Home Studio FAQ

Home Studio FAQ is the result of feedback I've received from YOU!

Each week I'll try to answer some of the most common home recording studio questions that keep coming up, along with providing links to the specific pages where you'll find a much more in-depth description.

Thanks to all who've submitted so far, and remember you can always head to the Contact Form to add your question to the mix.

What is the best Audio Interface for Home Recordings?

This one has to win the award for "most frequently asked question" so it is now in good company.

You can substitute in almost any studio equipment or software for "Audio Interface" above, but this answer should still be helpful.

In general, it's easy to fall into the trap of putting too much stock in online reviews, forums, and websites (yes - even this one!) because everyone who spends time developing those resources has some level of confidence and has forged their own viewpoints from experience.

All this (often conflicting) information/advice can be paralyzing at times.

So who knows what's "best" for you?

Well... YOU DO!

I believe that the "best" (fill in the blank here) for you is the one that satisfies these 3 criteria:

1. It can help you create the music you want to make

2. It can be obtained at a price that won't make you miserable

3. It is something that you are willing to carve out time for and truly learn

Let's take a closer look at each one in detail.

The first really deals with "Will it work for your needs?" For example: if you want to record MIDI, you will need a MIDI interface either stand-alone or built into your Audio Interface.

This isn't anyone's opinion it's just a fact.

In the same way, if you want to process your vocals like T-Pain then you'll need some sophisticated software. Once again, these are just the facts of the case.

Sometimes knowing what you need is the hardest part at the start because it's all so new. This is why I developed the Basic Studio Builder found here.

Do your best to push through this initial learning curve, make a list of things you want to record, and start to identify what you need by researching each line item.

Check around the rest of my site for more info or send me a note via the contact form (or on the Facebook page) if you're really stumped.

The second criteria is also important for our discussion. Now you can find deals, and you can get a good price by shopping around but in the end... you will pay for quality.

This is not a bad thing, just don't pay for a Ford and expect to get the performance and luxury of a Porsche.

That's not how it works. That's not how it works with cars and it's not how it works with music gear.

Everyone's threshold for financial pain is different, but my advice is to not buy something so cheap that it fails on you before you get started - and not so expensive that you hate yourself for buying it.

Balance is the key. Which takes us to the end....

Critera #3 - You will have to spend time with your stuff.

You will have to search online, read the user's guide, buy a supplemental guide, hit up your friends, get lost, kick your computer over, pick your computer up, and find your way back out again.

There is no shortcut. If you want to play this game you must pay the price of admission.

And I want to be perfectly clear, I'm talking about the price of your time, about the price of sacrificing doing other things to learn your gear.

I promise you that you will want to scream like a banshee and set your recording software on fire (impossible by the way - I tried).

I promise you I have felt this way too. But I also promise you that when it all comes together, when you get that sound you've been hunting for, when you get that reverb to bounce just right, or when you punch in to save the one flaw in that otherwise "perfect take" it will be worth it.

It's quite an emotional roller coaster, but if it were easy then everyone would be doing it already.

So the ultimate answer... is the final answer.

Get something that helps you create the music you want, at the price you can live with, and are willing to master.

You are the only one standing in your way - now get out there and get after it. 

What is better for Recording at Home? Keyboard or MIDI Controller?

For me the digital keyboard works best because it's most like a real piano and I do a lot of piano songs. The MIDI controller might be best if you just want to add a bass line, or to add some parts to a dance beat, etc.

If space is really at a premium or if you plan to travel with it you might be willing to trade the natural feel of a fully weighted 88 keyboard for the convenience of a few octave controller.

Although keyboards can be used as MIDI controllers, it doesn't work the other way around. Just make sure you have a clear idea ahead of time of the kind of music you want to make and then you can choose the right tool.

Hardware Synthesizers
MIDI Controllers

How do I set the Levels on a Mixing Desk for Recording?

Few things have a more noticeable impact on the quality of a recording (or live performance) than bad level settings.

Many mixing desks have a 'Level Set' series of lights that help dial in the correct levels.

This scale typically spans a -30 to +20 dB range.

The idea here is to boost (or cut) each signal as needed to maximize signal and minimize noise.

By bringing the signal to the correct level at the mixer, you can avoid boosting unwanted noise later down the chain.

