This post was originally published on Making Music in 2014
If you are a musician and you don’t use your laptop, iPad, or computer to record your music, what are you waiting for? Yes, I know. You’re saving up your money so you can go to a professional studio and make a real CD. Oh, and you’ve heard that it’s too complicated and time consuming to learn all that technical gobbledygook for a laptop recording.
The truth is, if you’re not a card-carrying geek and you care more about the notes you’re playing than frequency response or the Nyquist Theorem, there are many inexpensive software programs, just like cheap notation programs, that will get you recording right away, easily. And you just might find a new tool for your musical arsenal.
Cheap and Easy Laptop Studios
If you’re a singer-songwriter, a soloist, a music teacher, or a student, you may already have a pretty good idea of what you want to record. Although there are some limitations, almost all of it can be done with just a decent laptop, some software, and a USB microphone.
Software like GarageBand, Mixcraft, Reaper, Audacity, and some others, cost under $60, or are free. A USB microphone is similarly priced. Look for a mic that comes with a desk stand. Hands free operation is important. The Blue Snowball and the Samson Meteorite are examples of inexpensive USB condenser microphones that come with a desk stand.
Here are some software features to look for:
Timeline Window — This is where you record your performances. You can choose to view as Time Code (00:00:00) or as Beats and Bars. All programs have this feature, and it works about the same in each.
MIDI — If you are using a USB keyboard you’ll want to make sure that your program can edit MIDI files. Many of today’s keyboards come with a USB port. You can plug it right into your computer and record your performance to MIDI and then use the editor to correct and adjust the notes you’ve played. Not all software has this ability.
Loops — A library of sampled phrases is handy when tracking and creating your music. For example, you can create a drum track by dragging and dropping the prerecorded drum performances (loops) to the timeline. Incorporate a basic groove, fills, crashes, whatever you need. There are also other instruments in the library playing different riff patterns. You can create your own band, if you desire.
Score Editing — If you want to print out your music, choose software with this feature. For example, Mixcraft has score editing, Reaper doesn’t.
Mixer — Most programs come with a visual, virtual mixer.
Effects — EQ is important and it is included in most of these programs. But, pitch correction and time stretching are in Reaper, and not in Mixcraft.
Virtual Instruments — Virtual instruments are prerecorded samples of real instrument sounds. Record a track with your keyboard into MIDI, and then have the computer play back that performance with a string orchestra sound or a brass section or an oboe.
Plugins — Most programs allow for plugins. These are additional support programs, easily installed, that allow for extras such as: virtual studio technology (VST), virtual instruments, and additional effects.
There are some limitations, but you can record your songs, do some editing, and create MP3 files or burn a CD. Because you’ll be using the USB port and no outboard mixer or digital interface, you can only record one track (mono or stereo) at a time. (No multi-track recording.)
Most programs can be easily installed (via download), and from there, it’s pretty much plug and play.
These will be demo-quality recordings. Sure, you can launch them on your Facebook page or YouTube, but don’t expect them to play alongside Jay-Z’s greatest hits with much success. For that, you’ll need to jump to the next level.
You may be thinking, if it’s not a top-notch recording, why bother? Aside from all the experience and fun, there are many huge bonuses to recording yourself. You’ll improve musically by listening back to your playing, and when it does come time to hit the studio, you’ll have these great song demos to play for the engineer and the studio musicians. They will love you for it, and you’ll love the money you save by speeding up the recording process.
Budget is always an issue. Use the studio to record live drums, your vocals, and do your mix. A pro studio will have an array of great mics, preamps, and will know how to get the best sounds. Mixing is essential in a well-tuned, smartly designed control room. Trust me, you’ll screw it up at home. But, for some virtual instruments, direct keyboard parts (USB interface or USB output of a keyboard) there will be no difference between your laptop recording and the studio.
Remember also to take progress rough mixes home with you. Work out guitar solos and backup vocals so that when you hit the studio for real you’ll be ready. Practice at home, not in the studio.
Also, if you’re into electronic dance music (EDM), it can be recorded quite nicely on inexpensive software. It takes more time than you might think, but with virtual instruments, a boatload of sampled grooves, and sound effects galore, you can DJ your way into dance immortality.