“I think I’m just gonna start recording some stuff.”
I said these words in the winter of 2005. I bought a $499 “Recording starter kit:” with a microphone, headphones, interface, and probably one of those acoustic foam mic shields that doesn’t do anything. All in one kit! I was ready to go!
“How hard can it be?” I thought. I had never been to a session in a recording studio. I had never run live sound, didn’t know the basic functions of a mixer, and wasn’t very computer literate. The extent of my producer knowledge was to point the microphone in the direction of the noise. (I had seen that in movies.)
But something about those late nights of layering sounds (after the initial late-late nights of Googling “Why don’t I have any sound”) hooked me. So here I am 15 years later, still obsessed with doing something half as good as the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds.
I’ve created this “proper” kit to start recording in order to help you save money, but more importantly, time. Because if you’re not careful you’ll spend more time on forums and futzing around trying to figure out your gear than actually making music.
Here’s What You Really Need:
1.) A “good enough” computer
To start recording you need RAM, and lots of it. When you look at a software program and it says 16GB recommended, do that. If you can upgrade what’s in your computer, do that. A good SSD (which can be internal or external) will give you a place to put all those gigabytes of sound you’re making.
2.) A DAW (digital audio workstation)
This is the program you are going to record into and mix from. It doesn’t need to be Pro Tools (the most famous one) but Pro Tools is fine, and it probably shouldn’t be a free or “LE” version of anything because they are feature limited. The easiest to learn full-featured programs seem to be Logic, Studio One, and, if you’re into more electronic music and loops and stuff, Ableton.
3.) An interface
You plug all your mics and direct signals into this and it turns that sound into digital information that your computer can read and play back. You need as many inputs as you plan on recording at the same time. Unless you’re gonna be recording acoustic drums, 2 microphone inputs (like this one) is probably good. (Also, if you read some nerdy stuff somewhere about converters, ignore it. No one makes bad converters anymore, so unless you’re opening a commercial mastering facility, you’re fine.)
4.) Monitors/ Headphones
You need headphones to wear while recording so you can hear what you’re playing along with, and monitors to listen back in your room. You’re probably (like most of us) working in a less than ideal acoustic environment, so here’s the trick: you want decent small monitors (with no subwoofer) and great headphones. Your headphones are immune to the acoustics of your room, so listening back and forth between them and your monitors will be a helpful way to get a decent grip on what you’re doing. I don’t recommend a subwoofer when you’re starting out because they tend to exacerbate acoustic issues in small rooms.
As you move forward and start recording, taming the acoustics of your space is crucial, but I’m not going to spend time on it because I know it’s not very exciting and let’s be honest, you want to buy a big shiny microphone.
Microphones are the ears that actually capture your sounds; they are the most crucial piece of gear in the chain. There’s so much hype and heavy breathing about all the magic components of modern recording (we haven’t even mentioned plug-ins) that we lose focus on the simple fact that whatever the mic hears, and how it hears it, is your record. You can smash and mangle it downstream, but the raw material delivered by the microphone you chose is what you have to work with.
With all that setup, if I just said: here’s the mic you should get I would be doing you no favors. There are hundreds of forums and articles listing thousands of microphones that are “The Greatest”, using words like smooth, buttery, and even “creamy.” Have you noticed the greatest mic tends to be whatever that person currently owns?
The truth is: I don’t know what style of music you like, what you want to start recording, what kind of voice you have, what space you have, or 100 other things that affect your decision, but don’t worry, I know exactly what you should do.
audiotestkitchen.com is possibly the greatest practical resource to ever come along to the recording community. It’s not just the whole idea that you can actually hear what microphones sound like – in a way that makes logical and scientific sense – the ear training that’s going to happen as a natural byproduct of your ATK mic selection process is actually going to make you a better engineer right out of the gate.
No one knows what a creamy microphone is: did you dunk it in ranch dressing? At least now, if you think you need a U87, that feeling is based on something more substantive than seeing it in a music video.
Remember, when you start recording the whole idea is to have fun and create. Don’t spend half your creative energy wishing you had different gear or searching the dark web for the trick that’s going to unlock everything. Make music, and enjoy the process.
Caleb Neff is a producer, pastor, songwriter, worship leader, husband, and dad from Cape Coral, Florida. His passion is helping artists both inside and outside the church develop their full creative potential. Check out his website.