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Real Basics of Recording with a Computer
What is Recording?
In my simple mindedness, I might define recording as taking some noise being made for some period of time and putting it in a form that can be saved to hear again later. This is pretty much like a VHS, cassette or voice recorder. Your computer could do this as soon as you plugged the power cords in and turned it on. It has a Sound Recorder built right in that is good for recording a single track. That means you can do a single track recording right now. What is a track?, Well... picture the 50s recording scene, most studios consist of a tape deck and some microphones. Everyone gets in the same room with their instruments and voices ready to go, they push "Record", someone mouths out "1aanna2aanna3aanna4aanna" and they play the song beginning to end. Then someone pushes "Stop" on the tape recorder. They have made a Single Track. So we have the time it took them to play the song, they obviously made a lot of noises and it's all saved on the tape from start to finish. Now for the smart alecs, "what if it was a stereo deck"... yeah er well... my point is let's just say that tape deck recorded one track. A single track might not be a whole song but often it would be when you doing simple recordings like this.
Single Track Recording
If the noise you want to record is your voice, say to read a poem you've written, you are ready to start now. Yep, you don't even have to buy anything to record a single track. Make sure that little two dollar microphone is hooked up to your Sound Card by plugging it in to the round jack pink (Uh-oh... you mean your computer store didn't give you a microphone?). If you have a laptop, its built right in somewhere on the side or front of the case. To get it all started, you need some software. If you are on windows, you will find a program called "Sound Recorder" somewhere in your Start menu (press the Start button in the lower left and wander through the "Programs", then "Accessories" menu). When sound recorder loads, you'll see it looks a lot like a little cassette deck or voice recorder with Record, Stop, Play, Fast Forward, and Rewind. If you look further you'll see a "Save" function under one of the menus. To record your poem, press record, read the poem (come on... more "feeling" please), then press stop. Wow that was easy. You're done recording... but wait, don't have a Miller yet, it isn't saved anywhere and will be lost when you exit the Sound Recorder. Find your "Save" function on the menu and use it. Just like if you were using a word processor to write out your poem, you save your voice in a file and should name it something meaningful so you can find it later.
Ok, we saved the file we want to listen to our poem. Find the file and open it. "Some" program will load to let you listen to your recording. Which program is used depends on your computer and what's been installed. You might have Windows Media Player, MusicMatch Jukebox or some other program but something will pop up and attempt to play your recording. When no sound comes out, you quickly plug in your speakers into the little green jack near the pink one that microphone plugged into. Arrgh still no sound. Go find your volume control in the Start Menu (probably will be right where you found the Sound Recorder). Make sure all those little slider controls are pushed up far enough and nothing important is "muted" with the Mute checkbox. Most of you will by now be hearing your poem but even so something may be very wrong. As you read the poem you tried to read it with the deep clarity of Rod Serling doing a monologue for a sixties Twilight Zone episode but you sound like Rod Stewart instead or maybe Donald Duck. You have crossed over into the ... distortion zone (yeah right whatever).
Your little poem is not going to be used in a multi-million dollar production but this "donald duck" sound is a bit below your expectations. There are some basics of sound quality that you have to think about. One is volume and one is the noise that is being picked up beyond the noise of your voice. The distortion you heard probably means you had the volume way too high during your recording. It could have gone either way and the volume may have been way too low. You know that Volume Control I mentioned in the last paragraph. You need to open it when you open the sound recorder and do some test takes, recording a short part of the poem over and over (no need to save it each time) moving your microphone slider up until you can hear your recording well but no distortion. If your microphone slider isn't shown in the Volume Control, check the options and select it to be included. By the way, distortion means we've overdriven some part of our equipment and made a signal that was just too big. The result was that some sounds were changed into something unpleasant and others got rudely chopped off. Generally to get best recording, you want to turn the volume up as far as it will go without distorting. To do this right think about the loudest part of your poem (you weren't going to read monotone were you?), and use that part to do your "sound checks". Some terms to remember are "clipping", "overdriving", and "peaking". These all mean you've pushed the volume up beyond where it should be for this recording.
