I want to use my Mac to record but i'm confused :: a primer

Discussion in 'Digital Audio' started by zimv20, Feb 9, 2006.

  1. zimv20 macrumors 601


    Jul 18, 2002
    Every few days or so, someone new to recording to computers, or new to recording to a mac, or new to recording in general, wants to know such things as:

    1. how do i record to garage band?
    2. how can i record using the line in?
    3. what kind of soundcard do i need? (my personal "favorite")

    i'm hoping this thread can serve as a primer the curious before trudging on to more specific questions.

    i'm an amateur musician and amateur recordist. i first starting using macs for music in 1986 with MOTU's Performer (and a Southworth MIDI interface -- anyone remember them?), slaved Perfomer to SMPTE timecode coming off tape in the 90's, and these days record using ProTools LE and programs like Reason, plus some of my old 80's synths.

    whether going to tape or computer, the recording process is basically the same as it's been for decades, but those new to the experience may become a little lost by a lack of understanding of the process and the plethora of hardware and software choices available today.

    A Brief Overview of Recording

    Sound recording consists of capturing some kind of time-based signal, either from the analog or digital domain, and committing it to some kind of medium, either analog or digital, from which the signal can be played back.

    One example is a person dictating into a handheld tape recorder. Though this example is simple, it does contain the basic parts of recording a live signal: the source (voice), the mechanism which translates sound waves into electrical signals (the mic), and the recording mechanism (magentic tape).

    Playback goes in reverse: magnetic waves are converted to electrical, which are converted to sound waves (the speaker). for purposes of this discussion, i'll skip the biomechanical parts of listening and the conversion therein (mostly because i don't understand it very well :)

    recording to a computer isn't much different. though the source may be something other than moving soundwaves, the information must end up as a digital stream of 1's and 0's to be written to a hard drive (the recording mechanism).

    Getting Sound Into a Mac

    Macs can record through a variety of ways:

    1. line in through the audio-in port*
    2. mic in through the audio-in port*
    3. USB
    4. firewire
    5. PCI card
    6. optical digital in
    7. ethernet**

    * not all macs have audio-in ports
    ** not certain if anyone's implemented this

    let us note that, for 1) and 2) above, those signals are analog. all other incoming signals are digital.

    line in through the audio-in port

    macs with analog audio-in ports feature a cheap analog/digital converter tied to the audio-in port. this means that a line can be fed from, say, an outboard mixer and the mac will be able to record it, though with not much quality.

    let us note that line level is not the same as Hi-Z, which is a high impedance signal from, say, an electric guitar. personally, i don't know if this port can also accept a Hi-Z signal, perhaps someone else can chime in.

    mic in through the audio-in port

    mic-level signals are significantly lower than line-level signals. the device which increases a mic-level signal to line-level is called a microphone preamplifier, aka mic pre aka pre.

    though the mac audio-in port does have a mic pre built-in, it is accessible through an apple proprietary connector called PlainTalk. it seems this connector is longer than a standard 1/8" plug and can access the mic pre's phantom power. therefore, plugging in an OTS condenser microphone, with an XLR to 1/8" adapter, won't work.

    USB and firewire

    once we get to these ports, we're talking about connecting some kind of computer/audio interface. sweetwater carries a number of such interfaces, which can be accessed here.

    these computer interfaces typically offer analog ins, such as line level in, Hi-Z in, and microphone in. any mic interface will have a mic pre behind it, and probably phantom power, to power mics which need external power, such as condenser mics.

    these interfaces will also have converters in them, at least analog/digital and usually digital/analog, for monitoring purposes. a major differentiator among models is the number of channels. there are many models with 2, 4, and 8 channels.

    other differentiating factors are quality, bundled software, brand and other features, such as headphone outputs, the ability to rackmount, and low-latency monitoring.

    advantages of such boxes include a higher quality pre and converter than what's built into the mac, increased channels, one-stop shopping and availability of features not offered on the mac.

    disadvantages include, in general, a quality reflecting its price and a limited ability to upgrade components singly.

