Let’s start by taking some time to establish some definitions to the terms that we will see before we continue to build the home recording environment.
DAW is an acronym for Digital Audio Workstation. It can be defined as the device you are using to record all your midi and audio data. In the past there have been workstations for musicians that do not involve the use of computers. Today there are all in one digital 8 track recorders that are good examples of this. The Term DAW could reference your host application program. It could reference the software you use to record music, or it can refer to the computer or device you use to recording music.
Latency is a form of audio delay that occurs between the software program and the Sound Card. The lower the latency the better your system will respond while recording audio. Latency is measured in milliseconds. Recent Drivers have a lower latency then older drivers. So be sure you have the most current Drivers for your sound card.
Problems will occur when a software program cannot communicate with your sound card fast enough while processing audio data. This may cause dropouts. You will know when dropouts occur because the recording or playback in most cases will stop. Another side effect to high latency could be pops and clicks in the recorded audio. There are usually settings in the software program to control the latency and these controls will help prevent dropouts. To low of a Latency setting may also cause clicks and pops in your audio recordings.
Driver: is a small software app that interfaces the hardware in your computer with the operating system. This allows the software to access your hardware. There are several different driver models and types, but for recording audio these are the only ones you really need to know about.
- MME: (Multi Media Extensions) Developed by Microsoft for Windows 95, 98, 98SE, and ME. This older driver type has a higher latency but it will work with almost all sound cards that come with your P.C.
- WDM: (Windows Driver Model) Developed by Microsoft. Windows 98SE, and ME provide support for WDM, but WDM really became known with windows 2000, and XP. This driver type provides a lower latency level than its predecessor MME.
- ASIO: (Audio Stream Input Output) Developed by Steinberg and originally used with Cubase. (DAW) This standard driver type can be used on the PC or Mac platform. It provides an even lower latency then WDM. It has a limitation though. It can only be used by one hardware device at a time. ASIO bypasses the normal audio path from a user application through layers of intermediary Windows operating system software so that an application connects directly to the sound card hardware. Every layer that is bypassed gives a reduction in latency. Because of this process ASIO offers a relatively simple way of accessing multiple audio inputs and outputs independently.
- There is also a version of this called asio4all. This driver type allows you to use more than one device in an ASIO platform. It uses the WDM kernel for streaming. People either love or hate this driver type. It all depends on how well your hardware works with it. ASIO2ks is yet another version of this. It is becoming popular as well.
- WASAPI/WaveRT: This stands for Windows Audio Session API or WASAPI. This driver was designed by Microsoft and was released as part of the Vista operating system. This was part of the WaveRT port driver as well. WaveRT strives to achieve real-time performance by using the multimedia class scheduler and supports audio applications that reduce the latency of audio streams.
- WaveRT: allows the user mode application direct access to the internal audio hardware buffers and sample position counters. This is data in the memory that is mapped to the audio hardware DMA engine. It allows applications to poll the current position in the DMA memory window that the hardware is accessing. WaveRT also supports the notion of a hardware generated clock notification event, similar to the ASIO API. This is so applications do not need to poll for current position if they don’t want to.
While newer computer soundcards use this driver, as of this writing most higher quality recording audio interfaces still use the ASIO design. ASIO remains the favored and reliable driver type.
This basically means that your sound card is able to record and play back music at the same time. Make sure your sound card is a full-duplex sound card if you are going to record music with it. If it is not then you will not be able to hear tracks that you recorded while you are overdubbing. Usually a half-duplex sound card will not give you a good recording anyway.
An Audio interface is the hardware device that is used to connect to your computer. The device allows you to record music and provides a place to plug-in mics and instruments like bass and guitar. It could be external and plug-in via USB or Fire wire, or it can be a card that plugs into a slot on the main board of your computer, like the delta 1010 series from M-Audio. The Audio Interface takes the place of your computer’s built-in sound card for recording music. Obviously the higher the quality of your audio interface the better your recording will be. In most cases basic computer sound cards that are built in the motherboard are not meant for high-end recording and mastering. It is better to get an audio interface if you can afford one.
