Not just the professionals are holed up in their houses and apartments creating multiple albums and soundtracks of this ‘pandemic nightmare’ (and I’m SO glad they are – we need reflection now on what’s happening now), but amateurs are joining the ranks as well, hoping to take a kick at the songwriting can.
My quest to implement the ‘perfect home studio’ started a while ago, but my lord, it’s been a painful process.
I’m sure I made every mistake under the book, so I put together some thoughts that might help you avoid the same (costly) mistakes.
Here’s what you’re supposed to do, by way of organizing your ‘rig’ (or production setup):
Sadly, a PC-oriented Rig For Me
Those who don’t know me, know this: I hate Windows. With a passion. I find it very frustrating to know that the past four decades have been plagued by shitty programming, virus-ready software and a kazillion phishing trips. The gross incompetence that comes with Windows has spawned massive cottage industries: anti-virus software; anti-fraud units, especially with email and online ecommerce and banking; and cloud platforms that rely on disks crashing and software completely crapping out just when you need it the most.
Unfortunately, I’m too incompetent to know how to use Apple-related platforms. For those who haven’t tried, it’s like trying to drive a Porsche or Ferrari after tooling around with a lawnmower. That said, if you have the right brain for it, I strongly recommend Apple/Mac environments with ProTools and avoiding the following array of slips and slides that I’ve encountered.
And forget Chromebook: it has the horsepower of a fart pushing a yacht. It’s great for the basics like email and browsing and desepite what I just said, I’m actually an advocate of this platform. It does about 90% of what most humans think they need when it comes to personal computing.
However, most music production requires an operating system, so get Google out of your head … quickly.
Before You Do Anything …
Read Jeff Tweedy’s “How to Write One Song“.
Tweedy has been a professional musician for the last three decades, so I think he knows what he’s talking about. His book in a few sentences: the key is to identify that you have the desire and capability to stick to a pretty regimented process of very mechanical and intentional steps to getting chord progressions and lyrics into something tangible.
Another lesson? Put the tools of writing and practicing intentionally in your way. I’m an expert at avoiding any routine and I have to keep reminding myself of this advice. If I’m not doing some word exercises, strumming at my guitar or learning how to use my music production software, I’m not opening up the possibility of writing a song.
Let me know if you want to suggest other firsthand accounts of songwriting.
You will need a computer that has the highest reliability rating, fastest speeds and maximum amount of accessible RAM (Random Access Memory).
Here’s an article on the ‘Top 10 PCs for Music Production‘. When reading articles like this for your research, consider the hardware that the authors mention and try to stay away from specific builds for each brand that are sold via big box stores. I ultimately went to Canada Computers and someone in my town helped me build a computer that would be robust enough for chunky software (see below).
Here’s a summary of what to look for:
- Laptop: portable, but not compatible with upgrades; the lighter the better
- Desktop: more compatible with those who want to tinker with the guts
- Processor: the main builders are still Intel and AMD. I went with a newer AMD that was able to top Intel with most performance specs.
- RAM: Minimum recommended is 16 gigabytes, but try to overshoot and get 32 GB. Three years from now, you won’t regret this choice.
- Sound Card: not entirely necessary, but what will be most important is knowing how to find the settings and drivers. Your monitors and the audio interface (AI) play the role of sound card in this scenario.
- Graphics Card: this should be separate from the motherboard / processor and I would recommend a minimum 2 GB RAM soundcard
- Fan: often overlooked, but there’s nothing more annoying than picking up that ‘whirrrring’ noise as you get everything else up and running. If it’s not designed to be super-quiet, consider an upgrade. And if separate fans are available for each of the chips in your computer, make sure they are designed to be low-vibration, low sound fans.
- Storage: I’ll talk about this separately.
Your Digital Audio Workstation (DAW)
It’s a circular thing: DAWs and their plugins suck up an ENORMOUS amount of computer brain power (speed and memory), so keep this in mind as you shop for something.
Most DAWs follow the freemium/mid/pro business model, providing reasonable (but usually very limited) free versions for download; mid-range products that will likely cost between $50 and $300 for the software and the pro versions, which will run you about $1000 (but again, the price range changes).
What you choose for a DAW comes down to your operating system. Those who are devoted to Apple tend to stick with two main choices: Garageband (the free default software that’s included with most Apple products) and the more professional and complete (and potentially expensive) Logic Pro. There are other options, but Logic Pro has become somewhat of an industry standard, so there are a kazillion ‘how-to’ videos online.
