Buying Guide:Computer Recording (Part 3 - What audio capabilities and hardware do you need?) Buying Guide

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4


Welcome! This is the third 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?



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


3. What audio capabilities and hardware do you need?

The  third installment in Getting Started With Computer Recording addresses  the critical subject of hardware, mainly computer audio interfaces. Play  as much as you want, but all those notes aren't going to transfer  themeselves onto your hard drive, assemble into tracks, mix themselves,  and self-write onto a CD for distribution. You've got to get the right  pieces of gear together and make it happen.


Don't stress it, though, because as you've probably noticed by now,  the "right" piece of gear can mean different things to different  musicians. And, true to our word, we're going to walk you through it a  step at a time to make sure you get what you need; nothing less, and  only more if you decide. Together, we'll get your audio into your  computer so you can put it together the way you want.


On an extremely basic level, all you'll need is some type of an  analog to digital converter (usually a computer audio interface),  software to record with, and a way to monitor your output. That's as  simple as an E-MU  0404, which includes software, and a pair of  Sony  MDR-V150 headphones.  Or you can go as big as a Digidesign  002 with a brand new  Apple  PowerMac Dual G5 and a pair of  Studio  Precision 8 monitors.


Digital audio interfaces

Let's start with the conversion  device and work up. Your analog-to-digital conversion device,  abbreviated as ADC, A/D, or even A to D, will take whatever audio signal  you feed into it through its inputs and convert it to a digital signal  your computer can recognize. This conversion will take place through  your computer audio interface, such as the Lexicon  OmegaDigidesign  Mbox, or the  E-mu  0404, just to name a few. This conversion will be discussed below,  but for a more detailed explanation, you might want to read this  article: Digital  Audio Basics.


Getting Started With Computer Recording

When considering which type of interface you should spring for, keep  in mind everything we discussed in Parts 1 and 2,  and judge them by these criteria: its connections, how many audio  streams it can handle at once, and the conversion quality. Of course,  you may want to throw price in there, too. Any decision you reach,  though, should be a healthy compromise between all the previously  mentioned points.


For connections, you'll simply want to make sure you can connect  everything you need to hook up. After going through steps 1 and 2, you  should have a pretty clear idea of what you need in this department.  However, the connections issue plays directly into the next one, which  is how many streams of audio the interface can handle. If you want to  record four tracks of audio at once but there are only two inputs on  your interface, or your interface can only handle two channels of audio  at once, that's a serious impediment. You'll be forced to record only  two tracks at a time or use a mixer in front of your interface to mix  the four signals down to two.


A bit concern

Okay, how about conversion quality? You've  probably heard phrases like sampling rate and bit depth tossed around  with numbers and stats like 16-bit/44.1kHz and 24-bit/96kHz. Basically,  this determines how many audio snapshots an ADC can take as the analog  signal flows in. The more snapshots, the higher the quality of your  digital audio. CD-quality digital audio is 16-bit/44.1kHz. The sampling  rate is the number of times your audio signal is measured (sampled) per  second. So 44.1kHz sampling rate equals 44,100 snapshots per second.  That's a lot of snapshots. And bit depth is the number of bits captured  in one snapshot. So what's a bit you ask? Bit is short for binary digit,  and is the basic building block for all the information on your  computer—audio or not. Your signal is converted to bits so your computer  can recognize it as audio information. So bit depth determines the  quality of the snapshot—how many bits each snapshot captures.


Now enters bit rate, which is determined by your sampling rate and  bit depth. So the higher the numbers listed for A/D conversion, the  higher the bit rate, and the better the quality of your music, right?  Like most things in life, the answer is never quite that simple. Usually  measured in bits per second, bit rate is the number which matters most  to your hard drive. The more bits your interface delivers to your  computer the more room your audio takes up on your hard drive. Back in Part 2 we discussed hard drive size and digital audio, and the end result of  that was: get the biggest hard drive you can. With bit rate, you'll soon  see why. One minute of 16-bit/44.1kHz audio consumes 10MB drive space.  Want to record a four minute song? Say goodbye to 40MB, and that's if  you only record one track. 8 tracks will cost you 240MB. If you  bump things up to 24-bit/96kHz, a single track will suck up 128MB, and 8  tracks, 1024MB. If you've got a 30GB drive, and it's in the family PC  with documents and programs and games and whatnot, you've probably only  got 10-15GB free for recording. While that might seem like a lot, your  new recording program, a few plug-ins, and a virtual instrument or two  plus a handful of 240-1024MB songs will fill that up in no time. For the  home recordist/songwriter, that doesn't mean you can't record on the  family PC, it just means you've got to either get a bigger hard drive or  be very selective about the programs and tracks you store on it. For  musicians recording whole bands or project studios, spring for the  biggest hard drive you can afford and a CD or DVD burner to make  frequent backups.


If you're concerned about the quality of your recordings at  16-bit/44.1kHz, don't get too hung up on it—it's still the digital audio  standard—all CDs ship out with encoded with digital audio at that rate.  Even if you record at 24-bit/192kHz, your audio will still have to be  reduced to 16-bit/44.1kHz. For the singer-songwriter or band just making  demos, it will work just fine. For more professional-minded recordists,  an ADC that can handle 24-bit/96kHz may hold some appeal.


