Buying Guide:Computer Recording (Part 1 - What do you want to record?) Buying Guide

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4


Welcome! This is the first installment in what will be a  five-part   series exploring computer-based recording and putting  together an   effective rig. The purpose of this guide is to help  musicians turn   their home computer into a recording workstation with  the least   confusion and fuss possible. There are five questions we  will address:


  1. What do you want to record?
  2. What does your computer already have?
  3. What audio capabilities and hardware do you need?
  4. What are your software needs?
  5. How do you set it up?

We'll wade through the various computer recording interfaces and  tools   out there and help you discover which setup fits your needs  best.


1. What Do You Want To Record?

The desire to record your  musical output is a natural impulse that most musicians feel at some  point in their development. If you already own a computer it only makes sense to start recording, especially with the   abundance of great  recording gear that can turn it into a potent  musical tool in a hurry.

Whether you simply want to get down a new song idea before it fades into the nether regions of your subconsciousness or have designs on producing masterpieces for adoration through the ages, a computer-based setup can get you there. It just depends on how much you want to get out of it. But it all starts

with this question: What do you want to record?


For the sake of simplicity, we'll subdivide the people answering this question into three categories:


  1. Those who are mostly recording by themselves
  2. Those who are recording with a few other people or sources
  3. Those who are recording multiple people and sources for professional-level music productions

For those people who fall into categories A or B: don't think because of the terminology used to describe category C that you will be  unable   to produce high-quality audio recordings. That's the beauty of a computer-based recording setup-with it, anyone is ca

pable of churning out CD-ready songs.


A. I Can Do It By Myself (recording by yourself producing simple  tracks)

If you find yourself in this first set of people, take heart, it's a big group. All around the world there are people recording in their homes with simple setups for a myriad of purposes. Some simply want to record their ideas for development. Others use their recording setups to help develop their abilities as a player. Those with a little more time are recording entire albums, one song at a time.


Usually you'll only need an interface (the piece of equipment that  gets   the sounds into the computer) with two to four inputs for basic connectivity, and if you're using a microphone you'll probably want a preamp (a low-noise amplifier that brings the low-level signal from your mic or guitar up to a higher level) to get the most out of whatever source you are recording with it.


At this point, it's also extremely important to make sure the interface or preamp you're thinking of purchasing has connections that match up with the equipment you're going to use to record. For example, if you buy a PCI card (a hardware circuit card that goes inside your desktop computer) interface that only has RCA inputs, you won't be able to plug the 1/4" cord from your guitar into it without  purchasing additional equipment. So take inventory of any music gear  you'll be using and note   what type of outputs they have.


There are two basic types of interfaces that you'll be considering at this level: the above-mentioned PCI card, and the standalone USB box. They both perform the same functions, but in different ways that have their own inherent benefits and disadvantages.


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PCI cards have one particular strength that makes them a favorite:  they   have extremely low latency. Latency is the amount of delay that  occurs   when playing through an interface into a computer. You see,  even though   computer hardware continues to get faster and better all  the time,   there are still teeny-tiny nanosecond delays that occur as  the   interface processes your analog signal and converts it to digital before handing it off to the computer. But don't worry, with the quality engineering that goes into today's technology, latency is practically a non-issue even with non-PCI based units. The reason PCI cards have a little less latency is because they are installed directly nto your computer in an empty PCI slot. So obviously, before you    purchase a PCI card, make sure that your computer can accept a PCI card.


One of the PCI card's weaknesses is that you'll most likely have to purchase either a mixer or an audio I/O interface to use as the front    end for your PCI card, unless you can purchase a PCI card that has the exact connections you need.

Another PCI card drawback is mobility. While products like the Echo Indigo line offer hardware connection benefits with minimal  features to laptop   owners, desktop users aren't so lucky. Since it has  to be installed, you can't just pick up and head out with your  recording setup the same   way you can with an old four-track cassette  unit or the other type of   unit in this group, the standalone USB  interface.


Mobility and simplicity is one of the principle reasons for selecting  a   USB box over a PCI card. As stated above, thanks to advanced    engineering, latency is practically a non-issue so don't worry about it    when selecting a USB interface. You will, however, want to make sure    your computer has a USB port before purchasing. USB stands for    Universal Serial Bus, which is simply a way of transferring data    between devices. The USB port is a standard connection that enables you    to connect external devices (such as digital cameras, printers, and    scanners) to your computer. USB is hot swappable and plug-and-play, so    you can simply unplug the interface and go whenever and wherever you    want with it without having to shut down and restart your computer. All    these features make USB especially nice for musicians with laptops.


There are many other reasons to select a USB box besides mobility.  They   often offer connection types that PCI cards don't. It's important  to   look at what types of recording you want to do and what types of    features you need. If you have a nice condenser microphone that you    want to use to record your vocals, a number of USB units offer built-in    preamps of good quality so you don't have to purchase a separate    preamp. If you're looking to dive into MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital    Interface: an interface for keyboards and computers that can be used  to   sequence synths or software instruments), some offer MIDI ports as  well.


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You can spend a little, or as much as you want, with features    increasing as your expenditure does. If small and inexpensive is a    priority, look at units like the Maya  44Griffin  Technology iMic,   or the Edirol  UA-1A.   If you want the biggest, baddest USB box this group  offers, look at the  Digidesign  Mbox.  In between you'll find the Tascam  US-122,   the M-Audio  MobilePre and  Audiosports,  and many others.


