Getting Started With Computer Recording
Part 4

Parts 1 | 2 | 3 | 4

Welcome! This is the final 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:
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.

4. What are your software needs?

Audio recording and production software can be broken down into four basic categories: multitracking, sequencers, virtual instruments and effects, and mastering. In determining what software you need to get started recording, you'll need to look at each of these categories and determine how much functionality you'll need from each one. You may decide you can live without mastering software, or even without virtual instruments or effects if you like the analog versions you already have. It's all about what you need to accomplish and how you want to accomplish it.

Often audio recording and composing programs can perform many different functions. The audio tracking/recording software you buy may also have sequencing abilities and include some effects. The sequencing software you buy will probably have some MIDI tones, soft synths, virtual instruments, or effects included that can operate as plug-ins for your tracking software. Other programs will have tracking, sequencing, and mastering all in one. One thing all software has in common, though, is the capability to use up a lot of your computer's resources, such as hard drive space and RAM. As stated in Part 3 [link], give your computer lots of both of these, and everything should be fine.

The hardware interface you purchase may come with some recording software, which is sometimes even designed for use with the interface. Most manufacturers ship tracking/sequencing applications, and they may be all you need. A few companies go above and beyond the call of duty by giving their customers a variety of programs with their interfaces. These are usually limited editions that offer most of the functionality of the full version and are a great way to try it out without the financial investment. Plus, you can often upgrade to the full version at a discounted price. If an interface isn't what you need, though, you shouldn't buy it just for the software. Buy hardware and software based only on their individual merits. Lots of audio software companies produce applications intended for computer recording novices as well as any number of niche recording categories, so there is something that will work for you.

The type of software you select should be determined by how you intend to use it. As with the other installments of Getting Started With Computer Recording [link]. We've been roughly subdividing all musicians interested in computer recording into three categories:

  1. Those who are mostly recording by themselves
  2. Those who are recording with a few other people or sources
  3. Those who are recording multiple people and sources for professional-level music productions

Multitracking and sequencing software

Multitracking software is the most common application used for recording audio on your computer. All modern multitracking software is very powerful when compared to analog recorders and includes lots of functions for producing high-quality music quickly and efficiently. Such a wide selection and variety of audio software are available today you're sure to find one that works in a way you like.

When choosing recording software make sure your computer can handle it. Don't choose subpar recording software to avoid upgrading your hardware. Remember, the point is to get the software that makes recording easy for you and gives you the functionality you need. Try to think ahead about the things you may want to do with your recordings too. For example, if you and your bandmates want to collaborate, but the software you buy isn't compatible with the software they use, that's a significant problem. There are basically two flavors of audio recording and production software: multitracking and sequencing. Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) software combines those two functions into one application.

Applications like Adobe Audition, Cakewalk Guitar Tracks Pro 3, Sony Vegas, and Bias Deck are audio-only multitracking software. As covered in Part 3 your computer audio interface converts your music into data your computer recognizes as audio. All modern multitrack software has recording capabilities like your old analog recorder but with tools that give you options not available with traditional recording methods. These may range from built-in effects like compression and EQ to sky-high track counts and flexible mixing, editing, and arranging tools.

Software focused on MIDI and audio loop sequencing, such as Propellerhead Reason, Sony ACID, Ableton Live, Image-Line FL Studio, and Cakewalk Project 5 offer convenience and flexibility in creating original material. Many of them operate by looping prerecorded bits of audio called samples and letting you arrange those loops however you want. Others come with sound sources for your MIDI tracks such as drum machines and virtual synths and instruments, making it easy to record a MIDI track and then quickly apply different tones to get the sounds you want. MIDI sequencing applications are also fantastic for putting together backing tracks without much fuss and producing dance music, hip-hop tracks, soundtrack scores, and other professional-sounding electronic music.

Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) Software like Apple Logic, Digidesign Pro Tools, Steinberg Cubase, Magix Samplitude, Cakewalk Sonar, and MOTU Digital Performer offer powerful, all-in-one music production. DAWs are designed to give you more control over your audio than you ever thought possible. You can pull together your audio and MIDI tracks to create either the ultimate multitrack mayhem or masterpiece. They also give you tons of creative tools like flexible mixing and routing options, software instruments, virtual effects, and automation. Of course, you don't have to use those features unless you want to. Many people happily use only certain features of their DAW software, but it's always nice to have options.

While musicians in groups A and B will find that most multitrack or sequencing software covers their needs, people in group C should probably focus on recording software with lots of functionality. That doesn't mean you have to buy the biggest and most expensive applications you can find, but double-check all the functions before you buy anything and think long-term about the types of projects you'll be working on. For example, will you need surround sound for multimedia production or beat-sync and tempo-matching functions that make it easy to make electronic music?

Mastering software

Mastering software like Sony Sound Forge, Steinberg Wavelab, Bias Peak and SoundSoap, IK Multimedia TRackS, and Waves Restoration, are a slightly different breed of audio-only software. Mostly these are 2-track audio applications you use after mix-down for final treatment before CD production. Their features give your music the polish it needs to sound consistent on home stereos, car radios, boom-boxes, portable CD players, etc. They all offer compression, EQ, limiting, and other processing tools that are more powerful and offer more control than standard multitrack software. Some of these applications, such as Sony Sound Forge, Steinberg Wavelab, and Bias Peak offer tools for CD production as well.

Final production and mastering on your projects can be tricky but thankfully nearly all modern mastering software makes this process a lot easier. Whether you find yourself in group A, B, or C, you should simply use the mastering software that fits your needs and budget if you plan on mastering at all. Many professionals leave the mastering to specialized studios to get their music ready for CD duplication. Your recording software may include some mastering functions and you might be able to achieve the level of audio production quality you want with mastering plug-ins.

