Again this is totally based on what your end game is. Is this a raw demo or is it meant for the radio? If you just want to make quick demos there are a couple options here. The simplest possible method is by getting a USB microphone. Now, this is surely the least versatile (and non-upgradeable) option, but USB mics combine a sound card, preamp, converters & a microphone all in one. They’re basically idiot proof…you plug them in and they work. USB mics are usually not used in the professional world and are considered of lesser quality, but some models are getting better. In my opinion, USB mics are good if you’re either on a tight budget or if you want something tiny to travel with (like being on the road). Be aware that if you go this route, you won’t have the option to plug in a guitar or upgrade to a better mic, preamp, etc.
The next budget option is to get a small sound card with a couple preamps built in, a separate microphone and an XLR cable. This can be done cheaply and is more upgradeable than the USB mic. Even if you get a crappy mic & sound card, the odds are that you will be able to demo a song pretty easily by plugging in a guitar or bass and using the mic for voice or other instruments. Also, if you get a sound card with at least 2 channels you can make stereo recordings or at least track 2 separated instruments simultaneously, which you can’t do with a USB mic.
O.K., now let’s talk about what you need if you want to produce “radio ready” tracks. Disclaimer: You still need to know how to write music and mix in order to truly make a “radio ready track”.
So, the best possible rig would contain separate elements hand picked to perfection. High end Preamps, Converters, Microphones, etc. You have to understand that when you get to this level, it can become a serious gear addiction and can hinder you from actually making any money in music. I know a lot of people who make money just to spend it all on toys and I’ve been guilty of that myself a few times. So, be conscious of your budget and choose wisely.
You have to put your money in the right place, so where do you upgrade? If you get a $2000 microphone and plug it into a $100 preamp, you’re probably not diversifying your spending enough. That high end mic still has to go through a cheap preamp, cheap converters and most likely a cheap XLR cable…yes XLR cables make a difference too. I haven’t even started talking about studio monitors yet, which you should definitely invest a decent part of your budget in (I’ll get to that in another post). I think you understand what I’m saying here, right? Basically, you need to think about your overall budget first & and then pick out the best elements you can afford evenly across the board.
If you decide to get separate elements instead of an all-inclusive sound card, you’ll have more versatility down the road…but I would only recommend this to someone serious about recording and production. One way to do this within a budget would be to get 8-12 channels of converters like the Echo Audiofire12, which costs a little under $600. These converters don’t contain any preamps, so you could buy a couple nice pres and off you go! This way, you can freely add to the rig and upgrade with ease. You can always add more preamps later if need be and you can even chain another Audiofire12 in order to get more overall channels. If you’re making money, you can easily upgrade to an Apogee and still use the preamps & mics you bought. The options are limitless.
The other option is to get a sound card with as many channels and pre’s (built in) as you need. There are some nice units out there and you can definitely still produce great sounding tracks with this method. Most sound cards have a “line in” option too, so you can bypass the included preamps in case you want to upgrade a bit, but you’ll still be using the stock converters. There are a million sound cards to choose from, so if you go this route be sure of a couple things.
First, get as many inputs as you need! This sounds obvious, but people make this mistake all the time and it leads to costly upgrade options.
Second, do your research! Before you blindly pick a soundcard out of a hat, consider these things. What does the community think? Google is your friend, so look up reviews and forum posts. Gearslutz.com is a pretty good resource and they have a vast user base of people talking about all kinds of audio equipment. Also, check out the reviews on the merchant site’s themselves…Musiciansfriend & Sweetwater (and others) have a good community of reviewers and they’re not afraid to give product’s a low score either. Another thing to consider is how stable the drivers are with your system. This pertains to your platform (PC or Mac) and also your DAW (Pro Tools, Logic, etc.). Some sound card manufacturer’s drivers work better in different situations and it’s important to research this pre-purchase. People often don’t check the compatibility and it ends up being a major headache from day 1.
In conclusion, RESEARCH IS THE KEY! Whatever you decide to get, make sure to read the forums, reviews and do targeted internet searches before buying. If a system is working for a large community of people, it will most likely be stable in your studio. If a system is buggy for many people, you’ll probably suffer the same fate. Please choose wisely and make some great music!
O.K., that’s enough typing for me today. I’ll get into some other elements next post…maybe I’ll start with studio monitors and headphones. Until then…Happy Recording!