For most of our lives, the price of the quality audio recording was prohibitive. While it was certainly possible for the enthusiast to create decent recordings, it did cost a significant portion of that person’s disposable income. Quality tape machines were ridiculously expensive and geared primarily for studio use – and studios cost prohibitive amounts to rent by the hour.
The computer has changed that, or more appropriately, the inexpensive digital audio interface has changed that. Today you can buy an audio interface that records better quality signal than a cd can reproduce, and for less than $300. Most of these interfaces also come with software that’s designed to record multitrack audio. Most of these software packages are “crippleware” ( software with some of its features turned off, that one can get only by upgrading the software for a cost ) but still have more capabilities than most of the professional tape consoles of days gone by.
The most common type of audio interface is the USB interface, which plugs into the computer’s USB port, just as might be expected. Most require drivers to be installed, and recording software to allow the user to record, although the Macintosh comes with Garage Band, a very good beginner’s tool for recording music or other audio (like podcasts and the like).
If your goal is to record music, you’ll want an audio interface that will record “24/96”, meaning 24 bit audio at a 96 kilohertz sampling rate. This is 256 times the dynamic range of a CD, and twice the resolution. The reason this is important is that you will need to “mix down” to CD quality (if your goal is CD!), and the extra quality gives you what’s known in the industry as “headroom”. In the analog industry, “headroom” was the difference between the signal level and the highest signal level the system could record. In digital audio it means something similar, although not exactly the same.
You’ll need a decent microphone or a direct-in box, or other interface between what you’re recording and your audio interface. For vocal recording, there are many new microphones available for less than $300 that do an excellent job of capturing voice. If you’re recording guitar, you can insert a pre-amp and amp emulator (a device that takes unprocessed guitar signal and massages it to sound similar to the same signal output through any number of well-known guitar amplifiers) or effects system between your guitar and the audio interface. You will be amazed at the range and quality of the sounds you can achieve with this configuration. Keyboard Synthesizers can be plugged directly into the ‘line in’, or put through other effects systems as well. Bass recordings work very well through DI, or “Direct In” boxes, which are elements that match the impedance of an amplifier and allow you to record the direct signal of the Bass.
Software systems will have effects, ranging from reverb to flanging and phasing to equalization and noise cancellation. Some have an overwhelming array of effects and settings – it takes quite a bit of time to become familiar with them all, so to begin with try and stick with a single software package for your recording, so you can learn the keyboard shortcuts and where to find the settings for all of the effects.
Another feature of most current software packages of this type is what is known as a “Soft Synth”. These are plug-in software that creates sounds in response to MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface, the standard for electronic music) events. These soft synths can be based on new algorithms and procedures, designed to produce unique sounds, or they can be software emulators of classic hardware synthesizers. The term is often used to describe “Soft Samplers”, although they aren’t strictly synthesizers. A sampler takes a recording – known as a sample – of a note and plays it back according to MIDI events (or keyboard events). The complexity can range from one note, sped up or slowed down to make each note in the scale, or many recordings of each note at different ‘velocities’. “Velocity” describes how hard the key on the keyboard was struck, and is used to control the volume and dynamics of the note created.
Current high-end software offerings include everything from trivial plugins, like metronomes, to complex computational monster plug-ins that allow timing and pitch correction, so when a singer is off the beat or off key, say, the software can correct it automatically. This technology used to be strictly the domain of high end production studios, but now is commonplace. Many recording contracts require their use whether the singer actually needs it or not – to save on retakes, and thus, studio time. Of course, the same tools can be used to correct other musical sounds, like guitars or saxophones. Many musicians use this as a creative tool, as do some software companies, to bring realism to samples and synthesizers.
The new systems also allow “NLE”, or non-linear editing. This is the ability to cut out a bit of audio at one time and drop it into another space, or to stack up events that happened at different times, or even repeat slices of audio at appropriate times. An important part of NLE is “looping”, where one takes a selected slice of audio and plays it over and over for selected time spans. An example might be a drum riff that creates a rhythm when looped, allowing the musician to record, say, a bass track over it. A “track” is a channel in the audio software – almost all current software uses the tape analogy in some aspect, however well hidden it might be, and that track corresponds to a channel on tape. When we use the term ‘multitrack recorder’, we’re referring to the ability of the hardware or software to record multiple discrete audio signals and maintain their individual identity, usually side by side on the screen.
Whether you’re looking to record a gospel album, a tech podcast, or a heavy metal rock album, high quality digital audio tools are within your reach. A few hundred dollars here and there, a decent computer, and a place with decent acoustics, and you could be cutting the next big hit, doing your own recording, engineering, and production. You’ll be absolutely amazed at the tools you have access to, and when you’re done, you’ll be amazed at the quality you can produce on a budget.