Recording on a Budget Part 1 – The Equipment

So, you’ve written and perfected a bunch of original songs, you’ve found a bunch of guys that can actually play them, and you’re finally ready to lay them down in a permanent form. Or maybe you just found a bunch of guys that want to get together and play every old standard tune they ever heard, and you need some sort of demo to give to club owners. Then again, maybe you just want something tangible about your musical experience that you can show to your grandkids someday. In other words, you’re ready to make a formal recording of all that music you’ve been making. The problem is, you’re probably worried or maybe even a little discouraged by the potential costs involved, and you don’t know how you’re going to pull it off. The truth is, depending on the quality and the quantity you want, a good recording could just about clean out your bank account. It can be incredibly expensive, but have no fear; it doesn’t have to be that way.

Step 1: Decisions, Decisions…

The first thing you need to do when you’re ready to record is to decide why. Seems simple, doesn’t it? On the surface, it is; but you need to remember that your reasons for recording in the first place will greatly influence nearly every aspect of the recording process, including the money. If you want a recording intended for sale to the public, you will most likely need to go to a studio and shell out some cash. However, for other purposes requiring a little less perfection such as making a demo tape or making a keepsake for yourself and your closest friends, a home recording can be just as satisfying and a whole lot less expensive. Simply put, you can save a ton of money by doing it yourself. In fact, buying the equipment needed to make a home recording can easily cost less than paying for studio time to do only a couple of songs. And best of all, you can use your equipment over and over again until you’ve recorded and re-recorded everything and anything you ever wanted.

Step 2: Take Inventory

Once you’ve bravely decided that you want to record your material on your own, you need to do a realistic assessment of what equipment you already have. Just walk into the practice room or (like in my case) all over the house and look around. If you’ve been playing long enough to get to the point where you’re ready to record, chances are you’ll already have a variety of miscellaneous equipment lying around that can be useful. Many of the things you’ll need won’t necessarily even be part of your band’s gigging equipment. Just look to your home entertainment system, and you should see a few helpful items. Don’t forget you’re doing this on a budget, so you don’t want to overlook anything. For a basic idea of some things you’re likely to need, check out the photo and list below:

Official Recording Studio

Recording device for mixdown

  • Cassette Deck
  • Home Computer (DVD/CD Burner)
  • Reel to Reel Tape Machine
  • Mini Disc Recorder
  • Multi-track recorder
  • PA Equipment
  • Effects Unit(s)
  • Equalizer
  • Mic stands
  • Mixer
  • Speakers
  • Mics
  • Cables (all kinds)
  • Headphones
  • Paper and Pencil
  • Pillows, mattresses, sheets of plywood or Plexiglas
  • Duct Tape (you always need duct tape)

The setup in the photo is about as basic as a recording setup should ever get unless you’re planning to record something live directly to tape. Most of the equipment is inexpensive, and most of it is really old (ever see a Roland Space-Echo?), but I once used it to make a demo good enough to burn onto a CD and distribute at shows. And the only cost (since I already owned a Yamaha MT100 4-track recorder and a fair amount of PA equipment) was the cost of a few blank cassette tapes.

After reading through the list of things needed to record, you may be wondering why you need so many different recording devices. The truth is, you don’t. You’ll only need one multi-track recorder and at least one other recording device to complete the recording process, so use the best thing you have. A DVD recorder would be great, but a cassette tape deck will do the job if that’s all you’ve got. Again, you’re on a budget, so making do with what you have is the name of the game. “Making do” is an art unto itself, so don’t be afraid to be creative when coming up with the necessities. For instance, for recording purposes anything can double as a mic stand. You can use lamps, music stands, old drum stands, or even weird broom handle contraptions held together with duct tape. Also, for budget purposes, a home stereo EQ can be used to do the final mixdown. Don’t overlook those cheaper mics either. They may have some usefulness when you’re trying to track down enough mics to record the drums.

Step 3: Open the Wallet (Just a little)

Chances are you’ve discovered you already have most of the equipment you need in order to make your own recording. Your PA has provided most of it, but you’re probably short one key piece of equipment, a multi-track recorder. At this point, you have several choices you could make. Your least expensive choice would be to find a friend who has one, and convince him/her to let you borrow it or to help you make the recording. The main advantage here is that either way, it ends up being free. The downside is that you may have to deal with another voice in the decision making process. Another choice is to find a music store that will rent you a good recorder. The upside in this option is that you can probably get a much larger more powerful unit than you would if you had to buy one. The down side is that the longer it takes you to record, the more it will cost. The final option is to buy the multi-track recorder yourself. The advantage here is that you will be able to use it over and over at your leisure, and you will be able to spend enough time with it to become an expert in its use. The major disadvantage, as no doubt you’ve already guessed, is that it will cost considerably more than the other options will. Of course, when you consider that you may use it to record a whole lot of songs, in the long haul the choice to buy your own multi-track machine can end up being the most cost effective decision of all.

If you decide to buy, you will be faced with a very wide range of choices and potential costs. At the time this article is being written, the American Music Supply catalog lists analog 4-track recorders at around $300.00. On up the scale, low-end digital 8-track recorders start at $400.00. Of course, the prices go up and up from there. As usual, the more you pay, the more you get, but even with a really inexpensive 4-track (combined with the equipment listed above), you should be able to make a recording you’d be proud to play for your family, friends, and even club owners. You need only add one element – you.

Step 4: The Learning Curve

The real key to recording on a budget is to learn as much as you can about how the recording process works. Read everything you can about it, talk to people who’ve recorded, and experiment a lot with your equipment. Some of the digital stuff is fairly complicated to use, but the basic principles are the same whether you’re using a huge and complex Roland VMBASIC72 digital recording system (over $6000.00) or a cassette tape Tascam 414mkll 4-track recorder (around $300.00). Keep at it, and don’t get discouraged. Just like learning your instrument, you’ll get better at it the more you do it. The best most expensive equipment in the world won’t make good recordings if the person using it doesn’t know what he’s doing, but lucky for you, a guy armed with the proper knowledge (and a little ingenuity) can make great mixes on even the lowliest equipment. In part 2 two of this article, we’ll discuss some recording methods and techniques that can help you do just that.

About the Author

Scott Hysell used to run the PA System Tutorial website, a site that dealt with all PA systems. He has written three articles for Guitar Noise, including: Soundcheck: A Necessary Evil, Recording on a Budget Part 1 – The Equipment and Recording on A Budget Part 2 – Recording Concepts.