Now I mentioned one other thing in my introduction to sound quality above. Background noise will get you everytime. When I first started to record "How could I be so wrong" (on The Work), I had the recording setup described here. Sound Record, a nine dollar computer mike, my acoustic guitar... not exactly a studio. Oddly, the results of those early single track computer recordings were pleasing except for one thing. Without thinking, I often did my recording in the evening after dinner... while the dishwasher was running. You could hear the motor, the clicks as it changed cycles and know exactly when the rinse had finished and it was pumping out the water. My emotional state at the time would have fit well with an intentional toilet flushing in the background but the dishwasher wasn't too artsy. The point is, I was not thinking about the environment of my recordings and picking up a lot of unwanted noise. Though my example may seem a little obvious, think about this, your computer cpu fan, power supply fan and hard disk drive are whirring away and an open air microphone will faithfully reproduce every sound. You won't notice it except that your recording will have a kind of continous whoooosh detracting from noise of your voice. Do something to get your computer as far away as you can from the microphone and as isolated as you can without covering up the computers critical air circulation. You probably also need to tell your 11 year old to turn down "Adult Swim" (;-)). Once you get beyond the basic type of recording we are talking about here, there are many ways to address the environment for recording.
Embellishing Your Recording
You may finally have the volume working with you and a cleaner sound now but somehow when you listen to, it sounds sort of flat. With this free setup we're using, there isn't a lot that computer can do for. Some soundcards come with software to create echo and reverb effects which help the sound amazingly and may have "tone controls" to allow you to make it more bassy (make the deeper parts more prominent) or more trebly (make the higher parts more prominent). If you happen to have computer in an unfinished concrete basement, the room itself can create somewhat of an echo and reverberation... that sounds like a cold place to do your records to me. Basically there isn't too much you can do to create effects just using the recorder on the system. You could get imaginative though. For example, possibly some music in the background seems like it would fit in well. This would definitely serve to change how your voice sounds as you read your poem. Since we don't have any Multi-track recording capability yet, you are going to have to Hit record, run to your stereo and hit play, come back and read the poem, fade the music down and hit stop. Now here's the rub, since you added more noise into the mix, you need to do sound checks all over again.
The Saved Recording
You've made it this far and presumably have a recording you like, saved away in a file. Now you have to think about what you are planning to do with this file. Don't try emailing it to your best friend. In the native file format you saved it in, it's probably 22 Megabytes. That's more storage than than Hotmail allows for an entire mailbox plus it will take you about an hour and a half to send the message. The person you sent to isn't going to be in much of a mood to hear your poem because it's going to take them an hour and half to read their mail... yep you sent a nice surprise. If you were using the sound recorder we talked about, the storage format is called a Wave file (you probably saw the file extension was .wav). This format attempts to keep as much of the sound you produced as possible and this ends up taking a lot of room in a file. This is just fine if you are just listening to it on your computer or making a CD to listen to in the car, but for other purposes, you are going to need a format that "forgets" some of your sound. Right about now you must be thinking "Why would I want it to forget some of my sound, I worked hard on it and I want it all there".
I can only answer that something has to give to make some things practical. The telephone is a perfect example because it's also sound and our telephone circuits aren't big enough to hold everyones complete voice at the same time. Ever wondered why people sound different on the telephone, better yet has someone ever said to you, "Listen to this song" and held their telephone by their stereo speaker. They may be playing a CD with 300 Watts behind it through Bose speakers but what you hear on the other end sounds little better than an AM Car Radio with a cheap worn-out speaker. The reason is that the phone company doesn't have enough room to carry all parts of the sound. If they did make room, telephones would cost too much and there would be a lot more wires in the ground... basically it would impractical. This is true of our computer recording too. People have dreamed up several formats to shrink the size how music is stored. You may have heard the term compression, for the most part compression is intelligently trying to leave out the part of the sound that is probably less important when listening. There are other factors like repetitive sounds needn't be repeated in the stored form but forgetting sounds is the bulk of the shrinking process. A couple of the most popular forms of doing this are called WMA and MP3. The WMA is a windows thing and the MP3 is also a proprietary compression more openly used across product lines and devices. Both work very well at crunching your recording down to where you could email it or upload it to the net. You can still compress your recording into one of these formats using freely provided software but this software probably isn't provided on your computer.
Real Basic Conclusion
Making your recording may have been a bit more work than you wanted but you learned enough to do another a bit more quickly and it gets easier each time. The real satisfaction is that you've created something special with your poem or maybe it was a song you tried. Though my recordings are multi-tracked, there isn't that much difference except it's a lot more fun and the chances to become far more artistic with your expression increases as you begin to add tracks. That's another article though.
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