Understanding the Pieces of the Puzzle
I think a lot of teachers dive into this process without really understanding the chain of events that take you from sound to a final product (a CD, mp3 file, or what have you). This is sort of like teaching students by rote rather than making sure they understand each concept. Let's take a look at the puzzle:
Your band takes care of this :-)
Obviously we need to capture the sound. You will use one or more mics depending on your situation (more later on this).
Audio Interface Box
The microphone(s) will attach to a box with an analog to digital ("A to D") converter inside. The converter takes the analog sounds and converts the sound to (literally) ones and zeros which can then be transferred into a computer and stored on its drive. Most audio interfaces also include the necessary "pre-amp" that will allow you to set the proper gain level(s) for your microphone(s). Many interfaces also include the reverse process, a "D to A" converter so that you can listen back to your recordings through the box. For the purposes of this article we will assume this is the case. Most modern computers have an audio interface built in (of varying quality), so you could just use a traditional mixer to do the pre-amp stage, and then feed that analog output to the analog input of your computer (more on this later as well).
The converter is going to take the analog sound, convert it to digital data, and send that via usb, firewire, or thunderbolt to your computer. You will use some software that will present that audio data to you and, if you desire, provide you with editing capabilities, the addition of effects, and ultimately allow you to export the sound file and/or burn a CD.
Powered Speakers (headphones) or Stereo System
You need to listen to what you have captured, right? For the purposes of this article I'm going to talk about powered (active) speakers, but you certainly could look at taking the D to A output of your converter to an amplifier (stereo system) which are connected to (passive) speakers.
OK, so let's review what we have so far. We make sound, the mics hear it, the converter makes it digital, the computer stores it. We listen back to it, perhaps edit, add effects, and burn/export the sound file. Got it? Now, there are various ways to combine these puzzle pieces, depending on your budget, convenience factors, and ultimately the level of sound quality you desire. Let's take a look at the options.
Many (and I mean many) musicians and teachers use hand-held digital recorders. Zoom is a very popular brand (so much so that it has almost become a ubiquitous name that describes the category, like Kleenex or Band-Aid). A hand-held is very convenient because it combines most of the puzzle pieces into one unit. If we took it apart we would find:
- One or more mics
- Analog to Digital converter
- A miniature computer to store the data and play it back
- Digital to Analog converter for listening
- Headphone port and/or even a little built in speaker
And to top it all off, these units can be very economical AND for many folks the quality of the recordings meets their needs. Additionally, many of these hand-helds allow you to connect the device to a computer and transfer the sound files for editing, sharing, etc. Have a look at these portable recorders.
USB Mic and Computer (iPad, etc.)
Now that you (hopefully) understand the puzzle pieces, what pieces are contained inside a USB mic?
- One or more mics
- Analog to Digital converter
Make sense? Many teachers and podcasters use USB mics because it allows them to get a better quality (large diaphragm) mic into the situation and essentially brings the number of puzzle pieces down to a couple of items. You can use headphones to listen back, or attach the headphone jack on your computer to your stereo/powered speakers. For stereo recordings (which I recommend) check out the Yeti Pro from Blue. See lots of options at Sweetwater. In fact there is now a dedicated iOS section on their website for those of you who want to use a mobile device as your workstation.
Are you ready to step up to the full enchilada? Don't worry, it isn't as complicated as you might think. Let's walk through each piece of the puzzle with some recommendations.
There are many directions you can go with mics, but the good news is that there are many budget-friendly options these days. And since I don't want this article to go on for years and years, I'm not going to go into a lot of detail on these mics. If you do some "googling" you will quickly see why these mics are popular and what plusses and minuses they have.
Stereo mics (makes life simple because the two mics are set up inside the housing at a good angle for stereo imagery). For example, take a look at the Shure VP88.
Matched pairs have been tweaked before shipping so that they are as equivalent as possible. Generally, you get what you pay for, and remember that the mics are the most critical piece of the puzzle. I would rather see people skimp on the computer than skimp on the mics! Ready to have a look at the choices? For good performance at a good price, I like Rode NT-1A and NT5.
If you go with a matched pair, you need a way to mount these mics in front of your group. I like to use one stand with this attachment from Shure.