    PCI card

    these are similar in concept to the USB and firewire boxes, though they obviously connect differently and they tend to cost more and have higher quality. some are not all-in-boxes, but rather simply converters, requiring a separate purchase of pre's and other hardware.

    getting sound in, conclusion

    as should now be obvious, there are a variety of methods to getting audio into the mac. each user must determine for himself which method is most appropriate for their situation. obviously, if one wants to multi-track an entire drumset, the audio-in port will not suffice.

    budget constraint is an obvious determiner. as i like to say, you basically get what you pay for.

    but regardless of which method is used, the audio is now in the mac, digitized, and ready to be recorded to hard disk.

    Before the Sound Gets In

    How the sound gets in depends on what's being recorded, though the basic process is the same. let's look at what's needed to record a vocal:

    singer -> mic -> mic pre -> a/d converter -> mac

    whether you're using a PlainTalk mic, or an sm57 and a presonus mic pre and an m-audio converter, all those components exist. that's important to understand, as it gets confusing when one plugs in a USB mic (samson makes one, for example), which seems to bypass the pre and converter (it doesn't, they're built into the mic).

    so which is better? that samson mic costs $80. the sm57/presonus/m-audio chain costs under $500. people routinely use chains costing thousands of dollars. again, you get what you pay for, but it's entirely possible to get a good sound out of cheap gear. so i suppose the "best" is what fits in your budget and you can use to get the sound you want.

    many signals are not mic'ed. for example, a bassist could go direct (by using a Hi-Z in, for example), or a hardware synthesizer could have a digital output, or the synthsizer could be in software. each example implies, or even dictates, its own signal chain. however, every analog signal must be converted to digital at some point in order to be recorded in the mac.

    a note about mixers: given the state of interfaces today, it is not absolutely necessary to use a mixer, though some like to and it's easy to integrate into a setup. i've seen a lot of confusion regarding the relationship between mixers and computer/audio interfaces, which is understandable given some feature overlap.

    when it comes down to it, mixers are handy if you want to mix together signals outside of the computer. they can also offer a number of mic pre's and EQ's on a budget, plus offer some handy monitoring features. and i've found that cheap ones sound like crap (imho). then again, i think the same of cheap interfaces (imho). bottom line is they can be useful but aren't always necessary, depending on the setup.

    After the Sound Gets In

    there are a number of programs which allow multi-track recording, such as Garage Band and Digital Performer. i'm not going to get into their operation or which one's better than the other, but i will say that the choice of program (or DAW -- Digital Audio Workstation) should be made before the choice of hardware. that's just a personal preference of mine, and necessary if you end up going with ProTools, because its maker, Digidesign, limits the hardware choices available.

    in all situations, though, it will be necessary to hear what's been recorded, such as when doing a mix of the song. many people mix what's called "in the box", meaning the computer will be doing all the math necessary to take the recorded (or generated live) tracks and make a stereo mix of it.

    this mix will be routed through a d/a (digital to analog) converter in order to be heard. perhaps it's the one tied to the headphone output, perhaps it's in your computer/audio interface, perhaps you're sending it out the digital s/pdif line to a dedicated d/a converter. there are a number of options and i bring it up to again hammer home the point: you get what you pay for.

    In Conclusion

    there are a number of ways to get done what you want, for all budgets, all skill levels, and all sonic qualities. what's right for your particular situation can be determined only by you, and please recognize that when you said "i want to record to my mac", you were (perhaps inadvertently) also announcing yourself as an engineer. and being an engineer means being faced with and making a seemingly endless stream of choices, including budgetary.

    Good luck!
  2. OldCorpse macrumors 65816


    Dec 7, 2005
    compost heap

    This is fantastic, thank you very much, zimv20!

    mods: can this be made into a sticky? <mods answer>yes</mods answer>
  3. OldCorpse macrumors 65816


    Dec 7, 2005
    compost heap
  4. Kernow macrumors 65816


    Sep 30, 2005
    A good resource - thank you zimv20.

