The Musician's Guide to Home Recording

 

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The Personal Computer Based Music Studio
High-Octane Optional Equipment

 

 

Mixing Board

CD-Recordable

Monitors

Digital Audio I/O

DAW with DSP

DAT Recorder

Outboard A-D-A Converter

Modular Digital Multitrack

 

 


 

Options that can really help you make better sounding recordings are:

 

A mixing board. This will allow you to record from or play back more than one analog sound source at a time. You can adjust the volume levels (in other words, "mix") and use tone controls ("equalization" or "EQ") to change the timbre of your various MIDI, microphone, and line-level sound sources in real time. It is possible to do all of this in your computer, but it is usually difficult to control all of your devices using your computer's mouse, and it requires a powerful computer with lots of RAM and lots of analog inputs. The most popular small studio mixers are made by Mackie Designs, Behringer, Spirit by Soundcraft, Yamaha, Tascam and Allen & Heath.

 

The new digital mixers are taking over studios everywhere. First came the Yamaha ProMix 1, then the Yamaha 02R, now there are the Yamaha 01V, Panasonic WR-DA7, Fostex VM-200 and Tascam TM-D1000, with new models appearing all the time. A digital mixer allows you to record from microphones and other analog sources straight into the digital domain, where DSP effects can be applied and the waveforms can be stored digitally in "virtual tracks" on the hard disk recorder or DAW, or as digital tracks on an ADAT or other MDM (modular digital multitrack). All tracks can be mixed down while still in the digital domain, with fully automated faders and all mix settings stored in memory for instant recall. Then you can master to DAT, CDR, Magneto-Optical disk, or whatever. All digital 'til the end listener plays back the final product! Kewl!

 

A CD-Recordable drive (otherwise known as a CD burner). DAT is still hanging on as an industry standard stereo music production storage medium, but most people are switching over to CD-Recordable. These allow you to record Red Book-spec Compact Disc Digital Audio (CD-DA) onto CD-Recordable (CD-R) discs, so that others can hear your music in all its undiluted glory on their own home or portable CD players. CD-R recorders are available in SCSI versions for Mac or SCSI-equipped PC's, ATAPI (IDE) versions for Pentium II or later PC's or in USB and FireWire versions for the latest and greatest PCs and Macs (including the Apple iMac and iBook). SCSI burners are considered to be less problematic, though IDE, USB or FireWire CD burners should work fine as long as the host computer is faster than 500MHz (I still prefer SCSI). Look for 6X or 8X speed CD-R writing; this will speed things up considerably (though you will be limited to 4X speeds in older computers or when using a USB CD burner). CD burners from Yamaha and Plextor are generally thought to be the most reliable and best-sounding, Alesis, Tascam and Philips make stand-alone CD burners that you use like a tape recorder.

 

A really good monitoring system. Basically this is a tonally accurate stereo system, especially designed for revealing the details and/or flaws in a recording. This is a critical part of any home studio setup. A good monitoring system will likely cost more than you expect, but you're "flying blind" without one.

Most home studio setups will use small speakers that are meant to be listened to from no more than about four or five feet away. The idea is to form an equilateral triangle between the listener's head and the two speakers (e.g. the listener sits four feet away from either speaker, and the speakers are situated four feet apart from each other). Speakers used in this manner are known as near-field monitors or simply "near-fields". Since most home studio setups have less than ideal acoustics, near-field monitors are a good way to keep sub-par room acoustics from interfering too much with the listener's ability to hear the playback accurately.

 

When shopping for studio monitors for a computer-based home studio, remember to look for shielded ones. Magnetic shielding allows the placement of speakers closer to the computer's display, so that you can listen to and work on your audio data from the same position. Many newer monitors are also self-powered, with the necessary amplifiers built into the speaker cabinets. An example of a self-powered, shielded monitor is the Mackie HR824. The Yamaha NS-10 is neither shielded nor self-powered. Other popular monitors are the Alesis M-1, JBL LSR-25P and Genelec 2029A, as well as others from Audix, KRK, PMC, Hafler, Tannoy, Dynaudio, Legacy Audio, Spendor, NHT Pro, Dunlavy, Meyer, etc. Expect to pay at least US$500 for a decent pair of studio monitors; more for really good self-powered speakers.

 

Consider a good pair of "pro quality" headphones. Headphones cost a lot less than a good pair of near-field monitor speakers and an amplifier, but can give you a better idea of the small details in a recording. Listening in headphones is quite different from listening to speakers in a room. Mixing in headphones is therefore different from mixing on speakers, but it can be done well. The most popular 'phones are the Sony MDR-7506's, but other recommended models include the Grado Labs SR-60, SR-225 and SR-325, the Beyerdynamic DT-770 Pro, as well as the Sennheiser HD-580 and HD-600. Headphones are also useful when you are overdubbing or punching in acoustic parts and you don't want the sound from your monitor speakers bleeding into the recording. Closed-ear 'phones like the Sony MDR-7506 or the Beyerdynamic DT-770 are best for this type of situation.

