A long time ago (as recent as the late 1980’s) in a galaxy far, far away (New York, Nashville, Los Angeles and London) an Evil Empire (CBS and RCA Records, Sony, Geffen, Polygram) held an Iron Fist around the throats of its loyal subjects (musicians). The loyal subjects struggled to create art and commodities (recordings) but the Evil Empire controlled the expensive tools required to make these items (recording studios and equipment). Without the Empire’s blessing (cash) the subjects couldn’t realize their (audio) visions and when the Empire did bestow a blessing upon a creative subject, their works (songs, LP’s, CD’s, music videos) were held in abeyance, manipulated by the Empire for their own gain (the labels charged the artist for the recordings and retained ownership of the masters). There was no hope — or so the subjects thought.
By Darth Fader
Underground a Rebellion formed and it began to grow (indie labels sprouted). The Princess of the Rebellion tapped upon the genius of men like Greg Mackie and Keith Barr, who manipulated matter in ways never before imagined (they designed and manufactured inexpensive mixing consoles and digital tape machines). The resistance became strong and the loyal subjects questioned their allegiance to the Empire (they started to record at home). The book of Jobs was written, and in it was a chapter heralding magical new technology (a Mac) with which to create.
Eventually, the Rebellion would win, marking the start of the Project Studio Revolution. And so it is that you may now use a computer to record music. Many of you who are reading this are too young to remember when recording at home was the realm of elite artists such as Prince, Paul McCartney or Todd Rundgren. You don’t even think about it. I’ve spent more on tape for a project than you may have spent on your first car. Scary, it was.
Now life is happy and you don’t need a six-figure budget to record at home (hell you barely need a four-figure budget). You probably own a crucial component for recording: the computer. And you’ll be happy to know that computers don’t really run out of tracks the way tape machines did in ¥é Ølden days. At my first studio, when we went from 8-tracks on a Tascam Model 38 to 16-tracks on an Otari MX-70, it cost us $17,000. In 1987 dollars.
So what do you need? Well you still need a bit of knowledge to make a good recording and that’s why you’re here in the first place. We’ll give you plenty of that if you stick around. You need a few tools in addition to the computer, many of which are familiar like microphones and speakers. The most important aspect of recording is figuring out what software to use. Most people put the cart in front of the horse: they have a computer and purchase whatever recording software runs on their platform (Mac or PC). Not all Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) software runs on both. Pro Tools, Reason/Record yes. Digital Performer just announced a Windows version. FL Studio, Sonar: PC only. You’re going to live with this software so make it something that feels right. Friends of mine swear by Logic. I swear at it. It’s a very personal decision so try out some demos. Beg, borrow (don’t steal), bug your friends to let you try running the software on their machines. Talk to people (I said talk, not text).
Here are some questions that need to be answered, based upon your needs:
•Does the software support recording of both audio and MIDI data?
•Is there an upgrade path to more capable versions of the software?
•Does it have a track or ‘voice’ limit?
•Will you need to record at high sample rates (88.2 kHz, and higher)?
•Does it include virtual instruments? Is this important to you?
•Will you need to purchase plug-ins or does it include effects?
A plug-in is a mini-program that runs within recording software to expand its capabilities. For example, if you want a reverb effect or EQ on a vocal track, you typically have to assign a plug-in to that track. Most DAW software comes with a basic bundle of plug-ins to get you started (often referred to as a “Suite”). Some sound good, some not so much. Plug-ins can represent an investment ranging from under a hundred to several thousand dollars. We’ll discuss plug-in formats in the future.
•Does the software have the ability to import video so that you can record to picture?
•Can it lock to external time code?
•Can it deal with a variety of audio file formats such as WAV, AIFF etc?
•Does the software require any specialized external hardware for operation? Until recently, Avid hardware was required to run Pro Tools software. This is no longer the case. Most DAW software works with any hardware (see below).
