Computer-Based Recording 101

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An updated look at what it takes to get a computer-based home studio up and running.

The last time I wrote an article on this topic was a little over 3 years ago, and a lot has changed since then. Add to that the fact a whole new crop of aspiring home studio recording artists have made their way to HRC of late, and have been repeatedly asking the same questions. With that in mind, I have decided to revisit this subject.

I am writing this with the assumption you are wanting to record on your computer, not a tape machine, as this will be very focused on computer recording. I am also assuming you have the instruments, or the bands you want to record have them, you simply need to supply the "studio" and the gear associated with it. Also, the core of this will be aimed at Windows-based PC users, as 99% of our members are. however, the concepts presented here are just as useful for anyone working on a Mac.

Looking at it simply, all you need is a way to capture the sound, typically via microphone or direct line input, and a place to store the recording, which, in the case of a computer based studio, that storage space will be in the computer, specifically, on it's hard drive.

Acoustic instruments, drums and vocals require a microphone to capture the sound they produce. Electric instruments can be captured by placing a microphone in front of their amplifier, or, by running a "direct out" from the amplifier straight in to the recording device, in this case, the computer.

Will My Computer Work?

At the time of this writing, most any current computer is capable of the task to varying degrees of professionalism. CPU power is high enough on even the smallest computer today, generally over 2gHz in the cheapest computers, the hard drives have more than enough space and are fast enough for the task. There are three areas that one really needs to pay attention when purchasing, or upgrading a computer for recording purposes:

  • Front Side Bus Speed: The lower-end processors, such as Intel's Celeron and AMD's Duron, main weakness that makes them lower-end is what is called the "front side bus" speed. The front side bus is, in essence, the size of the "pipe" heading to the CPU. It's much slower than their higher-end CPU's. This means less data can get to the CPU, slowing down the whole processing speed. CPU speed is not only determined by the mHz or gHz rating, but also the bus speed.

  • RAM: Computers made for studio use are best served having as much RAM as possible. This is especially true for electronica musicians or any musician that uses a lot of effects and/or a lot of software based synthesizers.

  • Sound Card: The sound device that is bundled along with computers you buy at typical electronics stores are not made for recording, they are made for watching DVD's and playing games. Studio use requires much higher performing equipment, devices that can handle multiple streams of audio going into and out of the card. This is called "full-duplex" use. Many "high-end" consumer cards, even the top of the line SoundBlasters, can not keep up with the demand of a studio. People have used, and can use them, but it does require some patience to work around the limitations. Most people find it more advantageous to buy a card that is made for studio recording.

If your computer is lacking in any of these areas it will contribute to a wide range of issues when recording, ranging from "dropouts" to "latency" and other anomalies including the number of tracks you can record.

  • Dropouts occur, simply put, when one is pushing their computer to do to much processing, to fast. It will then just raise it's white flag and surrender. Most application just stop on dropouts, some will continue, but then when you play back your audio it will have missing gaps in the recorded track which is where it couldn't keep up so it dropped those seconds of recording.

  • Latency is the term for the amount of time it take a signal to enter the sound card go through the computer and come back out the speakers. Quality card that are made for recording are built to keep this amount of time to a minimum. Many now have "zero-latency" monitoring as well, meaning you can't even hear it. Multitrack recording application are designed to compensate for this latency, but the cheaper the card, the greater the latency and therefore the harder the computer must work to compensate.

  • The number of tracks you can record is limited by the quality of the sound cards full-duplex capabilities. Often times stock cards are made for one stream in and one stream out, such as games with talkback features use. When recording often times you can have several streams going in and out at any given time. You will quickly learn the limit of your particular card by seeing when tracks start playing out of sync and dropping out.

As stated before, one can certainly use a stock sound card, and at times, it may well work to get your feet wet and to come to understand the processes involved in recording on your computer. As you get more efficient, however, the limitations will become more apparent and presumably more frustrating.

