I am focused on a home-recording approach that is centered around Macs. I'm not an Apple fanboy who queues up to buy a new iThing the moment it's available -- and I'm on a budget, so I'm usually a generation or so behind on iThings, if I have them at all -- but I moved from a DOS-based PC to a MacIIsi in 1993ish because I didn't like Windows 3.1, and have stayed in Applelandia happily enough ever since.
The obvious recording tool for a Mac user is GarageBand, if for no better reason that it comes pre-installed on every Mac. Perhaps the other two biggest players are Ableton Live and Pro Tools, widely used on the Windows/etc. side where there is no GarageBand. I've never used either, though I understand Ableton Live is a bit idiosyncratic, "love it or hate it", while Pro Tools is clearly what the "big boys" use in pro studios (and so perhaps worth it to the Mac User if you really need that interoperability with your Windows buddies). Apple's Logic has probably a bigger and better solution of software instruments than either of these, and very easy to use software instrument/MIDI editor -- but mostly it is sold as a loss-leader by Apple for about USD 200 (at present). And, frankly, that's giving it away for what Logic is. I think Pro Tools retails at around USD 700 and Ableton Live for perhaps slightly less. So for the home-recorder on a Mac, Logic is a no-brainer ... excepting that you've already got GarageBand for "free", and it's really quite powerful on its own.
A Tale of Two GarageBands, and Their Logic
GarageBand first appeared around 2004, spun out of Logic, which Apple had acquired from its original German makers, Emagic. Possibly this was some idealistic Jobsian plan to bring music production power to the masses -- and one questions whether the masses have much use for that, however good it might be for them -- but anyway it was a godsend for the budding small-time Mac-using musician. Suddenly your computer had a basic, but functional, digital audio workstation built into it, and as updates and 3rd-party add-ons continued to appear over the years, you could (with a little know-how) start producing demos that actually sounded pretty good.
Something like a road bump appeared in 2013. GarageBand's big brother Logic received a significant overhaul in the form of Logic Pro X, and an effectively new version of GarageBand (aka GarageBand 10, GarageBand X, GarageBand 2013) followed. If you already had/have "original" GarageBand (maximum version number 6.0.5), the new GarageBand installs as a distinct application, with the older version shunted into a subfolder and runable separately.
GarageBand X offers cool new stuff, like the eminently practical "Drummer" feature (borrowed from Logic Pro X), but -- at least initially -- disabled or at least obscured a lot of functionality that the "advanced beginner" had come to rely on, like easy use of 3rd-party plug-ins and control of Apple's built-in software instrument settings. Some plug-ins (like IK Multimedia's Amplitube) simply stopped working on GarageBand X (even if they still worked in Logic Pro X). Luckily, a 2014 update (accompanying Yosemite) restored a lot of this control -- and if your favorite plug-ins are still a bit screwed in new GarageBand, the manufacturer may have come up with a serviceable workaround (as with the case of Amplitude, which still has no official fix, but can be convinced to do its job).
So with some know-how and decent 3rd-party add-ons, the budding home-musican can still make some pretty cool music in GarageBand X even without jumping to Logic -- though the low price of Logic makes the jump a continuous temptation.
For my particular part, I'm based in South America (Colombia) where my earning power is low and import costs are high -- so getting by on a budget is a lot more important than it might be in the US or Europe (where part-time students and particularly dedicated lawn-mowing teens can readily out-earn me in real terms!). So I haven't made that jump yet ... though it is tempting, and I might well do so before long. Maybe .... soon ... ish .....
Let us then imagine that one is a budding Mac-equipped musician: What do you really need to get started with recording your own music (or even covers of your favorite songs)?
My focus is on your basic guitar-based rock formula, rather than classical chamber quartets or techno or something -- though, ultimately, a lot of the basics apply everywhere.
If you play an instrument you need a way for that instrument to talk to your computer. Instruments (like electric guitars) and microphones that produce a "traditional" analog audio signal most likely need a separate audio interface unit. If you are just working mostly by yourself at home, a simple USB interface with limited inputs/outputs will do the job. (If you need to record lots of tracks from a full band, etc., something more capable might be in order.) I currently use a somewhat obsolete MOTU MicroBook; if I were getting a new interface, it would probably be a Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 (which, in my case, have the added advantage of being not impossible to find in Colombia -- or in the capital, Bogotá, anyway!).
