This article first ran in 2003, when some of the gear choices were different than they are today. The vast majority of the advice given, however, is timeless. Enjoy! -Editors
When a songwriter gets an idea and wants to capture it, the goal is to be ready to open a mic when the clouds part and inspiration strikes. But before we can talk sensibly about how to put together a songwriting rig to plug that mic into, we need to decide what the whole point of the song demo is in the first place.
That very question was the subject of an article called, ‘The Great CD Demo.’ Author Jon Bare discussed two answers: there’s the polished “Class A” demo intended to sell your songs, get record deals, etc.; and the “Class B” demo, a quick sketch of a song that you plan to rerecord in earnest at some other point.
Of course, Class B demos have other practical uses as well, such as getting the idea down quickly, getting that idea across to your band, and copyrighting your songs. But Bare suggests that anything between minimum and maximum quality doesn’t make a lot of sense—a Class A demo of mediocre audio quality might blow your deal, while it’s often a waste of time and effort to spend a lot of time on Class B demos.
Without intending to diss Jon’s preachings, which we’re taking way out of context, I’d like to suggest one more category that actually does bridge the other two: the Class A/B demo. This is when you capture basic parts, such as guitar and vocal, that are recorded well enough to end up on the bona fide recording.
Clearly, different projects warrant different levels of quality. And of course both budget and ambition (i.e. whether you’re a professional or only doing this for enjoyment) often supersede all else. But it’s still important to start by determining the level of performance you need from a songwriting rig.
There are many ways of working, and manufacturers offer many different types of equipment to meet those needs. It may be helpful to group this equipment into two broad categories: self-contained and modular systems.
Self-contained systems have at least a mixer and recorder in one unit. Some provide an entire studio in one piece (sans mics and monitors, of course). Modular systems are made up of individual pieces. The intrinsic advantages to self-contained systems are that they’re convenient and all their pieces are well integrated; modular systems can be customized and scaled up and down.
Toward the bottom of the self-contained category (as far as price is concerned) are the cassette 4-track systems (the 8-track systems of a decade ago have been superseded by hard disk based devices). While the sound quality offered by these machines is limited by today’s standards, they are simple, inexpensive, and reliable. Manufacturers still sell them by the boatload for these reasons, plus the fact that blank tapes are available everywhere. Cassette multitrackers are perfect for Category B demos.
A step up from there in price is the MiniDisc multitrack. These units generally sound better than cassette portastudios, and and they provide very fast random access, auto-location, and basic editing features. They use a more expensive storage medium than cassettes (remember they require MD DATA discs, not the very affordable stereo Minis), but MiniDiscs are durable and convenient—you just pop them in and out like a tape.
The problem with multitrack MiniDiscs is that their storage capacity is somewhat limited, so practically you’ll only get a couple of songs on a single disc. To make the medium feasible, manufacturers use a data compression scheme; critics argue that this hurts the sound quality. Hard disk storage has become inexpensive enough that the MiniDisc format appears to be waning, but it is still around.
A hard disk-based self-contained DAW (digital audio workstation) will best meet the needs of a great many songwriting rigs. These units range from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars; while their entry price is still slightly higher than the MiniDisc format, these machines tend to be more cost-effective in the long run.
Examples of these units include the Roland VS series and derivative BOSS BR-8, Fostex FD series, TASCAM 788, Korg D8 and D16, Akai DPS12, and the Yamaha AW4416 reviewed in this issue. Just add your own instruments, mics, and monitors (and/or headphones) and you’re good to go. In fact, some of these units have optional CD recorders, so you can go all the way from session to ‘mastered’ CD (quotes because ‘mastered’ usually applies to recordings that have been graced by a professional mastering engineer).
These self-contained DAWs feature all the advantages of digital recording, not the least of which is excellent editing. Many of them also have onboard effects and in some cases dynamics processing, so they really are complete. They’re portable and convenient (no setup or external cabling), and they tend to be easy to use—although some are easier than others.
Other features include virtual tracks, meaning that you can have alternate takes cued up “underneath” the track that uses the playback voice. The unit might be capable of playing back eight simultaneous tracks but have, say, 64 tracks available.
