Computer Audio Recording – Working With Audio

Computer audio recording - the economical way of recording audio. It used to be that a recording studio used tons of specialized, expensive gear. After the preamps pumped out the line - level signal, it went into a high quality mixer or recording interface, which captured the audio on tape reels. To do a mixdown, all those tracks must then be routed through a mixer, and the engineer had to learn how to do the mix - what level each track must be at, and when to fade in or out. This was then caught on a two track recorder. 

But now, computer audio recording changes all that. Instead of complicated recording interfaces and steep learning curve mixing, now you can plug the mics into a computer interface, bring up a software program, and record directly to hard disk. As an added bonus, it is now digital, meaning it will not gradually lose quality as you play it over and over.

When you go to mix the tracks, that all happens on the computer, digitally. You can put custom effects on each individual track, or selective groups of them. You can control volume and pan in extremely fine ways. You can program the mix to come out exactly the same, time and again. Computer audio recording is great!

So lets slow down and take a closer look at things. We will look at what is required of the computer for audio recording, what kind of software you will need (both bare-bones, and what is nice to have), how to connect the computer to the microphones, and how to make it all work together.

Computer Audio Recording 1: The Computer

Almost any computer will work for computer audio recording. Obviously, if yours was made in the last millennium, there's a good chance it won't be powerful enough, but to do basic 2 to 4 track recording, anything with a gig of RAM, free hard drive space, and a processor faster than 1gHz should easily do it.

The basic rule of thumb for how much computer power you need is this: the faster and stronger your computer is, the more tracks and plugins you will be able to use. I use a PowerMac G5, dual processor (I think the speed is about 1.8gHz), with 3GB of RAM (that's even overkill). I have a second internal hard drive for the audio files, which works pretty good. This setup works fine, and provides enough power for many tracks (usually don't use more than 8-16) and lots of plugin power for my Waves plugins.

When you start using more tracks, the first thing to give you trouble will probably be the hard drive. When you play music on the computer, it must load all that data from the hard disk before it can process and play it. A 16bit mono WAV or AIFF file contains about 100KB of data per second, so just imagine when you get 20 tracks going - several MB per second! Then, if you get into samples and MIDI stuff, you have more data throughput. The good news is that audio is not as demanding as video is, so you won't need the top of the line, cutting edge technology. An internal SATA hard drive is plenty fast for most computer audio recording. 

You can also use a laptop for computer audio recording. Keep in mind that for bulk processing power, a comparable desktop computer will have more power than a laptop, but laptops work fine. You'll probably want to use an external hard drive, but otherwise, a laptop will provide sufficient recording power.

When I go to record a choir in a church or some other location, I'll take my laptop to do the recording, then bring the files back to my studio desktop to edit and mix. It's kind of a matter of preference - my laptop is a new MacBook Pro running at 2.4gHz, so it can easily handle the editing part, but my studio is set up with the monitors, computer screen, and everything, so it's just easier that way. 

Plus, I like having something dependable in the studio. That computer is not connected to the internet, so the only changes are ones that I know I made.

Computer Audio Recording 2: Software

You don't need much software to begin computer audio recording, but there are better and worse options available. I see the options as basically these: free, budget, and professional level. It is possible to do a mix on any of these (theoretically), but the farther up you go in price, the more features and tools you get.

I record on a Mac, so the software I use is Mac specific. MOTU's Digital Performer works excellent for what I need. I do specifically audio recording, without MIDI integration, but Digital Performer does it all. It comes in at the upper end of the price scheme, but it does what it does very well. 

AudioDesk is another product by MOTU that I started with. They ship it free with some of their computer audio recording interfaces (that's where I first got it). I started using AudioDesk, then stepped up to Digital Performer.

A friend of mine uses Steinberg's Cubase program, and he likes it. I never used it, so I can't make a judgment but it's worth checking out.

There are free options available that you can check out. It might be good to have Audacity on your computer, just in case, but I like to have something more powerful to work with. It will just save you a lot of frustration and hair pulling. On the flip side, don't buy a brand new program, and expect to use it the next day - it takes time to learn. 

Computer Audio Recording 3: Interfacing

So now we have this computer, equipped with just the right software program, but now we need some way to connect the mics to the computer. Enter, the computer audio recording interface!

