No less an authority than Steve Jobs deemed home recording a worthwhile pursuit for casual and fanatic music enthusiasts alike – that was around 2005. To wit, Apple’s inclusion of a recording/sequencing program like Garageband in its multimedia application bundle signifies that home recording is becoming as widespread a hobby as photography.
Until the 1980s, music used to be recorded almost exclusively in (rather expensive) recording studios. The Me Decade witnessed the arrival of the four-track cassette recorder, with its unsustainable hiss and lo-fi quality. Samplers and sequencers showed the way soon after, allowing drums and other loud sounds to be recreated and rearranged within the confines of domestic walls. Thanks to the advent of computers and microprocessors, we find ourselves surrounded by home recording options a mere 20 years later. A new generation of forward-looking equipment and software manufacturers have developed and pushed the home recording and virtual studio phenomenon, giving today’s musicians and recording hobbyists a full array of options.
The objective of this home recording section is to help the novice, aspiring sound engineer navigate the many (and often confusing) possibilities of the “tools of the trade,” both hardware and software.
The first choice a home recorder has to make is about the Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) format that best suits him or her. DAW is the combination of hardware and software you will be using to record your music digitally (i.e., onto a hard drive, not onto tape).
Things are pretty simple at this stage, as there are just two possibilities: you can either choose to set up your computer to act as a virtual studio (we’ll call this “computer based DAW”) or you can delegate the process to an all-in-one DAW—i.e. a piece of hardware that was specifically designed just for that purpose (also called “multi-track digital recorder”).
A few factors that should be considered before making the choice include convenience, expandability, compatibility, learning curve, quality, and price. Let’s dive into it.
Both systems we have briefly introduced will allow you to do the following:
1. Record your music (many tracks at a time if necessary) and store it on a hard disk.
2. Edit your recordings, fix mistakes, and apply effects like reverb, delay, chorus, compression, etc.
3. Mix your tracks.
The main difference between the two systems is that while multi-track DAWs are made just for recording and come with all the accessories necessary do so (apart from microphones and speakers), computers require third-party accessories to become effective DAWs. In other words, you are basically choosing between an open architecture (computers are expandable; their peripherals are interchangeable) and a rather closed one (multi-track recorders come ready as they are and don’t allow for third-party part upgrades).
For sheer convenience, the multi-track option is a no-brainer: Everything you need is in the box. You won’t have to spend any time shopping for extra components because everything (apart from the microphone) is integrated in the recorder: mic preamps, hard disk, software, console, display, etc.
With a computer, you will need to spend some time building your system in your head. Let’s assume you have a fast enough computer already (Pentium 4 or G4 minimum). Next, you’ll have to choose an external audio interface (i.e., an external, high-quality soundcard), one or two microphone preamps (sometimes integrated in the audio interface), and, last but not least, software that deals with the process of recording, editing, and mixing. The combinations are endless.
The real convenience of computers, though, is that you could also go for something much simpler (and less powerful) that accommodates your needs. For instance, modern multi-track recorders allow you to record a minimum of eight tracks simultaneously. Are you really going to need that? If the answer is no, you could opt for a higher-quality computer audio peripheral that only allows you to record two tracks at a time, but at a better quality. Remember: The fact that you can only record two tracks at a time doesn’t mean that you won’t be able to play back many more than that. If you have a Mac with Garageband (free), you might just have to spend a few hundred bucks on an audio peripheral to get your multi-track home studio up and running.
The great thing about computer-based DAWs is that they can grow with you because of their open architecture. Over time, you can keep adding quality external (or internal) hardware and software that helps improve the quality of your recordings. This can also be somewhat of a curse: If you get into your new hobby, it will probably lead you to the bank in search of loans in the near future.
On the multi-track recorder side, you can still expand—but less radically. In particular, software updates, add-ons, or plug-ins are not an option. The number of ins and outs is limited by the hardware and, in most cases, the processor speed and internal storage can’t be improved upon. Still, you can start using external mic preamps and analog-to-digital converters, or even external effects if you so desire.
What starts like a hobby can easily progress into collaboration. Many bands work on songs and develop them through an exchange of files containing songs ideas. Many home recording musicians employ professional mixing engineers to put the final touches on their tunes. This is where compatibility comes handy. Even if the basic formats are compatible with each other (you just have to bounce all the tracks and transfer them to the new format), sharing the same system and software holds great advantages because it allows you to keep all the effects and the volumes during the transfer. In particular, any professional studio runs on computer applications such as ProTools, Digital Performer, Logic, or Cubase SX; therefore, working with one of these puts you in an easier situation when you want to take things one step further, either by having somebody help you out, or by becoming a pro yourself.
This is a point that should not go overlooked. What makes multi-track recorders easy is that once you push the on button, they work. No time spent in figuring out how to plug in some external hardware or to install the software; it’s all there and ready to go. What makes the computer option more interesting in this field is mainly a big display (your computer monitor), normally at least 10 times the size of the one of the recorder. As a consequence, the latter often requires a lot of browsing through different window screens to get you to the correct function page—which might be just a click away in your computer application. Computer programs seem to be more user friendly and better looking, with full colors and nice graphics, but also more complex and “deep.” Digital workstations tend to be simpler but less intuitive.
When you ask a seasoned recording pro what piece of equipment sounds better, he will invariably tell you “Just listen to your ears.” What this really means is, “You have no idea, do you? Your ears are not trained like mine.” The only sincere answer you can get to that question is, “It depends.” It depends on what you want to achieve with your recordings, what kind of music you are playing, what your budget is. Which brings us to the price discussion.
Generally speaking, there is no limit to how much you can spend on pro audio equipment. As a very basic rule, most of the time what costs more sounds better. But unless you are into rare vintage gear, you can put together a great little studio (from an equipment standpoint, not such intricacies as the acoustic treatment of your room) for around $5,000, using either of the systems we mentioned.
Prices vary greatly, but the most affordable new multi-track digital recorders are priced from $500. The more you spend, the more options and better-sounding integrated peripherals you will get. On the computer side of things, assuming you have a machine that’s up to the task, you can put together a basic DAW for as little as $750, including the microphone (see sidebar for details on affordable home recording peripherals).