Windows has a LOT of options, but most people boil them down to:
- Cubase (created by Steinberg, which is a subsidiary of Yamaha)
- Pro Tools
- Audacity (free, open source platform)
- FL Studio
- Presonus Studio One
There’s MANY more. Apologies to the makers of the DAWs I missed.
If you’re a Windows user, the DAW you choose comes down to the kind of music you want to write. Ableton and Pro Tools are designed for those who want to play live. Cubase is structured around the needs and wants of a studio musician. After a lot of agonizing, I opted for Steinberg’s Cubase and eventually even jumped on the Pro version (their holiday sale helped a lot).
That said, if you’re just gtting started, Reaper is an excellent option. There are no extra license options and the upgraded version is extremely reasonable ($60 US).
There are no decent DAW options for Chrome that I know of.
I’m too incompetent to review the DAWs out there, but rest assured there are MANY articles that compare all of the software available. Example: MusicRadar.
Be sure to check out the sites of each producer. They usually outline the tech specs required, the capabilities and perks you get with the heftier versions. In fact, pay careful attention to the pro versions because they typically have the ‘key’ items you might need if you want to create pro-type recordings. I came into this when I bought the mid-tier of Cubase Elements and discovered that you can’t export stems unless you’re using Cubase Pro. Sadly, it’ll be a LONG time before I make minimal use out of Pro, but it has an amazing selection of plugins and instruments.
Audio Interface (AI)
When I first started this quest, I bought an AI that ultimately was not compatible with the DAW. That’s NOT supposed to happen, but it did. Furthermore, I downloaded a bunch of plugins that messed up my DAW. Again, NOT recommended.
After some expensive trial and error, I bought a Steinberg AI so that it would be compatible with Cubase. The one I bought still had limitations that I have yet to figure out: I can’t get the mic input to work at the same time as my instrument input, even though it’s supposed to. I’m not great at troubleshooting once I’ve got the basics working, but I hope to get back to this eventually. If my reader has a suggestion as to how to repair this glitch (which is what I think it has to be), please let me know.
The current setup with Steinberg has one MAJOR drawback: they require an elicenser USB device to validate all of the Steinberg software that you use. From a copyright standpoint, I get it, but it adds one layer of complexity that most people should pass on.
In a word: keyboard.
There are many out there, but I wound up with the Akai MK3 Mini.
It’s a fantastic gateway to music production, keyboard playing and drum inputs. Most musicians and amateurs won’t need much more.
It’ll set you back about $130 CDN.
Of course, every musician always suffers from what we call GAS – Gear Addiction Syndrome. Would it be better to have a keyboard with more octaves? Hell yeah. Or more default effects of extras with the initial buy? Absolutely.
In terms of space and functionality, this means looking at a 61-key keyboard. Such a beast would put you out about $250-$350 CDN. GearRank has a great article on different options in this category.
But really … if you took my advise and blew all your money on a PC and DAW, you won’t have much left (assuming you don’t want your hobby to crush you financially).
If you are interested in different options, I suggest this article on the best MIDI controllers that pros use. Companies like Arturia (which also has an AI); Novation; Native Instruments and Nektar are all great choices. Traditional makers like Korg and Roland also make some reasonable products.
When you’re searching for plugins (next topic), one product that continues to hit my radar is Native Instruments. Their line of Kontakt instrument plugins are very special and worth the consideration.
Plugins are custom modules that attach themselves to your software.
They effectively empower you with different ways to modify your sound.
Think delay, compressor, clavinet keyboards, mandolins, toy pianos and so on.
There are thousands of different plugins. Plugin Boutique is a great place to skim through the collections of different tools and instruments that are available to suit pretty much any taste, desire or need under the sun.
When I started, I thought I’d run out and get everything, especially if it’s FREE.
You’ll just muck up your computer.
Start with the DAW, learn everything you can about it and start writing what you want to write.
Most quality DAWs, especially the Pro versions, have SO MUCH already integrated within the software that it’s extremely unlikely that any amateur will need to run out and get a pile of plugins.
My advise (after learning this the hard way): plugins should be considered synonomous with ‘unique preferences’. If you really want a mandolin plugin for a specific song or even solo, seek out the best you can find, but don’t start your journey by downloading a half-dozen crappy ones that may or may not work with your DAW.
