D.I.Y. Audio computer Part 1...
Thats really not how it has to be. A computer recording a live performance through microphones does exactly the same job as a tape machine. It simply records. It does not automatically quantize your performance to a click track, perform any autotuning, or attempt to correct your performance at all. It records audio, rewinds, and lets you record another track if you want. Thats what a tape machine does, and thats what a computer does.
When you overload a digital device, it reacts very differently. It "clips" and sounds like shit. If the clipping continues for very long, it is very hard to listen to and actually will cause signifigant fatigue in your ears. Its a sonic turn off... I am over simplifying here, but basically digital recording has a finite "resoloution" and you must stay within its limits. It is designed to record the signal as cleanly and purely as possible within these limits, therefore you do not get the benefit of adding "fatness" the same way you would when overloading a tape machine. So, a properly recorded digital signal is "clean". It sounds different than tape.
The first few generations of computer recording interfaces, converted analog to digital with a much reduced resoloution compared with the devices available today. Picture a 12 inch ruler standing vertically to represent the recording level meter in a 16 bit recording... You had to keep your recording input level bouncing between 6 inches and 12 inches to use the converters well and make a good recording. The higher up the ruler you keep the recording level the better, it used "more bits" to record the incoming sound and sounded better. If it fell too far down, it sounded kind of grainy, and if it went over the top of the ruler is caused digital clipping and very bad sounding distortion.
Now picture a yardstick standing up next to the 12 inch ruler, this is like what 24 bit recording is which is the standard these days. With 24 bit you still have to keep your recording input level above 6 inches, but you have 30 more inches above it to play with. The same principal applies, you should keep your recording level reasonably high to take advantage of "more bits" to record the incoming signal, but the margin between too low and overloaded is MUCH greater meaning that the incoming sound can be more dynamic in terms of its volume changes and sound good! This is called "Dynamic range."
In recording to 16 bit converters, it was a good idea to use a "compressor" which is a device that is used to squash the dynamic range of an incoming signal. This kept the recording level from ever going over the top of the "ruler" and distorting. Using a compressor at times is counter musical because it restricts the extreme volume changes in the normal playing of an instrument. Some compositions go from being very quiet to very loud as an artistic device, and the compressor has the possibility of limiting these changes to a narrower scope than the performer actually played them.
Hopefully I am illustrating the idea that 24 bit recording is able to capture sounds with a very large dynamic range, and contains MUCH more information about the incoming audio in general. Therefore it is much more faithful to the original source of the sound than 16 bit was, and sounds ALOT better.
So, in my opinion digital recording and playback at 24 bits does not suck in and of itself. It is very capable of faithfully recording and playing back material with a wide dynamic range at high resoloution. But it is still "clean". Analog to digital converters are cold, hard, fact gathering devices, designed to capture the incoming audio signal EXACTLY as it entered the device, not adding any character, warmth, distortion or anything else. It is a scientific instrument for measuring incoming audio signals and converting them to numbers.
Classically, most microphones, and preamps were built with the same principals. Purely scientific and precise intruments for transducing audio waves into electrical impulses with as little noise as possible and highest dynamic range.
= ......65536 amplitude levels
= 96db dynamic range
24 bit has 256 times the amplitude steps as 16 bit, but some of this is wasted on the noise floor.
Conversely, you can record your song to a click, punching in every 4 bars, stopping to cut up, quantize, and digitally retune evey note along the way. Hell, you can fire up a sampler, and use your mouse to enter notes in a MIDI editor, or import and cut up prerecorded loops to construct a song without ever picking up an instrument!
Cheap 2nd generation computers, if set up correctly are capable of doing serious audio work.
Computer recording setups have several advantages over the old school tape decks... the benefit of the ability to be very small, light, portable, self contained, and not needing a big bulky mixer or outboard gear to be useful. Computers DO need maintainance, but it involves the care and feeding of the OS, hardware, software, and drivers in your system.
