During the last mayoral campaign, candidate Frank Melton promised to build a recording studio on Farish Street. Well, he won, but the studio hasn't happened, yet—and with his mayoral future in serious doubt, it looks like that recording studio may go down as yet another unfulfilled campaign promise. (But geez, who's counting?)
Fortunately, what may once have required a room full of equipment is, these days, possible with just a Mac or PC, some editing software, and a few add-ons such as a FireWire or USB interface for your instruments. The trick is to get what you play into the software so that you can then put your producer touch on the final product. Oh, and talent helps—but, without the studio rental hanging over your head, you've got plenty of time to experiment with these gadgets.
M-Audio is a purveyor of USB-based musical instrument interfaces such as the Fast Track USB ($129.95), which lets you connect a guitar and vocal line to your Mac or PC for recording and effects. The Fast Track Pro ($249.95) supports balanced or unbalanced analog input as well as a MIDI input so that you can program songs or beats using a MIDI controller or keyboard. (Mac users can use GarageBand, the kick-ass audio and MIDI editing software included with recent Mac models; PC owners who don't have GarageBand can use Ableton Live Lite software that comes with the Fast Track Pro.)
If you're a Mac user getting really serious about GarageBand, you might want to look into the M-Audio iControl (179.95), which gives you a studio-style control board specifically mated to Garageband. Instead of clicking around in the GarageBand interface, you can use tactile controls for selecting and muting tracks, changing main volume, recording, playback and more.
M-Audio also offers the cross-platform Podcast Factory, which is basically a re-worked Fast Track USB that includes a microphone, mic stand and Podcast Factory software. The software (which gets mixed reviews online, but is generally regarded as good enough for most podcasting needs) not only records the audio and exports it to MP3, but creates RSS feeds and helps you upload the audio files to your Web site.
If you're looking to take things a bit more seriously you might graduate from M-Audio to DigiDesign (both are owned by Avid), which offers pro-level and "prosumer" computer studio designed to work with industry-standard Pro Tools software. For instance, the MBox2 Pro ($799) offers six simultaneous inputs and eight outputs, with options for digital instruments, two mics, phono or line input, and MIDI connections. You've also got outputs for recording, studio monitoring or headphones. A Firewire port connects to your Mac or PC (there's also a MBox 2 USB edition), and Pro Tools LE is bundled with the device, along with a ton of plug-ins for effects and digital studio utilities.
Going a step up from that? The holy grail of the home-based studio is the Digi 002 Factory ($2,495), which is Digi's flagship product for use with Pro Tools LE. The digital/analog audio interface device includes a built-in console, giving you tactile control over settings in the software, which works with both Mac and PC. The hardware offers eight analog inputs, eight outputs, touch-sensitive faders, rotary encoders (for pan, send, etc.), a separate monitor channel and volume control, and the ability to act as a standalone mixer for live or direct-to-tape performances. (Think about it … take it to a gig with you and live-record the show into Pro Tools LE for sweetening.)
If you don't have quite that much scratch, the Digi 002 family includes a rack-mount edition (sans the control board features) for $1,295 and a Rack "Factory" edition that bundles $3,000 worth of plug-ins for $1,695. If you'd like the mixer interface but with fewer features that tie into Pro Tools LE (the basics are all there), then switch back to M-Audio for the ProjectMix I/O, which rings in at $1,599 and supports eight analog channels with touch-sensitive channel faders, headphone monitoring, a MIDI input and a Firewire connection for getting all your tracks down on disk.