Once you’ve decided on software, choose a computer that runs it. I can’t tell you to go out and buy an XYZ Model 15A but I can tell you that even modest computers can record audio pretty efficiently — but you’ll have to make a few upgrades. Audio software requires a lot of RAM to run smoothly and efficiently. I suggest no less than 4 GB RAM. I also suggest that you use a separate hard drive for recording, whether it be internal or FireWire (Thunderbolt will have to wait, and USB ain’t all it’s cracked up to be when your track count gets high). Recording audio to the same drive where the system lives is asking for trouble, as is partitioning a single hard drive. The hard drive has to work extra hard to access the files and eventually it will slow down and may crash. A hard drive for audio should have a rotational speed of at least 7200 RPM (Rotations Per Minute). I have had tremendous success with Seagate’s Barracuda Series of hard drives. I have had horrible experiences with Western Digital drives. Standard speed drives (5400 RPM) are tool slow for audio.
The major item you need is an audio interface. The interface connects to your computer, providing a gateway for audio signals in and out (and in some cases provides MIDI in/out). Interfaces come in all shapes and sizes, ranging in price from the PreSonus FireStudio Mobile (about $200 street price) to the Prism Sound Orpheus (a bargain at around $4,500). When choosing an interface make sure it will physically connect to your computer. There are three or four basic types of connectivity: USB, FireWire, PCI and PCM/CIA-type cards. Stay away from the last category because card slots are disappearing rapidly. If you need maximum horsepower then look for an interface that comes with (or on) a PCI card for use in a desktop machine. These types of interfaces typically offer a large number of audio ins and outs, high sample rate capability, fast data transfer and on-board effects and mixing. FireWire is no slouch in these departments and is the way to go if you can afford the step up from USB. I’ll admit I have no respect for USB as a way to connect an external hard drive for audio use, but it works reasonably well as a way to connect an audio interface.
When deciding upon an interface examine the type and quantity of inputs it provides; mic, line or instrument. Some interfaces provide only line-level inputs while others provide microphone and line inputs. If you plan to record guitar, bass or keyboards directly into the interface you’ll want instrument inputs. Your needs are dictated by your source(s). If you plan to record a live rhythm section you’ll need a lot of microphone inputs. If you create dance music, one or two microphone inputs are sufficient since everything else will likely be “in the box.” We’ll assume at this point that you are looking to keep things simple and don’t want to deal with/spend money on external microphone preamps, so built-in mic preamps are probably a necessity.
Some interfaces offer expandability in the form of digital ins and outs (I/Os). ADAT optical connectors open up a world of possibilities, enabling an interface to ultimately add eight I/Os — a huge help when you need to record a live band with each instrument on a separate track. Many interfaces also provide S/PDIF (Sony-Philips Digital Interface) I/O which — though not as versatile as ADAT I/O — can allow for another two I/O’s.
Most interfaces have either built-in power supplies or come with a wall wart power supply but a few have the ability to be “bus powered” meaning that they can source their power from the computer’s FireWire or USB bus (connection). This usually isn’t a deal- breaker but is convenient for mobile recording where you want to make life easy. When choosing a FireWire interface look for two FireWire ports. That way, if you want to use it with a laptop that has one FireWire port, you’ll still have a place to plug in your FireWire hard drive.
The last major point to look for in an interface is monitoring facilities. What you will find about DAW software is that you must use two outputs from the DAW for listening. These outputs need a physical place to go (the interface) and you need an easy way to adjust their volume. A separate “Monitor” output (usually on the rear panel) with a volume control (on the front panel) facilitates “control room” monitoring. Headphone jacks make it easy for you to work without disturbing your neighbors.
Computer speakers are not an acceptable means of listening to your work, and headphones should be used as a second opinion when mixing. You need a pair of speakers that will tell a reasonable amount of truth without costing a month’s rent. We’ll explore choosing a set of monitors another time, but in terms of nuts and bolts it makes sense to use active monitors (this means they have power amps built in) that connect to your interface with minimal hassle. Spend as much on monitors as you can afford — you won’t regret it.
Keep in mind that these are the major startup tools. Leave a bit in the budget for cables, and when money permits you can add a variety of microphones to your arsenal.