By Philip De Lancie
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Big budgets, giant studios and seasoned engineers are becoming increasingly scarce, and more and more musicians are recording their music at home. This article, the first in a multipart series from Line 6, explores and demystifies the fundamentals of computer recording for guitarists: everything from software to interfaces and beyond.
Whether you’re a singer-songwriter or in a band, the quality of recordings you can make at home today is vastly improved compared to the early days of cassette multitrack recorders some three decades ago. But the technology that gives you more power to capture your musical ideas has also brought a huge increase in the variety of equipment and options. Familiarizing yourself with it all can be a bit overwhelming, especially if you’re just getting your feet wet.
The key is to break it all down into the functions and gear you need. That’s what we’ll be doing in this series of related articles on home recording. We’ll start by looking at the heart of today’s home recording setup: the computer on which you’ll run digital audio recording software in order to create a Digital Audio Workstation (DAW).
The Flexible Option
The first question about computer-based DAWs is: why use them at all? After all, there are many fine dedicated digital recording devices for the home market available today, and these devices do have their benefits in certain situations. But with recent improvements in the power of computer-based solutions, choosing a dedicated device for home recording now seems a bit like choosing a typewriter for word processing.
While the capabilities of a dedicated device are fixed at the moment of manufacture, a computer-based DAW is a platform that can evolve to keep up with the latest technology. And because the software itself is separate from both the computer it’s run on and the interface that handles inputs and outputs, you’ve got the flexibility to upgrade each of these elements in independent stages. You don't need to haul your old setup to the electronics recycler each time your needs grow or your budget expands.
On top of this flexibility, recording software can take advantage of the screen space of today’s higher-resolution monitors (1024 x 768 and above), making it much easier to handle important tasks such as waveform editing.
Up to the Job?
Needless to say, the power and speed of your computer has a big influence on what you can expect from your DAW. The following general guidelines cover the most important factors in making sure that your machine is up to the job (remember to always check the system requirements before buying anything):
Operating System - I’ll skip the Macintosh vs. Windows debate except to say that if you are already well-established with one OS or the other, there’s no reason you can’t build a perfectly fine DAW on the same platform. If you’re new to computers, however, you should spend a little personal time with both Windows and Mac before deciding which lets you feel most at home.
Whichever OS you choose, there’s little payoff in building a recording setup around an OS that’s already obsolete. For Windows, that means your machine should be running either XP (Service Pack 3) or Vista. If you’re on a Mac, you’ll want to have at least OS X, v10.4 (Tiger). If the requirements of these operating systems exceed the capabilities of your machine, it’s probably time for a new computer.
CPU Speed - Like the engine in a car, the central processing unit (CPU) in your computer is what does the actual work, in this case crunching the numbers that make up digital audio data. Running multiple synchronized tracks of audio and MIDI is a processor-intensive task. If your CPU (PC or Mac) is rated at 2GHz or above, you can likely use any DAW designed for the home market, especially if the computer's processor is dual-core or equivalent. For a given CPU speed, higher bus speeds and a larger cache will boost performance.
If your CPU speed is well below 2GHz, your maximum track count may go down but you’ll still have some satisfying software options. For example, Line 6’s POD Studio interfaces (including POD Studio GX, POD Studio UX1, POD Studio UX2, POD Studio KB37 and TonePort UX8) ship with an array of bundled software that includes Ableton Live Lite 7, Reason Adapted and RiffWorks T4. None of these capable applications has a minimum required CPU speed of greater than 1.5GHz on PC or 1.35GHz on Macintosh (G4 or higher), though of course faster CPUs (1.8GHz and above) are recommended for optimum performance.
Memory (RAM) - More is better. The larger your machine’s memory, the faster it can handle audio data, which means you’ll be able to work with more tracks simultaneously and apply more effects with plug-ins. Some DAW software may be able to squeak by with 512MB, but you’ll want at least 1 to 1.5GB for reliable performance. 1GB is recommended for both Ableton Live Lite and Reason Adapted on both PC and Mac. Did I mention that more is better?
Drive Speed - Hard drives store audio data and to play it back smoothly they need to be able to access it quickly. Drives that spin at 5400 RPM are common and will probably suffice for working with a few tracks. But the recommended drive speed for DAWs is typically 7200 RPM. And the makers of some DAWs specify that a dedicated drive, separate from the startup (system) drive, should be used for the audio data, thereby keeping non-audio read/write operations from impacting audio performance. To secure your creations against drive failure, data from the audio drive can be backed up to the system drive.
Ports - A computer without a port is like an amp without a jack: very, very quiet. Some computers come with analog audio inputs that can handle a mic or line level. But while these may be handy in a pinch, they aren’t intended for high-quality audio recording. For that your computer will need a data port using FireWire or USB (preferably 2.0), which will allow high-speed transfer of data from a recording interface such as those in Line 6’s POD Studio and TonePort lines.
Audio Ins and Outs
Once you've chosen an appropriate computer for your DAW, you'll need a way to get audio in and out of it, which is the primary function of a recording interface. Plug in a guitar or mic and the interface handles the analog to digital conversion so you can get the sound onto your computer. Bearing in mind the adage "garbage in/garbage out", to get a clean, accurate recording of the signal you are sending into the computer, you must use an interface with high-quality converters and microphone preamps. You’ll also want to be aware of how different interfaces deal with latency, which is the delay between when you strike a note and when you hear it. POD Studio and TonePort interfaces from Line 6 use an exclusive ToneDirect monitoring design to make latency a non-issue.
Audio interfaces come as either a card that goes into a slot (e.g. PCI) in the computer or a standalone box that connects via USB or FireWire. The most common and flexible setup is a USB 2.0 box like a POD Studio or TonePort interface. Depending on what you plan to record (guitar and bass only? vocal microphone? MIDI data?) the POD Studio line likely provides an interface tailored to your specific needs. And because POD Studios are directly integrated with POD Farm software, there is no more convenient or better-sounding way to add high-quality effects during either recording or mixing … but we’ll save the discussion on software effects for our next article.
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