So, ya wanna start recording on your PC?

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What to start recording on your PC but don't know where to start? Read this primer to get a basic overview of what you need and what options you have.

OK, you are ready to move into the new generation of recording technology. You are about to enter a wondrous land of digital editing and copy and pasting, and land of both erfect replication and total control. A land of no generation loss. You have just crossed over into...the PC Zone.

OK, enough of the corny spoofs on TV of the 70's (hoping at least some of you saw that). This column is geared exclusively to the person who wants to start recording on their PC, but really just doesn't know where to begin. This column is for you if you are currently pondering any of the following questions:
Is my current PC up to the task of multitracking?
How do you get the sound into the PC like with a tape deck?
What do I need to get this done?
So, lets discuss the first question...

Is my current PC up to the task?

How big does your PC have to be...well, that is not a clear-cut question, but I will tell you from personal experience that I would recommend the following PC as the minimum to have a good experience with PC recording:
200Mhz CPU
6GB Harddrive
at least one high capacity disk drive (Zip, Jaz, CD-R, etc.)
Of course, all of the above mentioned is listed with a "the more the better" ideology behind them. I recommend about 256 MB of RAM for a really fast processing PC. And consider, although AMD makes an awesome processor and for a good price, most pro audio software and hardware is optimized for use with Intel processors and chip sets, and you can tell the difference.

Also, if you think you plan on buying a new PC for your recording venture, always have one custom built. DO NOT buy a big-name PC like Hewlett Packard or Compaq because many of their systems are very proprietary, meaning most of the components (like video and sound cards) are actually built into the mainboard, making it expensive and a huge pain in the butt to upgrade them.

Open-architecture systems, like the PC's built by Computer Renaissance, CompUSA (AKA CompUASS:-) and other custom shops are easier and cheaper to upgrade because each part is an independent component. This is similar to buying a stereo that is one piece as compared to a component system, which is easier and more efficient to get a better CD player for? I can personally guarantee that any mass-produced name-brand system will not have a soundcard that is up to the task of what you are looking to do with. Soundcard recommended buy myself or, associates I work with would be Echo Darla, Gina, Mona, or Layla. As well as the Lexicon Core 2. Midiman also makes a few models of great soundcards that also have some great MIDI sounds onboard such as D-Man. Many high end soundcards don't include any MIDI sound banks at all.

How do you get the sound into the PC?

Now begins the software portion of our adventure. There are essentially two different types of software to look for and plan on buying, multitracking and mastering.

Multitracking software is where you put your initial recording, just like your multitrack tape deck. Popular programs include Cakewalk Pro Audio or Home Studio versions, Cubase VST or Cubasis A/V, and Cool Edit Pro. Cool Edit Pro started as a mastering program, but has now moved into the multitracking field. These programs work just like multitrack recorders, only with a mouse instead of knobs and buttons. You still need to enable recording on any track you wish to record on, and they all have a mixer interface to increase or reduce gain, increase effect mixes and so on.

When comparing and contrasting the different version of these programs to seewhich is right for you, consider these factors...the main difference between the cheaper versions and the more expensive version is usually the number of audio tracks you can record for each song, and the support for DirectX or VST compatible plugins. Plugins are, as we old analog folks refer to as, "effects boxes". They are third party software that makes reverbs, compressors, delays, etc. They are all made to comply with typical standards, DirectX is the most widely used, and recently the VST standard is gaining popularity for its simplicity in programming. Cheaper versions of multitracking software usually only let you use the effects that came with it, meaning they have no support for DirectX or VST. And they generally only let you have 4 tracks of Audio recorded for any song as well, though you can have as much MIDI as you wish. Just be wary of the cheaper software if you use all digital audio, if you are a MIDI musician, the cheaper version may work fine for you.

Mastering software is the programs used to process the final stereo mix and prepare it for distribution. The two main competitors for this job are WaveLab and Sound Forge, though I do believe Sound Forge from Sonic Foundry has the publicity and Mind-Share factor due to it's highly visible and lower-end program, the XP version, I personally believe WaveLab to be the superior program for many reasons. It is easier to use, a better user-interface. It also has CD burning support built in, with Sound Forge, you need to buy CD Architect to get the best CD burning support they have to offer, I find that kinda lame... They both have DirectX support and WaveLab has VST as well, as a matter of fact, WaveLab manufacturers, Steinberg Corp., invented the VST standard. However, Sound Forge has video support to sync audio to your video, if that matter to you at all.

Not necessary, but beneficial tactics...

The components and equipment mentioned thus far in this column is necessary pieces of any PC-based home studio. Beyond that there are also several things, some costly, some just requiring attention, that will improve the performance of your studio. First, lets discuss data-transfer and the different ways to do it. If you are not a techie-type person, that is OK, I am going to try not to get to technical....

Hard drives (the main disk that stores all the files you save on your PC) and CD-Roms generally connect to the system via IDE or a SCSI interface. IDE, the most common and least expensive type, allows you to have two devices (referred to as master and slave devices) hooked up to each interface, most PC's have two interfaces available, therefore, 4 devices are able to reside on your system. SCSI is more expensive, but also a faster and more reliable method, allows up to 7 devices on each interface.

Until recently, most studio owners strongly encouraged SCSI due to it's speed. However, in recent months IDE has made some HUGE strides in that department, and the price has been steadily dropping so many are going to the IDE interface. The current standard, called UDMA66 is almost as fast as the current SCSI interfaces, and cost about half as much. However, you do need to make sure that your PC's mainboard supports UDMA66, if it does not, the drive will still work just fine, but you will not get the speed benefit your would with a fully supporting system. Add-on cards are also made that you can install to give your system UDMA66 support.

All this information may seem pointless, but it all determines how fast your songs are pulled from the hard drive, and pushed through your speakers. If you do choose to take the IDE route, don't let anyone (especially sales people) give you a hard time. As long as your make sure to get a hard drive that supports UDMA66, and runs at 7200 RPM you will have a totally acceptable machine to do your recording.

Final Thoughts...

Before you buy anything, DO YOUR RESEARCH...we musicians push PC's much harder than the average computer user. It is no longer a tool for simply checking email, chatting with people you don't know in chatrooms, and surfing the web for information and pictures of naked people.

Take note of the PC you have, and what the actually components are currently and find what is compatible with it for optimum performance. If you are in doubt about anything, visit or email the manufacturers, and post questions on message boards to see who has personal experience in the field. Some manufacturers and salesman tell half-truths to sell their wares, so do you homework. Don't get screwed by a smooth-talkin has happened to the best of us at one point or another...

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