Let's Take a Look at Sound Devices

They go by many names...sound cards, sound devices, audio interfaces, etc...but they are all the same thing; it's where your audio meets your computer. Arguably the most important piece in your computer based studio system. This device will dictate how good the sound quality is based on it's A/D (analog/digital) converters, how high of a bit rate and sample rate you can record at (the higher the better, but we'll cover that later) and how much latency you will experience while recording.

One term you often hear associated with sound devices is "drivers". The driver is a small piece of software that instructs the operating system regarding how to communicate with the sound device itself and the resources that the sound device has. There are a few different standards of drivers in use in the audio market today that you should be aware of:

  • MME is the old-school Windows standard, very low performance, and should, if at all possible be avoided.

  • WDM is a new Windows driver standard. This driver type is much higher performance, lower latency and able to natively handle several devices at once.

  • ASIO seems to be the most commonly used standard in pro and semi-pro audio. It's very low latency, and very high quality. Though natively ASIO is limited to only being able to talk to one device at a time. Some manufacturers however, have developed ASIO hacks for their devices that allow their ASIO drivers to talk to more than one device at a time, as long as it's all their devices.

One cannot say "ASIO is best" or "WDM is best, because those are just the standards set forth by the inventors of the driver type. A great deal of the performance is dependent on how well the device manufacturer has implemented the driver. I have seen some companies have stellar ASIO drivers and pretty lame WDM driver, and vice-versa. Some of the performance is also dependent on how well the software being used supports the driver type as well. So really, your best bet is to get a device that supports as many driver types as possible. M-Audio and ESI both support all major driver types to varying degrees of success. I have found ESI's own E-WDM drivers, which support the three mentioned above and some others, to be the best performing of all the cards I have used.

When choosing and audio card, one needs to consider more than just the type of drivers that are supported. You must also need to sit down the think about how you record.

  • How many instruments will you record at any one time?

  • Will you be using MIDI?

  • If using MIDI, will you need the MIDI sounds generated on your card or will the data simply be sent to another device to generate the sound?

  • Do you need S/PDIF or optical digital ins or outs?

The answers to those questions will determine the type of sound card you need.

  • If you plan to be recording up to 4 instruments at once, you will need at least 4 inputs on your card. If you are a one man band, you will need one stereo pair of inputs.

  • If you plan to use MIDI your device will need MIDI ports on it. If you also need the sounds generated on the device that device will also need a MIDI wave table, if not, then you just use the MIDI ports to ship the MIDI data to whatever device or software that will be making the sounds.

  • If you need S/PDIF (commonly used with DAT machine and other digital devices) or optical (commonly used for surround sound mixing and film scoring) then you will need to make sure your card has that as well.

Devices like this don't necessarily need to cost as much money as it sounds like either. Some are actually no more than the "high-end" SoundBlaster cards. Visit our studio equipment section for more information regarding sound devices to fit your needs.

Software Required

There are many software titles out there, in all price ranges, for all kinds of different uses, to accommodate your studio needs. I will attempt to look at the different categories of software, explaining what each one is, so you can decide if you need it for your style of music.

First and foremost, you need a multitracking application. This is the program you will record each individual instrument into to further process and mix your music. These applications come in all prices ranges, starting at free and going up to hundred, sometimes thousands of dollars if you are wanting a full hardware/software solution from somebody like DigiDesign, makers of ProTools or Steinberg, makers of Nuendo Systems. Quite often, however, some sort of a "light version" of one of these apps will come bundled with your sound device, which you can use to at least get a feel of recording on your PC. This is a good way to learn what you like and dislike about how the software works, and when it comes time to purchase an app, you will have a better idea of what you want.

There are also many lower priced applications such as Sony Acid, MultitrackStudio and others, and even one free one with Kristal Audio Engine. In addition, there are companies like Cakewalk, Sony and others that make many different applications with varying feature sets in all price ranges. Cakewalk, for example, has some great upgrade programs too, so you can buy a cheaper, entry level application and learn to use it, then, with many of their apps, you can get a discounted price when buying one of their more expensive apps should you choose to upgrade at some point. Sometimes the discounts are substantial, so it can make a huge difference. Another upside of the upgrade route is also that most companies have a common interface and usability standards across their applications, so if you buy a low priced app from, say Cakewalk, and you upgrade to a more expensive one, you will feel much more at ease with the new, bigger app because it will work much the same way, just adding new feature options. That will allow you to get up and running quicker with the new application.

