In Search of the Missing Piece
It is amazing to think that a single program disk's worth of data can transform your computer into the equivalent of a full audio recording studio, complete with powerful signal processing, editing, and automated mixing capabilities. By properly outfitting your machine and making use of a high-quality audio interface, it is easy to take advantage of the myriad options available in almost any audio recording application. In fact, it has reached the point where your recorded signals do not even have to leave the warm confines of your computer until you are ready to release them by burning a CD of your latest handiwork. This mind-set conserves physical space, is very economical, and packs well for portability.
But what if you want to improve on the results you are getting from your self-contained Digital Audio Workstation? One way would be to take a step back from your computer and have a look at the marriage of new technology and old-school "hands-on" that can exist outside of your machine. Making use of analog gear that you already own, or investing in hardware pieces that can deliver measurable sonic improvements over their software counterparts, may be your next step. Let's consider some hardware options that will help you expand your computer recording system and strengthen some of the weak links you may have in your recording chain.
The input stage is a very crucial point in your recording chain. Even though you may have invested in a high-quality audio interface, you can always improve or augment your current system with unique-sounding hardware microphone and instrument preamps. Unlike older analog tape systems that naturally absorbed stronger input levels, it is important with digital systems to maintain an input signal that is neither too strong nor too weak. A low signal will tend to bring up the noise floor and a hot signal may cause harsh-sounding overages. Inexpensive or poor quality components will distort or become noisy at higher levels due to the limitations of their circuitry. Higher-quality components will take more signal before beginning to distort, allowing you to effectively pass more of your signal down the line in your recording chain. Better-quality analog input gear will not only introduce some personality into your sound, but it can create some elasticity in a normally unforgiving system.
It is no doubt that a high quality microphone preamp will enhance your sound, and many also provide an input for instrument level signals for even more versatility. Breaking free from the confines of your audio interface and looking into a dedicated unit can make a world of difference. Vocals become richer, bass and guitar tracks gain new snap, and you will be surprised at just how much new life can be infused into your synthesizer tracks.
Another important input component to take into consideration would be a compressor/limiter. Since it is so important to keep your input signal fairly high, a good-quality compressor can be an indispensable tool that will tame peak levels before they hit your interface. This way you can attain a strong signal without overloading the computer with level spikes caused by louder playing or singing.
Software signal processors are an excellent way to add variety and versatility to your recording toolbox. But keep in mind that many great-sounding software emulations are modeled from well-designed hardware units. There is something to be said for the sound of a device that has been designed to do its job without regards to CPU usage, and whose discrete components are maximized to give you the best sound possible for the job at hand. The discrete circuitry of analog processors yields noticeable audible differences from software recreations, and digital hardware units offer very stable internal software processing that takes the load off your computer. When you are working with multiple audio tracks on your computer, there is nothing more frustrating than not being able to open a reverb plug-in because you have maxed out your CPU.
The M350 from T.C. Electronic
Tweaking your final project mix is the type of work that should be fun. You can spend a few days, weeks, or months trying to get things to sound just right before committing to a finished version. So, what happens when your spacious 24-bit opus is dithered down to a 16-bit recording session or your 16-bit session is burned to CD? Some of the life and depth is almost always lost when dithering down or mixing within the computer environment. The mix engine in your software provides a way of summing all the audio tracks that you have active in your recording, and it is the design and available headroom of this engine that dictates your final result. To maintain the luster and spaciousness they hear during mixing sessions, many professionals choose to bypass the computer's internal mix engine and output their tracks directly to dedicated hardware.
Having a good-sounding mixer to pass your signals through would seem like a logical conclusion. This enables outboard equalization and allows you to incorporate a more hands-on approach to external effects or mix levels. It is important to keep an eye on quality if you want to surpass the results you are already getting with your current computer setup. Lower-quality units may only add noise and lend little benefit or personality to your efforts.
One product that has become increasingly popular is the summing amplifier. Instead of mixing inside your computer, these boxes let you output separate tracks from your audio interface and provide a high-headroom method of summing them to two tracks. This avoids the bottlenecking of software mixing and can give your mixes a more open sound with better imaging. These units will help preserve the quality of your mix, and in some cases, improve upon it by adding their own sonic flavor. Keep in mind that some units are more transparent than others, so you may have to do a little research to find the one that suits your needs best.
After all of the effort you have taken to record, mix, and output your music with the utmost quality, you will need an equally high-quality method to refine and capture the end result.
Equalization and compression can be just as important on the way out as on the way in. The same type of high-quality units can be used to tame your outputs as well, but there are other products that take into account the specialized processes of shaping your finished product. The TC Finalizer is a very specialized piece of technology that will apply sound-sculpting algorithms that are unique to the mastering process. These boxes work differently than standard compressors and eq's, even though they share many of the same features. For example, a compressor will act on the entire signal but a multi-band compressor used for mastering will only affect the frequency range that you specify. This is great for limiting the bottom end while letting the mids and highs pass unaffected or vice versa.
And where will it all go? If you don't have access to a high-quality analog tape machine, as most of us don't, then you will have to record your mix to some sort of digital medium. CD burners have become very popular as DAT tape has seen its heyday. There is also a new breed of CD/DVD recorders that will allow you to record at high resolution to help keep the standards high all the way to the end of the recording chain.
These have been some hardware solutions that revolve around the analog connection of hardware to your digital system. The incorporation of higher-quality digital gear such as D/A and A/D converters is another alternative route that can improve your system as well. Sometimes in our effort to cram everything possible into our computers, we have cast some of our unused hardware by the wayside. There are times when making use of a good piece of analog gear can make all the difference in the world.
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