Working in the tech department of a music store, one of the most common requests from customers who come in is exactly this; “I want a studio”!
Now, although it’s a seemingly reasonable request, a “studio” can mean many things, and can incorporate many different pieces of equipment. In order to fulfill this request, there are many questions that first need asking, so as to guide the budding producer down the correct path.
In this article, we’ll explore the different options in regards to recording platforms, their features and potential limitations.
The first option which needs to be established, is the recording platform; or medium.
Generally these days this can be split into either Hardware Multitrack Recorder or a Computer Based Solution.
With the multitrack units, all recording features are built into a self contained box (with some exceptions which will be covered later!), such as inputs/outputs, gain & pan controls, EQ pots and physical faders. One can simply plug into this “box”, set a level with a hardware control and begin recording.
Today, the amount of multitrack recorders available has slimmed down a little, with only a few companies still producing a selection of units. The main brands doing so are Tascam, Fostex, Boss and Zoom.
Up until around a couple of years ago, these units were generally hard-drive based for storage, but now most use SD Flash media which is more robust, (no moving parts) and quicker for data recording.
Other features such as FX are usually included, but are often quite limited on the more basic of machines. Other more sophisticated units include massive multi FX engines offering guitar modeling and amp simulation, vocal tuning and mastering processors.
On most of these units today, they also include drum machines, and sometimes even virtual bassists for layering into your tracks.
Limitations of these devices are that once you have invested in a certain machine, you can’t really expand on it’s features. You can’t add additional inputs, enhance editing features of recorded audio and are restricted to relying on the small onboard screen for information on what edits you are actually controlling.
Computer Based Recording
With this method of recording, the same basic principles as above are used, but the scope for flexibility in setup is almost limitless.
One can decide on Mac or PC which, these days, makes little difference other than a users preference on operating system and sometimes software choice. However, as all PC’s can be totally different in construction, components, etc, it is recommended to use one which isn’t full of unnecessary software (or bloatware) as this can make audio applications run badly.
One important thing to consider too is that audio applications can be quite RAM hungry, so it is advisable to go for a machine with a decent amount of installed memory (4GB minimum).
The next major component of a computer based setup would be to choose an appropriate “audio interface”. This is also sometimes referred to as your “sound card”. The onboard soundcards included with your machine are usually fine for gaming, media playback, etc, but not generally suitable for recording purposes. Therefore it is advisable to invest in a dedicated unit, which will become the heart of your whole recording setup. As well as controlling all recording applications, these units become master device for all audio playback such as media player, iTunes, Youtube, etc.
These days this unit will generally be an externally based “box” connected to your machine by USB or Firewire and bridges the gap between external instruments and the digital world.
It will have a mixture of inputs on the front, outputs on the back and some hardware controls for adjusting gain levels, headphone outputs, and sometimes audio routing options.
Most interfaces now offer “combi” inputs, which will actually accept both ¼” jack (guitars, etc) and XLR (microphones) inputs into the same socket. You may also find MIDI I/O which handles purely a data connection between external devices such as keyboards and drum machines.
Here’s an example of a 2 combi input, 2 output device by Presonus; the AB22VSL.
To decide on the right interface, one must consider how many inputs they are going to need at once, and what kind of instruments they will be recording. For example, if a full drumkit is going to be tracked, usually a minimum of 8 microphone inputs will be required on the interface, meaning a larger unit than the one above will be required. However, if only a single performer will be recording, tracks can then be layered over the top of each other, 2 at a time, making the small unit above an ideal choice.
Some interfaces can be expanded with additional units, either by daisy chaining them together or feeding in digital signals to the existing device. Digital inputs commonly found are SPDIF (stereo digital either on RCA, or lightpipe), ADAT (8 channel lightpipe) or AES/EBU (stereo digital on XLR).
Below is the larger, expandable (over ADAT) Presonus AB1818VSL.
The next step in building your studio is to choose your DAW (or Digital Audio Workstation).
There are many of these around, but the most popular choices include:
Cubase, Logic (Mac Only), Studio One, Pro Tools and Ableton Live.
All of these will perform a similar operation of recording your audio data, visually displaying it on screen and allowing you to edit and manipulate these tracks into what will become your “mix” or song.
Depending on which platform you decide on, and which version of chosen software, will determine which features are available to use. Most audio interfaces will include a light version of a DAW providing the basic tools for song creation, and one can always “upgrade” to bigger, better editions when they outgrow the cut down versions features.
This makes going down the computer DAW based route extremely flexible and expandable, allowing the user to grow with their system, rather than being limited by their device.
The Multitrack / Interface Hybrid
As mentioned earlier, there are exceptions to the rule when talking about standalone multitrack units.
In recent years, companies have developed units which can be used completely as one stop recording devices, but also allow connection to a computer by USB for Audio Interface operation.
Good quality examples of these devices are the Zoom R series (R8, R16 & R24), and the Boss BR800.
All of these devices provide internal recording (to SD Media) and mixing features where one can capture, edit and mix on the one box, achieving a finished product which has been totally self contained. However, for those then looking for deeper editing control of their compositions, it doubles up as interface for all computer based media control. Some units such as the Zoom R series can also be setup to control software faders from its hardware controls!
By offering both standalone and computer based options, these units appeal to many whom are looking to either “get in to” the world of computer recording at their own pace, or may need a portable solution when laptops aren’t available.
Although these units do offer access to both style of recording platform, it can be argued that compared to a dedicated “audio interface”, they don’t offer the same standard of drivers, analogue to digital conversion or integration with the computer as a whole. Therefore, those looking to invest in a computer bases setup exclusively, tend not to decide on one of these “hybrid” devices.
Platform Round Up
So, when looking to build your first “studio”, we have explored just what needs to considered when deciding on style of setup; the platforms available, the positives of both standalone units, and computer setups, as well as their potential limitations.
Today most people generally have a computer at home, so the DAW based route is generally the most popular option people decide on. It is also the most expandable and customisable to the needs of the individual as well as giving the best visual feedback as to what is happening with your recording on screen.
With the advent of the iPad, this software based recording world is now available to even more, at a much lower cost allowing people to download a full DAW such as Apple’s “Garageband” for under £3!
Audio interfaces for this platform are now becoming readily available offering further access and a new style of touch screen control into the world of computer based recording.
By Andy Atkins
Andy Atkins is a musician who’s been writing for trade publications about music gear and musicians for many years. He plays guitar badly, sings appalling and yet still manages to get gigs. In addition to consulting for a major UK music equipment retailer, Andy has written for some of the biggest music gear brands.