Computer Recording System Basics
By Ben BlakesleyGeorges Music
The personal computer has changed the world in countless ways (can you imagine NOT receiving/checking your email constantly?) and as musicians, its biggest contribution is in the affordability and portability of computer-based recording. Recording yourself or your band has never been more accessible or more cost effective.But even with all this opportunity, many musicians still stare at that whirring and whizzing box in bewilderment, paralyzed by what they perceive as a complicated mechanism for recording music. "I'm no computer tech, I just play guitar!" is something I hear often.So let me break it down for you so you can easily understand what is required to put together a small computer-based recording system. No Computer Science degree required.
The first thing you'll need is the most obvious: A COMPUTER!Computer
- No need to start a Mac vs. PC war, either type of computer will work fine and provides numerous options for hardware and software recording solutions. The main thing to keep in mind here is that the faster your computer, the better it will be at recording (or doing anything else).But really, you can record on any relatively modern computer. A good rule of thumb: If your computer was new within the last 3 years, you're probably fine. [For those of you with a little computer knowledge, here are some specs that will be adequate for your recording machine: 2.8GHz processor, 2GB RAM, USB or Firewire port, 40GB Hard Drive].Software
- This is the program that actually allows you to record, edit, and mix your recordings on the computer. All modern multi-track recording software programs will have similar feature sets, so my recommendation is to choose something that contains features that are important to you and fits within your budget. Most programs will offer a free download trial version for you to see if you like it with no risk. Additionally, many audio interfaces will come with a bundled software package alleviating the need to purchase an additional program.Interface
- This simply means something that connects your analog input source (microphone, POD, keyboard, etc) to your computer. This is a very important piece as it will determine how
you go about recording. In simplest terms, a Recording Interface will have at least 2 inputs (microphone or instrument/line), a computer cable (USB or Firewire), and at least 2 outputs (usually connected to speakers or studio monitors).Within that framework, there are myriad options for number and type of inputs and outputs. Just choose the number of inputs/outputs to fit your situation. If you are a solo recordist, you'll likely only need 2 simultaneous inputs to create and layer your tracks. If you are in a band and want to create true multi-track recordings, you'll need 8+ inputs on your interface.Front End
- On the front end, you'll need the same equipment as any recording setup: Instruments, microphones, cables, mic stands, etc. Nothing new here...analog or digital, you still have to turn a musical performance into electrical impulses somehow!Monitors
- The other side of the equation involves the playback of your music. You'll need speakers or headphones for this. As always, you can stay small and inexpensive or go big and impressive depending on your budget and your need. Whatever you choose, this will hook up to the output on your audio interface.
Now that you have a basic knowledge of what's required for a computer recording setup, here are some specific setups for different situations.Solo artist gear list - under $300
1. Computer/Laptop2. 2x2 USB Audio Interface: I recommend the Tascam US-122mkII
[caption id="" align="alignright" width="252" caption="Tascam US-122mkII"]
[/caption]Solid as a rock and stable as the day is long. Easy to use and simple to setup. Plus it comes with Cubase LE4 so you don't have to buy additional software!3. Large Diaphragm Condenser Microphone: An LDC mic is a good choice if you're only going to be using 1 mic as it is very versatile and will sound good on just about anything. The Audio-Technica AT-2020
is a low cost microphone that sounds wonderful!4. Headphones: Some good close-backed headphones will allow you to overdub parts without 'leakage' and will give you an accurate picture of the stereo field when tweaking your sound. The Audio-Technica ATH-M3X
are a great low-cost solution.Small Duo or Group -under $700
1. Computer/Laptop2. 8x2 USB Audio Interface: One of my favorite new products this year is the Zoom R16 Multitrack Recorder
[caption id="" align="alignright" width="236" caption="Zoom R16 Multitrack Recorder"]
[/caption]because it is a multi-purpose unit that affords you a ton of options on how to record your music. It's got 8 XLR inputs so you don't need an external mixer and if you don't want to be tethered to your computer, it can also record to Compact Flash media! It also comes bundled with Cubase LE4 software so you don't need to purchase additional programs to get started.3. Monitors: With a slightly 'more serious' setup like this, you'll want to use recording reference monitors to give you accurate playback of your music. I recommend the M-Audio BX5a
, as it doesn't get much better in terms of bang for your buck.Full Band -under $1,000
1. Computer/Laptop2. 26x26 Firewire Interface: If you're serious about setting up a computer recording system for your live[caption id="" align="alignright" width="360" caption="Presonus FireStudio"]
[/caption]performances or home recordings, the Presonus FireStudio
is a great choice for an unbelievable price. It's got plenty of inputs (8 XLR, 8 line, 2 instrument, plus ADAT lightpipe) to track the whole band on discrete channels. And it comes bundled with Presonus Studio One recording software!3. Monitors: Stepping up to a more robust recording system, you'll likely want higher quality monitors with extended and uncolored response. Behringer's "The Truth"
monitors give you that detailed and accurate representation to help you make tracking and mixing choices.
There has never been a better time to join the computer recording revolution! So, pick up some of the gear listed here and start recording that epic album.And remember, the gear is a means
to an end. Not the end itself. It's all about the music!
Ben Blakesley is in charge of Marketing and Technology at George's Music and records on all types of systems, capturing audio for diverse clients as the Chief Engineer for Javboy Records.