The Frank G Guide to Putting Together an Inexpensive PC Recording System

When last we met, I was in the middle of a multi-part "How to Produce a Hit Record using a PC" article.   This is NOT the next installment of that.   What you're looking at here is a brand new article (series?) about using a much cheaper/more affordable PC to record a passable recording -- the modern day equivalent of the good ol' 4-track Portastudio.   With that in mind, I won't be talking about $2000 PCs with $500 sound cards and $2500 worth of plugins.   Instead, we'll be focusing on the lower end of things -- the Celeron/Sound Blaster people need guidance too!

Let's start right there at the beginning.   What exactly are you going to be doing?  Do you have an idea?  If not, all the equipment in the world won't do you any good.   Once you've got a basic plan in mind, then you can start to build your system.

The initial choices tend to come down to price, and to be honest, I have no idea what the baseline for "cheap" is amongst most of you.   With the students I see at RID, cheap could be anything from that $700 special at Best Buy to a $50 Mac IIci that someone grabbed off eBay.  Either one could be useful towards recording basic demos.   That IIci sounds incredibly outdated, but when you take a closer look and realize that the Audiomedia cards are available for equally cheap (and half the time are already IN the cheap Macs...) you discover that you can record 2-8 tracks of 44.1kHz 16 bit digtal audio into 'em.   Given an old copy of Studio Vision and Sound Tools, one could turn out a passable recording -- one that would've cost you $50/hour to turn out just 7 years ago, for an investment of under $100 today....

Leaving the ridiculously cheap, our next step up would be a cheap Celeron, AMD, or older model Pentium (2/3/4).   This would be the most logical choice for most of you who are reading this.    Available most anywhere computers are sold, the "budget model" just may suit your needs.   Again, knowing what your needs are will help here.   How many inputs do you need?  What type?  1/4"?  XLR? ADAT? S/PDIF? LMNOP?  How many tracks do you plan to record simultaneously.   If you are a solo musician, and create most of your music using MIDI instruments and VSTs (Virtual Synthesizers), you really don't need that 24 input sound card!  I've had to point this seemingly obvious fact out to too many people to count.   The idea that bigger and more expensive is better seems to take hold of people sometimes, especially when they're being berated by a salesperson.    Get what you can afford.  Set your price limit and build a system that gets you the most bang for those bucks.   Did I say "build"?  You could take that literally and not only would you get MORE system for the money, but you'd learn a ton of valuable info about your machine in the process.   Again, having the best computer in the world does nothing for the person who doesn't know how to operate it -- or troubleshoot it -- or in extreme cases, how to turn it on.  

So, we're going to buy a lower end PC.   The number one thing that budget PCs tend to skimp on are expansion slots.   Once upon a time, there were very few ways to add new equipment to your computer -- most of which involved voodoo, cursing, and screwdrivers.   If you wanted to add a soundcard, you opened up the case, found a free slot, installed the card, closed the case, booted and hoped things went well so you wouldn't have to repeat the process.   If you bought that shiny new card, opened the case, and found NO free slots, you'd be a rather disappointed kid in a candy store, wouldn't you?   The moral of that story is, if you're trying to build a system around an actual sound "card", it would be wise to make sure your motherboard will have enough slots to stick it in.   5 slots should be the minimum on any motherboard you purchase if you plan to use expansion cards.    This would be the "Sound Blaster" series of cards, and those compatible with it (essentially, every soundcard available today outside of the professional market...)

With the addition of USB/USB2/Firewire ports, there are a lot of ways to expand now without worrying about slots, tools, or opening the computer at all.   While these tend to get into the higher end devices, there are a fair amount of 2 in/2 out type devices that are aimed squarely at you home audio enthusiasts without a lot of money.   For under $100, you could quickly add 2 1/4" inputs and a MIDI port to your computer.  

Pay attention to the amount of RAM and hard drive as well.   If you don't know the difference between these, find out before trying to buy a computer.  You'll be glad you did.    Nowadays, I consider the baseline for working with audio to be 256MB of RAM.   512 or more is preferable and recommended, but you can squeak through with 256 in a pinch.   RAM is fairly cheap today, $65 or so should be able to purchase 512 MB depending on the day of the week...   Hard drive space is another thing you always want more of.   When we started doing Pro Tools back in 92, a 1 GB drive went for $1200.  Today, a 200GB hard drive can be had for under $200 most anywhere.   The minimum amount you're going to want to run Windows, hold your software, and leave space to record in is 75GB.   The bigger the better on this one.

Now, here we sit with our Celeron 1.2GHz/512 MB/80GB system.   How do we record?   Remember the soundcard from up above?   We need that because, even though your computer may already have an 1/8" jack labeled "Line In" and one labeled "Mic in", there are several problems here.  Problem one is that, while you probably have a "pro" mic like an SM-58 or similar, the "Mic In" jack is expecting something more along the lines of a webcam microphone.   The preamps are incredibly noisy and unsuitable for recording through -- unless you REALLY want that authentic (read: noisy) 4-Track sound.  Forget the on-board audio altogether.   Resist the temptation to use those ports for audio!   If you MUST, you can pick up a "Joystick to MIDI" cable, which would plug into your joystick port and provide you with MIDI through your motherboard, but I can't recommend this to anyone interested in VST instruments, as the resulting latency is usually measured in SECONDS, rather than milliseconds.   Again, the best solution is the "all in one" usb box that would give you all the ports you need in one place, under one driver, hopefully working together harmoniously.

