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An Introduction to Home Recording Studios for Musicians

The last several years have seen a large increase in the number of home studios, mainly as a result of ever cheaper prices for software and equipment. There are two routes to a simple home studio: you could purchase a recording console or install recording software on a computer (or combine both of these options).

Nowadays you can get consoles that record & store music digitally on their own hard disk. Many of them come with a CD burner so that you can easily create a demo CD of your material, and you should also be able to transfer the music to a PC using a USB cable or other connector. Such consoles, even lower-end models, are very sophisticated and packed with lots of functionality. Expect to find separate audio channels & inputs, an onboard mixer, a built-in effects processor & even a drum machine. The recording functions are often modelled on tape players, with play, stop, pause, fast-forward, rewind and record buttons. Popular manufacturers of such consoles include Boss, Zoom and Yamaha.

Getting started with a console can be easy, but the more flexible and powerful solution is to install recording software onto a good computer. Apple Macs were once the number 1 choice for recording music, but nowadays the same results can be obtained on a PC or a Mac, though you will always find die-hard proponents of each. You will most likely need a good sound card and a fast processor to get the most out of a computer for recording, but it's best to try out an existing computer and soundcard than immediately splash out for new equipment. Expect to find all the functionality of a console and more with a good software solution, but again even a lower-end product can be very advanced. Your music will be recorded onto the computer's hard disk, so it's essential to have plenty of space. If you have a CD burner, you can create CDs easily; if not, you can get one quite cheaply. Another option is to encode your music in a format such as MP3 for distribution over the internet.

Top-end software usually does not impose a limit to the number of tracks you can lay down, but even lower-end software may give you such a high limit that in practice you will never reach it. You will find a few pre-installed effects when you set up the software, and usually you can also install more. You will also be able to make use of "virtual instruments" and "soft synths", software that you can use to recreate the sounds of hardware instruments. These might include a grand piano, drum machine or a vintage synthesizer. You will also be able to mix your music, often in a "view" dedicated to this.

The possibilities for computer recording extend way beyond that. If a bass drum beat is slightly out of time, you can use your software to bring it in to time (though how easy this is depends on your recording set-up:- for example, was the bass drum recorded on its own track?) You can purchase software to bring vocals into tune. You can add an effect to a simple computer generated drum beat to give it a human feel and add some rolls. Taking a phrase of music and copying & pasting it can be used to put together longer sections of music, saving hard-disk space and enabling you to get the perfect take more easily.

Some of the big software houses in the computer music industry are Emagic, Steinberg, Digidesign & Cakewalk. They each have top end products called Logic, Cubase, Pro Tools and Sonar, respectively. If these products are beyond your requirements or too expensive, then most have a stripped down version, usually aimed at home users, that might suit you perfectly. For example, Cakewalk Sonar has a stripped down version called Cakewalk Home Studio.

Of course, there are those who find the power a computer gives you too open to abuse. Surely it's not necessary to fix out of tune vocals or an out of time drum beat? That is cheating! I understand this view, but of course you can always use a computer simply to record and store completely live and un-processed takes.

The use of digital recording does not remove the need for high quality microphones and instruments. Again, have a go with your existing equipment before replacing it and experiment a little. I've tried plugging my guitar signal as processed by a cheap stomp box directly into the sound card line-in and obtained good results, though it is more common to record the guitar via a microphone placed in front of an amplifier. My way is a lot more neighbour-friendly!

There is much more I could go into, but I hope this has served as a useful introduction to the topic. Above all, if you decide to enter the world of computer-based audio recording, have patience and be willing to spend long hours learning and troubleshooting - which can be a very frustrating experience - and of course recording your prized compositions! For further reading, you might want to search for "midi", "soundcards" and "soundfonts".

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