Buying Guide:Computer Recording (Part 2 - What does your computer already have?) Buying Guide

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4


Welcome! This is the second installment in 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?


Getting Started With Computer Recording

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


2. What Does Your Computer Already Have?

Get out your  propeller hat, we've got some geeking to do. Actually, this shouldn't be  too painful, as long as you're willing to do some reading to help gain  an understanding of what's going on in that box you call a computer.


Some of you may be wondering why does it matter how my computer is  set up? There are several good reasons to become more familiar with the  hardware innards, external connections, and operating system of your  computer. The first one is to make sure the gear you purchase will  operate correctly. As touched on in  step one,   (What  Do You Want To Record?) there are many ways to get music in and out  of your computer. To get the most out of your recording gear and your  computer you'll need to make sure they match up. Another excellent  reason is that if you're in the market for a new computer, this  information can help you purchase a machine well-suited to digital  recording.


One more thing, especially for the musicians who find themselves in  groups B (recording with a few other people or sources) and C (personal  and project recording studios); you should seriously consider having at  least a semi-dedicated music machine and at best, a computer completely  dedicated to recording. Part of this is purely convenience. It's kind of  hard to have a songwriter into your house for a recording session if  your teenager, your spouse, or your roommate is firmly ensconced in  front of your "studio." Not to mention the number of sensitive and  costly programs, files, and hardware that will be surrounding it. Plus,  the less zombie blasting and word processing your system has to deal  with, the more juice you'll have to throw at your soft synths,  sequencers, and effects programs. Copacetic?


Operating System (OS)

On a coarse level, this question is  basically do you Mac or do you do Windows? On a more refined level, it  gets a little more complicated and requires careful research to ensure  that all the programs and hardware you want to use are compatible with  the same operating system (OS), and in turn, that you actually own and  can use that OS.


In an effort to avoid a flame war, the classic Mac Vs. Windows battle  will not be renewed here. Suffice it to say the choice between the two  major computing platforms is yours to make and professional-level  recordings are produced every day on both of them. Each one does certain  things better than the other, and you'll have to look at those few  differences and decide for yourself which will suit your needs best. Mac  OS X has, however, made it extremely easy for people in groups A, B,  and C to record and produce audio on their Apple computer by cleverly  incorporating audio into the fabric of the OS and recently releasing the  GarageBand application.


Whether you choose to use an Apple or a PC for your computer, the  version of the OS will play a big part in what gear you can use and how  well you can use it. As the OS ages, it begins to lose the ability to  take full advantage of the capabilities of modern interfaces. And  conversely, if you're running on a bleeding edge OS, most likely your  audio gear will be left in the dust. A very general rule of thumb is  that you're safe running a version or two behind the absolute latest and  greatest OS. The reason for this is simple; it takes a ton of research,  engineering, and work to produce products that operate on the current  OS and manufacturers often don't, or can't, upgrade their gear fast  enough to keep up. So when Microsoft or Apple debuts their newest OS it  might be great for the average computer user, but you should do some  gear consideration before making that jump with your music machine.


What this means practically is that if you're running Mac OS 9, it's  probably a good idea to go ahead and upgrade to OS X.2, but maybe not  X.3. And for Windows users, if you're pre-2000, you might need to make  the jump up to 2000 or XP.


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One of the most important factors to consider  when getting into computer-based recording is the speed of your  computer's Central Processing Unit (CPU), or processor. This little chip  is both the heart and nervous system of your computer and handles  nearly every task you ask your computer to do, from pumping out synth  lines to keeping a steady beat going. Basically the faster the CPU, the  more tasks the computer can handle at once.


The processor speed is defined in MHz (megahertz) or GHz (gigahertz),  and the bigger the number, the faster the processor. For example, a  900MHz processor is faster than a 450MHz processor and a 1.2GHz (or  1200MHz) CPU is slower than a 2.2GHz (or 2200MHz) unit. Tasks like the  number of tracks you can playback and mix at the same time, or the  number of plug-in effects you can use at one time are determined by the  speed of the processor. Most new computers have processors that will be  extremely capable digital recording machines and can handle between 24  and 48 tracks of digital audio as well as a host of plug-in effects.