Some folks are just against computer recording based on a wide range of principals... They dont like the idea that the flowing elliptical wave forms that are the sound of music becoming reduced to one and zeros, and then handed over to a calculator (computer). Or they have the idea that computer recordings are intrinsically cold, overprocessed, perfectly quantized, completely dehumanized and robotic. These very real possibilities that have come to the forefront with the invention of digital recording, but are the fault of the practitioner, not the tools.
A DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) can be whatever you want it to be. In its most basic usage, a audio computer is a simple tape machine. Period.
Recording on a computer is as simple and "organic", or as quantized, dehumanized, pitch corrected and dynamically squashed as you want it to be. The tools are there for both.
Recording music can be looked at a number of ways... It can be the simple representation of the performance of a piece of music by a "musician", in this way the recording device is a bit like a camera, a simple, pure, documentary representation of the performer and the sound "as it was played". On the other hand, the process of making music can actually start with the use of recording equipment, and then becomes where the actual creative process and evoloution of the composition takes place, and now the recording equipment has become a musical instrument. If you choose to indulge the idea that you, the song, your voice, the instruments and the recording device are inseperable means to the same creative end, then things get easier, and the horizon broadens a bit.
Theres these extremes, and a million shades in between... So, pick your paradeigm... or dont!
Most popular music is far from being documentary. It is a technocolor cartoon version of the sounds that are put put into it, and thats what SOUNDS GOOD!
Thats what we like to hear, music like this is ear candy! Its exciting, exaggerated, theatrical, deep and a combination of balance / imbalance. The end product is can be heavily manipulated and wind up sounding very little like the original perfomances as they were before overdubbing, arranging, and mixing.
As I mentioned earlier, with the use of MIDI, samples, and loops a whole composition can be assembled without ANY human / instrument performance whatsoever.!
Then it gets more fun... Automatic punch-in's, non-destructive editing,
For me, the benefits of computer based recording are obvious.
1. I live in a small apartment with limited space. and I like to record rock music with loud amps and drumming. When I want to record drums, I cannot do it in the apartment, so I have to go on location and bring my gear with me. Everything else weighs the same... (mics, stands, cables, monitors, etc are all the same) but the computer is alot easier to carry than a tape machine and a pile of reels.
While it is possible to simply download a demo version of some recording software and load it on an old laptop or your mom's computer and start messing around for awhile, its shouldbe realized that without question if you want to get good and reliable performance from your audio computer setup you really need to set up a seperate system that is optimized for audio. "Seperate system" means a customized computer setup that is dedicated only to audio related tasks. In the case that you do not have a 2nd computer to dedicate to the job, you should create a Dual Boot system (one computer with two different operating systems installed). With a dual boot, you can have your "regular" computer, for going online, office applications and games, and also a completely seperate installation of windows that is hotrodded for audio.
So, theres alot of reasons to want to turn your Windows based computer into a recording studio... lets look at why you would NOT want to do this yourself.
Because you will be knee deep in technical bullshit for awhile, you need to become a system administrator, familiar with your computer's inner workings. To set up a computer for audio, you will format hard drives, install operating systems, hardware, drivers, and software. Then you need to roll up your sleeves and severely customize your OS, disabling unessential hardware, software and settings. Like a gearhead , constantly tuning his car, you will optimize and tweak your system to perfection. This is all before you set up one microphone or play a single note... If this sounds like a really unpleasant way to spend you time, I suggest that you go another route than the D.I.Y. Audio computer
Also, you will definately have a MUCH better experience if you get a soundcard with ASIO drivers. Any sound card you get nowadays has them, and ASIO always seems to work... low latencies. Also, getting a card with direct hardware monitoring should be a must...
This article is neglecting all other considerations for builting a home studio, like choosing a soundcard, monitors, soundproofing, cabling, etc... We are just talking about the core recording device, which will be your computer.
