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Dear Dragon,

I DON'T know a thing about recording. But, I want to learn. I want to buy a recorder to do some home recording. I have a question for you: What recorder should I buy?? Also, what all do I need to get besides the recorder? For example, how do I get the music on a standard cassette so I can listen to it? How do I record on the recording machine? For example, do I need microphones that plug into the machine and input the guitar to the machine, or do I just hit a button like on a regular old cassette tape recorder and it records? Do I need a monitor of some kind, if so for what? See, I don't have a clue. I hope you can help.

Thanks, [name withheld]
(I can't wait to get started with home recording!)

Dear Name Withheld,

Fear not! Just read the rest of this article, and soon you too will be dazzling your friends. Or as even my wife says, "It's too loud!"

First, we'll have to define a few terms. Jump to the Glossary for a few minutes, then come back here, older but wiser.

OK, now that you know what all the words mean, now what? First off, generally the only regular cassette recorders that have built-in mics are the ones meant for convenience, not for serious audio recording.

For instance, run down to Radio Shack and they'll have all these cassette recorders intended for note-taking and the like. Notice that their descriptions all say "with integral mic", because in general it's unusual for any recorder to come with a microphone. For proof, check out the cassette recorder on a typical home stereo system...no mics! Good cassette recorders don't come with mics, for two simple reasons:

  1. if there was a mic on it, it would pick up all the mechanical noise from the recorder itself
  2. how would you record an acoustic guitar, hold the whole recorder up to the guitar?

The only sane way to record anything that sound is coming out of (as opposed to electric/electronic instruments, which is another thing entirely) is to use a mic stand* (were you planning to hold the thing there yourself just to save a couple of bucks? :-) and a mic, and since the recorder manufacturer has no idea how much money you have for a microphone (since they cost anywhere from $10 to $10,000), they just install an input jack and hope for the best.

So the short answer is, yes, you will need a mic. Now we'd talk about what kind of mic to buy, but that's a big subject so we'll leave that for another page entirely.

When I first started I didn't even have a mic (which didn't bother me because I was sure I couldn't sing anyway :-), but I plugged my electric guitar directly into my new little 4-track and it sounded...well, I was able to record it, anyway.

Notice carefully that I said "plugged my electric guitar", because I've heard from several who plugged their amplifiers directly into their 4-track or sound card incorrectly, and believe me, he made all the mistakes you can possibly make and the result was quite expensive! It can be done properly if you know what you're doing, but if you don't do it right, the sound will not be nearly as good as if you used even a relatively inexpensive mic. Note: this is not the same for bass guitars, which often do well with a direct connection.

Anyway, once you have a mic and a set of headphones (don't buy any special ones just yet, you can even use a set of Walkman phones with a stereo 1/4" adapter) and the levels are properly set (see your manual), yes, you can just hit a button and record.

For what you do next, go to this page.

* This is the kind of mic stand that's the best for all-around use...if you have to buy only one, get this style.

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