Since I am principally an electric guitarist/bassist, I also use an MOTU ZBox between the guitar/bass and the interface. This little device supposedly simulates the distinct "Hi" and "Lo" impedance inputs found on many classic amplifiers. Since my real experience with classic amplifiers is limited, it's hard for me to say how well it does this .... But it gets good reviews, is relatively cheap, and it lets you feel a bit more geeky in the guitar department -- which is all cool. You can survive happily without it (I did for many years) but you might as well pick one up.
At this point it may have become clear that I am not using traditional amplifiers for my guitar/bass; I'm plugging (more or less) straight into the computer, where software emulates the job of the amp. For the traditionalist/purist, this probably eliminates gasps of horror and/or snorts of derision. A lot of my recordings float in and around genres of "classic rock" and "stoner rock", and the latter is specially is a place of worship for giant, vintage, smoldering tube amps capable of leveling a mountain whenever the player touches (or even looks at) a string. That kind of thing is, of course, awesome. But it's also totally impractical for my purposes -- being not merely expensive (especially in Colombia) but also likely to wake the wife and child (as well as lay waste to the neighborhood).
GarageBand (and Logic) actually come with very useable amp models for guitar and bass, as well as various effect pedal models. I used the "original GarageBand" models for years and coaxed very useful tones out them. GarageBand X seems to offer similar kinds of stuff, with much improved interfaces, though I moved to IK Multimedia's Amplitude a couple of years back. Besides Amplitude, big players in this area are Line 6 and Guitar Rig. I like Amplitube's "Custom Shop", which basically sells models through an "app store" like approach; for example, if you want a model of the classic Marshall amp that Hendrix used, you can buy it online and download it for about USD 20 or so, rather than buying a giant complete software suite of amp modeling software (much of which you might not want) for hundreds of dollars). Amp modeling software has made great strides as computers have become more powerful, and I very much doubt the average listener can tell the difference between even GarageBand's built-in models and a real amp. Plus, it's extremely practical for the home-recorder who wants to get that "to 11" sound at 3am in their urban apartment. So I'm a fan of this approach.
If you want to record anything that doesn't produce an analog audio signal, like your voice (or acoustic instruments, or a real guitar amp's speaker), you will need microphones. Most mics are either "dynamic" or "condenser". Dynamic mics like the famous Shure SM57 and SM58 are often built quite ruggedly and are commonly used in live situations for vocals, guitar amp mic'ing, etc. They are good at capturing strong sounds (like loud singing and guitar amps) at close proximity, and are often a bit cheaper. Condenser mics are often a bit more delicate (and pricey), tend to capture a wider range of loud/soft sounds, and often need external power (though this is often built into modern audio interfaces). Condenser mics are often used for vocals and acoustic instrument in studio situations, and if that's your focus, you can probably get decent entry-level condenser mics like the Røde NT1-A for USD 250-350.
That's probably somewhere I'll go eventually, but so far I've just used the old Shure Beta Green vocal mic (basically a cut-price SM58, I think!) that was originally bought for the vocalist in my first band about 20 years or so ago. The cognoscenti will not be impressed, I think -- but frankly it's worked just fine so far for my not-very-refined vocal takes.
GarageBand has a lot of built-in software instruments -- that is to say, basically sampled sounds accessed via MIDI -- that are most easily used with a USB MIDI controller keyboard. You can get these in a variety of sizes with a variety of more or less sophisticated features . I have an M-Audio Oxygen61 (i.e. 61 piano-like keys); I probably would have been fine for what I do with a 49-key unit, but the shop here in Bogotá had a 61-key unit, so I bought it while I could. Very handy for adding even simple instrumental or synth textures, as well as tapping in drum/percussion parts. Speaking of which ....
People do record acoustic (or electronic) drums kits in their homes; I am not one of those people. Partially because I am not much of a drummer/percussionist, and partially because an acoustic kit would be way to loud to be practical. So you are not going to hear a lot about the arcane arts of mic'ing up an acoustic kit here.
But a rocker needs drums.
You can fill this gap with loops; a bunch come built-in to GarageBand, though many more are available from 3rd-party providers. I like the loops from "Drums on Demand", which come in a variety of styles and tempos, and are easy to use (as-is or chopped up). Making good use of loops is something of an art in itself -- especially for the rocker looking to emulate the approach of a real drummer -- but there are a few tracks I've produced on which I think I've done OK with this technique.
