An Introduction to PC Home Recording on a Budget

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Beginner's Guide to Getting Started in Home Recording with a PC.

I first got involved in home recording about 2 1/2 years ago when I bought a copy of Cakewalk's Guitar Tracks Pro after trying out an eval copy that came with my Johnson J-Station. The J-Station is a DSP-based direct amplifier whose primary purpose is to be used as a headphone practice amp, or guitar effects box, or direct recording amplifier. I later upgraded to the Behringer V-Amp, because I thought it had a few more features and sounded a little bit better for the guitars I used and type of music I wanted to play. I still use GTPro as my recording software, mainly because its inexpensive (about $99), can be used for much more than just guitars, and actually is pretty rich with features. It allows you to record up to 32 stereo or mono channels and patch in effects like reverb, parametric EQ, delay, etc. It also has 2 aux busses, which are used mainly for patching the same effects to a group of recording channels. While there are more expensive recording software packages out there on the market, I've found that I spent about 2 years learning how to use all of GTPro's features. Once I've max'd out on the learning process, then it might be time to upgrade to something that does more.

My next major purchase was the M-Audio Audiophile 2496, which is a pretty prevalent sound card for computer-based systems. It has 2 inputs and 2 outputs, plus S/PDIF in and out and MIDI. It costs about $150 and is not essential for the beginner. You can use your PC's sound interface until you learn how to operate all the software, figure out all the connections, etc. After you've gotten the hang of things, a pro sound interface will give you a much improved signal quality as well as more options with your signal routing.

The next thing you will undoubtedly need are a set of decent quality microphones. By this I mean "sound good", since you can spend quite a bit on high quality microphones and not really notice the difference unless the rest of your equipment is top shelf. Trust your ears if you get the opportunity to listen to some mics before making your purchase.

If you decide to buy a condenser mic, you will need a microphone pre-amp with XLR connections and 48V phantom power. Condenser mics are good for vocal and acoustic instrument recording while dynamic mics are best for mic’ing guitar amplifiers for that up-close big guitar sound.

If you intend to record vocals you might also want to invest in a compressor. This is used to gate (filter out background noise when you’ve got gaps and pauses in your performance) and also compresses your signal going into the computer’s sound card interface so that it doesn’t clip, thereby causing pops and clicks in your material. For vocal recording, this device is essential because it evens out your performance since the human voice is one of the most dynamic things you'll want to record.

If you’ve got the intestinal fortitude (and the $$$), I would also recommend building your own PC to be used solely for your Digital Audio Workstation (DAW). My reasons for this are as follows:

  • You don’t want to mess up the family household computer with all of your fine performance tuning (i.e. disabling the network, desktop wallpapers, screensavers, etc.).
  • Oftentimes, the consumer PC is optimized for cost and therefore will not have an abundance of add-on PCI slots (you need these for additional soundcards, Firewire interfaces, etc.). Also, you will eventually want to add additional hard-disk drives because each of your audio projects will take up around 500Mbytes of storage.
  • You may want to locate your DAW PC in a room where you can leave things connected and ready to go (like where your guitars, amps, keyboards, etc. might be).

All of the necessary parts are available at any number of websites that market computer parts and accessories. See for instructions on how to build your own PC.

My recommendations for the beginner PC recording enthusiast is as follows:

  • PC – at least a 1 GHz Pentium Processor with 256 Mbytes of RAM and a 40GB Hard disk drive.
  • Recording software for the computer (I use Cakewalk GTPro).
  • Microphone Pre-Amp (make sure it has XLR connections and 48 volt phantom power).
  • Microphone(s) - Condenser mic for recording vocals and acoustic instruments, Dynamic mic for recording guitar amps.
  • Compressor – for squashing your signal so it doesn’t peak and cause digital clipping (which you can hear and essentially ruins your recording).

I hope this article helps a beginner (like I was a few short years ago) get started in recording their own music and other audio projects.

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User-submitted comments

Jun 25, 2004 08:07 pm
Inexpensive equipment... from a beginner
Looking around for a decently priced multi-track card, I came across several choices. I had roughly $400 to spend and wanted something that I could use not only for recording practices, but to record demos and masters. I found the DSP2000 C-Port package fit perfectly with my needs as a beginning package.

This thing is actually quite a feature filled piece! I managed to get a 'blemished' model for just under $400 from First off, it has a high quality 24bit/96kHz PCI host card with a digital expansion daughter board bracket. This card can record up to 10 tracks, has digital or analog I/O 44pin H-BUS interface connector, optical and coaxial S/PDIF, and AES/EBU I/O. For the beginner, this means that you can connect to just about anything with this card, except MIDI...

But MIDI is not a problem. This kit also comes with a HoonTech/STA ADC&DAC2000 external rackmount converter unit, whichhas pretty much all you need to start recording. As stated in the article, if you are using condenser mics you will need some kind of preamp. DONE! The rack has channel 1/2 XLR inputs/outputs, with 48v phantom power, and adjustable gains. Channels 1-8 are 1/4" standard I/O, PLUS MIDI IN THE BACK! Also, has 1/4" headphone jack with it's own gain.

For a beginner, this is actually not a bad idea if you can scrounge up the $400. If you grow beyond it, you can easily install up to 3 more of the DSP24 cards for a total of 40 tracks recording capability. If you are just looking for a decent card that you won't outgrow right away, the DSP24 is a good option. As well, you don't really even have to stick with the AD/DA rack... this card's 40-pin connector is compatable with several other racks (I'm going to upgrade to a Roland as soon as I can... all 8 channels are 48v phantom powered XLR or 1/4" unbalanced).

So, there is one option if you have the money. It's a great start, and should pretty much cover any needs. Also this kit comes with Logic Soundtrack24 recording sofftware (plus some other goodies), so you can get everything in one shot... except the mics. No mics in the kit, sorry, lol. I found a decent mic kit on Zzounds for about $250 (7-piece), but am still trying to decide if I want to go that cheap or just hold off and get some Audio Technicas or a bunch of Shure SM50's and a Drum Mic kit. It's all about the budget, and unfortunatly my budget (as I assume yours as well) doesn't allow for me to waste money on unuseable equipment.

Happy recording!

Miralem Asceric
Jul 21, 2012 06:23 pm
My first equipment
When I decided to work with music I were looking for some studio equipment. I saw some really fancy expensive kit and I started to save money for it. But then I met one guy at the music equipment shop and he recommend me to buy just a microphone and sound card for beginnig. So I did like this guy told me to and I bought some averege price microphone and sound card. Gues what? Still using this equipment and it`s work well.

All that fancy equipment is NOT necessary, all you need is a basic equipment, power of will and bit of talent.


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