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DIY Music Recording

By Paul Michael
6th September, 2009

DIY Music Recording

Music recording was once very basic, costly and, due to the lumpy equipment involved, confined to the recording studio. Exploring and recording musical talent was put out of the reach of most people due to the high costs involved with studio resources and the rates that studios charged. The high costs had a negative effect on the artistic talents of those people that did get into the studio because they were constrained by time and cost. Every minute had to be a productive minute, leaving little room for exploring different sounds and applying various effects.

  The progress in music recording and the ability to manipulate sound has made significant leaps and enables people to achieve professional quality sound for relatively little outlay. It is now quite affordable to have the technology at one’s fingertips at home and to experiment and take as much time as needed to get one’s artistic juices flowing. Indeed, some great chart-topping music has come out of the bedrooms of aspiring modern-day and well known musical mavericks.
  This article is an insight into setting up a home recording studio and explores what can be achieved on a shoestring budget of no more than £100. We make the assumption that a personal computer (PC) running Windows (sorry Mac users), musical instruments and some basic amplification, speakers, headphones and microphones are already to hand. We will bring the hardware together, along with some software, to get a basic studio setup that can be enhanced as the inevitable bug gets people exploring further and further.

The Basics

The aim is to set up our PC with a basic configuration, enabling us to experiment and determine if home recording delivers what we want. We will purposely avoid spending too much at this stage because there is little point. If we like the general setup, and once we can see what can be achieved, we will no doubt start changing, adding and enhancing this basic setup, but in an objective manner.

Personal Computer

The home PC will be the focus for this article. Apple Mac computer users can follow the principles set out in this article, but unfortunately won’t find nearly as many software vendors or resources as there are available for the PC user. There was once a time when the Mac was considered the king of musical recording and other arty things. Not any more. Soundcard, graphics and software providers enable the PC to be broader and deeper simply because it is the most frequently bought architecture.
  We can buy recording hardware that is not computer based, but this can lead to a mine-field of different technologies and capabilities to suite a very disparate range of tastes and requirements. In other words, we need to know what we want before spending lots of well-earned money. The PC has the advantage of being able to do the same as non-PC recording hardware and provides scalability and flexibility to add and remove both hardware peripherals and software programmes and modules. The PC is also portable in the form of a laptop computer. So, not only can we have a studio, we could have a portable studio.
  There is an overabundance of articles, books and magazines supporting the best type of PC or PC specification to buy for recording music. It is very easy to spend over a thousand pounds without really understanding the actual requirements needed or desired. It may be possible to pop into PC World, for example, and buy a respectable low-cost home PC for a fraction of the cost, yet achieve great results. The tip here is not to jump. Let’s explore and use what we have to the maximum of its limits so that we can accurately specify any gaps that a new purchase will plug.

The Basic Sound Card

The basic means of getting sound in and out of the computer is mostly found in the PC soundcard. There are other ways, such as the USB interface, but we will discuss this later. Right now we need to ensure that the PCs soundcard has what we need to get going.
  The soundcard will need an output jack, which is where we might plug in some speakers or headphones. Also required is a line-level input jack, often referred to as ‘line-in’. A line-level input has a set impedance to cater for a wide range of audio equipment. If the PC does not have these, we may consider getting a different soundcard. We don’t have to buy new or expensive hardware. Think about eBay and the local PC shop for cheap and cheerful alternatives. We should be aiming at less than £20 for a new soundcard at this stage. Those that develop an interest in this subject often replace a basic soundcard with something more professional, costing upwards of £80 and usually in the £150 to £250 price bracket. They then might run into problems with the PC supporting the new soundcard and so the costs can start to escalate extensively.
  Some soundcards have a line-level input along with a microphone input jack. The microphone jack is often used to support a small microphone for communicating in internet chat rooms and alike. The quality of the microphone input in most soundcards designed for the home PC is not likely to be adequate for quality vocal recording, but it will do for now.
  If the PC is less than three years old the soundcard may have only one input which may look as though only a microphone is supported. Often these soundcards auto-sense the difference between a microphone and an audio device operating at line-level and shouldn’t cause us a problem.
  If we have a keyboard that supports MIDI it would be useful if the soundcard is equipped with a gaming port. This is a D-shaped multi-pin plug that is usually placed near to the soundcard’s input and output ports. The gaming port supports both MIDI-in and MIDI-out. If the soundcard doesn’t have a gaming port, let’s not get too worried. The USB interface is able to support MIDI, but failing that we should at least be able to record the analogue sound from the keyboard’s earphone output.