The new(ish) "Drummer" feature of Logic/GarageBand X may be a "loop killer". You can read more about this elsewhere, but basically it uses sets of MIDI drum patterns associated with various styles and tempos, along with different sets of sample of different drum kits, to give a fair degree of control over what an imaginary "virtual" drummer is doing. It's pretty fun, and may well get better with time.
Otherwise, I've gotten some of my most satisfying results from hand-programming drum parts. There's a big learning curve here -- one has to learn to think like a drummer to produce something that sounds like a drummer did it -- and it's time consuming. But gives a lot of control. I've used a Mac-only application called Doggiebox to program drum parts separately (outside of GarageBand), from which I output audio files (corresponding to separate kick, snare, tom, hat, and cymbal tracks) that I import into GarageBand (sort of as if they were very cleanly recorded acoustic drum tracks). Doggiebox lets you create your own "virtual drum kits" using whatever samples you like; I've long used the "nskit_7" samples, no longer available under that name, I think, but perhaps available as "NDK Natural Drum Kit". There are other approaches like Toontrack and Additive Drums, but I haven't gone that route. If Doggiebox ever stops working, I'll probably stick with Logic/GarageBand's "Drummer" feature as long as possible before investing in another 3rd-party approach!
All that said, some simple hand percussion can be fun and "authentic". I actually have two cowbells on hand, and a few different things to hit them with, because ... well, obviously we need more cowbell. :)
Guitars & Basses
Also vital for the rocker. Not much to say here because if you've got one you like -- and an audio interface to get the sounds into the computer -- you are basically good to go (even with no more than GarageBand's amp models). If you only play one of guitar or bass, you might as well get the other and learn to use it -- 'cause then along with GarageBand's virtual drummer, you are then a basic one-man band.
You can, of course, also get away with using some loops and stuff here. GarageBand offers numerous loops of various kinds of guitar and bass parts, as both software instruments (i.e. MIDI) and real audio samples -- and, of course, a vast array of all sort of instrument loops (which can readily be augmented by 3rd-party loops) that are good for all sorts of things.
Instruments are usually pricey imports in Colombia. They cost more in real terms than they do in the US, and of course local salaries are much lower. But you can do worse than get decent "budget line" instruments like Fender Squires or Epiphones and then -- when your finances allow -- replace the pickups with higher-quality 3rd-party gear. (In my experience, the electronics are one of the key areas where budget guitars cut corners.) I have a '90s-era Gibson Les Paul Standard and a mid-'70s Rickenbacker 4001, both purchased long ago when I was a swinging bachelor. I could no way afford to replace them now :) especially in Colombia. I have a more recently acquired Epiphone "Inspired by 1964 Texan" electro-acoustic which (though it would benefit from a decent condenser mic to augment its electric output) is great. While it's cool to drool over more instrumental toys, a single electric guitar, electric bass, and electro-acoustic guitar will get the jobs done.
With all your cool software and hardware music-making toys in place, you still need some way of hearing what you're doing. Your options are basically speakers (e.g. studio monitors) and/or headphones. You can find a range of useable monitoring headphones these days: I use a AKG K240 MkII set. These let me monitor quietly -- which is a big advantage -- but there's a lot of low end you can't hear. Decent home-studio monitors would be nice for those times when I can make a bit more noise, but I haven't gone that route yet. Frankly, I can do a lot of practical work with just some bog-standard Logitech computer speakers. Purists and pros would rightly express their horror -- but you work with what you have, and what you can afford! The main disadvantage is that computer speakers, like headphones, are possibly going to lose a lot of low end -- and so you may produce mixes that contain a lot of muddy low-end simply because you can't hear it to mix it out. I try to get around this by listening to mixes on the car stereo (itself a long tried-and-tested approach!), but it's imperfect.
Check it out!
Someday, perhaps I'll have better monitors -- along with better mics, and better software. But using what I've got -- and keeping an eye on the numerous informational resources now available (lots of Web sites, videos, and blogs treating different aspects of recording and mixing) -- I've been able to come up with some stuff I'm not overly embarrassed by. :)
You can hear for yourself and decide via the following links: