I've used this column in the past to cover off some of the more popular audiophile pastimes - particularly converting vinyl to MP3s. With a little know-how, this soon becomes quite straightforward; as does recording electric guitars, keyboard synthesisers and other instruments. The common factor here is that you're capturing audio using cable connections - the quality for the most part is only limited by your PC's sound card. Things get a bit trickier however, when you're recording audio sources such as your voice using a microphone.
Needs and wants
First up, you'll obviously need a sound card in your computer. You'll want to use the dedicated microphone input because the signal from that connection is gained (increased), which microphones tend to require. Also, the better the sound card, the less crosstalk, interference or hum you're likely to capture as part of the recording.
Next, you'll need a microphone that can connect to your sound card (usually a 3.5mm mini-jack). Mid-range sound cards with breakout boxes like Creative's Audigy2 ZS Platinum Pro can accept microphones using fatter 6.35mm plugs, while other sound cards geared towards studio recording can also connect to higher quality microphones with XLR connections.
You should be fine with the low-quality lapel or headset microphone you might have lying about the house, but remember that the quality of your results will be seriously limited. If you have money to spend, do your research in buying a microphone, as this can - and will - be your weakest link. If you're not in the position to match a microphone to a particular person's voice, try to get a value-for-money model that has the ability to work well with a variety of voices - one that is bright without being too harsh - such as the ubiquitous Shure SM58. It's a dynamic cardioid microphone that will pick up most of its sound from one direction, perfect for up-front, clear and present vocal recordings. A basic Shure SM58 will cost you roughly $300 and includes a limited built-in wind/breath "pop" noise filter.
This pop/kick type sound (plosive) sometimes occurs when vocalists come across Ps, Ts or Ds. It's caused by a rush of air hitting the microphone but can sometimes be fixed by getting them to deliver close to the microphone, but at slight away-angle. If the problem continues, consider a foam microphone cover or pop filter screen - something you could even jury-rig yourself using a section of pantyhose stretched over a coat hanger bent in a circular fashion.
Two other considerations can often be overlooked by those with home studios: a microphone-preamp and the recording room itself.
A good microphone pre-amp can usually make a mediocre microphone quite usable in terms of presence, warmth and clarity. The problem is that they range from a couple of hundred dollars up to thousands. For many, that's taking things out of the experimental scope of what we're trying to do here: recording some basic vocals on a budget.
Also, don't forget that the room/environment you're recording in will likely make it into the computer, too. The way sound reflects off surfaces (walls, furniture, corners etc) may affect your recording (and listening) abilities in positive or negative ways, depending on what results you're after. Hunt around on the Net a bit and you'll easily come across a wealth of information to kick-start your research.
Finally, you'll need recording software, and luckily, there are two particularly good free programs available with different levels of ease of use.
Although you could definitely use commercial audio editors such as WaveLab (www.steinberg.net), Sound Forge (www.soundforge.com) and Audition (www.pacific.adobe.com) - I've put the free, open-source Audacity audio editor (http://audacity.sourceforge.net) on this month's cover CD.
Press < Ctrl > -P to go to Audacity's preferences and click on the Audio I/O tab. Use the drop-down boxes to select your playback and recording device (your sound card) and how many channels you want to record in: mono or stereo. Vocals are often recorded in mono, but sometimes also in stereo - it just depends on your need. Next, choose "Microphone" from the input drop-down menu (shown in this screen shot). With your microphone plugged in (and unmuted), you can now click at the top-right of Audacity to monitor your input level. You can adjust this using the microphone volume slider to the left of the input drop-down menu. Try to keep the level high (hot) but without it going into the red. When you're ready, click on the Record icon and you're away.
Audacity's Effect menu includes a list of built-in effects for increasing volume, removing noise and boosting certain frequencies - many of which I've covered in the past. Audacity also supports VST effects but at press time, only using a generic interface for each.
KRISTAL Audio Engine
Like Audacity, KRISTAL Audio Engine (www.kreatives.org/kristal) is able to record and multi-track (layer) audio but with more detail, making it a little trickier to use. I've put it on the cover disc so you can see for yourself.
In this picture, you can see KRISTAL's transport/playback controls (1), the arrangement/sequencing window (2), the mixer (3) and some of the effects I've opened to clean up my recording. Spitfish (4) is a particularly handy (and free!) "de-essing" VST effect that we've put on the cover CD (along with the user guide), which is perfect for removing overly pronounced sibilants picked up in a recording.
First, you'll need to configure KRISTAL by selecting Preferences from the Engine menu. From here you can let KRISTAL know what sound card you have, if it supports ASIO and where your VST effects (if any) reside on your hard disk.
I recorded to the third track (the red one called "NEW RECORDING") by clicking on the following buttons on that track's controls (5). First, I clicked the Record button, then connected that track with a mixer channel using the blue plug icon, before finally hitting Record on the main transport controls.
When a recording is done, you can run effects over it by inserting effects into that track's mixer channel (6). Select an effect from the drop-down box (6), making sure the e icon is orange and that the effect is enabled (the blue icon next to it).
KRISTAL can be a bit tricky to learn, but experiment a bit and use its detailed HTML-based help menu and you'll be off to a great start. It features built-in effects (such as a vocal compressor and equaliser) to help improve your voice recordings and there's information on plenty of free VST effects such as aural exciters/brighteners, compressors and more to be found at the plug-in community Site, KVR Audio (www.kvraudio.com).
Last month I looked at Podcasting, this month I've taken a basic look at recording, and next time I'll come full circle with a step-by-step guide to creating your own Podcast. As always, feel free to e-mail me at email@example.com if you have any questions or suggestions in the mean time.
If you want to use VST effects for sound processing in Audacity, you'll need to install the VST effect enabler by following the instructions at http://audacityteam.org/vst/. To save your Audacity recordings as MP3, you'll need to download the LAME MP3 encoder from http://mitiok.free.fr and advise Audacity where it lives on your hard disk when you first go to export.