For those musicians who will be using older computers, a general  guideline would be to stick with faster Intel Pentium III processors  (500MHz and up) when using Windows. For Macintosh users, almost any G4  with enough RAM will be adequate, and even some faster G3 processors  (500MHz and up) with lots of RAM will get the job done. Most of the  recent AMD processors should be okay, too, but not all hardware  manufacturers test their equipment for AMD products, so careful reading  of the requirements is in order. Any software designed to run on Windows  should have no problem on AMD systems and the AMD Opteron processor  provides phenomenal performance.


RAM (memory)

RAM (Random Access Memory) is the memory in  which your computer temporarily loads its OS and software that you want  to run. The actual files and programs are still technically on the hard  drive, but storing them in RAM allows your computer to run the  programs much, much faster than if it had to go back and drag it off the  hard  drive every time you started a new process. With it stored in RAM,  you get nice and fast response to all your commands, and especially if  you have lots of RAM.


The more RAM you have available, the more virtual instruments,  programs, and tracks of digital audio you can mess around with.  Recording and playing digital audio files sucks up RAM like nobody's  business, so the more RAM you have, the better. For musicians in group A  (recording one source; doing demo tracks), it's best to start with at  least 256-512MB. For musicians in groups B and C, you should be thinking  gigabytes (GB), not megabytes (MB).

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Hard Drive

This is your computer's main storage device. A hard  drive can store lots and lots of data, way more than RAM (and more  permanently) or a floppy disk. Most hard  drives,  which can hold from a few MB to hundreds of GB of  information, are permanently stored inside the computer. The term hard  disk refers to the actual media your bytes of information and digital  audio is stored on. The term  hard  drive refers to the entire mechanism that surrounds, protects,  writes data to, and retrieves data from the hard disk. This is where all  the files that allow your computer to run are stored.


In addition to gobbling up ungodly amounts of RAM, digital audio is  also really hard on free hard disk space. For example, 24-bit audio  files take up 1-1/2 times that of 16-bit audio, which means you'll be  averaging between 600MB and 1GB per song—deleting all B or alternate  takes. If you plan to engage in the very smart practice of cataloging  and archiving everything you record, you're going to need lots of  digital elbow room. You can either choose to have an internal hard  drive(s) or an  external  unit(s) connected to your computer through FireWireUSB,  or SCSI, or both.


For musicians in group A, think about getting a large internal hard  drive for your system. For musicians in group B, look at having a  couple of large internal hard  drives, one for your operating system, programs, etc., and one for  audio. For musicians in group C, you'll need to look into having  multiple internal hard drives and a couple of external drives, too. The  more storage you can get your hands on, the better, and the external  drives will come in handy for backing up data as well as collaborations.


There's one other thing to think about when selecting a hard  drive, and that's speed. Hard  drives spin at different RPM speeds, with some of the fastest  spinning in excess of 10,000 RPM, and some of the slowest spinning at  only 4200 RPM. In order to deliver multiple tracks, you need a fast hard  drive. It also adds a lot to virtual instrument streaming and  recording things like those long, beautiful, shimmering cymbal trails.  As an example, a 10,000 RPM hard  drive has an access time of 5 or 6 nanoseconds, which is fast  enough to play back 40-60 tracks at a time. A slower hard  drive will just choke when you start piling on tracks like that.


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CD Drives and Burners

Most computers purchased in the last  five years or so come with a CD  drive, and computers attained within the last year or so will  usually have a drive with some type of writing capability as well.  Drives which can write, as well as read, data on a disc are commonly  referred to as writers or burners. The most common types are CDR (CD  writer),  CD-RW (CD  re-writer),  DVDR (DVD  writer), and DVD-RW (DVD  re-writable).  Of course, some new drives have multiple format  reading and writing capability, which can include DVD±RW (double-sided  DVDs), VCD (video CD), and dozens of others. You should mainly be  interested in the CD or DVD capability of the drive, as well as any writing abilities it has. The CD/DVD capability will determine what programs, instruments, and sample data  you can load on your computer. While most manufacturers supply their  software on both CD and  DVD  discs, some, because of their immense size, are shipped on  DVD only.


