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How to get started making music on your computer

Summary:

This is what you need to get started.
A computer
Audio interface or built in sound card
A host application - sequencer or DAW
MIDI Controller (optional)
Extra software plugins, synths and effects (optional)


So you are ready to take the plunge into the world of recording on the PC. Now what? Are you worried you might be forgetting something? We’ll take you through a basic setup and let you know what you need to get started and what is optional.

The computer -The heart of the system

If you have already decided on the software you plan to use then make sure you research the minimum and recommended requirements each manufacturer has for those products. That is the best place to start. The manufacturers recommended specifications should always take priority over any other advice you get. They know what is needed to make their software perform and give you solid results.

If you are unsure which software you will use, a good choice is a pc with a fast hard drive, a good amount of RAM (1GB) and a solid processor. Anything about a 1.8GHz dual core is more than enough for most recording needs.

If you really do not trust yourself or want someone else to design the machine for you, you have a few options.

Option one would be to go with a large brand manufacturer like Dell or Lenovo. If you go this route make sure the machine is recommended for gaming and/or video work. If you do, you can e assured the machine will be fast enough to handle your recording tasks. Many of today’s games and most video projects give pcs a serious work out and pc based recording is just little bit lighter workload so it is a good bar to set. This is a great option if you plan to use the pc for more than just studio work, which most of us do.

Option two would be to go with a dedicated DAW builder. There are many good companies out there and they can create a turnkey solution for you. The downside is it may be a bit more expensive to go with this option. The upside is each component on the machine is selected to give you the best results while recording. This is a custom box designed from the ground up to record, everything else is secondary.

Option three would be to have you or a friend build the computer. This can be a very rewarding experience to build your own pc as you will learn how everything is connected and works together. Be advised if something goes wrong you can only turn to yourself for help. This is probably the least expensive option and provide you with an extremely powerful machine, however this is can be a dangerous and costly road to go down if you are unsure of what you are doing.

 
Laptop or desktop?

These days it is mainly a matter of personal preference. The desktop option  tends to be a lower cost for the equivalent laptop. If you plan to record in different locations then a laptop may be the right choice for you. You can always add an external drive to a laptop if you need to.

The sound card
Can you use the built in sound card to record your music? Yes. Will you want to? Probably not. Sure you can use the built in sound card to get started but you may find it is rather limited pretty quickly. For a start, it is a multi media card designed to fill many roles on the pc from playing a DVD, to internet phone to audio playback. It was not specifically designed to record music or accept the inputs a typical home studio will need. In addition, the built in sound cards tend to be noisy and will not work at higher sample and bit depths.

When choosing a sound card think about how you plan to record. Will you mainly be recording one instrument or vocal track at a time? If so a simple 2 in 2 out interface may be what you need. If you are planning to record a band you will probably need a 10 in 10 out interface. Each input is a separate track in the software.

Do you want to connect microphones directly to the sound card? If so make sure you select one with microphone inputs and mic preamps. An extra bonus is if the interface has limiting or compression on input, this can be a life saver if you are about to clip on the perfect take.

USB or Firewire? This choice may be made for you if the interface you want is one or the other. USB is more common and USB 2.0 can easily handle 8 tacks at a time. Firewire can transfer more data and tends to be the protocol for more high end interfaces.

Finally, nearly every audio interface has at least one MIDI in and Out included on it so you also get MIDI I/O with your sound card.


The software
Obviously you will need a host application to record, edit, arrange and mix your work. There are many choices out from linear (like a tape deck) to non linear (performance based) with a variety of choices in between.  Examples of linear DAWs are Cubase, M-Powered and SONAR, non linear DAWs would be products like Fruity Loops, Live and Reason. 

Look for a DAW that has the features you need today and has enough extras that you can grow into it. If you like virtual instruments or effects look for packages that have a good suite of them included as this can save you a lot of money.

Also think about the style(s) of music you will be creating. DJs and dance musicians tend to prefer a non-liner environment as this fits their musical style better. Rock, pop and blues music works better with a liner DAW.  

Can you use both? Of course! Many of the linear and non-linear DAWs can work together at the same time, meaning you could start a project in Live and then connect it to SONAR to add vocal tracks and do you final mix. This connection is done via a technology call Rewire (jointly developed by Steinberg and Propellerhead) and is now available in just about all products. There are two types of Rewire a host and a client. Some applications are just one or the other while other are both. Most linear DAWs are hosts only and can slave or host a non-linear DAW to it. Te client or slave then follows the tempo of the host application and also sends it’s audio and MIDI information to the host allowing for very tight integration.

Do I need anything else?
If you are planning on just recording audio you can stop with the PC, sound card and software. If you are planning to record MIDI performances you will probably want a controller keyboard. If you already have a keyboard simply connect it’s MIDI output to the MIDI in on the interface and the MIDI output of the interface to the MIDI input on the keyboard.

If you do not have a keyboard yet, and plan to use virtual instruments, you might want to look into a controller keyboard. A controller is a keyboard that has a keyboard and extra slider and knobs for controlling the functions of soft syths, effects and DAW controls. In addition, some even have pads that make drumming a dream.

The big decision is the number of octaves/keys you want your controller to have. They tend to come in three sizes small, medium and large ranging from 25 to 61 keys. Space can be an issue for many musicians so they opt for the smaller size keyboard. In case you did not know there is a control on the keyboards that lets you pick which octave(s) or note range you are playing at any time. So you may not see all the octaves in front of you but you can play them.

See it’s not that complicated!

That’s it, a basic setup is a pc, sound card or audio interface, software and optionally a MIDI controller. Of course you can add extra soft synths, effects, more controllers and hardware to your setup but we’ll save that for another article.