An interface is something that works between two systems, allowing them to work together. For instance, your keyboard and screen are interfaces, allowing you to work with your computer. In the world of computer audio recording, the two systems are the computer system of USB, FireWire, and digital data, and the audio system of XLR cables, 1/4" TRS cables, and analog sound.

A computer audio recording interface will take the analog line-level audio signal, convert it to digital, and send it along a USB or FireWire cable to your computer, where the software routes it to the hard drive. Interfaces come in many shapes and configurations, but the principle is the same - a go-between for the computer and the audio. 

An interface has three basic ways of connecting to a computer: USB, FireWire, or a specialized cable connected to an expansion card slot in the computer. The latter way is for higher end, more powerful interfaces, but that doesn't mean a FireWire or USB interface can't be powerful. I use the MOTU 828 interface, a FireWire based system. FireWire provides well for at least 8 channels of audio. The 828 has capacity for 24 channels, so you can see that it will be hard to require more power than a FireWire system can offer.

My 828 can accept a wide array of inputs - 8 analog inputs, with TRS 1/4" connecters, 2 XLR mic cables, with included preamps, 8 digital inputs via the ADAT Lightpipe interface that connects to my Presonus DigiMax, or 8 digital inputs via a TDIF protocol. All in all, I can record 24 channels at one time onto my computer.

There are smaller interfaces for computer audio recording, some of which I highlighted while talking about laptop digital recording, small pieces with just a few channels for mobile recording.

Another thing that goes with computer audio interfaces is drivers. Don't be caught without one! A driver is a piece of invisible software that allows your recording program to communicate with the interface. Any equipment manufacturer will supply a disc with drivers on, and with most, you can download directly from the manufacturer's website.

Computer Audio Recording 4: Working Together

When you have all the components hooked up together, you are ready to roll! Plug the mics (or preamps) into the interface, fire up the software, warm up the voice, and hit record! All is supposed to work well, and it should, provided you understand all the above and plugged everything together correctly.

From here on out, it requires learning how to use the software program, how to make it work the stuff you want it to. After you master the basics, it gets to be really fun. Trust me! Computer audio recording is a blast.

Have questions about computer audio recording? Not sure how to hook up the gear? What software program to buy? Which interface works with analog signals? We're open to help. Please ask your computer audio recording question here, and we'll see what we can do to help. 

Audio Recording Equipment Guide

What home recording equipment do you need? With so many things competing for your wallet, you must know exactly what you need so you can shop with confidence.

When I started looking into home recording, I had no idea what kind of equipment I needed. That's when I went to other people to help. That did the trick! I felt so much more confident when shopping for audio gear.

Your turn. This page will guide you to picking out what you need to get started recording.

You Must learn what you do and don't need

Categories of recording equipment

Here is a brief tour of what is out there. You will NOT need one of everything here - this list is an overview of everything that might apply. 

It can be as simple as a mic, cable, interface, computer, and headphones.

Here is a quick overview:

We can't go into all the details here - click through to each link above to learn more about what you need.

To make a recording, you must have some of them, but not everything. Probably the most important of all? The interface. It's what connects your computer to the audio side of things

The next most important recording equipment is microphones. They capture the sound from the air and convert it to electrical signals. Think of them as the windows into your system. If the window is clear, people can see through easily. If not, it's harder to "see" what's going on.

What you actually need

If you're starting out, I recommend this as a starter package.

  • A good microphone
  • A mic cable
  • A mic stand
  • An audio interface than includes a preamp
  • A computer (you probably already have this)
  • Recording software (whether something free or better featured)

This is what I started with, and it worked fine. It's OK to save and get cheaper things sometimes, but not for the mic. Get the best one you can. That's true for all audio gear, but especially mics. 

Why? Because it will make a difference in the quality of your sound.

Does it affect your sound?

When you're researching recording equipment, this is the question to ask:

Does it affect my sound?

A microphone affects your sound. Audio plugins affect your sound. A preamp affects your sound. A volume control for the monitors does not affect your sound.

So your sound will be better for buying a mic or plugins, but not for buying a controller.

This isn't an exciting way to think about it, but it is helpful.

How do we use this?

Now we understand how recording equipment works together. How can we use this information to our benefit? 

When you want to make a recording, evaluate what you need. 

If you don't have something, now you know what to shop for. You know what you'll be using it for, so you can look for something to suit your needs perfectly. 

