Welcome! This is the third installment in 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:
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.
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 iMac 20 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 Omega, Digidesign Mbox 2, 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.
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.
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.
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-122, E-Mu 0404, Lexicon Omega, Mackie Spike, Digidesign Mbox 2, 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 RH5MA, Audio Technica ATH-M3X, or ATH-M30, or Foxtex T20RP 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 1814, MOTU 828 mkII, Digidesign 002R, and the PreSonus Firebox. Monitors like the Event TR6, 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 Foxtex T-50RP, or Audio-technica ATH-M40fs 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 Shure 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 002, MOTU 896HD, or the Tascam FW1884. You'll need a set of killer monitors, too, something like the Yamaha MSP10, JBL LSR6328P, or Mackie HR824. For headphones, you'll need to consider top-of-the-line sets like the Sony MDR-7506, Sennheiser HD-280, 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 I are all fantastic, industry-standard mics that deliver pristine audio performance, each with its own character. The Sennheiser E609, Nady 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, Shure 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 002 and Tascam FW1884 have a control surface with lots of sliders, knobs, and buttons. There are also standalone controllers like the Mackie Big Knob, Digidesign Command 8, and Behringer BCF2000 B 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 microKontrol, or the M-Audio Keystation 61es. 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.
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, be sure to check out the next segment in this series: What are your software needs?