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Setting Up The Ultimate Digital Home Studio, Part VII

Well, it's a new year and a new century and high time I wrote a new installment of this column! Over the last few months I have received many emails and have responded to as many as I can. The questions I have been getting have shaped the subject matter of this segment.

What I am realising is that there are a lot of misconceptions out there about what it really takes to record at home on a computer and how this all works in the real world. When I started the column I originally intended it to be read by people somewhat like myself, to be specific, those who already have some recording background in conventional studios with tape and wish to move into digital recording on their PC. What I am finding is that in addition to this type of person there are also many readers who are novices to the recording world and want to start their foray into home recording with the PC, which is totally logical.

So, this segment will hopefully dispel a few myths, explain a few basics and clear the air a bit for those of you who are new to this whole recording thing. Those of you who are a bit more experienced may find a lot of it redundant so just bear with me here because these are issues I have to address. Rest assured I will come back soon with something more enlightening.

OK, first of all lets talk for a minute about exactly what you can expect to do with a PC, what it is and is not and some realistic costs that may be involved.

Issue number one is what you can realistically expect the PC to do for you. If you were to put together a conventional home studio with some kind of tape deck you would need the following items:

  1. The multitrack tape deck
  2. A deck to mix down to (probably DAT, maybe a _ or _ inch master reel to reel or if you're on a really tight budget, cassette)
  3. Monitor speakers and power amp to drive them
  4. Mixing board to monitor and mix down from the multitrack machine
  5. At least one good mic for vocals or acoustic instruments -- more mics if you need to record drums or other instruments simultaneously
  6. Mic pre-amp or mixer with input module to drive the mic
  7. Compressor for recording acoustic instruments or vocals
  8. Various outboard effects such as reverbs, delays, flanger, chorus, de-esser, possibly more compressors, gates etc
  9. With all this stuff to be wired up you'll need a substantial amount of instrument and mic cable to hook it all up with
  10. probably some type of isolation booth if you intend to record vocals or acoustic guitar etc.
  11. (And this goes without saying) all the instruments to be recorded
  12. Lastly, and this is the most overlooked item but is crucial for all studios whether commercial or simple home set-ups, are ya ready . . . talent! That's right, plain and simple, this is music we're talking about here and it requires talent and experience to do it well. Nothing will replace ability. No matter how much money you spend on the latest and greatest toys, your recordings can still sound dorky and amateurish if the person at the controls does not have what it takes.

Don't get me wrong here, we're not talking rocket science but there is most definitely some learning and practice required. This may seem obvious but you'd be surprised how many people out there have this notion that the computer will do it all for them and they won't have to work at it. Having said that, the PC environment does allow for quite a bit of inexperience that the "real world" doesn't. (Like being able to hit "undo." Don't you wish you had that undo button when you've just spilled Pepsi into the faders!)

So, now we've got a brief laundry list of what you'd have to have in a tape-based studio -- oh it's far from complete -- you'd also need patch bays and ground lifters and direct boxes and pop filters and mic stands etc. etc. etc.

The key thing here is what the list is like for a PC studio and this is where many people are somewhat confused. To build a PC studio you can subtract from the above:

  1. (obviously) The multitrack tape deck
  2. The mixdown deck (you can go straight to CD in the computer)
  3. The mixing board (although you may still need a small mixer to monitor MIDI keyboards etc. as you record)
  4. The various outboard effects (most of these can be had in the form of active-x plugins). And . . . and . . . that's it. Everything else you would need above for a conventional studio you will STILL NEED FOR A PC STUDIO. (You won't need near as many cables because you won't have so many things to wire up).

The computer basically replaces the tape decks and mixer and most of the effects. I still recommend an outboard compressor for recording vocals or acoustic instruments. I have already talked about the additional hardware and software required to set-up the PC for recording. So, the absolute truth is that the "entire" studio is not inside the PC and I never said it was but I know from many emails I have received that there are those of you who need this explained.

If you want to create really good recordings of music with vocals or acoustic instruments you will need to spend a considerable amount of money over and above the cost of your PC and the obvious software and soundcard. As I have said before, a good mic can cost more than a computer these days. It is up to you to determine how serious you are and what you can afford.

This leads me to the subject of things I can and cannot answer in emails. I can rarely recommend specific gear because everyone's use, ability and budget are so different. I have already said what software and soundcards I recommend and I am continually bombarded with emails expecting me to write out a detailed laundry list of everything someone needs which I clearly cannot do. I will not answer questions about general studio gear, ie" mics, effects, pre-amps etc. The reason is simply because this is NOT a studio primer, it is specifically focused on PC recording. There are other columns and books for general studio gear and technique.

Since I am clearing the air here about emails. Please read ALL the installments before emailing me. I routinely get emails asking what soundcard or software I recommend and those topics are covered in the first few segments of this column. If I change my mind on a piece of software or hardware or find something newer cheaper or better I will let you know. Otherwise, my recommendations on these items have already been stated. I am happy to do my best at answering specific questions related to PC recording on things that have not already been covered.

I actually have answered most of the email I have received, even the off-topic ones, so if you wrote me and didn't get an answer it's either because I didn't have time at that particular moment or the email got buried in the inbox OR it was something that has already been answered in my column. So, to recap -- the computer won't work miracles and I can't tell you what colour underwear you should wear for PC recording. The good news is that even with all the other stuff you may need to have for your own home studio you'll save a bundle over the old tape and mixing board approach. The multitrack tape machine still costs as much as, or more likely, more than the average computer and with the computer you have the unheard-of luxury of almost unlimited tracks ! When you consider the power you get in terms of mixing and editing and being able to back everything up and mix straight to CD, plus having all those effects in the computer, it IS almost miraculous.

Those of you lucky enough to be starting your first home studio on the PC will never fully appreciate the absolute joy of it. You never went through the process of spending thousands just for an 8 track _ inch machine and then thousands more on effects, cables, mixers, and TAPE ! for cry'in out loud, it used to cost money just to have blank tape to record on and if you ran out you'd have to go buy more before you could record a new song !! Think about that for a minute . . . no really, think about it -- I'll wait . . . . Ok, hopefully now you can start to see the bigger picture here. Either that or you think I'm crazy by now. If none of this is making any sense then I suggest reading the first 6 instalments of this column. If it still doesn't make any sense or if you don't know the difference between MIDI data and audio data, you should probably pick up a book or two on general recording practices and/or talk to your friendly local music store where you're going to buy the stuff anyway.

I really hope I have covered the basics of what can and cannot be expected from your PC. Just keep in mind the fact that great recordings are much more a product of ability and experience than expensive gear but that you WILL have to invest in things like mics and speakers and there's no getting around it. When it comes to recording hardware, you get what you pay for and the upper end goes right on into the stratosphere so you and you alone have to decide what level you need to spend for our own needs. You will also need to spend a considerable amount of time learning to use the gear -- you cannot expect to do everything you want when you first turn it on, especially if you do not already have any recording experience.

That's all until next time . . . be safe out there (I know it doesn't have anything to do with recording I've just always wanted to say that for some reason).

Go to Part VI 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.