I've now read a few articles on home computer recording, all of them very informative and interesting. However, each of them has only dealt with very specific aspects of recording: from hardware to mic placement to what have you. So I'm gonna write a series or articles detailing the process from start to finish. I've now been involved in recording a half dozen projects and I know all kinds of problems you'll commonly run into at every stage of the game. Part 1 is going to cover hardware, specifically computer issues and mics as well as software. Part 2 is going to be about the actual recording process, from mic placement to levels and actually putting down tracks. Part 3 is mixing and mastering and beyond.
Computer Or Four-Track?
First thing's first: you need the hardware to record. Since I'm most familiar with computer recording, that's what I'm going to focus on. There are many superb tape-based multi-tracks out there, but I find the flexibility offered by recording on computer can't be beat. Plus which it's more efficient cost-wise. A four-track can only be used for recording while a computer can be used for a variety of other purposes.
If you do buy a standalone multitrack recorder, I recommend finding one that will give you at least four inputs and has built-in effects (this usually means getting a digital recorder). This means the recorder will be more expensive, but really, you pay for the effects either way. Would you prefer they be outboard or integrated already into your recorder?
When if comes to finding a computer to record on, based upon my experiences I'd recommend a PC. Macs are just about equal to their PC cousins in terms of capabilities and more often than not have integrated Firewire ports, something that will give you more recording options. However, due to the fact that Macs are overall less tweakable, I find I'm able to glean more use out of a comparably equipped PC. This isn't to say you shouldn't use a Mac...the first album I ever recorded was on an iBook in a shed in the Czech Republic, so they're more than capable.
For the actual system, you can get away with the following: 160 megs of RAM, Celeron 600Mhz processor, 30 gig Hard Drive, Full Duplex Soundcard, Windows ME or 98. My band's first demo was cut on this system. All these components can be obtained for very cheap these days because they are considered out-dated. This will provide everything you need for recording, but will start taxing the computer to the limit when you add effects, though you can get around this problem by bouncing tracks. Currently I use the following system: 500 megs of RAM, 1.6 Ghz Athlon processor, 200 gig Hard Drive, Full Duplex Soundcard + USB interface, Windows XP. I've yet to overtax this system, no matter how many effects I have running on however many tracks.
Once you have your computer, you need to set up the system for recording. The best guide I've found thus far is here. For Mac, you really don't need to adjust anything. The system is already about as good as it gets, for good or for ill.
Now you need to worry about recording interfaces and software. The easiest recording interface on PC is simply to buy a Eurorack mixer ($50 and up) and a converter from RCA to 1/8 stereo jack or two 1/4 mono jacks to 1/8 stereo and send them from tape out to the line in (not mic in!) on the soundcard or control room out to the same jack, respectively. This now gives you a stereo track or two individual tracks to record on.
Moving up a little bit, there are USB recording interfaces. Like the line in option, you only get a stereo track to work with on USB. There are USB interfaces that have four lines in, but they still only support two lines out, so if you want to keep each track separate for mixing this is probably not the best option. Up from USB interfaces, there are Firewire and internal cards. Firewire is easiest to make work on Macs, but it does offer the option of being able to record more than two tracks at once. On Macs this is a pretty good option. Internal cards often have compatibility issues but will give you more tracks to work with, but none for under about $400.
When it comes to software, ProTools is often espoused as being the industry standard. This may be, but I've found the cost isn't really worth the difference for someone starting out unless you intend to do a lot of MIDI sequencing or need advanced pitch-correction capabilities. Plus which you usually have to buy a bundled interface and they usually suck for the price.
SoftwareCool Edit (now Adobe Audition) is a good program to start off with, but the last version I used really didn't support much more than four tracks. It's better for mastering, but it will work. Its effects are very simple to use and can teach you a lot about compression, limiting, and a variety of other effects.
Cakewalk Pro Audio will give you as many tracks as you could want and some effects that will help. It's got the best recording capabilities of any of these programs I've listed, but the effects aren't very powerful or intuitive.
Cubase is my current favorite. Its effects are many, very intuitive, has built-in parametric EQ on every channel, and its editing features are better than Cakewalk's. The only problem with Cubase is that its recording capabilities are a little limited. How I get around this is that I use both Cakewalk and Cubase.
Since USB and most soundcards don't support more than two channels of audio input at once and Cubase supports only ASIO drivers (and thus can only arm on recording source at a time), the way I get around this is to use Cakewalk for the actual recording (it's not ASIO-based), selecting both the USB and soundcard inputs at the same time. Due to the fact that the two have different latencies, you will then have to go back in and line back up the wave-forms of whatever you've recorded (though sometimes having them off like this creates an incredibly cool effect).
For mics, you've got to be aware of what kind of mic you will need for each task. Being as how other articles have gone into greater depth on this than I've got room or patience for, I'm gonna keep this brief. Most of the mics you'll use will be either cardioid (they only pick up sound coming from one direction) or omni (they pick up sounds coming from all directions). Of these, you can have a dynamic mic (doesn't need phantom power, tends to sound a bit warmer) or a condenser mic (needs phantom power, picks up more detailed sounds). As a general rule, dynamics can handle higher sound pressure levels (louder, closer sounds) than condensers, so you tend to use dynamics for close-miking and condensers for more ambient applications.
When it comes to mics, the SM-57 is a workhorse that's hard to beat. It's used professionally in studios across the world for snare drums and guitars and just so long as you place it right, you can't go wrong. In addition, it's passable as a vocal mic. A good portion of St. Anger was recorded with James Hetfield singing into this mic. The SM-58 is slightly better for vocals (depending upon the vocalist, of course). For drum overheads, the SM-57 can work, but a better low-cost alternative is the Behringer ECM8000. This is a condenser mic meant to measure sonic characteristics of a room (this mic is actually cheaper than either of the Shure mics). This means that it has an incredibly flat frequency response. Its omni pickup pattern is also ideal for picking up a room's natural reverb. Find a good room and you won't have to do anything more with the overheads than compress them. This is also an exceptional mic for use with acoustic guitar.
If you want to find a better vocal mic (and you'd be surprised with the quality you can get with just these three), I'd recommend taking a raw mix down to your local music store and having them hook up a CD player to a mixer and hook up various mics. Have your singer sing into them, but make sure you aren't seeing which mics they're using. That way you'll be impartial as to which mic sounds best to you. If your music store won't go through this rigamarole, take your business elsewhere. Always make sure you rank your options in case one is too expensive.
That's all for the first installment. Be back soon with mic placement and recording.