Topics: home recording, songwriting
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All name brands mentioned in this article have been evaluated by the author. No one has paid him anything to mention these. These brands in no way represent an exhaustive list.
This column is designed for users of the PC environment. Apologies to people using other platforms.
The digital environment, although not the best, does offer some cheap solutions for musicians. Not the best? Then why is everyone converting to digital? What’s this guy talking about?
Digital is a conversion of naturally occurring phenomena into a series of off/on electrical pulses, i.e. 0’s and 1’s. Off or on. Analog is the recording of these phenomena as they occur. Your ears, like your eyes, do not perceives zeros and ones, but natural impulses. Digital, therefore, is an interpretation of what is there as if it were perfect. Have you ever seen perfection?
To illustrate this, watch a digitally remastered version of the original Star Trek series. You’ll quickly notice that the uniforms, although they have always been very colorful, come out looking very unnatural. The reason for this is simple, color comes from light. There are 3 basic colors: red, green and blue. White being the combination of all colors and black being the absence of color. What you see in the real world comes more from reflected light. The light from the sun, a light-bulb, etc, falls on the objects around you. Depending on the density of their surface (paint, ink, etc), some light is absorbed while some is reflected. Colors then become exact opposites. The basic colors change from red to magenta, green to yellow and blue to cyan. White becomes the absence of color (all of the light is reflected back) and black becomes the combination of all colors.
On film or video, the reflected colors become the proper color schemes. When they are digitally remastered, a computer analyzes theses colors and makes an approximation and replaces it with a scheme of emitted light. Therefore, the colors are backwards. Also, the computer uses a color scheme of about 16 million colors. The monitor you’re staring at right now is probably set for 16 million colors. The human eye can only detect 140,000 colors. Need I say more?
Sound works pretty much the same way. The human ear, as we’ve demonstrated before, can only hear 12 half-tones which correspond to the seven notes and five sharps/flats. Although, there are many other sounds that exist out there, the human ear is just not built to hear them. A dog will hear ultra-sounds. They are just normal sounds, but at a level that we can’t hear. It’s as with light: radio waves are actually light. Only the human eye cannot perceive that part of the spectrum.
The reason why so many people are converting to digital is that it’s cheap. Of course, engineers decided back in the 60’s that everything should be digital, therefore, the capabilities of Analog have never been fully investigated.
CD vs LP
You will hear a lot of people say that they prefer the sound of an LP over the sound of a CD. They will explain that they like the scratches and hisses. They don’t. They know that there is something warm about the sound of an LP and attribute it to the scratches and hisses. What they really do prefer is the recording and mixing medium. In pre-CD days, everything was done using analog technology. Today, most recording is done via digital.
So why am I writing an article on building a digital studio if I believe analog to be best? There are ways of fooling the system.
MIDI or Noon
Everyone talks about MIDI. It’s cheap, it doesn’t take much disk space on your computer, it’s simple. I’m French so in my language, MIDI means Noon. That’s too early in the day for me to start recording…
Midi is a way of interpreting notes. A programmed digital keyboard will receive a MIDI signal telling it to play a specific sequence of notes using a specific pre-programmed sound. Say you’d have a digital keyboard that could actually emulate the sound of a guitar (if you’ve ever tried this, you’ll know that no keyboard can copy the sound of a guitar). You’d send it a program telling it to play the chord C four times in a 4/4 measure.
Take a tape recorder and record yourself strumming a C four times. You’ll realize upon listening to it that you never hit it exactly the same way twice. Close, but not perfect. The first time you might slightly touch the open 6th string, the second time hit it hard, the third time not at all and the fourth slightly. Also, if you could precisely measure the times, you might realize that instead of 1-1-1-1 you have 0.9-1.2-1.1-0.8. With MIDI programs, you’ll have a perfect C every time and the times will be exactly 1-1-1-1. Not very natural. So that is why you want to be as analog as you can.
If you’re using keyboards, the same underlying principles apply. If your digital keyboard says “Hammond Organ”, it won’t sound like a Hammond. The Hammond, being an electronic organ depends on the power supply, the resistance in the wires, etc. Power supplies are never perfect, so hitting the same notes twice, you’ll find variations in the sounds. The digital keyboard cannot copy these variations, therefore, the sound will always be identical.
If you want to use keyboards in your recordings, you’re much better off using older electronic keyboards that will have these power supply/cabling defects and produce less than perfect sounds.