Basic Leads and Adaptors

To plug in such things as a musical instrument or a set of headphones, some leads and adaptors will be required. For example, the jack plugs and sockets used by electric guitars are normally larger than the jacks used on the soundcard. An assortment of adaptor leads to support specific needs will need to be acquired.
  Electric guitarists should ideally use some sort of effects pedal, which can then be plugged into the PC soundcard’s line-in jack. The reason is that a guitar’s pick-ups operate at a different impedance to that of line-level and microphone inputs, while many effects pedals tend to output at line-level. A large jack to small jack cable or adaptor is needed to support this setup. However, although not ideal, it is possible to record a guitar plugged straight into a soundcard’s line-in via an adaptor to reduce the jack plug size.
  Keyboards often have a line output or earphone jack even if they support MIDI. The keyboard’s voices or sounds can be played straight into the line-in of the soundcard. In many cases a straight small jack to small jack lead will support this setup.
  For a microphone to link to a mic-in or line-in jack on the soundcard, an adaptor may be needed to reduce the jack plug size on the microphone.
  Stereo leads and adaptors support mono throughput and have many more uses than mono leads and, even if stereo is not currently required. Having a stereo capability will be of benefit at some point. There is little difference in cost, if any.
  Good electrical shops, especially Maplins, can cater for all lead and adaptor requirements and staff are usually very helpful in identifying the required lead or adaptor for our needs. eBay can sometimes be cost effective if we can specify the lead or adaptors we need.

Testing the links

Having plugged the instrument into the soundcard and booted up the PC, the soundcard’s playback and recording mixer may need to be tweaked to adjust the levels. The icon to launch this is often found in the bar at the bottom of the screen. In Windows 98, 2000 or XP, right click the icon or double click the icon to bring up the sound mixer panel. In some cases it is possible to toggle between Recording and Playback to set the levels. The soundcard’s playback and recording features can also be changed from the control panel. For now we need to make sure that nothing is muted and all levels are as high as they will go. The Windows Help resources provide support for soundcard settings and sound sources.
  Speakers attached to the output port should be switched on, or we can plug in some headphones so as not to annoy anyone around us!
  Without having opened any sound software, we should hear the sound of the instrument. If not, we have some problem solving to do.
  Problem solving is best achieved from the sound source outwards. In this case the instrument is the source. The idea is to test each plug-in connection along the audio path. To test the soundcard, we can use other sound sources. For example, play a CD from the PCs CD player or a sample sound file, such as a MP3 file or similar, from somewhere on the PC’s hard-drive. There is plenty of advice for trouble-shooting soundcards from the web and there are some useful links at the end of this article.

Recording

Now that we have achieved some basic sound input, let’s record the sound. In this section we explore how sound is handled by the PC from the point of entry in the soundcard.

Audio Sampling Concepts

Sound is converted to a digital data stream in a PC via digital sampling techniques. The sounds that humans hear are conveyed by analogous sound waves that are continuous and have varying wave lengths and depths (time and amplitude) that make up our sound spectrum. The analogue sound from the instrument is ‘sampled’ by the soundcard software and is converted to a digital data stream. It is the data stream that is recorded by the recording software, or ‘sequencer’, as it is often called. In other words a stream of 1s and 0s represent the original analogue wave-form.
  It is the job of the digital audio converter (DAC), normally onboard the soundcard, to convert analogue to digital for use in the PC and digital back to analogue so we humans can hear it. The DAC, sometimes re-ordered to ADC to show the function it is doing, samples an analogue wave form at various rates. The higher the sample rate the better the digital data stream can represent the original analogue wave. If, for example, we sample sound at CD quality, each second of sound is sliced into 44,100 equal segments. Each segment is represented by a digital code, which can also be at varying ‘bit-depths’; 8-bit, 16-bit, 24-bit and better. In other words, a 16/44.1 sample rate is like a wide road made up of 16 lanes, each lane with a 1 or a 0 arriving in parallel and at precisely the same time to represent just one segment of a 44,100 segment sample that must arrive in just one second. Mind boggling stuff, especially given that CD quality sound is pretty much the low-end of the specification nowadays!
  We are being very general about this topic, which is a science and forms part of a sound engineer’s degree. There are plenty of resources on the web and in libraries to find out more about sound theory and ADC/DAC processing. There is a link to the Wikipedia topic of Digital Audio at the end of this article

