If you already have an interest in playing and writing music, then being able to record and edit it for yourself is always going to have plenty of appeal. Be it simply so you can listen back to your own practice sessions or lay down some tracks and mix your own finished projects, having a project studio setup of your own can help you to develop and finish off all of those ideas.
Essentially all a basic recording space requires is some way to capture the audio. If you already have a computer to hand or even to some degree just a phone or tablet then you already have all you need to capture a session, as there are recording software solutions for all of those platforms allowing you to quickly record pretty much anytime and anywhere.
Moving past those basic recording requirements however and the more lightweight capture options like tablets and phones whilst they may allow you to get away with recording and even very basic cutting, pasting and some basic arrangement type jobs, they will start to run out of power very quickly when you start to try and do any more in-depth sound design or more complex processing of your audio. For tackling those more complex tasks a good laptop or desktop becomes a must, allowing you to transfer your mobile recordings and into your editing system. In fact, for many people choosing to make dance and electronica where often the capturing of audio requirements can be bypassed completely more in favour of working fully “in the box”.
To get the audio in and out of the system for editing we need it a route for it to follow. All modern computers and laptops ship with on-board audio these days and that solution can be pretty reasonable quality in a lot of cases, so why would you need an additional interface? There are a few good reasons although we can largely group them into ASIO driver handling, I/O support and the overall performance of the interface.
ASIO (which stands for Audio Stream Input Output) is the dedicated driver that ships with your audio interface for getting the best out of your system for recording use. The standard drivers that ship with Windows are referred to as “Windows Audio Session API” or more commonly as WASAPI drivers. These are fine for general everyday use and whilst Microsoft has made strides to improve them for the studio over recent years, they still tend to lag a fair way behind a well-written set of ASIO drivers.
For those just starting out and wishing to dabble, there is a free driver that works with all sound cards including those found already in your system called ASIO4All. This will allow you to get started by making your current setup usable for writing music and whilst it’s by no means as efficient or optimized as a good driver that ships with a dedicated audio interface, it is good enough for helping you to learn your way around whilst you decide what interface is going to make sense for you.
The I/O part of the equation refers to all the ways to get sound in and out of an interface, be those Phono, TRS or XLR, SPDIF or Optical Co-axel or even ABU or AES these are all connection methods for routing your audio in and out of a system and the recording link to the rest of your kit.
For those users running purely in the box, this perhaps will only be a small factor in their interface choice, with the only real consideration is having a good quality output and perhaps a reasonable quality headphone amp in there to help with monitoring your tracks. Of course for anyone wishing to record a full band the priorities are likely to be reversed, with a multi-input interface becoming far more desirable and focus on the pre-amps and overall signal path becoming a chief concern.
Performance, on the other hand, is how well the drivers work and the total amount available power they offer you as far as overhead for handling your plugins. That includes the sort of response you get latency wise whilst recording through the interface as well as the more brute strength figure of how many plugins can be run.
When we talk about latency on the PC there is a number of things it could refer too and in this instance we mean the real-time latency and how long it takes for your audio to be captured (for instance if you’re recording a guitar whilst you play it) processed and sent back to your headphones. This metric tends to be a bit more important for anyone wishing to record and monitor in real time as this lag if it gets noticeable will make it harder to play along in time. Whilst every performer is different in their requirements we tend to find that drummers need the tightest latency levels with a better than 10ms requirement, with guitarists and vocalist able to cope fine slightly above that.
Most if not all of the current widely available audio interfaces available can handle a better than 10ms RTL at the lowest 32 or 64 buffer settings although sometimes at the cost of overloading the CPU with those ultra-low buffer settings which leads to a major decrease in the number of plugins and synths it can handle. However, some of the better units will manage sub 10ms at settings all the way up to 128 or even 256 buffer settings with those higher buffer setting being a lot lighter when it comes to overall load and resource usage, with this being a core feature of some of the more expensive interface solutions. More crucially a good one in comparison to a more average interface will be capable of handling many more instances of your favourite plugins at each of those buffer settings meaning that a well-designed interface can add a lot of extra power to your setup.
The is a testing package known as DAWBench which we use here in Scan for a number of tests involving both interfaces and the systems designed to work with them. A recent performance chart is shown in the “latest reports” section on DAWBench website which can be helpful for anyone looking for a new interface. We also strive to carry out further testing we’ve done here in the store, so if there are any interfaces you wish to know more about, please do contact us to see if we can help advise you further.
Whilst the PC and interface remain the heart of the setup, it is of course very little use if you don’t have some way of getting sounds into and out of the system itself. Crucial for both those working both in the box and of course more traditional recordists is a having a trustworthy monitoring setup. Whether it’s down to budget reasons or equally valid a simple concern with noise management and keeping the neighbours happy, headphones are often the first upgrade people make rather than dedicated speakers.
Both speakers and headphones have their own strengths and weaknesses as with speakers you’re prone to the effects of your room dimensions affecting your sound, whereas headphones are capable of offering more neutral sound for monitoring, their lack of signal blending together in the air between the speakers and your ears as you experience in a regular room can sometimes make it difficult to get a mix that may transfer cleanly over to larger sound systems, so ultimately a good pair of both speakers and headphones is the ideal solution. Of course as you grow accustomed to these strengths and weaknesses of any playback solution you’ll learn to compensate for any shortcomings and differences, so it’s important to keep this in mind and try and pick up the monitoring solution that you find most revealing and to really learn how they respond whilst listening to your favourite reference material.
If you’re going with your first set of audio monitors, always remember to budget for some basic sound treatment and try and choose your speakers appropriately. Small rooms are capable of generating a lot of additional muddy noise into the mix due to high-pressure build of frequencies in the corners. Going with larger speakers, whilst they may on paper look to add more deep bass, can lead to patchy listening points in the room with both extensive bass frequency build-ups and a complete lack of low-end response in certain spots within the room due to the reflected frequencies boosting and cancelling each other out.
All this means that unfortunately in a typical small spare room you may find yourself experiencing more trouble with the monitoring acoustics than most people expect when they first set out to kit out a room. Thankfully careful placement of your speakers can help a lot here which is a subject already touched upon in this earlier post. All we can really do with placement, however, is ensure we minimize the early reflections through the correct arrangement of those speakers, but anywhere audio hits a solid surface and bounces back into the room we can expect mud and clutter in the mix so keeping some space between them and walls helps a great deal.
In the corners we tend to get more low end build up and removing these frequencies again may require extensive bass trapping to reduce that build up, so often it is better to try and avoid putting those frequencies into the room, to begin with by choosing the right speakers up front. It is however advisable in any studio to try and cover at the very least the first, second and rear reflective points in the speaker’s line of sight to help remove the early reflections that lead to a lot smearing and audible clutter at the listening position.
If you’re working purely in the box, then by this stage you’ve got a great foundation for your new recording setup. Anyone wishing to record and mix real instruments, however, will need a few extra bits to get going in the shape of vocal and instrument mics or perhaps an instrument pick up and D.I. solution to capture the sound. For a singer-songwriter with a guitar a good condenser mic or two are going to be essential although each mic is likely to have its own strengths and weaknesses where some might prove to be a better fit for your voice or playing style, so certainly worth spending some time checking out your available microphone options before diving right in.
We’ve attempted to outline the basic hardware requirements here in order to get you going, although ultimately all these topics can get quite in depth and we’ve not even touched upon the software side of things. We do hope however that you’ve found this basic guide capable of giving some handy pointers as to what your next step may be. Of course, if you wish to know more about the best way to setup up your recording setup, we’re of always happy to discuss the best way to setup and optimize your studio to get the best out of your kit.