Recording

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 Audio Interface Shopping List

I will be adding text as time allows here. This is just a fun project for me to share my 40+ years of experience in playing and recording music.

I have been recording since the 60's when I got my hands on my Dads Sony reel to reel. The dream of overdubbing myself playing all the parts took another two decades when the little Tascam Porta Studios came out. Soon we had Atari computers and MIDI and it just kept getting better and cheaper. We are basically spoiled now and anybody can have a home studio set up for under a Thousand bucks.

I'm going to talk about recording Audio first. Working with midi is an entirely different subject. 

Not to sound like a grumpy old fart, but nobody has to learn how to do things professionally anymore and therefore the world is being flooded with very badly done recordings. Newbie's attempt to jump over a lot of important knowledge in the rush to hit the big red button. My best advise to anyone starting out is to get your hands on a few good books and learn the lingo and facts about audio first. You don't have to understand it all, but just having read over the information will put a good foundation under your feet. Be careful of what you read off websites ( like this one :)

Before I got my hands on my first 4 track cassette machine I slogged my way through the Yamaha Guide to Sound Reinforcement. If you only read one book this is it. Absolutely the Bible for pure audio, both live and recording.  https://bgaudioclub.org/uploads/docs/Yamaha_Sound_Reinforcement_Handbook_2nd_Edition_Gary_Davis_Ralph_Jones.pdf

What I got into my thick skull was a good recording starts not only with great equipment, but a great performance captured the best possible way. Recording in a bad room via a crappy signal path and hoping you'll be able to fix it all up with your wonderful DAW tools is a bad route to take.

Take the time to make the best of each take. In the past tape was expensive and you didn't want to keep erasing it over and over. So we learned to prepare both the talent, the room environment and the signal path before we hit the big red button. I still work this way even though I now have unlimited tracking capability. 

As a result I often never use EQ on my recorded tracks. That's because I took the time to get the sound right first. I don't like keeping too many takes either. If it's just me I delete as I go and keep recording until it's one perfect take if I can. More difficult material I will punch in. Even though we have unlimited tracks I tend to want only one of each part on that screen. With clients I will keep only a few of their best takes. Too many takes makes a mess of things. If it was that bad, might be time to stop recording and spend more time rehearsing!  I have often sent people home for this reason and they come back next week and nail it in one take. Amazing?, No this is how it works. A good recording only starts with a good performance. A great performance only happens when you play or sing at you very best.

So if your not a great player or singer, don't worry, you'll get better. Being real good only speeds things up because you nail things faster. You have to make a decision while recording " is this as good as I (or the client)  gets?" 


The ins and outs of using a DAW.

By now most anybody who records music is using a computer and DAW software. We still need a bunch of hardware we always had like speakers, cables and microphones, that hasn't changed. But the modern computer has replaced our multi track tape decks and more than that! It also replaced racks and racks of expensive processing hardware. It has also replaced all the hardware based instruments like keyboards and drum machines. Some people still hang on to their old hardware ( me) mostly because we paid a lot of money for it and it still works. It's worthless if you try and sell it anyhow. But everything is in place once you set up you computer properly and choose the right DAW that meets you needs.

The 2 most important components are the computer and more importantly, your audio interface. If you cheap out on either of these two items you've compromised everything else. After all, your scoring what cost thousands of dollars in gear for almost nothing now because it is all in the box.  So what I'm saying is spend as much as you can on the very few hardware items you will need.

As said, you will need a higher end computer, an audio interface, monitor speakers, some good quality cables and possibly a keyboard controller. Of course if you play guitar it helps to have one of those too!

The Desktop PC Computer- Most serious contenders either build their own or purchase a custom machine from builders who specialize. Why? We want higher quality components and off the shelf computers, even expensive models, cheap out on parts. We want a solid case, quiet fans, heavy duty power supply, the fastest processer, SSD drives, extra storage drives and minimum 16 GB RAM. Two 24+  monitors is also the norm. Also we don't want a machine loaded with useless apps and bloatware. You need to optimize for audio. And turn off that damn internet when working. Updates can mess you up and even reboot your computer while you were trying to get something done.    