Ask other people about what they have. See what other people like or dislike - this can be valuable help. 

For example

Say you want to record a voice for a radio ad. He got a sound track and wants to do the mixing on his computer, but he wants you to record someone speaking the ad. What do you need? 

Easy. Run down the chain - looks like you need a mic, cable, computer interface and your computer. The interface includes a preamp so you're good to go. 

Where is a good place to buy audio equipment?

Choir mic technique – ways to record a choir

Just what exactly is choir mic technique? Simply put, it is the skill and technique used in placing microphones for recording choirs or ensembles. It is knowing what mics work best, where to place them, and using various microphones, placement, and room space to make the choir sound their best. 

Just as there are many possible "right" ways to record anything else, there are many ways to use your choir mic technique skills. As you learn and gain experience, you'll find ways that really don't work the best, and some ways that are worth trying again. But the quest for a perfect setup will never be over. It's kind of like life - you never get done, even though we run out of time. 

Sam Ash Quikship Corp.

In this article we will look at several techniques and methods for choir mic placements and choir mic technique.

Mic placement techniques for Choirs

For the sake of this discussion, when I say choir it will mean a vocal ensemble of about 10 to 50, or even higher. You can use these principles on instrumental ensembles, orchestral or non, but I will be specifically applying them to a choir. Even the size of the choir I gave is a wide range, but the principles still apply, even with a larger group. 

The subject of choir mic technique, or choir recording and stereo recording are very intertwined - it's hard to talk about the one without mentioning the other. So make sure you check out the page on stereo recording for background info. 

So that out of the way, let's begin. 

There are two main schools of thought on how a choir should be recorded - with a stereo recording (or binaural), or each part separately. We'll discuss each idea, and I'll show you what I think as we go along. 🙂

Part by Part

When I say part I mean a section of the choir, like soprano, alto, tenor or bass (conveniently arranged in the acronym SATB). 

For choir mic technique in this method of recording choirs, each part has to be physically separated. We use a microphone for each section, and do a mixdown later, so we will end up with 4 tracks, plus any solos required. This method of choir miking has strengths and weaknesses inherent in it's design. 

First the strengths - you have much more control over the post-recording work of mixing. Each part is tracked separately, so you can adjust the levels individually. If the tenors just blasted a note at the end, just pull their part back in the mix, or if the alto should've come out a tad stronger in the middle, it's a cinch to bring them up a bit. 

Also, by recording separately, you usually move the mics closer to the group to avoid leakage. Therefore you will get a closer, or intimate sound (which is neither good nor bad, just a sound color that's available). 

The inherent weaknesses are as follows - you are not doing a true stereo (binaural) recording. This can sound good (I know of a studio that does the part by part method a lot and gets very good results), but it's not quite true to the source, it doesn't have a you-are-there character. 

While you are getting each part equally, you are not getting all parts together - when you mix, the tracks recorded at separate physical locations are brought together, many places to one, whereas a stereo recording is recorded in (roughly) 1 location, giving you a more realistic listening experience. 

The farther away the mics are from the singers, the more bleed you will get, or leak through of one part to the other microphones. This helps unify the sound, but defeats the purpose of mixing the tracks separately.

Stereo Recording

Choir mic technique using a stereo recording will sound natural, much more like a "you are there" experience. We have several mic placement patterns available for use, the most popular being XY, AB, ORTF, and Decca Tree. They use both cardioid and omni-directional mics. I'll assume you know what these are (to find out, see stereo recording.).

Choir recording mic techniques

There are a few different ways of doing this, but the most popular is to use an XY pair. Take two cardioid microphones and place the capsules at the same place, one right above the other. Angle them 90 degrees, so it looks like the corner of a square. (The diaphragms should be directly above one another.) Pan the inputs of the sound board to far left and far right. Ta-da! Your stereo signal! 

Now you have a stereo microphone pair setup and ready to use, but where should you put it?

Try starting with the mic stand(s) about 12 feet from the choir or group. I usually put the microphones high, and pointing slightly down. If I have three rows of people standing on risers, I aim the mics angling downward at the middle row.

From there, listen to the sound with your ear. Go ahead and stick your head in there, listening at various spots to find the "sweet spot". Move the microphones out and in. You probably want to keep them centered for your stereo sound. Try raising and lowering them too; that might yield an altogether different sound!

