Getting started recording on your computer
You’ve borrowed or purchased the gear, you’ve plugged everything in… now what?
Well, it’s pretty simple. You need software on your computer to receive sound from your interface. Thankfully, we can avoid breaking the bank with this, as well, since there is an outright free option. There are a number of free options, of course, with varying ability in each. For a full breakdown of current options across the board, check out this Wikipedia article. To just get started with right away, though, I’m going to recommend Audacity.
There are two types of software that you can get started recording in: the most common is called a Digital Audio Workstation, or DAW, while the second is simply referred to as a Wave Editor. Typically, a DAW is more complex but more versatile, used to mix a few (or a few scores of) tracks together. A Wave Editor, on the other hand, is fairly simple and deals with either a single track or just a handful of them.
Audacity is simple to get started with, completely free, and you will not regret tinkering with it.
(Of course, if you’re using a Mac, it already has GarageBand on it, and that will give you more options, as any DAW is wont to do. Even so, if this is your first time recording, I would encourage you to download Audacity and try some recording and editing in there. Think of it as Military Basic Training — wearing the uniform is cool, but if you don’t condition yourself do to things right the hard way, you may never appreciate the tools you’re given to make your job easier down the road.)
Download Audacity, install it wherever you like, and open it up. Tell it that your input is from USB, pick input 1 or 2 depending on where you plugged in your mic/instrument, and hit record. Say something. Stop and play it back. That’s you, homie. That’s you! Congratulations, you just started recording!
Now, as noted above, whatever you can beg or borrow from friends is useful. Once, my wife spilled water on our MacBook Pro and I ended up borrowing a 3-year old HP laptop from a friend. At first, I was frustrated and devastated that I couldn’t use GarageBand to record with anymore. I started with Audacity, later switched to Ardour, and eventually liked their work enough that I signed up to donate $1/month to the Ardour team as a thank you. I got a refurbished Mac a few months later, but I keep supporting Ardour because I like their style as a DAW and you might like it, too.
If you’re able to borrow an old MacBook from a friend, go for it, give GarageBand a try.
And lastly, let’s say for a moment that you don’t have a computer to record with, but you do have an iPhone, iPad, or Android device (I once did this with a Kindle Fire):
My friend, I’ve been there. I know it’s not ideal. But it’s definitely something that can be done, and it can be done cheaply. In fact, not only can it be done cheaply, it is the epitome of buying cheap gear now and re-using it later.
As long as your device has a headphone jack (thanks, Apple…) get an iRig. They’re usually around $30, but because I’m such a unique and magnanimous fellow, I’ve linked one that’s only $10. If you’re particularly savvy, and willing to wait ~a month~ or so, you may be able to find one on another website. I Wish I could remember the dot com that I purchased one on for $3 on a couple of years ago, but the name just seems to escape me… heh. (for what it’s worth, I later bought one on the same site for $4 when my brother-in-law started a YouTube channel, and when it arrived, it didn’t work. The company was unresponsive, and I’m not one to file a credit card dispute over $4, so I ended up buying another one for $5 from another vendor on that site. I should’ve just done Prime shipping on this $8 one, but I was being frugal and he was in no rush.)
Apple’s mobile devices offer a mobile-friendly version of GarageBand for free as a thank-you for using their devices. Android users will be able to find basic recording apps, as well. All you need is something to turn your mic signal into an instrument cable… man, it would be nice if your recording interface had a headphone jack you could use for that purpose BUT WAIT, IT DOES, OMG OMG OMG!
A leaky roof once ruined my home recording studio (you understand why I started this site, I’ve been through quite a few setups before), and I was forced to start almost from scratch. My laptop was fried and the studio-in-a-box recording module that I had at the time was waterlogged and completely ruined. My 4-channel interface and rackmount gear, sitting to the side of the desk, were the only things that survived. Sure, I could run my mic through the interface, but I had nothing to actually send the interface to…
…and that’s when I realized I could use the interface as a small mixer and record onto my phone.
At first, I tried plugging an aux cable in, but that didn’t work, because I forgot that phones use TRRS connectors which are capable of left earbud, right earbud, and microphone input signals. So I bought a cheap adapter. It crackled constantly, couldn’t get a clean sound out of it. Then I got a line-level adapter, which actually did fairly well, but lacked a little bit of the robust sound quality I wanted. Finally, a friend pulled out an iRig to run into his phone for clean audio for an event he was videoing, and it clicked: I could use that to record with, and with guitars, I wouldn’t even have to run them through my little system.
Of course, now I’ve twice touched on the secondary use for an iRig: getting good audio behind your videos.
Shooting video is a whole world of tutorial write-ups beyond what I’ve started here, and honestly, this has gotten long enough for you to digest. Suffice to say: a cheap iRig will get your nice audio into your phone for video use way faster and likely cheaper than many phone audio adapters available right now. I mean, I love the idea of the Rode mic you can clip on your device and plug in for great audio, but who wants to spend $100 on a phone mic?
If you don’t have a computer to record with, go ahead and get the computer setup. You still need a mic, and you can’t beat that price. That mic needs a device with phantom power, so you can spend $30 on the interface or $50 on the pre-amp, either way, and then you’ll need an instrument cable to go from either your interface’s headphone jack or your pre-amps output into the iRig, and record on your mobile device. Ta-da! You’re set up!