Welcome to the second installment of the Virtual Studio!
We're going to pick up where part one left off and cover the remaining hardware you need to get the PC ready for digital recording... the soundcard. The soundcard is responsible for converting audio signals to digital information to be recorded, and conversely, it turns the results of your recording editing and mixing back into audio and puts it into the real world again. These days pretty much all the new home computers are sold with some type of sound card for at least basic audio capabilities. Among these commonly found soundcards there are a few that will work for digital recording but the question arises: what do you need for your specific use?
If you are simply using the recording capabilities to help in composing songs and you will not be attempting to get finished masters then you may well be able to use one of many very inexpensive sound cards. The main feature it must have is something called full duplex capability. This simply means it can record and play back at the same time. A lot of the soundblaster type cards have this feature. The main difference between the type of card you may find already in a home computer and sells for between 30 and 100dollars and something that is intended for pro quality digital recording, is the signal to noise ratio and the amount of simultaneous inputs and outputs you will have.
So, if you don't need the multiple ins and outs and aren't going to be producing finished product that needs to be dead quiet, then you have a wide choice of common soundcards,most under 100 dollars. Just look for the full duplex feature. Another feature you may need as a composer is a MIDI interface if you are going to use MIDI keyboards and want to sequence them in the computer as well. If you are buying a soundcard specifically for recording you can get one that also has MIDI. I am actually still using the MIDI interface on an old AWE32 card which I had to have for some content development work I was doing -these days a much better card can be had for a fraction of what I paid for mine. (I don't use the audio portion of the AWE card, only the MIDI in and out). Anyway, there are so many inexpensive soundcards out there now that I have not kept up with them. You might start by looking at what's out now by Creative Labs such as the AWE 64 etc. (I have heard of people having problems with the "Soundblaster Live" though, so be warned) if you are in doubt about whether a certain card is suitable you can usually find some type of list of the cards that are supported by the software you want to use, or you can ask their tech people via email. If you already have a card in your computer you have nothing to lose by simply giving it a try.
Now, for those of you who will need to have the best possible quality audio and / or more than one stereo pair of inputs or outputs there is also a growing number of choices but a few I can recommend from personal experience. Since I bought the audio card I'm using now,there have been a few new ones that have come out and may have influenced my decision had they been out at the time. What I am using is the "Gina" by Event Electronics and it has worked perfectly from the beginning and installation and setup is a breeze.
There are three cards by Event and one is a bit less expensive than the Gina but does not have the digital I/O feature and then there is the "Layla" which has more ins and outs which I didn't need for my own studio. The Gina has one pair of audio inputs and one stereo digital input and eight audio outputs and a stereo digital out which is plenty for the work I do which never involves recording more than two tracks at a time.
There is a new card out that features 8 inputs for those who need to record multiple simultaneous audio sources (such as recording a live take of a band playing together).It's called the "ISIS" from Guillemot.It lists for about $400.00 and is something I would have considered had it been available at the time. (I am a dealer for them in the UK and Europe so you can email me if you cannot find one at a store nearby).
Both the ISIS and the Gina are 20 bit resolution and there are now a few cards out therewith 24 bit architecture. The thing to consider with this issue of 20 bit vs 24 bit etc.is that if you are going to master the song to CD, it is going to be 16 bit 44.1Khz,period, end of story. So no matter how incredible the signal to noise stats are at 24 bit sit's going to eventually be a 16 bit stereo .wav file.
I may eventually go to a 24 bit card and start recording on Cakewalk at 96khz but at the end of the day will my ears be able to tell the difference ? That's the ultimate reality, can you actually hear the difference? Right now with the Gina card at 20 bits and recording at 44.1khz I can tell that my recordings are much quieter than when I was using ADATs and an analog board and that's mostly due to less wire and outboard gear. Obviously if there is areal difference in the signal to noise ratio or bit resolution of a soundcard it will be audible but when you consider that many hit records have been and still are made on noisier and more primitive gear you have to ask yourself when it's good enough to get the job done. Right now with 20 bit technology and recording at 44.1khz you already are working with what is technically higher fidelity than a CD and I think we all agree that CDs still sound pretty good.
For the most part, the pro-oriented sound cards will not have MIDI and you will need to have a separate MIDI interface. The ISIS has MIDI as well as a wavetable synth, digital/O and many other features and comes bundled with some software as well so it may be a good place to start looking and may well be the answer for many of you. The digital I/O feature is something I needed since I have a lot of material on DAT that I want to transfer to the computer from time to time. I also use the digital port to send data to mysampler. If you are going to mix down to CD and don't anticipate needing to load material from other digital sources you may be able to dispense with the digital ports and save some money. I must confess that I use the digital I/O very little these days since most of my work consists of recording an audio source and the final mix goes straight to a CD so it never has to leave the computer in a sense. What you want to avoid is multiple conversion of the same data from audio to digital and vise versa because each conversion results in slight errors from the quantization process. These quantization side effects will probably not be audible in only one or two generations but it is best to keep it to a minimum.
Go to Part I of this article
Go to Part III of this article
Digital recording column author Stewart Meredith has worked on the road and in the studio with the likes of Leon Russell and played on sessions in Nashville, Houston and Los Angeles. He was a content developer and beta tester for inovative software company Hotz Interactive in Los Angeles and has worked as assistant engineer in studios as well as session singer and keyboard player/programmer. He is available on a limited basis for freelance consulting in the London area.