Getting Started With Computer Recording
Part 2

Parts 1 | 2 | 3 | 4

Welcome! This is the second installment in a our-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.

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. Copasetic?

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.

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.

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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 drive, 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 driv 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 Firewire, USB, 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), DVD-R (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 soun 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 USB. FireWire 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 USB, FireWire, 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. 

Our next part of the recording guide will be step 3: What audio capabilities and hardware do you need?


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