Have you ever tried recording anything with that little plastic microphone that came with your computer? Ugh, yeah, you'll never do that again. It sounded like an ancient record player getting beat up. Don't let that keep you from ever trying again though. Most people would love to record but don't have the slightest idea how to get started. 20 years ago recording was exclusive to professionals with tons of money, but now with a little bit of cash, it's actually relatively simple to build a studio for yourself.
You can have some of the most fun you've ever had just by recording your music. Even if the idea has never occurred to you, you should consider trying it. Recording yourself playing and then hearing it play back is an extremely rewarding experience. You can then share it with your friends or relatives, keep it to yourself, put it on the web, or work towards an awesome record deal.
There are four basic components you need to have a sweet recording studio: A computer, an audio interface, a microphone, and multitrack recording software. Then just grab your instrument of choice and you're ready to make music and fight off groupies.
Computer - If you already have a computer and it was built sometime after, say 2001, you're probably good to record with it. Just remember that the more power and storage space you have, the better. If you can, use a Mac. They're easy to operate and they come with recording software called GarageBand built in. That's right, get a Mac and you've acquired two studio components instead of one. I switched to a Mac a few years ago and I'll never go back. Make SURE you have or can get a FireWire port (sort of like USB on steroids). You'll need it for the next item:
Audio Interface - This is like a computer sound card, only for cool people like us. The one that comes with your computer is probably good enough for movies and spreadsheets, but it doesn't have a real microphone jack or any sort of audio inputs built into it. M-Audio has a line of audio interfaces which I recommend, the most basic being the Solo. It allows you to either hook up a microphone or something like a keyboard or bass guitar to your computer. It sells for $200, which is a small price to pay for some of the most fun you'll have in while.
Software - You need software so that your computer will know what to do with all this sound you're making. If you don't want to spend anything, there's the totally free Kristal, a fantastic piece of software for the price. If you have a Mac, you already have GarageBand, a perfectly usable program that's user-friendly just like all Apple products. If you want something a little more beefy, try out Cubase, ProTools, or Cakewalk. These cost money and professionals use them, (I'm a Cubase fan myself) and while people will tell you one is better than another, they all pretty much do the same thing. Learning to use recording software effectively will take some time, but it's really no harder than learning Microsoft Excel or something equally unexciting.
Microphone - Seriously, just get a Shure SM-57. It's the standard by which all other microphones are judged. It sells for a hundred bucks. You really only need one microphone to record just about anything, and the SM-57 can do both vocals and acoustic instruments without a problem. Also get a stand for your microphone and a fifteen foot cable.
You also should have a room in your home that is relatively small and quiet in which to set all of this up. You probably already have a keyboard or guitar or something you'd like to record. If you don't, then check out my article Picking up an Instrument. If you're a member of the 21st century, you've already got a computer, so your spending is around $350 to $450 to make your studio, which is still less than a PlayStation 3 or a swanky plasma TV. What are you waiting for?