The recording industry has changed dramatically, allowing people to record a professional-sounding album simply in their bedroom. There are tons of inexpensive good-sounding microphones, mobile-designed audio interfaces and software that helps you to create the music you have in mind, without… a band!
Singer-songwriters have always been lone wolves. For them, the process of musical composition and songwriting starts and ends with a guitar, the human voice and a piece of paper for the lyrics. But what happens when you want to have a drum track, a bass line, a string section or lead guitar in your song? What if you don’t physically have those instruments and want to obtain the same result regardless of your situation?
There are many plug-ins that can help you achieve a pro–grade result without breaking the bank, hiring session musicians and not needing to learn to play countless new musical instruments – as well as many hardware interfaces that let you trigger and perform the sounds you want with little effort. Let’s get straight to the point!
Ok, I get what you mean. We just said that you can have a digital band that can back you up. Sure. But you still need some basic physical gear to record your voice and control/trigger your sounds. What we are listing here are the basic requirements to RECORD your song/album/EP. Please refer to other articles like (THIS, THIS and THIS) to learn about the complete setup you should consider if you want to mix and master your music.
To record your voice (and your acoustic guitar, if you don’t want to rely on the piezo sound) you’ll need a studio microphone. Nowadays you have tons of options at your disposal, both traditional mics with XLR connection and USB/iOS options for mobile recording. Traditional offerings include but are not limited to: Shure SM7B, the Aston Origin, the RODE NT-1A vocal set and the t.bone SC 400. USB alternatives include the Apogee HypeMIC, the t.bone SC 440 USB, the Sennheiser MK4 and the stand-equipped M-Audio Uber Mic.
Audio interfaces are necessary if you want to record with an XLR-equipped microphone and/or jack input. Say you want to record your acoustic guitar (through a piezo pick-up, with a jack cable) and your voice: you’ll need two inputs and the ability to monitor yourself. As with microphones, there are plenty of offerings with traditional cabling (USB) and mobile–ready interfaces. The Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 3rd Gen, the Motu M4 and the Audient iD4 / iD14. At a higher price you can get the Universal Audio Apollo series (available with USB, Thunderbolt 2 and Thunderbolt 3 connections depending on the model), the RME Fireface UC and the Apogee Duet.
If you like to make music on your smartphone or tablet, be aware that interfaces such as the IK Multimedia iRig Pre HD, the Apogee Jam+ and the Focusrite iTrack Solo Lightning were specifically designed for mobile applications in mind.
HINT: if you have a newer iPad (or if your iPad is compatible with the Lightning to USB 3 Camera Adapter) you can actually plug in selected USB-equipped sound cards and use them with GarageBand or any software that is compatible with external devices.
If you don’t want to use a laptop or mobile device to record your song, you can have a look at portable recorders. Products such as the Boss BR-80 and the Zoom R8 are portable multi-track recorders that are equipped with several extra functions (such as eBands, direct-to-SD card writing and much more). Other products such as the iZotope Spire take a revolutionary approach by allowing stereo recordings with battery operations, a free app to share music and collaborate with friends (see video above).
A good pair of closed headphones is vital for recording and monitoring yourself through the audio interface (and also to mix and eventually to master your song). Popular offerings include but are not limited to the Beyerdynamic DT770 Pro 80 ohms, Audio-Technica ATH-M50X and AKG K240 Studio.
If you’re not sure about the impedance (ohm values) you have to choose for your next pair of headphones, check out THIS ARTICLE about the features you should consider when buying some.
Launchpads & MIDI Keyboards
Now here comes the fun part: as a singer-songwriter you’ll have to rely on samples and loops to create the backing track you want to have in your song. This includes using drum machines (most of the time built inside your DAW already), loops and samples that need to be triggered by pressing a key/button. Wether you like to use square pads or keyboard keys is up to you and it also depends on the style of your song (it’s visually easier to compose a drum beat on a launchpad, as it is simple to lay down a string melody with a keyboard).
Keyboard-wise, if we take the 49-key format as a standard, which is popular due to it’s size/price ratio, you won’t be disappointed with either the Arturia Keystep, the Native Instruments Kontrol A49, the M-Audio Code 49 and the Nektar Impact LX49+.
Now that you have all the physical gear you need, we need the software to bring your songs to life.
Your DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) is the main software, the central part of your whole recording rig. There are plenty of offerings from different companies, and choosing the best one ultimately comes down to your own preferences (and Operating System). Classic choices include Reason Studio, Logic Pro X and Garageband (downloadable from your App Store), AVID Pro Tools, FL Studio, Ableton Live and Cubase Pro.
You can find more in-depth information about our recommended DAWs by clicking HERE.
The easiest way to lay down a drum track for your next hit song is by relying on Drum Samples plug-ins. The industry has now reached insane levels of detail and complexity, allowing you to compose (or choose!) a drum beat without having much drumming knowledge. Popular options used by many professionals include Get Good Drums, Toontrack EzDrummer 2, Slate Digital Steven Slate Drums 5 and Superior Drummer 3. If the offerings are not of your liking, you can check out the free tools built inside your DAW or buy Sample packs online.
Bass & Guitar
Guitar is one of the most popular instruments on the planet, and there are countless plug-ins that confirm this. Wether you need an amp simulation (IK Multimedia Amplitube, Positive Grid Bias Amp 2, Overloud TH-U) or a sampled acoustic guitar (MusicLab Real Guitar 5), classical guitar (UJAM Silk), electric guitar or bass (Ample Sound Ample Guitar SC III, UJAM Iron, UJAM Virtual Bassist Bundle), our software section has something for you.
Stringed instruments are the most modelled instruments since the inception of Virtual Instruments (for obvious reasons). The offering is huge, starting from traditional sounding orchestras (Garritan Instant Orchestra, IK Multimedia Miroslav Philarmonik, Steinberg Halion 6), to more cinematic-oriented samples (Native Instruments Komplete 12, Project Sam Symphobia) ending with modern sounding strings (Output Analog Strings) made for contemporary pop productions.
Piano, synth & organs
As with strings, grand pianos (Toontrack EzKeys, Waves Grand Rhapsody, C. Bechstein Digital Grand), synths (Lennar Digital Sylenth 1, Vengeance Sound VPS Avenger and FabFilter Twin 2) and organs (EastWest Ghostwriter, Garritan Classic Pipe Organs, IK Multimedia Hammond B-3X) are being sampled since decades ago, leading to a huge array to choose from. Please note that the playing experiences will vary a lot depending on the quality of your MIDI controller, in particular the keybed and the velocity sensitivity of the single keys and their weight.
Mix & Master
Chances are that a substantial part of the mixing process has already been done by using virtual instruments and adjusting levels and effects while choosing the instruments you want to use inside your song.
If you are not familiar with the art of mixing, you can educate yourself online on YouTube, on websites such as Recording Revolution or by checking popular bulletin boards all over the web. Alternatively, ask a friend to help you mix your songs. If budget allows, consider hiring a professional: nowadays, for both mixing and mastering, projects can be carried on via web remotely and the hourly rates are fairly accessible.
For further information, check out our article that tells you ‘Why you need mastering for your music’.
Being a songwriter in 2020 is both an easy and hard task. You face lots of online competition, yet all the tools you need are just a few clicks away (in most cases). You can record a Grammy award-winning hit from your bedroom and you need just one thing to accomplish your goal: creativity.
Are you a songwriter producing your own music? Which methods are you using?
Leave us a comment below and let us know 😉