This article will introduce you to basic audio recording on your Mac.
Many Mac users are confused about what software and hardware they should use to record audio on their Mac. First, you need to determine what type of recording you want to do. While projects vary widely, they can generally be broken down into three categories:
- Basic recording and stereo editing. An example is transferring and editing your vinyl collection or a radio program.
- Basic MIDI and audio multi-tracking. An example is using Garage Band to compose a song.
- Professional level MIDI and audio multi-tracking. An example would be live multi-track recording or video soundtrack work.
The second and third types of recording are beyond the scope of this article, and I’ll address them in later articles. In this article I’ll focus on basic stereo recording.
Most Macs have a 1/8″ stereo audio input jack (iBooks are the notable exception and I’ll get to them in a minute.) and a 1/8″ stereo audio output jack. These are usually on the back of the machine and are marked with picturesque microphone and speaker icons. Theoretically, you can either plug in a line level signal or a computer type mic into the input and record at CD (16bit 44.1 KHz) quality. In reality, due to all the radiant energy inside the computer case and the quality of the analog to digital converters, the quality is somewhat less than “CD quality,” but it is for the most part acceptable.
One of the most common questions I encounter is “How do I record onto my older iBook?” Your iBook came with a built in mic (the little hole on the upper right hand corner of the display) however the built-in mic is acceptable for voice recognition but not much else. In order to do any serious recording on an iBook, you will need an audio interface. Audio interfaces start at less than $50 and can go well into the thousands. For basic recording, the $40 iMic from Griffin Technologies (http://www.griffintechnology.com/products/imic/) is an excellent choice. Even for Macs with built in audio inputs, an external audio interface will be an improvement in quality, both because an audio interface can record at a higher data rate (often 24bit 96Khz) and because they are less susceptible to interference from the internal computer components.
In order to monitor sound from your Mac, you need to either connect powered speakers, headphones or a stereo amp and speakers to the sound output jack. You can set the sound output level either in the Sound control panel under System Preferences or from the speaker icon on the top menu bar of your Mac.
For basic recording in OS X the first step is to confirm that you have audio coming into your Mac. To do this, open System Preferences under the Apple menu and go to the Sound control panel. Select the input button and you will see a list of all the sound input devices available to you. Select Line In to use the computer’s built-in audio or select your audio interface from the list. If you have a mic or some other audio source (turntable, tape deck) you can use the Input volume slider to set up your audio to the proper recording level (about 80% on the level meter).
Besides having the capability to get audio in and out of your Mac you need some audio recording and editing software. If you’ve bought a Mac recently, it came with the iLife suite of software which includes the GarageBand application. GarageBand is an excellent and easy to use audio recording and editing program. If you don’t have GarageBand, it’s well worth the $80 investment for the iLife suite. If $80 is beyond your budget, there is an excellent freeware audio editor called Audacity, which is available at: http://audacity.sourceforge.net/ , for a few dollars more, Sound Studio from Felt Tip software is an excellent shareware program and is available at http://felttip.com/ . Commercial audio editing software includes Peak from Bias at http://bias-inc.com/, Spark from TC Electronics at http://tcelectronics.com/ and DSP Quattro at http://dsp-quattro.com.
For recording vinyl records, a program called Final Vinyl ships with the iMic and a program called CD Spin Doctor ships with Roxio’s Toast Titanium 6 software. After setting up the correct recording levels in the Sound control panel, you can launch your audio recording and editing software and record your audio.
Without going into a lot details about editing, I should address recording at higher sampling rates. If you are using an audio interface with 24bit 96Khz capability, there are a couple things to be aware of. First, take into account that 24/96 files are almost tree times as big as a 16/44 file, so managing your disk space and speed may become an issue. Also, with 24/96 you must monitor your audio through your audio interface. Your standard Mac audio out won’t work in most cases. And finally, while it is generally a good idea to edit and manipulate your audio at the higher sampling rate, you probably want to export your final audio as a 16 bit 44.1 KHz aiff file. Once you have the file at 16/44 you can use programs like iTunes or Toast to burn audio CDs or compress your files into MP3 format.
Of course, since you went to all the trouble to record your audio, you want to make sure that it is safely archived. Most audio editing applications allow you to save a “Project” file. This file usually contains the raw audio file that you recorded, along with a record of your edits and changes. It is a good idea to save these files and include them in your archiving/back-up scheme (You DO have a back-up scheme, Don’t you?). In addition to your project files, maintain an archive of your edited 16/44 files with some sort of file naming system that will tell you what the file was, when it was recorded and which version it is.