If you're a guitarist needing to nail down a riff, lick, or chord    progression you can mic up your amp or run your guitar signal through a    Line  6 PODBehringer  V-AMP,  or Boss  GS-10.  You can also just plug directly into whichever interface  you choose and use  a software  program to achieve the sound you're looking for. Some recording  products include software such as  Guitar  Tracks Pro 3 that deliver great guitar sound without all the  hardware.


Singer-songwriters may be recording something as simple as a voice  and   acoustic guitar, or may need to hang some mics over a piano, so  make   sure to get the interface that can accommodate your needs.


For electronic composers the primary concerns will be latency, audio    outputs, and MIDI. For someone who wants to sequence but isn't as    concerned with recording audio, focusing on those three characteristics    can deliver fantastic results.


B. Plays Well With Others (recording from more than two sources)


If you're a musician in this group, it means you  are trying to record   more than two channels of audio at once, and  should primarily be   concerned with interfaces providing 4 inputs or  more. At this level   you'll also want to focus on the number of  conversions between analog   and digital that take place between your  source and your computer. It's   best to minimize analog to digital and  reverse conversions in a   recording chain, so using digital connections  can be good for keeping   your audio quality high.


For this level of recording you can still use a PCI card if you want,    with the Delta  1010LT being one example. Or you can get a unit such as the  E-Mu  1820 that  combines the I/O flexibility of an external interface  with the low   latency of a PCI card. PCI-based solutions will help cut  down on the   conversions that happen in your signal chain.


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More fully-featured standalone boxes are available as well, such as  the   Lexicon  Omega or M-Audio  Delta 410.  They will provide more inputs and outputs, increased  flexibility,   and faster, more powerful signal processing. It's also  common for   computer audio products in this category to provide digital  outputs, so   pay attention to what outputs the unit you're looking at  offers, as the   digital outs may be included there.


Choose wisely between these units. While you certainly don't want to    run out of I/O, you don't need to bite off more than you can chew,    either. When stepping up to this level, it's also especially important    to be forward-looking when selecting your interfaces. The I/O can offer    expandability when you need it down the road. For example, the E-Mu  1212M is an affordable PCI solution with pro-grade audio quality  that also   just happens to have Lightpipe I/O. That makes it easy as  pie to   instantly add more audio channels. Lightpipe can carry up to 8  streams   of audio through one connection, so all you have to add is a  Lightpipe   interface, and voila-you've gained 8 more channels. A  Lightpipe   interface is basically just a separate unit with Lightpipe  connections   that can convert signals from analog to digital, such as  the Alesis  AI3.


C. Expert Ensemble Recording (personal and project recording  studios)


While you can get professional-grade recordings from less expensive    gear, setting up a computer-based studio designed to deliver great    recordings from bands and other multiple audio sources can take    collaborations and projects to another level. In the previous two    categories you could get away with selecting an interface and equipment    based on your existing computer and gear. At this level, you might  have   to invest in some gear such as high-end condenser microphones,  quality   monitors, faster CPUs, or more memory, just to get the  performance you   need from your recording interfaces, mixers, and  software. With that   word of warning, we press on...


Rackmountable interfaces such as the MOTU  2408mk3 and the Aardvark  Direct Pro Q10 offer professional-quality performance with large  I/O arrays. You'll   also find features such as premium mic preamps and  impressive   expandability options. Once again, whatever equipment  you're connecting   these units to plays a role, as you'll have to  select between PCI (see   definition above) or FireWire (data transfer  technology similar to USB,   but many times faster). For those with USB  1.1-only computers, you're   looking at an upgrade or a PCI card  solution, as the six-stream audio   bandwidth limit of USB doesn't  deliver for most professional grade   studios. These units offer you the  choice of mixing internally with a   software program such as Cubase  SX or Sonar,   or mixing externally with an analog or  digital mixer.


While rackmount units provide incredible power, mixing with a mouse  can   get tiring for some people. As an alternative, there is a vast    selection of units that provide a separate control surface for mixing,    or units that combine audio I/O and a control surface. The TASCAM  FW-1884 is an excellent example of a unit that delivers both  I/O  and the tactile experience some people prefer when mixing their   audio  digitally. For fans of the Pro Tools software world, the Digi  002 gives great mixing and recording capabilities all in one.


As 5.1 surround sound mixing becomes more prevalent, you might want  to   future-proof your studio by making sure the equipment you purchase  has   at least six outputs (5.1 surround actually employs six streams of    audio). Then, when the time comes to dive into surround mixing,  you'll   be ready.


If you need to get MIDI into your computer, you can get an interface  as simple as the  Yamaha  UX16,  or as powerful and multi-featured as the MOTU  MIDI Timepiece.  Be forward-looking when selecting your interfaces  as   the I/O can offer expandability when you need it down the road. For  example, the  Digi  002R has Lightpipe I/O,  which makes it easy to add up to 8 more  channels through a Lightpipe unit, such as the  Alesis  AI3.   Another excellent choice would be the PreSonus  DigiMAX or  DigiMAX  LT, which provide high-grade mic preamps  that are engineered for  pristine digital audio.


That just about wraps up step one. Check out these articles for a  little more info on  MIDI and  MIDI  interfaces.  For a more information and perspectives on digital  recording, browse through our  articles for tech  tips and  product  reviews of the topics and gear that interest you. For the musicians in group C, be sure to check out  this article on recording clients, and this article for ideas on expanding out of tape-based recording into digital.