A long time ago, in a land not so far away, the thought of taking your band into a recording studio was a big deal. A really big deal.
Studio resources were thin on the ground, and expensive to use: you needed to pay for the resources, and the engineer, and then there needed to be mixdowns, mastering, and a lot of other stuff too.
While most of that still holds true, today there are some quite realistic alternatives to having your big day out in the commercial studio: you can set up a studio in your home!
The basics are fairly inexpensive, and this is especially true if you have a half-decent computer. And the quality that you can achieve can be surprisingly good if you pay attention to a few details.
Let’s start with the computer: most modern computers would be capable of hosting a home studio setup. This is true whether you’re using a PC or a Mac, and whether you’re running XP, Vista, OS X, or Linux. In fact, if your computer is specified as being capable of running Vista in Aero mode, than it’s a fair bet that it can host your home studio. With that said, I would probably still choose XP over Vista, as recording can be a resource intensive task for your computer, and I think it’s preferable that you direct that resource usage to your chosen applications’ needs, rather than just to support the operating system.
The old adage of “there’s no such thing as too much memory or too much disk space” definitely holds true when it comes to your home studio. Memory is cheap, and so too is storage: make sure that you have a big hard disk and lots of RAM installed into your system.
While external drives may work as back-up drives, for recording you really do need to take steps to make everything work to its best capabilities: external drives will only work at the top speed permitted by the interface, and even USB2 is not really fast enough. SATA2 on your system motherboard is best. eSATA works well, Firewire might be ok …
On the subject of Firewire, if you have a motherboard with embedded Firewire, great. If not, then you’re still well and truly in with a good set of choices, but Firewire presents you with some extra options. Note that Apple seem to be dropping Firewire from their range, so be aware of what you’re buying.
Having now dealt with the basics of your computer, let’s look at how the sound gets from your instruments and your talent into the computer. This is handled through the audio interface.
Many motherboards come with an embedded sound card built in. While this is great for listing you your MP3 collection, it might not be ideal for the input of sound. Rather, you might wish to look for some sort of more specialised, higher performance sound card.
Good sound cards are not all that expensive: the Behringer UCA202 can be found for around Au$60, and provides a pair of RCA inputs and a pair of RCA outputs into a bus-powered USB interface. Windows and OS X both recognise this device automatically, and for the price, it’s very good value.
When using this for input, you can, for instance, hook up a simple mixer upstream, and the mixer might then let you throw a couple of good quality microphone channels, and several instruments, thus permitting you to get a live recording of your band.
In the USB realm, there are many other options too, including mixers that accept a number of channels but include a built in USB interface, and some even include an iPod interface as well.
With Firewire, there are similar options, but also you open up a few more avenues: you can also do some multi-track recording in a live situation. Whereas with the USB interface, you might be recording your band live, you are doing your mixing on the mixing deck, usually mixing down to stereo before the sound comes into your computer. With most Firewire interfaces, you can actually keep your instruments separate and unmixed, recording each of them into their own discreet track on the computer.
The advantages of this are that you can then remix everything later on in your workflow, and more finely tune the balance between the tracks.
Of course, you can also use a multi-track/multi-recording approach, which will work equally well for both USB and Firewire, but I think it’s fair to say that Firewire, while a little more expensive, does provide greater flexibility.
Of course, you can always stay with the basic sound card installed in your system, or perhaps you might wish to buy an upmarket sound card that installs directly into your system’s motherboard.
There’s no end of options here; you just need to investigate and decide what works for you, and within your budget.
Finally, you need to have some sound recording and editing software that lets you capture the music that you’re making, and edit and mix it down to the final masterpiece that you want to distribute.
Most of the interface cards that you buy will come with feature-limited versions of high end editing suites, and these will be more than sufficient to get you started. Apart from those, there are other applications like Audacity, Adobe Audition, and the Linux based 64Studio suite from 64Studio.com.
You find that you need to work with a combination of these tools in order to get the results that you want, and that is fine. Work with what works for you. The primary goals here are to get your music recorded and distributed, and to have fun.
And setting up your own home studio is guaranteed to provide you with endless hours of both!