TCM MASTERING: HOME MUSIC STUDIO – PART 3 ANALOGUE OR DIGITAL

TCM Mastering: Home Music Studio Tips and Information

Part 3 Analogue or Digital?

Continuing from my last Home Music Studio blog, today I want to discuss a few of the pros and cons for analogue and digital recorders.

At TCM Music Group and Mastering we’ve all grown up with recording technology over the years. So we all have our favourite pieces of equipment and ways of working. But that doesn’t mean that we are biased towards one approach or the other. Analogue multitracks still have their place in recording today, even though digital audio workstations have become common place.

With the equipment and resources available today, most musicians can now create music in a Home Studio that can compete on a truly professional level.

Remember, in my earlier blog post, I mentioned that technology was just one part of making music….solid engineering skills and a good pair of ears are equally important. Knowing what your equipment is capable of and its limitations is essential too.

One thing is for sure, we are bombarded with new equipment every month with special offers that entice you to part with your money. So it always pays to take your time at the outset during your initial planning stage. Make informed choices that will serve you well in terms of quality and longevity. Gear choices will also depend upon whether your studio is going to be private or commercial. Do you intend to use it for you and your friends only or will you be hiring out your studio to other musicians?

If you do hire out your studio commercially, you will most likely have to equip it to a much higher specification than you would if it were just for your personal use. Clients often like to see and are used to using well known equipment brand names, which can cost a lot more than other less ‘famous’ brands. There is an expectation involved with hiring your facilities out to paying clients.

If you are considering equipping your studio with an analogue multitrack, be aware that the wider track formats (2 inch, 24 track) are very expensive. They also require regular cleaning, maintenance and alignment. Plus every time you copy a ‘tape’ recording, the quality deteriorates a little. And if that wasn’t enough, the tapes themselves are getting harder to obtain.

Don’t get me wrong, I love multi-tracks. Analogue tape is much more forgiving with high audio levels than digital. And I’ve spent years working with them. But for the home musician (especially if you have a limited budget), digital technology is more compact, less hassle, a cheaper option and will allow you to compete with the big guys. So do your research and budget accordingly.

By the 1980s I was mixing and started using digital workstations, specifically the AMS Audiofile and NED Synclavier (a truly amazing piece of kit). I still used an Otari or Studer 24 track multitrack as my main recorder however, as confidence in digital technology was lacking.

Recent technological advances have made the digital choice a reliable and cheaper option. Some musicians still prefer using analogue tape decks, because tape produces a much ‘warmer’ sound compared to digital but there is now a whole new generation of digital plug-ins coming onto the market that claim to equal or faithfully replicate the tonal quality of analogue tape. At the end of the day, you either choose a studio setup with an analogue recorder with all its pros and cons or you go digital.

Digital options fall into two main categories…the Studio In A Box (SIAB) or Digital Audio Workstation (DAW).

The SIABs are a popular, relatively cheap and compact digital option. Several manufacturers offer products…Roland, Tascam and Fostex to name a few. Things to consider other than price are reputation and reliability, available bit rates, ease of use, number of tracks, onboard processing, plug-in options, audio file formats and compatibility with other systems or studios.

DAWs are pretty much the standard in most pro setups these days. But manufacturers keen to capitalise on the Home Musician market have made less expensive products that are amazing value for money, which offer many of the same features as the pro models.

The main advantages of the DAWs are that they allow the user to record and keep almost unlimited takes (not necessarily a good thing), access a take almost instantly with no rewind time, edit non-destructively and then perform top quality mixing in the workstation (often with built-in signal processing). In addition, the whole process has now become a visual experience. The audio tracks are viewable in waveform. Pieces of audio can be moved, trimmed, copied and pasted just like a text document without losing or degrading the quality which makes removing that bum note, or copying that chorus to another part of your song very easy.

So it handles a lot of the different steps involved in the production of a song within a very compact space.

If you decide to take the digital route there are several great programmes and workstations on the market. A favourite of mine and many professional studios is Pro Tools. You can get into the world of Pro Tools LE for a few hundred pounds/dollars, although, full blown HD systems are more expensive. Logic Studio is another brilliant programme favoured by musicians and Cubase is a popular choice for many home studio systems especially for dance music. Other popular options are Cakewalk by Roland, Sony’s Acid Pro and Mark of the Unicorn’s (MOTU) Digital Performer.

Some DAWs are good for audio and MIDI. Some are better for one or the other. And remember some software packages are designed for Mac or PC or both. So choose carefully.

The choice is huge so covering a selection of digital workstations and programmes is beyond the scope of this blog. But there are certain common characteristics to most of them that musicians will need to get familiar with. I’ll discuss them in the Home Music Studio blog, next Monday.

After that I’ll go into microphones, instruments, mixers, signal processing and monitor choices. Later blogs will cover recording, overdubbing, editing and mixing techniques, MIDI and what to do with those tracks once they’re mixed and ready for the world to hear.

Do you want to be sure of receiving this series of blogs as they come out? Then why not subscribe to them. Just fill out your e-mail address in the box near the top on the right. We absolutely hate spam, so we will never share or sell your details to anyone!

If you already have a working Home Studio and have some music tracks that need that final polish. Check out the TCM Mastering site.

Have a specific question regarding the recording or mastering process? Then please feel free to contact us here.

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