When looking for a multitracking application, there are a few things you want to keep in mind to make sure that the application will work best with the rest of your plans.

Firstly, you need to know what driver types it supports so that you know it will work with your sound device. Most every application today supports WDM drivers and ASIO is becoming quite common as well, so it's likely you will have no problem, but it's good to be sure.

Secondly, it good to know that your computer meets the system requirements of the application. Applications often have "requirements" and "recommended" system specs. It's always good to at least meet the recommended system, if only meeting the required specs, it may perform slowly or have other performance issues.

Finally, it's also good to know what sort of third party effect and instrument standards (known as "plugins" and "virtual instruments") that the application supports. Both of these are commonly either DirectX or VST. ProTools, of course, has it's own plugin standard, that being TDM, which is not supported by anyone else.

  • Plugins are like your rack mount or stomp box effect units. It's third party software (though most apps come with some effects as well) that will "plug in" to your multitracking application and allow itself to be used as an insert effect.

  • Virtual Instruments are often called "softsynths" as well. they are instruments that are available in your multitracking application as well, and make their audio via the applications MIDI sequencing features.

Beyond the multitracking application, there is other software you can buy, such as the mentioned effects plugins, softsynths, and other toys. Also, you can get a specialized wave editor for your mastering tasks. Mastering, being the processing you do to prepare a collection of songs to create a full CD. The most common apps for this task are Steinberg WaveLab and Sony Sound Forge. After that, for final harmonic balancing nothing is better than HarBal.

As stated earlier, there are many choices of software available on the internet in all price ranges starting at free and ranging from multitrackers to plugins to virtual softsynths to wave editors and beyond. Though, like anything else, you get what you pay for. Some of the free plugins and synths are quite good, some are not. The more expensive plugins and softsynths are quite outstanding.

External Hardware/Gear

Depending on the size of your vision, there are varying amounts of outboard gear that might be advisable to have. One is a mixer. A mixing console is helpful in signal routing, they usually have preamps built into them, sometimes some EQing and effects loops as well...sometimes even effects themselves.

Another good thing to have is a compressor. When recording vocals, compression is often required to make a vocal recording smoother, as vocals tend to be very dynamic, with extreme highs and lows, as well as the singer moving their head around to different distances from the microphone. A compressor can squash the loud parts and raise up the soft parts to give you a good, smooth vocal take to work with.

It's hard to give advice regarding what to buy to anyone in such a generic article as this, since there are so many options, and everyone is different. The best you can do is ask questions at the forum and explain you particular situation, and where you plan to go. Hopefully everyone's advice can help steer you in the right direction.

Microphones and Direct Injection

There are essentially two ways to record a sound:

  • The typical way that people think about is with a microphone placed in front of the instrument or the amplifier, the microphone captures the sound and sends it to the recording medium. There is additional expense, as the microphone requires a "preamp" in the chain to give the mic signal a boost to be recorded decently. Often times the preamps used are the preamps in the mixing console, alternatively, there are also many standalone preamps available as well.

  • The second way, which is becoming more and more popular is direct injection. It has always been common for bass guitar and various electronic instruments, such as synthesizers, to be recorded by running the signal directly into the console, sound card, or whatever by passing it thru a "DI Box" which adjusts the signal to a signal that the recorded can use.

Direct recording of electric guitars not so many years ago was quite frowned upon. But in the last few years, with the advent of thing like Line6's POD, Behringer's Vamp and other direct injection tools, it is becoming more and more accepted, even commonplace, for these instruments to be recorded direct.

Final Thoughts

Like anything, the process in setting up your first computer-based studio can be quite a learning curve, and this little article is by no means meant to answer all your questions. Hopefully, however, it answered some, and got you started in the right direction.

As new question pop into your head, please, visit our forum and ask, there are always many good people there willing to help out and share the knowledge they have acquired going through this process you are just beginning.

For a look at a couple of different ways to set up your computer-based studio read these articles:

Rock on...

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