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?

About the Author Lee Weaver

Lee started his career in recording with an auspicious goal - record tracks of his own voice singing in harmony. As a hobby project, it didn't have the funding to go to a studio and pay for someone to do it for him. Like many of you, he pulled himself up by the bootstraps to learn the art of recording.

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