The Musician's Guide to Home Recording





The Personal Computer Based Music Studio
First, some basic info on home recording




For starters, don't believe the hype!!

It seems to be a commonly held belief that all you need is a computer with a sound card and a 'multimedia microphone' and you've got a complete "professional" music studio in your bedroom. Of course, you'll need a good deal more than that. Couple an up-to-date computer and audio interface with a good music production software package (or an 'all-in-one' digital mixer/hard disk recorder), then add a pro-quality microphone, monitoring system, MIDI gear and some other cool toys, and you just might have what you need to make your home-brew CD!


Secondly, choose your tools carefully!


If you pick out good quality, well-designed equipment to start with, you can keep adding to your setup as your projects get more involved. By thinking through a good purchasing strategy (and sticking to it!) you can avoid buying expensive gear that becomes obsolete too quickly or that doesn't do what you need it to do.


Finally, design your studio installation to be easy to work with!


The best equipment in the world will still need to be installed competently. When you get down to work, you want your equipment to do what you expect it to do. That means you'll need to learn about the equipment that's available and then figure out what you need and how to use it – which is where this website comes in...


The story 'til now. . .


It was little more than fifteen years ago that the only way to make your own recordings on a low budget was to get some kind of multitrack cassette deck or open reel tape recorder (like the good ol' Tascam A-3340S - remember those?). It was a real challenge to make a decent sounding recording with a 4-track cassette deck, mostly because of the inherently poor audio quality of the mid-1960's vintage, 1-7/8 inches-per-second Compact-Cassette medium (slow tape speed + skinny tape = high noise + high distortion).


Open reel tape decks offer much better sound quality than cassettes (many would say they're still better than anything else!), but require a lot of maintenance and use up a lot of expensive analog tape at the preferred tape speed of 15 inches-per-second. Editing is also difficult on analog tape, requiring pinpoint precision with a razor blade and editing block. This is not a skill one learns in an hour or two of noodling around! 


Along came Digital...


At the beginning of the 1980's, as the recording industry was preparing to launch the Compact Disc as the replacement for the LP in the home, Sony introduced its new professional digital tape recorders, the PCM-3324 for multitrack recording and the PCM-F1 for stereo mastering and live-to-two-track. Both were too expensive for the home recordist, but quickly became standard equipment in studios around the world. Around about 1985, Sony introduced the 16-bit, stereo DAT format (or R-DAT as it was first known). The idea was to make a 'digital cassette' that could be used to produce CD-quality recordings. Unfortunately, this scared the recording industry so much that several court battles ensued, resulting in royalties being assessed on each DAT recorder and blank tape sold. This made the DAT format too expensive for the average consumer, but didn't keep the DAT from becoming the standard portable format for recording stereo master tapes in the music recording and broadcast industries. It wasn't until the recent introduction of inexpensive CD-Recordable media that the DAT finally began to fall out of favor.


Then came Digital Multitracks...


About a decade ago, Alesis came out with the ADAT, a 16-bit, 8-track digital tape recorder that uses S-VHS videocassette tapes. The last 20-bit models were the ADAT M20, XT20 and LX20. Tascam quickly responded to the ADAT's success by introducing the DA-88, the first of its DTRS machines, which are similar to ADATs but use Hi-8 videocassettes instead of S-VHS. These Modular Digital Multitrack (MDM) recorders quickly became the standard multitrack recorders for small project studios, home studios and for live recordings. The Tascam DA-88 and its successors (the budget DA-38, the top of the line DA-98HR, and the 24-bit DA-78HR) are popular in the broadcast and film industries, while the Alesis ADAT is primarily used in musicians' home studios and small project studios. The Alesis ADAT XT20's 20-bit Analog-to-Digital Converters sound significantly better than the 16-bit converters in the older models, but all ADAT's are limited to 60 minutes of recording time on a single tape. The latest Tascam MDM's have 24-bit Analog-to-Digital Converters, and also have the advantage of being able to record up to 113 minutes on a single tape (much better for recording live concerts). Note that audio CD's are limited to 16-bit 44.1kHz resolution, so both types of MDM are capable of better-than-CD sound quality. It's quite common to fly the 8 tracks of digital audio from an MDM (or 16 tracks from two MDM machines) into a computer to mix down entirely in the digital domain, and then burn a CD of the final mix. This process keeps the signal entirely in the digital domain from the Analog-to-Digital Converters at the MDM's inputs to the Digital-to-Analog Converters at the outputs of the listener's CD player.