Audio recording is a "real time"operation, and computers are fast but they are not real time. This is because of the difficult fact that everything in the computer involves some number crunching by the CPU. It is called: "LATENCY".
you plug in a mic and connect it to the computer it goes through the
soundcard, turns into a number, pipes into the software, is mixed together
and then back out to the outputon your soundcard that your headphones
or speakers are plugged into. The CPU of your computer is dealing all
of that jazz at the same time! The time that your system takes to make
sound go through this little chain of calculations is Latency, and in
practice introduces an audible delay between the time you play a note
and the time it arrives at the outputs of your soundcard...
Using some form of direct hardware monitoring is the solution to this problem.
Latency and Direct hardware monitoring
hardware monitoring circumvents the problem of latency by NOT monitoring
the recorded track through the software at all.
recording, the balance knob is turned more toward "Input"
and the Input Monitor in the DAW is turned off for the track that you
This workaround functions for any possible live overdub you could encounter, but for the performer the dry sound of the mic at the inputs is whats going into the DAW, and what you are hearing in the cans... It can be a little weird, and you cant do reverb from the DAW while tracking when using this method....unless: You use an outboard mixer, where you could make a buss channel only for the headphne mix with an outboard reverb unit, and send the direct out AND the reverb buss to input channels on your soundcard.
If you dont have a soundcard with Direct Hardware monitoring, you can use a mixer, or get creative and use something like a headphone amp to do the trick.
If you dont do direct monitoring, you will always be dealing with recording latency issues.
record analog sources onto the computer as an overdub you use direct
hardware monitoring. Because you cannot use synthetic ambience on it,
it becomes an opportunity to do things the old fashioned way by extracting
good ambience for the performers benefit from mic placement, outboard
preamps, compression and effects. Not relying on a single close miced
performance to be the building block of a synthesized ambient algorhythm
of an ice cathedral.
is a different issue with softsynths, softsamplers, amp simulators and
other virtual instruments that you want to record a performance of.
These sounds all are all generated in the computer and therefore cannot
be direct monitored, they are subject to the latency of the system.
In an optimized computer with a soundcard that uses a fast interface (PCI or firewire) that uses ASIO drivers, this takes a matter of a few milleseconds, which for the purpose of playing a virtual instrument like a software synthesizer or a sampler, is a hardly noticeable delay. Even playing a guitar thru an amp sim can sometimes be OK at these low latencies.
It is very important to understand this latency stuff and what you can do to best manage your CPU bandwidth during tracking an mixing in your software, because you can really wrestle alot of performance out of your system if you know where you can wring it out.
You need the best system you can get your hands on... the capabilities and performance of a recording computer are only limited by the machine itself. The faster the CPU, more RAM, fastest audio interfaces and hard drives...The better the system, the more tracks you can play back, plugins you can run in real time, and much lower latencies all are possible with the sound card...You can do alot with an older system by using fast soundcards and a super slimmed down version of Windows XP.
what have you got?
Dual Boot Hack scenario.... You have just one computer to use for
all of your exploits (internet, office apps, games, etc...)
This is what I do, which is to set up a "dual boot" system. This basically means that you are setting up your computer to have two completely different systems set up on it, two installations of Windows... One that is completely streamlined, slim and trim for audio, and the other that is set up as usual, with all the everyday bells and whistles necessary for your other computing exploits. This way you have the best of both worlds, an optimized recording rig, and a "regular" computer, all in the same box.
If you have one hard drive, you have to repartition it so that windows sees it at two seperate drives, then install Windows on both partitions. If you are using a desktop computer and have a hard drive that you can dedicate solely to the audio version of your system, then you can simply install and format the drive, then install the 2nd copy of Windows onto it.
Windows Xp Pro, as it is good at configuring itself as a dual boot when you install it twice on seperate partitions of the same hard drive, or twice on the same computer.
In either case, when you boot up your system, you will be asked to "Choose an operating system" and then the machine will boot into "bloated sack mode", or "slim & efficient audio mode". So, you can use your hardware whatever way you like. It is pretty amazing to see the difference in boot time for windows using the slimmed down one... Windows wastes alot of our time by not being more readily customizable.
