Using a Computer for Home Recording: Pt.1
By Brian Marine - 04/23/2002 - 12:06 PM EDT
For my first technically-oriented article, I wanted to go into the subject of using a personal computer for a home recording studio. Although stand-alone hard disk recorders have their merit (and we’ll talk about them in a later article), from where I sit, PC’s running Windows have become the most popular choice for home recordists.
Why? First, the Windows operating system (O/S) has become much more stable recently. Only a few years back almost everyone in our industry looked down on PC’s and said that only a Mac was good enough for serious digital audio work. But as Windows became more stable (CPU’s got faster and hard drives got cheaper & better), and as more and more digital audio hardware and software manufacturers were able to get their products working more smoothly under Windows, the tables turned dramatically.
Today, of the digital audio-related products my company, Digital Pro Audio, sells, the split is about 90% Windows, 10% Mac. Although I can’t speak for others in my industry, I do know that a much larger number of those using a computer for audio are using Windows PC’s, so that is where we will focus much of this article (but bear in mind that almost of the products I discuss here are also available and well supported on a Mac).
IT’S EASY AS 1, 2… 3!
There are three major aspects that one must look at when deciding on using a PC for recording digital audio … 1) the computer itself (and it’s components); 2) the digital audio sound card or interface; and 3) the digital audio software. In PT. 1 we will focus on the first two. I’m not going to get overly technical here, but I will discuss some technical aspects you will have to deal with when deciding to buy or upgrade your computer and its hardware.
First, regarding the computer itself … I often get many questions like “Can I use the PC I already have, or do I need to buy a new one?”, “Do I need to upgrade my existing PC?”, “Should I have a custom audio PC built?”, “How fast a CPU do I need?”, and so on. The answers to these questions largely lie in how serious your recording requirements are. If you are only going to be recording a few tracks for doing simple song demos, almost any decent PC under three years old will do. However, if your recording plans are more ambitious, you may need to either upgrade your computer or consider getting a new one.
A number of factors dictate what computer specs are required. Digital audio hardware and software manufacturers usually state both minimum and recommended requirements. The minimum ones would probably be fine for the “lite” users, while recommended requirements are geared toward more serious users. The main considerations when looking at these specs are CPU type & speed, RAM and the hard drive(s). In general, a good rule of thumb is … buy the latest, biggest, fastest components you can afford. Because chances are, one day soon you’ll be glad you did.
If your budget is really limited, and you are planning on using an older, existing family or business PC, and it has lots and lots of games, or business & internet software, or other hardware and software you’ve installed on it over time, you should be aware that you are more likely to have conflicts or problems when trying to also use it for digital audio recording.
WHAT GOES IN, MUST COME OUT (BUT HOW WILL IT SOUND?)
Probably the most important component, and the one many folks seem to overlook, is the digital audio sound card or interface. The single biggest factor in the ultimate sound quality of digital audio recording is the digital-to-analog (or D/A) conversion. The converters take your signal (your vocal track, for example) and convert it into digital ones & zeros. 24-bit converters are now the highest bit depth available for most digital audio interfaces, and although CD’s and MP3’s still end up as 16-bit files, the higher the bit depth you start out with, generally the better the final result will be (we will get into this subject more in a future article).
But not all converters, or sound cards, are created equal. A common mistake I frequently see is someone buying top quality digital audio software, and using it with a cheap Soundblaster-type sound card … and then questioning why the sound of their recording isn’t better. The fact is that if you want your CD’s to sound their best, you need to invest in a good sound card. OK, but as I’m often asked, “so which one should I choose?”. Good question … because there are lots of choices out there, and it can be confusing.
In addition to the bit depth and quality of the AD/DA converters, the main difference between the many digital audio interfaces available is the number analog inputs & outputs (I/O), as well as the type of digital I/O it has, and if it has other I/O such as MIDI or word clock. Some interfaces now also provide XLR mic inputs and phantom power, so that you can plug a condenser microphone directly into the interface, alleviating the need for a mixer.
2 - 4 - 6 - 8 …. AUDIO CHANNELS ARE REALLY GREAT!
If for example, you are a “one-man-band”, and only plan to record 2 tracks at a time, and you already have a mixer or other mic preamp, you only need to get a stereo sound card. Popular models are the M-Audio Audiophile 2496 (List Price: $229) on the low-end, and the Lynx Studio Technologies LynxONE (List Price: $549) on the higher end.
If you plan to record a group of musicians or band at one time, or mic a drum kit, etc., you will need a multi channel interface. These allow you to record 4, 6 8 or even 10 individual channels of audio at one time into your PC via the analog and digital inputs. Usually these interfaces comprise of a PCI card which goes into your PC, that attaches to a break out box via a cable that connects to the PCI card at the back of the computer. The break out box contains the analog I/O (most often these are ¼” TRS connectors) as well as the AD/DA converters, in most cases. For example, the M-Audio Delta 44 ($299) and Delta 66 ($399) provide 4 analog I/O, while the EgoSys WAMI Rack ($799), Aardvark Aark 24 ($899), and Echo Digital Audio Layla 24 ($999) provide 8 ¼” ins & outs. These cards also provide stereo digital I/O … some on coaxial RCA connectors, some on optical connectors …and these can also be used at the same time as the analog I/O, giving you 10 ins & outs simultaneously. They also have MIDI I/O.
Recently, interfaces that contain phantom powered mic preamps, as well as ¼” analog I/O, have become very popular. These include the Echo Digital Audio Mona 24 ($999), the Aardvark Direct Pro 2496 ($699) and the M-Audio Delta 1010LT ($499). And although we won’t get into them here, USB devices are also available for desktops and laptops (although currently there are certain limitations in how these can be used, and well they perform).
NOW YOU’RE REALLY IN THE DRIVERS SEAT!
At Digital Pro Audio, we also place a high value on the stability of the sound card and the quality of the technical support the manufacturer provides. An important part of the sound card or interface you buy are the drivers. This is software that is installed on the computer when the card or interface is installed. It is necessary to allow the hardware to interact properly with the digital audio software. All sound cards come with MME drivers (these are standard .wav file drivers). Many now also include ASIO drivers (which provide lower latency in software programs that utilize the ASIO spec) or WDM drivers (for use with Windows XP & 2000).
Sound card manufacturers will continually update their drivers to work out any bugs and/or provide more stability for use with various software programs and in different operating systems These are usually available for free download from the company’s web site. It's always a good idea to download and install the latest driver available for your particular product to assure the best performance (and the least potential problems). This is especially true right after you purchase a new sound card or interface, as the drivers that come with the card are often outdated by the time you get it.
Since I’ve thrown a lot at you about all this stuff, if you have any questions about the article or the products discussed here, feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Next month, in Pt. 2 of this column, we will look at the various digital audio recording, editing and MIDI sequencing software products available today, which is the third important component of home recording on a PC. Until then … keep writing (and recording); be happy!
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