Some of these units use data compression, others don’t, and others (notably the Roland VS) have both uncompressed and compressed modes, trading off track count for audio quality. But even the compressed audio is more than good enough to meet the criteria for a Class A demo.
There are drawbacks, though. Self-contained DAW’s don’t integrate all that well into an existing studio—they really weren’t designed to patch up to a mixer and a rack of outboard gear. Also, while a great complement of features is available, you can’t always just reach for a knob—you must navigate menus. LCD displays are essential to operation of the unit, making them difficult or impossible for the visually impaired to use. And eventually (faster than you’d hope, naturally) the hard disk will become full, so some kind of archiving is essential.
But what if you already have a studio for more involved sessions, overdubs, mixing, and mastering? You don’t need all these capabilities in a songwriting rig. Perhaps you’ve been collecting equipment over the years and don’t need additional effects processors, or you’re locked into a certain recording format, or you prefer to record yourself using a certain mic/preamp/compressor combination. A modular recording system can be the best for these and many other reasons.
If that’s the case, why not rack up the pieces you need for your songwriting rig in a road case? You can connect them to your studio patchbay using a breakout cable. This takes some planning, and often it takes a couple of extra pieces (such as a small mixer for monitoring), but it’s an excellent solution.
Modular Digital Multitracks (Alesis ADAT and TASCAM DA-series digital recorders) are still a very popular choice for this type of system. These machines provide the simplicity and familiarity of a tape deck; an MDM is just like a cassette deck that has great sound quality and no tape hiss.
MDM’s advantages for the songwriter include simplicity, great sound, instant archival (it’s all right there on the tape), inexpensive media (videotape, even S-VHS or Hi-8 videotape, won’t break the bank), and expandability (syncing two or more machines of the same brand is simple and works well.) They’re also common, so you can take your Class A tracks to almost any studio for a professional mix.
There are disadvantages, though. You need stacks of other gear, including a mixer. There is a wait for rewind and fast-forward, as there is with analog machines. These machines have moving parts that eventually wear out, and they do require periodic maintenance (although far less than an analog reel-to-reel deck).
Rackmount hard-disk multichannel recorders are also simple and familiar, at least until you start getting into their editing features. On the surface these machines are designed to operate like an analog deck. But they have fewer moving parts and require less maintenance.
These machines are easy to pull in and out of a studio, and they can be synced up just like MDMs for more tracks. The only issue is that you have to figure out how to archive audio data, a subject worthy of several articles of its own. One possibility that people don’t seem to consider all that much is just to swap out hard disks. At current prices, that’s often feasible. Akai, Fostex, and others offer relatively inexpensive versions of these recorders, while Mackie, TASCAM, and iZ (RADAR) offer higher-end models.
For overall recording power and sheer flexibility, there’s a strong argument that no system can touch a computer-based DAW. Furthermore, you get a general-purpose computer in the bargain. It’s even possible to run a studio on a laptop computer these days.
The main difference between a computer and a “hardware” system is that you have a video monitor and a mouse as your interface rather than buttons and knobs. There are many benefits to computer-based audio systems. You can patch in software plug-in effects one at a time just as you can in a traditional studio. The editing is superb. These systems provide automated mixing, and some offer mastering processors.
Computer audio interfaces span a wide price and quality range, from $50 sound cards all the way up to professional DAWs in the $15k range. Which one you choose is another subject that could cover many articles; watch this magazine for continuing information on these hardware/software systems. For folks doing loop-based songs, this is it. For those who want a professional studio and have limited space, again, this is it.
Obviously, this is not a good route for anyone who doesn’t like computers. Computers are usually noisy and they do require maintenance. It’s a different type of maintenance, but it’s still maintenance: software installation and upgrades, troubleshooting, hardware upgrades, and so on.
But wait there’s more
If your goal is to make high-quality recordings, keep in mind that good mics and monitors will be essential. They’ll add considerably to the cost of your rig, unless you have them already.
If there’s one thing that this article hopes to point out, it’s that different systems meet different needs. If you’re clear about your goals and preferences, and if you know what each type of system offers and can’t offer, you’ll have a much better chance of setting up a studio that works well for you.
Charlie Davis wants one of everything and a warehouse-sized studio to put it in.