If your dream in life is to walk into a record store and see your very own CD on the shelf...get in line. This happens for only a very lucky few. But recent advances in technology make it pretty easy for you to achieve the dream of producing and recording your own CD. With the right equipment and software, if you can move a mouse or press a button you can record your own CD.
If you have a computer, all you really have to do is buy some software. If you want to make a small investment, there are digital recorders on the market that will take care of everything for you -- recording, mixing, mastering and burning, all in one neat package (though you do have to play your own instruments).
In this article, you'll find out the basics of CD production, from planning to recording to understanding the tools of the trade.
Why Do It Yourself?
There was a time when producing your own CD meant serious cash. You had to pay for studio time, studio engineers, studio musicians (if you're a solo artist) and duplicating your recording.
In the 1970s, when cassette tapes became cheap, available and recordable, people could distribute their own music and make cheap copies of anything. But the sound quality left something to be desired. Now, even the novice musician can produce a CD with a high sound quality.
Recording your own CD, unlike using a studio, is not insanely expensive. You can record your own high-quality digital CD with your own inexpensive equipment out of your own house, garage, basement, attic...
And for the technologically impaired, there's more good news: You don't need any special skills to record your own CD. Recording machines of the past required the skills of a studio engineer. Things have changed. With the use of computers and digital recording systems, all that's required is the ability to read and follow instructions. Another benefit of doing it yourself is that you can totally control your own music. And since it costs next to nothing to burn copies of your CD, you can easily give them to friends and acquaintances -- shameless self-promotion is entirely encouraged -- and sell them at performances or on the Internet for a profit.
Choosing Your Studio
There are four things that need to happen between your live performance and the final compact disc:
To cut your own CD, you just need equipment that will perform these four tasks. There are three basic ways you can go about this.
- Component-Based Hardware System - This system involves separate pieces of recording, mixing, effect and CD-burning hardware, so you're dealing with an assortment of equipment. We're talking about the traditional-style components common in recording studios.
- Computer-Based Recording System - Almost any powerful computer can run recording and CD-burning software. Many of these programs will let you mix the music and create effects. The costs here are lower than for a component-based set-up because if you already have a computer, you only need to purchase certain software programs and a few additional pieces of equipment. The programs and equipment are expensive, but you're spending less money than you would to buy recording-studio equipment. Some common music-studio programs include Cakewalkand EMagic. They'll cost you anywhere from about $100 to more than $800. But you can often try before you buy, so download a trial version to test out the software before you shell out the cash. The downsides: You'll need to have decent computer skills; it takes time to learn to use the programs; and your studio is only portable if your computer is a laptop. For Mac fans, check out Apple's GarageBand.
- Studio Workstation - This type of equipment provides almost everything you need to cut your own CD in one portable unit. These units are produced by a variety of companies including Roland and Boss. Check out the Boss BR1180CD Digital Recording Studio with Internal CD-R Drive to see what we're talking about. They offer almost all the tools of a full recording studio. There are a lot of studio workstations out there, and you'll need to do some investigating to find out which one will work best for you. The cost can run about the same as the home-studio computer setup. If you go with a digital workstation, you've got system-wide memory, minimal setup, no wiring, and real portability. The downsides: You might need to buy an external CD burner and a small display screen.
Cutting Your CD
There are really only four steps involved here: recording, mixing, mastering, and burning. Here's the breakdown on each one.
Whether we're talking vocals, guitar, drums, whatever, a recording device saves the individual tracks and lets you play them back. Depending on the recorder, you might be saving the sound on a hard disk, a memory card, a digital tape or a CD.
So you'll need a way to capture the sound and route it to the recorder (the studio workstation, mixer or computer is the recorder, by the way).
When you record vocals, you'll capture the sound using a microphone. The microphone will be connected to an input jack on your computer, mixer or studio workstation. The noise you make gets into the recording equipment through this input jack.
When you want to record electric instruments, the process is pretty much the same. Instead of using a microphone, you just plug your electric guitar, electric bass, drum machine or synthesizer right into the recording device.
If you want to use music you've already recorded music on a CD or cassette tape, you can record from the CD or cassette the way you do with instruments. Just connect a tape player or CD player to your recorder and hit Play. All you're doing is taking music from one source and making it available on another. Any program will have complete instructions on recording just about anything -- you've got a lot of leeway here.
After you've recorded your music, you blend all the elements together. You mix the vocals with the guitar, bass, drum and other instrument tracks.
The mixer gives you control over the volume and sound of each track, and you can set the volume of each track in relation to the other tracks on the recording, so for instance, you can make the vocal track louder than the guitar track in the final mix. Without mixing, the guitar track may be too loud to hear the vocal track.
The main goal of mixing your music is to balance your track levels. Whatever mixer or computer mixing program you use will give you guidelines for adjusting the sound levels of the music.
During mixing, you need to pan the tracks on your CD. When you listen to music, the sound comes from two separate speakers -- during the panning process, you adjust each sound to make sure it comes from the ideal place. For example, lead vocals and guitar often are panned to the center, and background harmonies come out of the sides (left and right). The controls on your mixer let you experiment to find the best configuration.
You can also adjust the equalization of your music. Equalization or EQ is the tone of the music. EQ is very similar to the bass and treble knobs on your home or car stereo. On your recorded tracks, you can select an element of sound and change the tone. For instance, you can make high vocals sound deeper or make the bass line pound a little harder.
Depending on your mixer, you may also be able to add effects to your music (if your mixer doesn't come with this capability, you can just buy an extra program or an external effects machine). There are a lot of different effects you can use to alter the sound of your music, and the right effects can turn a home-grown CD into a professional-sounding album.
Once you're done mixing, you need to prepare the mix for the transfer to a CD. Mastering your music essentially means going over the recording one more time to make sure everything sounds the way you want it to before you put it on a CD.
Mastering has three main ideas:
- Identify and fix any problems in your music.The best way to do this is to listen very carefully to your final mix. Check the overall levels. Work with the track volumes.
- Check the overall EQ.You can make volume corrections by equalizing as well as setting your levels. Make sure the tone of the music is what you're going for. Be sure to experiment until you find the perfect spot.
- Add track markers to your CD.Up to now, "track" referred to a part of your music, such as a vocal track or a guitar track; it now refers to an individual song. If your CD has more than one track, you need to put a marker at the beginning of each one. This is so the CD player knows where each song starts. Again, your equipment will have directions that walk you through the how-to.
At last, it's time to burn your masterpiece. The CD burner may be an independent device, part of a computer or built into a studio workstation.
There are two types of CDs you can use to burn your music. Most CD burners use CD-R/RW. CD-R discs can't be erased once you burn them (the music CDs you buy in stores are CD-R). CD-RW discs can be erased so that you can reburn them.
Burning a CD is cake. The only major decision you have is whether you want to burn the entire CD in one shot or burn one song at a time. Adding one song at a time lets you burn different versions of the same song onto one CD, and you can build the album one song at a time, burning tracks as you complete them.
For more information on cutting your own CD, check out the links on the next page.