Getting Started With Computer Recording
Part 1

Parts 1 | 2 | 3 | 4

Welcome! This is the first installment of a four-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 four questions we will address:
Getting Started With Computer Recording
1. What do you want to record?
2. What does your computer need?
3. What audio capabilities and hardware do you need?
4. What are your software needs?

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 subconscious 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:

A. Those who are mostly recording by themselves
B. Those who are recording with a few other people or sources
C. 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 capable 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 into 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 M-Audio Fast Track USB. If you want the biggest, baddest USB box this group offers, look at the Digidesign Mbox 2 or Mbox 2 Factory Bundle. In between you'll find the Tascom US-122MKII, the M-Audio Mobile Pre 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 Pod XT, or Behringer V-Amp 3. You can also just plug directly into whichever interface you choose and use a software program like Cakewalk Guitar Tracks Pro (for PC owners), or IK Multimedia Amplitube Series (for Mac owners) 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 M-Audio Delta 1010 LT being one example. Or you can get a unit such as the M-Audio Delta 66 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 USB-based Lexicon Omega or Firewire-based M-Audio ProFire 610. 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.

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 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 Sonar, or mixing externally with an analog mixer like the Behringer UBB1002.

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 Digidesign 003 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 Yahmaha UX-16, or as powerful and multi-featured as the MOTU Midi offerings. 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 003 has Lightpipe I/O, which makes it easy to add up to 8 more channels through a Lightpipe unit.  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.  Now check out step 2: What Does Your Computer Need to Have?