This is the first in our "how to set up a home recording studio" series, designed to walk you through how to build a computer-based audio recording studio. You'll also learn how you can get the best possible audio for the lowest possible cost.
What do you think you'd have to do to record professional sounding audio for music, voiceovers, etc? Do you think you need expensive microphones, interfaces and other gear? Most people do.
Maybe you think you have to go into a commercial studio and pay their expensive rates? Well, you're not alone. Most people do.
Is it true?
Here is the truth. With some basic knowledge (and not even "hard" knowledge) you can get professional sounding audio with gear less than $100. That is assuming you already have a computer - a normal, every-day computer.
Before we talk about gear and how to set things up, I want to let you in a bit of a secret. Good audio is NOT guaranteed just because you bought a Neumann microphone (Amazon/ B&H) and the industry standard Pro Tools (Amazon/B&H) recording software.
Knowledge Is More Important Than Expensive Gear
Regardless of your set-up, if you know what you're doing, you can produce decent audio from the cheapest recording gear. But LACK of knowledge causes lots of folks to make crappy recordings even with expensive gear.
I'll give you 4 tips for doing this (the getting decent audio part). First a disclaimer. It is true that better quality/higher priced microphones and other equipment can create better audio than the cheapest gear. But ONLY if you know a bit about what you’re doing!
If you know what you're doing, you can get decent audio from the cheapest gear. But LACK of knowledge causes lots of folks to make crappy recordings even with expensive gear.
On the other hand, if you DO know what you’re doing, you can do something amazing. You can produce better audio with a plastic PC microphone than someone with no experience using recording equipment worth 100 times more!
How can I be so specific?
Because during the first Home Brew Audio podcast, we compared the sound quality of some spoken-word stuff made with gear costing $5.00 against a setup costing $500.
The result was obvious to even the most casual listener. The $5.00 studio was better! If you’d like to hear that for yourself, check out our post where there are two audio samples of what I’m talking about: The $5 Mic Versus the $500 Mic.
If your primary purpose for recording audio is to create voice-overs, podcasts, or video narrations, the news is even better. You'll need a lot less gear compared to a music recording studio. So the path to truly excellent audio quality is much shorter and less expensive.
- A microphone captures the sound
- A sound card or audio interface converts the sound to ones and zeros (digital audio).
- A recording program reads the digital audio, allowing you to edit, save, etc.
The most important stuff often happens before the sound even reaches the microphone - such as preventing noise, for which we have a few important tips coming up. But first I'd like to introduce the basic home studio configurations.
We see computer recording studios as having one of two set-up configurations:
Setup 2: A microphone plugged into an interface box or other 3rd-party device designed to accept a standard 3-pin microphone cable.
So the most basic home studio will be a computer microphone plugged into a computer sound card (configuration #1), along with recording software on the computer. You can do that for $5.00 if you use a common plastic pc mic. But it would be really hard to record pro quality audio from that.
The second setup uses a standard microphone (XLR/3-pin) plugged into an audio interface (preamp plus analog-to-digital converter), which then connects to a computer, usually with a USB cable. This is the same way that even pro studios use.
In both of these setups, you will need at least some way to hear the audio. You CAN start with regular computer speakers and headphones. Though if you will be recording music, you'll eventually need some studio monitors as well. But we'll talk about that in part 5.
In this post - part 1 AND 2 of this series - I talk about maybe the biggest impediment to good audio quality in home studios. And that is noise.
So what is the first step?
OK then, how do you improve audio quality regardless of what configuration you use? The answer is all about the noise. Noise -Noise- Noise!
First, we do as much as possible to prevent noise even getting to the microphone. Then prevent as much of the internal noise as possible, like electronic stuff (buzz and the like) from the computer, cables, interface, etc.
Then we reduce and/or eliminate as much of the noise that inevitably does gets recorded as possible using audio software.
The goal of recording, say, a voice is to capture what that voice sounds like as accurately as possible. The more noise there is in the recording, the less of the pure voice you will hear during playback.
So the biggest enemy of good audio is noise. And I don't just mean hiss, lawn mowers, barking dogs, electrical hum and static, etc. "Noise" is anything that is not the thing you are trying to record. That is called the "signal.” And it can also include echos of the signal.
This is usually referred to as "room sound," which turns out to be the most common and oft-offending noise there is. This is the most common problem for any home recording studio.
Prevent The Noise
In a perfect world, you would have a great recording space where the room sound actually complements the signal. These types of spaces are rare, especially for those of us recording at home where we mostly use converted bedrooms and the like.
The second best option is to have a vocal isolation booth, treated with materials designed to absorb echos to dampen room noise, allowing you to record only the signal.
If you can't obtain (buy or build) a properly treated booth, the next best thing is probably to use acoustic treatment products that help block or otherwise interfere with room sound noise.
One excellent option would be to put acoustic foam on your walls. This stuff is specifically designed to reduce room echo and reverb. One good option is Auralex Acoustics Sound Damping Products (Amazon.com link).
In the next installment of this series, we will take a look at some examples of booths and baffles mentioned above.
See you then!
By the way, I created a video of this series. This 2-part video encompasses all 5 parts of this series of articles. Part 1 is below: