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Monday, March 30, 2009

Audio Recording Software for Your Studio

This is Part 4 of the Makeshift Musician's Comprehensive Guide to Building Your Own Studio

We're now down to the last big component of your beast of a studio. To add this last piece, we need to dive into the prickly, sometimes confusing realm of software. Luckily for you, though, there are a lot of easy options to work with.

What does the software do? In the old days of recording, I'm talking, say, pre-Beatles era, audio-guys would just stick a microphone in front of a preforming band. The band would play, the mic would record onto a big reel of tape, and the audio-guy would call it a day and presumably get trashed afterward. Now, we've all listened to those old recordings and, well, they've got personality, but overall they sound pretty bad.

There's a misconception among folks that modern stuff sounds great in comparison because our space-age microphones and recording media are simply better, but that's actually only a very small part of the reason. Most engineers can't even tell the difference between a well-built microphone from the 1930's and a well built microphone just off the assembly-line.

The real reason modern recordings sound so good is because of the multitrack recording technique. Essentially multitracking allows you to record and synchronize multiple tracks at the same time, drums on one track, guitar on another and your vocals on a third, for example. You can add effects and edit each of these tracks without affecting the others or destroying or really even changing the original audio, allowing you free reign to tweak the sound until it's perfect. Since the edits you make are on top of the audio in a separate layer instead of integrated into it, if you mess up you don't need to rerecord -- you just take off the edit and you still have your pristine file. For a more in-depth explanation of how it works, read my very first article: An Introduction to Multitrack Recording. Back yet? Okay, now we can delve into software.

There are several options at your disposal and in fact some of them happen to be free of charge. Lets take a look at the free ones first.

GarageBand - If you're using an Apple computer for your studio, then, lucky you, you've already got software built-in. Professionals may scoff at it, but GarageBand is a true, honest-to-god multitrack system, that you can use to record real stuff. Like all Apple products, it's easy to use. This would be a great place to start, and it won't cost you a dime if you've already got a Mac.

Kristal - Another free bit of software, Kristal is so good they could charge $100 for it and people would be willing to pay it. 16 audio tracks, effects built in. VST support. This has everything. If you're just starting out, get this first. You can't beat free.

Those are the nice free ones, and are probably good enough for anything you might need. If you really want to go pro, however, then following is the studio software that'll take big chunks out of your wallet. Keep in mind, all these are competing with each other for your business, but really, ask any professional and they'll tell you they all do the same thing. The important thing is that you take the time to learn to use your software effectively.

DigiDesign ProTools - ProTools is usually the software choice for professionals. You can get the LE version for around $150. The high-end, HD version is much more, but seriously, you probably won't need it. The nice thing about ProTools is that there's a lot of specialized hardware, like mixing consoles and audio interfaces, that can accompany the software seamlessly. DigiDesign has built a whole, unified system around ProTools and supports it really well. I've used it some, and I believe it is geared more towards traditional studio recording, so it may have just slightly less support for purely electronic and MIDI setups.

Steinberg Cubase - This here is my software of choice. Steinberg invented the VST (Virtual Studio Technology) system, which is a platform, of sorts, for developers to create new systems that 'plug in' to Cubase, so you can add things like new effects processors or synthesizers. It has been so successful that other companies have added VST support to their systems. Anyway, Cubase is more geared towards electronic setups, but it can handle pure acoustic recording just fine, as I've used it for both. Cubase Studio 5, the current lower end version, goes for $299, which is pretty pricey.

Cakewalk Sonar - To be honest I don't know a whole lot about Cakewalk, and their product line is a little convoluted, but I know there are some artists that swear by it. The Home Studio version goes for a paltry (by comparison) $100, so it may be the most cost-effective of the bunch.

Remember to approach your software as you would an instrument: This is something you need to practice with and learn the intricacies of before you can really be effective with it. Find tutorials online and record and experiment as much as you can.

You'll most likely be overwhelmed by all the stuff onscreen when you boot up your software of choice for the first time. Here are some items to help get you oriented:

1. Find out how to get your Audio Interface talking to your Software. This is the first thing you need to do. You want to be able to hook up a microphone and start recording, so make sure it actually works when you do it. Go through the manuals for both products, and if all else fails ask the internet: search for both items in a single query on Google.

2. Figure out how to make new tracks. Also, each track has a 'recording input.' This is how it decides where it gets it's sound, be it from the microphone or the synthesizer or the bass guitar. Find out how to set this.

3. Automation. It's generally fairly simple to see how to change the volume of a track manually, but what you really want is to have the volume change throughout the song automatically, such as when an instrument fades out. This is usually called automation. Automation can cover other things too, like panning the sound left and right, or mixing effect levels.

4. Find the keyboard shortcuts. I can't emphasize this enough. Learn the keyboard commands! They will make your life easier.

5. Learn how to use Equalization and Effects. Equalization (EQ) is your best friend. You can use it to cut or boost, with great precision, any range of frequencies in your individual audio tracks. You do this so that you can fit lots of different sounds together without it all sounding like mud. Fiddle around with EQ a lot to learn how it works. Also experiment with effects as much as you can.

Go to part 3: Audio Interface, or How to Get Sound into the Computer

>>> Go to Part 5: What Speakers Should I Get?

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

There is also REAPER.

Ben said...

Wow, Reaper looks fantastic. They have reasonable pricing too. Thanks for the info!

Alex said...

You may also want to mention that digital EQs are not your best friend for boosts by nature, but are extremely useful for attenuating.

There's also Logic which is great if you're a composer.