Beginner electronics questions

  1. Southern Man
    Southern Man

    I know noting about plugging in, recording, etc. All my electronic experience I have is a emando, which I play through an amplifier. I also have a number of acoustic instruments, including several mandolins, a guitar, and some hand drums that I play acoustically, but have never recorded at all. I am probably too intimidated to ask these questions in the main forums.

    All the recording I've ever done is a cell-phone video, which is find for posting in here, but I am thinking I want to accompany myself. If I want to record myself over mutiple tracks, what equipment do I need?

    My amp has a usb line-out to record to my computer. Does that do an adequate job of recording for my electric?

    I think I need a room mic? What does that mic go to, my computer? a mixer?

    Do I need a mixer? Or is it adequate to record separate tracks to my computer?

    I will have more follow-up questions.
  2. NDO
    I’m sure others will have more experience than me but I’ll offer what I can because I’ve been running the sound for my band for the last four years and have bought a variety of mixers and PA components and mics.

    For multitrack recording you’ll want to set up a digital audio workstation (DAW). There is free software available such as Reaper or Audacity or you can spend into the thousands. From what limited I’ve seen Reaper will do plenty.

    You’ll want a mixer most likely. You’ll at least need an audio interface. If all you’ll ever do is a single input at a time you could get away with a simple one like Behringer UM2 for less than fifty bucks but if you’ll ever add other musicians or multiple instruments at a time or do any live performance you’ll want a real mixer, and one with USB can serve as your audio interface. Check the specs though, some will output just a single channel (or two) representing the mixed output while others can send multitrack data including each individual dry mixer channel which is ideal for recording. So for example you could plug in a mando and a vocal mike, start your DAW, play and sing a song while recording both tracks, then go back and play what you recorded through headphones or studio monitors and plug in a keyboard, bass, guitar, etc and record those tracks and add them to the song. If you have friends over and plug everyone in, you can record the whole thing live and then mix or correct individual tracks.

    My current mixer is a Behringer XR18 which can do the multitrack interface, but I haven’t done much with that yet because I was limited in computer capability while I was living away. Now that I’m back home I think I’ll pick up a new MacBook and give it a try.
    Another good relatively inexpensive digital mixer would be ProSonus or Mackie, but both are a bit more expensive than my XR18. I’m super happy with this unit; at an outdoor festival in October all four bands that played after us liked our sound so much that they used my setup for the whole day and had me run the sound.

    Be very careful, you’re at the edge of a very deep rabbit hole!

    For acoustic room recording you can use the same audio interface but plug in a condenser mic (make sure the mixer can supply phantom power).
  3. JeffLearman
    You can record your electric using the output from your amp. My suggestion: start out using just this. Plenty to learn and you can take your time picking out an audio interface and other stuff.

    You will need a Digital Audio Workstation (DAW.) That's the software you use to record, mix, and add FX. I use Reaper as my DAW. It does everything, but is terribly nonintuitive, sadly. But once you get started on it and learn a workflow that works for you, it's great. Just don't expect it to be trivial at first. Reaper has an excellent forum and you can probably get help getting started there.

    Audacity is great for getting started, but it's more of a wave editor than a DAW. (I use it a lot, for various wave-editing functions.) Its original intent was to take audio stuff and transform them, applying the transformations when you do them. That is, add this to that and do it now. With a DAW like Reaper, you basically have a digital mixer and record and you set stuff up but can always change this level or that effect, like in a recording studio. Now, while Audacity has grown up a lot and added DAW-like features, it's still at heart an audio editor and wants to do everything now. Sure, you can undo, but then what if the next thing you did you want to keep after the mistake two steps back?

    On the other hand, Audacity is a lot easier getting started than Reaper, and will be very easy to use to just record a track and then record another track and hear them both together. So it might be worth trying, just to get started. But pretty soon it becomes an albatross around your neck, with a workflow that's not suited to multitrack recording and mixing.

    There are other DAWs. When you buy an audio interface it might come with a stripped-down one. Definitely worth trying. My Focusrite came with Ableton Lite. Ableton is an incredibly powerful bit of kit, but Lite doesn't support MIDI and as a keyboard player I use MIDI (though you won't.)

    You don't need a mixer. Mixers are great, but for a beginner they add unnecessary complexity, especially if you're not technically minded. Skip it for now. Instead, just get an inexpensive audio interface, like a Presonus Audiobox for $99 or Behringer UM2. Each of these has two mic inputs so you can record stereo if you want, down the line (I almost always do.)

    Then you'll need a microphone (which you'll plug into the audio interface.) That's a huge subject. For getting started, you can do worse than spend under $50 for a Shure SM57-LC (LC = low-cost version.) If you get the recording bug and end up with a suitcase full of mics, you'll still find uses for this one. Other folks on this forum might have mics to recommend for mando, and take their word for it over mine. I haven't even finished making my mando, let alone tried recording it. My guess is most folks will recommend one of the "large diaphragm condenser" mics. Most of those are over $200, but money well-spent if you stick with it. I'm just pointing out that you don't need a fancy mic to get started.