The Nyquist Theory, loosely translated, says that the top-end  frequency of digitized audio cuts off at half its sample rate.  Therefore, audio recorded at 44.1kHz has a theoretical high-frequency  cutoff of 22kHz, a good 2kHz above the long-accepted maximum  high-frequency perception of your average homo sapien. However,  audiophiles with dog ears insist that the energy created by audio above  20kHz has an effect on the rest of the sonic spectrum. So 96kHz-recorded  audio has a high-frequency ceiling around 48kHz, which should deliver  lots  of "energy" to make your music sound better, right? While that may  or may not be true, there are some direct benefits of recording at  24-bit/96kHz that can be proven: more dynamic range, more detail  throughout the frequency spectrum, a lower noise floor, less signal  distortion, reduction in conversion error, and better timing stability.


Using a good processing algorithm (a digital operation structured to  accomplish a preset signal processing task) will preserve most of these  benefits in your music even when it is dithered (noise added to a signal  prior to quantization; results in smoother signal) and quantized  (converting a waveform from one amplitude to another) down to 16/44.1  for CD production. Some project studio engineers record only certain  parts of sessions at 24-bit/96kHz (vocals, drums, acoustic instruments)  to give those tracks all the quality they deserve, while some go the  24-bit/48kHz route, which takes less room on your hard drive with the  benefits of recording at 24-bit. If you're recording nothing but loud  guitars and drums, or just producing demos of your band to hand out,  anything above 16-bit/44.1kHz is probably unneccesary, but for project  studios, professionals, and those who simply want the absolute best  quality in their audio, 24-bit/96kHz-192kHz definitely merits  consideration.


I/O, I/O—off to disc it goes

The question of I/O  ultimately comes down to the instruments you're going to be recording,  the microphones you're going to use, how many audio sources you need to  record at once, and what you want to use to monitor your recorded audio.  You should already know how the interface you're considering will  connect to your computer, as we discussed this back in Part 1.


We'll tackle the electric instruments first. For recording electric  guitars and basses, you'll want to get an interface with a  high-impedance 1/4" line input, or Hi-Z for short. This will let you  plug your electric guitar or bass directly into the interface without  having to run through a direct box or interface like the Line  6 POD.  That's about as simple as it gets. To use a direct box or  guitar interface you'll need an XLR input. You'll also need XLR inputs  for miking up your guitar or bass amp. Recording keyboards and synths is  a little trickier, as they come with various types of outputs. The most  common are stereo 1/4" or RCA jacks, but you'll want to check your  'board to see what you've got, and make sure the computer interface  you're considering has the corresponding inputs.

For recording vocals and acoustic instruments, you'll need at least  one microphone. For great vocal and acoustic instrument tracks, you'll  want a condenser mic, which means you'll need XLR inputs with preamps  and 48V phantom power. An interface with a decent preamp can get the  most from your condenser and therefore the best sound for your  recordings. Dynamic mics, used for recording just as much as condensers,  also need an XLR input, but don't require phantom power.


Getting Started With Computer Recording

The number of inputs and outputs your interface has is important, but  even more important is the number of inputs it will allow you to use  simultaneously. Just because an interface has four inputs doesn't mean  you can actually record from all four inputs at once. Sometimes you can,  but often you can only record two, or even one, input at a time. This  can be an impediment to your recording projects, so pay close attention  to this spec when checking out potential interfaces.


And finally, how are you going to be listening to all this audio  going in and out of your computer? A power amp attached to two passive  speakers? Headphones? Computer speakers? Powered monitors? D'oh!"  moments in your future, make sure the interface you choose supports your  monitoring method.


Example setups

So you want to see some setups put together  by our gear experts, huh? Well, okay. Here are a few examples to whet  your appetite and give you an idea of what you might consider for your  computer studio.


For the musicians in Category A—those mostly recording by  themselves—an interface like the Tascam  US-122E-MU  0404, Lexicon  OmegaMackie  Spike, Digidesign  Mbox,  or M-Audio  FireWire 410 are all excellent choices. For monitors, the M-Audio  Studiophile DX4's offer outrageous bang-for-the-buck, as do the Behringer  Truth B2030A. Both of these monitor sets are active, so you won't  need a power amp; you can connect them directly to the outputs of your  interface. Some good headphones for monitoring are the Yamaha  RH5MAAudio-Technica  ATH-M3X or ATH-M30,  or Fostex  T-20RP sets. For microphones, consider the  M-Audio  Nova, MXL  990, Shure  SM57, Shure  SM58,  or Nady  SCM 900.