I think that for some reason this puzzle piece is the most daunting, but it doesn't have to be. This little box is the go-between for your mic(s), computer, and speakers (or stereo system). So the mics "hear" the sound, it travels down the mic cables into the interface. The interface allows you to set proper "gain" levels (so your recordings don't clip/distort). It then converts the sound to data and sends it to your computer. When you play it back, the data goes from the computer to the interface where it is converted back to sound and travels over audio cables to your speakers (or headphones). A few important points:
- If you are recording in stereo, you need an interface with TWO mic inputs
- If your mics require power (look for "phantom power" or "48 volts" on your mic requirements) then your audio interface must have phantom power for BOTH mic inputs.
- While Apple has done a very good job of automatically accepting connections to the majority of big-name products, if you are a Windows user you may have to deal with some driver issues. Make sure you read the computer requirements carefully and/or ask your sales person for assistance.
- Make sure you have the proper ports. Don't order a firewire interface if you don't have firewire ports on your computer!
Again, you don't want to skimp on this step. The pre-amps inside the interface are essential to capturing good sound, as is the conversion process. Recently Focusrite got into the consumer market, and though I have not tried their products yet, their mic pre-amps are legendary. Presonus is also a very popular brand, and I have used their interfaces. Ready to take a look at some audio interfaces?
I'm going to make this short and sweet: I'm a Mac guy, and Apple has made a real commitment to making recording "just work" on the mac platform. It really doesn't matter which mac you get, they'll all work beautifully for recording your band. You could get a mac mini and a cheap (non-apple) monitor and you are ready to go with whatever keyboard and mouse you have laying around. Garageband is built right in and works very well for stereo recordings. Most teachers don't want to hassle with more than that (and shouldn't have to). If you want more bells and whistles you can go with Pro Tools or Logic Pro. If you want something free check out Audacity. Make sure whatever software you choose is compatible with your audio interface (check the "Specifications" section or talk to a sales rep). Remember, the software does not really make a difference to the incoming sound quality... that is the job of the mics and audio interface. But it DOES have an impact on the quality of effects (if you decide to use them) and the various editing features, ease of use, etc. that you desire.
Other things to consider
- Do you want/need the system to be mobile? A laptop might be essential.
- Do you want to use the computer for other things? Maybe spending a little more is warranted.
- If you want more ram, don't use Apple (overpriced). Try www.crucial.com
At our school the music teachers all have 13" Macbook Pros that we use for recording, as well as for metronome during rehearsals, tuning, etc. Solid, reliable, portable. Before that we had a 20" iMac in each rehearsal room, which also worked well.
Also, years ago you really needed an external hard drive for recording. Today the internal drives are so large that you really don't need a seperate drive for simple stereo recordings. HOWEVER remember you need to back up your files, and sometimes an external drive can be nice in you need to take the project to another computer setup.
The output of an audio interface is not amplified (well, the headphone jack is, but let's assume you want to hear the output on some nice speakers) so we need to take the output of the interface box to a stereo system or powered speakers. Powered studio monitors are a nice option if you are working on your recording in a studio, your office etc. There are many nice options these days. If I were in the market right now I would be interested to hear this new "Airmotiv" line from Emotiva because they are quickly gaining a reputation for great sounding products at a reasonable price. Same goes for this line from Audioengine.
If you are looking for something to put in the rehearsal space I do not recommend using studio monitors. They are not designed to fill such a large space. If you want active monitors for that situation take a look at the QSC, JBL and Mackie powered monitors (15" speaker).
Oh, and if you are going to soley use headphones, do NOT use little iPod headphones! You can get excellent studio headphones for around $99 (I like the Sony MDR 7506).
One last thing
For many of us, we also want a system that we can use for rehearsing. Recording a section and then immediately allowing the students to listen and analyze is a great rehearsal tool. But oftentimes the stereo system is not near the podium, and we need a way to get the output of the audio interface to the stereo without running a 30 foot cord across the room. I use a wireless audio product from Emu that is no longer in production, but recently I discovered this product from AudioEngine that looks like it will fit the bill (no guarantees since I have not tested it myself).