How to Make an Audio Recording with Your Computer

For the next series of mid-week posts I’m going to cover how to record yourself using a computer. I feel like this is something that is essential for most performers and teachers today. I know there are a ton of tutorials out there on this right now. This is going to be very basic for people new to the process.

There are several images to help you with this post. If you’re getting this via email and can’t see them, click here.

I’m not going to get too much into comparisons of specific equipment because that’s wormhole full of opinions and misinformation that can paralyze us – keeping us from ever even trying to record music.

This first post is going to cover recording audio on your computer, tablet or even your phone.

An audio recording is one that records sounds in a space – like a room or concert hall. For example, when you record a voice memo on your phone that is an audio recording of your voice. This is often the easiest way to record your ideas or performances. The advantage to recording audio is that it’s quick, easy and often represents the emotion and ambeince of the performance. The disadvantage is that the quality can be dependant on your instrument, your microphones, your audio hardware, your software and perhaps your computer. So getting a professional-sounding recording can be expensive. However, if you focus on the musical aspects of the performance and capture it with what you have – there can still be magic that can hold up to expensive productions… Vibe is everything.

I would recommend practicing with the most basic setup possible. In most people’s case it would be a laptop, pad or phone using the internal microphone next to your instrument. Press record and perform. This is a good place to start with because it will teach you one of the most important parts of the process – how to get a proper recording level. If you press record and the sound is distorting, this means you need to decrease the input level going into your microphone. Most audio meters are setup in recording software to peak or clip at 0 db. Anytime sound hits your microphone above 0 db, there will be distortion and there is no way to correct this after the fact. So getting the right amount of volume going into the mic is very important, whether you have the most expensive studio or a $200 laptop with free software.

The input level of your microphone is usually adjusted in your computer’s audio setting. It’s not something that is typically in the recording software. It is an overall system setting. If you play something soft and see that the signal looks good (aka isn’t reaching the top of the meter), you could be in trouble when you hit the loud sections of your performance. Always check your level based on the loudest thing you will play. Then back off the level setting a little bit more so you can account for adrenaline kicking in – making you play louder than when you checked the levels.

This is a nice level in the yellow circle. If the green signal bar goes into the small, red circle. The recording will be distorted.

There is a fair amount of trial and error involved in the process. So record a few passages and make sure the levels are in a good place.

If you’re lost, that’s ok. It’s almost impossible to go through this in a linear fashion since there are so many things happening at once when you record. But now that you have the level concept, let’s do a simple step-by-step for all the other elements.

First, find a DAW (digital audio workstation) for your computer or pad (iPad or tablet). This is simply a program that can record audio. All Apple products come with Garage Band – use this if you have it. PC users can download Audacity for free – it is great for recording audio. For both Apple or PC, you can purchase programs like Reaper, Ableton, FL Studio and many more depending on what your needs are.

Once you open the DAW, in the menus find the Audio Settings section and make sure that your audio input is set to your internal microphone. This will typically be the default since you haven’t plugged in any other mics or audio interfaces.

Now you need an empty track. Many of the DAW’s have empty tracks already open when you start the programs. But if they don’t, go up to your menus and find the option “Create Audio Track” or “Add Track”. Once you do this you will see a track in the timeline… This is simply a container for the sound you are getting ready to record. Many programs will want you to tell the track where to find the incoming sound. So if you have something that says “input”, “i/o” or “i” on the new track, simply set that to your internal microphone by clicking on that area.

Now you have to arm the track or make it record enabled. Simply pressing the main record button won’t be enough in DAW’s. First you arm the track you want to send sound to. This is usually a red circle or red “R” in the track itself. Click that… It won’t start recording, it will simply be ready to capture sound once you start recording.

To start recording, click the traditional red circle next to the play icon… It’s been the same red circle since tape recorders – that should look familiar.

Once you click the record button and your track is armed, then you’ll usually start seeing the screen or a cursor move across the screen. As you play, you’ll see waveforms appear in the DAW’s timeline. You may also notice some things are now red in the screen – this means you are currently recording.

When you want to stop the recording, simply press the spacebar. The spacebar will play and stop the recording so you can listen back.

Depending on your DAW, you may have heard a metronome or click track when you started recording. You won’t want that for this type of recording because the click will be in your microphone/recording. Find the metronome icon and click it off. If your DAW doesn’t have this, you can usually tick off the metronome in the preferences menus.

If you were playing but no sound was recorded. You simply need to check your setting to make sure the microphone input was properly sent to the armed track.

If you’re new to digital recording, there is never a reason to delete takes you aren’t sure about. Keep everything. The audio doesn’t take up much space. If you want to do another take, simply move the cursor to the end of the last take and record again using the same steps. If you do several takes, they’ll all be lined up one after another on the same track. You can compare them and select your favorite later. We’ll get more into editing and mixing in future posts.

Save your work, even if you don’t think you will keep it. Name the file with a name that relates to the music so you can keep it straight in the future… Plan as if you are going to have 100’s of recordings.

Do this each day so you get better and faster at it. It’s just like anything, it takes us falling on our face a few times to work out the glitches.

Here are links to the previous posts in the recording series:

  1. How to Make an Audio Recording with Your Computer – this post
  2. Recording Into Your Computer with Microphones
  3. How to Make a MIDI Recording