The Easiest Way to Record Your Synthesizer (and Other Electronic Recording Tips)

Whether you make music with a couple of compact desktop synths, a wall of modular units, or a rack of keyboards that would make Rick Wakeman jealous, you’ve probably thought about putting some of those beeps and boops down on tape.

While you may be comfortable operating an array of knobs and switches, learning the ins and outs of recording gear can be daunting. But have no fear: This article and the video above will lay out a streamlined solution for recording your synthesizers, as well elaborate on a few upgrades worth considering and a couple of cool tricks to try when recording your rig.

WHAT YOU'LL NEED
  • An audio interface and/or USB mixer (any mixer with a built-in USB audio interface)
  • Speakers and/or headphones for monitoring
  • Assorted cables to connect your instruments and speakers
  • Recording software (also known as a DAW, or Digital Audio Workstation)

Choosing an Audio Interface and/or Mixer

If your rig is small and you're only trying to record one synth to start, there's no easier way to connect it to your computer than via a small, two-channel audio interface.

In the video above, Justin is plugging his Korg Minilogue into the Universal Audio Apollo Twin, which is a high-quality, professional-level interface. If you're looking for a less expensive alternative, check out the Focusrite 2i2, PreSonus AudioBox iTwo, and Apogee Duet 2.

If your synth rig is already a bit more substantial or if you envision it growing in the near future, you can use a standard mixer along with your interface to keep multiple synths connected and ready for recording. In the video above, Justin uses a four-channel Mackie 402VLZ4 to augment the two channels available in his interface—but any size mixer could work. Or, your ideal piece of kit may be a USB mixer, which combines an analog mixer with a digital audio interface, putting everything you need in one convenient unit.

They also come in a variety of shapes and sizes to suit your budget and feature needs, from the compact Behringer Xenyx Q502USB to the flexible, mid-size Allen & Heath ZEDi-10 and the full-featured Soundcraft Signature 12 MTK. (Later in the video above, Justin uses a Yamaha MG12XU.)

When it comes to choosing what's right for you, you'll first need to decide how many channels you require and what types of inputs your devices require. Mixers can be found with anywhere from two channels to 32 or more, with several types of audio inputs available. Most synthesizers use simple line-level quarter-inch TRS connections, so you don’t necessarily need mic preamps with XLR inputs, but most mixers feature them in addition to line inputs. Unbalanced RCA jacks or Hi-Z instrument inputs can be useful for incorporating guitars and certain vintage equipment.

Once you’ve settled on the size of mixer you’re looking for, consider any other features you may need (or not need). Do you want full four-band parametric equalizers on every channel, or can you make do with just a high and low knob? Do convenient onboard effects appeal to you, or would you prefer auxiliary sends for integrating your own effects? And while long-throw faders are cool, would you rather save some desk space and opt for simple trim knobs?

Whatever your ideal mixer looks like, some of the most important factors to look into are the capabilities of the USB connection that will allow you to record into your computer. Some models are only capable of recording the two-track master mix, while others can output each channel discreetly (pre- or post-EQ), giving you more control over mixing later. And of course, the sample rate and bit depth will determine the audio quality you’re able to record (go for 44.1kHz/24 bits at the minimum).


Setting It All Up

Start by connecting the outputs of your synthesizers to the inputs of your audio interface or mixer. Then, hook up a pair of speakers to the main left and right outputs (or headphones to the headphone jack). Start with the master volume low, and play your instruments one by one to make sure signal is getting to the outputs. If you can’t hear anything, turn the channel volume up (via knob or fader) and make sure the channel is not muted and no pads are engaged. On some models of mixers you may need to manually assign each channel to the master output (or other destinations).

GarageBand

Before you can actually record, you’ll need to get your interface or USB mixer talking to your computer. First, make sure your operating system is updated, and install the most recent drivers for your mixer—this may happen automatically when you plug it in, or you may need to install them from an included CD or download from the manufacturer’s website. Next, open the audio preferences in your recording software (DAW) and select the drivers you just downloaded instead of the default (your soundcard). Make sure the inputs and outputs available correspond to your interface or USB mixer.

Finally, create as many tracks as you need to record—whether that’s a single stereo track to capture the whole mix or individual tracks for each channel. Assign each track’s input to the corresponding mixer channel and arm them for recording. There are many ways to avoid distracting latency when using an interface. One trick, if you're using a USB mixer, is to disable the input monitoring in your DAW so that you can instead monitor directly from the mixer. If you’re playing along to a metronome or backing track, make sure it’s routed to the mixer so you can hear it along with your synthesizers.


The Next Level: Pro Interfaces with MIDI + Outboard Gear

While USB mixers are a convenient way to get started, you may eventually feel like upgrading to a more versatile system with better sound quality. The preamps and digital audio converters in professional interfaces are often higher quality, and faster connections like USB 3.0 and Thunderbolt mean less latency and smoother performance. Many interfaces also include MIDI connectivity, which enables you to record every detail of your performance to edit later or play back with a different synth.

CueMix DSP Mixing Panel

Perhaps the biggest benefit of standalone interfaces is that they allow you to use any gear you like on the front-end, instead of having your entire signal path baked into one unit. Much like building a modular synthesizer, you’ll be able to pick and choose just the components you want: a Lunchbox full of boutique preamps, a rackmount multi-effects unit, a real spring reverb—even a full analog console. And when your gear addiction starts to fill up your rack, adding a patchbay to your setup can make navigating your equipment a lot easier.

Before you take the dive into professional recording gear, know that this newfound freedom comes with a learning curve. Without the streamlined control surface of a USB mixer, you’ll need an advanced knowledge of signal flow to keep track of multiple input paths, hardware inserts, and especially monitoring.


Want to learn how to record more than just your synth rig? Check out our guides on the Easiest Way to Record Your Electric Guitar and the Easiest Way to Record Your Acoustic Guitar. For more tips about home recording, see our Home Recording Basics series.


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