Demystifying Music Technology: Recording Equipment

Demystifying Music Technology: Recording Equipment

Christopher Steller
Melbourne, Australia

Demystifying Music Technology: Recording Equipment

Imagine a more elaborate title for this tutorial, such as: “Recording your rehearsals”, or “Recording your performances”, or just “How to record”. There are so many possible scenarios for, and reasons for, recording, that I decided to stick with the basics, and explain it all in parts.

TASCAM Recorder - image from manufacturer 

TASCAM Recorder - image from manufacturer 

Where to start? If you don’t have a computer, or just don’t want to use one for the recording process, you can use an app on your smart phone or tablet (several companies make add-on microphones to improve the quality), or you can use a purpose-built hand-held or mobile recorder, with built-in microphone/s, such as those made by Zoom or TASCAM, etc. These examples are truly mobile because you don’t need to have a power point to plug into. Once you get back to base you can transfer your recordings to a computer (it can be someone else’s), for further editing/CD burning or e-mailing.

On a quick side note here, think about recording quality as well: if you are recording a rehearsal for personal reference, using an MP3 format is fine, and it takes up less hard disk space. If you are using the recordings for future employment, using a WAV or AIFF format is a better way to go - and professionals can often tell the difference.

ZOOM Recorder - image from manufacturer 

ZOOM Recorder - image from manufacturer 

If you want to step up to a more elaborate system for better quality, or multitrack recording for more instruments, then you will need to look at a laptop computer and an appropriate audio interface (and a microphone or two - more on those at a later date). These audio i/o boxes are designed to provide instrument or microphone inputs in the form of an add-on box, connected via USB/FireWire/Thunderbolt, which work with software on your computer, designed for the purpose. They also have better quality stereo outputs and headphone outputs than your computer, by itself.

My personal experience has pointed me in the direction of several brands that I prefer, and because I’m a Mac user I’ve tended towards FireWire devices. I’ve been using a Presonus Firestudio Mobile on my MacBook, which has two microphone inputs - great for a soloist or duo, or a stereo recording. For a larger ensemble, I’ve used a Firestudio Project, also from Presonus, which has eight microphone inputs.

Presonus - image from manufacturer 

Presonus - image from manufacturer 

Several of my students have asked advice on purchasing an interface (Windows users), and we have had great success with the Steinberg UR-series USB interfaces. They come in one, two, four or eight input versions, and have proven very reliable and also sound great.

This review will give you an idea of what I look for in an audio interface:

http://www.australianmusician.com.au/steinberg-ur44-audio-interface/

There are, now available, several Thunderbolt and USB3 interfaces, from Universal Audio, Zoom, Presonus, Focusrite and Resident, which I haven’t had an opportunity to test. I’ll try to remedy that with some help from the local distributors.

So, in this computer-based audio recording realm, we need to consider:

  • the number of simultaneous parts to be recorded;
  • the type of audio interface format required for your computer (USB2, USB3, FireWire or Thunderbolt);
  • the software needed to record/compose (Logic, Cubase, Pro Tools, Studio One, etc.), and deciding on the basic requirement or compatibility with your musical collaborators.

SPECIAL NOTE (boring but necessary): When dealing with computer hardware and software, it is important to understand the details of your current operating system in Windows or Mac, whether the devices you are considering for purchase are compatible with that OS, and when it is necessary (or otherwise) to look at updates to your software.

When you connect a device to your computer a software utility, called a driver, is used to tell the computer about the device, and how to communicate with it. If you have the latest El Kapitan or Windows 10 OS installed on your computer, you can almost guarantee that the audio interface that you purchase will not, I repeat, NOT have drivers in the box for these. Always check the device manufacturer’s website for compatibility notes or driver updates before installing anything.

There have been many occasions when I’ve had customers or clients call in a panic to say they are in the middle of recording a project and the computer no longer recognises the audio interface. After investigating the situation, I usually find that Mr Apple has offered them a free update to their computer OS, and they’ve decided to accept his kind offer. This means that any drivers or utility software installed are no longer compatible with this new OS, and the computer can’t see the connected devices.

Working with this technology is not always easy, but with some careful planning and some good basic advice, satisfactory results are easily achievable.

Next time I'll talk about microphones and the recording process.