Home Recording

Getting started with a PC.

Ok, so you want to record your own music. You think you should probably use a computer because apparently it gives you everything you need. Unfortunately right now you don’t really know what you need. You want to record your songs but you have no idea about how to get them onto a computer. Sound familiar?

In order that you can make the right decisions, you need to understand why you need something. To do this you'll need to:

  • Know what you want to do
  • Know what you already have
  • Work out what benefits a new system will bring

You also need to think about:

  • How you will use the system at different points in the recording process
  • How a system can grow and evolve once you are ready to upgrade

 

What can a PC do?

Well, most things. You can:

  • Record, edit and playback audio
  • Record, edit and and playback midi
  • Apply effects offline or in real-time (VST)
  • Run software synths and samplers (VSTi) and record the output
  • Sync with external audio hardware using smpte
  • Mix your track
  • Master your track

You can even get software to write songs for you! (although I'm not saying this is much good!)

 

What are the limitations?

Often it is how many things can I do at the same time without it effecting the music output. Your PC CPU (Central Processing Unit) can only do so much at a time and processing lots of information consumes lots of your CPU's processing power. A decent sound card will provide the ability to create sound without taxing you PC's main CPU.

Too technical?

The features your PC has will effect how sophisticated your mix is. But you'll be surprised at just how much the modern PC can do. As a newbie it'll probably be some time before you come up against a serious limitation. Often problems can be solved by spending a bit more money, for example: a new soundcard, more RAM, a second high speed hard disk, a quieter fan (to reduce PC noise in the recording environment). It can be worth contacting a few specialist music PC suppliers. Such suppliers provide optimised PCs specially for audio recording and mixing.

 

Do you want to record real instruments or use external (to PC) midi sound sources?

If you want to record real instruments or vocals you need a soundcard with analogue audio inputs. Some will also have a digital audio input and output.

It's often best to use an external audio mixing desk. This allows you to mix several sources to a stereo input and possibly provide power to decent quality microphones. This can be very useful if you want to mix the outputs of several bits of midi gear. Another option is to use what they call a "channel strip". This is the equivalent of an individual track strip, often with electronics from a much more expensive mixing desk. As it is an individual strip it is much more affordable.

Modern audio cards often dispense with some of the need for an input channel by providing a "Break out box". This is a box of inputs and outputs that connect to the audio card. Usually BOBs are able to power microphones, provide digital I/O, a variety of analog I/O options, and Midi input and output.

 

Do you want to take digital audio into your PC?

You need a soundcard with digital audio inputs. If you have digital outputs from your mixer you can also use these as inputs to your PC. See the above section for the description of different audio card options and possibilities.

 

Do you want to record the midi information from an external midi source, and/or do you want to drive midi instruments from your PC?

You need a soundcard with a midi port or a dedicated midi card. Most soundcards now have midi in/out ports. If you need a lot of MIDI in ports you can get a card and break-out-box capable of providing several Midi ins and outs. If you are prepared to pay the money you can gate a really good sound card with an external box (also called a break-out box) that provides several different IO (Input/Output) options including multiple analogue and digital IO and multiple MIDI IO.

As a beginner it's probably best to stick to reasonable quality cards that are reasonably priced and quite commonly used. For example a Sound Blaster Live! or a Yamaha XG. Both these cards have a lot of users, and buying one won't dent your pocket too much. In using these cards you'll find a whole world of music to explore and come to the realistation that a hell of a lot more is possible. Fundamentally you want a card that will give you lots of good quality sounds, and can play back samples you have created. It must be supported by the main music software suppliers and offer regular updates and good support.

So having a mixer can be a really good idea. So are having a decent microphone and a decent soundcard in your pc. All these bits of gear only become useful, however, when you have decent software to use them.

 

So what software do you need?

Well, not much really. Sure there are lots too choose from. Each being better at one thing than another or giving you more versatility in a particular are of recording, synthesis or production, but you actually need very little to start off.

Most basic of all you are likely to need a DAW (Desktop Audio Workstation) to sequence MIDI and/or sequence audio. The DAW is the software core of your studio. You want to be able to edit your recordings, apply effects, and mix and master your tracks. In addition you might want to use a software sampler or synthesiser. Fortunately you can get all this functionality, although different products have slightly different benefits/limitations from each other, within the major virtual studio packages from the top names in the business. Cakewalk Sonar, Steinberg Cubase or Cubasis, Fruityloops all have excellent products that are more or less a complete studio for your PC. Logic Pro-X on an Apple Mac. ProTools is a higher end DAW for both PC and Mac. Each also has more limited entry-level products for those on a tight budget.

Read the feature list before you buy, ask lots of questions, check newsgroups, magazines etc. and make sure they support your sound card!

often when you buy a new soundcard, an entry level DAW or two are included in the package.

Bear in mind that this is likely to be just the starting point. As you learn you will more than likely add other products, Software and Hardware, to your studio. For example a decent software sampler like GigaSampler, or specialist mastering software, or more general audio editing software, better notation software, a soundcard with more inputs? the list goes on, and you can guarantee, 2 seconds after buying something, something better will be released onto the market. There is no such thing as a right time to buy in such a fast moving market. There are only those with the ability to record good quality music on their PC, and those without.

 

Tips...

Keep your first system reasonably simple. Too many knobs and flashing lights will make it harder for you to learn. A simple system will be quicker to learn and should be easier for you to create new tracks on.

Technology is great. Learn as much as you can as quickly as you can so that you can focus on the creative process as soon as possible. Nothing damps your ideas as quickly as 'I'll need to look up the manual'. It can be a good idea to use 'learning' tracks to focus learning how to use new gear or software into a short time frame. The track can still turn out to be really good, but at least the frequency that your creative flow is interrupted during recording other tracks will be reduced drastically. Like anything else, if you learn how to use the tools of the trade?

There is always something better. Buy something because you need it and then get on to use it as soon as possible. If you are forever looking at the latest gear and putting off buying because something better will come along, you may never get your PC set up for recording. If on the other hand you are always buying gear, you will always be learning, and your system will be less likely to be stable (due to you always tinkering with your set up). Both approaches are fine if you want to record 10 songs in the next 10 years!

Discuss this article in our Music Forum.

 

John Moxey

Songstuff Site Crew

 

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