Back to software for a second -- If you're not using VST capable software, you don't care about VST latency.  See how that works?  This is why we need to be informed consumers....hehehe......The most popular software for multitrack recording is Pro Tools, followed closely by the Nuendo people, with Sonar et al coming in 3rd and beyond.   These are all expensive packages that tend to throw in everything but the kitchen sink (well, except for Pro Tools, which has never been accused of throwing in ANYthing for free...) We're talking about $500 to start with most of these packages, but let's face it, if you're new to this, and had $500, you'd already be running Pro Tools regardless of what you read, because the Digidesign marketing scheme is tremendous.   I'm here to tell you that you can do MORE than Pro Tools can with cheap (possibly free) software if you're willing to struggle with occasionally buggy older stuff AND are willing to put in the time and effort to understand and relate to the whole digital experience.  

The most popular soundcard around right now is the Sound Blaster Audigy2 -- a VERY nice card for those of you into watching dvds or playing 5.1 surround video games.  At $199 it produces top quality output on the consumer level, featuring most consumer outputs (1/8", Dolby Digital, S/PDIF) What it does NOT provide is top quality input.   There are 1/8" inch Mic In/Line In ports (just like on the yucky motherboard audio, and just as noisy) and 1/4" jacks on the breakout box that you mount to the front panel of your computer.   The goal here is not to provide quality input.   Creative has spent a lot of time designing a product to produce superior output for the least amount of money so that people can get their 5.1 gaming fix.  The focus here is on output. They don't care about your demo.    For the same $199, you could get the Tascam 122, which would give you 2 XLR mic ins WITH phantom power, 2 1/4" ins that can be used at either line or "guitar" level, MIDI in/out, headphone out, 2 1/4" line outs, AND the whole thing runs off of USB, so you don't have to open your system at all...and if you get another system later (or a laptop) you can easily unplug it and move it to the new system.....and did I mention that this thing comes WITH Cubasis software that allows 48 audio/64 MIDI tracks?  Or that it features a tight ASIO driver so you can do all that nifty VSTi stuff?  It's true.....if I could recommend one product to everyone on a budget, it'd be this little guy.

Head over to Syntrillium and check out a copy of Cool Edit.   With the "studio upgrade", you can be doing multitrack audio for under $100, and have an acceptable feature set to work with.   It doesn't look "pretty" -- there doesn't appear to be a "console view", but you DO get the ability to mix 4 tracks of audio with volume and pan controls, plus the basic set of effects needed to top off a demo.  This is the only software package that I'm aware of that offers this capability at this price point.   You can get into something like AcidTechno or similar "lite" version of Acid for around $50, but they don't offer true "multitrack" capability.  Sure, you can stack tracks atop one another and play them simultaneously, but Acid is trying its best to treat those tracks as loops!  ...and don't even THINK about recording multiple ins at once....    Vegas is great multitrack software (though it's become rather videocentric in its past few versions) but we're back to that $500 mark again.   Cakewalk Home Studio is nicer than Cool Edit, and has an richer feature set including virtual instrument support and "unlimited" tracks (which are only limited by the amount of free space on your hard drive, the speed of the processor, and how much RAM you have installed.  You know...."unlimited"....  For $129, this would be considered your best overall buy.   Only the extremely price conscious should go with Cool Edit, but I offer the option because I know what it's like to have to crib together a bunch of outdated semi-cruddy gear and turn out quality work.  We used to call it "Sidestick"....but that's another story for another time.

For the sake of getting on with it, let's assume that we have a system containing the following specs:

Celeron 1.8 GHz Processor

512 MB of RAM

80 GB Hard Drive

52x CD Burner

Windows XP

...and a Tascam 122 interface

Actual cost at this very moment in July 2003:  $680.00...but you'd still need a monitor.    Let's look at that for a moment.   I know the current cool thing is to go for those flat panel LCD screens.   They DO look neat, but they have hidden surprises.   They usually have a lower maximum resolution than a traditional CRT monitor.  This means less tracks visible on your screen at once.   Take it from someone who's used Pro Tools with a max of 3 visible tracks, you won't enjoy this.    The LCDs also tend to be slower to draw/refresh the screen, so if you plan to be doing any video/graphics work, or if you tend to focus on meters while recording, you'd want to stick with a CRT as well.    The other benefit to sticking to CRT is that they're much cheaper and larger.   You can usually get a 21" great looking CRT for around the same price as a 17" LCD.  If you're still being budgety, go with a 17" CRT, you can pick that up for around $120, versus $400 for the 17" LCD/21"CRT.   We'll stick that 17" CRT on our system above, bringing the total cost for the system with everything needed to do multitrack computer recording (minus microphones, cables, and musicians) to $800.  The price of my first 4-track, which allowed 15 minutes of recording on a noisy cassette? $800.....

With XP, installing the recording software/hardware is usually a simple process involving sticking in a cd, hitting OK, rebooting, plugging in the USB cable, hitting OK, and running your recording software.   It's that easy, and it's just one of the many reasons I recommend XP to anyone who'll listen.

Now everything is installed.   Launch your recording software, start a new session, put a track in record ready, hit go and see what happens.   If it records what you play, you win!  Turn the system off and relax...

Copyright 2003, Frank G/Alexander Magazine - all rights reserved.