Optimizing PC for Audio Sweetwater      Optimizing for Audio Focusrite  


The Audio interface. The audio interface is the heart of your system. Don't cheap out if your wishing for good sound quality and stability. The drivers are actually the most important component. That's how the device and your DAW talk to each other. Good drivers also give you better Round Trip Latency performance.  I advocate for making a list of what you need now and in the future.  This hardware will last forever, but not the drivers that make it work. They get  outdated pretty fast these days but the good companies will update the drivers at least a few times. In the lower price point I'm a Tascam fan, if I had the money, however, I'd be getting an RME or Motu. Audio interface shopping list

DAWS: I was a pioneer of using computers to make music I now realize. I bought an Atari 1040St back in 1983 and then bought Dr T KSC software. This was pure midi days and we all lugged our computers to gigs and used midi sound modules for live playback. I won't bore you with the next 20 years of slowly upgrading hardware based systems and the $$$$ this used to cost. I also used both Calkwalk and Cubase back when they where pure midi and my first full scale DAW ended up being Cakewalk Home Studio in 2004.

It took me a long time to sort things out and the biggest issue was my lack of  a proper audio interface as well as computers were pretty pathetic back then. But I slowly mastered the software and for the last 5 years have had no major issues working with a DAW. I also use Cubase and Studio one a little bit. My versions of those are entry level so not fair to compair tem to my full verson of Sonar. Each DAW has it's strong points and most seem to me to be more or less the same in basic functions. You get pretty entrenched in the DAW you've used the longest and it's hard to switch.

You can try demos of most DAW's and I highly recommend you do this. Studio one is Free so start with that as you get to keep it no strings attached.

After 12 years I'm still learning how Sonar works. I belong to the Forum which is where I mostly learn new things. I highly recommend you join the user forum for your DAW of choice. Or even if your just demoing it. You'll certainly get a better "feel" for things like bugs and company support.

HARDWARE:  Even though you can do everything "in the box" with software Hardware is still where I spend my money. OK, you can call the computer hardware, but I'm talking studio and live performance gear. High on your list and the second thing after purchasing an audio interface you'll be shopping for Monitors. Don't cheap out. This also goes for Microphones. The mike is your front end, the Monitors your back end.

There is lots of great stuff out there now aimed at home studio's and we live in a golden age of being able to purchase pretty good stuff at budget price points. Shop the sales. I end up purchasing most of my gear in real music stores. I find they will price match and even ship for free. I like supporting real stores and building a relationship with staff. They will treat you right if you let them get to know you.

I'm always looking for new toys for both my studio and for playing live gigs. For the studio it's the quest for high quality front end, pre amps, compressors interfaces, keyboards, control surfaces and mikes. For live rig I'm on a quest to lighten my load but up the quality. Ease of set up is important to me the fewer wires the better. I'm currently looking at the new generation of small digital mixers.

  Audio Interface Shopping List      MY SHOPPING GUIDE  FOR INTERFACES Word Document File

There is a lot of choices.

Make a list of your requirements first then start shopping. .

What kind of connectivity do you require? and how many of each.

These are some of the options:

XLR, 1/4" TS, 1/4"TRS, Combi jacks,  RCA, ¼” line level, ¼” Instrument level, MIDI, SPDIF,  ADAT, MADI  Word Clock.

How many ins and outs do you think you'll need now and in the future?

Are they accessible?  Front or rear panel or both?

Are the ¼” jacks Balanced?  

Is there a true stereo pair? Some don’t have a matched set of inputs which rules out using a pair of mikes on an Acoustic guitar,  drum overheads or recording a stereo source like a hardware synth.

