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Should I Use a Computer For My First Home Studio?

6:00 am Home Recording

Once a musician (of any age) starts writing and playing his or her own songs, or joins a band and starts playing in front of actual people, it’s not long before the urge to get some of this music recorded for the ages begins to settle in. After all, why write a song if the only way to play it for someone is to grab your guitar and actually, well, play it for them? And why should everyone in the audience know exactly what your band sounds like playing live when you yourself have no idea?

So the idea dawns. “Hey! I ought to have some kind of recording setup here in my basement (or spare room, etc.) so that I can record my songs and put them on a CD! And wow, maybe I could take the recording stuff to one of our gigs and record the band playing, then put that on a CD too!”

It’s a great idea, but for someone brand new to the world of recording, that phrase “some kind of recording setup” raises a lot of questions, beginning with, what kind of recording setup? In the Ancient Days, there was only one answer: get yourself a multi-track tape recorder and use that as the basis for your home studio. The audio world has changed, but the descendants of those early units still exist in the form of “standalone” DAWs (Digital Audio Workstations) such as those made by Korg, Tascam, and others.

These economical standalone DAWs have evolved to the point of becoming truly “a studio in a box.” Want reverb? It’s built in, with 100 variations. Want delay or chorus? Built in. Distortion? Guitar amplifier simulations? Compression? Mastering algorithms? Yup. All built in and ready to go. Everything works together because it was designed that way. The amount of equipment needed to provide similar flexibility 20 years ago would have filled half of your studio!

The Lure Of the Computer

“But what about a computerized studio system?” you may ask. “Isn’t everyone running ProTools (or CuBase, or Sonar) on a computer these days? Why should I limit myself by using some obsolete overgrown tape recorder instead?” Well, that’s a good question, except for that crack about the tape recorder!

Yes, “everyone” is using these advanced, sophisticated, leading-edge tools and systems, if by “everyone” you mean Madonna, Beck, and the seasoned audio engineers at your local pro studio. These are music professionals who have been doing this full-time for years. You are a newbie. A brand new pilot doesn’t fly a 747. And no, you probably should not start out with a computerized studio setup.

I don’t know how many posts I have read on home recording forums that read something like this:

“I got my new ProTools system set up on my laptop, but I can’t get any audio through my sound card. I’ve been through the manuals over and over and user support is no help. There are three levels of menus to set up the routing and I don’t know what any of the words they are using mean. Help!”

or

“My CuBase setup seems to be recording OK, but when I play it back there are lots of pops and crackles. Last time it stopped in the middle and a message about ‘cache or buffer overflow’ came up. What do I do now?”

or even

“My computer locks up whenever I try to download the required software upgrade from the Internet through the firewall, and now it won’t run the original version either! Is there a workaround??”

Is this the kind of questions you want to be asking a week (or two, or four) after you first set up your brand new home recording studio? I think not! But this sort of setup trauma is a fairly common experience, especially for those brand new to recording, or computers, or both.  A computerized system can offer a vast array of features and options that will leave any standalone unit in the dust, but not if you can’t figure out how to use it!

You Better Think Twice

Even experienced hands can run aground on the S.S. Computer.  My music partner, whom I shall refer to as Mr. A (although his real name is Jack Burgess), recently upgraded from an 8-track standalone DAW to CuBase software, running on a computer system specifically designed for recording studio use. Now, Mr. A is a smart guy, and is a certified expert on both recording and computers, having worked with both for literally decades. And yet, it took nearly a month of telephoning and trouble-shooting before he was able to successfully record a track and then play it back, one of the more basic studio functions.

If it took Mr. A a month, how long would it take you?

So, no. If you really are just starting out in recording, don’t be swayed by the siren song of the high-end pro systems. You’ll get there. But try walking first. Check out the Boss BR-1600CD Multitrack Digital Recorder, for example. Read the reviews left by pleased users. You can be recording with this unit (or one like it) the very day it arrives at your house! With a computer-based system, not so much.

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