    I'd also suggest that maybe we get a Digital Audio guide going over in the Guides part of this forum, where we can collate all the good information here and in other threads so we can have a definitive resource area to refer people to.
  5. WinterMute Moderator emeritus


    Jan 19, 2003
    London, England
  6. airkarol macrumors 6502

    Nov 12, 2005
    Nice job zimv20, this should go into the guides page :D
  7. FFTT macrumors 68030


    Apr 17, 2004
    A Stoned Throw From Ground Zero
    I should know this, but I'm really not sure.

    We know our applications go in the Applications folder, but where should
    all your AU, VST and RTAS plugins go? HD/Library or User/ Library? and exactly where? What folder is actually correct?

    I noticed that some AU files come in as .aif and others .wav
    You also have sampler files with individual file names like a tenors sax with the file names like "TESLNOMA2X01" with and sampler instruments with an .exs extention.

    So, what is the best method and location to PROPERLY organize your different loops, plugins
    and instrument libraries?

    I see that some plugins end up in HD/Library/Application Support, but others end up in Audio so it gets pretty confusing.

    At the moment I have copies in several locations and I'm sure I'm wasting
    HD space putting things where they don't belong.

    This gets even more confusing since I have GarageBand, ProTools 7 M-Powered, Logic Express and Cubase SX.

    The mind boggles
  8. blckout20 macrumors member

    Mar 2, 2006
    Okay so I basically want to start recording two of my friends who write songs and such and I want to know how I should go about doing this. I don't want to spend a lot of money on equipment as I am just starting out with recording but will probably start buying nicer stuff when I'm in college. I will be using garage band and will be recording guitar, bass, and vocals I believe, I don't know if they have drums in the song yet. What should I go buy?
  9. rawkstar320 macrumors newbie

    May 5, 2006
    old mac recording

    i have a Power Mac 7200/75 and a Power Mac 6500/250. i would like to record my guitars. i know that these are older macs but as ive read here macs seem to work good in all the arts and on top of that my dad is a 100% mac user for his work. i have a whole wall of these computers so im sure that something is salvagable.

    does anyone know of what i would need to head down this road? i am just starting out so i dont want to buy anything. a rough recording program would work fine for me to play with for a while. speakers are not an issue as i have a fairly good sound system already. any tips or links to programs would be extremely helpful!

    Thank you all for any and all help!

  10. CanadaRAM macrumors G5


    Oct 11, 2004
    On the Left Coast - Victoria BC Canada
    Well first off, you don't have USB ports or Firewire ports, so currently available audio hardware is out. And you're running OS 7 or 8 or maybe 9 so most of the current software is out too. Your machines have a basic microphone input and headphone output.

    Your machines are among the first to have PCI slots, you may be able to find an older A/D card that is compatible with them and your OS.

    This looks like a job for eBay -- but remember, the person who succeeds on eBay is the one who knows the most. Do your research first. Hit the library for books like "Home Recording for Musicians" The library will probably still stock books of the same vintage as your machines...

    The other thing is, recording electric guitars directly into a line input sounds bad. Please search here on MR for many threads where we have already discussed this.
  11. rawkstar320 macrumors newbie

    May 5, 2006
    Thank you very much. i will be on the lookout!

  12. MultiTrkN macrumors newbie

    May 11, 2006
    South Central Northern most Eastern West Plaza
    Mullti trackin Mac

    Get a FAST mac first. SPEND THE MONEY! You will not be sorry. Next, get a USB mixer from someone. Lots of companies make these. I use a Teac Tascam but any of them will work. Learn the Audio/MIDI part of OS X. Learn signal flow of the audio. Think of an audio signal as water and think about which WAY IT FLOWS. Get Garageband and start recording! It is TOO easy!
    Mix it down and BURN! The effects alone are worth the new Garageband in iLife '06. A MUST. And it's only 79 bucks!


  13. 2ms macrumors 6502

    Nov 22, 2002
    any chance you could append a section or something that gives the basics for people that will only be using keyboards and synth modules as input? I am interested in using virtual synths, a keyboard, and Logic7. I doubt I'll use mikes, guitars, any of that kind of stuff at least for a while.
  14. andrewmulligan macrumors member

    Oct 9, 2006
  15. drumforfun19 macrumors regular


    Apr 14, 2007

    Amazing!! I should have read this a long time ago.

