The Fundamentals of Recording Ukulele
Welcome back! In the previous article, we covered the many benefits of recording your ukulele playing, such as listening to your practice sessions with a critical ear and playing along with yourself. Today, we’ll be going over the fundamentals of recording and how to take the next steps toward creating high-quality recordings, including the tools you’ll need and a few tips for improving sound quality.
In order to record an acoustic sound and then play it back, there are three main pieces of equipment you need: a microphone, a computer (or tape, if you’re old school), and a speakers/headphones. In other words, a set of ears to pick up the sound, a brain to process and store the information, and a mouth to recreate the sound.
Most personal devices these days have all three of these pieces built-in, which is why in the previous article I recommended using your smartphone or tablet when starting out. However, since that comes with limitations in terms of sound quality and editing capabilities, you’ll want to consider a slightly more advanced setup as you progress on your journey of recording ukulele. Let’s break it down and go through a few options for each of the three main pieces of equipment.
We’ll start with the brain of your setup: the computer. This doesn’t have to be a laptop or desktop computer in the traditional sense — smartphones and tablets (which are technically computers as well) are also capable of running the necessary software for recording music. However, a laptop or desktop computer has a much higher ceiling in terms of processing power and technical capabilities, so it will be a lot easier to learn new techniques, software programs, etc. as your skills develop.
There are a ton of options out there for computers, and chances are that you already have one that’s capable of running the necessary software. However, if you are in the market for a new one and want to factor in music recording when making your decision, here are a few things to consider:
MAC VS. PC In addition to personal preference, the main thing here is knowing which software you want to use and whether it’s Mac or PC compatible. We’ll go over some different software options for beginners in the next section.
PROCESSING POWER What types of recording projects are you interested in? The more layers, effects, etc. that you use, the more processing power you’ll need. At a minimum, you’ll want a computer with a 2.4GHz processor, 4GB of RAM, and 500GB of internal storage.
LAPTOP VS. DESKTOP A desktop has the potential for lots more processing power, but laptops are more portable. Do you plan to have a designated recording space, or would you like to be able to move your setup around?
The next piece of equipment you’ll need for your setup is a microphone to capture the sound of your ukulele. When recording into a computer, there are three main options to consider based on your budget and recording experience.
The first option is to use your computer’s built-in microphone. This is the most cost-effective option, as you don’t need to spend any extra money. The downside is that the audio quality won’t be all that great. However, if you’re just getting started with recording and don't mind your initial projects sounding pretty lo-fi, this is a good option to consider. You can always upgrade your microphone after you have a few recordings under your belt.
The next option is a USB microphone, which connects directly into your computer. With a USB mic, you’ll notice a major improvement in sound quality when compared to your computer’s built-in microphone. They are relatively affordable and the most cost-effective option when considering external microphones. Additionally, they’re incredibly easy to use — you just plug it in and start recording.
The third option is a more traditional XLR microphone. There are two main types of these: dynamic mics and condenser mics. Dynamic microphones are built for recording loud sounds (i.e., drums, percussion), whereas condenser microphones are designed to record more delicate sounds with greater detail (i.e., vocals, acoustic guitar). For the purposes of recording ukulele, you’ll want to go with a condenser microphone. This will give you the clearest and most detailed audio quality out of the three options so far. However, it will also be the most expensive option, as you can’t simply plug it into your computer like with a USB mic. In addition to the microphone, you’ll need a USB audio interface to convert the microphone’s analog signal into a digital signal that your computer can work with. If you’re just starting out with recording, I wouldn’t recommend going this route. However, if you find yourself looking to improve the quality of your recordings as you gain more experience, you’ll definitely want to keep this option in mind.
The third and final piece of equipment you’ll need is a set of speakers and/or headphones to play your ukulele recordings back to you. This one is simple enough to understand, and chances are that you already have both of them between your computer’s built-in speakers and the earbuds that came with your phone. These will do the trick for now, and keep in mind that you’ll need to use headphones while you are recording. Otherwise, the microphone will pick up whatever you’re listening to while you record (the metronome, your other tracks, etc.).
Don’t underestimate the value of a good pair of headphones or speakers, though. Investing in these will allow you to hear your recordings in greater detail, which is very important as you learn how to create more polished recordings. If you’re going to pick one, I’d recommend getting a good pair of studio headphones first, since you’ll be using those a lot more than your speakers while recording. A quality pair of studio headphones will have a flat frequency response, meaning the sound coming out of them is an accurate representation of the sound going in. In contrast, a lot of consumer headphones will have an enhanced low-end, which means that sounds at the bottom of the frequency spectrum (bass, kick drum, etc.) will be louder. While this can make the music sound better, it’s not ideal when recording and mixing music.