The most important piece of advice I have is experiment. After you do a few choirs, you will know what a good choir recording will sound like. This will help you a lot in setting the microphones up and listening for a good sound.

Spend enough time setting up. Don't try to rush — that will cheat your choir out of getting the best possible sound. Act like you know what you're doing, because you do! Choir mic technique is not learned in one session.

If you have more than one set of mics, try using a combination of stereo microphone techniques. Try using a ORTF pair closer to the choir, and a spaced pair further back. (More on ORTF and spaced pair setups in the stereo recording article.)

Other considerations that come into play are the room size, natural reverberation, and the size and quality of the group. Choir recording is very general — there are a million (I think?) different ways to do a choir recording, of choir mic technique.

My main tip is already stated: experiment. Take your time, and do it right the first time. Sure, you'll make mistakes, but learn from these.

Let me know your experiences and observations in choir mic technique. What helps you the most, or what one tip would you share with anyone considering choir recording? I'd love to hear from you, and you would help make the experience for others easier.

Return from choir mic technique to choir recording.

Audacity Audio Recording Software

Audacity audio recording software is probably the most popular free recording program available. The free part is good news to those of us that don't have extra dollars to spend on fancy software. There are things that set Audacity apart from commercial software, but there are a few ways in which it is simply a good free tool.

I use it regularly for quick and simple editing tasks. It's quick, easy, and efficient. But for my regular recording projects, it just doesn't have the feature set that I need.

However, Audacity audio recording is a good way to get started learning about home recording.

What does it do?

Audacity is a light weight computer recording software program. It allows you to learn more about digital recording before investing money in a more full featured program. That's what I recommend you do - try it out so you know more about recording when you shop for a better program.

Caveat - if you bought some audio equipment that came bundled with some software, you will probably be better off using that. Why? Audacity is lean and mean. It doesn't have the best user interface, and it doesn't include as many capabilities as better software.

Not that a free product bundled with some gear is going to be very much better, but it may have some of the features of a higher version of software. Audacity audio recording software has what it has.

What it does - multi-track recording that is not the easiest to figure out, but it is multi-track. It also has a solid bank of effects, ranging from compression and EQ to time compressing and spectral effects.

Speeding Up Podcasts

I like to listen to podcasts, and I don't like to waste time. A good speaker will talk slow enough so that the words are clearly intelligible and so that he can keep a clear stream of words. I can listen faster than this, so I like to speed them up. My phone will only speed them up to 1.5 speed, but Audacity will speed them up to whatever speed I want. About 2.1 is where I like it, and it's a snap to do. Here's how:
  • First, load the file into Audacity. It may have to convert it from mp3 into the Audacity format. 
  • Then select the entire audio (use command-A, or control-A on Windows) 
  • Now go to the "Effect" menu and select "Sliding Time Scale/Pitch Shift" 
  • On the top two boxes, type the percentage to speed up. Careful, typing 100% will speed it up BY 100%, to a total of 200% of the original. This is the step where I type in 110%. 
  • Remember to type the same number into the second box. Else you will get a sliding scale. 
  • Click OK, let it process, then export the file. 

Multi-Track Recording

Each time you hit record, the Audacity audio recording software starts a new track. Watch to make sure you click where you want to start recording. You can cut portions out, but be careful or it will fill in the empty space by pulling the subsequent material back.

When you record to a new track, it will play back the old track while you are recording the new one. This is what multi-track recording is. It allows you to overlay another track of something new onto what already was recorded. You could record a guitar first, then vocals, then a saxophone. Or you could record the melody, then harmony parts.

With multi-track recording, the sky's the limit!

Plan to allow time to figure out how Audacity does multi-track recording. That's the main problem I have with it.

How to get it 

Downloading Audacity is simple. Go here, and download the appropriate Mac or Windows version.

Other Options 

I keep saying that Audacity doesn't offer what I like it to. So what does?

Well, I happen to like Digital Performer. I got started with it, and haven't gone back. 

The other big one to look at is ProTools. It is the big one around, the one that all the pros use. Well, the popular one, anyway. A lot of people use other things or they wouldn't produce things like Digital Performer.

There are others too: Steinburg CubasePropellerhead Reason, for starters.