    And last but very much not least, you'll need something to listen to your music with ("monitors"). When recording, use headphones, and the quality doesn't matter much. When mixing, sure, you can start out using whatever you have plugged into your computer. But if you want quality results, you'll have to hear what you're mixing. Of all the stuff, this is where to spend your money because you can't mix what you can't hear. (And there are cheap mics that are way good enough.) So save up for some small studio monitors. But that's down the line, get started with what you have and add as you learn. Just keep in mind the importance of good monitors, if your results start sounding good musically and you want to make the best possible mix.

    BTW, you'll plug your speakers and/or headphones into the audio interface, rather than the computer. You use the audio interface for both directions, into the computer and out of it.

    Finally a bit of advice: the most important things are composition, arrangement, and performance. Poor recordings of great performances are still great. Perfect recordings of crap are crap. So find a way to focus more on the music than the technology (though you'll have to focus on technology to get over the speed bumps in the learning curve, to mix metaphors.)
  4. HonketyHank
    Good stuff above. But for the purpose you ask about (doing multi-track recording) and doing it for personal pleasure or as an aid to playing the mandolin better, you can get by without jumping into the "very deep rabbit hole" of a/v hardware and software mentioned above (and associated skills and artistry). So, I'll describe stuff I use, which is the cheapo but good-enough-for-me-o route. And maybe it's good enough to get started into the rabbit hole without spending a lot.

    For a multitrack audio recording of yourself playing lead and backup with several instruments on a tune, Audacity is pretty good and it is free. It is great for editing the tracks too. Ableton (and its peers) is a wonderful DAW, but my brief foray into the DAW world quickly convinced me that it was way beyond what I needed or wanted. And the learning curve was fairly steep.

    For a multitrack video recording, you'll need some kind of video editting software. I started with MS MovieMaker but I don't think it is available anymore. At least not for free. But it didn't do multitrack so I ended up buying Cyberlink PowerDirector. I have had a lot of fun playing with PowerDirector on some of my TOM videos but I have never dug down to its full potential. But time spent on making the fun videos is time not spent on practicing on my mandolin.

    What hardware? For TOM purposes, not much. If you are a true audiophile and are looking to capture professional quality sound, the sky's the limit. (That's true for the software, too.) I am using what I guess is a halfway decent starter microphone (AKG P220) feeding into a Focusrite Scarlet digital interface (DI), which feeds into a USB slot on my computer. The Scarlet has an input for line in, so I guess you can plug your emando in there too. I don't think I need all that for my purposes (basically just the TOM and other things related to learning to play). I probably could do fine with a good USB mic or the computer's line in if I had an emando. But I am not looking for pro quality.

    In my brief experience with multitrack recording, I found PowerDirector to be quite good. It does a good job of syncing the tracks automatically. You can do basic audio editting on individual tracks rather easily (like adjusting sound levels). You can do Picture-in-picture with the video tracks. And of course you can add all kinds of video effects if you have the time and interest.

    So that's where I am. I should add that my hearing is probably a little worse than the average 75-year-old, so what is OK for me might well cause you to grit your teeth. But if you can stand listening to any of my TOM videos, that's what I use.

    Here is one where bbcee and I did a multitrack. I used the hardware and software I mentioned above.
    (link corrected. thanks, Sue)
  5. HonketyHank
    I should add that for multitracking, you of course need something to keep yourself with your other selfs. Something that you can hear but does not add to the sound going to your mic. Headphones or earbuds. Wireless is great but the timelag (latency) can be awful without the latest version of Bluetooth. If you go wireless be sure to get very low latency (and make sure your computer can deliver low latency). But with electric, maybe this is not as big an issue.
  6. Sue Rieter
    Sue Rieter
    Henry, can you check that link. It's fun music, but I'm not sure it's you guys.
  7. HonketyHank
    Ooops. Link's corrected. Thanks.
  8. Sue Rieter
    Sue Rieter
    Those mandolas sound great, Henry and bbcee. I've been neglecting my mandola. I need to give it some attention.
    I want to do something with two of my mandolins and my Octofone. I was thinking about just using my pc, headset, and my phone. I have Premiere elements, and thought about Audacity. Maybe I need to think some more.
  9. HonketyHank
    The neat thing is that you can sneak up on it. Do it a piece at a time and figure out what comes next, if anything. Eventually you either find your boundary or else end up owning Nashville.
  10. bbcee
    That video is a blast from the past, Henry, thanks for posting it!
  11. Southern Man
    Southern Man
    I appreciate the input. I am aware that this is potentially a very deep rabbit hole of knowledge (and also an endless bucket to throw money into as well). I'm wanting to get started without going too deep into that, so these are all great suggestions.
  12. JeffLearman
    The good news is that you can do quite a lot without spending much money at all. Put the money into good instruments first! Recording gear is secondary, even if recording is a priority. You'll get a lot better results with a good instrument and cheap mic & interface, than vice versa.
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