DVD  drives become especially useful when the time comes to back up your  data. While a single CD can hold up to 700MB, a  DVD can hold up to 4.7GB of memory, a huge amount of information. CDs can hold a lot of information, but if you're archiving a couple GBs of  songs, you'll use up several CDs.  The price is still quite a bit higher for DVDs than CDs,  so you'll have to figure the cost into your decision. For recordists in  group A or B, a CD  burner will be just fine. The musicians in group C will definitely  want to look at DVD backup, especially if you're not going to invest in a server rack full  of hard  drives. A single  DVD  writer or re-writer and a supply of  discs is way more cost-effective than an armload of massive GB capacity hard  drives.

Don't despair, though, if your computer doesn't have a burner.  Thanks to  USB and FireWire,  you can add an external drive that can handle your CD and DVD writing needs. These drives work just as well as internal hard  drives and often come with the software needed to burn discs.  They're also handy because you'll never have to worry about being  without it; when you're recording someplace new just unplug the drive  and bring it with you. It will allow you to supply a drive for a friend  or band mate who may not have one, and you can back up your remote  session on location.


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Sound card

Your built-in sound  card is adequate for MP3 play or games, but you'll need to step up  to something with better connection options for serious digital audio  handling. If you're not sure, most sound  cards have speaker connections and a headphone jack, and sometimes  even a single audio in. You could probably use the stock audio in for  recording if you're in group A, but you'll need some adapters to hook a microphone,   preamp,  external  converter, or  mixer up to the  mini jack.


This single audio in could probably work out for you if you're just  recording by yourself, but stepping up to a intermediate- or  professional-level card will gain you multiple benefits whether you're  in group A, B, or C. You'll gain huge advantages in sound quality and  audio performance, and most sound  cards engineered for digital audio will also offer multiple I/O  (often both analog and digital connections). Anyone recording audio  should consider at least a modest sound  card for dedicated audio purposes.



Before considering any sound  cards, external hard  drives, or external burners, you'll need to know what kind of  connections your computer has. Most computers built and sold recently  include an ethernet connection, and/or USB,  and/or FireWire,  in addition to the standard connections for your keyboard, mouse,  monitor, and printer.


An ethernet (the most popular communication system for sharing data  between computers and music equipment) port will give you flexibility  for sharing information with collaborators and for having a  multi-computer setup. While creating a two or three computer setup will  mainly be of interest to members of group C, laptop users in group A and  B will probably be interested in ethernet, too, for its ability to  allow them to hook up to a desktop for downloading/uploading their work.


USB and USB  2.0 are found on both desktop computers and laptops.  USB  2.0 is simply a newer version of of USB (sometimes referred to as USB  1.1) that gives you faster transfer speeds. Lots of portable  recording interfaces can be powered by USB,  which means you won't have to go looking for an electrical outlet every  time you want to record something. If you have a computer without USB or USB  2.0 and you want it, you can often add a PCI  card to your computer that will give you a USB port or two.


FireWire has two flavors as well, FireWire  400 and FireWire  800. Typically when you see the term FireWire,  it refers to FireWire  400. FireWire  800 doubles the data transfer speed of the original FireWire,  just as USB  2.0 increases the speed of the original USBFireWire is standard on all G4 and up Macs, some special G3-equipped Macs, some  PCs (where it may be called IEEE 1394, a computer engineers term), both  desktops and laptops. If you have a PC or Mac that doesn't have FireWire,  you can add it to your arsenal through a PCI  card, just like USB.


PCI stands for Peripheral  Component Interconnect. As defined in part one of this recording  guide, PCI is a hardware circuit card that goes inside your desktop computer.  Sorry laptop users, PCI  cards will work for desktops only unless you're a computer engineer  and willing to be creative. To install a PCI  card, you have to be pretty familiar with the inner workings of your  computer, as you'll have to open the case and insert the card into a  special slot on your motherboard. The rule of thumb is that if you're  unsure of any of the steps necessary to install something in your  computer, have someone else do it for you, ideally a trained technician.  PCI  cards can add all kinds of I/O to your computer, such as USBFireWire,  analog audio, digital audio, serial connections, etc.


Laptop owners, don't despair, though. PCMCIA (Personal  Computer Memory Card International Association)  cards are like  miniaturized PCI  cards developed just for laptop expansion. Through PCMCIA you can add modems, storage, sound  cards, and other devices to your portable PC.


That about wraps up what you need and what you want for using your  computer for recording digital audio. As before, there are plenty of  articles and info you should consider until our next installment. 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.