A PC based home studio (part I)

One kind of question is asked on the guitar forum repeatedly now and then. Basically it's a variation of the the following: "I want to do music/multitrack recording with my PC. What do I need, and what results can I expect?"

There are a lot of tutorials and FAQs on the internet about this, but most of them don't deal with the guitarist's point of view. That's why I'll try to tell you about my experiences with this kind of digital recording. I don't know how long this series is going to be, that depends on the demand and how long I can think of new things I haven't said before. But I'll try to keep this at least a bit organized and structured. I'm german, so please bear with me if my english is not perfect :-)

I'm making music with the help of computers since 1991 now, when MIDI sequencing was the only thing those computers (Atari ST for example) were able to do. Since 1998, I'm into pc-based harddisk recording.

This articles also deal with Wintel machines. You can of course achieve equally great results with a mac, but I know not enough about Macs to deal with specific issues. Some general considerations can be of value for Mac users also.

Part I: Preparation

Before going into the specifics I'd like to write a bit about how important it is to know what you want from a home recording setup. It's easy nowadays to buy audio equipment around a PC and for a home studio. It's even easier to buy things that you don't really need or that don't live up to you expectations afterwards. Of course, the central piece of the whole setup will be the PC, which I assume everybody who's reading this has - this is the internet after all. Most of these PCs will have a soundcard built in. If you're new to PC recording, it will probably be a stereo soundcard like a Soundblaster or a similar product. Those have a resolution of 16bit and are OK for playing games and listening to music. They are OK for a first try at HD-recording, too, but you'll soon notice that for good results you'll need a better card. But more on this later.

Let's talk about your requirements. You should be clear about what you want to do with your new home studio before you go buy hardware and software. Ask yourself a series of question like the following. Depending on the answers you'll end up with a big list of things to buy and a great need for $$$, or you'll notice that for your purposes, few select things are enough.

The questions:

1) What instruments do you want to record? OK, your guitar for sure, but do you want to record this direct or do you want to use microphones?

2) Count the instruments you use in your average tune. How many are it? You want to determine how many tracks you will need. If you have counted and think that you'll manage with maybe 8 tracks, or 12, double those numbers. Getting a lot of tracks out of a PC is comparatively easy, you only need more CPU horsepower and RAM. With a Pentium II 300 and 128MB RAM I was able to get 24 or more tracks, for example. And that's not even an entry level machine anymore. Now I'm running an AMD Athlon 1GHz with 512 MB RAM, and while this rig is really pretty powerful, you can have CPUs with more than 2 GHz clockspeed by now...

For basic applications like recording and mixing a "reasonable" number of tracks (say: 32), the current machines have by far enough power. The number of (virtual) tracks you can achieve is much higher, since only mixing tracks needs not much processing power, and today's harddisks are huge and fast. Effects and synthesizers generated by the PC are the real powereaters today.

3) How many inputs do you need? If you overdub each instrument separately, and don't want to record a live drum kit, you'll need only two inputs (I'll be always talking about single channels, that means mono inputs, so two inputs make one stereo pair). If on the other hand you plan to record a whole band or a drumkit you'll need more inputs, at least eight for a drumkit. Don't confuse inputs with audio tracks. The numbers of those are not depending on each other, since the audio tracks exist *only* in software, while inputs are part of your audio hardware.

4) How many outputs do you need? The real question behind this one is: do you want to mix your recordings within the software or on a hardware console? Since you'll probably mix in the software, you'll *need* only one stereo output. Most multi-input soundcards have also multiple outputs though, but I think the number of inputs is by far more important.

5) Do you need digital I/O? The answer to this is: yes. Get it. A good audio card has digital I/O anyway. But make sure the digital I/O supports all the different sampling rates that the card itself supports and that it supports all the different bit rates too. Don't go for a card that has 24bit converters but only 16bit digital I/O. And: the digital I/O on the soundblaster live card is crap. It supports only one sampling rate and has other problems, too.

6) Do you want to work with midi gear (like drum machines, synthesizers, keyboards, samplers etc.) and do midi sequencing? This will affect your choice of software. (BTW, midi sequencing means controlling your midi synthesizer with your PC. You record and play back music with a midi sequencer like with a multitrack machine, except that you only record the midi data and not the audio itself. The midi data practically tells the synth only which notes to play at which times, not how these notes do sound).

7) How much other hardware do you need? Do you have good monitor speakers to listen to your music? A decent microphone preamp? What else do you need to get your setup up and running?

8) What quality do you want to achieve? This is in a way related to: How much money do you want to spend? You can have anything between 4-track-tape recorder quality and pro CD quality. But be sure of one thing: hardware alone doesn't sound good, it's the human using the hardware and his/her ears that will make the recordings sound great. Many classic recordings were made on what would be considered low-level equipment, and they still sound great. Also, the quality of the music is more important than the sound quality.

I will discuss these questions in detail in the following articles.
The next one will be:

Part IIa - chosing hardware : The PC (without any audio hardware yet)

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