Recording Software

Sound is first sampled and then is sequenced into a ‘track’ in the order and time frame that it will be played back. If we wish to play or sing the whole of the song on one track just one sequence will be recorded for that track. With digital recording it is possible, for example, to play just a chorus, a verse and a twiddly bit and then sequence each of these parts into a pattern like; verse, verse, chorus, verse, chorus, twiddly bit, verse, chorus, chorus. Who said there is no formula to song writing?
  There are plenty of sequencer packages on the market that enable digital recording. Many of them can be downloaded and used for a limited period and/or limited features. This helps determine if it is the tool for our needs. There are well known sequencers from big names and lesser known names to choose from. The bigger the name, does not mean the better the sequencer. Often is the case that the lesser known names provide a feature-packed solution for our recording needs. Indeed, for this article we will feature a product called, n-Track Studio, from the company, FA-Soft. This product is so named to indicate the infinite number of tracks that can be created; the ‘n’ in n-Track. What is good about this product is that it behaves like a multi-track recorder should behave from a logical perspective. Also, the support community has grown to love the product and has developed a healthy relationship with the product’s developer, Flavio Antonioli. Yes, there is just one developer, and reflective of this, the price is just 54 dollars, which at today’s exchange rate works out to less than £30. This is the low-end of the price spectrum, yet the capabilities rival top players that will charge £200 and more.
  To get a free but restricted download, we need to visit the FA-Soft website (www.fasoft.com) to download the latest version of n-Track Studio. We also need to download the user manual and take a while to look around the site and especially the user forum. The forum lists recurring issues and other common problems that users have found. Many of these issues and problems are inherent in all sequencers, and are not specific to n-Track Studio.

Our First Recording

Once the software is installed, we need to open n-Track and get to know it. The user manual provides key concepts and some basic steps to recording sound. In particular, the Quick Start (section 1.3) and the Step-by-Step Tutorial (section 1.4) will get us on our way.
  It is easy to get totally immersed here and spend hours in self-indulgent enthusiasm. With earphones on we often look a strange, silently animated sight to those around us. Perhaps we should stretch our legs and make a cup of tea every now and then, just to let those around us know that we are alive and well and not as daft as we might look, but otherwise consumed! 
  Sound is recorded to tracks in a multi-track system like n-Track. Each track is a digital representation of either analogue sound, such as vocals and instruments like a guitar, or MIDI data which can be played back through a plethora of synthesizers that can transform the data stream into just about any sound imaginable and audible.
  In the Step-by-Step Tutorial (section 1.4) in the manual, a multi-tracked tune is produced and several methods of recording and over-dubbing sound are demonstrated. Turning now to the chapter on Editing (section 2.8) we learn that our original sound files can be manipulated and copied in many ways. Parts of these files, or ‘samples’, can be sequenced in either the same or different tracks. It seems that there is now a limitless ability to create and manipulate sound. 
  By now we are likely to have encountered some fundamental issues of recording one track at a time. One common issue is keeping everything in time as we build up out tune. Recording artists and sound engineers have different ways of recording multi-tracked music. A popular method is to start with a basic beat track and then record the instruments played along to this beat. Once the basic instrumentation is complete, vocals, real or synthesized drums and lead breaks can be applied that can be sung or played along to the bigger mix. 
  To try this method ourselves we can use n-Track’s metronome or we can lay down a single track of MIDI beats that are played through the computer’s onboard synthesizer via channel 10. The n-Track manual (section 3) provides details of how to set this up. Using editing techniques we can create a small sample of a basic drum beat to last a few bars long and then copy and paste this for the duration of the song. MIDI data can be edited in an area known as, Piano Roll (see below). We can have this track playing in our earphones while playing along to it to keep time. See section 3.3 of the manual to set up a drum track.

All This MIDI Talk, What is MIDI?

The Musical Instrument Digital Interface was developed in the early 1980s enabled a synthesizer to play another synthesizer or MIDI module remotely. The idea is to form chains of synthesizers such that hitting a key on one keyboard sends a data signal to play a ‘voice’ assigned to that key on another synthesizer. Later it was found that early computers could record MIDI data and play it back through a synthesizer. This revolutionised music recording and the New Wave culture that emerged in the 1980s stand testament to what could be achieved.
  It is possible to get some realistic effects from MIDI data played through either the Windows onboard synthesizer or through a plug-in module. We can also download modules, and some come for free or trial. See the links provided at the end of this article.
  MIDI is a digital stream of 1s and 0s and is not in any way, shape or form a representation of an analogue wave form, such as the digital stream that is produced by a DAC. Think of a Barrel Piano, often called a Roller Piano (Wiki: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Barrel_piano). This type of piano plays a tune mechanically by turning a roller that has pins placed at set points, which each hit against the piano keys. By turning the roller at a set speed the tune can be heard. The roller can be taken from piano to piano and would play the same tune. MIDI is a technological version of the roller. Instead of pins, it has a code to determine the note that should be played, when to turn the note on and off, and how hard to hit the note, plus other interesting effects.
  MIDI can be multi-tracked so that each track is playing a different instrument, or ‘voice’ as it is known in the synthesizer world, on a different channel. Many tracks could also play one instrument from the same channel. For example, the drums and percussion could be compiled by a number of tracks each banging a drum, symbol or tambourine on channel 10, which is usually assigned to drum voices. This way, effects can be added to each drum track.
  We have already mentioned that MIDI is edited in the Piano Roll area of n-Track. The initial screen has a keyboard placed vertically on the left of the screen with cells aligned to each keyboard key extending out to the right of the screen. The idea is to fill the cells such that when the track is played, the filled cells will play the keys they align to.
  Once we have a midi track recorded, n-Track then enables us to play the MIDI through the PC’s onboard synthesizer or through ‘virtual instruments’, which are essentially different types of synthesizer modules. To see what can be achieved, let’s set the track up to output the MIDI our signal to the onboard synthesizer by following the manual. We can now select any instrument we fancy from a quite a long list of voices.
  After experimenting with the onboard synthesizer, often is the case that we realise that individual instruments don’t really sound like the real instruments they are representing. There are things we can do to enhance the sound. We can, for example, play that sound through any number of onboard (in n-Track) or outboard (sit outside of n-Track) effect modules to apply such things as reverb, echo, chorus, distortion and so on. Also, some instruments generally sound better when two or more notes are played like a chord. Instruments like the violin and harmonica are examples of this. Therefore, editing the MIDI track to play the instruments in this way will enhance the sound as well.  

