How to make the best sound recordings. (Compute's Getting Started With: PC Sound)
by David English
With today's high-quality sound cards and sophisticated sound-editing programs, you can record with near audio-CD quality. I use the phrase near audio-CD quality because, even though many of the sound cards' technical specifications match those of home audio-CD players, there's often a small amount of interference from your other PC cards that can cause a barely audible amount of distortion. That said, most of us won't be mastering our own CDs for major record labels, so near CD quality is still close to a sonic miracle.
To make the best sound recordings from your PC, you'll need
* A high-quality 16-bit sound card
* A hard drive with lots of free space
* A relatively fast PC You may also need
* A high-quality microphone
* A full-featured sound-editing program
* A decent defragmentation program
Top of the Charts
Unfortunately, you can't always judge the recording quality of a sound card from its specification sheet. In theory, any sound card with 16-bit sampling will have the same frequency response as a typical audio-CD player. In fact, the quality of the sound can vary greatly.
Your best bet is to try the cards for yourself and decide which card sounds best to your ears. Among the generally available sound cards, Turtle Beach Systems' MultiSound and Roland's RAP-10 offer perhaps the best-quality recording, though any 16-bit sound card should give you better recordings than any 8-bit card.
When auditioning a sound card, you should listen closely to the quality of its sound. Is the sound crystal-clear and is there absolute silence between musical phrases? Is the sound harsh or too skewed toward the high frequencies? Does the sound skip slightly when playing?
For the best results, you'll need to record with 16-bit sampling at 44.1 kHz--which will give you theoretical CD quality. (A few sound cards will let you record at 48 kHz, the sample rate used by professional DAT recorders, but that rate is even more demanding of your hardware.) When recording in stereo at 44.1 kHz, each minute will take up roughly 10.5MB on your hard drive. Plan on setting aside a large portion of your hard drive for audio recording, or consider adding a separate hard drive that would be dedicated to audio recordings.
For most sound cards, you'll also need a 33-MHz 486 or faster processor (boards that use a DSP chip to take some of the load off your main processor may require only a fast 386). Of course, you can record at a lower sampling rate, drop to 8-bit sampling, or switch to mono recording, and you won't need as much hard drive space or as fast a processor--but you won't get the same-quality recordings.
Unless you're recording strictly electronically, you'll need a good microphone. The ones that come with most sound cards are too cheap for high-quality recording. If you have Microsoft Windows Sound System 2.0, you'll need to buy a separate microphone for recording--the one that's bundled with the package is optimized for speech recognition.
While most sound cards include some kind of editing program for WAV-format sound files, you're better off stretching for a dedicated program such as The Turtle Tools for Multimedia (Turtle Beach Systems, 717-843-6916, $89), Wave for Windows 2.0 (Turtle Beach Systems, $149), or Sound Forge 2.0 (Sonic Foundry, 608-256-3133, $179). With these programs, you'll be able to add professional-quality digital effects, such as echo, reverb, flange, reverse, volume, and pan.
With MCS SoundTrak (Animotion Development, 205-591-5715, $79.95), you can add a new dimension to your sound through the magic of QSound. It's a revolutionary technology that adds a three-dimensional quality to sounds; you can even place individual sounds in precise positions across a full 180 degrees.
Because you'll be constantly writing large files to your hard drive, you'll also need a defragmentation program. When your computer is trying to smoothly store sound to your hard drive at 10.5MB a minute, you can get gaps in your sound recording if your hard drive is forced to write data to noncontiguous tracks. To defragment your hard drive, you can use DOS 6.2's Defrag program or one of the optimizer programs that ships with such utility packages as The Norton Utilities and PC Tools.
If you use Stacker or DOS's DoubleSpace compression, you may also slow down your hard drive, making it difficult to achieve a perfect recording. If you have problems due to compression, you might set aside a large portion of your drive to remain uncompressed or consider using a separate hard drive that isn't compressed.
Going for the Gold
If you're really serious about using your PC as an audio workstation, you should consider SAW (Innovative Quality Software, 702-733-7854, $599) or Yamaha's CBX-D5 Digital Recording Processor (714-522-9011, $2,995).
SAW (Software Audio Workshop) lets you play back four simultaneous CD-quality stereo tracks--that's a total of eight tracks. It also features automated nondestructive mixing with down-to-the-sample accuracy (1/48,000 of a second when sampling at the 48-kHz sampling rate). SAW requires only a 386 with eight megabytes of memory and one of the seven supported sound cards: a Creative Labs Sound Blaster 16 or 16ASP, Media Vision Pro AudioSpectrum 16 or Pro AudioStudio 16, Turtle Beach Systems MultiSound, or Digital Audio Labs CardD or CardD+. For simultaneous recording and playback, you'll need to use either the MultiSound or CardD+, otherwise you'll have to record separately and edit in your recording. The company also sells SAW jr. ($249), which leaves out the multitrack features and MIDI/SMPTE synchronization.
All in all, SAW is a remarkable program that truly pushes the envelope for professional audio from a standard out-of-the-box PC.
If your goal is the absolute best recording, you can use your PC as a front end to a dedicated recording system. That's the position that Yamaha takes with its CBX-D5, a separate four-track recording system that offers two-track simultaneous recording system that offers two-track simultaneous recording and four-track CD-quality playback. (The CBX-D5 has true four-track output, while SAW currently has only two-track output.) The CBX-D5 also provides onboard digital signal processing and equalization, with 82 different reverb and modulation effects.
On the PC side, the unit ships with Steinberg Jones's Cubase Audio as its software. Because the unit has its own coprocessor, it will work with virtually any Windows 3.1--compatible computer. For storage, it uses any standard SCSI hard drive with an access time of 30 milliseconds or less. The price may seem steep, but you can produce original recordings with the CBX-D5 that really do sound just as good as an audio CD.
End of Reel
Even though it seems complicated, making high-quality recordings with your PC is actually pretty easy. Just give it a try and experiment with the different settings--with computer-based sound capture and editing, you can always back up and start all over again.