How to Capture and Record Audio on Your Mac
Whether you're wanting to become the next Bob Dylan or start your own podcast, the Mac has some of the best software around to help you make this a reality. But no matter how good your musical or conversational aspirations are, they'll be for nought if we can't effectively capture our music or record our conversations. In this tutorial, I'll look at the different ways you can capture and record audio to include in your future projects.
If you're wanting to capture audio such as vocals, musical instruments or even just dictating notes, you'll need a way of getting that external audio in to the Mac. Whilst your Mac will likely have a built-in microphone (with the exception of the Mac mini and Mac Pro) which can be used, the quality is mediocre at best.
For the best results, it's recommended to use a dedicated audio device such as a USB microphone that best suits your needs. Many of them are fully Mac compatible and require no drivers to install, they simply appear as a usable audio input device in System Preferences.
Tip: Always check with the manufacturer before purchasing and audio interface. Mac OS X supports the ASIO (Audio Stream Input/Output) standard which the majority of USB devices are developed for. Occasionally, some devices use proprietary drivers so double-check before spending any money.
A popular USB microphone that's a good all-rounder for recording both vocals and musical instruments is the Blue Microphones Snowball USB Mic. These types of microphones offer a high quality of sound and can be used to record conversations, vocals and musical instruments.
If you have an electric guitar, you'll need to make sure you have a line in connection on your Mac. Currently, the only Mac models that have a dedicated line in port are the Mac mini and Mac Pro. If you don't have a dedicated line in, USB devices such as the Peavey XPort provide a suitable input and are designed specifically for electric guitars.
Now that I've covered some of the basics of getting audio in to your Mac, let me look at the software options.
The Mac includes two easy methods of recording external audio without the need for any additional software, QuickTime Player and GarageBand.
Ever since QuickTime Player X was released, it has provided some very simple ways of recording audio from external audio devices. Let's test this by recording some audio from our built-in microphone.
Step 1: Start a New Recording
Open QuickTime Player and, using the menu, select File > New Audio Recording. A rather inconspicuous window will appear with very few control options.
Step 2: Select Input Source and Quality
Select the triangle icon on the right-side to bring up the list of currently enabled audio input sources. If it's not already selected, pick the built-in microphone.
Tip: You can have multiple audio devices plugged in at the same time and your Mac will only use the one you select.
You can also select the quality you want to record in. Unless you're going to be recording for hours or have very little space left, you can use the option Maximum.
Step 3: Record
Hit record and speak into the microphone. Once you've finished recording, press stop. You can save your recording by using the File > Export menu.
Keeping the Format option as Movie will retain the quality of the recorded audio. If you change this to Audio only, a compressed MPEG-4 version is created that is still of a high quality.
Here's a test recording I did with my MacBook Air's built-in microphone.
Here's another one I did with my Samson Meteor USB microphone.
It's only when you compare the built-in microphone to a dedicated USB version that you notice how much of a difference it sounds in comparison.
GarageBand is one of Apple's most popular apps and has been included free with Mac purchases for quite a number of years. We can use GarageBand to record external audio from different sources in the same way we have used QuickTime Player to do so.
The benefit of recording with GarageBand is that you can record your audio directly in to a project that you're working on.
Step 1: Set Up a New Project
Launch GarageBand and select a new project that best suits your need. For the purpose of this tutorial, I'll be selecting Vocals.
Once your project window opens, you'll need to specify the microphone you want to use. On the lower-right of the project is the option to change the Input Source, so this is where we'd expect to find our list of microphones, similar to QuickTime Player.
Unfortunately, that's not the case and selecting this will only give you the option to change between recording in stereo or recording on each channel as mono. Instead, we change the microphone we want to use through GarageBand's preferences, accessible via the GarageBand > Preferences menu.
Once you change your required microphone, GarageBand will promote you that it needs to change its drivers which will take a few moments. Once it's done, you can now record using your chosen mic.
Some microphones feature their own headphone jack so you can monitor the audio being recorded. If you're wanting to use this, change the output device in GarageBand as well.
Step 2: Recording to a Track
Select the track you wish to record to (in this case, either Male or Female) and then press the record button.
Once you've recorded, you'll see a coloured segment appear that will include a waveform of the captured audio.
Now you've recorded in to GarageBand, you can edit the effects, trim the audio and work on your new masterpiece!
Recording audio that your Mac is playing back, such as an internet stream, is a little different as it's not audio we can just simply input into the Mac like a microphone. Our Mac has no option to record what is being sent to the speakers, but with some additional software, we can do exactly that.
Soundflower is a freely developed audio routing app for Mac OS X. Once installed, it provides a way of routing audio that your Mac is playing as though it was an external source. Lets record some audio from a YouTube clip using Soundflower and QuickTime Player.
Step 1: Download and Install Soundflower
Download Soundflower and install the software. Your Mac will need to be restarted so make sure you have saved any documents you might have open.
