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You do not need much for a decent digital system. You need input, processing, and monitoring – and will be surprised at how cheaply you can work. (The following includes simplified versions of other areas of the course).
INPUT / ANALOG TO DIGITAL CONVERTER: You can’t get into the house without a door. The way to get sound from the outside world into your computer is to use a device that converts ANALOG (sound in nature) to DIGITAL (sound in computer files). Input devices normally include an A/D CONVERTER (Analog to Digital), and places to plug in microphones, keyboards, guitars, turntables, or anything else that makes sound. You can usually use the same box to convert the digital sound back to analog so you can hear it. These days many computer have built in A/D CONVERTERS (come even have microphone preamps). And all you need to do is plug in and go. However, you usually get better quality if you use an external device.
INPUT / MICROPHONE: The microphone is the most obvious input, and the only way to capture sound that is happening. Microphones convert soundwaves into tiny bits of electricity that must be made louder before anything else can be done. The thing that makes the sound louder is a MICROPHONE PRE-AMP, which is often built into whatever device you plug into your computer.
There are many microphones out there, and they all sound different from each other. DYNAMIC microphones tend to be less expensive than CONDENSOR microphones (that sound clearer because they actually get sent their own electricity that helps them work). Un-powered RIBBON microphones and more expensive than DYNAMICS, and will produce a clearer sound.
While there is more about mics elsewhere in this course, it is important that you remember the following:
Each microphone will sound different from each other, and knowing the sound of the different mics will allow you to properly choose which mic to use for a particular purpose. Of course often you want flat, exact capturing of what is being heard. But frequently you will be looking to enhance the sound of what is being heard WHILE you are capturing it. And that means CHOOSING a mic that BEST MATCHES OR ENHANCES the sound of what is being heard. Use a bright sounding microphone to record a bright sounding instrument, and a bassy sounding microphone for a low sounding instrument.
By the way, don’t forget that each MICROPHONE PRE-AMP has its own different sound as well, and the combination of the sound of the MIC and the sound of the MIC PRE-AMP will be the sound you actually record. Of course you want the cables that run from your mic to your mic-pre to be of good quality.
Finally, all microphones have POLAR PATTERNS, which are the areas in front, behind or around it that will be captured or ignored. OMNI mics capture in a complete circle, CARDIOID mics capture in front of the mic (in varying degrees of tightness leading to hyper- and super- cardioid “shotgun” mics), and FIGURE-8 mics capture in front and back but ignore the sides.
SM57s have nice meat at any price, and the SM58 has been an inexpensive dynamic vocal standard for a long time.
INPUT / PLUGGING IN: Depending on what you are plugging in (SYNTHS, GUITARS, LINE LEVEL BOXES, etc), you may need to go through some extra stuff to compensate for level, impedance, etc. Just watch your level. If you hear distortion and do not have control over your input level, then simply turn down your source volume. Using a DIRECT BOX can help to clear up mismatches in level, grounding, (etc) and bring the volume to a level where a mic-pre can deal with it.
INPUT / LIBRARY: Most music is made of collages of samples these days. Drums are loops (or samples played in one-shot), many instruments are loops, and even the realistic piano sound in your keyboard is really just a bunch of…loops. Many people have built up extensive libraries of one-shot samples, loops and sound effects (this one guy used to play “name that sample” with me, and although he almost got me with the chatter from “It’s no game” dropped an octave, I usually won).
I personally love SONOMIC (http://sonomic.com), where I can let clients go fishing for sounds that I can add to my personal online library and can download wherever I am. They are constantly adding new content from all the major CD sound libraries, which means I can find the RIGHT sound rather than settling for something “close”.
INPUT / MIDI: If you are using a virtual synth within a program, chances are you will prefer to actually play the notes on a real keyboard rather than to insert each with a mouse click. You can not only send MIDI (note on/off, etc) from a keyboard to drive a virtual synth but you can also RECORD that midi information for later editing.
PROCESSING: Once you can get sound into your computer, you need to DO something with it. There are various programs that will allow you to do that.
Basic stereo editors will allow you to copy, cut, paste, and generally chop up stereo audio files. Some allow you to use plug-ins to change the sound. Extensive (and sometimes expensive) multi-track editing programs have become the “studio in a box” where most music is made. While once the programs did only single parts of music production (such as dealing with midi, cutting up the sounds, effecting them, etc) current programs offer the capability to do it all, and do it well.
Music production software usually includes a library of the sounds you are working with, some kind of a grid on which you can arrange the sounds in any order (sequence) you prefer, and a virtual mixing board with controls for volume, pan, mute, etc. These virtual mixing boards usually include plug-in effects such as (EQ, Compression, or Reverb) as well as automation options that allow the computer to remember and play back volume and other changes.
OUTPUT / MONITORING: You will be making decisions during your music production. Decisions during the Recording and Mixing process include whether or not the mic is in the right position (or even the right mic), what type of EQ or other processing to use (what type and how much), how loud each instrument should be, etc. While it is possible to do reasonably good work monitoring only on headphones, you will get better results if you monitor through an amplified speaker system.
Of course speakers all sound different, as do the amps used to make them loud (this is covered in detail elsewhere in the course). Speaker position, volume, and even if you have a cold will affect how you hear and what decisions you make.
You can do all of this without spending too much money. I know many people that have made decent recordings using nothing more than GarageBand, a cheap USB A/D converter, and a single SM57. Of course from there you can spend more money and start to work at higher standards, but if you know how to cut corners (such as buying a refurbished mac rather than a new one) you can most likely be able to get up and running with less money than you would pay for a single day of studio time in an "A" studio (engineer included).