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Digital Home Recording: Welcome to the Future! 
by Univeral Truth June 03, 2005

Whether it’s a full-blown studio album, or just a simple melody you can’t get out of your head, you can record and produce your own music, in your own home. Musically inclined? Here are four different ways to affordably produce some truly world-class tuneage!

Overview of Home Recording

If you’ve ever daydreamed about being a star, you’ve probably wondered about what it takes to get in that position in the first place. Talent, charisma, blind luck?

Sure, those things help, but if you’re serious about creating “that big break,” you are going to need to have an example of what you do. Until recently, this process was known as “recording a demo.”

The word “demo,” pre-supposed it was recorded on cheap equipment with low-quality mics, was anywhere from one to four tracks at the outside, and “didn’t really capture” your best capabilities.

Sadly, those days are gone. In today’s entertainment world, if you want anyone to even consider hiring you, you need to have a CD of your work. Studio quality, top of the line. Most professional recording studios start around seventy-five bucks per hour, but, even if you don’t have a girlfriend with a really good day job, don’t despair!

Modern digital technology really does put that “pro studio” capability in your hands. And the best thing is that its all both affordable and fairly simple to use! “Sound cards” have been evolving steadily since their inception, resulting in flexible, dense, and very authentic-sounding instrumentation that is indistinguishable from the original. Here is a look at four of the most available platforms, with some notes on both the strong and weak points of each.

I Don’t Have Much Money

A free recording studio would be nice! And you’re sitting in front of one right now!

Welcome to the world of Virtual Studio Technology, or VST. Several bundles are available which are designed around the idea of plugging a microphone into the input of your computer’s sound card, converting the recorded material to digital format, and then subjecting the audio files to whatever modifications you may desire.

Two of the most well known packages available are CakeWalk and SoundForge. They both feature very simple graphic user interfaces, (the “screens” that visually demonstrate what’s happening), so there’s not a very steep “learning curve” to contend with. And simple really is better!

Both manufacturers have state of the art packages available commercially, but they also have “demo models” available for free download. Instant gratification at a cost of zero!

The only downside to this approach is that, as you are using a computer sound card as your only input, you can only record one track at a time. Getting all those tracks recorded can be a long and time-consuming process. However, once you’ve finished the actual recording, you can also get free software that does the exact same things as all the expensive sound processors in any pro studio in the world. And I do mean any.

I Don’t Play All Those Instruments

I bet now you wish you’d taken those piano lessons, huh? Here are two solutions. First, if you don’t know the first thing about music, you should meet Acid. Like CakeWalk and SoundForge, Acid has packages available in “demo model” form. The main difference is that Acid frees you from the need to input any raw sound at all!

Acid is about loops and beats. Rather than the mixing board-type console you use in recording of actual sounds, Acid has a square, boxy interface divided into beats and measures on one axis, and loops or musical phrases on the other. And the net is just littered with beats and loops which can be easily integrated into a real-time recording.

This approach to music production, known informally as pulse-controlled modulation, really only has two drawbacks. In the wrong hands, the resulting production can come out sounding boring and repetitive. Also, it’s not equipped for live input, so if you want your tune to have vocals, they have to be recorded and converted to digital before they can be integrated into Acid.

That last point is actually kind of a two-edged sword, because, once you have recorded the vocal into digital form, that track can be broken up into “snippets,” each of which can be re-integrated into your song at will.

And, if you do know at least a little about music, MIDI can set you free! Actually, MIDI, (an acronym for Musical Instrument Digital Interface) is available in one form or another with all of these approaches.

But, with a MIDI keyboard, which can retail for as little as fifty bucks, you can input a melody from the piano-style keyboard, and then cut, copy and paste to your heart’s content. Or, change the instrument for a track you’ve already recorded. Or use it to trigger a digital effect. In point of fact, a MIDI keyboard can do anything you want it to!

I Don’t Have Much Space

Will Rogers once said, “land is the only thing they’re not making more of.” Assuming you’re not recording by yourself, there will probably be times when you want to record two or more performers simultaneously. This can be easily accomplished via the awesome power of ProTools.

Of the approaches we’ve looked at so far, ProTools is the only one that you can’t get at least some version of for free. However, the software is very affordable, and it comes designed to solve all the downsides of all the other available platforms, while sacrificing none of their advantages.

First off, rather than being limited to the single-input of MIDI or your sound card’s input, ProTools plugs into an interface called a USB port, via a MOTU, (or multiple onboard terminal unit) board that comes with the package. This “input board” comes with eight different input points, and each and every one of them is equipped to handle any kind of input. “Banana-style” clips, MIDI cable, RCA jacks, or standard guitar “jack cords” all work the same, and the MOTU board automatically assigns each input to a separate “track” on the console-style user interface.

What offsets the expense of using ProTools is the fact that, rather than having to hunt down and integrate a new studio effect, ProTools comes out of the box with, quite literally, any studio effect you could possibly want, at the touch of a button. And if having this system saves you from having to buy one day in a professional recording studio, it literally pays for itself!

My Computer Is Nowhere Near My Studio

If you’re really serious about DIY, (“do it yourself”) recording, you need to at least look into the world of VS, or “Virtual Studio.” This is a stand-alone unit, usually very small, (hence, “portable”), and it generally comes with inputs for four instruments at any one time.

Sales points: sixteen tracks available for each recording, onboard effects processing, and most even come equipped with a built in writable-CD drive, which you can use to either transport the raw audio to your computer for mixing, or mix all the way down to CD audio format for playing anywhere.

The only problems you may run into are the small display screen, and the cost, which has been dropping steadily over the past five years. If you want a truly professional product, you can’t go wrong using VS technology. In fact, both Aerosmith and Prince use this technology exclusively. It really is that good.

When It Has To Be Absolutely, Positively Right

Any of the platforms listed above may be the most ideal media for getting the sounds that you hear in your head actually playing in the air, but they don’t guarantee it.

The only guarantees I know of are these: first, if you are going to lay down any cash, put it into a quality set of studio monitors and headphones, as this is the only way to hear exactly what your final recording will sound like.

And second: doing a little studying of the field of recording in general. Knowing in advance what consequences result from adding “one little effect” to a track can save you days of editing or re-takes.

And that’s the kind of thing that can make or break your day!


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