you might consider a handheld or field recorder.

Typically, these small devices house a pair of condenser mics for quality recordings, and they record audio to a removable flash drive so you can easily transfer the files to your computer or burn them to CD.

Zoom H6 Handy Recorder

The Zoom H6 Handy Recorder has a pair of high-quality condenser mics with interchangeable capsules and advanced preamps for excellent recording quality in virtually any setting.

 

Take a video tour of the Zoom H6 Handy Recorder’s amazing capabilities.

Choosing a Computer Audio Interface

If you choose the computer-based approach to recording, you'll need an audio interface to connect everything to your computer. Not only does this device give you a place to plug everything in, it also handles the critical role of converting analog audio signals to digital using an analog to digital (A/D) converter. It also converts the digital signal from your computer back into an analog signal using a digital to analog converter (D/A) for playback through your monitor speakers and/or headphones.

By converting your audio signals from analog to digital, your interface is handling a specialized job that takes the burden off of your computer. With a good interface, this means you can create sounds and listen to them playing back in near real-time, without the latency that can make the recording process difficult. Look for an interface equipped with high-quality A/D and D/A converters that accurately translate your sound from the analog to digital realm and back again. (See the Audio Quality section below about how to compare converter specs.)

 

When shopping for a computer audio interface it’s essential to figure out whether it will work with your computer. Two things to check are: how it connects to your computer and the manufacturer's system requirements for the interface. The main connection types are PCI, USB, FireWire, Thunderbolt, and PCMCIA or PC card. Review the processor, memory and connection requirements to confirm compatibility with your computer.

I/O

Also of principal concern should be the number and type of audio inputs and outputs: Balanced, unbalanced, phantom powered, XLR, 1/4", TRS, MIDI, Hi-Z, surround sound, RCA, S/PDIF, word clock, ADAT and AES/EBU. Pay attention to how many channels of audio it will record and playback simultaneously.

Controls

Some computer interfaces include hardware controls, some have software controls, and some have both. They also often include mixer software to handle routing of the I/O and level meters.

Audio Quality

Check the specs for sampling frequency and bit rate offered by the analog-to-digital converter. Generally speaking, the higher the number, the higher the audio quality, with 16-bit/44.1kHz being the standard for CDs, and 24-bit converters the standard for professional recording. Higher sampling frequencies offer more headroom and high-frequency response in digital recordings—important factors for professional-sounding recordings.

Latency

All computer audio interfaces have some latency, or delay, but very good ones have so little you don't notice it. Most good computer audio interfaces will provide a way of measuring and controlling latency. Some provide a workaround, such as hardware signal monitoring. An interface with too much latency makes it nearly impossible to perform normal multitrack operations like overdubbing or real-time monitoring. A slower computer will contribute to latency.

Choosing Software

Without audio software, computers would not be the music production powerhouses they are today. And there are plenty of software options capable of handling your audio production at every point from start to finish: recording, mixing, editing, mastering, duplicating, and in some cases even songwriting.

An industry standard software suite you will see in most modern recording studios is Avid's Pro Tools. With lots of professional-grade features and plug-ins, Pro Tools is an excellent choice for those seeking the highest quality audio possible and nearly unlimited sound processing options. However, Pro Tools is a relatively complex program for novice users and involves a steep learning curve.

Avid Pro Tools 11

 

 

Another fully featured option often praised for its sound quality, flexibility and intuitive interface is Cakewalk's Sonar. Sonar is available in a wide range of versions, with feature sets to suit users with different needs and budgets.

Choosing Recording Microphones

To get your music into your recording setup, you'll need at least one good microphone, and probably several. The main types to consider are condenser, dynamic, and ribbon microphones. Each type has different sound characteristics and is used for recording in different situations

Choosing Audio Monitors

Listening to the playback is an important part of the recording process, and you'll want to make sure you've got the right kind of speakers to handle the job. Here, we'll take a closer look at what makes a good set of studio monitors and cover some concepts to keep in mind when you're making your selection.