A DAW is considered a host application. A plugin is a small app that plugs into the host application and serves to extend the capabilities of the host program. Plugins can be effects like reverb or chorus. They can also be things like software synthesizers. Companies that produce plugins usually write them in a variety of formats. The host software or DAW will determine what formats you can use. Let’s look at the plug-in formats.
- Direct X is a group of technologies designed by Microsoft to make your computer a platform for running applications in multimedia. Direct X is found on windows based machines. Direct X deals with full color graphics, Video, sound, and 3-D animation. Direct X is a set of umbrella technologies, which include Microsoft Direct Draw, Microsoft Direct 3-D, Microsoft Direct Sound, Microsoft Direct Input, Microsoft Direct Play, Microsoft Direct Music, and Microsoft Direct Show.
- Direct X: Audio Plugins are a subset of the direct X technology, and they use the Direct Show foundation layer. DXi (Direct X Instrument) are software synths that plug into a host program.
- AU: Stands for Audio Unit. It is a system level plugin architecture provided by Core Audio and used in Mac OS X developed by Apple Computer.
- RTAS: Real-Time Audio Suite is a format of audio plugin developed by Digidesign and it is used exclusively with Pro Tools. (DAW Application) RTAS plugins use the processing power of the host computer rather than DSP cards used in the Pro Tools HD systems. The plugin architecture is designed to be run in real-time thus mimicking hardware inserts on a traditional mixing console.
- AXX: Was developed by Avid Audio formally known as Digidesign. AXX was introduced when Avid Audio released Pro Tools 10. While AXX works with Pro Tools 10 RTAS works as well. RTAS was phased out with later versions of Pro Tools. The new plug-in format allows for 64 bit plug-ins
- VST: Virtual Studio Technology was developed by Steinberg and originally released with Cubase 3.02. (DAW) The VST interface specification was released in 1996. The VST interface specification was updated to version 2.0 in 1999. One of the additions was the ability for plugins to receive MIDI data. This led to the introduction of Virtual Studio Technology Instrument or VSTi. The VST interface specification was updated to version 2.4 in 2006. Changes included the ability to process audio using 64 bit precision. The VST interface specification was updated once again to version 3.0 in 2008 and then once again in 2011 to 3.5.
Thousands of VST plug-ins exists for both commercial and freeware use. VST is supported by a large number of audio applications. A vast online community exists for VST and VSTi. Steinberg allows the technology to be licensed. Many host applications use VST and there are hundreds of free plug-ins that can be obtained through commercial developers.
MIDI stands for Musical Instrument Digital Interface. The MIDI Specification was published in August 1983. It was developed in the early 80’s. MIDI is a computer language that allowed music hardware from different manufacturers to communicate with each other regardless of the manufacture. The personal computer market stabilized about the same time that MIDI appeared. Basic MIDI features were adapted to several early computer platforms.
The General MIDI or GM standard was established in 1991. It provides a standardized sound bank that allows a Standard MIDI File created on one device to sound similar when played back on another. GM specifies a bank of 128 sounds arranged into 16 families of eight related instruments. GM assigns a specific program number to each instrument.
A midi controller is a hardware device that allows you to control midi applications on your computer. A midi controller does not need to contain any keyboard or synth sounds internally. All the sounds generated are from an outside midi source and they are not generated from within the controller itself. That’s it for the basic definitions.
Now lets talk about the items we need to assemble a small home project studio
1. A good computer: The better the system specs the more you can do. If you are thinking about a Windows platform then I would suggest you stick with Intel processors if it is in your budget. The i5 or i7 works better than AMD because of the hyper-threading technologies. Don’t get me wrong, newer AMD chips will work well too, and if you already have a computer with a good AMD Processor then that’s fine. There is no need to replace it. In fact that is what I currently have. For my needs it works fine. You will get better performance from the Intel processors for recording audio. So if you’re going to buy a computer for your studio then you should get one with an Intel processor (i7) If you can afford it.
