Guide to Home Recording, Part 1: The Computer

Big budgets, giant studios and seasoned engineers are becoming increasingly scarce, and more and more musicians are recording their music at home. This article, the first in a multi-part series, explores and demystifies the fundamentals of home recording: everything from software to interfaces and beyond.

By Philip De Lancie

Whether you're a singer-songwriter or in a band, the quality of recordings you can make at home today is vastly improved compared to the early days of four-track recorders some three decades ago. But the same technology that gives you more power to make your musical ideas heard has also brought a huge increase in the variety of different options and equipment. Familiarizing yourself with it all can be a bit overwhelming, especially if you're just getting your feet wet.

The key is to break things down into the basic building blocks you'll need, and to look at each in turn to see how it fits into the big picture. That's what we'll be doing in this series of related articles on home recording. We'll start by looking at the hardware at the heart of today's home recording setup: the computer on which you'll run digital audio recording software in order to create a Digital Audio Workstation (DAW).

The Flexible Option

The first question about computer-based DAWs is: why use them at all? After all, there are many fine dedicated digital recording devices for the home market available today, and these devices do have their benefits in certain situations. But with recent improvements in the power of computer-based solutions, choosing a dedicated device for home recording now seems a bit like choosing a typewriter for word processing.

While the capabilities of a dedicated device stay fixed at the moment of manufacture, a computer-based DAW is a platform that can evolve to keep up with the latest technology. And because the software itself is separate from both the computer it’s run on and the interface that handles inputs and outputs, you've got the flexibility to upgrade each of these elements in independent stages - without taking your old setup to the electronics recycler each time your needs grow or your budget expands. On top of this flexibility, recording software can take advantage of the screen space of today's larger-resolution monitors (1024 x 768 and above), making it much easier to handle important tasks such as waveform editing.

Up to the Job?

Needless to say, the power and speed of your computer has a big influence on what you can expect your DAW to do. The following general guidelines cover the most important factors in making sure that your machine is up to the job (remember to always check system requirements before buying anything):

Operating System - I'll skip the Mac® vs. Windows® debate except to say that if you are already well-established with one OS or the other there's no reason you can't build a perfectly fine DAW on the same platform. If you're new to computers, however, you should spend a little personal time with both Windows and Mac before deciding which lets you feel most at home.

Whichever OS you choose, there's little payoff in building a recording setup around an OS that's already obsolete. For Windows, that means your machine should be running Windows 7. If you're on Mac, you'll want to have at least OS X, v10.4 (Tiger). If the requirements of these operating systems exceed the capabilities of your machine, it's probably time for a new computer.

CPU - Like the engine in a car, the central processor (CPU) in your computer is what does the actual work, in this case crunching the numbers that make up digital audio data. Running multiple synchronized tracks of audio and MIDI is a processor-intensive task. If your CPU (PC or Mac) is rated at 2GHz or above, you can likely use any DAW designed for the home market, especially if the processor is dual-core or equivalent. For a given CPU speed, higher bus speeds and a larger cache will boost performance.

Even if your CPU speed is well below 2GHz, your maximum track count may go down, but you’ll still have some satisfying software options. For example, Line 6 POD Studio™ interfaces (including POD Studio GX, POD Studio UX1, and POD Studio UX2) ship with an array of bundled software that includes Ableton® Live Lite 7, Reason® Adapted, and RiffWorks™ T4. None of these capable applications has a minimum required CPU speed greater than 1.5 GHz on PC or 1.35GHz on Macintosh (G4 or higher), though of course faster CPUs (1.8GHz and above) are recommended for optimum performance.

Memory (RAM) - More is better. The larger your machine's memory, the faster it will be able to handle audio data, which means you'll be able to work with more tracks simultaneously and apply more effects with plug-ins. Some DAW software may be able to squeak by with 512MB, but you'll want at least 1 to 1.5GB for reliable performance. 1 GB is recommended for both Ableton Live Lite and Reason Adapted on both PC and Mac. Did I mention that more is better?

Drive Speed - Hard drives store audio data, and to play it back smoothly they need to be able to access it quickly. Drives that spin at 5400 RPM are common, and will probably suffice for working with a few tracks. But the recommended drive speed for DAWs is typically 7200 RPM. And the makers of some DAWs, including Digidesign® Pro Tools®, specify that a dedicated drive, separate from the startup (system) drive, should be used for the audio data, thereby keeping non-audio read/write operations from impacting audio performance. To secure your creations against drive failure, data from the audio drive can be backed up to the system drive.

Ports - A computer without a port is like an amp without a jack: very, very quiet. Some computers come with analog audio inputs that can handle a mic or line level. But while these may be handy in a pinch, they aren't intended for high-quality audio recording. For that your computer will need a data port using FireWire or USB (preferably 2.0), which will allow high-speed transfer of data from a digital audio interface such as those in Line 6's POD Studio line. We'll look at audio interfaces in an upcoming article in this series.

Philip De Lancie is a freelance writer covering all aspects of audio and multimedia production and distribution. His work, which has appeared regularly in leading publications for production professionals, draws on his own professional experience in audio engineering and multimedia production.