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An economical guide to home recording by B-Noir Film


The ScotMan Review is dedicated to exploring soft and hardware for musical recording that is functional, yet frugal. Many readers may find themselves in the situation of spending more money on recording gear than one has made, or realistically will ever make, recording. The purpose of this review is to help readers get a handle on which programs and hardware are the best buys for a low budget. This is relevant in today's recording environment, especially for software, where 90% of the functionality of the top end programs can be had for 10% of the price. In keeping with this "poor boy" methodology, the ScotMan Review is published at a free site. Readers are encouraged to add their comments and suggestions, like a Hints from Heloise for the musically inclined. Please forward any pertinent info to the below eddress. The ScotMan Review will give it full, if not immediate, attention.


For anyone not familiar with the contextual use of Scotman, thrifty is the more diplomatic term, while others use it to mean just plain cheap. As a Texan with Scottish blood (among other strains), I prefer thrifty to cheap. And any Scotsman offended by the term isn't worth his weight in haggis.



Once you have the hardware for audio recording, the cheapest solution for your software shopping is hacked versions of programs. Many choose this route. I ain't your momma to tell you what is right from wrong, but there are some problems with this. Aside from moral qualms, a practical reason is that if you run into any problems, you have to be your own technician/programmer. It is hard enough to get sanctioned programs to all run happily together. Add (a) hacked program(s) to the mix and all your precious time may be spent trying to keep your system running. That is not really the point of making music. Even if everything does run smoothly, there are still problems. No help, no upgrades, no surety that the programmer cracking your sequencer for fun isn't adding a little viral something for us dummies that don't know computer language. Thus, your road to stardom could be delayed simply because you went penny foolish.

Besides, the whole point of this site is to show how you don't have to use the latest and greatest software, cracked or not. And you don't have to hock your right arm (you will most likely need it for musical purposes) to scrape up the money to buy the legit version either. The major DAW players have cheap versions of their software that retails for a fraction of the price of their top of the line programs. Sure, there a few missing features, but they have most of what you need. Many of the bells and whistles you might never use anyway. Then there are the demo versions of the big boys' synth and effects programs that can be used to throw in a line or add that piece de resistance effect (usually over your analog i/o). The demos work, but are usually crippled in some way (to make you buy the full program). So, if you plan on re-using your masterpiece settings you'll have to save it the old-fashioned way - writing them down or via the computer equivalent of a Polaroid, the screenshot. But then, that was Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) just a few years ago for even the big names in music production. Finally, there are a lot of free- and shareware effects and instruments on the net. They might not be all that you'll ever need, and their graphic interface might be Spartan, but they do work, many of them extremely well.

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Speaking of Spartan, one of their interesting ideas about music was that the 4 string lyre was OK, but any more strings than that meant that the musician was just showing off. There is a lesson there, especially in this age of many and complex programs and hardware for music. It is more rewarding (both on a musical and spiritual plane) to learn to program one synth really well than have half a dozen that you barely know your way around the presets.


Music has been around for thousands of years, and for most of that time was passed on by imitation. Musical transcription has been available for hundreds of years, while acoustic recording is about 100 years old. Home recording, and by that I mean having affordable equipment that meets the minimum audio requirements for professional use, is less than 20 years old. Not only must the audio be acceptable, one also should be able to do multitrack recording. The audio qualifications rule out the multitrack cassette portastudios that came out in the 70's. That isn't to say acceptable work wasn't done on them, but the actual technology precluded their use on a day-to-day professional basis. They were also hampered by only having 4 tracks available and bouncing tracks only compounded their noise problem.

The first widely-available and reasonably-priced multitracker was the Tascam 38. It had 8 tracks of audio spread across a half-inch of reel to reel tape running at 15 inches per second. That put a lot of sound to magnetic tape and at $2000, it was about half the price of Tascam's, Otari's or other professional 8-track tape decks. The 38 was soon followed by Fostex's 8-tracker, which was even cheaper and used inch tape format (along with primitive noise reduction). Provided one could get a decent sound to the machine, either deck would spit out a reasonable facsimile of it. Then one could either do the mixdown at home with a board and stereo deck that were up to the job, or drag the deck to a professional studio. Being able to reproduce the sound begat the need for a good sound board at a great price. In stepped Mackie. Their first commercial board, a 4-bus console (so ubiquitous that for years if someone said they had a Mackie, you knew exactly what they meant) provided good mic preamps and a clean signal path for around a grand. The home studio now didn't have to compromise (much, anyway) on getting a superior sound to deck.

By the end of the 80's, improved toys took the idea of home recording to a whole new level. The Alexis ADAT introduced affordable digital recording to the masses. At one point it seemed that almost everyone involved with music had one, and a lot of big name artists dragged their home decks to the million dollar studios where they were recording their albums and dumped their demo tracks straight to gold records. The digital revolution was on, and computers, which had developed a niche (albeit a large one) as sequencers for midi instruments to play along with analog tape, soon supplemented, and then replaced both analog and digital tape. DigiDesign set the first standard for recording audio to computer with their Sound Designer software. It started out as a stereo audio editor, and then they added a PCI card with chips that allowed 8-track recording on the slow computers of the day. This system developed into the ProTools of today -- more or less the modern professional standard.

With the ever increasing speed and capacity of computers, other software developers eschewed the expensive add-on card method and turned their sequencers into sequencers with audio recording - Digital Audio Workstations (DAWs). Today, a good (not necessarily cutting-edge) computer can play enough midi-tracks at once to make white noise, and more audio tracks than you can shake a stick at. The $4000-$5000 spent on an 8-track studio, mixer and a reel-to-reel mixdown deck in the mid-80s will, today, buy that and more, along with outboard gear one could only drool over way back when. For the home recordist, these are the best of times.


90% of everything is schlock, including playback. The ratio might not be exact, but close enough. Not you the reader, but many, if not most people, either don't have the ears or the training to hear - really hear - all the intricacies put into music. And on most systems, no one can hear all the ear delicacies of good production. This might seem ridiculous on the face of it, but most music is heard in the car, on a boom box, or over the radio in which the signal has been processed and squashed beyond belief.

So, does this mean one doesn't have to worry about sound quality? Of course not. Just that most people aren't going to be able to tell the difference on most systems between a $5000 mic through a $2000 preamp and your set-up at home, provided you learn the craft of recording and put in the time to get the best sound possible. If you get your music sounding right in the studio, in your car and over your home system while in the kitchen fixing lunch (one of the best ways to check vocal level and clarity), you can be pretty sure it will translate over most systems as well as whatever happens to be the pop radio flavor of the day.

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