I have just finished researching and setting up a digital recording system. This is a description of what I did and why, including lists of what I got and where I got it and the prices I paid, and any other information I aquired along the way.
I am not a recording engineer, but I am a professional performer who has recorded two recent CDs in commercial digital studios, as well as three earlier recordings in analog studios. This is not meant to be an all inclusive explaination nor a final statement on the issue, but a detailed description of what I did personally and a present reflection of available resources and sources.
Step 1: Defining the music
Step 2: Defining the equipment
Step 3: Buying the gear
Step 4: Recording resources
Step 1: Defining the music
The first step was defining what I intended to do with the equipment. I came up with this statement when posting to the forums with questions.
I am essentially a solo singer/musician who plays several instruments, electric and acoustic. I'd be recording myself alone or multitracking using additional live recording, midi/keyboard input, and internally produced tracks by scoring parts/using a softsyth. I might record as a live duo or trio occasionally/eventually. Since I can't run a live mix on the session, I'll be recording to a rough static mix and post mixing each session, then adding tracks/effects if desired and doing a final mix before mastering for production/distribution. I plan to backup my sessions and premix tracks onto CDR as well, though it is slow, the media is cheap and easily exchangeable with other people.
The main reason for getting a studio was to replace using a commercial studio, mostly so I could record as much and when I wanted. In the balance, it feels like the end result will be better by being able to spend unlimited time, and to record when the time is right, in a home studio; than what I could accomplish on a very limited and arbitrary schedule in a commercial studio. I also needed a system to use when I had the time between touring, which didn't coincide often with available studios and studio time. I'd also learned that it was very difficult to make a consistent recording with tracks recorded in different studios.
I am on an extreme budget, but I intended to spend what I had to for a professional sound suitable for mastering, looking at it as a long term investment in recording, and developing, my music. Still, I wanted to get no more than was nescessary and buy used or discounted equipment whenever that was good enough, and search out the best deals.
though this was the general statement, the question ends up being how many tracks do you need at a time as the greatest factor. For me it was two at least and maybe 6 or 8 at most.
Step 2: Defining the equipment
Two things contributed to this:
The first was recording a couple CDs in a digital studio, where we experimented with several microphone set-ups to find the one that worked. I also took notes as we went through of the software and hardware we used for my project. Of this experience, the main thing that remains is using the same microphone set-up.
The rest came from research, asking other musicians I met what they had, and reading through forum archives, and even posting a few questions.
My first idea had been to get a hard disk recorder and dump that into a PC for post processing and mixing, if nescessary, and mastering to CDR.
I looked at the Roland VS series, for the idea of portability and simplicity, being able to have it all in one box. I considered a system incorporating a VS-880 linked to a high end portable pc.
My decision in the end however was to go with an entirely PC based recording system.
My reasons were: It is much more flexible than a dedicated system for expansion and replacement parts. It is cheaper, since the competion in the PC world is strong, and you can built from components entirely if you want, and upgrade single components easily. The dedicated systems are proprietary in formats, parts, and components, making them more expensive and harder to interface with other people. I'd need a computer anyway, and this way I get both for the price of one. By focusing the music processing in a powerful desktop, I can get a cheap older portable just for handling simple text, database, and internet connection work on the road, and let the desktop handle intensive graphics or other tasks. A topline desktop is much cheaper than an equivalent portable, and even more so if you build from components. All in all, it seems a cheaper option to get a more flexible and expandable system in the end, and by buying a single unit, I can a better system for the money than if I bought seperate units.
The drawbacks are going to be: it will be a less easily portable system, and take longer to set up. If this is a problem, I can still get a simple digital recorder, that I can do basic recording on off the mikes and mixer I have with the main system, and especially off the PA at live shows. But like the portable computer, I can get something relatively cheap, since all the major recording/mixing/mastering will still be done in the desktop unit. I also keep looking into some way to either link the desktop to a cheap portable or to a cheap LCD screen to avoid having to take a heavy, expensive, and relatively fragile monitor on the road.
The first choice main choice was to build a pc from components to save money, or get more PC for the money, rather than buy a retail unit. Then I researched processors at the DAW forums and cpu reviews. The Athlon was just coming out, and I knew the Floating Point performance was critical to music. So when the pre-release info on the Athlon came out, all the benchmarks put athlons way out in front of Pentiums. I seriously researched it, and in the end, decided to go with an Athlon. Because it was a great improvement, not so much more expensive, and I would have more than enough cpu to handle my needs even with expansion in the future.
