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Computer Based Music Studio
Options that can really help you
make better sounding recordings are:
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
Behringer, Spirit by Soundcraft,
Yamaha, Tascam and Allen &
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!
(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.
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.
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.
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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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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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...
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.
'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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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.
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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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
ADAT LX-20, XT-20 and M-20,
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
Group Dakota PCI,
Mark of the Unicorn
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.
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
For more info
on digital audio interfaces and other soundcards, check out the