Most interfaces have at least 2 matched combi jacks on the front which is my preference. They can handle just about anything including  XLR and guitar cables. I also think 4 inputs is minimum as it's great not to have to always swap out cables. The extra 2 can be back panel TRS.  If like me you play a few different instruments then having a dedicated input for each is the way to go. If you don't plan on recording bands and your only going to be recording 2 or 3 tracks at once then a 4 channel interface is all you need. You can always add more dedicated inputs buy purchasing a small mixer. If you are going to record a group or band, then 8 XLR inputs will be minimum.

Pre Amps are very important and choosing the quality of your needs will take a bit of research.  The “you get what you pay for”  rule applies here, but check out the reviews and keep in mind that if you have those back panel TRS jacks you can always add a hardware pre amp latter. If pre amps are high on your list then look at the $400 plus range. 

Having SPDIF is a nice option as a lot of powered monitors now have digital inputs. Only down side is the monitor control knob on the front panel probably won't control your control room level. On my 2 interfaces SPDIF input does not have direct monitoring either.

If you have other gear that supports the various multi channel digital formats like MADI or ADAT then you'll defiantly be requiring those options as in/outs.

Old school MIDI ports are now often replaced with MIDI over USB but if you plan on using any older midi equipment make sure you have this option.

I like to have 4 outputs. Main 1/2  to monitors, 3/4 I run to a small mixer I use for monitoring.  If your thinking about recording a group of musicians  then you will need more outputs or headphone mixes. Most multi output interfaces come with GUI based mixing software that facilitates complicated cue mixes. There are also many complaints about the learning curve for using this software so pay attention to reviews.

A/D convertors are generally good these days. There would seem to be a diminished return formula at play as the ones that claim highest quality are $$$$$. How much better those will make your recordings is anyone's guess. Myself convertors are low on my list of concerns.

Are there peak level meters or just a little LED for each input?  I hate little lights, but that's seems to be standard.

Are there channel Insert jacks?  This is a must if you desire a hardware compressor or EQ. You can also tap into this to run the signal to a monitor/ headphone  mixer. 

Are there separate controls for Monitor level and headphone level? This is super important. People who miss this end up having to fork over an extra $100 for a "Big Knob"

Is there a blend control on the front panel for mixing Source with Computer ( DAW) ? Sometimes this is Software based only. This might be important to you to balance the input signal with the playback. I use my small mixer.

How many Headphone jacks? A level for each?

Are the input pads or line / Instrument toggle switches on the front, back or software controlled?

Is it a metal box or cheap plastic? Is it light and portable or large and bulky, Rack mountable? Size matters. I like the Tascam interfaces as example, but compared to most others they are way to bulky to pack in a laptop bag.

Does it have an on / off switch? Nice to not have to unplug the wall wart.

Does it use Buss power or a power supply? Buss power can have issues with noise and Phantom power. I myself would avoid any interface that does not have an optional A/C power supply.   

Does it have DSP effects built in? Certainly a worthwhile option if you plan on using the interface as a live mixer. My next interface I'm looking at is a Motu that serves double duty as a live digital mixer.

Does it use a GUI mixer? Having a software (GUI) mixer adds more options. And once again with brands like the Motu you now have Tablet / iPad remote mixing capabilities which for live sound in ears and studio headphone mixes is pretty slick. 

Can it be used as stand alone? Some interfaces are also handy as a small mixer.

What are the Round Trip Latency (RTL) specs? Do you need low RTL for real time processing?

Low RTL is going to be at a higher price point. A $200 interface will have hidden buffers etc and score higher latency. If you wish to use Guitar Sims your going to want to spend more money and get your RTL down to below at least 5ms. Best performers are brand like Motu and RME.

Zero Latency monitoring is not the same as RTL. All interfaces have some latency. 

Zero latency is just marketing hype for monitoring directly from the interface.

And most important of all, Does it have top notch drivers for your OS. 

What is the word on support from the company?

Does it come with free software, An LE version of a  DAW you would like to try?  Free plug ins?

 

Everyone will recommend the interface they have chosen, that doesn't mean it is the right one for you.

Sit down and make a list of your desires and then go on web sites like Sweetwater and read reviews and specs. Also a good idea to visit the web sites of the major bands and see what's new. Careful of outdated gear.