Category Archives for Computer Recording

Digital Recording – Computer or Standalone Recorder?

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.

>> Learn more about what recording equipment you need.

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?

Bedroom Recording – Gotta Start Somewhere

Starting small - bedroom recording

Bedroom recording = the art of making a digital recording in a bedroom. One does not need a studio to begin recording, and what more available place than a bedroom? Family rooms, basements, and other rooms work just as well, but for this article, bedroom means any room in your house that will be used as a temporary studio. 

What are the things to consider when setting up a bedroom recording project? What will the challenges be? I've done some recording in bedrooms and basements before, so I'll share the things I learned. Among the things to think about are acoustics, noise, and monitoring. Let's look at these. 

Acoustics
Acoustics means the science of how sound works as it bounces off different surfaces, and of how materials absorb and diffuse sound. How does this affect us in bedroom recording? Plenty. The reason studios spend so much to put up treatments on the walls is primarily of acoustics. Nasty reflections make a nasty sound, and controlling those is part of how you can get a better sound. 

In a bedroom recording studio, we don't have the money or facilities for acoustic treatment, but that doesn't mean we can't do anything. Let's do a quick crash course in acoustics, then apply this to our bedroom. 

Acoustics Crash Course
Sound travels in invisible but audible waves of varying frequency (cycles per second). We say a sound is low pitched if the frequency is slower, or we identify high frequency sounds as high pitched. There are different strengths in different frequencies, ie., one frequency is not like another. The lower sounds tend to be stronger and will pass through materials much easier, while higher sounds will reflect off hard surfaces much quicker and will be absorbed by soft surfaces. This is why you can hear the bass but not the higher sounds outside a car - the lower frequencies pass through the frame but the higher ones are reflected around inside. 

Applied to the Bedroom Studio
Let's start with the easy stuff: the highs. Hard surfaces reflect highs while soft surfaces will absorb. If our goal is to tame high frequencies, we need to drag soft stuff around, like mattresses, sleeping bags, and blankets. I sang with a quartet (someone else did the recording... bummer) and we recorded in a basement. We set mattresses on end for the "walls" of our bedroom recording studio, and used blankets to fill in the ceiling and remaining wall. The mattresses are denser than blankets, so they took care of some lower stuff, but not all. It was quite a neat experience, and basically anyone can do it. 

The not so easy stuff is the low frequencies. They are much more powerful and require more elaborate schemes to control them. For a bedroom studio, probably old mattresses will be the most efficient things to use, because more control will require other treatments starting to cost more. For more about this, see the acoustics page.

Noise
Another problem we will have to deal with in a bedroom is noise coming in. Noise comes from many places, from cars and airplanes to air conditioners and refrigerators. The nasty thing about it is that it is often missed during recording. It's hard to control such noises, but proper planning goes a long way. 

Let's look at two different types of noise, uncontrollable, environmental noise, and controllable device noises. Uncontrollable noise comes in the form of passing traffic (cars, trains, airplanes) and weather. (There may be other sources, we'll just look at these two.) There is little to do about these noises sneaking into your recording. For traffic, you'll either have to work around it during recording (by stopping when it occurs) or schedule bedroom recording when the traffic patterns are lower (like at night or early morning). Controllable noises are much easier to fix - just turn them off! An air conditioner? It's gotta be off during recording (turn it on between takes or just sweat it out). Fridge? Turn it off. Computer noise? Locate the computer away from the mics, and put some sort of gobo between them. Neighbors? This is a little tackier - you could ask them to be quiet, or try to schedule a time to record when they are away. 

The biggest step in eliminating noise in your recording is also the first - be ready for it. Listen for it. Listen without headphones in the room where you'll be recording in. Learn to identify sounds and hear what all is going on. As I type, I can hear an air conditioner, an audio program playing downstairs, cups being put away from the dishwasher, a washing machine, and the keys of my laptop being typed. It is only when you can identify noises like this that you can work to eliminate (or minimize them). 

Monitoring
Another challenge in working with bedroom recording is monitoring, or listening to your material. You need some way of accurately hearing what has been recorded to make decisions about EQ, mixing, and evaluation. 

You might want to use a set of earbuds to do it, but I would recommend you get a pair of pro or semi-pro headphones. Earbuds are so very small, and the fit is usually not consistent, so the sound is not dependable. Besides, the drivers are so small in earbuds that lower frequency sounds are not reproduced very accurately. I would try something like the AudioTechnica M40 headphones. I've used my pair for years (and all but wore them out!) and absolutely love them. Or look at the Sennheiser 280 headphones. I've tried them already, and liked their sound. 

To go further in monitoring, consider a set of studio monitors. There are some affordable speaker systems that allow you to have a different perspective on your sound than headphones can offer. When I mix I use both monitors and headphones. The monitors are my main listening devices, but headphones allow you to get closer and listen for super small things. (Headphones work better for listening for noise in recordings.) The speakers I use and love are the Event TR6 Tuned Reference speakers. They are active, so you don't need a separate amplifier. 

Let's go a little further on the what gear you need to record. At first, everything feels so confusing (a mic and a what?), but really it's simple. Hop on over to Recording Equipment for a primer on what's available and what a small studio needs.

Well, hows that for a quick survey of bedroom recording? We talked about acoustics in the room, noise in the recording, and monitoring the mix. It's been fun for me to gather this information together, and think about it again. Even for those of us that have done it before, it's good to review. Reviewing and repeating is how one learns. 

Do you have specific questions you would like me to talk about in this page? Please let me know! Contact Bedroom Recording.

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. 

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 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.