Have any questions? Head on over to Computer Recording Questions and check out what others have already asked. Audacity audio recording is covered there. If you don't see anything there, please fill out the form and ask yours.

Return from Audacity Audio Recording to Computer Recording


Audio cables and more

Ah, audio cables. They are essential to pretty much anything electrical (unless it's a handheld battery game!). In the recording studio, cables come in many shapes and sizes.

What do you need to know about cables? There is a surprising amount of things to know - we'll cover the basics here.

You already know about power cables. Your coffee pot has one, your computer has one, and you wish your dog had one that you could yank sometimes. A power cable is pretty much like, well, a power cable. Just keep the right one with the right piece of gear and you'll be fine.

Audio cables are many, but let's divide them into distinct categories - mic and line level. There's no rule that says a mic cable has to have a mic level signal, but that makes a nice split point. (What's a mic level signal? See the article on signal strength.)

Mic cables are usually XLR. It stands for Xtended Locking Round. Wow, what an imagination! Anyway, basically all decent mics have an XLR connector, and the preamps take the same. Smaller equipment (or consumer stuff) uses 1/4 inch or 1/8 inch TRS or TS connectors, but it's just not the standard (for microphones).

Why? I'm no scientist, but I think it has to do with the contacts. You have more surface area on an XLR connector than a 1/4 TRS (more on TRS below). The contacts are separated by distance and insulators, so signal leakage is brought to a minimum. You can get gold plated contacts on mic cables, but personally I don't think it's worth it. Spend the extra money on another cable.

Any mic cable worth its salt will be balanced and shielded. What is a balanced cable? That will have to wait for another article, but here it is quickly. When audio goes through a cable, it can pick up interference. To combat this, a balanced cable splits the audio into two identical channels, and inverts the one. At the other side, the second channel is re-inverted to the original phase, and combined with the first channel. That is supposed to erase any interference picked up during transmittal. Clear as mud? Don't worry about it now, just know that a balanced cable will eliminate most interference on the signal going through it.

If you can feel the cable in the store where you buy it (not with online purchases), see how it flexes, if it's brittle. You don't want something that will break after a few months of use.

Just use common sense when buying a mic cable (or any audio cable). Don't go for the absolute cheapest for quality's sake, but also don't go with the most expensive either - it's not actually that much better.

TRS cables use a standard 1/4 inch plug. They can carry stereo audio, or a balanced mono track. Same principles as using a mic cable. These are used for many purposes in the studio, like connecting monitors or patching from one piece of equipment to another (tape decks, samplers, CD players, preamps, computer interfaces). 1/4 inch TRS cables are all around cords.Then there are a few other assorted and various cables. One of my preamps doesn't have a TRS output - it's an XLR. So to get that into my hardware computer interface I need an XLR to TRS cable. MIDI cables take data signals between keyboards, computers, and synths or samplers. 

Of course you need plenty of adapters to go around all of the stuff, like 1/4" to 1/8", or a splitter for dual headphones, or a breakout cable to take a stereo channel into 2 mono channels. Just keep a bunch of adapters handy for when you need them.

Computer data cables are also a necessity. You will probably want a few spare USB and FireWire cables, in case one goes bad or something.

One of the most aggravating things that can happen in a studio is to want to do something, but can't because you don't have the correct cable. Trust me, that is maddening! If you go to do location recording, make sure you have the audio cables you will need (not what you think you will need!).

OK, I'll finally give one recommendation for a microphone cable. Check out this audio cable for mics  on Amazon.com.

Audio Signal Types Made Easy

What do these have in common: XLR, line-level, mic-level, ADAT? They are all audio signal types. In other words, they are different signal formats that various cables can handle, and you must understand the basic difference between them to make a studio work.

So lets start at the beginning and divide them into manageable categories. We have four basic types: first there are microphone signals, then regular analog signals, digital signals, and other digital signals. We'll discuss each of them in that order.

First, the microphone signals. If you look up how microphones work, you'll understand that the diaphragm of the mic converts sound waves in the air into electrical signals that are amplified in the microphone itself. The electrical signal is very weak at this point, making it a mic level signal. An XLR cable is a specific format of cable designed to carry mic level signals. In other words, XLR cables carry mic level signals.