 

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A digital audio I/O interface. This allows you to send digital audio to or from the digital input or output of a DAT, CD player, or Digital to Analog Converter ("DAC") directly in or out of your computer (or CD burner). The idea is to keep the audio signal from going through more than one or two digital-to-analog (D-to-A) or analog-to-digital (A-to-D) conversions during the entire process of recording your music. In digital audio processing, these conversions are where the worst distortions can occur. It's also a good idea to keep analog audio signals away from the inside of the computer, as all those clock crystals in there are generating lots of radio-frequency ("RF") noise, e.g. your microprocessor at 500MHz or higher, your PCI bus at 33MHz, your AGP video card at 66MHz, and so on. Radio Frequency Interference ("RFI") does really bad things to analog audio circuits ("digititus" anyone?). There are digital audio interfaces available as PC cards you plug into your computer, or stand-alone units that connect to the computer through the USB or FireWire ports.

 

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A digital audio workstation ("DAW") that includes advanced Digital Signal Processor circuitry (referred to as "DSP") in hardware. The hardware DSP can do all the audio processing without the need for use of the computer's CPU. The DSP can then be tweaked for best sonic results, while the CPU is left free to work on its normal computer operations. High quality hardware DSP costs a lot more than software DSP, but if you're a stickler for sound quality...

 

The higher priced Digidesign Pro Tools HD (MacOSX/WinXP), Soundscape (Win), Sonic Solutions (Mac), Sadie (Win), Creamware Pulsar II (Mac/Win) and MicroSound (Win) systems all have DSP's built in to their digital audio hardware. TDM Plug-Ins are specifically designed for use with the Pro Tools DSP's.

The 'all in one' DAW's like the Roland VS-890EX and VS-2480 or the Yamaha AW4416, AW2816 or AW16G come with DSP circuits built in, which makes digital EQ, compression and reverb available on your tracks. These all-in-one DAWs also come with digital mixer capabilities, including balanced XLR microphone inputs and automatable faders, built in CD-Recordable drives or with a SCSI port for archiving your sessions to external hard drives, DVD-RAM or CD-R drives. The smaller DAWs are portable, too!

 

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A DAT recorder. Up until the advent of cheap CD burners, the DAT (or R-DAT) was the standard medium for transferring stereo digital recordings from studio to studio. DAT recorders never caught on for home use, so they have always been somewhat expensive (the popular Panasonic SV-3700 costs $1500). Many of the small-label jazz recordings made from 1985 to about 1996 were recorded "live to DAT" (a.k.a. "live to 2-track digital"), so if you've ever listened to a straight-ahead jazz CD produced by the Blue Note label in the late 1980s to early 1990s, then you've probably heard a recording that was either recorded or mastered to DAT. You can find used DAT recorders for less than $500 nowadays. Many projects are still mastered to DAT, so if you are looking to accept others' projects for fun and profit, you might want to keep a working DAT recorder around.

 

An outboard Analog-to-Digital-to-Analog Converter. This is a box that converts the digital audio data stream to analog audio so that you can hear it through a typical stereo amp and speakers. They can also take analog audio and convert it to digital audio data. Because an outboard converter is a dedicated, single purpose device, it will usually sound better than the Digital-to-Analog Converters ("DAC's") that come inside CD players, DAT recorders, and consumer-grade computer audio hardware. Having a high quality Analog-to-Digital Converter ("ADC") can make your "live" audio tracks sound better. The MidiMan Flying Cow is a good low-end stereo converter. There are external, multichannel converters available that connect to the ADAT Lightpipe or Tascam TDIF digital audio interfaces of high-end professional audio cards (such as the RME Hammerfall, Sonorus STUDI/O, Frontier Designs Dakota, Soundscape Mixtreme, Aardvark Aark TDIF and others).

 

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The Modular Digital Multitrack recorder ("MDM") was the breakthrough device that started the whole digital home studio revolution. The original MDMs were tape-based, like the Alesis ADAT LX-20, XT-20 and M-20, and the Tascam DA-88, DA-98HR and DA-78HR. Tape-based MDM's are still found in small studios all over the world, and are still a standard for making demo recordings and broadcast audio. The Alesis ADAT models are no longer produced, but at about $400 for a good used one, they are a great bargain for many working musicians. (Just steer clear of the Alesis LX20 — its transport is very unreliable. The Alesis XT20 seems to work well, but the Tascam DA-series recorders have always been more reliable.) The Tascam DA-78HR can record 108 minutes of 8 track, 24-bit audio on a single Hi-8 120 tape, while the ADAT XT20 maxes out at 40 minutes of 8 track, 20-bit audio on a standard ST-120 S-VHS tape, or 62 minutes on a special ST-180 tape.

 

There is a whole market growing up around multi-channel Digital Audio I/O cards that route the 8, 16 or 24 channels of digital audio data between a personal computer and one, two or even three MDM's. Examples of this kind of card are the Frontier Design Group Dakota PCI, Sonorus StudI/O, RME Hammerfall DSP, Mark of the Unicorn 2408, Soundscape Mixtreme and Alesis ADAT Edit. The Alesis ADAT Lightpipe interface is much more widely supported than the Tascam T-DIF interface, but that is likely to change now that Alesis is being reorganized.

 

The new generation of hard-disk based MDM has arrived, with the Alesis ADAT HD24, Tascam MX2424 and the Mackie MDR24/96. These new hard disk recorders act like tape machines, but you can skip from point to point without the wait from the rewinding/fast-forwarding necessary with tape. Hard disk recorders can record 24 simultaneous tracks (as opposed to only 8 on the tape machines) and allow much longer recording times on a single disk. Plus, they're less expensive than the older tape machines were. Digital tape is dead!

 

For more info on digital audio interfaces and other soundcards, check out the soundcards page.

 

 

 

 

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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