…if you have some surplus income and/or already own some electronic device such as a computer, tablet, or iPhone.
When I first began recording in 1996 I started as cheaply as I could: a 4-track cassette portable studio and a used microphone totaling less than $500. Oh, yeah, and some cables. Within two years I’d gotten myself about $10,000 in debt and still had no way to put this work in front of the world except through mechanical reproduction and physical distribution. Still, it was very cheap and egalitarian compared to what was available 10-20 years earlier (well, the field was becoming expensive again as digital recorders entered the market, and that’s what brought me down).
Now there are so many inexpensive options, both for creation and distribution, because of the ubiquity of computers, portable devices, and the internet.
(Before I forget, digital portable studios are now very cheap, starting at about $100 for a 4-track. I know very little about these, the quality of recording, what formats are supported, and how they interface with computers. And you still need a microphone (and I’d say a pre-amp). This is more what you’d want if you’re working with others, such as if you were resident poet in a band.)
I’m primarily going to discuss multitrack, computer-related production. (If you have an iPad or iPhone I encourage you to explore the apps and inputs available. Microphones that connect directly to Apple products are becoming very common and inexpensive.)
One of the cheapest ways to record your art and build structures that are more than just a documentation of your reading is to use the microphone available in your laptop and to download free software, such as Audacity (for PC, I think Apple comes with music software). If I remember correctly, these recordings by Dave Migman and Lee Foust were both done this way:
Another very cheap way of recording any sound, as well as your voice, is a handheld portable recorder (I use a Zoom H-1, which cost about $100). Almost all of these recorders can connect to a computer via USB and some sort of card, such as an SD card. They often come with free software, though you might want to stay with Audacity. I use mine for field recording, though I have also used it for recording readings and improvisations. Among other things, Mark Goodwin uses a portable recorder for his landscape projects:
For reasons of control and convenience I prefer to work in a “studio” (that is, my bedroom). Probably the next cheapest way of recording directly to computer is to use a USB microphone. There are many on the market, usually under $200, that come with free software.
When I began working on a computer about 10 years ago, it wasn’t so simple and direct, though it had already become affordable (that is, costing hundreds of dollars rather than thousands). You still had to use a traditional microphone and needed an audio interface that would transform an analog audio signal into ones and zeroes for the computer (ASIO, for output as well as input, to eliminate the lag so you could monitor and overdub in realtime) . I think all current audio interfaces will supply phantom power for a condenser mic and most have a built-in pre-amp to boost the signal.
I recommend a pre-amp. It’s not a glamorous tool but is the one thing I wish I’d gotten before I laid down my first signals to tape. For digital recording it’s nice to have a tube pre-amp to color your signal a little, to add tube distortion (one of the sources often referred to as “warmth”).
At the moment my usual signal chain is a Røde NT1 condenser microphone (roughly $200); a PreSonus Bluetube 2-channel pre-amp (about $250); an M-Audio Fast Track Pro, 2-channel USB audio interface with digital I/O and MIDI I/O (also around $200). None of which would satisfy a professional engineer but is perfectly adequate for most of us. Also, keep in mind that you could get comparably good gear for about half the price if, for instance, your pre-amp were single channel or your USB interface skipped the MIDI I/O. A Shure SM57 is still a staple in the recording industry and costs under $100.
You should also keep in mind that if you intend on recording with any kind of instrumentation or mangling your voice or household sounds, software has become ridiculously cheap. For the past couple years the buzz has been around PreSonus Studio One, starting at $100. I use Sony’s Sound Forge for editing (mostly for mangling sounds, creating my own loops, and for conversions to various formats) and ACIDPro for composing. (I’ve had Audacity on my computer but haven’t used it in years. I really don’t like the program but want to remind you that it’s free and easy to use.)
Finally, there’s distribution. If you think you’ve got something to sell there’s Bandcamp, CD Baby, iTunes, and many others, each with their own quirks, perks, and idiocies. Something I’ve yet to explore: Netlabels. You can post your recordings on your own website. My choice for the past two years has been SoundCloud, which can give you a more social experience than the other options. Or an old standard: MySpace.