A mic level audio signal clocks in at about 2 millivolts, or 0.002 volts. That's fairly small, considering that most audio in a studio runs at a much higher strength of 316 millivolts, or 0.316 volts. We're still talking far less than the voltage of a AA battery, but keep in mind that the difference between the two is large. That is what mic preamps are for: to amplify a mic level signal into a line level signal.

As noted, a line level audio signal is much stronger in voltage than a mic level signal. The difference that makes to us as studio engineers is simple - it simply won't work to plug a mic level signal into a line level input. A microphone must be plugged into a mic preamp, and only then can the resulting line level signal be plugged into other audio gear.

Once you understand this basic difference between mic level and line level audio signals, it clears up a cloud of confusion over signals and formats. It's all a matter of voltage, really. But so far this all deals with analog signals, what about digital?

When we talk about digital audio signals, everything starts to become more complicated. The good news is that we as home recording engineers don't need to worry very much about it. We still need to know a little, but the work isn't that hard. Why? Because there are a lot of good audio recording interfaces that take a mic level or line level signal, convert it to digital, and send it to a computer via USB or FireWire all in one box. That means less hassle for us. Yay!

For starters, know that to get digital audio from one place to another, there are a few popular competing formats. With analog, it was simple: loud means loud, and soft means soft. But with digital, equipment must agree on a standard, like which bit gets sent first, and how the bits are organized. To ensure that we don't plug a type A cord into a type B plug, there are different plug ends.

The popular types you might see on recording gear are ADAT Toslink or ADAT Lightpipe (the same thing as ADAT Toslink), and S/PDIF (pronounced spi-diff, and stands for Sony/Philips Digital InterFace, if I remember right). The Lightpipe connector actually uses an optical cable, not a standard cable, so it is a small plug, kind of squarish with the end of the optical channel visible. The S/PDIF cable looks like a monitor cable for a computer, complete with the screws at the sides.

As long as you obey the rules and plug only same-type equipment together, you should be OK. But this is digital land, and strange things happen sometimes. In that case, read the manual, and double check your connections. 🙂

Actually, there is no need get worried about digital audio signal kinds. I never have to worry about it with my gear, except to plug it in the first time. Most audio recording interfaces take mic level or line level signals, and convert directly to USB or FireWire. I have a more complicated setup, but it isn’t that hard. First, my mics feed into a PresSonus DigiMax , which connects with an ADAT Lightpipe connection to my MOTU 828 audio interface. The digital signal is sent from there via a FireWire cable into the computer. No sweat.

So figuring out audio signal connections doesn't really need to be all that hard, it just takes a little basic understanding to figure things out. We covered the basics here, so you are good as gold. Which really isn’t a bad investment, they say.

Audio Technica M40fs Headphones

Audio Technica Headphones

Audio Technica headphones are an excellent investment in any recording studio. As I'm sure you know, headphones are important in helping evaluate a mix during mixdown. They let you hear deep down inside, catching things you might have otherwise missed. Audio Technica headphones work very well for this application.

Audio Technica M40fs Headphones

I've used the M40fs headphones for years now, so much that I need to get a new pair soon! I absolutely love them for the clear sound and decent bass response. I see that there is another model with extra bass response (the the D40fs - they are just a tad more in cost). Personally, I'm completely satisfied with the M40fs and will get them again. But if you decide to try the D40fs, please let me know how they work.

Here's another tribute to the M40fs - I've owned my pair for about seven years now, and they are still kicking strong. I rolled my chair over them enough times that the cable is starting to go bad, and my beard took its toll on the padding around the earpiece, but otherwise they are still good to go!

Audio Technica has a few other headphone models, mostly under the cost/quality of the M40fs. For studio purposes, I would just stay away from them, because the M40fs is inexpensive enough to use, and I would be disappointed with the lower quality headphones.

So what should you do now? Definitely buy a pair of the Audio Technica M40fs headphones!

An Audio Interface Primer

The audio interface is an integral part of the recording chain. But it's also kind of nebulous, and hard to figure out sometimes. Just what is it, how does it work, and what do we need to know about it?

The recording interface is the last step in the chain before your audio goes to the computer. The sound goes into the mic, is converted to electrical signals, passed along through cables and a mic preamp, and into the audio interface. There (or before, in some cases), it is converted from analog to digital, and passed on to the computer via FireWire, USB, or another third party connection.

