Recording With Your PC
The explosion of recording hardware and software has finally collided with
low prices and now everybody wants to use their computer to make music. Most
of the questions I get at 'Ask the Doctor' are now computer recording
related. The amount of sound power being offered from inside a PC today is
The main problem is that it's too often a complicated process
to get the hardware and software installed properly and working correctly.
However, once these "configuration" issues are solved, the PC recording
can be a lot of fun to use and can produce very high quality recordings.
to Mac users:
I have no particular bone to pick with the Mac vs. the PC. I used Macs when I first
started working at Calliope Studios in NYC in 1986. Back then, for my own projects,
the Atari was a lot cheaper and did what I needed, so I used it. PC's and Mac's both
crash from time to time and both have their devotees. Use what you're comfortable with.
The sound that comes out is only as good as the operator who puts it in. "ProTools
this and plugin-X" no more guarantees a hit song than using a "Strat through a Marshall
stack" means you'll sound just like Jimi Hendrix.
Remember, grasshopper, As you
search for meaning in the musical universe, the computer is a tool that is only as
useful as he/she who uses it ...
For starters, figure out what it is you want to do.
1. Do you already have
a demo setup, but need to edit and compile your stereo mixes from DAT?
don't have a DAT and want to record your mixes directly into the computer?
3. or want to do multi-track recording into the computer, i.e. record a drummer,
bass player and guitarist all at the same time and mix on the computer?
you want to lock the computer to your ADAT and use them both to record on?
or you don't have any other equipment and want to do it all on the computer?
Okay, you see that there are a lot of questions to answer before you buy
the "box"! All of these software companies have websites. Look at the software
you might want to use and find out what the different packages do.
Every one of these software manufacturers lists the capabilities of each piece
of software as well as minimum PC capabilities required to run that software.
I can guarantee you that in the long run, you won't be happy with the way
any music software runs on the "minimum machine" listed in the software specs.
Recording Software comes in several flavors. There are 2-track stereo programs
like Sonic Foundry's Sound Forge. It's a very powerful 2-track editing package but mainly
designed to work on one stereo song at a time.
With a Multi-track Recording program
you could work on several songs at once, do cross fades and overlap endings
and beginnings, etc. or actually record and overdub parts as you would with
any multi-track recorder. There are lots of multi-track programs out there
like Syntrillium's Cool Edit Pro, IQS Saw Plus and SEK'd Samplitude, to name
There are also powerful MIDI Sequencing programs with Digital Audio capabilities
available like MOTU Digital Performer, E-Magic Logic Audio, Cubase and
Steinberg. With these you can build MIDI sequences and record your audio and place
the digital audio right onto the sequences. The audio becomes another sound
that is triggered along with the rest of the MIDI sequence.
Here is where the capabilities of your soundcard come in. If you're only
doing guitar and vocal recording, then you'll probably be fine with a simple
ANALOG L/R in/out soundcard. The basic software that comes with these
soundcards can only record 2 tracks at a time and the only way to seperate the
tracks is to pan hard left and hard right.
A DIGITAL connection
on the soundcard, usually a S/PDIF (it looks like an RCA jack) type, means you can send your mix from inside the computer, out
to a DAT machine's DIGITAL input. Some consumer soundcards have digital out
only or digital in only, others have digital in and out.
To do multi-track recording, you'll
need a multi-track audio recording program AND a soundcard with multiple ins and outs,
either analog or digital. These soundcards range in price from $200 - $1000
based on configuration capabilities. Look for the number of simultaneous record and playback channels capabilities
as well as the types of ANALOG and DIGITAL connections.
If you want to record your band and
you've got an analog mixer with separate outs, you'll want a soundcard with
analog ins and outs. If you have a digital mixer, it probably has ADAT or TDIF
connectors which can interface with a soundcard with these type of digital ins
and outs. However, this brings wordclock (see below for more info) into the
picture, because you will be interconnecting 2 digital devices.
To burn cd's on your computer, you need
cd-r software. A lot of software
companies now have separate add-on cd-r software to go with their recording
packages. In general, these are fairly sophisticated and allow you to move
id markers, change subcode info, etc.
The cheapest stand alone cd-r software
I've seen is Adaptec's Easy CD-Pro. Another popular cd burning program is
called Nero. These allow you to arrange the order of your audio files and burn the CD. Each
seperate audio file gets an id on the CD. You can't place id's or access subcode
These programs are also file backup software and this is really helpful when
you've filled up that big hard drive with audio files. Believe me, it will
fill up faster than you can imagine! When I'm done with a project on the computer,
I save all the related files onto a cd-r and erase the old files on my hard
drive. When I need to work on it again, I reload the backed up files from
cd-r and continue my slicing and dicing. DVD is also now widely available
and can hold much more data than cdr.
So, you've checked out the software, hopefully even had a chance to speak
with someone who is using it or even better, actually seen it running. Now
you need the hardware to run it on.
Get the fastest Intel processor you can afford. The AMD chips are cheaper but you might want to go with Intel. Specs I've seen from
won't guarantee software performance on non-Intel chips,
so read the fine print. Also check the motherboard for system bus speed, amount and type of onboard RAM it
can hold (more is better), number of open slots for PCI (more is better) and
USB 3.0 connections.
