have been recording since the 60's when I got my hands on my Dads Sony reel to reel. The dream of overdubbing myself playing all the parts took another two decades when the little Tascam Porta Studios came out. Soon we had Atari computers and MIDI and it just kept getting better and cheaper. We are basically spoiled now and anybody can have a home studio set up for under a Thousand bucks.
I'm going to talk about recording Audio first. Working with midi is an entirely different subject.
Not to sound like a grumpy old fart, but nobody has to learn how to do things professionally anymore and therefore the world is being flooded with very badly done recordings. Newbie's attempt to jump over a lot of important knowledge in the rush to hit the big red button. My best advise to anyone starting out is to get your hands on a few good books and learn the lingo and facts about audio first. You don't have to understand it all, but just having read over the information will put a good foundation under your feet. Be careful of what you read off websites ( like this one :)
Before I got my hands on my first 4 track cassette machine I slogged my way through the Yamaha Guide to Sound Reinforcement. If you only read one book this is it. Absolutely the Bible for pure audio, both live and recording
What I got into my thick skull was a good recording starts not only with great equipment, but a great performance captured the best possible way. Recording in a bad room via a crappy signal path and hoping you'll be able to fix it all up with your wonderful DAW tools is a bad route to take.
Take the time to make the best of each take. In the past tape was expensive and you didn't want to keep erasing it over and over. So we learned to prepare both the talent, the room environment and the signal path before we hit the big red button. I still work this way even though I now have unlimited tracking capability.
As a result I often never use EQ on my recorded tracks. That's because I took the time to get the sound right first. I don't like keeping too many takes either. If it's just me I delete as I go and keep recording until it's one perfect take if I can. More difficult material I will punch in. Even though we have unlimited tracks I tend to want only one of each part on that screen. With clients I will keep only a few of their best takes. Too many takes makes a mess of things. If it was that bad, might be time to stop recording and spend more time rehearsing! I have often sent people home for this reason and they come back next week and nail it in one take. Amazing?, No this is how it works. A good recording only starts with a good performance. A great performance only happens when you play or sing at you very best.
So if your not a great player or singer, don't worry, you'll get better. Being real good only speeds things up because you nail things faster. You have to make a decision while recording " is this as good as I (or the client) gets?"
All About using a DAW
By now most anybody who records music is using a computer and DAW software. We still need a bunch of hardware we always had like speakers, cables and microphones, that hasn't changed. But the modern computer has replaced our multi track tape decks and more than that! It also replaced racks and racks of expensive processing hardware. It has also replaced all the hardware based instruments like keyboards and drum machines. Some people still hang on to their old hardware ( me) mostly because we paid a lot of money for it and it still works. It's worthless if you try and sell it anyhow. But everything is in place once you set up you computer properly and choose the right DAW that meets you needs.
The 2 most important components are the computer and more importantly, your audio interface. If you cheap out on either of these two items you've compromised everything else. After all, your scoring what cost thousands of dollars in gear for almost nothing now because it is all in the box. So what I'm saying is spend as much as you can on the very few hardware items you will need.
As said, you will need a higher end computer, an audio interface, monitor speakers, some good quality cables and possibly a keyboard controller. Of course if you play guitar it helps to have one of those too!
The Desktop PC Computer- Most serious contenders either build their own or purchase a custom machine from builders who specialize. Why? We want higher quality components and off the shelf computers, even expensive models, cheap out on parts. We want a solid case, quiet fans, heavy duty power supply, the fastest processer, SSD drives, extra storage drives and minimum 16 GB RAM. Two 24+ monitors is also the norm. Also we don't want a machine loaded with useless apps and bloatware. You need to optimize for audio. And turn off that damn internet when working. Updates can mess you up and even reboot your computer while you were trying to get something done.
The Audio interface. The audio interface is the heart of your system. Don't cheap out if your wishing for good sound quality and stability. The drivers are actually the most important component. That's how the device and your DAW talk to each other. Good drivers also give you better Round Trip Latency performance. I advocate for making a list of what you need now and in the future. This hardware will last forever, but not the drivers that make it work. They get outdated pretty fast these days but the good companies will update the drivers at least a few times.
DAWS: I know realize that I was a pioneer of using computers to make music. I bought an Atari 1040St back in 1983 and used Dr T KCS software. This was pure midi days and we all lugged our computers to gigs and used midi sound modules for live playback. I won't bore you with the next 20 years of slowly upgrading hardware based systems and the $$$$ this cost.
I later ended up with Cakewalk Guitar Studio and a Windows XP computer.
It took me a long time to sort things out and the biggest issue was my lack of a proper audio interface as well as computers were pretty pathetic back then. But I slowly mastered the software and now feel I can almost do anything without a struggle.
You can demo most DAW's and I highly recommend you do this. Many DAW's have free versions
Cakewalk by Bandlab, Free full version of what was once $400 versions minus a few 3rd party Plug ins.
Studio 1 prime Free basic version.
Reaper can demo for 60 days
So start with one of those as you get to keep them ( not Reaper) no strings attached.
After 12 years I'm still learning how Sonar works. I belong to the Forum which is where I mostly learn new things. I highly recommend you join the user forum for your DAW of choice. Or even if your just demoing it. You'll certainly get a better "feel" for things like bugs and company support.