At the same time, a certain point, enough is enough. Most people don't need it realistically. Though for someone like me, building my own system, it was essentially a small price increase for a major performance leap.
Below are links to information on Athlons, including the PARIS daw forum where there has been a lot of discussion and actual application of Athlons.
These links lead to other links as well, so I don't bother bookmarking every site I go to. Search archives as well, a lot of stuff came out right as the athlons came out.
I got the SD11 motherboard because it was the only one available and had good results. If I'd known it would take this long to get all the other components, I might have waited for more motherboards and more testing time. As it is, the SD11 still has good reviews. Most of the problems with Athlon systems and mobo's stem from using the wrong or insufficient powersupplies. In fact, I worry a bit since I have one of the smallest (250 watt) approved powersupplies. Otherwise, there are always some incompatabilities in harware and it just means avoiding them. I did spend some time on this, trying to accertain what would work and what wouldn't.
finally, I found this as part of the AMD site, though there are similiar tutorials available in several sites designed for the home builder, some in the resource links above and below. A Hotbot search will come up with others. I've swapped and added components, but this is my first total unit. Simple as it is, it feels good to have a checklist to keep me from worrying that I've forgotten something.
A search through the PC DAW forums provided plenty of advice as to what a good system for DAW is, and why, as well as great tips on configuring, etc. In the end it is still pretty simple. By looking at all the suggestions it was easy to come up with a general recommendation, as well as specific makes and models that work best. There's a lot of tech people in DAW, who have the knowledge, equipment, and desire to do benchmark tests on gear and find out what is best.
Athlon k7 550/sd11 mobo w/cpu heatsink/fan
Case, 250w approved powersupply, two aux. casefans
20 GB Maxtor 7200 ata66 IDE HD, 2MB buffer (OS, software, data,backup)
20 GB Maxtor 7200 ata66 IDE HD, 2MB buffer (recording audiofiles)
Sony 2x8 CDR
Video AGP Elsa Victory Erazor
ISA modem/soundcard dualcard
PCI Yamaha waveforce 192 soundcard (midi & digi, softsyth)
PCI Paris eds card, w/ interface 2, 442 (multi channel interface), C-16 (integrated mixer)
Some of my choices were specific, others came from watching for sales and auctions and taking the best that came up out of the possibilities.
128 MB RAM is the most cost effective level, where less RAM is noticable, and more isn't so noticable. More RAM is better, to a degree, but it can be added later.
The 7200 maxtor IDE drive benchmarked out as fast or faster than scsii drives and are much cheaper. Dual drives work better and with less problems than a single partitioned drive, one handling all software, the other just taking in audio data.
CDR is a must for audio work, CDRW isn't error free or stable enough. Though I got a Sony, Yamaha is the most recommended. And it is nescessary to get a audio capable CDR, not all will do it. Some recommend a scsii for speed. Some preffer the 4x, some prefer a 2x as being less error prone. I got the cheaper Sony 2x.
The video card isn't so important, though I spent some time trying to find wether this would work with the Athlon and I'm still not sure. I wanted to get a video card with an AV in/out so I can process video as well without investing in a second video in/out card This one popped up one day on a promo sale and I snapped it up.
The monitor turned out to be one of the hardest things to get, at onsale.com. People were bidding things right up, a lot of demand. I was finally able to get on of a large lot that was still a good deal at the price because the shipping was free and it was a new unit with a 3 year warrantee. But it took weeks to finally score on this one
Though I don't know if I'll use this PC for internet access, I found a cheap dual modem/soundcard for the ISA slot. Just in case there were soundcard functions the prosoundcards didn't handle and to save a PCI slot I needed for pro sound cards. In the end I replaced it with a cheaper standard PCI modem card, since the Yamaha card was designed to act as a system soundcard as well, and I wanted as few possible conflicts as possible.
this is the heart of the DAW system. With me it was more of a fluke. I was looking for used units on e-bay, bidding faily low, and I finally won on a Paris system card. Though I also looked at Laylas, they may have compatability problems with Athlons. Motu was a choice as well. They've just come out with a new card that is very good. But I got a Paris card at a very low price, though I have had to spend more to add a multichannel breakout box for descrete multi tracking and the intgrated control surface. Though in the end, they do make it a better system. I went to the homesites of many of the available soundcards and checked them out, and searched in the DAW archives for reviews and opinions, which pointed out at least one bad card and several that were popular. Some cards like Paris have their own forums as well. Later I bought a second used Paris system complete, as more economical than buying components for the first card. Though I didn't realize it at the time, Paris is a pro studio system, and a class above the homestudio cards. Though as I look at it, by buying used and because of the integrated software and components, it wasn't any more expensive than a typical homestudio setup would cost, but better quality and more workable.
