Recording requires a little forethought and some planning to make things easy, repeatable and reliable. This article is more of an overview of the technology and things you should consider if you're thinking about recording.
In my studio I prefer a dedicated computer for my DAW recorder, when it's not updating or downloading plugins the WiFi is OFF so it is not on the internet. I don't want any rogue updates compromising my system. Having a dedicated machine has greatly improved reliability in my years of use. Reliable operation is the most important function to me followed closely by the quality of sound I can produce using it.
I also like things simple to use so that nothing gets in my way when the muse strikes. I can't tell you how many times I had a great idea for a song that never happened because technology got in my way.
WHICH DAW PLATFORM?
The DAW is the software you're going to run on a computer, it is the replacement for a tape recorder and mixing console to some extent.
Some popular DAW choices:
"Logic X" by Apple (my personal favorite for flexibility, performance and value)
"Garageband" (included free with most Apple computer purchases, also versions for iPhone and iPad)
"Protools" my former software platform, it's an industry standard for many professionals
Cubase by Steinberg (aka Yamaha)
Studio One by Presonus
Reason by Propellerhead
Reaper by Cockos
Reaper is a DAW system that offers regular updates and a low purchase price for home studio owners. Reaper operates a bit differently than the others I've listed but if budget is important it's one of the lowest cost DAW platforms and it can truly deliver professional performance.
Reason is another DAW that approaches the recording metaphor in a different manner.
Cubase is popular among my PC using musician friends, a drummer friend has been using this since 2004 and he's built an online business as a result.
There are many DAW choices I've not listed depending on whether you're on Mac or PC. I've been using Logic since version 6. It's a deep package but worth the time to learn it.
The main thing is to be sure the DAW platform you choose is available on the computer platform of your choice (Mac, PC or Linux).
WHAT'S IMPORTANT TO YOU
Ease of use?
Superior monitoring while recording?
Total cost of DAW software?
Flexibility in choosing interface hardware? (more on this in a moment).
Inputs and Outputs? (what do you want to record? how many tracks at once? signal level?)
Latency? (delay you hear when monitoring previously recorded tracks and while recording additional tracks)
What are you recording?
Vocals- you're going to need at least one microphone
Keyboard audio outputs- you're going to need line level inputs with adjustable gain
Electric guitar direct- you'll need a direct box to connect guitar to a mixer microphone input
AUDIO HARDWARE INTERFACE
This is another personal choice item, people feel very emotional when it comes to choosing this important part of the modern recording rig. The audio interface is where you put signals in and get them back out.
Some of the most important factors to consider:
How many different tracks do you need to record simultaneously?
Will this system be used to record other people or just you?
Do you need integrated effects processors?
Do you need integrated microphone preamps?
Is the hardware 16-bit or 24-bit or something else?
IN THE BOX (ITB) OR OUTSIDE THE BOX (OTB) OR HYBRID
"In the box" refers to putting all the recordings into the DAW and then you do the mixing and effects inside the computer using on-screen controls to create a stereo master recording.
"Outside the box" refers to having multiple analog audio output paths exiting the computer and connecting to an audio mixer. The mixer presumably provides knobs to adjust level, tone, and effects of the audio passing through it.
"Hybrid" is a cross between ITB and OTB techniques.
Lower cost hardware
Repeatability of mix (automation)
Minimal physical wiring
Small physical footprint
Complex software and computer configuration
Plug-ins require license management
Trouble-shooting software problems can be complex and take a lot of time
Provides traditional analog audio paths for manipulation
Easy to interface with hardware effects processors
Bigger, fuller sound (depends on engineer)
Easier monitoring options for ensemble recording
Lots of wiring
Requires physical space
Typically less portable
ALL IN ONE RECORDER / MIXER
Another option from everything previously listed is an "All in one" multitrack recorder such as the Tascam DP-24SD or one of the Zoom multi-trackers.
ADVANTAGES OF ALL-IN-ONE
Easy to use, available in 24-bit models for quality audio mixing, convenient, no wiring.
DISADVATAGES OF ALL-IN-ONE
Limited options for external signal processing.
For midi and keyboard artists, these units are not a good choice because they don't support midi sync unless connected to a computer, in which case you're back to configuring software and sorting issues instead of making music.
