As an acoustic musician, I'd like to start learning more about recording and mixing my own material. So far I have no equipment of my own and a budget limited to a few hundred pounds. What are the absolute basics that I'd need to do some vocal or guitar recording at home? As I currently own a PC, should I be thinking of extending my budget and moving to Mac instead?
Chris Simpson, via email
SOS contributor Mike Senior replies: The good news is that a starter setup that will deliver respectable vocal and acoustic guitar recordings needn't set you back a tremendous amount of cash, especially if you already have a fairly modern PC. However, there are a lot of options available to you and it makes sense to find equipment that will remain useful to you if and when you expand the setup later on.
First off, you'll need a mic — the sound of a DI'd acoustic guitar doesn't usually cut the mustard in the studio, and most singers don't have a DI socket at all. (Plain selfish of them, if you ask me, but there you go.) A good first choice would be a large‑diaphragm condenser mic, and fortunately market forces have squished the prices of these in recent years, so there are some good deals to be had here. Out of choice I'd tend to gravitate towards established manufacturers with a history of R&D, and I'd also look for something with three polar patterns, too: omni and figure‑of‑eight patterns tend to sound clearer on budget mics and will also make the mic more future proof. A couple of recent mics that fit these criteria would be the Audio Technica AT2050 and AKG Perception 420 (retail prices are between £219 and £279 in the UK, but both are currently well under £200 on the street), and each has a decent shockmount included, which is helpful for keeping your recordings clean.
If the mic is primarily going to be for your own voice, see if you can try out a couple of contenders before you buy. Budget mics can be quite coloured‑sounding, and this can either work for you or against you, depending on whether that colour suits your unique voice. When auditioning, pay particular attention to 'S' sounds, as these quickly highlight high‑frequency harshness, something cheap condensers can be prone to and which causes problems with both vocals and acoustic guitars.
Along with the mic, you'll need a stand and an XLR signal cable. The UK's Studiospares do a good basic studio stand at £12, and they also stock spare bits for it, which should help extend its working life. Their leads are good value too, and I'd recommend their £13 five‑metre mic lead, as it has solid Neutrik connectors that can be re‑soldered if the lead needs repairing. (For my money, cheaper leads with moulded connectors are a false economy because they can be difficult to repair.) You'll probably need a pop shield for vocal recording too, and although you could also buy one of those from Studiospares, a bit of nylon stocking stretched over an old wire coat hanger should be perfectly up to that task at this stage.
As far as your budget goes, then, you're looking at maybe a couple of hundred pounds for that lot in the UK, if you shop around, which does seem like a big chunk of your change gone already. However, that befits the fact that the mic is the most important thing in the setup — it's what actually captures the sound after all! Your next most important piece of gear will be what you listen back to your recording with. Given the budget and your likely monitoring environment, I think there's little point in investing in studio speakers at the moment, so try to get hold of a decent pair of headphones instead — probably a closed‑back pair that can also be used for overdubbing without spill becoming problematic. We did a big round‑up of the main headphone contenders back in January 2010 if you want to read a range of views, but my tip would be the AKG K240 MkII, which is an excellent monitoring option and, although it's semi‑open‑backed, it still seems to deliver low enough spill levels for most overdubbing purposes. Those retail at £138, but are currently more like £80 on the street.
If you've already got a PC, there's little advantage to be had in changing to a Mac just for recording purposes at this stage. Neither platform should hold you back at all. What you will need, though, is an audio interface to get sound in and out of the computer, and some software with which to record. The interface will need to have at least one phantom‑powered preamp for your mic and an output for your headphones, but there's a lot of choice here and I'd look for something that has both a second mic input and a dedicated instrument input socket. The Focusrite Saffire 6 USB, M‑Audio Fast Track Pro and Presonus Audiobox all offer these features and you should be able to get hold of any of them for around £120 if you play your credit cards right. They all also include free software bundles, including a 'Lite' version of either Steinberg's Cubase or Ableton's Live recording application. The new Alesis Multimix 4 USB is even cheaper (you can easily pick it up on-line for around £75), but doesn't appear to offer any kind of software bundle. For my money, a Cockos Reaper license (which you may have seen me using in the Mix Rescue column) is a steal at $60 and knocks any 'Lite' software version into a cocked hat as far as recording and mixing are concerned.
According to the back of my envelope, that lot should set you back a few hundred pounds. Not a lot when you consider that a good engineer could probably produce a commercial record with nothing else!