MORE RAM is the number 1 option that will increase performance.
It used to be 30 and 72-pin 60ns memory chips. Check the
motherboard manuals for the type, speed and physical parameters of the memory
you should use. Some machines take (2) pairs, some can handle different sizes, some can't.
Your digital soundcard will use one of these. Some PCI cards are long and some are short,
so the interior physical dimensions of your computer enclosure could come
into play. Get a tower enclosure if possible, it'll give you room to add hard
drives and more stuff later on.
You'll want the biggest you can get because you'll have lots of peripherals
stuffed in there. Definitely opt for the quietest one you can get as well.
Those fan(s) can be a problem.
All of these software recording packages suffer from the same
problem. They fill the screen with too much information constantly. Get the
biggest monitor you can afford, you'll thank
me later. If you system can support two monitors, do it.
Get separate Hard Drives that will only be used for the digital
audio. Audio files are huge and you don't want to be recording on the same hard
drive that your operating system is on. If you're running synthesizers and
samplers in software, you'll want dedicated drives for them as well or you
will experience the dreaded digital processing delay.
Drives are plentiful, big, fast and very
cheap these days. For audio, go with at least 7200 rpm. For external drives,
you'll want a mother board with USB 3.0 connections. SSD drives are coming way
down in price now (2013) and they are wonderful.
A PC motherboard generally has sockets for 4 IDE
drives (Primary master and slave AND Secondary master and slave) although
some may only allow 2 of the faster UDMA drive types. To connect additional hard drives
takes a little work. You'll have to make sure your system BIOS can recognize the
drive. There's usually some kind of message when you boot up about entering "setup",
press F1 or something like that. The instructions with the drive and your motherboard
will help you with these settings. You may also need to set some switches on the drive
itself to set it
as the master or slave. If you're using firewire or USB 3.0, it won't be an
USB 3.0 external drives are the way to go and if you put a SATA III
6GB/sec SSD (Solid State Drive) in there, it'll really fly.
CD-r's and CD-rw's:
Get a decent inkjet,
do your own labels and make your own cd's one at a time; voila, instant record
label. CD-rw is great for backing up your files. It looks like another hard drive to the
computer and you can reuse the medium. The physical cd's are more expensive, but it's
a no-brainer. Now DVD-R is here. More space, even
cheaper. However there are 2 competing formats so be careful when you
This is the device that gets the sound into and out of the
computer. There are lots of soundcards out there and you need to pick the
right one for doing what you want to do. Again, go to the maufacturers' websites.
Make sure the software that you have picked will work with the soundcard you're
looking at. The software should list soundcards that have been tested and
work correctly with it.
Don't get a card that only has digital in/outs unless you have a DAT machine
or other box that reads a digital signal. There are two flavors of digital
in/out. One is S/PDIF which uses an RCA style connector (like your cassette
deck) and the other is AES/EBU which uses a cannon connector (like a microphone
cable). Some cards have one, some have both. You can't plug them into your
home stereo and hear them!
Whether its simply for stereo editing or full blown
multi-track recording, get a soundcard with at least a stereo analog monitor
output so when all the digital bells and whistles quit on you, you can plug
this into your stereo and hear what the hell is going on OR not going on!
A Word About Wordclock:
If you're only using the computer to record and
mix on, this doesn't apply to you. If on the other hand, you're planning on
using the computer with other digital divices such as ADAT's or DA-88's, or
a digital mixer like the Panasonic DA7 or Yamaha 02R, then this is very important
All digital devices have computers inside them running their own internal
digital clocks. To work properly together, there has to be a MASTER WORDCLOCK
device with all the others being connected to it. When you start to interconnect
them and move the digital audio between devices, and don't properly connect
the wordclock ins and outs, these different digital clocks begin to cause
problems which can include pops and clicks, random noise, timing discrepancies,
audio drift or no audio at all. Furthermore, different combinations of digital
equipment will require some experimentation as to which particular device
should be the wordclock master.
These are little software programs that communicate with the
operating system, be it Windows XP or Windows 7, and facilitate the smooth
interaction between your hardware and music software. You need to make sure that your
software and hardware BOTH are supported
by whatever version of Windows is on your computer.
When in doubt... GOOGLE IT! Do your due
diligence, you can find user guides online: READ THEM before you buy. Look for
comments about specific gear you are interested in and learn from other's
experiences before you get into the game...
Most software manufacturers will list systems and
hardware that they have tested to work with their products. Find this information
and use it. It could save you a lot of headaches. Particularly because the
PC is a "roll your own" box, the money you save building a system yourself,
is worthless if the software won't perform properly on it.
So let's review. To get into the computer recording game, you'll need:
|7200 rpm hard drives
|external digital synchronization
This is a substantial investment and as you can see, more involved than
just buying a computer. If you're not a DIY gear slut/techie, then save yourself
a lot of aggravation and buy one of the "music computers" that are
pre-assembled and already loaded with the software and fully
If you still "want to
roll your own", then remember to do your homework and read the fine print before you buy anything.
Now go out there and make some music!