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Tales from the Dorkside
In April 30 Issue
Guest writer: Ryan Garret audio-geek-in-training

As a guitarist of nearly 7 years now, I know how expensive it can be to make good music. Whether you're buying something as small as a pack of strings to a new amplifier, it really adds up. This leaves hardly any money left over for something that most musicians pay for in the first place: recording. I've seen a lot of great musicians, singers and songwriters with great ideas and great talent that just can't afford to make a decent sounding recording. If you truly want to sound good, most people will tell you it's essential to buy the most expensive gear and hit the most expensive studios for recording. However, I'm here to tell you that you can turn your ideas into reality without blowing all your cash on the higher-priced gear. Now, of course it won't sound perfect, but it will sound good enough for you to enjoy listening to your first set of demos, and possibly get local radio airplay if your songs are appealing enough.

Most people who record extensively don't have the time or the money to spend in other studios. That's why most people start up their own home studio. Whether you use it for your own personal use or even start your own recording business, it can be a little expensive going in. Computer recording interfaces, pre-amplifers, condenser microphones, dynamic vocal microphones, (confused yet?) and decent instruments and amplifiers can all be a little pricey in the long run. Recording software can also be expensive depending on what you get. However, there are ways you can get out of buying all this equipment. Have you ever heard of Audacity? Audacity is a FREE recording software you can download for your computer. Although it runs best on Linux, there is also a version for Windows. There are also lots of easy tutorials for the software if you are not familiar with recording your own music. It works best with track-by-track recording. What this means is you record one single instrument at a time. For example, you could add a metronome track in the software to keep timing. Then, add some drums, then some bass. Then finally add your guitar, piano, vocals or whatever else you think fits. Keep in mind that all tracks recorded and added previously will play along as you record new tracks, and this is good because you can stay in sync with the other instruments a LOT easier without having to go back and edit anything. With the metronome or timer keeping beat, you can record your first instrument. When its all done, removing or silencing the metronome track is a cinch.

If you're wanting an acoustic or piano song, you can get a decent sound by using something as low budget as a webcam mic. Depending on how loud you play your music while recording will judge whether or not you should use a low-sensitivity mic or a high-sensitivity mic. The difference between the two is low-sensitivity doesn't have a lot of static and distortion when recording something loud such as an electric guitar or drums. High sensitivity would be better for vocals (unless you like to scream) because it typically wouldn't distort your voice like it would drums, but it would pick up a lot more. Of course, however, a lot of this depends on what style of music you plan to record.

For those of you who plan on recording a heavier style of music such as rock, metal, or even full-band country, you may want to make an investment in some line-in cables and adapters. This can take your basic instrument cable, and plug into your mic input on your computer for a crisper, less-distorted tone. Here, you can plug your guitar straight into your computer, and add distorition and other effects after you record using audacity plug-ins. However, not all of the plug-ins sound all that great. It is best to buy a pre-amp if you don't have one already, or use an effects pedal. Also, most amplifiers have a line-out output anyway. So if you have a decent sounding amp, try recording straight from your amp to your computer. However, you may not want to crank it too loud, lest you damage your sound card.

Remember, you can always add extra volume and effects later, so be reasonable with your recording and don't turn your amp all the way up on your first guitar track. Also, make sure your sound card can handle it. If your recording is spiking completely off of the track, you are losing sound.

For drums, acoustic pianos and louder instruments that you may want on your recording but have no way of lining them in, here is where your high and low sensitivity microphones will come back into play. Acoustic guitars work great with high sensitivity if you don't play too heavy. Drums, however will probably need a lower-sensitivity setting as they are LOUD. If at all possible, try to use the line-in feature with an electric drumset or drumpad. Or, simply use a drumtrack already available through audacity. For vocals, it's really up to you, but here is where you're going to want to use something a little higher budget than a webcam mic, because you typically want your voice to really stand out.

I'll leave you with this: if you are a musician trying to find a way to get your songs out there without burning a hole in your pocket, audacity is the best way to go. There are also lots of other programs for MIDI, tuning, and other “studio stuff” that will save you a LOT of money. Every musician has to start somewhere, so even if you just want some simple demos, there's no better way than the “free way.” So grab your guitar, download audacity, and see what you can come up with.

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