Studio Monitors

Studio monitors are critical to good recordings. Intended to provide you with an accurate picture of the audio you are recording, overdubbing, mixing, editing and mastering, they are your first defense against bad sound. Most monitors used for recording today in homes and studios are near-field monitors. A near-field monitor is small enough that you will primarily hear sound coming directly from it—not sound reflecting off of the studio walls. When considering monitors, look at the frequency response and THD specs to get an idea of the monitor's accuracy.

Tweeter and main driver size will also affect how accurately a speaker can reproduce audio, since larger drivers can reproduce low frequencies more accurately.

M-Audio BX5 D2 Studio Monitors

The M-Audio BX5 D2 Studio Monitors are an affordable and sonically accurate option with 5” low-frequency and 1” high-frequency drivers driven by an internal 70W amp.

I/O

For connections, monitors usually have 1/4”, XLR, RCA or S/PDIF jacks. Some offer only unbalanced or balanced I/O, and some have both.

Active/Passive Studio Monitors

Active monitors, also called powered monitors, have one or more power amplifiers built into the cabinet, and they’re often biamplified, using separate amps matched to each driver for optimal performance.

Passive monitors, also called unpowered monitors, use a separate, external power amp that gives you some flexibility in choosing your components and setting up multi-speaker arrays. Passive monitors usually have high-quality crossover circuitry for extremely accurate splitting of high and low frequencies.

Extras

Advanced features on monitors include EQ controls, acoustic space compensation effects, balance controls, and filters.

Subwoofers

If you record beat and bass-heavy music or TV and movie soundtrack material, a subwoofer or surround setup will be helpful in monitoring the extended low-frequencies and extra channels necessary in those types of music.

 

Audio Playback

In addition to your monitors, you might want to include some decent-quality, consumer audio speakers to gt an idea of how your recording will sound on consumer devices. 

Choosing Headphones

Headphones are generally used for monitoring during recording and overdubbing, but high-quality headphones can be used for nearly everything, including critical listening and mixing. When considering headphones, look at the frequency response and THD specs to get an idea of their accuracy. Driver size will also affect how accurately a speaker can reproduce audio, since larger drivers can reproduce low frequencies more accurately. For recording, be sure to get at least one pair of closed-back headphones, which have better acoustic isolation that open-back models. This design prevents sound from the headphones from “bleeding” into the microphones.

 

I/O

Headphones use either an 1/8” jack or a stereo 1/4” jack, and usually include an adapter for convenience when plugging into equipment that has one, but not the other.

Choosing Effects/Signal Processors

Signal processors include everything from units that produce a single effect, to multi-effect processors that can produce hundreds. Certain types of signal processors such as compressors, preamps, equalizers, noise gates, and limiters serve one single dedicated purpose with varying amounts of quality and control. Other effects  such as reverbs, delays, and enhancers/exciters may produce a single effect but with many variations. Multi-effect processors include many different effects as well as variations of those effects. The main features to consider when choosing a signal processor is if it produces the type of effects and sound quality you’re seeking.

I/O

Most signal processors offer 1/4”, TRS or XLR connections, although some also have RCA, S/PDIF, ADAT, word clock and AES/EBU.

Hardware/Software

Effects processors can be either hardware- or software-based. Hardware processors come in desktop, rackmount and foot-controlled units, with rackmount being the most common. Software effects are installed on your computer like any other software program and can be used on audio recorded into your computer.

Audio Quality

Check the specs for sampling frequency and bit rate, handled by the analog-to-digital converter. Generally speaking, the higher the number, the higher the audio quality, with 16-bit/44.1kHz being the standard for CDs. Higher sampling frequencies offer more headroom and high-frequency response in digital recordings, important audio factors for professional recordings. Some signal processors will have specs listed for frequency response and THD that will give you an idea of how transparently they will handle your audio.

Controls

Look at how much control the processor gives you over its processing abilities. Not just the number of knobs, but the range of control each knob or fader gives you over the effect parameters. Units that give you more control give you more flexibility for dialing in sounds you like.

After reading this guide, we invite you to call Music Bliss 016-3111286 . We will help you find the recording gear and accessories that are right for your needs and budget.

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