I also ended up buying a second high-end sound card when it came up cheap at auction on e-bay, a large unboxed lot being liquidated. This was a dedicted midi/softsynth card by Yamaha, that supplies another digital in/out as well, but I looked at it primarily for a midi input/synth unit, and the softsynth software it came with; missing from the paris system. The Paris system is a recording studio, not a midi studio. The Yamaha fills that gap.
A good list of available soundcards, and retail prices, is at
I still needed mikes and a pre-amp or preamp mixer. I went for the mixer to give me that many more options, and it came up as a good deal on e-bay. I bought two new mikes, though I found them on e-bay. The sm57 I bought direct from a company I found on e-bay originally.
Ross 8x2 mixer
MXL2001, large diaphram mike, E-100/C-3000 equivalent
second mike, like sm57 (my old mike, had for years)
studio monitor headphones
Indirectly, I bought a new PA from a deal I came across while looking for other equipment. I include it here because I'll use it as a monitor at first, and continue to use it to drive the NF monitors whenever I get them. Then get a stereo amp for the studio system.
probable/possible additions/changes later
near field studio monitor speakers and amp
a better/faster (Yamaha) CDR
a better mixer (eg Mackie) if the Ross has noise problems.
a good keyboard (I play piano as well)
more ram (though win 98 won't address more than 128)
cheap notebook pc (for internet and office work on the road)
A second set of mikes for working with other people
A portable digital 2 track recorder or an attachment for the portable for live recording
This is a big question, since the DAW depends on software for so much, and software can do so much, and there is so much out there. There are several great packages and many smaller programs out there. One big advantage of the paris system was that it came with its own software, so I don't need anything else right off. There are good sharewares and freewares out there as well. Finally, though the softwares aren't cheap, they are good, and you don't need much for a complete system. And there's really only a few choices, and all seem pretty good. Since the Paris comes with an integrated and excellent multi-tracking software, I don't need more, though it isn't a midi sequencer, being designed for recording. One reason it is so good at it.
I'll have to run win 98 to support the Paris card, unfortunately. I've used a freeware "Partition Manager" to create multiple booting partitions in my primary hard drive. One simple one for the DAW with nothing but audio software and a minimum windows setup. One with all the office and general software and utilities; Norton systemworks, dictation, video and graphics processing, internet access, etc. I've got a third with programing languages in it. I've set up a fourth for Linux. I'll set up a fifth for BeOs if I get that.
I had some software and some came with the hardware:
cakewalk 8, cooledit, AnalogX bundle, Easy CD creator, various mp3 converters, Yamaha card softsynth (demo), midi sequencer and .wav editor bundle; Paris software
There is a great source for audio software, freeware, shareware, and demos at:
Though I may go with one of the standard commercial wares later, I may not. The most likely would be Cooledit pro, and Peak or Point. Generally, I've gathered up utilities from AnalogX, and the Paris site; and found a freeware spectral analyser. I am trying the demo of an analog to midi converter, so I can use my analog tracks to create base midi tracks. If nothing else, it will make synchronizing a lot easier, and may let me use my dulcimer skills to input midi tracks, and create midi tracks that match the percussive pattern of the dulcimer. Untill I can finish building a midi-dulcimer. The fact is, I don't need to much, just what need for my purposes.
Step 3: Buying the gear
My method of buying gear was pretty simple all in all. After identifying what I wanted using the forums and catalogues, I'd go to homesites to get a better idea of what was what. I'd find the best prices for things through pricewatch.com for computer gear or checking the specials and discount bins of music supply sites, and the classifieds, and tips from the forums, even posting wanted ads on forums. I was always looking for used and discontinued gear. Then I'd search and wait at e-bay for the items I was looking for, after looking at the prices that had been paid in finished auctions.
There was a wide spread of prices. E-bay was almost always the best for equipment, with the reservations below, or the wholesale discounters that I found by their auctions on e-bay. Pricewatch provided the best prices on computer gear. Most of my gear came from these two sources. Watch the shipping costs, always, since it can make the difference between one source and another. It can be as high as $50 and as low as free. And don't forget to check the sales at the local compustore or Office Depot, balancing sales tax vs. shipping cost. Some places will include small items at no extra shipping cost with an order (especially if you phone it in), so its often worth checking their catalogue for these things before you complete your order. There is a good selection of barely used recording gear out there, so I wouldn't buy new, except for a few things (eg, mikes), while somethings are cheap enough or good enough deals to get new(eg cables). Especially discontinued stuff. In the end, most of the music gear was on e-bay or from companies that had auctions there, the computer gear came from pricewatch or e-bay. However, it often took several and sometimes many auctions to get a good price, you have to be patient to get a deal.
