Digital recording - do I need a computer?

The short answer - probably. But you can do digital recording without a computer, using a standalone recorder.

There are two ways to record digitally - with a computer, or with a digital recorder. Recorders are things like voice recorders, iPhones, and ADAT machines.

Which way is best?

I think it's best to use a computer. Why? 

A computer is multi-purpose (you get more for your money). If you use a laptop, it is portable. It will go the places you need to go. But a computer is not the answer to all questions.

Here are a few questions to ask yourself to help you decide:

  • Why am I recording? (To produce and sell? To give each choir member a copy? To get our band off the ground?)
  • What kind of studio will this be used in? (ie., project studio, commercial studio, garage studio, or bedroom)
  • Do I already have a computer?
  • Portability - will I be moving the recording setup a lot? (ie., my house and a friend's house)

Here are some advantages of a computer recording system:

Power

You have a lot more power and flexibility when it comes to add-ons and digital effects. There are a lot of powerful recording software programs available for computers.

With a standalone recorder you will have access to different effects, but the options are limited compared to those available to a computer. Reverb sounds cheesy. Mixing just is kind of weak compared to a computer.

Cost

Pricing varies a lot between the different digital recording systems. With a computer, you have the cost of the:

With a stand-alone recording device, you can skip the computer and interface. You still have to figure preamps and mics.

The price for a good digital recorder is right up there with a computer. (Check this mid-level recorder out.) So by the time you buy a good recorder, you're talking as much as a computer anyway.

Portability

This is where stand alone digital recorders shine. You just pick it up and go. You won’t have 2 million cables to unhook and reconnect at the right places.

When you have a computer, moving the system becomes a little bit harder. That means the whole recording system is a bit more stationary. Who wants to spend 1.5 hours moving the computer for a 45 minute recording session? OK, it probably won't take that long, but it's still a pain.

The music recording guys at college wheeled around a big cart with all their equipment - preamps, cables, etc. Inside was a computer with an LCD monitor - the ultimate portable computer. Is this practical for most people? No. But it worked for them. 

The Verdict

OK, what would I recommend? Computer recording setup is the best option because of the flexibility and upgrade-ability. It may cost you a bit more, but that tradeoff is usually worth it. Unless you need it for super-portable recording, ready to pick up and run in a minute.

Chances are, you already have a computer - there is most of your investment right away. 

There is a reason that most studios use Pro Tools on a computer at the heart of the system. It is powerful, flexible, and gets a good job done fast.

If you just want to get your feet wet, buying a stand-alone digital recording unit might be the way for you.

How does the whole recording process work, anyway?

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