As with the guitar, if you go into a guitar shop and try 5 identical guitars of the same brand, same series, made by the same person, they won’t sound exactly alike. The density of the wood, amount of glue, usage of strings, pick-up proximity, etc will give you variances in the sound.
Music is a human art. Humans not being perfect, the music is not supposed to be perfect. It’s the imperfections that allow us to enjoy the music.
So how can you use a digital medium to make a good recording? It depends on the digital format you’re using. The best results will come from using the .WAV format.
Sound travels in waves.
What a tape recorder does is record this wave as is. What the PC WAV format does is the same. The only difference is that instead of the line being rounded, it will be a series of steps so small that the ear cannot perceive the difference.
It’s similar to a bitmap image. If you’ve ever looked closely at a scanned image, you’ll realize that the image is a huge grid. All the little squares are filled with information relative to color. The grid is so small that you cannot make it out from a normal viewing distance.
So the WAV format does not make a perceptible difference in what is being played. However, the big problem with WAV is that it takes a lot more space on your hard drive than MIDI or MP3 or other formats. But it is the format that is truest to reality.
If you have a PC with a sound card, you can immediately start using this format. First though, you must make sure your sound card settings are right. Go into the control panel (Start/Settings/Control Panel) and select “Multimedia”. Your overall volume setting for playback and recording will be there. You may adjust these if you wish. In the “Recording” properties, make sure you select CD Quality. Make sure “Show volume control on the taskbar” is selected.
As far as recording quality goes, CD Quality is the best. Anything below will be quite noticeable, and you won’t like the results. Don’t go above 16-bit, it takes up more space and the human ear can’t decipher the difference. Format should be 44.100 kHz. Same differences as above.
What you need to do then is to plug in your guitar, mike, keyboard, whatever into the “Line In” of your sound card. Then you start Sound Recorder (Start/Programs/Accessories/Multimedia/Sound Recorder). The buttons work like any tape recorder. You must control the input volume of your sound card the same way you do it with the output volume. Double-click the volume control on the taskbar (bottom right of your screen, it should look like a yellow PA speaker). You will now have a window called “Play Control”. Click “Options/Properties”. Select “Adjust volume for recording”. Make sure “Line In” is selected, then hit OK. You will now be presented with a mixer with slide bars to adjust overall and individual volume settings for recording.
You may then record a piece of music of your choice and play it back, save it, etc. With a lot of practice, you can record a second track and mix it in with the first (Edit/Mix with file). With some of the better sound cards, you can open a second copy of Sound Recorder and play the first track while you record the second.
Of course, this is pretty basic. Once you start playing around with this, you’ll want more. At some point you will need to spend money. There’s just no way out of that one. But you don’t have to spend it all at once. That’s the nice part.
First of all, if you have a cheap $20 or so sound card, you will burn it after a while. After you’ve burned two or three of those, you’ll realize you might as well invest in a good sound card. I’ve been using a Creative Labs SoundBlaster Live. Slightly over $80 US. This one won’t burn and you should be quite satisfied with the sound. You need a sound card that is made for musical recordings.
Next up, you’ll want a good software package. The best I’ve found is Sonic Factory’s Sound Forge. An amazing software that’s a full studio. Price is a bit stiff, though, around $500 US. The problem with it is that it’s not a true multi-track. It does not allow you to record several tracks side by side and mix everything together once you’re satisfied with the results. What you do is record the second track separately, then use practice and patience to mix it in at the right spot. But the mixing capabilities are enormous! Once you’ve mixed in a track and saved the file though, you can’t undo it. So you’re better off working on copies of the files. If you end up making a huge mistake (you’ll make a lot of those at first), you can revert back to an earlier version.
This, of course, implies disk space. Stereo CD quality WAVs use about 10 Megs of disk space for every minute of recording. If you don’t have enough, you’ll have to consider a new hard drive. Four Gigs minimum. Anything above that will be fine.
After a while you’ll be tired of always hooking and hooking your cables to the sound card input and readjusting the volume settings every time. Time for a mixer board. I agree with Dan Lasley, go for something used. Try the Pawn Shops, you should be able to get something good for about $100 US. You don’t need something that’s very sophisticated.
Finally, you’ll want to spend a few bucks, around $200 US on a CD burner. That investment, though will pay up for itself pretty quickly. Once you have it, you’ll find all sorts of different uses for it. You’ll wonder how you ever lived without one.
Once you’ve made all these acquisitions, you’ll have a fully functional home studio. Results will be as good as using tape.
Once again, I’d like to reiterate that the sound should be decided before the sound card. Use analog effects as much as possible. Use the mixer board settings and record “As Is”.