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Recording Handbook
Chapter 8: Recording With Your PC

8. 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 incredible.

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 environment 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 ...

THE SOFTWARE:

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? 

2. or 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? 

4. or 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.

IMPORTANT!!! 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 a few.

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 info.

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.

THE HARDWARE:

The Computer: 
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 several companies 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. 

The RAM: 
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. 

PCI Slots: 
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. 

Power Supply: 
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.

The Monitor: 
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.

Hard Drives: 
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 issue.

Removable Drives: 
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 purchase.

The Soundcard: 
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 to you.

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.

The Drivers: 
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...

COMPATIBILITY ISSUES: 
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:

COMPUTER HARDWARE    
the computer   $500-1500
the monitor   $ 50-200
the soundcard   $ 150-1500
7200 rpm hard drives   $ 50-150
SSD drives   $ 100-600
cd-r/cd-rw   $ 50-200
recording/MIDI software   $ 100-800
cd-r/cd-rw software
 
$ 50-100
     
AUDIO HARDWARE    
microphones (?)  
pre-amps/reverbs/multi-FX (?)  
external mixer (?)  
speakers (?)  
external recorders (?)  
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 baked. 

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! 

 

     
     
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