    Zim you should make another thread, like a part 2 or something. maybe go into further detail.
  16. CanadaRAM macrumors G5


    Oct 11, 2004
    On the Left Coast - Victoria BC Canada

    Alesis interfaces and Firewire/USB mixers,
    Apogee high-end convertors Behringer
    CME USB interfaces and MIDI keyboards
    Digidesign ProTools HD, LE, M-Powered
    Edirol Firewire and USB interfaces and MIDI keyboards,
    e-Mu USB interfaces,
    Focusrite Saffire and outboard electronics,
    Line6 TonePort USB Interface (particularly for guitar)
    M-Audio interfaces and mixers,
    Mackie Firewire interfaces and mixers,
    Metric Halo Mobile I/O
    MOTU (Mark of the Unicorn) Firewire/USB and PCI card interfaces,
    Native Instruments interface and software
    Novation interfaces and MIDI keyboards with Audio
    Presonus Interfaces and outboard electronics,
    RME Interfaces and convertors
    Tascam interfaces and mixers
    Waves GTR (particularly for guitar)
    Yamaha interfaces and mixers


    Apple Logic Pro, Garageband
    Digidesign ProTools HD, LE, M-Powered
    Mackie Tracktion
    Mark of the Unicorn Digital Performer
    Steinberg Cubase, Nuendo

    Audacity freeware
    Bias Peak and SoundSoap
    HairerSoft Amadeus II


    (Note: Although these are all designed to operated independently, some of these can be attached to a computer to either transfer files or act as an AD/DA interface.)

    Before deciding I suggest getting ahold of back-issues of the magazines listed in this tread and reading through reviews of the models to get a feel for where your proper feature point will be.

    Also, read and understand the requirements of the products, not all are Mac compatible, and some have OS, CPU or slot limitations.

    Most audio interfaces include some limited form of software bundled with it, which is great for getting started with - and sometimes allows you to upgrade at a lower cost to the full version. Check compatibility though. Many interfaces include MIDI interfacing as well, but not all do.
  17. J Radical macrumors regular

    J Radical

    Nov 20, 2006

    Great thread, but I have several questions.

    I want to record guitars and vocals using garage band. Your primer clearly states that I'll need a computer/audio interface, specifically one with a High Impedance (Hi-Z) input and a microphone connector. Any mic connector will come with a pre-mic and phantom power.

    My first question is: is a pre-amp necessary for guitar recording, and are pre-amps for guitars found inside these audio interfaces?

    If I make a diagram:

    Singer ---> Mic--- > [Magic Box] ----> Mac/Garage Band

    Inside the Magic Box is a connector for the Mic, a pre-amp for it and then the a/d convertor to put it into the mac.

    For guitar I want:

    Guitar ---> Effects Pedal ---> [Magic Box] ----> Mac/Garage Band

    But does the magic box have a pre-amp inside? Or do I need one to put before the box?

    Sorry if this post sounds inane, I'm just trying to simplify things so that I understand!

    My second last question is: Firewire or USB? My macbook has Firewire 400 but I've read stories about compatibility problems and kernel panics with certain interfaces.

    And Finally: Recommendations? If anyone can point me in the direction of an audio interface that accepts mics and guitars for garage band I would be very very grateful. There are some already mentioned in this thread, but I'd love to hear advice from people with experience.
  18. zimv20 thread starter macrumors 601


    Jul 18, 2002
    if you're talking about recording the guitar direct, then no you don't need a preamp (for that specific purpose). many of "those interfaces" (big list starting here) do have Hi-Z or "guitar" inputs. you'll just have to check the specs/features of the ones in which you're interested.

    yes. that's the box i typically call an "interface".

    it needs 1) a Hi-Z input, and 2) an a/d converter. though you don't need the preamp for this -- good luck finding one without! :)
  19. J Radical macrumors regular

    J Radical

    Nov 20, 2006
    Thank you Zimv, you've been really helpful!

