This tutorial will cover:
- How to connect your equipment for the highest sound quality.
- Powerful recording and production software that’s completely free.
- Tips on recording and mixing your music so it shines!
You will need:
- A computer – I assume you already have one of these! As long as your soundcard has a socket for the microphone or line in, you’re good to go.
- A microphone – some PCs come with these as standard, and the quality can be surprisingly good. I used to get better results from a white plastic mic than my “professional” ones!
- Any musical instrument – the way you record will differ depending on the instrument you use. For an electronic instrument such as a keyboard, you can use a phono cable to plug it straight into the soundcard, which keeps the quality high. With an electric guitar, your best bet is to place the microphone in front of your amp and adjust the distance and settings depending on the sound you want.
If you have all this, you’ve probably already had a go at recording what you play, and you’ll probably have realised the strengths and drawbacks of this method:
+ Very little technical difficulty – plug and play!
+ Recording software is free – Audacity http://audacity.sourceforge.net
– Recording quality depends on your equipment and set-up.
– Requires an instrument and extra equipment.
– The music is limited to your instrumental skill. If you can’t play it, you can’t record it.
I used to record my music this way, and I got some decent results – here’s a sample of the Shrine theme recorded this way. I’ll be using this tune for each method to show you the differences.
Download a piece of software called Audacity. It’s a completely free and pretty powerful suite that lets you record, edit, add effects and output as mp3 or ogg. You can download it from http://audacity.sourceforge.net.
Connect your audio cable to the line-in or mic socket on your soundcard. If you’re recording from a keyboard or guitar amp, just use a standard audio (phono) cable from the headphone socket into the soundcard.
Open up Audacity. There is a drop-down menu near the top of the screen which lists microphone, line-in, CD Audio and some other options. This is where you select what input to record; select microphone or line-in depending on where you plugged in.
Hit the red record button, and play a little something on your instrument. If peaks appear in the program, that’s great – everything’s working! If it’s too quiet or too loud it’s best to adjust the volume on your amp or keyboard, instead of in Audacity.
If nothing appears, check a few of these things:
- Is your equipment all plugged in and switched on? You wouldn’t believe the number of times I’ve hit my keys and wondered why I couldn’t hear anything!
- Is the audio cable going from the headphone or line-out socket on your amplifier or keyboard into the microphone or line-in socket on your soundcard?
- Did you select the right input option in Audacity? Try switching mic to line-in or vice versa, to see if that helps.
To make sure you can hear when you’re playing, use a pair of good quality headphones – they will be your best friends, and as an extra bonus will make you look impossibly cool. You may notice a tiny delay between what you play and when you hear it, which can be off-putting at first, but you soon get used to it.
Now everything is set up, let’s get into the actual recording. If you have a keyboard with built-in recording functions such as mine – the Yamaha PSR-280, affordable and highly recommended! – you can record first on that to make sure the different voices fit together well, and to reduce time at the computer. If you do record on the keyboard first, I would recommend recording each voice onto the PC separately if you can – this way you have more choice when it comes to volume levels, panning voices and so on.
If you’re recording from an electric guitar or a keyboard with no built-in recording, you’ll need to play everything to the computer in order to fill out the song. This is where things can become difficult, but relax and build up slowly – start with a simple arrangement and move up to the big stuff. Here’s how I’d start:
Set the tempo
This will help you keep in throughout the song when recording different parts. Play your song through and tap your foot to the beat. I usually work out the rhythm by counting the foot taps between chord changes, since that’s when my bars seem to end. Try to measure the rough speed as well – just memorise the beat as best you can.
Inside Audacity, go to Generate, then Click Track. You’ll see three sliders.
Tempo is the speed. 120 is fairly standard, but obviously increase it or lower it depending on how fast your song is.
Beats per measure. This is a bit harder! If you counted how many foot taps between changes you’ll often find there are either four or six (don’t worry if there isn’t!), so enter four or six. All this means is how many clicks there’ll be in each bar.
Number of measures. How long the click track will last. As a tip, it’s best to make sure you have more than you need, as if you’re playing brilliantly and the track stops you could run out of time, which although not disastrous could prove an annoyance!
Play the click track and try to play your song along to it. To make any adjustments, undo the click track and create another one in Generate > Click Track, then make it faster or slower to suit. Now we’re ready to record!
The key to recording well this way is to make the first part you record stick to the beat as closely as you can; that way you can mute the click track on your other recordings if you like. Simply press the large Record button, count yourself in and begin to play. When you make a mistake stop recording, delete the track that appeared and start again. It can take a while, so be prepared!
When everything is recorded beautifully and you’re happy with your performance you’ll see a screen with bars running across it; one for each layer of sound you recorded. Unfortunately your job isn’t over yet! Now your task is to adjust the volume and placement of each layer to make your music sound better. It’s a fine art and not one I can really share much on unfortunately, other than a few simplistic pointers:
Your main melody should be noticeably louder than other instruments; fade them down a little, and pan them left and right slightly to give the music a sense of space.
As always in anything creative, the best way to learn what works is to discover it. Play with effects, sliders, anything you like; save before you try anything drastic and, if you don’t like it, just undo it. No harm done! Being experimental and creative at this stage is just as rewarding as during the actual composition process, so try to have fun and see what you can do!
When your track is mixed and you think it sounds as good as possible, you’ll need to export it so others can hear it. Audacity doesn’t come with mp3 support as default, but by downloading a small file it can be updated. If you want to output as a WAV file and convert it yourself, it supports that, or you can output in the Ogg Vorbis format, which offers better compression than mp3 but is less widely-supported at the moment. If you want to export as mp3, this link tells you how.
Now you’ve recorded your track, come and share it at Ye Olde Blah! We’ll be more than pleased to listen, enjoy it and do our best to offer feedback that we think could help. Stop by the “Shining Aid” section, post a link and let us enjoy what you’ve done!
Now you’ve got some basic skills that will help you record your masterpieces straight from instruments to PC. Hopefully you liked the results, but if not then remember you can improve everything by practising and listening closely to your music and that of others. Most importantly, though, give yourself credit for being able to write and record your own music, which a great deal of people would love to be able to do!
The next tutorial is for those of you who have no instruments but still want to create music. There are a number of methods for you, each with their own strengths and drawbacks, but even if you feel you have no musical ability you’ll be surprised at how great your music can sound!
Next article: coming soon!