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The Computer

The Digital Audio Recorder Simplified
by Ron Tongue

Deciding which digital audio recorder to buy can be a big challenge with todays wide selection. To help narrow down your options, let's take a look at the four main categories.

What audio interface do you currently use?

Tell us all about it here!

Note!! The focus of this session is on devices which record to a hard drive or flash drive instead of a digital tape which in many ways is obsolete.

One question to keep in mind as you choose your digital audio recorder is "what and where do I hope to record?"

Mini Portable Digital Audio Recorder


Fig. Olympus LS-10 Linear PCM Recorder

These are the smallest, portable, and usually the most limited of the digital recorders. If you're looking for something you can stick in your pocket and take to band practice, then this is it. Simply turn on, aim, and record.

These mini recorders are great for:

  • Field recording
  • Songwriting (beats lugging a boombox to band practice for scratch recordings)
  • Recording live shows
  • Classroom lectures
  • Worship
  • Training

Many of these devices even have two microphones built into them.

I have never acually used one of these devices so I can't vouch for them personally. There seems to be a mixed resoponse according to some reviews that I've read. Some claim that the units tend to be noisy and others say they sound great.

That being said, both Joe and I agree we would still consider owning one for recording band practice or sounds in nature. Keep in mind... you get what you pay for!

If you're looking for a cost effective way to get a killer recording you might want to consider one of the next categories.

Multi-track Digital Recording Workstations


Fig. Tascam 2488neo 24 Track

These are those all-in-one units that fill the recording pages in many music catalogs. They are also very portable and highly versatile. I have a lot of experience using this type of digital audio recorder.

They work great for:

  • Documenting live concerts (such as a school concert)
  • Basic multi-track projects
  • Backup units for professional live gigs
  • Highly portable

These units typically can record and playback multiple tracks, apply effects, mix, master, and burn a CD. Although, I found that mixing and mastering on a computer was more efficient. So I would export each track and transport them to a computer.

Be careful!! As versatile as these units can be they have their drawbacks. Just because a unit advertises 24 track capabilities doesn't mean it can actually record 24 tracks at a time. Always count the number of XLR inputs and gain knobs. In most cases, they can play back 24 tracks but only record 8 at a time! And of course, do your research before you dish out the dough.

Also, the preamps tend to be noisy once you turn the level up past 2 o'clock or so.

TIP!! To improve your level without adding as much noise to your track do this:

  1. Figure out at what point the pre-amp starts adding noticeable noise, then back it off slightly.
  2. After you record, bring your tracks into your favorite audio recording software and boost the level there by using a compressor, limiter, or normalizer.

If I were to summarize this category, from my experience I would say you can get an average sounding recording for a reasonable price. Things get a little more involved in this next category...

Audio Interface


Fig. Focusrite Saffire LE

The typical audio interface digital audio recorder is designed to be connected to your computer through either USB or Firewire and record to your computer's hard drive. Joe touched on these in a previous session.

They also vary greatly in price and in features. They range anywhere from a couple hundred bucks to several thousand. And can record anywhere from 2 to 24 tracks at a time. Pretty diverse I must say.

Some of the benefits include:

  • Portability (simply record to your laptop computer)
  • Features (balanced / unbalanced, S/PDIF, MIDI...)
  • Many are bundled with recording software
  • Usually compatible with both PC and MAC computer systems
  • Works with just about any recording software
  • Higher quality preamps and digital converters
  • Daisy chain multiple units together for even more tracks

Joe made a good point when he purchased his unit (Focusrite Saffire LE). He looked for a brand that offered high-end preamps and digital converters, which he determined based on reading forums, research, and price. Then made the assumption that if a company produces an expensive high quality unit, then some of that should trickle down to their lower priced units.

If I were in the market to purchase a new audio interface, I would either get a MOTU device or a Mackie Onyx mixer / firewire unit. Joe said his number one choice right now would be the Focusrite Liquid Saffire 56.

Stand Alone Hard Disk Recorder

Alesis HD24

Fig. Alesis ADAT-HD24

I consider this category to be the Mac-daddy of the digital audio recorders. There are far less to choose from making it easier to make a decision once you've narrowed down your options and budget.

A stand alone hard disk recorder is designed for one purpose and one purpose only...

...to record music.

Some features include:

  • Multiple hard drives which tend to be quickly swappable
  • High quality digital converters
  • Works like a tape machine, only it records to a hard drive
  • Record up to 48 tracks
  • Daisy chain multiple units together for even more tracks
  • Tons of inputs / output options
  • Some have FTP capabilities for transferring files over the web

You will need a good quality mixing board to record with one of these units. If your recorder can record 24 tracks, then your mixing board will need 24 tracks with direct outs to take advantage of that feature. You're probably looking at spending several thousand dollars going this route. But you can easily make that killer recording with a little patience and practice.

Tip!! After you finish recording your tracks you have two options for mix-down. You can play the tracks back through your mixing console and mix the old fashioned way, or you can transfer the tracks to a computer and mix them in your favorite recording software. I have done it both ways with equal success.

I currently own the Alesis ADAT-HD24 digital audio recorder. I mounted it in a SKB rack unit for portability when recording on location. I track through a Mackie 24 channel 8-bus recording console. My entire rig is portable, but takes two people and an SUV.

I hope this session has given you some direction in your quest for building your home recording studio. If you have any specific questions, please feel free to ask.

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