From Here

By now we will have discovered what we have been missing out on and what can be achieved with our limited hardware and software. To take this further we may need to invest a little.
  If the PC is a little dated this may pose a number of problems. The more tracks that are being played at any one time, the more PC resources are needed to process each track. Even more so when each track has effects being applied. Whilst this can be overcome, for example by mixing down two or three tracks to just one track, it can be a nuisance having to work this way. When considering a new PC it may be possible to run all of the software, the soundcard and any other add-ons from a run-of-the-mill specification. Such is the power of PCs today that a basic specification is quite generous.
  The basic PC soundcard will become a blocker at some point for many people. Selecting a new soundcard is quite a task because of the choice available. It pays to shop around and it also pays to compare like for like the features of each soundcard. It is then a matter of choosing which features are important or desirable to arrive at a card that suits our needs, budget and the PC it will run on.
  There is a vast range of sequencers on the market aside from n-Track. Again, listing the features will highlight a few to choose from.
  Whether or not keyboards are our instrument of choice, a MIDI controller keyboard can be very beneficial. A MIDI controller keyboard does absolutely nothing on its own, but looks like a keyboard and has additional buttons to control the sound, just like a normal keyboard. Its function is to control, for example, the PCs onboard synthesiser. By hitting a key on the controller and by assigning that key to a particular voice, the MIDI signal is passed to the PC to do the deed. This setup is useful for adding enhanced sound to our tunes. Many tunes would sound flat and boring unless they started to be lifted by, for example, orchestration or percussion. With the controller it is possible to add wide and varied sounds and effects. We can buy a 49-key MIDI controller keyboard for less than £100. It is also possible to buy mini keyboards with just one octave represented. Very useful for storage or mobility.
  So, we have sampled the delights of music recording and we haven’t ventured out of our homes to do it. Perhaps we should stretch our legs and take a well-earned drink down our local so we can chin-wag about our latest exploits and, maybe, give the bloke playing the records something new to play! 

Resources

Resources are plentiful when it comes to music and recording. There is a myriad of magazines and web sites to tempt you in all directions and all appear to be happy to take your money!

Of all the web resources one may have had the pleasure of reading and participating, none are as resourceful as the Sound On Sound Forums (http://www.soundonsound.com/forum/). There are some very knowledgeable people contributing to these forums and if you need to know anything about digital music recording you will do yourself a great favour by registering (free) and start asking questions in the relevant forums. There are, unfortunately, a small collection of contributors that are so focused on their chosen subject that they are blinkered to the merits of other contributors, so treat them with the contempt they deserve and everything will be fine. 

Another fine site for finding out about this subject from the basics upwards is the TweakHeadz Lab (http://www.tweakheadz.com/). Quoting the site’s home page, “On this site you will find everything you need to know about producing master quality music in your home studio. You will find a gold mine of studio information, and many often guarded recording industry secrets“. The site does exactly what it says with a Middle American twang thrown in for free, dudes.

As well as TweakHeadz, Digital Village is a great site for looking around and finding out about hardware and software, plus instruments. They are very competitive and, if nothing else, should be used as a reference site to check prices. We find that they are often cheaper for new equipment than eBay’s second user equipment.

The n-Track Studio home site (http://www.fasoft.com/) is where to download the latest version of n-Track. This is what they have to say about n-Track, “n-Track Studio turns your PC into an easy to use multitrack audio recording studio. Record, edit, overdub your audio tracks, apply effects, process audio live input, mix and then burn audio CDs or create mp3 files. n-Track delivers professional quality audio recording”. This sums the product up quite well.

Wikipedia – what is Digital Audio? - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Digital_audio

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