How to setup a home studio for sax players

Friday, January 01, 2016 

 

Recording yourself is a great way to monitor your progress and improve, but if you really want to get the most out of it, you’ll need a home studio recording setup. Here is a quick guide to what you need to get started.

 

Like many things, you can spend a little or a lot (and I mean A LOT!) on gear but to get started it doesn’t need to cost a fortune. In fact, you only need a couple main pieces of kit to get started it’s often best to spend less and then look to upgrade down the track as your skills develop.

 

The core gear

Most home studio setups are based around a laptop or desktop computer which gives you a lot of processing power. This means you can do so much more than just record your sax. You can also record along with backing tracks, add effects and edit your audio or build up your own tracks entirely.

 

There are also standalone recording devices on the market but generally these are either specialist tools, or designed specifically for just recording audio. For this article I will be focussing on computer based setups because I think they offer the most flexibility. And most of us have a computer already, which is often the most expensive part of the setup.

 

So, there are generally three elements to a small home recording setup: The microphone, the interface, and the computer + software. Let’s look at each in turn.

 

Microphones

There are endless options for microphones these days with the long established brands and an endless stream of new products from Chinese manufacturers. Like mouthpieces, microphones are very personal but here are some great proven choices to consider:

 

The Shure SM57, Rode NT1-A and AKG 414

 

SHURE SM-57

around £75

This is considered the standard gigging mic for sax players and also works great for recording (although I personally prefer the SM-58). It’s been around for ever so is proven, it’s pretty cheap and basically indestructible.

 

RODE NT1-A

around £120

This is an entry priced cardioid condenser mic. It’s great value for money and has the features you see on a much more expensive mic for entry level money. There is also a USB version of this mic that will connect directly to your computer without the need for an audio interface.

 

AKG C-414

around £680

If your budget can stretch to a great industry standard “studio quality” microphone that’s tried and tested, then this is the one for you. It’s also probably the last mic you would need to buy for your sax.

 

Audio Interface

Unless you are using a USB mic that connects directly to the computer, you will need an audio interface. This piece of kit is important because it converts the signal from your microphone to a digital signal your computer can understand.

 

Like with microphones, these vary greatly in price and features. Generally speaking, the more expensive audio interfaces do a better job of getting the recorded sound into the computer without coloring or changing the sound. Also, whereas some interfaces will let you record from just 1 or 2 microphones simultaneously, with others you can record 8 or more mics at once.

 

It’s important though to think realistically about what your needs are. In my studio for example, I never needed to record more than one mic at a time. I’m generally just recording my sax or my voice. If I need to record more things at once (eg a band) I will go to a studio which these days can be quite inexpensive, and has far more space and resources than my home studio.

 

Most sax players will find they really only need to record a single mic at a time too. With that in mind, my personal opinion is that you should try to get the best quality interface you can afford. Here are some audio interface options to consider:

 

The Avid Fast Track Solo and Apogee One

 

Avid Fast Track Solo

around £100

Comes with Pro Tools Express software so you can get started right out of the box. Great value for money too.

 

Apogee One

around £285

Apogee products are known for their great quality signal conversion. The “One” is also really compact, plus it has it’s own built in mic that you can use for skype calls, and it will work with your iPad. You can also connect either your main microphone or a line input from a guitar, keyboard or EWI.

 

Need more inputs? Checkout the Duet or Quartet versions (around £500/£1000).

 

The Software

If you are a mac user, chances are that you already have their Garageband software. This is Apple’s entry level Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) package but it’s by no means lightweight.

 

Garageband lets you record from your mic, edit the audio and add effects. Plus you can build up tracks from the library of samples that are included or play in your own parts using the built in software instruments.

 

Plenty of people use Garageband as a quick tool for songwriting and you can even make an entire album with it. However there are two main contenders for more ‘grown up’ full featured DAW packages.

 

Logic Pro (Mac only)

£149.99 from the App Store

Originally built by Emagic, it was bought by Apple a few years back and for a long time has been pretty much the standard tool for producing music using combinations of recorded audio and sampled instruments or soft synths. This is an amazingly powerful tool but it can be a bit daunting when you first start. One nice thing though is you can import your Garageband projects easily and the general workflow is very similar. Only a few years ago Logic would cost you more than £600 but Apple have made it very affordable. Personally I think it’s incredible that for less than £150 you can buy the same tool that is used to make hit albums all over the world. That’s value for money!

 

Pro Tools (Mac / Windows)

Around £240 per year

Pro Tools is without doubt the industry standard tool for recording audio. It’s what you’ll find in most recording studios. Pro Tools is made by Avid who are the same company behind the legendary notation software “Sibelius”. They have very cleverly made their entry level “Pro Tools First” version free which is a great way to check it out. Plus, there are bundles available of the full version with an audio interface which are excellent value.

 

The Logic Pro interface is daunting when you first start, but much of the workflow is the same as Garageband.

 

Other options

There are a number of other DAW packages that have millions of devoted users and have been around for some time. Cakewalk is a popular Windows based DAW, there is also Digital Performer and one of the original DAW packages, Cubase. One that’s definitely worth checking out though is “Reaper” which is available for both Windows and Mac. Reaper is a full featured DAW but it’s free to download and try for 60 days. After that a license for personal use will cost you just $60USD.

 

Other bits and bobs

In addition to the big stuff listed above, you’ll also need a microphone stand, a decent quality microphone lead to connect it all together.

 

Listening to your work

The final piece of the puzzle is a way to comfortable hear what you have recorded. If you want to stay portable you can of course just use headphones. Closed cup headphones are generally better because they block out most of the sound around you allowing you to hear what’s going on more clearly.

 

Using your computer speakers is fine but if you have the budget, upgrading to a pair of studio monitor speakers is best. These will give you a much more accurate idea of the sound.

 

Depending on the speakers you choose, your audio interface and what else you have in your studio, you may also need a small mixer to connect all the bits together - hopefully we can cover this in another article!

 

Final thoughts

Don’t forget there is also a huge secondhand market for audio gear on the internet and this can be a good way to check out different microphones or interfaces. Also, I would encourage you to not fall into the trap of researching every last piece of equipment before you make a decision on what to buy. It’s more important to just get started recording yourself, making music and learning as you go.

 

Real player setups:

Elan Trotman:

I’m not really a “techie” person so my setup is very simple: I use an AKG 414 mic with ProTools and the ProTools MBox interface on my laptop.

 

Freddy Vigdor (Average White Band):

I use an M-Audio Sputnik Tube Condenser mic with an M-Audio Tampa mic preamp. I record into Logic 9 on my Mac Pro and use the Apogee Duet 2 interface.

 

Jamie Oehlers:

I have pretty basic stuff really – I use Logic with a Yeti USB microphone

 

Nigel McGill

I like to keep my setup streamlined and it works great for me. I have been using a RODE NT1-A mic for ages along with an Apogee One audio interface. I record directly into Logic Pro X on my Mac Mini. This is the exact setup I used to record sessions for the US TV shows “24” and “Bones” as well as my Sax School video lessons.

 


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About the blog:

I created this blog to share my experience touring and performing over the last 30 years all over the world with big bands, jazz ensembles, symphony orchestras and touring shows. I've pretty much worked in every part of the music business from soloist to band leader, musical director, studio musician and even managing an orchestra in London's west end. I love talking about saxophone and helping others to reach their saxophone goals. Most importantly though, I want to hear about your progress, challenges and victories on the road to learning sax. Leave me a comment to start the conversation! Nigel McGill
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Contributing writers:

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