Step 2: Set Soundflower as Your Output Device
After your Mac has restarted, open System Preferences and select Sound. Set Soundflower (2ch) as your output device.
What this does is take the audio that was destined for your speakers and route it through Soundflower as a virtual input device, allowing another application to record it as though it was coming from an audio input device like a microphone.
Keep System Preferences open as you'll be going back to it in a few moments.
Step 3: Play Some Audio
Open up a YouTube clip and start playing it. You'll notice that your Mac no longer has any audio coming from it. This is because it's now going through Soundflower, not our default output.
Using another feature of Soundflower, we can listen to the audio being played by using an app called Soundflowerbed that is installed in your Applications folder.
Launch the app and select your desired output option. You'll now be able to listen in on what is being piped through Soundflower.
Step 4: Start a New Audio Recording in QuickTime Player
Just like we did at the beginning of this tutorial, start a new audio recording in QuickTime Player. Select the input option as Soundflower (2ch).
Record a few seconds of audio and then hit stop, as well as stopping any currently playing audio. Play back the recording in QuickTime and you'll notice it has recorded your system audio.
Whilst the above works for recording any audio our Mac might be outputting, if we were to use the above method on its own to record a Skype call, we'd only hear the other caller and not ourselves.
To include our side of the conversation, we can use an app called LineIn. It's a free app by Rogue Amoeba that works that takes your audio input, such as microphone, and routes it to the audio output of your choice. Using this in conjunction with Soundflower, we can record an entire Skype call between both parties.
Step 1: Configure Skype
As Soundflower appears just like any standard audio device, we can configure it directly within Skype.
Launch Skype and then, using the menu, select Skype > Preferences. Make sure to set your desired microphone as the input and the output to Soundflower (2ch).
Tip: Always check your Skype audio settings before making a call, especially when you're planning to record.
Step 2: Download and Enable LineIn
Download LineIn and copy the app to your Applications folder. Once copied, launch the app.
Now that the app is running, simply select your preferred microphone and as the input and output it to the same Soundflower (2ch) that we've set up our Mac's audio to go to. This will ensure that when we record, we get both the output from Soundflower as well as the input from our microphone.
Make sure to select the option Pass Thru so that our microphone audio is captured at all times.
Step 3: Record with QuickTime Player
As we did earlier in the tutorial, start a new audio recording with QuickTime Player and make sure to specify Soundflower (2ch) as the input option. Once you're ready, start recording.
Step 4: Make the Call
Call the Skype Test Call service which will play a message and then ask you to say something to test everything is working. If it is, you'll hear your message back.
To avoid any feedback, it's recommended to use a set of headphones so that your microphone doesn't pick up any of the call.
Once you've completed the call, hang up and then stop the QuickTime Player recording. Play it back and you should now hear the Skype test call with your part in it.
An Easier Way: Piezo
Throughout all of the above, we've explored some very interesting ways of recording audio, both from external devices as well as being able to capture internal audio. If you're regularly recording audio, either external or internal, and are willing to part with $15, I recommend the fantastic app Piezo, also by Rogue Amoeba.
Piezo combines almost all of the features we've looked at in this tutorial into one simple app. Whether you want to record a USB microphone or the audio from a specific app, Piezo is able to do this for you. It's especially handy for Skype as you simply keep your audio settings as you would expect them to be
Step 1: Download and Install Piezo
There is a free trial of Piezo that can be downloaded, which is limited to the first 15 minutes of recorded audio.
Download the trial and install it by placing it in your Applications folder.
Step 2: Prepare to Record
Launch Piezo and using the Source menu, select Skype as the audio you wish to record. Skype will then launch automatically.
Tip: Tip: If you've currently got Skype open, Piezo will need to quit and relaunch the app. Make sure to have Piezo open first if you want to record a call.
Next to the timer, click the text and you can specify a title and comment for the recording, as well as the quality. I've specified 64k spoken word for now to keep the file size down.
Step 3: Check Your Skype Settings
Using the menu, select Skype > Preferences and specify the microphone and output settings you want to use.
Step 4: Recording
Hit the record button in Piezo and then place your Skype call. You'll notice that Piezo has two meters in the app, the left corresponds to audio input from a microphone whereas the right indicates the audio being output from the system or app you're in. This is really useful when determining why some audio might not be working.
Piezo has a nice touch when it comes to recording as it will only begin once there's actually some audio, so if you press record but take a few moments to actually set up a Skype call, it won't do anything until it detects audio.
When you've finished recording, simply press the record button again to stop and your completed recording will be in your Music folder.
The Mac includes some great free tools for audio capture when using external audio devices and these can be enhanced further when combined with software such as Soundflower, allowing for the recording of system audio.
Whilst a setup involving Soundflower and LineIn provides most of the functionality you'd need to record a Skype call for the purpose of a podcast, I find investing in Piezo will save you a lot of headache and everything is neatly wrapped in a single app. If you're planning to record Skype calls on a regular basis then Piezo is a worthwhile investment.