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Home Recording Buying Guide

With all the equipment that's available today anyone can produce a recording at home and at little cost. While a single computer may do that for you at a basic level, it doesn't take a whole lot more to set up a professional home studio.

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Things to Consider When Buying Home Recording Equipment

Here's what to look for:

Studio Monitors

Typical speakers are designed to aesthetically reproduce sound, while studio monitors are designed to accurately reproduce sound — giving you a recording that's true to the original source. So you want monitors that will reproduce sound as accurately as possible.

1. Powered

Also called active, powered monitors come with their own amplifier and controls all in one cabinet. They're simpler to use and carry, but require extra electrical outlets.

2. Unpowered

Unpowered, or passive, monitors require a separate amp. If you already own a power amp, this is the less expensive way to go. You have two units to concern yourself with, but they come with increased flexibility in choosing your components and setting up your speakers.

3. Near Field

Also called close field, near field monitors are designed for use in smaller spaces. They are placed near you, typically within three to five feet. Where they're placed in the room can alter the sound, so be careful with the placement and try to minimize the interaction with barriers. It is also important to position these monitors at head level; studio monitors stands are a good solution for optimizing placement.

Audio Interfaces

The soundcard in your computer was built for listening to MP3s and audio files, not for recording with any quality. An audio interface is where to start when building a home recording system.

1. Connecting

It may be obvious, but be sure to find an audio interface that connects to and works with your computer. Macs and PCs each have different ports and requirements, so that's the most basic thing to note.

2. Inputs

If you're recording a single voice or instrument, you'll only need one input. But if want the option to record both simultaneously, or even a whole band, get an interface with multiple inputs. You can get interfaces with up to 16 inputs; tracking a set of drums takes about eight mics, so you can see they quickly add up.

3. Audio Quality

Look for a high bit depth and sample rate. The number of bits determines the range of the audio data collected, and more bits (or a higher bit depth) capture signals more accurately. Measured in kHz, higher sample rates will produce a recording that more closely resembles the original sound — look for 16 or higher kHz.

4. Latency

Choose an interface that lets you measure and control latency, though it's best to find one that has as little as possible. The better the quality, the less likely you're to notice any latency at all.

Recorders

How much do you want to record and playback simultaneously? That will determine how many tracks you should get on your recorder, and then it's a matter of choosing the type of multitrack that best suits your needs and budget.

1. Portable Multitrack

The simplest and cheapest way to start home recording is with a portable multitrack recorder. It can record several tracks and also comes with a mixer, which allows you to blend your music. A durable unit like this can go from home to studio space and elsewhere easily, but it's not upgradeable.

2. Cassette vs. Digital

Cassette multitrack recorders are widely available. They're inexpensive, but their quality is low. For a few more dollars, you can go digital and get better sound quality. Digital units typically come with virtual tracking — you can record a track multiple times, then play each back and decide which one you want to keep. You can also plug instruments straight into the recorder (for better quality reproduction), and higher end models come with a variety of effects that you can add when mixing all of your tracks together.

3. Inputs and Quality

Just as with your audio interface, ensure there are enough inputs for all the mics you'll be recording from. And again, the higher the bit depth and sample rate on your recorder, the better quality and truer sound it will record.

4. Storage

Recorders can store audio files to their internal hard drive, a flash memory card or on to your computer. Internal drives fill up quickly, so make sure you have the necessary hardware (computer cables, multiple memory cards, etc.) if you plan to record multiple tracks in your sessions.

Recording Software

There's a lot of choice, from entry- to professional-level programs, so look for software specially designed to create the music you want to create and record.

1. Requirements

Software often comes with an audio interface or digital audio workstation when you buy that piece of hardware. If it does, check the requirements and make sure it will run on your computer. Don't make a hardware-buying decision based on the inclusive software — you can always buy the latter separately.

2. Programs

Hundreds of software programs are on the market, with some of the most popular being Pro Tools, Cakewalk and Cubase. Some programs are better for recording certain instruments like drums and guitars, while others simply loop, sample and mix music rather than record. If you opt for more than one program make sure they're compatible.

3. Loop-Based

Software exists for you to make music even if you don't record a single track of your own. Check out programs like Reason if you want to produce dance, techno, trance or house tracks.

4. Testing

Test a program first to make sure you're comfortable with the level of technological expertise required. Don't settle for just a demonstration by an expert at a store who knows the software inside and out; explore on your own. Or go to manufacturer's site and download a demo.

5. Extras

Many programs come with effects you can use in mixing, looping, etc. Virtual instruments even exist for those who can supply a voice and guitar but no drums, trumpet or whatever you're looking for. Plug-ins are available for many programs as well, giving you even more options to be creative. Plug-ins are compatible software that allow you to effect your tracks after you have recorded them, for example, adding reverb, echo and gates.