It's just as important to avoid clipping the signal (too much gain) which causes undesired distortion (as opposed to intentional sweet distortion like Jimi).

This process is known as 'Gain Staging' and needs to be performed at each stop along your signal chain.

Gain Staging

What do Audio Interfaces provide?

The term 'Audio Interface' generically refers to the bridge between your instruments / mics and your computer. These lovelies provide various levels of features, but all provide these essential functions:

1. A/D Converters: These take the analog input signal and convert it into a digital form that your computer can use.

2. Microphone Preamps: These take the relatively weak signal coming form a microphone and amplify it to an optimal level.

3. Phantom Power: This is the input power required by the condenser elements of a Condenser microphones to operate. If you have a condenser mic then you need phantom power.

Check out the following pages for more info on Audio Interfaces.

Audio Interfaces
Basic Studio Builder - Interfaces

What is the function of gain control on a mixing desk?

Ahh yes those pesky mixer controls are at it again - confusing hard working people like you and me and causing heartache and strife.

Although all mixers have subtle differences the details - they all have standard set of controls, and among these are Gain and Level.

The purpose of gain is simply to set the input of the audio signal INTO a channel of the mixer, while the purpose of level is to set the output of an audio signal FROM that channel.

Don't let those gain control get you down...

Mixing Consoles

Does the type of recording software you use have a huge impact on what it sounds like?

Not nearly as much as the recording software companies would have you believe.

What has a much greater impact is the sampling rate and bit depth supported by your Audio Interface.

Recording software, or DAW Software, is really just your interface to using your Audio Interface and Computer (DAW Hardware). Except for the case of digital FX included with a software package, it doesn't add to the sound at all.

Don't fall prey to the marketing monsters that are out to get all of us. Try a few out via free download and go with the one that "feels" best to you.

DAW Software

Do I really need a direct box for home studios?

It really all depends... if you don't use one your home recordings will sound, well, home made.

The signal coming from your instrument (say an electric guitar) is expecting to go thru an amp before its sound is heard by the world.

The circuitry in an amp is what is simulated by the direct box, but there is a good way to avoid buying a separate DI box.

Some Audio Interfaces will include some inputs (usually not more than 2) that support a Hi-Z (or high impedance) input.

These basically have a DI box built in so you can plug directly into the AI without one.

DI boxes are like seatbelts in a car. You don't need one to operate the vehicle, but it's such a bad idea to go without it.

Direct Boxes
Direct Box Buying Guide

What's the difference between balanced and unbalanced Instrument Cables?

Well first of all they're much more expensive, but why is this?

Both types of cables have a ground component. The difference is that the balanced cables (also called TRS) use 2 wires to carry the signal while unbalanced (known as TS) only use 1 wire to carry the signal.

The 2 wire balanced balanced cables will reduce the noise introduced into your signal over long distances (>15 ft). Over short distances this won't make a difference.

Instrument Cables

Why are condenser microphones more sensitive than dynamic mics?

Perhaps because Condenser mics are more in touch with their feelings, while dynamics are more immature... well not exactly.

Condenser mics use an electrical property (called capacitance) to measure the deflection of the conducting element located inside the mic itself, while Dynamic mics use the physical motion of a magnet.

Since the motion of this magnet is harder to induce with sound pressure waves, it takes a more intense wave to register than with a Condenser.

Condenser Mics
Dynamic Mics

Can a dynamic mic be used in a recording studio?

Absolutely! Dynamic mics are best suited for miking loud sources such as a guitar amp or high energy (screaming) vocals.

They are also great if you are recording multiple musicians at once and want to isolate the performance of one from the other due to them being very directional.

Microphone Patterns

What is the difference between Sampling and Sampling Rate?

Sampling refers to the recording of an instrument that can be triggered later on.

For example, you may load piano samples taken from a world class concert piano and trigger them via your cheapo (but still useful) synthesizer.

Sampling Rate refers to the rate at which the Analog to Digital converter in your Audio Interface reads the audio data being sent to it.

A sampling rate of 1 Hz is what your digital watch produces. Every second another measurement. But a sampling rate of 1 Hz for music would be beyond useless.

Instead the sampling rates are more like 44,000 Hz which is 44,000 samples every second.

Sampling Rates

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