HARDWARE: Even though you can do everything "in the box" with software Hardware is still where I spend my money. OK, you can call the computer hardware, but I'm talking studio and live performance gear. High on your list and the second thing after purchasing an audio interface you'll be shopping for Monitors. Don't cheap out. This also goes for Microphones. The mike is your front end, the Monitors your back end.
There is lots of great stuff out there now aimed at home studio's and we live in a golden age of being able to purchase pretty good stuff at budget price points. Shop the sales. I end up purchasing most of my gear in real music stores. I find they will price match and even ship for free. I like supporting real stores and building a relationship with staff. They will treat you right if you let them get to know you.
I'm always looking for new toys for both my studio and for playing live gigs. For the studio it's the quest for high quality front end, pre amps, compressors interfaces, keyboards, control surfaces and mikes. For live rig I'm on a quest to lighten my load and up the sound quality. Ease of set up is important to me the fewer wires the better.
Over the years I've had many different PA and music playback systems. My first weighed probably 500 Lbs. I'm now down to around 100 Lbs. Back in the 80's good speakers and power amps weighed a lot. That has mostly changed due to molded speakers cabinets with class D amps built right in. Mixing boards have also become very small and light. Then for playback all you need is a very small device. Back in the 80's computers and midi sound modules where bulky.
I now own 2 sets of powered speakers,
Mackie SPM 350 -10" 23 lbs Loud and very portable
Alto TS 112A -12" Louder, more bass and still only 35 lbs.
If it's a small gig I take the Mackies. Larger dances I run the Altos and might take the Mackies as monitors.
I have a few mixers. Yamaha 01V digital, Mackie Mix8, Mackie ProFX v2 and a Soundcraft Signature 10.
For my Solo act all I need is the ProFX with it's 3 channels. For the Duo we use the Signature 10. Both have no more and no less than needed to get the job done. The 01V I use still for doing live sound and recording. The little Mix 8 will also work for my solo act but I use it for recording.
I have used backing tracks since the mid 80's first using live MIDI. In the early 90's I started using Sony Mini Disks which I recorded my MIDI sequences onto in real time. The turning point was only 12 years ago when I started using a DAW ( Cakewalk) which gave me full control over making the tracks using both MIDI and audio.
The sound quality of the VST instruments and drums has been the biggest improvement since those early days . I have a Digital drum kit to play my parts on. I've also have the tools to convert real bass into midi data. So this is the best of both worlds. It makes me a true one man band as I actually play the parts on real instruments.
I use stereo files for my backing tracks as I have a way to mix these exactly the way I need them. I could use an iPad or any MP3 player but nothing I have found has the needed features as Win Amp. I have yet to find another music player that has manual playlist advance as example.
I control playback with a USB foot switch.
I can go do a show with just speaker(s) mixer, laptop, guitar,mike, few cables and stands. But for my full rig I have a few toy's I really think have added a level of sonic quality.
First is my TC Voice Live Play Acoustic. It solves a few logistical issues. It produces some pretty cool harmonies which I use sparingly. Best of all is using it for my vocal effects which I can change from song to song. Your hard pressed to find a mixer with good built in effects and only my 01v is up to that task. Bonus is for my acoustic, it has a pretty good pre amp with some fancy enhancements. It can also serve as a DI box and a sub mixer for my vox and guitar.
Next is my Blackstar IV 15 TV guitar amp. I love how easy these new amps can save different patches and I can use a foot switch to change them. The effects are hard to dial in the way I like but I come close enough and this makes for fast between song set ups.
Next is my Stealth USB foot swicth. This has up to 5 foot pedal inputs and allows me to go up and down Win Amps playlist and start and stop the songs with my foot.
There is a lot of choices.
Make a list of your requirements first.
What kind of connectivity do you require? and how many of each.
These are some of the options:
XLR, 1/4", Combi jacks, RCA, ¼” line level, ¼” Instrument level ,MIDI, SPDIF, ADAT,MADI
How many ins and outs do you think you'll need now and in the future?
Are they accessible? Front or rear panel?
Are all ¼” jacks Balanced?
Is there a true stereo pair? Some don’t have a matched set of inputs.
Pre Amps will fall under the “you get what you pay for” rule, but check out the reviews anyhow.
A/D convertors will also fall under the same rule and generally all are good these days.
Are there peak level meters or just a little LED for each input?
Are there channel Insert jacks?
Are there separate controls for Monitor level and headphone level?
Is there a blend control for mixing Source with Computer ( DAW) ?
How many Headphone jacks? A level for each?
Are the input pads or line / Instrument toggle switches on the front, back or software controlled?
Is it a metal box or cheap plastic? Is it light and portable or large and bulky, Rack mountable?
Does it have an on / off switch?
Does it use Buss power or a power supply? Buss power can have issues with noise and Phantom power. Look for at least an optional power supply.
Does it have DSP effects built in?
Does it use a GUI mixer? Having a software (GUI) mixer adds more options.
Can it be used as stand alone? Some interfaces are also handy as a small mixer.
What are the Round Trip Latency (RTL) specs? Do you need low RTL for real time processing?
Low RTL is going to be at a higher price point. A $200 interface will have hidden buffers etc.
Zero Latency monitoring is not the same as RTL. All interfaces have some latency.
Zero latency is just marketing hype for monitoring directly from the interface.
And most important of all, Does it have top notch drivers for your OS.
What is the word on support from the company?
Does it come with free software, An LE version of a DAW you would like to try?
Everyone will recommend the interface they have chosen, that doesn't mean it is the right one for you.There is a lot of choices.
Make a list of your requirements first.