The Center of It All — The Recorder
The center of any studio is the recording device. No matter what you choose — computer or standalone — all the magic happens at the recorder. Picking the right one for you and your needs is important, so be sure to do your homework and get it right.
Using a Computer
If you own a computer already, especially one that's recent, you might own a recording device just waiting to serve you. (Chapter 6 covers computer setups in much greater detail.) Why would you want to use a computer? Well, for one thing, if you already have one, there's less to buy. At this point, with the exception of the cassette-based, 4-track recorder (which is now on its last legs), the alternatives to computers all utilize digital technology just like a computer.
Digital recordings are stored as binary information. Music going into the recorder goes through a complicated analog-to-digital conversion that turns sound into binary information for storage.
So what kind of computer makes a good recording computer? The difficulty in answering that question lies in the fact that technology changes so quickly. What was current six months ago is considered old news today. Computers are divided into two main types by the operating system they use: Microsoft Windows or Apple Mac. Many people swear by whichever they use, and great music can be made on each. Traditionally, professional music studios have relied on Apple computers, but Windows-based systems are becoming more and more popular, especially in home studios.
The computer debate can get very silly and many people get carried away with numbers and current trends. The basic rule of thumb is age: If your computer is less than two years old, you'll be in good shape. The problem is that, while current computers work well now, they do so only because the current software is optimized for the current technology. When newer, faster computers arrive, the software manufacturers change their software to work with the enhancements of the new chips. When you try to run new software on old chips, you can run into problems.
It's important to buy the correct software for your machine. Every software manufacturer has minimum system requirements; it's up to you, the educated consumer, to make sure your machine qualifies. Software is usually not returnable.
What's So Great about a Computer Anyway?
There's nothing “great” about computers. Computers are simply tools that let you get a job done. Let's talk about the pros and cons of using a computer for music.
On the pro side, here are several advantages to recording music with a computer:
You might already own a suitable machine.
Computers have increased sound quality.
You can edit on a large screen using a mouse.
You can take advantage of powerful music software.
It's easy to turn your music into Mp3s and share them online.
It's easy to burn and label CDs of your music.
On the con side, here are several disadvantages to recording music with a computer:
Computers crash (and often at the worst possible times).
Except for laptops, you can't take computers anywhere.
The price of software and hardware can be steep.
New software has a learning curve.
The pace at which technology changes can be annoying.
Computers are susceptible to viruses.
If You Don't Have a Computer
So what if you don't have a computer? Or maybe you have one, but it's impossible to get your family away from it at the times you want to work. If you fall into one of these categories, you still have many options. There are plenty of recorders that stand alone. The playing field consists of cassette-based 4- and 8-track recorders, digital hard-disk recorders, digital multitrack tape machines, and studio-in-a-box solutions. The standalone solutions have portability going for them. You can easily take a standalone recorder with you wherever you go. Even the rack-mounted Alesis ADATs and the Tascam DA-88s can be thrown into a rack bag and taken to sessions. While the editing is superior on a computer, more and more of these recorders have the ability to interface with a computer later on to enable complex editing and sound manipulation, giving you the best of both worlds. If you already have a mixer and outboard rack effects, a standalone unit is a great idea for you.
The studio-in-a-box is another type of standalone recorder. It features inputs, some microphone preamps, recording, integrated effects, integrated mixing, mastering, and many include CD burners so you can burn your final product. If you're just starting out and don't own any mixers or effects, these studios-in-a-box are a really great way to go.
The all-in-one studio has brought digital studio quality to the masses. Before the advent of digital recording technology, cassette tapes lacked the sound quality and fidelity of professional studios. But now anyone can make a great-sounding recording, without spending a fortune.
Roland was one of the first companies to introduce the concept of everything under one roof. The VS-880 was a revolutionary product because everything was done in one small tabletop unit. It was small, portable, and, considering all you got in one package, surprisingly affordable. Today there are lots of models and manufacturers to choose from, and many price points, too.
There are some downsides to these units. The number of tracks you can record at the same time can be limited. You need to make sure it can handle what you have in mind for it. The quality of the effects is a limitation — whatever you get you get — and they can't usually be upgraded. Some units allow you to use external effects through an insert jack, but not all of them do. Many units of this type store music on either a hard drive or, more recently, on compact flash or smart media cards. When the drive is full, you have to stop recording. Some devices let you burn the data tracks as a backup, and some don't; you have to mix, finish, and delete before you can do anything else. Disadvantages aside, these units are very popular and sell very well. Anyone interested in home recording would be wise to consider what models and features are available.