For musicians interested in recording more than two sources, you'll  find yourselves in category B. You should consider interfaces like the M-Audio  1814E-MU  1820MMOTU  828mkII, Digidesign  Digi 002R,  and the PreSonus  FIREBOX. Monitors like the  Event  TR6-N, Alesis  M1 Active MkII,  and Behringer  Truth B2031A sets will deliver the accurate audio you need for  monitoring more complicated mixes. As above, a good set of headphones  isn't a bad idea. Sets like the Fostex  T-50RPAudio-Technica  ATH-M40fs, or  AKG  K 240M will fit your needs well. At this level you'll probably need  more than just one microphone at a time so consider assembling a  small-but-versatile collection of mics. A couple of reliable stand-bys  like the Shure  SM57 and  SM58 are always a good idea, and getting a mic set like the MXL  990/993 Studio Package or the  MXL  993 Stereo Pair can get you some options quick.  A Shure  SM81, an AKG  C 3000 B, or a  Nady  TCM1050 are all good mics to have around. There's also the  Ball  series from Blue,  which offers Blue-like performance at a much  more affordable price.


For people setting up pro-level project studios, the list of  equipment you could theoretically purchase would go on for pages and  pages. We'll just hit the highlights here. If you're coming to  computer-based recording from analog recording, you may already have  much of the necessary equipment. If that's you, you can probably skip  the suggestions for monitors, headphones, and mics. You'll want to start  with a truly serious interface like the Digidesign  Digi 002MOTU  896HD, Yamaha  01X, or the  TASCAM  FW1884. You'll need a set of killer monitors, too, something like  the Yamaha  MSP10JBL  LSR6328P, or  Mackie  HR824. For headphones, you'll need to consider top-of-the-line sets  like the  Sony  MDR-7506Sennheiser  HD-280AKG  K 240 DF, or  Audio-Technica  ATH-A500.


The microphones you'll be looking at are all premium models as well.  The  Blue  Dragonfly, Shure  KSM44, Neumann  TLM-103,  and the AKG  C 414 B-XL II are all fantastic, industry-standard mics that  deliver pristine audio performance, each with its own character. The Sennheiser  E609Nady  RSM-2, Rode  NT5 Matched Pair, and AKG  D 112 will prove useful, in addition to a standard assortment of  handy dynamic mics such as the Shure  SM57, SM58,  and the  Sennheiser  E835. Why so many microphones? A great recording is a matter of  getting the right sound, and you can only get the right sound if you've  got the right mic for the right job, set up in the right place. You'll  soon discover, if you haven't already, certain mics perform better for  male vocals than female vocals, or sound great on acoustic guitars, but  horrible for wind instruments, and so on and so on. Good microphone  preamps can also be a huge advantage, and it's a good idea to have a few  of those as well.


Since you'll presumably be recording and mixing multliple tracks at  once, you might also want to think about getting a good MIDI controller  for your software programs. A MIDI controller will allow you to  physically manipulate real knobs and sliders that in turn operate the  virtual controls of your software programs. You may have noticed that  some of the interfaces listed above, such as the Digidesign  Digi 002 and  TASCAM  FW1884, have a control surface with lots of sliders, knobs, and  buttons. There are also standalone controllers like the  TASCAM  US-2400, Mackie  Big Knob, Digidesign  Command 8,  and Behringer  BCF2000 and BCR2000.   Any of these will save you a lot of time and wear-and-tear on your  mousing muscles. If you're going to be using any soft synths, then you  might also want to get a keyboard-style MIDI controller like the Korg  MicroKontrolM-Audio  Keystation 61es, or the  Studiologic  SL 990XP. These will let you "play" your computer as an audio  instrument, using software instruments to provide sounds that you often  can customize to provide a unique sound, or mimic a treasured vintage  favorite. For people interested in getting their audio and MIDI in one  unit, check out the M-Audio  Ozonic.


Getting Started With Computer Recording

For all musicians interested in using their computer to record audio,  some thought should be given to organization, convenience, and noise.  Having your gear laid out logically in an intuitive, ergonomic way not  only makes it easier to work, it also aids your creativity. If you can  immediately reach in and start working the moment inspiration strikes  the more likely you are to actually get it recorded and get it right the  first time. Not to intimidate but, recording can take hours and hours  of work. Sure, it's fun work, but it is work nonetheless. Most of  that time will be spent in front of your computer, so do yourself a  favor and get a desk you like to work at, a chair you like to sit in,  and a computer monitor you like to look at.


Noise is your enemy. Obviously noise from exterior sources is bad. A  barking dog in the middle of a quiet piano break is just wrong. But  there is also electronic noise to think of. You can fight that noise by  making sure you have good cables that are no longer than they truly need  to be and the best quality you can afford. It should also be pointed  out that if you buy an $800 microphone and connect it to your $1,200  interface with a .10¢ cord you're killing your signal quality. You can  also fight noise by using things like a power conditioner, noise  suppressor, and balanced I/O on your equipment. It's a little more  complicated than this, but balanced I/O is like the humbucker on your  guitar. It bucks hum. Oh, and it also needs balanced cables to work  properly. Power conditioners will help keep bad power from ruining your  electronic equipment and prevent ground/hum issues from bad wiring.  Noise suppressors will help kill any remaining hiss/hum/signal  disturbances that get past your power conditioner and balanced cabling.


That's all for this time, thanks for reading and hopefully you've  learned something. If you're itching for more info, check out these  articles on the Musician's Friend site:  Beginning  Mic TechniquesLatency,   What is  MIDI?, or just browse our Tech Tips,   Hands  On Reviews, and  other  article libraries.