Using your computer to record music, regardless of the medium, is a good way to get the music you want and having the way you want. You can also make your own music.
If you want to record yourself, or a few friends, making music, your computer will do the job. However, if you want any level of quality at all, you will need a good audio interface to connect your music to the computer.
The world of technology is changing rapidly, and this is especially true when it comes to mixing or recording music. In times past there was the big cumbersome recording console inside a studio, that was too big to be moved much at all.
Top end audio interfaces have pretty well replaced those in many studios. So you can do a major album recording to be sent to millions of listeners, or make a really great recording of yourself playing one instrument for yourself or friends.
The Interface is versatile enough to do all that. The interface basically makes the recording possible, taking external sounds and converting them into digital pieces of information inside your computer that become music – or whatever sound you are recording.
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Why Use An Interface?
The interface is the connector between your instruments or microphones and your computer. A sound card inside your computer is an interface of sorts, but it is very limited in what it can do.
It also operates at a lower quality than what most people want if they are trying to get a really good sound recorded. With your sound card you have a maximum of two inputs, and that limits what you can do severely.
With the interface, depending on what kind you get, you could get hundreds of channels for input. For most people that is too many, but you do need more than two.
With the audio interface you can also monitor and mix the sound as you record with headphones. If you do think you may only want two input channels, consider that if you later want to record your guitar in stereo, you will need more than two inputs.
Generally it is better to go with at least four. Always get a few more than what you think you will need.
It would also be a good idea to seriously consider what instruments you plan to record, and then visit the manufacturer’s website to find out what exactly will be needed. It is hard to add channels after you have made the purchase without some more fancy equipment.
Input and Output
The input and output configuration is also very important. You need to know what you will be recording, and what you are likely to want to record in the future.
There are inputs that have only two channels, and if all you want is to record yourself singing and playing guitar, that will work fine. If you have a band, or might want to add instruments later you will need more inputs.
Consider what you will be doing and think about how many inputs you will need, and get one with a few more than that is usually the best plan. Also pay attention to the pre-amp capabilities of the inputs.
Digital inputs and outputs are also important in some cases. Even if you don’t need it right now, you might eventually.
This allows you to expand your system when you add band members, for instance. With a digital setup you can easily add eight channels at some point in the future.
Some devices do require digital connections, and that can be a good thing, even if it is a little more expensive. This allows you to increase the number of mic inputs without taking up your other inputs.
It ends up being a cheaper way to add channels in the long run. Consider a system with four onboard mic pre-amps and an ADAT input – which is a digital input – which can be expanded to 12 input units by adding an external mic pre amp.
There are basically two types of connections for audio interfaces. Technology is always changing, but these have remained constant.
For the most part, PC computers use USB 2.0 while Macs use Firewire plugs. Both will record at around 480 MPS, which is plenty fast enough for most applications.
There are advantages to both. Firewire transfers data a little faster and is more consistent, which is important if you are using many channels.
The downside is that not many interfaces use this, which is the common complaint with Mac computers. The advantage to USB is that there are many more options available to use.
You could install a firewire device on your PC to take advantage of the best of both worlds. This also makes laptop recording easier, and there are specially designed interfaces just for laptops.
Most audio interfaces work with Mac or PC without any issues. There are however, some out there that are one or the other.
Just make sure you are getting one that will work with your computer, or the more modern versions that work on either.
There is a third option, called PCIE, which is something you can mount on your motherboard and bypass a lot of the things regular computers have in place. This is more for professional studio types and operates at lightning fast speed.
Still, these are available commercially. A newer system is called Thunderbolt, which comes with the latest Macs.
It can also be installed on a PC.
It offers lightening fast data transfer and high bandwidth. So far it offers the highest quality computer recording, but is new and not always available.
There are two technical terms you should be aware of when choosing an audio interface. “Bit depth” and “sample rate” are two terms that address the quality of your sound.
This will also most likely be reflected in the price you pay for an interface. Still, it is good to realize what you will be using it for.
There is no need in paying for capability you will likely never use. Understanding the bit depth and sample rate, and how they relate to each other is important.
The bit depth is the amount of space the sound takes up. One bit equals six db, so in 16 bit audio, the range is 96 db.
This is great for a lot of applications, but professionals use 24 bit, which eliminates some of the noise that happens in the lower levels. The 24bit, bit depth, is therefore recommended, but if you only want two channels for one person, you may be fine with the lower one.
Sample rate is a digital photo of the music, so to speak, and measures the frequency of the sound. Standard sample rate frequencies are 48khx, 98 khz, and 193 khz.
Combining the two is where it gets tricky. While this is all very technical, and good to understand, the quality of your digital converters are even more important.
The converters are the vehicle that carries the other two, so even if they are great, if your converters are poor, it won’t work very well.
The right combination
Getting the right combination of those things is the essential part of understanding the technology involved. Converters are what convert between analog and digital, regardless of which way you are converting.
Generally speaking, the higher priced converters are of higher quality. Latency is another issue to consider.
This is the time it takes for the sound to go from your instrument into the pickup to the input, into the system and back out. This is much less than a second in most cases, but it is enough to distort sound quality.
The faster your connections, the less latency you will have, and the clearer the sound will be. Professional sound engineers think latency is one of the most important considerations when considering an interface.
If you are not a professional, you may not notice the difference, but it is something that will impact the overall quality of your recordings.
Audio interfaces come set up for either a desktop or rackmount type situation. Of course a laptop will work with the desktop setup.
Desktop interfaces are smaller and have fewer connections. They have all the controls in easy reach though, and are more designed for computer use.
They are also very mobile.
Rack mount systems are not mobile and better for studio type situations. They generally do offer more inputs and outputs or connections, but you give up a little bit of control. This just depends on what you need, but it is a consideration when buying an interface.