An important consideration when looking to set up a ‘home recording studio’ is how you will use it. You will need to work out how many things you want to record or plug in at any one time or you might wind up with uneccessary gear-or not enough!
Let’s look at a typical example of ‘Vinnie’ the guitarist who has a desire to show his ‘band’ how the songs should be played.
No matter how many times he’s tried to explain, they never quite get it right, so the only way he can see to achieve this is to record it all ‘properly’ himself.
What does Vinnie need?
He needs to record a basic drum pattern – nothing fancy – he wants to record two electric guitars, an acoustic guitar, he wants to record a bass guitar and record a main vocal and two backing harmonies.
Vinnie of course will not do all this at once, so even though he needs to record 9 things does he need 9 channels?
All he really ‘needs’ is a maximum of 4 inputs- two with pre-amps. He will also need a microphone to sing into and to record his acoustic guitar, we will asume he has a guitar amp simulator to record the electric guitars and bass and that he has a physical drum machine or one inside his computer or stand alone hard disc recorder.
Vinnie could easily walk down to his music store or get online and find what he needs to get the job done. He could look at a computer recording package with appropriate software and specialised sound card for audio recording. Some companies provide these all in one packages Lexicon, M-Audio, Pro-Tools and Presonus are good brand names to look at as a starting point, but be aware that recording onto a computer can be a frustrating experience if you’re not computer savy.
Vinnie’s other alternative is the stand alone hard disc recorder with a built in mixer section. Any of the offereings from Fostex, Yamaha or Boss/Roland would take care of his needs, at this point Vinnie just wants to get his ideas onto the physical plain as quickly as possible so others can hear them- so he’ll probably need a CD burner thrown in to the equation unless his machine can link up to a computer-as a number of them now can do.
Now let’s look at another example of Barabra who plays in a four piece folk/rock group. They want to record a couple of songs for CD release. All the instruments her band uses are acoustic; Double Bass, Violin ,Guitar and Banjo.
Three of the group also sing. Now Barabara is lucky enough to have a large secluded garage space available for her group to rehearse in and given they don’t annoy the neighbours by making too much noise she wishes to record the band as a ‘whole’ for the best vibe-what will she need?
4 X Instrument Microphones or D.I. [direct injection] boxes
3 X Vocal microphones
8 inputs with Microphone Preamps
Capacity to record on 8 channels at once.
There are some limitations with stand alone recorders, some of them will only let you record on 2 channels at once, another thing to be aware of is the ‘quality’ of the recordings.
Some years ago during the ‘compression algorythm’ wars, clever boffins discovered that our ears can ‘fill in’ missing information, in the same way that you can look at the scrambled letters of a word but are still able to decipher what it is.The boffins kept removing bits of what our ear was hearing until they came up with a formula [algorythm] that fooled our ears most of the time. These are known as ‘compressed’ formats as they ‘squish’ the sound in such a clever way that we don’t notice.
Almost all commercial and home recording computer software will record ‘linear'[non-compressed] files to your computer hard disc. Pro-tools,Logic Audio, Cubase, Sonar all do this. Later on when you ‘mix-down’ your songs you can turn them into mp3 files for podcast or to load to your portable digital music player. Adobe Audition and Steinberg’s Wavelab are two programs I can think of that record direct mp3 files- but they are not ‘full function’ multitrack programs.
When we deal in compressed formats- mp2 mp3 etc, ‘unneccessary’ information is removed making the file sizes smaller [and hence downloads faster]- so these are ‘compressing’ the files. The advantage for the home recordist is that less hard disc space is needed.
A consideration when looking at stand alone recorders is to ask the question- do I want compressed or uncompressed audio. If you have any intention of turning these recordings into something for release then the uncompressed format is the best- you will lose some quality by using a compressed format, but your ideas will be captured quickly for you to work on later. Also bear in mind that a number of hard disc recorders can later transfer data to a computer software system for more elaborate processing so if you use a non-compressed recording format you will retain the quality of your recording.
Now when Barabara popped down the music store to express her needs she told the sales person that, “she wants a high quality recording of her group but I have no idea about computers” so the salesman suggests a stand alone unit with eight inputs that records the data in a non-compressed format. As she doesn’t have a huge budget she chooses to hire in most of the microphones for this recording session. The man at the shop suggests she uses condensor microphones for the instruments and dynamic Shure sm58’s for the vocals.
A crucial quality consideration at this point is the ‘pre-amp’. What does that do and why is it so important you ask?
After your microphone has done the incredible job of sorting out sound pressure waves and converting them into electrical signals, they arrive via microphone cables at the ‘pre-amp’-a short way of saying pre-amplifier. For years I struggled to really ‘get’ what a pre amp did, unitl I understood this:
When the microphone puts out a signal it is very very very very tiny. I now call this ‘mouse level’. Once it’s gone through a pre amp it becomes ‘elephant level’, something that our mixing consoles and digital recorders can use easily.
Depending on the quality of the compoments used, this amplification process can make or break the quality of the recorded sound. A bad pre-amp will add hiss and noise to your recording
Most stand alone recorders and computer sound card interfaces have ‘adequate’ microphone preamps. To make your recordings ‘shine’ I would suggest getting an ‘outboard'[separate component] pre-amp, though having said that the pre-amps in high end Yamaha consoles are gaining a very good reputation. Focusrite/Joe Meek/Avalon/Tc Electronics are great brands. Currently I use a Focusrite Twin-Trak pro, a device specifially for home recording enthusiasts.
To sum up, our friend Vinnie will probably be quite happy with an off the shelf hard disc recorder with 4 or so inputs that records ‘compressed’ files because he is only trying to show his band colleagues a ‘rough’ idea of how he hears things.
Barbara who is not computer savy is looking for a more polished end product and wants to record her group in the best quality for a CD the band will release, hence she needs to record ‘linear’ [non-compressed] data and will look for a unit with the best quality pre-amps she can buy.