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HOW-TO: Turn your Mac mini into a low-cost recording studio

Barb Dybwad
Barb Dybwad|February 8, 2005 1:01 PM

So we know that everybody, their sister and their cousin, too are working on how to use the Mac mini in a home theater setup (we are not immune!). But better yet - one thing you can just never teach your TiVo is how to be a music production station. Gone are the days of needing hundreds of thousands of dollars to set up a studio to produce your own tracks; a decent digital audio workstation can now be set up for comparatively ridiculously low cost.

Today we'll talk about yet another of the many tasks you could devote your Mac mini to: the home recording studio. Would-be bedroom producers gather 'round and we'll talk about some of the essentials you'll need, plus how to get started recording and mixing tracks.

Mac mini home studio
Keep in mind that, much like the Mac mini media center how-to, there is more than one way to skin a mini. You don't have to duplicate our setup. You can pick and choose among some of the components we cover here, or search for others that fit your particular needs. What gear you ultimately decide on depends on a number of factors, not the least of which is how much you can afford to spend: what style of music you primarily make, how many instrumentalists you need to record (if any), the size of your room, and so forth. This article is here to help get you started!

The essentials: your basic gear list

  • Audio recording software
  • Audio interface
  • Microphone(s)
  • Instruments
  • Cables
  • Monitoring device

The essentials explained

1. Audio recording software

We're going to go with the obvious and free choice, here: GarageBand, which comes with the iLife '05 suite on the mini. Version 2 supports multi-tracking up to eight tracks, which should be enough to get you started recording. We'll talk later about other options in this department, for when you're ready for the next level.

2. The audio interface
This is the very heart of your home studio. It is the piece of kit you should spend the most time thinking about and researching, and for small setups is most likely what you'll shell out the most dough for. Your options here run the gamut from el-cheapo to DAWs so bling we'd have to post them on Luxist before we could even link to them.

The most basic route here would be a simple line-in interface like the $40 iMic from Griffin. If you will only ever need to record one audio source at a time - one person speaking for a Podcast, or converting your old records to MP3s, e.g. - this could very well be all you need. It plugs into a USB port on your mini and acts as a breakout cable allowing you to plug-in a mic (1/8" jack provided) or a line-in (RCA jacks provided). It has a line out as well, so if you have an all-in-one headphone/mic headset, you can use it to record speech or vocals and listen back. If you really just want to play around with GarageBand, and you're looking for dirt cheap, this is it.
Altivec Lansing headset with Griffin iMic
The quality won't be all that and a bucket of chicken, but it won't be absolutely terrible, either. It'll be enough to have fun with.

Or, if you're a DJ and just want to record the output from your turntables, this solution is not a bad option for a low-cost practice studio. You already have a mixer, so you can mix in a vocal track or other line-in source like a CD player or MP3 player, as well. Just take the output from your mixer:
Back of DJ mixer

And direct it to the iMic using an RCA-RCA cable:
Turntables to Griffin iMic

...and you have a $40 DAW. You can record a mix into a GarageBand stereo track and export it straight into iTunes in a time-saving jiffy.

If you're going to be doing any audio production that involves recording analog instruments (guitar, bass, etc.), or that requires multiple tracks, though, you need to look at a multi-channel USB or Firewire audio interface. There are many, many options here and again, what you get will be determined by what your needs are and what style of music you're making. If you need to track a full band, look at a Firewire interface such as the MOTU 828 or the Presonus Firepod. If you only need a handful of ins and outs, look at something with a smaller footprint like the Presonus Firebox, M-Audio Firewire 410, or the Edirol FA-66.

We have the M-Audio Ozone USB audio interface in our studio, because it combines two audio inputs (one microphone, one line in; or, a single stereo line in) with a MIDI keyboard and 8 programmable MIDI knobs in one unit at a decent price (you should be able to find one for $250 or less). You may not need a MIDI controller in your setup; if you're only recording live instrumentalists and vocalists, you likely won't. But if you make electronic music or if you want to trigger software instruments in your recording software at any point, you're going to want a MIDI keyboard of some sort. You can get a separate audio interface and MIDI keyboard; especially if you're a Rick Wakeman-type, you'll feel limited by the two octave Ozone (you have access to the full note range via octave up/down keys, but we know, Rick, it's just not the same.). But it's the perfect all-in-one device for us, and travel-size to boot.
M-Audio Ozone