It does not matter if you get a desktop or laptop. Just make sure the graphics card will support two monitors. Dual monitors come in very handy. Get as much Ram as you can afford. It is also important to make sure you have plenty of USB connections. You will be surprised to see just how much gear will attach to your computer during the recording process. In my setup I use 5 USB ports. Try to get at least 3 USB ports. Audio interfaces, midi controllers, external drives, and ilok devices can really take up the USB ports. Some Audio interfaces are fire-wire. If you get one of those interfaces then that would require a fire-wire card which is a separate purchase. Some desktops may have fire-wire built in.
2. Audio Interface: Let’s face it. You are not going to get a professional recording from that cheap laptop sound card. Getting an audio interface will not only improve your sound quality. But it will allow you to record more than one track at a time. It will provide a better way to interface your music gear with your computer. It will take the place of your internal sound card thus providing better recordings. Your Audio Interface becomes your main sound card for recording music. The preamps on audio interfaces are typically much better than the computers sound card. Most audio interfaces have Phantom Power which enables you to power and use high end condenser mics. These are just some of the reasons an audio interface with a good computer is better for recording then using your sound card, i-phone or i-pod. An audio interface can even increase your fidelity by providing higher sample rates and bit depths.
3. Monitors: You will need a good set of studio monitors. Computer speakers simply won’t work for mixing and mastering. Speakers sold to consumers are designed to lie to the consumer. They are designed to make the music you hear sound better. Therefore you will not hear a faithful reproduction of the recorded signal. This makes it hard to mix and master music because you never know what the actual audio signal sounds like. You are making adjustments based on your perception of the audio signal not the actual signal. This is because with consumer speakers the audio signal is always being exaggerated. If you use regular speakers you can get the song you mix to sound good on your system, but it will sound much different on other home audio systems and mp3 players.
Studio monitors will not add excessive bass or other frequencies that are not really in the signal. They will give you an accurate representation of the audio signal. They will let your ears know when there is distortion in the signal. There are several brands of monitors for the home recording studio on the market today. There is an average range of around 500.00 for a good pair of monitors, but you can get them as low as 100.00.
4. Headphones: You need a good set of closed headphones for the times when you need to use a mic. Any set of headphones that leak sound will not work. The sound leaked will be picked up by the mic which will ruin your recording. This is why it is not a good idea to wear ear buds or any open pair of headphones. You will need one set of headphones for every person recording a track at the same time. Fortunately you can get good headphones without spending a lot of money.
5. Microphones: Any good project studio will have a collection of mics at their disposal. Your computer mic simply will not work for recording vocals, or anything else for that matter. They are cheap and they sound awful. There are two common types of microphones. They are Condenser and Dynamic.
A condenser mic will need a power source. Most Audio interfaces and mixers these days come with phantom power for condenser microphones. Some condenser mics have places to put batteries and some do not. Condenser mics are great for things like Vocals and acoustic guitar. Condenser mics are a little more fragile than dynamic mics.
A dynamic mic needs no power source. These mics are more durable and they are used for recording things like guitar amps and snare drums. They can be used on tom drums as well.
6. Midi controller: A midi controller is used to operate software synths from within your DAW. A software synthesizer is basically all the sounds and features found in a hardware synth, but without the physical keyboard and hardware. Software Synths are just the software that goes into a physical synthesizer. There are several free software synthesizers in the VST format. There are collections of synths that come with various DAW applications too. A good midi controller will allow you complete access and control to the sounds and features of the various software synthesizers that are out there.
If you already have a keyboard that is midi capable you can probably use it. Make sure your audio interface has midi connections. You can just interface your keyboard with your computer through your audio interface.
7. Software: Of course you know you will need a DAW. You may also want to get various plug-ins and tools for mastering. You may want to invest in video editing software too.
8.Sound proofing materials: It would help if you have a special room set up for recording music. Most home studios are limited on space. A special room would allow you to add sound absorbing materials. This will add a great deal to your sound quality. The corners of the room are the most crucial parts to consider when sound proofing a room for recording and mixing music.
That’s it for the basic equipment requirements for a home project studio. I did leave out a few accessories like mic stands, pop filters, cables, and desk for your recording equipment. There are a lot of ways you can save money in those areas. If you already have a computer and some gear you should be able to acquire everything you need for a minimum cost.