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Setting Up The Ultimate Digital Home Studio, Part I

Welcome to the first installment of my column on setting up and getting the most out of a home recording studio. We've left the world of tape machines and mixing consoles behind and put the entire studio inside an ordinary computer. My goal for this little slice of cyberspace is to provide, on an ongoing basis, a discussion of the process of recording in an all-digital environment. We're going to start with the basics of setting up a "virtual" studio, the hardware and software and various options therein.

Over the next few installments I'll be covering the techniques of recording and editing in the digital world and I will be reviewing different software for editing and effects etc.

In short, I hope to completely cover the basics and at least touch on any and all relevant facets of the digital studio environment. This column is not intended to be an engineering primer or a discussion of analog studio techniques. I may discuss those topics to some degree as they relate to the digital studio world but I do not intend to rehash a lot of the territory that has been amply covered elsewhere.

So, with that in mind, the first topic I want to dive into is the issue of what I believe to be the best choice of hardware and software and why.

First of all, I'm making the assumption that I'm talking to those of you who already know you want to set up a home studio. For those of you who have traditionally recorded in commercial studios and may have felt that it was the only way to get a pro quality recording, or maybe it seemed too expensive or complicated, I'm here to tell you that things have changed and it might be very beneficial for you to look at the options that are available now. You really can create a pro level recording at home on your computer and I'll show you how.

I realize that some of you will have very different backgrounds and experience in recording and also that you may have very different goals than I have. Nonetheless, I am convinced that the same combination of hardware and software, with only a few variations, is the very best answer to pretty much all your recording needs. Keep in mind I'm gearing this column towards the home studio as opposed to a commercial studio.

In a commercial studio there are other concerns besides pure recording fidelity, you may need to be compatible with a popular tape format, have certain outboard gear that clients want etc. Plus, a commercial studio has to look impressive. Artists who hire studios want to be blown away by the stacks of mega-expensive gear and the feeling they can get anything they want by fiddling with those knobs. The truth is, you can have all that stuff plus some things even the expensive outboard gear cant do, all in your humble home computer.

The first piece of hardware is the computer itself and the PC running Windows 95, 98 or NT is the absolute best choice. These days it seems like the "average" home computer is somewhere between a Pentium 120 and 333, a few Gigs of Hard Drive, between 16 and 128 megs of RAM etc. So, many of you already have the main workhorse of the studio sitting right there on your desktop. There was a time when the Mac had a jump on the PC but those days are long gone and with the huge choice of software and peripherals and the flexibility of being able to upgrade easily, the PC is the hands-down winner.

If you already have a suitable computer the remaining expense involved in getting it fitted with the right software and audio card will be extremely reasonable. If you do not have a computer, you may be tempted by the vast array of stand-alone direct to hard disk devices out now by all the big companies. Roland has at least two models, Korg has one, Akai has one and so on. I investigated this whole issue in detail when I made the switch from a tape based recording environment myself. The stand-alone boxes have one thing going for them, portability. If you need to take something small on the road with you and into your hotel room etc. then it may make sense to look into a compact and portable all-in-one device. Otherwise, the flexibility and upgrade potential of the PC will far outweigh the small size of the stand-alone units.

With the stand-alone units you are stuck with one type of software, one size hard drive, one set of inputs and outputs and a tiny LCD display to view everything on. Sure, some of them may have an interface to a conventional computer monitor, but if you're going to lug a monitor around then the portability issue goes out the window.

With a PC based system you can have more than one sequencer or audio recording program, you can add more programs for effects and editing, you can add more outputs or inputs in the form of a bigger audio card or multiple cards, you can have as big a hard drive as you need, etc. etc. Many companies are developing effects programs for the PC environment in the form of Active-X plugins, including makers of high-end outboard gear like TC Electronics and Focusrite. So when the newest and coolest effect becomes available in software you can bet it will be available on the PC with Windows, and probably ONLY the PC.

