Setting up your "studio"

Although ALP does not charge “dues” or a per-project fee, you may have to put forth a small investment in the costs of setting up your recording space and/or needed equipment. Although a $5K microphone won’t fix consistent issues with how you are singing, a golden tone and beautiful, soaring lead can be cut off at the knees if your recording setup is adversely affecting it.

This information is not geared towards people who already have a home studio setup or have experience in multi-track recording, either for a cappella singing or otherwise. If you already have a personal recording setup that you are comfortable with, by all means use that, assuming you can give us recordings in the format and quality we need.

These are not REQUIRED purchases. If you have nothing but the built-in on your laptop, we have some RECOMMENDED purchases that will produce better results. The things that are MUST HAVES include at least some free options. That said, your submissions may not be used if there are issues with the recording quality.

You are not LIMITED to these choices. The suggestions presented here were researched and based on online reviews, recommendations from users, or both, and are generally regarded as good “budget” to “tight budget” options. based on several sources. An online search for “cheap recording studio setup” may give you more ideas.

Recording professionals may agree or disagree about these recommendations based on who you ask, but from amateur to amateur, this list SHOULD get you to the ability to make a "benchmark level" recording for our purposes.

YOUR CHECKLIST


  • Determine the “space” where you will be doing recording.
  • Select microphone
  • Obtain needed accessories (pop filter, microphone stand, headphones)
  • Check your computer for the capability to produce recordings, verifying both computer and internet connection is sufficient.
  • Select and download a Digital Audio Workstation for your use.
  • Determine if your stationary webcam is sufficient to produce 720P level video.

If you do not have any of the above "ready to go", please read below for guidance on how to get there.

1) YOUR RECORDING SPACE


This is arguably the most important step...without a good recording space, your tracks will suffer even with acceptable or even "superior" equipment.

If you're using a desktop computer, you are likely limited to the area where that computer rests, unless you want it to be where you wish to record on a more permanent basis. With a laptop, you should find the smallest space available to record in, such as a closet, a home office, or a smaller bedroom. Large rooms or "live" smaller rooms, such as most bathrooms, aren't ideal.

The acoustical atmosphere that benefits live performance can hinder the style of studio recording we are doing, so whatever room you will be using should be as acoustically "flat" as possible. Any carpet on the floor (from wall to wall down to throw rug) will benefit this, but if the room has no floor carpeting, lay blankets or comforters down in your immediate recording space while you record. "Wall Treatments" for sound are beneficial, but a low cost option is to hang blankets or comforters on the wall around your recording area using hooks or Command clips. The thicker and softer, the better.

Don’t set up your mic in the center of the room if you can avoid it. Place it closer to a corner or a wall, especially if you have blankets on the walls. This will help keep the sound small and isolated.

It is ideal if the room has a closable door. Whether or not it does, try to avoid interruptions while recording - enthusiastic pets and young children are harder for our novice sound engineers to remove from the track. If this is a potential problem, and there is a "plus one" in the house available, ask them to run interference for you while you lay tracks, or if that's not an option, perhaps lay tracks later in the evening or during children's naps if the space allows. People who live in the inner city will have unavoidable interruptions from the outside, but tracking when there's lower amounts of traffic and street activity will help.

2) EQUIPMENT

Ideally, you will need the following. If you’re on a super tight budget, these are listed in order of importance to the final recording.

  • Computer (Desktop or Laptop) with home internet access.
  • Digital Audio Workstation (DAW)
  • Microphone (with Audio Interface if XLR)
  • Headphones
  • Microphone Stand
  • Pop Filter
  • Webcam

If a listed item has a link, it will take you to Amazon for their price – you may find it cheaper elsewhere, including used on eBay. Also, Zzounds may have a slightly more expensive full cost, but they offer monthly payment plans (up to 12 months depending on cost, up to 4 months with no credit check, with only a $3.95 processing fee) that may be a better financial option for your situation. Additionally, they accept PayPal (for upfront payment, not for the payment plans) where Amazon does not.

COMPUTERS

Recording capability on a computer is driven by two things – your processor speed and the amount of RAM you have on your computer. The faster the processor and the more RAM you have, the better chance you’ll get the results you want. That said, for what you as a singer will be doing you don’t need state of the art.

The computer must be either a desktop or a laptop running either a version of Windows OS or an Apple based desktop/laptop running their proprietary OS. A Chromebook isn’t acceptable because none of the DAW's will run on Chrome’s OS and for what we are doing, using a DAW to record is mandatory. For how we are doing this process, a tablet or phone would not be acceptable either.

Odds are good that if your computer is 5 years or less old, you should be fine. If you’re not sure, ask; Wes knows computers like the back of his hand and will likely be able to provide you answers and options.

