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Inside Music:
"Digital Recording for the Musician: An Overview"
by Richard Middleton

First published in Victory Review, February 2001

As recording technology continues to advance with bewildering speed, more and more powerful tools are becoming available to musicians at lower and lower cost. Digital recording technology that once could only be seen in the most expensive studios is now within reach of regular folks like us, to use at our leisure in our homes and rehearsal studios and even on gigs. From affordable multi-track computer software and CD burners to portable digital recorders, there's some incredibly powerful stuff out there.

There are two main "branches" on the digital multi-track recording "tree": digital tape, and hard disk recording. Digital tape includes the Alesis ADAT and the Tascam DA series recorders, which revolutionized the industry by making digital multi-track recording affordable for musicians and project studios. Both types offer eight digital tracks of audio stored on magnetic tape, and you can connect several machines together to get more tracks. Of the two, the Alesis ADAT is more affordable and popular, however the Tascam is the model of choice for some, particularly composers and engineers working in TV and film, because its sync features are more reliable. Recently, some extremely powerful new models have appeared that offer many more than eight tracks, however these machines are still quite expensive.

(NOTE: ADAT is not the same as DAT. The ADAT is a digital eight-track, while the DAT only records in digital stereo. The DAT is used mainly for recording digital stereo mixes, whereas the ADAT is used for recording the basic tracks of a multi-track project. In studios, DAT is still the standard for stereo mix-down, however many musicians these days are just using CD burners. They're cheaper than DAT recorders, and the CD mixes can be played on any regular CD player.)

Digital tape recorders are portable, their controls are similar to those on analog recorders, the storage (i.e. tape) is relatively cheap, and you can hook recorders together to get more tracks. Alesis ADATs are so widely used that most studios have them, as well as many musicians with whom you might want to collaborate.

The disadvantages of digital tape become apparent when compared with hard disk recorders, the other "branch" on the digital recording "tree." There are two types of hard disk recording systems: those that run on a computer, and those that are packaged as stand-alone, portable recorders.

Hard disk recorders store audio files on a hard disk rather than a tape, and they offer two big advantages: they're non-linear, and they allow for "virtual tracks." Non-linearity means that you can jump to any spot in a recording at any time without having to rewind or fast-forward through a tape. Virtual tracks allow you to edit and record multiple takes of any given track without having to erase earlier takes. Why? Well, with digital tape, all of the audio data is stored on the tape itself, which has a limited capacity. If you have an 8-track machine, all you get is 8 tracks of audio. But a hard disk system has plenty of room for lots of audio files, and you can store as many alternate takes of a given track as your hard disk will hold. The recording system can use any of those files at any time, allowing you to record multiple takes of a track and then pick your favorite later. You never again have to make the painful choice to throw away one take in order to record another. Pretty neato.

This also means that any changes you make are reversible, because the editing that you do during a mix doesn't change the actual data on the hard disk, just how that data is being used. This kind of editing is called "non-destructive," because the audio files on the hard disk aren't affected by the things you're doing as you work. You can't record over something by accident, or blow a punch-in and mess up what you've already recorded. The audio files are there on the hard disk, being used by the system, but not actually being physically manipulated in any way. With digital tape, however, if you hit the wrong button at the wrong time, you can wipe out a precious track in the blink of an eye, and the damage is permanent. There's no data sitting on a hard disk somewhere to bail you out — the data was on the tape, which just got erased. This is called "destructive" editing. Not so neato.

(NOTE: Some editing procedures on a hard disk system do require destructive editing, i.e. they change the audio file itself. However, you can always insure against disaster by making a backup copy of an audio file, and perform any changes on the copy. If you don't like the result, you can quickly get back to where you were by returning to the original file, which is still there safe and sound on your hard disk. Like I said... neato.)

Computer-based hard disk systems are very powerful, offering many tracks, effects, EQ, mastering tools, integrated MIDI sequencing, and often music notation as well. The three best programs on the semi-pro market (i.e. those not designed solely for use in high-end professional studios) are Pro-Tools, Digital Performer, and Logic Platinum. They're not cheap, but you get a lot of bang for your buck. To use one of these programs, you'll need a large hard drive for storage (up in the 30-40 gigabyte range), a sound card to convert your audio signals to digital signals, and lots of RAM. The faster your computer's processor the better, but you don't need the latest model to get some serious work done. There are also cheaper programs that do a decent job, and if you're on an extremely tight budget, they're worth looking into. Cakewalk makes several popular packages, and there are "lighter" versions of some of the high-end programs as well.

With a computer-based system, there are some drawbacks. For one thing, it's not very portable — try hauling all that stuff to a gig, or over to a friend's house to record their part for your album. Also, your physical interface to the recording system is a keyboard and mouse — not as satisfying or intuitive as real faders and knobs.

With a stand-alone hard-disk recorder, you can record just about anywhere, and the controls are much like the mixers and analog recorders we're used to from the "old days." No additional sound card is needed because the analog-digital converters are built-in; you can plug your mike or guitar or whatever directly into the recorder's inputs. These recorders also provide lots of effects, some of which are specifically tailored to the needs of certain instruments, such as electric guitar. There's a wide range of models, features, and prices to choose from.

Of course, stand-alone recorders do have some drawbacks of their own. They aren't as powerful as computer-based systems, their display screens are often frustratingly small, some functions are hard to get at, they often have fewer tracks, and their hard drives aren't very big, requiring an additional, external drive to store all your audio files. Still, they're relatively easy to use and portable, and the prices keep falling.

If you decide to go down the digital home recording route, find yourself an ally (or several) you can turn to for advice and help. Get to know the vendors, both local and mail-order, and talk to musicians who are already using this kind of gear. Ask lots of questions. If you know someone who's doing digital recording, see if they'll give you a guided tour of their system and let you get a feel for how it works. If your budget is tight, think about what kinds of recording you want to do, and then look for the least expensive stuff that will get the job done. The number of choices, compatibility issues, and potential problems is daunting (not to mention the costs), so take your time and learn all you can before making a decision. Good luck!

© Copyright 2001 by Richard Middleton.
All rights reserved.

Richard Middleton is a musician, songwriter, producer, educator, and writer based in Seattle. He is the author of "Rhythm Guitar Secrets" (Countersine), and his music writing has also appeared in Smithsonian magazine, Victory Review, and SingOut! magazine.

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