Once you have your hardware setup in place, you’ll need to decide what software to use to record and process your ukulele. Computer software that is designed to record, edit, and produce audio files is known as a DAW (digital audio workstation). There are lots of different DAWs out there that range in price as well as functionality and appearance, and some can only be run on a certain operating system (MacOS, Microsoft Windows, etc.). Here are a few beginner-friendly options to consider for your ukulele-recording purposes. Keep in mind that there are tons more options out there. I encourage you to do some more research on your own to decide which DAW is best for you.
GARAGEBAND (MAC ONLY)
Apple’s GarageBand is widely regarded as one of the best DAWs for beginners. Just like the rest of Apple’s products and software, its interface is simple and clean, making it easy and intuitive to learn how to use. It has all the functions a beginner would ever need in a DAW, and it comes included with every Mac computer at no extra cost. The one downside is that it’s only available for Mac. If you are a Mac user and looking to get started with recording, this one is a no-brainer.
AUDACITY (MAC OR PC)
Audacity is a very basic DAW available for free on Mac or PC. It lacks a lot of the tools and features that other free DAWs have, but if you’re just looking to record and layer audio tracks on top of each other, it’ll get the job done. It’s easy to use, and since there aren’t a lot of extra features, learning how to use it to record is a breeze. If you’re a PC user looking for a free, no-nonsense DAW to get you started with recording and layering ukulele tracks, Audacity is a great option (I would recommend GarageBand over Audacity for Mac users).
CAKEWALK BY BANDLAB (PC ONLY)
In addition to being a fully-functional DAW with all the tools you need to record, edit, mix, and share your ukulele songs, Cakewalk’s main upside is that it’s completely free. It’s not as well known or widely-used as some of the bigger-name DAWs out there. Additionally, it’s only available for PC, but if you’re a PC user looking for a powerful DAW that’s loaded with tools and effects, you have nothing to lose by trying out Cakewalk.
There was a lot of technical information stuffed into the sections above, which might make it seem like recording ukulele is more complicated than you were expecting. While deciding what equipment and software to use is an important part of the process, once you have your setup in place, recording ukulele is only as complicated as you make it. It’s best to start small and learn new things as you go. So, here are the five things you need to do to start recording no matter what equipment or software you’re using:
- Connect your microphone to your computer. If you’re using your computer’s built-in mic, you can skip this step.
- Open up your DAW and create a new track. If you’re unsure how to do this (or any of the following steps), just Google it! Most DAWs have a comprehensive online manual, and a quick Google search will usually lead you right to the page you’re looking for.
- Set your input and output. The input will be the microphone you’re using, and the output will be your computer’s built-in speakers or headphone jack (or wherever you want the sound to come out of).
- Find the red record button, press it, and play something on the ukulele!
- Decide what’s next. Didn’t like that take? Delete it and record it again. Want to add another layer? Create a new track and record something else on that one.
TIPS & TRICKS
The best way to improve the quality of your projects and get better at recording is to do it over and over again. Whenever there’s something you want to do but don’t know how to, look it up. Don’t be afraid to experiment with new techniques or any wacky ideas that you have. Just like with any new creative skill, consistent trial and error is the key to learning how to record ukulele.
With that in mind, here are a few things you can do to improve the quality of your recordings right off the bat:
- Find a quiet space to record in. Too much background noise will distract listeners from the sound of your ukulele. Plus, if you are layering multiple recordings on top of each other, having background noise on each track will turn your production into a mess real quick.
- Position the microphone about 6-12 inches away from your ukulele when you are recording. If you are too close to the mic, the sound will get distorted. If you are too far away, your ukulele will sound quiet and unclear.
- Keep practicing, and stay patient. A lot of times, you’ll find that a piece you can play flawlessly during your practice sessions suddenly becomes riddled with mistakes when you try to record it. This is normal and something that every recording musician has experienced. The key is to stick with it and know that it’s just part of the process.
Hopefully you found some helpful information in this article. Remember — the most important thing is that you’re enjoying yourself and having fun. In the next article, we’ll be going over how you can use MIDI instruments to make full-band backing tracks that will transform your recordings into full songs. Until then, happy recording!