Saturday, January 26, 2013

Setting Up Your Podcast or Project Studio

I started fooling around with home multitrack recording in 1983. The price had been out of my reach till the first 4-track cassette decks came out. Almost all of them had built-in mixing boards too, so with a mic and some headphones you could be making recordings right away. I had a couple of those cassette based units and they just happen to represent the worst and the best of what the industry had to offer.

The first was a tiny Fostex X15 unit that recorded at the standard 1 7/8 ips cassette speed and had Dolby-B NR built-in. The fidelity was pretty bad. It had a noise floor of less than 60db even with the Dolby on, and if memory serves the frequency response took a nosedive at 12-kHz. This was probably the worst 4-track cassette deck ever made. Recordings sounded small and boxy, but it wasn’t awful, and I sure had a lot of fun with it. I began to learn about routing signals too because it was also my first mixer. The X15 cost $500 new, and that was a lot of cash for a 24-year guy in 1983. I don’t have any recordings of it, but you can find one made by another guy at the following web page:

I soon moved up to not only a better multitrack cassette—the Audio Technica RMX64—but to the best one ever made. It ran at double the normal cassette speed, 3 3/4 ips, and had the much improved Dolby C NR built-in. The mixing section had 6-XLR inputs, direct outs and channel inserts plus a lot of routing capabilities. The recording deck had a frequency response that went as high as 15-kHz and the Dolby C gave it around a 72 db noise floor which was quite acceptable. In fact, I never saw another 4-track cassette with as high a frequency response. All the others from Tascam and the higher end Fostex units etc. topped out at 14-kHz at  0 VU. Consumer decks for stereos such as NAD and Nakamichi were measured at -20 db down instead of 0 VU, so they appeared to have better fidelity, but in reality they didn’t at all. This Audio Technica unit had actual VU meters on it along with two bands of parametric EQ instead of the self variety you usually saw. It cost around $1500. I do still have a few recordings made on this deck.

Audio Technica Sound Sample

Finally I moved up to a big TEAC A-3440S reel to reel 4-track which also came with an outboard DBX NR unit. It was a wonderful sounding deck that used 1/4" tape and ran at 15 ips, but that DBX NR pumped and breathed like crazy! (In certain ways I actually think the recordings made with the Audio Technica cassette deck were better.) The TEAC ran around $3,000 new, but I got mine secondhand for a real bargain (I think only$800) and the DBX unit I bought new for another $600. I couldn’t afford a great mixer for it, so I settled for a used 8-channel Peavey that was meant to be a live mixer, but with a patch-bay I was able to make it all work. Throw in some nice outboard reverb and compressors, and you had it made. Well, except for the fact that good quality microphones were nearly $2,000 in those days! Needless to say, most of us guys on a home recording budget were just using cheaper dynamic mics like the Shure SM-57 and 58. Here’s a short recording made with this set-up:

Teac A-3440S Sound Sample


Today, most recording studios are computer based. With a computer you can have unlimited tracks and virtual effects up the whazoo. There’s free multitrack software to be found that’s plenty good enough for a Podcaster, but if you want to do any serious music recording, you’ll need something like Sonar or Audition which will run you a few hundred bucks. Not only do they fulfill the requirement of multitrack recording, but they also double as darn good wave editors (especially Audition).

The following is about the cheapest you can get into semi-pro recording for. I picked out specific products that I know to be decent quality for the cheapest price. These are the bare essentials. By the time you include the price of software and a computer, you’re talking about somewhere in the neighborhood of $1,800 I believe. When you consider my first cheap reel to reel deck cost over $3,000 new back in the 1980s, and only had 4-tracks at that, it’s amazing what you get for your money today! The microphone technology is what’s really shocking. Those $2,000 mics of yesteryear can be found in knockoff versions today for just a couple of hundred bucks or less. So here we go:

Studio Projects B1 - $120 This mic is simply one of the best condenser mics I’ve ever heard at any price. It comes with a shock mount too. (Pictured here with a mic stand and a pop filter, but be aware that the mic does not come with these.)

KRK Rokit Powered 6 G2 6" Monitors - $340 (for a pair) I’m still using the older RED version of these. This one mid-sized set of monitors does the job so well that I no longer feel the need to have both a large and small set of monitors anymore.

Behringer XENYX X1622USB Mixer - $229 This is the best bang for your buck in the entire music world I think. I chose this model specifically because it was the only one in this price range that had channel inserts (important for compressors) and a sort of fold-back system that could be rigged using the two subs 1 & 2. So it’s not just a live mixer, but the subs make it good for recording too so that you can listen to the playback of previously recorded tracks in the headphones without them going to the main outputs. It’s really only good for recording 2-tracks at a time though which makes it fine for most hobbyists, but if you intend to record drums, you’ll need something with at least 8 direct outputs. This mixer also has some built-in effects. They’re 24-bit, but they sound more like 12-bit. Meaning, they’re okay, but not great. I have ancient 16-bit reverbs and delays that sound considerably better, but these effects can get you by. It also has separate compressors actually built into each XLR channel! For Podcasters this is all you need. The compression is plenty good enough for the spoken voice, and even for singers. If you're an acoustic guitar player, you’ll probably opt for a better outboard unit. Fortunately, with channel inserts, you can plug in any compressor you like. This mixer also has a built-in USB port for going directly into the computer and by-passing soundcards.

Echo MIA MIDI Digital Audio and MIDI Card - $250 (or less than $200 with a little searching) The soundcards that come built into computers have come a long way in recent years, but they’re still very amateurish with tiny 1/8" receptacles and the like. This Echo card has 1/4" ins/outs and has a very nice virtual mixer for the volume controls. It also has midi capabilities for synths. You may not need a high-end soundcard if you intend to use the above mixer’s USB port though, so bear that in mind.

RaXXess Stoppit Pop Filter with Goose Neck - $25 A pop-filter is absolutely essential for any vocal microphone. This is a decent one for not much money.

AKG K240 Studio Headphones - $100 The best studio headphones around.

That’s about it. You’ll also need some kind of mic stand and some cords etc. but those you won’t need any help finding. Welcome to the world of recording kids.