We are also requiring that participants have home internet access in order to best facilitate the downloading and uploading of audio (and sometimes video) files that the project requires. The files we are working with (especially the video files) are larger in scope and are better facilitated by having home access - sometimes the files will take longer to upload/download than a coffee shop will allow you to be there, and sometimes file corrections that are requested have a short turnaround time that isn't conducive to having to wait until you get to a coffeeshop. Additionally, tethering to your cellphone's data plan will deplete most data plans very quickly. Please refer to your local internet provider(s) to find the best deal for you.

DIGITAL AUDIO WORKSTATIONS (DAW)

The following free option(s) are what we currently offer technical support for:

Audacity (available for Windows, Mac and Linux, although we will not provide tech support for Linux)

There are other free and inexpensive options available (such as ProTools First or Reaper, which is what Shawn uses for engineering), but at this time we will only be providing direct tech support for the DAW’s mentioned above.

Use of DAW’s allow us to provide you with both a click track (metronome that isn’t part of the recording but will help keep you in rhythm) and a guide track (MIDI recordings of your part and the overall arrangement for you to sing along to). Although you may be able to record your files in other mediums, there is a high risk that your recording would not “line up” properly with everyone else’s recordings without these guides in place, so use of a DAW is mandatory. In addition to technical support, we will provide "preset" click and guide tracks for each recording for users of Audacity (we cannot offer the same for other DAWs, but odds are if you're using other DAW's, it's one you're already familiar with and you should be able to load click/guide tracks as needed).

MICROPHONES

This is likely where you will spend most of whatever money you will need to in order to provide tracks for us. It’s a simple fact that the better the microphone, the better your potential sound will be, and although you don’t need a $500+ mic to do what we do, there are options for most budgets to improve your recordings.

We do not recommend built-in mics on PCs, although if you have no other options, we will initially *try* to accept recordings from this source. (with the understanding that an upgrade may be necessary for future participation). We also do not recommend PC mic/headset combos as the results haven't been very promising to date.

If you own an Apple computer, your built-in mic may be a better option than a PC built-in. (I know some musicians that record from the built-in mic on their MacBook). Additionally, the new “earpods” by Apple that have a microphone built in to them may also be a baseline option, although in both cases I would test it before committing to it. Apple has historically provided better basic tech for audio recording than Windows-based PC's have.

Ultimately, however, you have better odds of producing an “acceptable” track if you upgrade to a standalone mic.

USB MICROPHONES

We don’t mean the $20 Logitech stick mics that are OK for Skype calls but not much else – what we discuss here are mics dedicated to sound recording. They are the least expensive microphone option listed because it doesn’t require an audio interface (we’ll explain what that means later) to connect to the computer – they connect to, and draw power from, the computer using a USB port. (For Apple users, some mics may also attach via Thunderbolt).

There are a number of options out there – below are a few that we’ve suggested based on talking to other a cappella engineers and doing research on the web. If you decide to go your own way, make sure that whatever you are considering buying has been tested and reviewed for music recording, as there are a number of cheaper options that are geared towards podcasters and spoken word recordings.

Listed in increasing order of quality (and price, unfortunately):


XLR MICROPHONES

These are microphones with standard XLR cable connectors, like you would see on stage. The biggest pro is that these tend to provide better sound and better sound options than the USB versions. The con is that not only are some more expensive, but they also require what’s called an audio interface for the mic output to be recorded to the computer – the mic cable connects to the interface, which then connects to your computer, usually by USB or Thunderbolt.

All microphones are of two basic types:

  • CONDENSER, which is more sensitive, has a broader frequency range, and provides the cleanest sound, but are best used in a quiet, controlled environment.
  • DYNAMIC, which requires more direct vocals into the mic, but are better for live recordings or in noisier environments as it doesn’t pick up as much background hiss.

The USB mics are condensers, as are most of the XLR’s suggested here, but there is one dynamic mic that is usually less expensive and will still serve you well on most things.

Listed in increasing order of quality (and price, unfortunately). These mics and the audio interfaces below may be good candidates for using Zzounds' payment plan option (4 month payment plan has no credit check, can go up to 12 months depending on gear purchased.)


AUDIO INTERFACES

There are a LOT of audio interface options out there for a variety of needs – we’ve narrowed that list to just a couple that should serve the needs of one person trying to record vocals on one microphone with prerecorded tracks as guides.

Our personal recommendation would be the Scarlett Solo (2nd Gen). This is what both Shawn and Wes use as an audio interface. It connects via USB to your computer, and has one XLR input for your microphone (as well as a separate plug in for a guitar). Amazon also offers several bundle options where you can get many of the things needed on this list in one fell swoop, but be sure to research whatever mic is bundled with the package. The Scarlett 2i2 is virtually the same machine only with two XLR inputs instead of one. If you are going the XLR microphone route, this is your best relative lower cost option.