The latest generation of MDMs record onto computer hard drives instead of tape, allowing instant access to any point in a recording and more advanced editing capabilities. These new "hard disk recorders" include the new Tascam MX-2424, Alesis ADAT-HD24 and the Mackie HDR24/96 and MDR24/96. Best of all, these new recorders cost no more than their tape-based predecessors. Korg, Fostex and others offer entry-level hard disk recording systems that sell for around $1000 or so.


And then came the home PC audio revolution . . .


With personal computers getting more and more powerful and going ever lower in price, and with the wide selection of high quality music production software available, it's easy to record multiple tracks of audio on a computer, in effect making the computer a digital multitrack recorder. Great strides have been made in the ease of use and sound quality of audio hardware for personal computers in the last five years. Starting with the early 1990's models from such pioneering companies as Digidesign, Turtle Beach and Digital Audio Labs, quality has been going up while prices have come steadily down. There is a bewildering variety of audio interfaces available with microphone preamps, MIDI interfaces and digital audio I/O all built in—all for as little as $250! Check out the soundcards page for details...


And now, the "Studio-In-A-Box"!


Roland, Korg, Yamaha and others are offering all-in-one combination digital mixer/hard disk recorder/effects units that are as close to a true 'studio-in-a-box' as you can get. The Yamaha AW4416 and AW2816 are good examples of this type of recording system, featuring a digital mixer section (based on the industry-standard Yamaha 02R digital mixer) and a 24-bit multitrack hard disk recorder, complete with 32-bit digital parametric EQ, compression and reverb. The Roland Virtual Studio VS-890 (c. $1700) and VS-2680 (c. $2500) are mixing/hard disk recording systems that are not as easily expandable, but are in some ways more user-friendly for the 'weekend warrior.' The VS-series recorders combine 24-bit hard disk recording with digital mixing and extensive Digital Signal Processing (DSP) capabilities built in, including digital compression, EQ and reverb. They can even mimic the sound of a Neumann U87 mic using the input from a garden variety Shure SM-57!


The Digital Age is upon us. . .


Since digital recorders and CD-Recordable drives have become so inexpensive, commonplace and easy to use, digital recorders have almost completely replaced analog tape recorders in home studios (and most professional studios too!). We've become accustomed to signal to noise ratios of 85dB or better in even the cheapest CD or MiniDisc player, a spec which was obtainable only in professional studios only a decade or two ago. Consequently, the importance of maintaining a clean signal path has become ever more important for the musician recording at home. The average home studio now has the capability to perform stereo audio transfers completely in the digital domain using the Sony Philips Digital Interface (or S/PDIF). Some more expensive soundcards have the more professional AES/EBU digital interface. Both of these digital interfaces do away with the need to make a recording using the analog inputs of your soundcard or built in audio inputs. This allows for cleaner, lower noise recordings, even in your home recording rig.


While both S/PDIF and AES/EBU are limited to two-channel (stereo) digital transfers, Alesis and Tascam have devised formats for simultaneous transfer of up to eight channels of digital audio data at a time. The Alesis system is called ADAT Lightpipe and uses commonly available TOSlink optical cables - the same Optical S/PDIF cables used for MiniDisc. The Tascam digital audio transfer format uses standard copper wires and is called Tascam Digital Interface Format (TDIF). High-end studios (using ProTools or similar systems) often use multiple banks of stereo AES/EBU I/O synchronized to a single word clock source in order to record and play back multitrack digital audio.


Since both stereo and multichannel digital audio can be transferred via AES/EBU, ADAT Lightpipe or TDIF, it's now commonplace for studio engineers to record a session to their favorite multitrack recorder, on tape or hard drives, and transfer the resulting tracks into a stand-alone or computer-based Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) for editing, mixdown and mastering. There are so many advantages to editing audio in the digital domain that DAW's have all but completely replaced analog tape editing suites in mainstream audio post-production facilities. Fortunately for musicians, CD quality digital audio technology has become incredibly affordable, and even 24-bit 192kHz sampling rate equipment is surprisingly low-priced.


I honestly believe that the power and low prices of today's personal computers and digital audio hardware have opened the doors wide to high quality audio recording for the working musician on a tight budget.




Background Information

Computer necessities

Studio necessities

High octane options

IDE vs. SCSI vs. USB vs. FireWire

Sound Cards and Audio Interfaces

Introduction to Microphones

Basic Concepts of Digital Audio

MIDI, Synths and Drum Tracks  




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