Plug-ins and virtual hardware

These are a whole 'nother breed of audio application. They're helper programs you can use with your recording software for extra capabilities, like instrument sounds, EQ, compression, and effects. Plug-ins are like the options you get with your new car. Heated seats, leather interior, and a sun roof make your car much nicer to drive, as software plug-ins make your recording software more functional and fun. Not only do they potentially give you more power over your audio, they often offer lots more control over the effect or instrument. For instance, the compressor your recording software came with might only have three settings, but a plug-in may offer you 30, or even hundreds!

Virtual hardware applications are software emulations of hardware processors and instruments--often synthesizers--put directly on your computer for convenience. As a neat bonus, they often include interfaces designed to operate much like real hardware with buttons you can push, knobs you can turn, and faders you can slide with your mouse. They work just like regular plug-ins; they just happen to have cool interfaces and sound really familiar to those of us accustomed to using physical hardware. For example, you may not care for the compressor that came with your recording software. With plug-ins you can not only select a new one, you might even be able to get a software version of a treasured vintage studio compressor for pennies on the dollar. No matter what, all plug-ins--virtual hardware or not--divide up roughly into two categories: instrument or effect.

Software instruments

Software, or virtual, instruments are pretty much what their name implies. There are two different types: software synthesizers and sample-based instruments. Software synthesizers, commonly called soft synths, usually operate similarly to a physical synth, only on your computer. Sample-based or virtual instruments are sampler programs with an interface that allows you to play, arrange, and manipulate high-quality sound samples.

Both can sometimes operate in standalone mode, meaning you can play them just by launching the program, and as a plug-in, which allows you to use it within recording software like Apple Logic, Digidesign Pro Tools, Steinberg Cubase,  or Cakewalk Sonar for expanded music-making capabilities. Some recording software even comes with a selection of soft synths and instruments. Software instruments use sound libraries that can be upgraded with bigger and better sounds, or you can even make your own samples to play.

Soft synths range from simple and straightforward to expert level applications that allow extreme programming depth and power. This category includes applications like Novation V-Station Soft Synth;  Native Instruments Reaktor and Absynth;  GForce Minimonsta and ImpOSCar; and the Arturia Minimoog V and CS-80V.

While most virtual instruments are designed to play specific set of sounds, like the Fxpansion BFD Acoustic Drum Module or Steinberg Virtual Guitarist, some of them, like TASCAM GigaStudio, will play nearly any sound. IK Multimedia SampleTank, and Steinberg HALion are some other soft instrument/sample player applications. And of course, there are applications like MOTU Symphonic Instrument that are a soft synth and a virtual instrument.

Virtual effects

Virtual effects are a lot like virtual instruments. They are software versions of effects that often can be used either as a standalone program or as a plug-in. Mostly, though, you'll be using them as plug-ins in your recording software to process audio and MIDI tracks, so make sure you buy virtual effects that are compatible with the DAW software you use. There are virtual effects for everything from pitch correction to tricked-out versions of the oldest effect known to man: reverb.

The same rule for choosing soft synths and virtual instruments and effects applies to groups A, B, and C: make sure it works well and you like it--that's it. These are all programs designed to add flavor and color to your projects, and if you don't like their flavor or color, you shouldn't be using them. There are no "right" ones to choose; use the ones that sound good to your ears.

Plug-ins and virtual hardware, just like other types of recording software, can use a lot of your computer's resources. It's best to have lots of hard drive space and lots of RAM. You also have to make sure the plug-in or virtual hardware will play nice with the recording program you're using. All plug-ins use one or more of the following formats: VST, DX, RTAS, MAS, TDM, AU, and ReWire. Each of these designations means the plug-in uses a special protocol to work correctly with a certain piece of recording software. Here's a rundown of the software that will work with these formats.

If you see this... It means this... And will work with this...
AU (Audio Units) Developed by Apple and integrated into the operating system for advanced audio performance Apple's Logic Express, Logic Pro, and GarageBand; MOTU's Digital Performer; Ableton's Live
DX (Direct X) Based on video game programming rules developed by Microsoft Cakewalk's Sonar, Guitar Tracks, and Project5; Sony's ACID; Image-Line's FL Studio; Adobe Audition
MAS (MOTU Audio System) Developed by Mark Of The Unicorn MOTU's Digital Performer
RTAS (Real Time Audio Suite) Developed by Digidesign Digidesign's Pro Tools LE, Pro Tools M-Powered, and Pro Tools HD
TDM (Time Division Multiplexing) A powerful protocol developed by Digidesign for use with their HD digital audio systems Digidesign's Pro Tools HD
VST (Virtual Studio Technology) A universal platform for plug-ins developed by Steinberg Steinberg's Cubase; Mackie's Tracktion; Bias' Deck; Cakewalk's Sonar, Guitar Tracks, and Project5; Image-Line's FL Studio; Ableton's Live; Adobe Audition; Magix's Samplitude

Another term you'll hear tossed around in relation to plug-ins is ReWire. ReWire isn't actually a plug-in protocol. It's a technology developed by Propellerhead and Steinberg to allow you to pipe audio from one program into another one fairly seamlessly. It allows you to use many applications similarly to a plug-in. It's so powerful you can use one whole sequencer as a plug-in for another one. And it's such a cool idea and so easy to use it's taken off like wildfire: nearly all major platforms and applications support ReWire. Check the specifications for your software to ensure compatibility.

That about wraps up what you need and what you want for using your computer for recording digital audio. 


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