Inexpensive Multitrack Digital Recording

by Dan Monk

Who is this article for?

I wrote this article for songwriters and musicians who want to record their music quickly, easily and cheaply. It’s not about which mic or mic preamp is the best, whether or not this software plugin is better than that sequencer, this audio editor is the best, yadda yadda yadda. It’s geared to the songwriter/musician who wants to get their ideas in a fixed format such as an audio cd. It’s about using what works for you. You will learn how to multitrack with some simple methods to get your music to tape, er waves. And how much will it cost? It varies. I have supplied an equipment list with various suggestons and prices. But you are not going to pay a lot for this studio.

Will your recordings rival those made in professional studios? Probably not. But I think you will be pleasantly surprised at how well your music will sound. And with a little effort you can record songs of sufficient quality to sell your music. Also keep in mind that this article is aimed at PC users. I’m not trying to slight Mac users, but my expertise is with PCs.

The Equipment List

I have listed the generic products you will need and also specific items. Does this mean the brands I’ve listed are the best? Of course not. It is equipment that I either have, have used or know someone who has used it. I’m sure there are better and worse products out there. Use this as guide to help you get the equipment that best fits you. Also the prices are in US dollars and based on information I’ve gathered off the net. You should be able to spend less by doing a little comparision shopping.

To record live sounds such as vocals and acoustic guitars you will need at least one microphone, two are better. Microphones come in two basic varieties, dynamic and condensor. For an explanation of the two types see Chapter 10 in Jim Goodmans excellent series on home recording basics. I would recommend getting one of each, two mics will help things flow during a recording session and bring a wider sound field to your music. Having both a dynamic microphone and a condensor mic will give you more flexibility in your home recording.

For a dynamic mic I recommend the Shure SM57 a good professional quality microphone. And the street price of $100 is even more attractive. You could start your home recording studio with two SM57’s but if you like the more flexible approach I suggest adding a condensor as your second microphone. The CAD M177 is an excellent choice. It sells for $170 at most music stores and is a very transparent smooth sounding mic. I have one and can recommend it personally.
Cost: $260.00

A Mixer
A mixer is the traffic cop of a home audio recording setup. The microphones and other sound sources such as keyboards plug into the mixer which will then route the audio traffic to your sound card. There are several features a mixer needs. One important feature for the solo musician is the ability to accept several different types of input, mic, line, rca, etc. More than one output port is essential also, on my mixer it’s called ‘control room out’. I’ll get more into detail on how that feature is used in the companion article Using Your Home Studio.

For it’s cost and size the best mixer I’ve found is the Yamaha MG102 10-Channel, 4-Bus Mixer. It won’t take up much desk space but more importantly, like the CAD M177, it has a smooth transparent sound. The MG102 has enough inputs and outputs to satisfy most home recording needs and there are four good quality microphone pre-amps. The price is also attractive, $100 at most online music stores.

For $100 more you could get the Yamaha MW10, a 10-channel mixer almost identical to the MG102 except the MW10 has a USB port to connect directly to your computer. Buy this mixer and you can skip the next section on sound cards.

Comparable Mixers: Behringer UBB1002 Eurorack 10-Channel Mixer & the Alesis MultiMix 6FX 6-Channel Mixer with Effects

Cost: $100 – $200

A sound card

I have and can recommend the M-Audio Audiophile 2496. It is a very nice sounding card that introduces very little hiss into the recorded sound. It sells for around $100. For about $50 more though I would suggest you buy the M-Audio Delta 44. Like the Audiophile 2496 the Delta 44 is a great sounding card with very high quality 24/96 converters. It also has an added bonus of 4 inputs and 4 outputs.

Cost: $100.00 – $150.00

Recording software
This is where it all gets done. Your recording software is the heart of your recording system. Think of your software program as a stand alone recording machine such as a reel to reel or DAT. There are many low cost software audio mixing programs, but the one I recommend has the lowest cost of all – free. Kristal Audio Engine is a very good program, with 16 tracks and the ability to use VST effects.

VST stands for Virtual Studio Technology, a technology developed by Steinberg and is used to simulate hardware effects in software. Reverbs, compressors, eq’s, if there is a hardware component it is probalby being modeled as a VST. And like Kristal many VST plugins are free.

Cost: free

Mastering software
You don’t really need any. Almost all multi track audio software packages will mix your tracks to a stereo wav file. If you are carefull with your use of eq and effects you will have a very good sounding final mix. Remember, we’re not trying to compete with professional studios.

Time to add up the grand total, without the computer.
Maximum Total Cost – $610

Insruments of Destruction.

Before you can record anything you need to make some noise. Most likely you have several musical instruments now, these are just some ideas on what to look for from a recording viewpoint. And how to work around some common problems.

Acoustic. Big guitars tend to sound boomy and small guitars can be tinny and lifeless on tape. You can either use eq to smooth them out or (better) position the mic for a better sound. In general, a mic at the top of the body (the part closest to the headstock) will capture less of the lows and vice versa. The distance from the guitar will also affect how it sounds. High frequencies tend to drop off earlier than lower ones.

Electric. Electric guitars basically come in two flavors, single coil and humbucker. A humbucker is associated with a thick full sound while the single coil tends to have more ‘bite’. But that’s not a hard and fast rule and really not a reason to pick one guitar over another. The most important thing to consider it how well it plays and fits with you.

Amplified or Direct?. Personal opinion? A miked amplifier sounds the best. But if it’s 3 o’clock in the morning and you live in an apartment with paper thin walls you don’t have much choice. If you are able to go live the best guitar amplifers for recording are small class A tube amps. PIgnose makes a good one the G-40V 40 Watt Tube Amp but it can get really loud. You may want to check the local pawn shops and ebay for a good used small wattage tube amp.

It is not impossible to get good sound from a direct box tho. In fact it is much simpler and quicker. Plug your guitar in one end, the mixer to the other and you’re good to go. I have heard good things about the Line 6 POD and I personally have the Johnson J8. If you don’t want to bother the wife, kids, neighbors, etc. guitar amp simulators are the way to go.

First, I will have to admit I’m not a keyboard person. I can’t even do ‘Heart and Soul’. However I do use keyboards for a lot of things. Drums for instance. And for that all important click track. I would not record a keyboard thru an amp. Using the direct outs is so much cleaner and hassle free.

Live Drums To record live drums you have several different methods. From miking every drum and cymbal to using two mics, one at the kick and the other aimed at the drummer. I’ve had good luck with 4 mics. One on the kick, another on the snare and two overheads. All pointed at the drummer. You can vary the stereo spread by setting the overheads closer or farther apart.

Drum Machines
I have limited experience with drum machines. If you are willing to spend the time to learn how to use them they can sound quite good. Some have a very steep learning curve. I use the drums from my keyboard. There are some prepackaged rhythms which are good starting points. And I have even tried to pound out drums using the keys. With varying levels of success. If you already have a keyboard I would look at the drums sounds it has.

Another option is drum software. A program I am familiar with is LeafDrums. It is available from the LeafDigital website for only $30. 

To get the best sound possible from bagpipes you need to press and hold the mute button. (my apologies to bag pipe fans.)