3. Microphone
If you're doing serious multi-tracking, you'll need a selection of mics suited to the ranges of the instruments you're recording. If you just want a decent and versatile mic or several that can serve general purpose duty, we recommend the old industry standby Shure SM57. It will do admirably for vocals as well as various instruments, and you can pick one up for less than $100.
Shure SM57

4. Cables
Your microphone will connect to your audio interface via an XLR cable:
XLR cable 

Instruments plug into a 1/4" line in jack via a regular instrument cable:
Instrument cable 

If you have a separate audio interface and MIDI keyboard or other MIDI controller, you will wed the twain together via ye olde MIDI cable:
MIDI cable

5. Monitoring device
You will need something with which to listen to your next big hit. If you have a set of PC speakers lying around, this is the cheapest route. You can also connect your mini to your stereo via either the internal audio out or your audio interface's audio out. The pros and semi-pros use near field monitors. Regardless of what external sound system you choose, it is a good idea to have a decent pair of studio headphones in your arsenal. We recommend the Sony MDR-7506s, which can be had for less than $100.
Sony MDR-7506 headphones

6. Instruments
Many choices here in both analog and digital realms. If you're already an instrumentalist, you'll probably start recording yourself playing guitar, etc. If you're not an instrumentalist, hunker down and get to know your new instrument: the MIDI keyboard. Remember that your number one goal in music-making is always fun, and whether or not it ever gets you on tour with Peter Gabriel is purely incidental. Don't be afraid to make mistakes.

If you're itching to get into the hottest thing in digital recording, loop-based music production, then you have a whole world of software instruments and sample loops open before you. Garageband comes with a number of standard preset instruments as well as loops for you to start exploring, plus you can make your own loops for use in your projects.

Sooner or later if you upgrade to an audio sequencer such as the most righteous Ableton Live, you can use all manner of third-party loops found free or as buyware. If you're the tweaker type, you can also take advantage of some other excellent freeware sound generation software on the Mac to create some unique soundscapes you're guaranteed won't turn up on the next BT record: Rumblence: zoyd and Csound, to name a couple.

You may also at some point get interested in outboard gear such as external drum machines or synthesizers that contain a number of editable sounds you can trigger with your MIDI keyboard. All in good time, my friends. For now, let's just fire up GarageBand and lay some tracks, shall we?

System set-up

You'll have to install drivers for your audio interface, if you haven't already. Next, connect your cables to your audio interface, then connect your interface to your computer. If your interface is USB, hot-swapping applies so you can just plug it in when the machine is already on. For Firewire interfaces, it's usually best for everyone involved to shut down the machine, connect the Firewire cable, power on, and party on. We're hooking in one instrument and one mic, and our headphones to the headphone out jack:
Ozone back

The other cables go into the Mac mini as they usually do, with the addition of the USB cable for the M-Audio Ozone:
Mac mini back

Next, fire up our new friend, Garageband. You'll be prompted for a name and location for your project file. Once the app is open, we'll first need to set the audio preferences to use your interface for handling audio in/out duties, so go to the File menu and select Preferences. Select the Audio/MIDI tab, and select your interface as both the audio in and out source, unless you're using your stereo or other speakers to play back sound from your Mac. If you're listening through headphones, there is a surely a headphone out jack on your interface in which case you'll want it to be selected for audio out duties.

Garageband preferences

We're ready to unleash some aural mayhem, so let's create a new track. Press apple-option-n to start a new track (or use the New Track command from the Track menu) and you'll see we have a choice between real and software instruments. Let's start with a simple vocal track, a real instrument:

Garageband new track 

If you turn monitoring on, you'll be able to hear yourself played back through your headphones or speakers as you record. There will be a slight delay between what you're saying/singing and what comes back to you, though, so if that bothers you, leave monitoring off.

