How Do I Connect My Synth to a Computer or Laptop For Recording?


I know when I find some weird or interesting sound on my synthesizer. I want to record it to your computer as quickly as possible.

The quickest and easiest way to connect most synthesizers to the computer for recording is by using an audio interface.

The quick steps for connecting a synth to your computer or laptop are:

1) Connect an audio interface to your laptop or PC using USB

2) Connect a ¼” guitar lead to your audio interface

3) Plug the cable into the ‘line output’ on the synth

4) Open up your recording software or DAW

5) Head to preferences in the DAW and make sure your audio interface is set as the audio input

6) Turn the synth on

7) Arm a track and hit record!

If you have never heard of an audio interface or want to see pictures of the above steps for more detail then keep reading for more details.

What is an audio interface?

An audio interface is essential for most people to record a synthesizer (or other instruments) to a computer as it contains an external sound card.

This is one of the most important things about the interface. Even most modern laptops and PCs don’t have sound cards, off the shelf, that can cope with a synth plugged straight into it.

This will result in latency (lag time from when you play a note to when it actually records), sound interference and generally a lot of frustration.

You could go and fit a new sound card to your computer or PC. But that would likely cost you just as much as an audio interface.

The interface will usually be fitted with at least a couple of inputs. So you can record multiple instruments at the same time if you have the need. You usually have the option of plugging in a ¼” ‘guitar’ cable or a microphone XLR cable (not as applicable to synths).

So you simply plug a cable from the output of the synthesizer to the interface. This interface is then connected to the laptop or computer by a USB and there you have it, you’re ready to get recording.

What is a pre-amp and do I need one?

A pre-amp is there to amplify low-level signals up to the operating level of your recording equipment.

Primarily this is important when recording with microphones. As they are very low level and so the signal must be boosted by a certain number of decibels (usually 30-60dB). Guitars and bass are also often run through pre-amps although they don’t need as much boost.

For a synthesizer, many argue that they have enough ‘juice’ already and so a pre-amp is not a requirement.

However, a lot of people do use them. They add a thickness and quality to the sound that you don’t quite get with an interface alone. This sound varies depending which pre-amp you get. As with all these musical things it is a matter of what sound you love. The fact is, if you have to pay 1000’s of dollars for a pre-amp to get your desired sound……..you probably bought the wrong synth.

Most audio interfaces come with built-in pre-amps. Which although cheap (some pre-amps cost 1000s of dollars) they will do a fine job for a beginner who is learning the ropes.

How much do I need to spend?

If you aren’t buying a pre-amp at this stage. Then splashing out on a slightly better than average audio interface with built-in pre-amps is a good idea. Don’t worry, this still won’t break the bank.

I have (and still use) the Scarlett 2i2 audio interface from Focusrite. For around $150 you get 2 input channels and 2 built-in pre-amps. The audio interface also has 2 line outs so you can connect it up directly to monitor speaks.

It plugs into the computer via USB. Which also gives it power (so no need for extra power leads). It’s lightweight and very sturdy with a lovely metallic finish. I’ve found it really useful as it is also very portable. I can pack it up with my laptop and I’ve got a portable music studio if I ever want to record on the move.

I’ll do another article with a few other options but as a beginner, this should be all you need.

Technical jargon you may see when looking at audio interfaces

If you decide to shop around for your interface. You are likely to be bombarded with a few technical terms that may start to give you a headache.

Here are a couple of summaries to help you decipher the jargon.

Direct monitoring

This will allow you to here the input directly through either the speakers or headphones without it having to go through the computer system first.

Sample Rate

Not as important as you may think. But always something you will see the producer of the audio interface bragging about in the product description.

The sample rate is the number of audio samples captured by the interface in a second. This gives a value in kHz (just to be confusing). You will see this range from 44.1kHz all the way up to 192kHz.

At 44.1 kHz sample rate sounds as high as 20.05 kHz in frequency can be recorded. But humans can only hear up to 20kHz I hear you say (maybe). So does that mean 44.1 kHz sampling rate is enough?. If only it was that simple…… It is actually a fact that even sounds outside of the human hearing range affect the tones of that within it! Mind…. blown! 

There are other reasons why it is important. But as long as your interface has a fairly high sample rate you will be ok.

Bit Depth

Bit depth is basically the number of ‘bits’ of information in every single sample. So as with sample rate, technically the higher the bit depth the higher the quality.

Trying to keep it as simple as possible 1 bit is equivalent to 6dB. A standard CD is 16 bit audio so 16 x 6 = 96dB.

This gives a fairly small dynamic range and causes quiet sections in music to be noisy. In order to achieve contrast between the quieter sections and louder sections. It is recommended you get a minimum of 24 bit. Luckily this what most affordable interfaces will have.

Very basic setup for most synths (with some pictures)

1) Connect your audio interface to your laptop or PC using the USB

2) Connect a ¼” guitar lead to your audio interface

3) Your synth should have a line output plug into this

 

4) Open up your recording software or DAW

There are a variety of options available for you when it comes to recording software.

Some of these are free such as Reaper or Audacity. Some come at a cost such as Ableton and FL studio.

When starting out there is no need to buy an expensive piece of software straight away. But it is something you will probably want to look into at some point.

If you are using Ableton make sure the audio interface is selected as the input device.

Ensure that the correct channel from the audio interface is selected on the track you want to record. Arm the audio track (not a midi track) and then record away.

The above is obviously very basic. I just want to show you the simplest way to record your synthesizer at this stage.

Can I not just connect directly to the PC?

Connection Via USB

Although many modern analog synths have USB ports allowing them to be connected to the computer. Most have no digital audio converter. Therefore, it will most likely work as a midi-keyboard sending a midi signal to the laptop via the keyboard, allowing you to produce various midi sounds.

But to hear the actual output of your synth you will need to go through an interface.

Connection Via Microphone Socket

As mentioned earlier. If your PC or Laptop has a line in or microphone socket you can technically record straight in with no need for an audio interface.

When I first started recording music at home I used to do this. I would get a standard ¼” ‘guitar’ cable and use a ⅛” stereo plug adapter to connect the synth to the laptop directly.

No matter which computer or laptop I tried there would always be some lag. This is because on most computers, the sound card just isn’t up to it. You will also have nothing in the way of pre-amps and so sound quality is likely to be lower.

Conclusion

So there you have it. The basics of recording your synthesizer to a computer.

I have not gone into the details here of older synths that may have different outputs, different types of interface and different types of recording software. But the principles remain pretty much the same.

I hope that now with this basic information you will be able to start recording those interesting sounds you’ve been perfecting!


Rob Wreglesworth

Rob has come to terms with the fact he will probably never be a famous rock star....but that hasn't stopped him from writing and recording music in his home studio. Rob has over 15 years experience of recording music at home.

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