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How to Record Audio on a Computer

Computer audio recording technology has advanced significantly in the last 10 years or so. Even a low-powered computer can now record audio professionally with the right hardware and software tools. Here's a guide to help you record audio on a computer, whether you're trying to make a professional sounding song or a simple audio greeting for friends and family.

Using Simple Recording Hardware

It's possible to make great recordings using the mic or line in jack of any computer. The mic jack is usually the best choice when recording directly from a computer microphone, while the line in jack is best for recording audio from another source such as a CD player or a mixer.

There are thousands of microphones available, including high quality USB mics that are perfect for casual home recording and for podcasting. Microphones also vary in price, but professional quality USB mics can be as cheap as $50.

Advanced Recording Hardware

Serious home musicians and podcasters might want to look into more complex recording systems, which can cost a little bit more but deliver a much better sound and more flexibility.

Recording interfaces mainly vary by their power and the number of microphone inputs that they have. Interfaces like TASCAM's US1641* are serious pro gear and can handle up to a dozen microphones at the same time. Smaller interfaces are often cheaper but can still record two or three microphones at the same time, so for instance a musician could mic his guitar and his voice separately for a better sound.

While these advanced recording solutions can be extremely cool and useful, most people will do just fine with a $20-50 microphone and a computer with a decent processor--provided that they've got the right recording software, of course.

Choosing The Right Software

There are programs built into Windows 7* and XP* that can record small bits of single-track audio just fine(more on tracks in a minute), but to get the most power and flexibility, some third-party software is essential. The most popular audio recording programs include:

Audacity* - This is a free program that's as powerful as many of the professional audio recording programs out there. It allows audio to be recorded and edited freely, and it's a great first choice for home recording enthusiasts who haven't recorded much audio before.

Adobe* Audition* - Audition's more powerful and contains a number of built in effects, so it's ideal for editing audio for videos and for making pro-quality music. It's expensive, but it works with all types of audio hardware.

ProTools* - ProTools is, as its name suggests, a professional set of audio tools that requires specific hardware to function. It's purely for audio professionals, as it's very expensive to set up and run.

Since Audacity is free, we'll work with it to make a great audio recording. However, the general instructions below should work for just about any major audio recording program on the market.

Setting Up A Great Recording

After downloading and installing Audacity (or any other computer recording program, for that matter), it's important to make sure that the right input is selected, particularly when recording through a computer's line in jack.

To manage audio recording settings in Windows, go to the Control Panel. In Windows 7, click "Hardware And Sound" followed by "Manage Audio Devices”.

The "Recording" tab in this menu gives users the option to select from any mics or line in devices that are plugged into the computer. After selecting the right mic, the level can be set with a slider so that the recorded sound doesn't overdrive, which gives it a nasty buzz. Sound will register in red if it's too loud. Try to set the slider so that the sound stays in the green and yellow for the best results.

Using Recording Software

Once the mic is all set up, all you'll need to do is arm a track in Audacity by selecting it and press the record button. Recording a single track of audio on a computer is very easy, and mistakes can be easily edited out later by following the instructions that come with the program. Most other recording programs work in roughly the same way.

If you're trying to record a song on your computer, you'll probably want to record more than one track. If this is the case, disarm the track that you'd armed for recording and add a new track. Each new recording will need its own track, and you may need to head to the preferences menu to make sure that the old track will play while you're recording the new one.

Arming and pressing record will play the other track while recording to the new track, so you can talk over yourself, add harmonies, guitar solos, or whatever you'd like. This process is called multitracking.

A computer's ability to multitrack will be limited by its processing power, and even fast computers will have trouble recording while playing back dozens of audio tracks. Adding effects will create more of a draw on the processor of the computer and the sound card.

Home audio recording enthusiasts who are interested in multitracking should invest in a really good sound card or one of the high-end recording interfaces mentioned earlier, as this makes the process much smoother.

Choosing The Right Audio Formats

After making a recording, it's important to choose the right format to save it, export it, and share it with friends and family. MP3s are great for emailing and sharing on the Internet. Their quality is measured in kilobytes per second, abbreviated as kbps. A 192kbps MP3 is roughly equivalent to CD quality.

Some computer users insist on extremely high quality audio. These users tend to prefer WAV, which is a raw format, meaning that it's the most faithful digital reproduction of a sound possible--WAV files haven't been compressed at all.

Other audio formats include WMA and AAC, which are both proprietary formats that are very similar to MP3s. In general it's a good idea to save your recordings as an MP3 or a similar format to save space unless higher quality audio is absolutely necessary.

After a recording has been saved in the proper format, you can email it around provided that it's under about 6 megabytes or use a service like SoundCloud* for larger files.

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