The great thing about having GAS is that companies constantly throw down amazing products that make undecided wanna-be musicians like me salivate. For example, the Valhalla, Spitfire Audio’s Abbey Road collection and Eventide line of plugins are worth salivating over.
If you’re going to sing or use percussive instruments that do not have direct 1/4″ or MIDI connections, you will need to investigate the world of microphones and the complexities that they’ll introduce to your world.
First, they’ll reveal that your in-car singing or shower singing sessions may not sound as great as you originally thought. I hate to break it to yo. As someone who’s suffered acid reflux and various throat-related issues, my singing sucks, so I create what I can and then find someone kind enough to sing on my tracks.
Second, microphones seem a little like plugins. There are SO MANY options to consider.
The most basic thing you’ll need is something that plugs into your AI and not USB. Another lesson learned the hard way.
Have something that doesn’t cut out automatically when you’re singing. You want to capture everything and not lose stuff just because you’re pausing or taking a breath.
You’ll also want to clarifiy if you want a mic to record:
- Spoken word
- Acoustic instruments (including percussion)
Each of these needs opens up a little micro-universe of options.
Focusing on SINGING, GearRank again has a great piece on microphones from $100 to $1000.
Start with a condenser microphone, but if you’ve got the budget, go for a dynamic mic.
The difference? Basically, a dynamic mic is better at picking up loud sounds whereas a condenser is all about nuance and subtlety.
From this article, I have a couple of top-level tips:
- A mounted rack that you can secure to your desk or workstation
- A ‘pop’ filter (that’s a little screen that sits in front of the mic)
- A de-esser plugin (either with the mic or your DAW / plugin)
If you’ve got a nice voice, you won’t need much, but the better the set-up, the less time you’ll spend after recording mastering and filtering your work.
Speakers / Monitors
OK … it gets to a point where you’re exhausted, but you’ve just got one last piece of hardware to make a basic setup complete.
Monitors aren’t just speakers. They are sound relays. I know that doesn’t make sense.
My mistake – yes, I made one – was to buy a standard set of desktop computer speakers that are essentially designed to sound like shit.
Home stereo speakers (better than your typical desktop speakers) are designed to boost or tweak sound as it is projected through your speakers.
Monitors do nothing but repeat the sound that you’ve created.
The nuance is important because you want to be able to HEAR what you’re tweaking and producing.
Like all items for your home recording setup, there’s an absurd range in price with monitors.
That said, I got away with a pair of M-Audio BX3 speakers from Long & McQuade for about $140CDN+tax.
Samples & Sounds
Picture this: if there’s a sound of ANYTHING, someone somewhere has made a record of it, converted it to an MP3 or WAV file and made it available either free or for cost or as part of a subscription.
This is such MASSIVE rabbit-hole and time-suck because I love what people are able to create and I simply run out of time when I got distracted by their sound babies.
Start with royalty-free samples. There’s no point dumping a whole bunch of samples into a song or production only to have someone else claim the work because you forgot to properly identify intellectual property.
MusicRadar updates their royalty-free samples throughout the year. You can also get loads of free samples from Music Computer-type magazines, but the magazines themselves can be expensive.
Once again, your DAW should have enough raw materials to get you started in a stress-free way. Don’t get distracted by the kajillion sites out there that want more money on a monthly basis.
OK … you’re set up. Rockets are ignited. You’re ready to explode into the music world.
But … like me, you don’t have a fuc&ing clue how to actually USE a DAW or other software related to it.
It took a lot of filtering, but I found Born to Produce, run by a couple of guys out of the UK. Their Cubase Pro tutorial includes 24 tutorial sessions that walk you through MOST of the major elements associated with Cubase, but they also have lots of side-bar tutorial packages you can buy. They also cover most other major DAWs, supply lots of templates and samples to get you on your way. The price was reasonable (I hit on a holiday special and spent about $100 on Cubase / Halion / Groove Agent tutorials). AND they are responsive when you get hung up on something (response time was usually about 24-48 hours over the holidays when I sent them an email).
There are others, but I strongly suggest you start with them.
I’ve Missed So Much …
Obviously, I’ve missed a LOT. I welcome your comments about why you pick what you like and how different platforms or options have influenced how you approach recording.
More importantly, I’m curious to know if specific choices actually ALTER your sound. I have a long-running research project called ‘Terroir of Music’ and technology will no doubt play a big role with this.
Thanks for checking in!