ALL IN ONE HYBRID HYBRID
Tascam has a couple of interesting products that straddle the line between standalone multitrack recorder, multitrack digital audio interface and mixing board with real faders. The Model 24 is the flagship unit and there is also a lower priced version with fewer channels and features.
The Model 24 has a built-in digital effect processor which can be a reverb or a chorus or any of a number of canned effects. It has real 100mm faders for when you're mixing and it records to SD memory cards. When you want to get busy you can connect via USB to a DAW and use the Model 24 as an audio interface. It has analog EQ controls on the front of the hardware control panel.
My problems with this piece are, there are no channel inserts so there is no way to insert external signal processing such as high quality compression or reverb. You get the one internal signal processor and that's about it unless you connect to a DAW loaded up with processing plugins.
Only one of the three Aux sends is post fader and it's hardwired to feed the internal effects processors. The other two Aux are intended for monitor applications and they are wired pre-fader with no option to change them.
There is no midi sync option for the Model 24 without a DAW and a midi interface by someone other than Tascam.
MIDI OVER USB (Musical Instrument Digital Interface)
Old-school 5-pin midi is disappearing in many forms and from many products, I'm very disappointed by this trend. I've been using 5-pin midi since it first came out in the early 80's, it has been a standard for connectivity that could be counted on.
Many manufacturers implement midi over USB and provide features that are not included in the 5-pin specification. This is fine if your studio DAW is equipped to handle multiple USB connections simultaneously.
MIDI 5-PIN DIN CONNECTOR
Personally I'm still a fan of the old 5-pin midi standard, I use it daily in my music compositions. I have an older Roland midi keyboard controller which I'm very comfortable with, it is 5-pin midi out. I have many 5-pin midi cables I've collected over the years so I have no problem connecting things.
My midi interface is the MOTU (Mark of the Unicorn) "Midi Express 128", it's an 8-in by 8-out interface (has 8-inputs & 8-outputs). I've only used this on Mac OS, it is not class compliant. The MOTU interface requires a driver which interacts with the Audio-Midi setup feature on Mac.
I have no experience using MOTU products on Windows but the Midi Express 128 is supposed to work on Windows with the correct driver.
One of my favorite features about my DAW is recording and editing midi data. I slow the tempo WAY down and I'm able to groove along with the click track. It's easy to overdub midi to so I can build up much more complex parts than I'm capable of at regular speed.
Electric Piano, Organ, Mellotron, String Machine, bass, drums and percussion are some of my favorite midi voices. I'd be lost and bored without all the sonic accouterments that midi provides.
There has been great debate about why the 5-pin DIN plug was chosen for midi electrical connections since only 3-pins are actually used. I asked Dave Smith at NAMM in Chicago years ago and he said they thought it might expand to use the extra pins.
I still buy 5-pin wired midi cables because I've hot wired some of my gadgets that require power to get it from the two unused pins in a standard midi cable, my old ADA midi patch change pedal is one of these.
OTHER MIDI CONNECTORS
Another trend I hate is using 1/8" trs cables for midi connections, this is probably an off-shoot of Eurorack synthesizers but I still don't like it as the only midi hardware connection. If a manufacturer gives me both tiny-trs and 5-pin and USB I'm ok with that. But don't take away the 5-pin connection and give me that tiny trs with an adaptor to get to 5-pin. Those adaptors always get lost.
I don't like mobile phone connectors being used on our musical instruments. The mini USB connector is fine for charging a phone but it's not good on the back of a keyboard and in my experience, they frequently come unplugged.
Can you tell? I like 5-pin midi connections the best and all others are secondary, at least in my workflow.
AUDIO INTERFACE CONVERTER
An audio interface is needed to convert the sound you make into digital signals that can be recorded and interpreted by your DAW software. There are far too many interfaces for me to discuss them all physically and gauge their performance sonically.
Fortunately all of the name brand converters sound pretty good, that's an oversimplification to many people but I base that opinion on experience with a lot of gear. I've used expensive converters like the Apogee Symphony II, intermediate level like the Apogee Ensemble and Duet, digital mixers including the X32 and inexpensive converters by Focusrite, Tascam and MOTU among others.