Windows XP atttempts to be an "everything to everyone" kind of place, automatically configuring devices that are plugged into it, managing network connections, printers and other peripherals, constantly monitoring USB, serial, paralell, firewire ports, and running MANY other "services" in the background to transparently manage many functons taken for granted by you and I, the "end users". Windows also wants to looks good... It animates the opening of folders and applications, has pretty screensavers and colorful themes, "live desktops", and umpteen other features that can bog down the most robust systems.
Windows wants to provide a jolly, candylike interface to you, your grandmother, your insurance agent, and everyone else, so it has a bloated sack of contingencies built into help everybody with everything they might try to do on their computer. With audio recording, we need to have an operating system that is not being bothered to do anything but to run the DAW software. Nothing else. We want Windows to only think about running your software and moving audio to and from your soundcard. Anything else that takes place in the system is a mere distraction. Anything that takes up CPU cycles is the enemy.
So, with ANY windows based computer that you want to do and serious audio recording on, you have to hunt down and disable EVERY possible thing on your computer that is not dealing with the audio. This includes hardware (serial / paralell ports, network adapters, ANYTHING / every non essential thing) also, windows "services", antivirus, firewalls, windows security center, indexing applications... Anything that could be running in the background that will interrupt the CPU for ANY reason. In Windows pressing CTRL+ALT+DEL will bring up the "task manager" Which is a decent place to start in trying to seek and destroy all the unnecessary things that might be going on in your computer...
Disclaimer: Take any and all information you find here at your own risk! I am not certified or licenced by any authority to dispel information about computers and audio to anybody. I just know what I know, and now you can know it too. If you screw up your computer, its not my fault ok?
OPTIMIZING AND TWEAKING
Ok, quickly reviewing the goals of our mission. We are trying to give your computer hardware and Windows XP's full attention to being a recording device by eliminating anything that we can that would possibly disrupt the system...
So, you have a computer with windows XP with Servicepack 2 & firewire updates, or servicepack 3 installed, or a dual boot system with a fresh install of Windows XP on a separate partition, and you are now ready to tweak it for use as a Digital Audio Workstation.
STAGE 1: Disable Hardware. Stopping windows from "seeing" hardware that is not required for audio.
Go to the Device Manager:
Panel>System. Click on the "Hardware" tab, then the "Device
It IS what it says... Its a graphical representation of the devices in your system, including motherboard components and any other hard drives or USB / Firewire stuff you have connected. If windows is having a problem with a device, or it has been disabled, it will have a "!" symbol next to it.
To disable a device, right click on the device in the list and choose "Properties", then click on the "Device usage" dropdown list and choose "Do Not use this device (disable)" Do this for any devices like the ones in the list below.
If you are setting up a dual boot, disabling the hardware in this version of windows will not affect the other install of windows. It will still "see" and use the devices you are disabling here.
STAGE 2: Disable All kinds of other power wasting crud...
Disable Services: Windows updates
Press the Windows + R keys > type services.msc.. then this window appears...
find "Automatic Updates" and right click on it, choose "properties"
Brings up this window, click the "startup type" dropdown menu and choose "disabled"
Disable Windows System Restore
Windows security center
( from SOS "Optimising Windows XP For Music" Article:)
Updates can be switched from Automatic to Manual if you prefer to
install system updates manually from the Microsoft web site.
Lets see whats going on under the hood....
pressing CTRL+ALT+DEL will bring up the "windows task manager"
Clicking on the little tabs at the top will tell you something different about your system...
Another place you will have to look is at what system services are running, to do this you click START>RUN, then type in "msconfig" and click OK
brings up the System config utility, and you click on the "services"
Theres a much more robust place in windows to investigate and disable services
When you really want to get down with it and start tweaking, use this app in windows aptly named " Services"
How to Access Your Microsoft Services:
1. Click Start