What do you actually need for a basic recording setup? It is far less than you think. In this post, I will describe a basic setup of equipment that will get you started.
The Computer – (£900 – £1600)
The first item that you are going to need is a computer. In this department, you are going to be choosing between a Mac or a PC. As we want to keep this fairly reasonable on the cost I am going to suggest a PC, however, don’t just pop down to your local Currys or PC World and buy an off the shelf model. Although it will get the job done a more purpose-built PC will last you longer and not contain bloatware. For those who have not come across this term, bloatware is the so-called free utilities that come pre-installed. Most of these are useless and take up precious resources.
For a purpose-built PC, I would suggest going to an Audio PC specialist. From personal experience, I would thoroughly recommend scan.co.uk who have great pre-sales and after-sales service. An entry level model will set you back just over £900. I would, however, consider this as an investment more than an expense. Naturally the more cash you have the better the model you can buy. The old adage of ‘You gets what you pay for’ rings true here. If you are going to run a lot of sample libraries do not skimp on memory, 32gb should be the absolute minimum here.
Although you could custom build a PC, it is not always for the faint-hearted. If something does happen to go wrong you will end up dealing with the company who made the failed component. Buying pre-built from a reputable firm means the buck stops with them.
Recording Interface – (£100 – £1,700)
The next item to consider is how to get audio into and out of the PC. If you are going to remain in the box then a simple 2 in 2 out audio interface will suffice. The term ‘in the box’ refers to where you keep the audio and mixing within the digital domain. No outboard gear involved. A 2 in 2 out interface is really what it says on the tin, 2 audio inputs with 2 audio outputs.
Most modern day interfaces use USB to connect to your computer. However, there are some out there that use the newer Thunderbolt connection. Please check the connection standard before purchasing your interface. For entry level, I would recommend the Focusrite 2i2. This connects by USB 2.0 and so will be backwards compatible with USB 3.0 ports. It supports sample rates from 44.1kHz all the way through to 192kHz, so you are covered for most eventualities.
If you need more inputs then the price starts going up quite a bit. A top of the range RME UFXII can set you back around £1,700. You won’t need to go to this top end if the inputs are not required and a 2 in 2 out should suit most computer-based musicians that work in the box.
Next, you need some way to input notes to your Digital Audio Workstation (DAW). If starting out I would suggest that this depends on your keyboard playing skills. For those competent in playing the piano or other keyboard type instruments, I would suggest an 88 note controller keyboard. Strangely there are not too many of these around at the moment. I would look at Native Instruments Komplete Kontrol 88 or a StudioLogic SL-88. both of which can be picked up around £740 – £780.
For those who require fewer keys or just play one handed then your choice does widen somewhat. A look at the Native Instruments Komplete range gives you a choice from 25, 49, or 61 keys. These smaller keyboards can offer the same functionality as their larger brethren. These are suitable for those who just don’t have space for a full-size keyboard or are not adept at playing with two hands.
Monitoring – (£80 – £1,000)
These are the speakers for your listening environment. When choosing your speakers I recommend that you go to a physical music store and test them out. It is personal preference as to which are the best monitors for your DAW. Brands to consider here are KRK, Genelec, Focal and Adam.
When placing your monitors make sure you don’t put them too far apart. The ideal distance should form an equilateral triangle between the monitors and your listening position. In other words, the distance from speaker to speaker should be the same length as to your listening position.
Monitors come in two main styles, either Active or Passive. Active speakers include an amplifier within the speaker. Whereas the passive variety requires you to have some external amp within the signal chain. The downside to passive speakers is that the amplifier can, but not always, colour the sound you hear. I have owned both varieties and would certainly suggest you buy Active speakers these days.
We also have the perennial question regarding ported or unported speakers. This is in relation to the little opening that you can see on some speakers. If you look at the graphic you will see the little opening, which enhances the bass frequencies. This is useful when you are in a small room and suitable for bedroom studios. The unported variety tends to provide a flatter response in the bass end and gives a more accurate picture of your bass end.
Digital Audio Workstation – (DAW)
Now we come to what is a huge topic. One, which also is very much personal preference. First off a DAW is a piece of software used to make your masterpiece. Each one has its own workflow and features, some of which suit people differently. Thankfully most DAW’s provide you with a demo version and I would suggest you try these out before settling on one. To get you up and running there are two free, nicely featured DAWs. The first is called T6 DAW. This can be obtained from https://www.tracktion.com. Another piece of software that has recently become free is Sonar previously made by Cakewalk but now owned by Bandlab – https://cakewalk.bandlab.com. As you get proficient you may require something with more features and this takes us to the heavyweights in the DAW world.
The big hitters that you may want to check out in this field are Cubase, Logic (Only available on Mac), Ableton, Bitwig and Fruityloops. Which one is better? There have been many posts on this subject and there is no clear winner. I am not going to go into the advantages or disadvantages of each DAW in this post. A quick google search will provide you with plenty of opinions and reviews. However, in the end, it is all down to personal preference. Just because Hans Zimmer uses a certain DAW doesn’t mean you will be knocking out the next Inception score if you use the same one.
Monitor Screen (£100 – £1,000)
Last and by no means least we have the screen that you are going to view the digital world. There is a decision to make on whether you would like two screens or one large one. This in itself if a whole topic, which I will explore in another post. If you go for one large screen I would suggest a screen no smaller than ultra widescreen 34 inches. Anything less and you will run out of screen real estate fast. Whether you go for a flat or curved screen is definitely down to personal preference.
I personally have a 34-inch ultrawide flat screen on a monitor arm. This allows me to position the monitor exactly where I want it. If I am doing some MIDI or audio editing I can bring the screen closer to me (yes, you know you are getting old when…..). To take in the whole screen I just push the screen back away from me. If you go for a dual screen display then be careful that the equilateral triangle I talked about above is maintained.
Once you have your recording setup together you should seriously consider some acoustic treatment. I haven’t mentioned this in the above round up as I wanted to provide the essentials for recording music. If you are using a spare room in your house it is not always possible to fully treat that room. Treat what you can as this will only improve the listening environment. In a future blog post, I will be providing a review of Sonarworks headphone and room correction software. This is a fantastic tool to provide a neutral listening environment for mixing, where you have done some acoustic treatment.
Let me know how you go on and if you have any thoughts of your own in the comments below.