The biggest determining factor in how my recordings sound is how I record them in the first place. Everything matters, from the instrument or microphone I'm using, to any preamp involved in the signal path, to the input used on the interface. A few of the most important considerations are whether the signal is balanced or unbalanced, high or low impedance and what is the reference level.
TWO UNIQUE CONVERTER CHOICES
I've reviewed a lot of equipment, I went back and tried to pick two converters that excel in their particular price ranges, one low and the other intermediate.
For bargain price, excellent sound, easy to use, built-in midi in-out on 5-pin DIN connectors, USB DAW interface, two headphone outlets with individual volume controls, a simple knob to blend prerecorded tracks with new recordings so it's easy to hear what's going on without latency or intermediate layers for monitoring....it's the SSL 2+ by Solid State Logic. It packs all of these features into a box that retails for well under $300 US.
Moving up in price and delivering the only Thunderbolt product of its kind with the ability to monitor through the DAW without latency, it's the Quantum series by Presonus. I found it hard to believe since I've always had to have buffers set high in order to not be glitching or crashing when using a bunch of processor-hungry plugins.
I've been using the Quantum 48-48 for six months and recently sold off my Apogee Symphony Thunderbolt interface because the Quantum sounds as good and delivers 32 balanced inputs and outputs on 25-pin D-sub connectors for under $1500. There are an additional 16 inputs and 16 outputs available through two pairs of ADAT light pipe connectors. You would need a light pipe to audio converter box to utilize these additional ports. I'm good with the 32-in and 32-out.
The Quantum series from Presonus is the first DAW converter I'm aware of that allows you to monitor straight through the interface without audible latency. I was very skeptical but my sales engineer at Sweetwater assured me it would work and I could send it back if I did not like it.
The little SSL 2+ converter box uses a simple pot to balance between what you're putting into the converter and what you're hearing. There is no software to install, it just works. I had a Tascam interface that worked like this and I liked it a lot. If I was going to mix inside the box I'd be looking closely at this SSL converter, it's budget priced, has the basic features you need plus midi and it's backed by one of the giants in the recording industry, Solid State Logic.
Presonus, by comparison, is the new kid on the block, they've built their reputation on budget priced equipment and have ruffled a few feathers along the way. Frankly I'm very impressed with what Presonus is doing, by utilizing Chinese manufacturing they've been able to deliver products that have nice build characteristics and excellent sonics. All my worries melted away when I began to actually use and produce with the Quantum 48-48, I was stunned by how good it sounded. I expected it to be thin and wimpy compared to my Apogee Symphony Thunderbolt II converter, instead it opened the door for me to sell the Apogee before a Thunderbolt III model made mine obsolete :-)
I'm impressed if you're still with me after all these words. There is a lot to think about when setting up a recording rig. In some ways things are simpler today than they were in the 70's, you can record 24 tracks into a laptop which is a lot smaller and lighter weight than a Studer or MCI tape machine.
If you're planning on going In The Box then you'll want to be sure you understand signal routing in your DAW. Plugins come with overhead, you need to track serial numbers and relate them to software titles. Some plugins come with only a single instance so you really need to stay on top of what is where. I have signal processing hardware from the early 80's and it's still working on my Outside the Box system. I have plugins from last year that are quirky and problematic so they fall into that class of "not working". I won't be giving these companies any more of my money regardless of their sale prices.
Software requires backing up, if you're not willing to do regular back ups and stay on top of software licensing then In The Box may not be for you.
Spend time looking at the various DAW software packages and find one that speaks to your workflow and style of performance. When you find a DAW that works for you stick with that software for years because any program with any real depth is going to take a while to learn all the nuance.
Look for companies that offer free software demos (usually time-limited trial of free for 14 days or free for one month). Try the demos, can you operate them? Do they sound good and useful? Don't believe the advertising hype, try the demo!
One final thing, if you find a small software company that will allow you to try their full version for free without a time limit, please either throw it away after you tried it or pay for it. Small developers create some of the coolest products and often provide some of the most liberal demo policies. They deserve your financial support if you're using the fruits of their labor.
Happy recording and good music to you!