There are many kinds of audio recording interfaces available, from a small one or two channel interface including mic preamps to a huge system of three interfaces daisy chained together for 72 channels. The confusing thing is that often an audio interface does more than just interface, so we need to figure out exactly what it does do.

The main job of a computer recording interface, as we said earlier, is to convert an analog signal into digital, and shuttle it to the computer. So we'll say that a audio recording interface is something that takes analog or digital audio, and has a FireWire, USB, or other computer connection.

Often these interfaces will come with extra features, like mic preamps or bundled software. This is where it can get confusing, but it doesn't have to be. Think of it this way - with the preamps included, you don't have to buy a separate piece of equipment. That's a good thing.

Here is a quick survey of several interfaces here to give you a taste of what is available.

The Lexicon Lambda is a great entry level interface. This is a no sweat, easy working interface bus-powered USB interface with two phantom powered preamps, two TRS 1/4" line inputs, and a headphone output. Definitely a lot of power for not that much dough. It's worth a look.

For only a slight step up from the Lambda, one can get a Lexicon Omega package. The spiff with this is that you get a complete kit, kind of like a "studio in a box." There are two phantom powered XLR inputs plus a bunch of others, allowing for a total of 4 simultaneous channels.

The next one is a MOTU 4-Pre. This is a really nice piece of gear, with four mic preamps. I think it hits the spot between a low of 2 and a high of 8. I use MOTU equipment, and I would really like to have this for a portable setup.


Motu 4-Pre Audio Interface

Looking at the FireWire side of things, we have the Focusrite Saffire LE, a step up from what we were looking at. It has 6 inputs and 8 outputs, a bit more than the Omega. The Saffire is also sold with a package, with a number of plugins: Compression, Reverb, EQ, and Amp modeling.

Presonus Firestudio Project


PreSonus makes some nice equipment, including audio interfaces and mic preamps. But with the PreSonus FireStudio Project, these two high quality pieces come together. The FireStudio offers pro quality preamps and digital to analog coverters - eight of them. It takes a while to run out of eight channels. Included with the FireStudio is the PreSonus ProPak Software Suite, which sports a DAW (digital audio workstation), over 25 plugins, and more than 2 GB of audio samples. If I were starting again, I would seriously consider this piece, simply for the EIGHT mic inputs combined in one unit.

MOTU 828 mk3


Finally, what I consider one of the best audio interfaces, is the MOTU 828mk3. I use it myself, so I might be biased, but it still is a great piece of gear. It includes two XLR inputs with preamps, but accepts 8 analog inputs, and two different banks of digital input (ADAT, TOSLink, and S/PDIF), for a total of 28 inputs and 30 outputs. Clearly a big machine. It can also serve as a digital mixer, and includes MOTU's AudioDesk software for Mac. If you want opportunity for future expandability, this is the way to go. I love my 828. I don't think you can go wrong with it. 🙂

Don't let me limit your choices to these - go check them out yourself. What I showed you here is only a sampling of what's available. See them in their categories here:

Microphones

Microphones – How They Work, and What They Do

Microphones. What are they and what do they do? How do I use them to get the best sound possible?

First things first – what do they do? In a sentence, they take sound waves from the air and convert it to electric signals. These signals are recorded and stored, usually digitally.

How do they do that? Generally, a mic has a diaphragm that reacts to sound waves in the air. This is converted to electricity various ways, then sent down the cable. From there, it is recorded and stored by different methods.

For a bit more in depth look at it, see this Wikipedia article.

But there are dozens of mics looking at you, waving their arms and screaming, “Pick me! Pick me!” How do you decide which one? What should be your first consideration?

Here are a few features to help you which is the best one:

  • transducer type
  • pickup pattern
  • body construction or diaphragm size
  • suitability to sound source

Also check out the Top 10 Vocal Microphone guide.

Transducer Type

The transducer is the part that converts sound in the air to an electrical signal. It's amazing how they actually do it, but there's no need to know exactly how.

It IS important to know that there are a few different kinds. Most important are:

  • condenser (also called capacitor)
  • dynamic

Most studio mics are condenser mics. They are generally more detailed, smoother, and sweeter than dynamic ones. They must have some power through the cord, called phantom power. Most preamps and mixers will supply it.

Dynamic mics are usually used in live sound. They can take more rough & tumble handling, so they're better for traveling. They require no external power.