    I'm off to hit hammer google for reviews. :)
  20. improvisitor macrumors newbie

    Feb 26, 2008
    Very Dumb Recording Question

    I'm new to things Mac, so bear with me. I'm playing around with a modular synthesizing software for the Mac that does not have any record capabilities (can't make wav files of output, etc). Is there software that will allow me to record the audio output as it is produced? Is there a way to do it "in the machine"? Or do I have to run some kind of cable from headphone out to line-in? Or should I hunt down different synthesizing software with a record capability?
  21. neverownedapc macrumors member


    Jun 20, 2008
    near chicago
    i think i know exactly what you have. basically it's is a synth module but w/o hardware right? anyway, you would probably need something like cubase, pro-tools, logic, etc that has recording capabilities. hope this helps.
  22. ladystew macrumors newbie

    Sep 19, 2008
    what a helpful and informative thread! thank you so much for sharing the basic information. I hate to be one of those people replying with "thanks for the info! ok, so help..." lol. But it is true. I have a BASIC understanding of recording (which I hope to develop).

    What I have:
    MacBook Pro (got exactly one week ago brand new)
    *4 Gig memory.
    hard drive is the standard amount (going the external hard drive route to store saved music)
    *obviously I have Garage Band but I got Logic Express 8 pre-installed as well.

    for the interface... that's where my focus is now. I am looking into getting PreSonus Firestudio Project. Of course, reading reviews you get good and bad opinions/reviews. So I find myself stuck. I do not know if this is the ideal setup for what I want to do...

    Here are the instruments I will be recording:
    acoustic guitar
    electric guitar

    I have the mindset of "learn as I go" instead of getting overwhelmed before I even begin. I have had some practice with mixing from a sound board so this is not completely foreign territory.

    However, I do know it is true that you get what you pay for... and that is where the hesitation comes in. I joined this forum to read the threads and get input from those of you who obviously have more experience than I do.

    Thanks in advanced for any and all help. :)
  23. fiercelyme macrumors newbie

    Oct 6, 2008
    I'm a baby.

    A few years ago I bought a MOTU 828 Firewire interface for my iMac. I used the audiodesk software that came with it but I never really took the time to learn what I was doing and record my music. Now I have a brand new iMac and I want to take the time to get into recording. My question is this: please explain to this brand new tech-know-nothing baby what I would need to use my old MOTU 828 with my new iMac. I've tried to contact MOTU support and they make me jump through hoops just to ask a question. Anyone?
  24. MWPULSE macrumors 6502a


    Dec 27, 2008
    I dont know if someones already answered this???

    We know our applications go in the Applications folder, but where should
    all your AU, VST and RTAS plugins go? HD/Library or User/ Library? and exactly where? What folder is actually correct?

    The garageband folder is in your user library application support, and then garageband (see attached pic1.png)

    The folder called audio in library has a purpose but im not entirely sure what it is. I think its where all the AU plugins are stored. (someone may correct me if they wish)

    Next up protools :) Digidesign stores all of its settings, for video engine, audio, plugins and stuff in its own section in Application support, see attached pic2.png

    I cant remember logic or cubase because its been a while since i used them last. But they will be in the library folder somewhere, most likely under app support :)


    Attached Files:

  25. MWPULSE macrumors 6502a


    Dec 27, 2008
    What software have you used previously?? if any? What type of music are you trying to create?

    Correct me if im wrong, but MOTU supply their own software with this dont they? or they used to include Digital Performer on a CD with those boxes.

    If thats a case, your gonna have to install Digital Performer from the CD (just follow the instructions on the DVD i guess :)) If you dont want to use digital performer you can use other software, there are many different types that you can choose from (ableton is good for dance music alot of the time and live performance, Protools is good for audio recording-although the latest version looks set to improve its midi capabilities, Logic is good for all round, as is Cubase)

    Thus i would suggest you think about what your looking to record in the future. As this really can set you back if you choose the wrong software.

    Also something to bare in mind, which i should of thought of earlier as i was writing this is that certain software is hardware specific ( i.e it doesnt work on other peoples software, Protools in particular is renowned for this) so bare that in mind.

    Im personally an advocate of the Protools route despite what i just said about it not being great for midi, i actually think that its quite good at midi. Other software doesnt cut it for me, took me hours to figure out how to use logic studio.

    Bear all these things in mind :)


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