The cost factor is always a consideration and with the massive drop in computer prices over the last few years, the affordability is really amazing. For about the same amount you would spend on the top of the line Roland hard disk recorder, for example, you can have a Pentium 266, a good audio card and the software to record, edit and mix a session -- plus, you can do all the other things in the universe that computers are good for, graphics, games, internet access etc. Not to mention that you have a more powerful and flexible recording setup that will change with the times via new software etc.

One of the other slick things about the computer world is that you can also mix your project direct to CD or DVD! I have to remind myself on occasion just how amazingly cool it is to be able to own this kind of technology.

OK, so it should now be abundantly clear why the PC running Windows is THE choice for recording. To be specific, the basic requirements are generally a Pentium 120 or faster (note, not all audio cards are compatible with non Intel processors, be sure your CPU will work with the sound card you want to use before buying one). I recommend an actual Intel processor for guaranteed compatibility with various other hardware and software. Next you need a reasonably fast hard drive. Most of the UDMA drives in the newer computers are quite capable of multitrack recording but the faster the better as this determines the amount of total tracks you can play back or record at one time with most software. (Some programs, such as Cooledit Pro, do a background submix that allows more tracks to play back than would be possible if played as separate tracks and are almost unlimited in this respect). There is a very simple and free utility you can download to test the ability of your existing hard drive for digital recording, it's called the Echo Reporter and I'll include the URL at the end of this section.

The basic thing to keep in mind regarding computer power and how it relates to recording is this; faster hard drive equals more tracks that can be played back simultaneously, faster CPU equals more real-time effects that can be used at once.

When I went looking at the various options in hardware for my own recording setup, I was first plagued by the question of whether to go with a SCSI hard drive, whether it was absolutely necessary and if it justified the extra cost. What I ended up deciding on was a relatively fast UDMA drive (which is an IDE device). I'm using a Western Digital 4.3 gig drive -- I don't know the exact specs but I believe it is about 5400 rpm, access time of 9.5 ms and the echo reporter program indicated the effective transfer rate is about 1.6 Meg/second. With this drive I'm getting approximately 12 to 14 continuous tracks of playback. Now, that doesn't mean that anything I do is limited to 14 tracks -- that is continuous (as in plays all the way through the song). Most tracks are not continuous all the way through except for drums and bass and maybe a rhythm guitar etc. The latest recording I just finished has well over 40 tracks and no sign of being at the limit. This is because only 8 tracks go all the way through the song and the rest are parts that come and go -- I think you'll find this to be the case most of the time.

As I mentioned before, with Cooledit Pro you don't have this same "limitation" (I put that term in quotes because I don't really consider it a limitation and I'll explain why in later segments). In any case the drive I have is more than up to the task and it is a very common and inexpensive drive. You can now get a few IDE drives that run at 7200 rpm and most likely have somewhat faster transfer rates. It used to be that SCSI was a necessity but when I started checking the specs, what I found is that these days you only get slightly faster with SCSI because the UDMA drives have gotten very good. I just didn't feel that the extra expense of SCSI was justified by the relatively small performance gain. I'd say, if you have the money and want the fastest thing you can get, go for the ultrawide SCSI, but just know that you can certainly get the job done without it. One benefit of SCSI that is not apparent in the speed alone is that the SCSI card takes over the disk control functions and thus frees up the main CPU somewhat, so you could conceivably have extra CPU power available for realtime effects.

You also need some RAM memory. They often say 16 meg RAM is the minimum but 32 or 64 is more like it, and it's cheap enough to warrant adding some RAM if you only have 16 now.

In the next section I'll be covering the other piece of hardware needed to make it all happen, the soundcard, and some of you will find that you already have this item covered as well (depending on what you wish to accomplish with your studio and your needs as a musician).

To find out how your existing computer will handle digital recording, download the free Echo Reporter utility, it's a small and very simple program that will tell you how many tracks you can record and playback on your existing system. I have put the link on my links page and will add more cool and useful links as I discover them

Go to Part II 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.