The pane on the right are the possible effects you can add to your track. Many of the settings of these effects are tweakable, so you can take the default settings and modify them to create new sounds. We'll choose the Deeper Vocals plug-in to record our first voice track and click the Create button, which generates a new track in the timeline browser:

deeper vox

Before we start recording, let's check our levels. Keep an eye on the level meters at the far right of the control strip:

audio level meters

Start adjusting the gain control for the mic channel on your audio interface. There should be a gain (volume) section that will set the recording levels for all of your channels:

M-Audio Ozone gain control

You want the signal to be as far into the green as possible without spilling over into the red and clipping, which can cause nasty pops, cracks and other digital artifacts into your pristine audio. You want the signal to be strong, but not too hot. Once you've got a good level, you can hit the red record button on the transport control to start recording your vocals:

Garageband transport control 

After you've recorded your audio, your track will show the waveform of the audio you just generated:

recorded track 

If you've chosen the Deeper Vocals effect, you'll notice that Darth Vader has got nothing on you in this track. Have fun playing around with the different effects to see what kind of sounds you can come up with:

Of course, with a microphone you're not limited to just your voice. You can record any ambient sound and add effects to it to alter its character into something that might be useful in a track. For example, we made some industrial noise by recording a spoon hitting a bowl with heavy effects. Use your imagination and experiment.

Let's create another new track, but this time we will select a software instrument such as a piano or synth. This time, instead of recording from an external sound generator such as your voice, we are going to use the MIDI keyboard to play a software-based instrument. Once you've added the new track to your project, start tinkling on the keys and you should hear the sound output from the instrument. Recording from here is just as simple as hitting ye olde record button again and ripping up those keys.

Garageband has some decent stock sounds out of the box, and as always you can further tweak them by adding and manipulating effects. In general, the sounds that attempt to be representations of real instruments like woodwinds and brass will not sound as good as the more synth and electronic sounds that we want to sound a bit artificial anyway. You won't be producing your next symphony out of Garageband, but you may very well use it as a composition tool to sketch ideas.

Recording your external instruments into Garageband works exactly the same way as recording vocals, from above: start a new track, choose what type of instrument you are bringing in, set your levels and go to town. Add effects at will, tweak to your heart's content, and experiment away. You can record two tracks of the same instrument for melody and harmony, or you can record multiple tracks simultaneously if your audio interface has more than one audio input. We'll leave all of that up to you to play with, and we'll move on to the fun of loop-based music production.

Hit apple-L (or Control > Show Loop Browser) to open the loop browser, which appears at the bottom of the window:

loop browser

From here you can choose from a number of Apple Loops included with Garageband. Just browse around until you find one you like, and then drag it into a spot on the timeline:

mini studio 465457

If you've dragged it into an existing track, the audio loop will be placed at the spot in the timeline where you dropped it. If you dropped it into an empty space in the timeline, a new track will be created and the audio placed there. You'll see the waveform displayed:

mini studio

We want this percussion loop to keep looping, not just play through once and stop. So move your mouse to the upper right hand corner of the waveform and it will turn into a circle-ish "extend" icon; if you click and drag to the right, you will increase the length of the loop:

mini studio 2

Now, find some other clips that go with your first clip and layer a few instrument tracks on top of each other:

mini studio 3

Now you can start to mix your tracks, which essentially means getting all of the sounds to blend together in a way that sounds fairly natural. You'll want to adjust the volume of certain tracks relative to others. To do this, click on the triangle in the track info pane to expand the volume control:

mini studio 4

You'll see a linear representation of the track volume displayed beneath the track waveform. To adjust the volume you create edit points by clicking on the volume line at the points where you wish to make volume changes:

mini studio 5

Once you've made your edit markers, you can click and drag them to raise or lower the volume of the track and create effects like fade ins:

mini studio 6

If you want to make changes to the overall volume of the whole project itself, not just a single track, you'll have to show the "master track" which controls all the other tracks' volume levels. Hit apple-B (or Track > Show Master Track) to display the master track at the bottom of the window. If you edit volume data on this track, it will be reflected across all of the tracks. Thus, if you want to fade out at the end of your track, you would edit the master track. Here's the final view of our quick mini-project after some other mix tweaks such as adjusting the track panning, which refers to where the sound is located in the stereo field, i.e. how far to the left or right does the sound source sound as if it were coming from.

mini studio 7

Here's the result of our all of about 10 minutes of tinkering, testament to how dead easy this program is to use and just a little sampling of the kinds of things you can do with Garageband. Good luck, and happy music making! Post some links to your tracks! :)