If the Scarlett isn’t in budget, Behringer has several options out there. The least expensive is the Behringer U-Phoria UM2, but there’s a few levels of audio interfaces that Behringer offers that all sit under $100 on Amazon that are 4 of 5 stars minimum.

If you research other options, be sure that the interface delivers 48V DC phantom power, as this is essential in powering an XLR-connected condenser microphone (dynamic mics typically are not self-powered).

One thing to note about nearly all audio interfaces is that you will want to download “Asio-4-All” drivers for your particular device. This helps the interface to “talk” to whatever DAW you are using and to integrate it with your computer’s soundcard. You can find instructions on how to do this usually via the website of the company you buy the interface from, or you can contact us and we’ll try to walk you through it.

An interface that has Thunderbolt connectivity or USB-C connectivity is an additional option for Apple users, but some research will be required to ensure compatibility with your specific generation of Mac, whether any adapters will be required, etc.

MICROPHONE STANDS

We recommend having some kind of stand to hold your microphone – for recording purposes, holding it by hand isn’t ideal because unconscious movement may affect the sound input as the microphone moves to and fro while you’re focused on creating sound. You’ll get better results if it’s on a stand, where you’re not touching it and possibly affecting the recording process. Similarly, make a conscious effort to stand still while recording, as the more you move in relation to a stationary mic, the more inconsistent the sound can be.

The USB mics will generally come with a short table stand…if you’re comfortable supporting your vocal sound and can sing directly into the mic while sitting, then you should be fine. Some USB mics can be used on universal mic stands, others can’t. If recording while seated doesn’t work for you, and your mic doesn’t allow for the use of another stand, you will need to find something tall enough to place the mic stand on so that it’s at the correct height to record you while standing.

For the XLR mics, you will likely need a separate stand. Some of the recommended mics above require a shock mount filter (usually if you’re singing into the mic vertically as opposed to the 'end of the mic" that is normally standard for live performance). If your mic doesn’t come with the shock mount, we can make a recommendation for you based on the mic you wish to use. Here’s a good general tutorial.

There are a number inexpensive options available on Amazon/Ebay/Zzounds, but be careful of going TOO cheap – some of the super cheap generics on eBay will have screw-points that ONLY fit the mic attachments included with the stand and will not fit most attachments that are designed for the more universal microphone sizes out there.

HEADPHONES

You do not want to record without headphones – headphones will allow you to hear the click tracks and guide tracks that you will be recording to without having the sound bleed into your recording.

For the purposes of what you are doing, it is possible that a good set of earbuds may suffice, but many earbuds are prone to bleeding sound if they are played at high volumes, so you’ll have to test your setup out. (And obviously if that’s all you can afford, go with it). However, for best results, you will want an over-the-ear headphone with a closed back design, so that there is zero bleed from what you’re hearing outside the headphones.

Here are four options that can be used for home studio recording, all under $50 usually. There are more expensive options with better sound quality, but you should be fine with one of these.


Note: Avoid the use of Bluetooth or other wireless headphones, and if you use noise-cancelling headphones (e.g. Bose Quietcomfort) or other headphones with active electronics (they use a battery or otherwise have an on/off switch) try to ensure that these things are disabled or powered off. These processing circuits can introduce delays that will throw off the sync between what you’re listening to and what you’re singing.

POP FILTERS/SCREENS

A pop filter is essential to assist in the removals of the harsher sounds when you sing – the “p”s and the “s”s and such. Several packages above include one or you can purchase one separately. The cheapest option, however, is to do it yourself.

WEBCAMS

Although not every song will have a fully-produced music video, some will, and we need to be able to self-record ourselves as needed. If you've seen videos by performers such as Mike Tompkins, you've seen the format of a different head in each box, Brady Bunch style. Primarily, your recording will be similar - your face on camera, lip synching your part.

If you've absolutely reached the end of your budget after all of the above, it is likely that your phone will have the video recording capability to do this, but you would need to place it/mount it on something so it is steady for recording. If your laptop has a built-in webcam, make sure that it can record at 720P resolution or better. If neither is an option, Amazon or Ebay have numerous mountable webcams starting around $20 that can record at 720P or better - this is not something you should go out and spent a LOT of money on unless you aspire to do professional YouTube recording.

Specific backgrounds or setups will be discussed on a project by project basis.

CONCLUSION

We hope these options help guide you into setting up your “space”. As time goes on and you do more recordings with us, you may refer back to this to “upgrade” your sound output. Remember, we’re here to answer any questions or give any guidance you may need for your specific situation.

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