Home Recording Studio Setup

Probably the first thing you want to think about before you start spending any money on getting a home recording facility together is, why do I want to record at home?

You probably already know the reason, but the clearer you are about this the better your results will be.

Do you want to just pick up your guitar on a whim and record the latest idea that’s passing by? Do you intend to record an album in its entirety at home and release it? Do you want to make podcasts to broadcast on the web? Do you want to ‘flesh out’ your musical ideas to get an idea of how the final product might sound. All are valid reasons for having your own home recording setup. Each one also suggests a particular amount of money you will need to spend to get the result you desire, and the amount of effort you need to expend making it happen.

What you will need.

From a basic standpoint you will need some way to record your performance or ideas – this could be into a Personal Computer[PC] or mac or onto a stand alone recorder. You’ll also need someway of getting the performance into the recording medium – whether that be via microphone or a piano keyboard. You will also need to find some way to ‘deliver’ your product – via mp3 mix/cd or podcast. All factors to consider as you set up you home studio.

What is best; Computer recording or stand alone?

I will confess that in my opinion and experience, the simplest and most effective way to record anything at home is with a stand alone recorder. Several years ago I recorded an entire album using Fostex DMT8, 8 tracks to do the lot- including backing vocals guitars and eveything. To those of you unfamiliar with what I mean by stand alone recorder then have a look at units from Fostex, Yamaha, Roland and others. In general they have a built in hard drive or media card which records data that you produce as a result of recording yourself. This can be as simple as engaging a ‘record’ button and playing or singing. There’s no fuss involved with this. Some of them also allow you to burn a CD at the end of the process so you can amaze your friends! There can be disadvantages as I will discuss later, but depending on your final aims as discussed earlier, you will make allowances for any shortcomings.

Recording onto a pc or Mac takes us into a more complex word, so if you’re not computer savvy, or prepared to enagage in a long and sometimes frustrating journey I’d go with the stand alone unit.

Why is it more difficult to record into a PC?

Recoding into a PC has a minimum of 3 steps:

Input device-microphone/keyboard/turntable
Sound card-converts your ‘real world’ sound into computer language.
Recording software-does the job of ‘capturing’ your performance.

Once you have got your recording chain set up then it ‘can’ be as easy as using a stand alone unit, but to get to that point you have to deal with a number of factors-the #1 bugbear of most home computer recording nuts is a friendly tike named ‘latency’ .

Latency: ‘ something that is revealed later’.

For those not in the know, latency can be compared to hearing your voice echoing back from a canyon, heloooo-hellllllloooo. There is a gap between when you yell and when you hear your voice returned. If you plug in a microphone and set up your recording software and say the ubiquitous ‘hello’ you will get a similar effect!

Unless you invest in a super high end recording system such as ‘Pro Tools HD’, then this is something you need to work with as a home computer recording aficionado.

The reason we encounter latency is that the computer needs time to convert the analogue [physcal sounds via electrcity] into digital data; ones and noughts. With a good sound card this can take between 7 and 15 milliseconds [ yep that’s 15 thousandenths of a second] and then about the same number of milliseconds to convert it from a digital signal back into an electrical analogue sytem that we can usefully use to hear the sound coming out of the computer. Bare in mind that our ear ‘notices’ a sound as an echo at around the 50 millisecond mark [ more on this later] – so if we have a sound card with 25millisecond [ms] input delay and 25 ms output delay then our ear wil perceive it as an echo- not much good to play along with as we will be out of time.

That’s pretty useless you might shriek, so how do people manage to do all this computer recording stuff at home? A-ha. Those clever people who make sound cards m-audio, Presonus, Yamaha etc have done something very clever, they instigated a process named ‘direct monitoring’.

Direct monitoring allows us to hear the incoming sound at its source- straight after you have plugged it in- instead of through the computer where you will pick up a substantive delay. You can still listen ‘though the computer’ if you choose, but in my experience it’s pretty distracting especially with large latency times. The other thing that your clever software program/soundcard combo will do is to record your new track in time with the others by making allowances for the current latency times.

In summary; For ease of use and less technology hassles get a stand alone hard disk recorder. For more complex productions consider getting a computer/soundcard/software combo, but be prepared for a sharp learning curve.