I would recommend looking at a condenser for your first one. If you can, try to demo several to get an idea how they differ.

Pickup Pattern

The pickup pattern is the area and directions around the diaphragm that sound gets picked up from. The names for these are very weird, but here they are:

  • Cardioid
  • Omni-directional
  • Super Cardioid
  • Hyper Cardioid
  • Figure 8

The main difference is the direction that the mic is most sensitive in. There are directional styles, and omni-directional styles. (Omni means all around.) All the others pick up from one end (or 2)

What difference does this make to you? Let’s say you are recording a quartet of voices. You have 4 microphones, one for each singer. You might want to put 1 mic in front of each singer, so it picks up only him/her.

But if the mic is an omni, it will end up recording all the voices. The people beside it will "leak" into it.

If you use a cardioid, which picks up what's right in front of it, it will get right singer and not the others. You can isolate that voice from the others.

If you were recording in a big hall, and wanted to get a lot of the reverb sound from the room, you might use an omni to catch sound from all different directions.

What about a figure 8? This pattern picks up from the front and back but not from the sides of the microphone.

What is different in the super and hyper cardioid from the regular cardioids? They are still directional microphones, but are more focused in the front. The trade-off is that a small amount of rear acceptance is let in. You might say that the super and hyper cardioid patterns are steps between a regular cardioid and a figure 8.

While cardioids (and other directional patterns) have good side and rear rejection, they will still pick up that sound. It just attenuates it (makes it quieter) so you can pick a spot to accent.

So what kind should you get? If you want to do several mics at a time for an ensemble, I would go the directional route. After you have a few cardioid mics, then expand into the omni world, but always experiment.

Size of Diaphragm

This refers to whether the microphone is called a large diaphragm, small diaphragm, or medium diaphragm.

That seems fairly obvious, but it can make a difference. A large diaphragm can pick up low frequency sound better than a small diaphragm, because it can vibrate slower and has a bigger surface.

Large diaphragms are usually found in side-address microphones. This means that it is set straight up, with the diaphragm pointed out the side. It has a large body, around 2 inches or so in diameter. (See the picture on the right.)

A larger diaphragm will sound a bit fuller and warmer, due to the detail in the lower frequencies.

Audio Technica AT4050
Photo of Rode NT4 Stereo Mic

Smaller diaphragms will sound better on high frequencies, because the diaphragm can move faster. They sound a bit more detailed on the high range, but still good overall. See an example of a small diaphragm mic on the left.

Which should you get? It depends a lot on what kind of recording you want to do. Vocals usually benefit from the warmness a large diaphragm can give. Classical ensembles and drums are usually recorded with small diaphragm condenser mics.

Guitars are done with just about anything, so take your pick, or ask a friend what they use.

Suitability to Sound Source

What do I mean by that? Every mic has its own unique “sound.” Slight variations in frequency response can color the sound in subtle ways.

Some bring out the sound of different instruments and voices better than others. But one mic is never the one! There just is no Swiss Army knife microphone! You can’t have a ‘one-size-fits-all’ mic. Bedroom-Recording.com has a Top 10 list that also gives ideas for a great starter mic.

Think of using microphones like paint colors on your "canvas" of sound. Certain shades may work OK, but a slightly different shade makes the image look better. A different mic might make the sound "pop."

OK, not everyone can go out and buy a whole bunch of mics. Some kinds work well as all around workhorses. Check out the list just above for some recommendations.

When looking at specific microphones, read reviews from other people. Check what they are advertised to work with the best. See what your gut feeling says.

And have fun!

Mic Placement/Technique

Now what? Where should you put the microphone? Does it make any difference? Yes it does! Mic placement makes a world of difference! So... how do you know what to do?

Just read the page on mic placement and technique. It's part of a series on voice recording, and I recommend you look at the whole series, starting here.

Photo of Rode NT4 Stereo Mic

What is a stereo microphone?

Simply put, a stereo microphone is two regular studio microphones in a single unit.

Really, it’s that simple! They are arranged in various ways to achieve different results or sounds, but the unit is the same – a stereo mic is two diaphragms or capsules on one microphone body.

They are distinct from a matched pair of mics. Various models available come in a set, advertised as a stereo pair, but it is not a stereo microphone. A stereo pair is two separate mics, a stereo mic is one integrated mic.

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