To make a complete Paris bundle 2 on the card I bought originally for $750 (an ok deal) I spent $650 for a 442 interface (overpriced, from a forum, I've since seen it for $380) and couldn't find a c-16 intgrated micer for under $700 (though I almost got one for $400, the guy backed out) . A month later a complete bundle 2 (card, 442, c-16) is on ebay for $1500, so I've bought it. Now I'm not sure if I'll sell the original card and 442 units I bought to regain some capital, or just accept the extra (major) exspense and go with a two card, two 442, single c-16 (toggle w/ two keystrokes) system.
Advice for the auctions:
People will quite easily bid an item right up past what you can buy it for off the discount shelf somewhere, or far above the amount of the last or the next auction. Retailers will place an item up starting at the price they sell it for retail. I always knew that price when I started bidding, and usually held at or near my set limit, a low bid that still had a chance of winning, waiting for another auction if one bid away from me. Search from the top, the entire catagory ( eg: musical instruments), because often the best deals come up when things are off the beaten catagory path and so don't have as much bidding competition. Be ready to overbid your price, especially if it is low. There are many people who will try to top your bid by a dollar or 5 in the final minute of bidding. Your only protection is to place a second bid say $5-$10 over your winning bid right near the end of the auction (this doesn't increase your bid usually) just to handle these sharks. They usually only have time for one bid, and its usually only a single increment, but sometimes there are two or three of them. It is a pain to have to pay an extra ten or twenty dollars when you thought you had a great deal, but as long as it doesn't exceed your limit, you've got it. You may be lucky still. Large lots are easier to win a low bid in. If you don't win at your set limit, either find a new item to target or raise your limit and try again. There is a good flow. It often pays to wait for the item you want and then get it by setting your limit high but below the price in the classifieds or the discount retailers. Remember too that new in box, barely used, damaged and just well used items go side by side, so read the fine print, and contact the seller if there are any doubts. I spent a lot and only seem to have gotten ripped off a couple times on small items, and have had more difficults from UPS damage and the problems dealing with that. I'm still waiting for replacement on on one item and a refund on another, and one private party just dissappeared, changing address and e-mail, luckily for a small item. And all of the incidents make work out, but its still taking months to do so.
ebay is also a place to find companies that sell discount gear, as they often run sales on ebay as well, from the musicians swapshop to regular stores with stuff to get rid of to wholesalers and liquidators.
There is a music specific auction site, www.digibid.com, but it is more pro oriented and a bit pricey. There are the classifieds (at harmony-central) as well to watch for a deal there
I also recommend checking the discount section at AMS (www.americanmusical.com) and musician's friend, as well as using them to reference for the current price on whatever you are looking at.
www.harmony-central.com has a good musician's classifieds, though they are sometimes pricey, but can give you an idea (through sheer volume) of the general asking price of a piece of used equipment.
Cybertech Group (323) 930-0199
SOURCE AND PRICE LIST
here is the actual source and price of everything I got, including shipping. The items marke (*ebay) were purchased directly retail from discounters I found through auctions at ebay, though I did not actually get the items in an auction. Many items were liquidations, discounts, auctions, or propmotions, so prices must be considered in that.
Athlon k7 550w/heatsink/fan atacom (via pricewatch) $405
sd11 mobo paragon (via pricewatch) $177
Case, 250w approved powersupply logicalsource (via pricewatch) $ 73.71
Case fans:standard, PCI slot, Scsi slot Viking computer (pricewatch) $ 33
128 RAM (PNY) compusa $158
20 GB Maxtor 7200 ata66 IDE HD, 2MB compusa $209
20 GB Maxtor 7200 ata66 IDE HD, 2MB techstore (via pricewatch) $189
CDROM compusa $ 60
FDD LSS (via pricewatch) $ 19
Sony 2x8 CDR private (ebay) $ 88
Video AGP Elsa Victory Erazor compcater (via pricewatch) $ 50.94
ISA shark modem/soundcard onsale.com atauction $ 25.57
17" monitor onsale.com atauction $183
OEM Windows 98 atacom (via pricewatch) $ 97
keyboard/mouse compusa $ 20
CPU SUBTOTAL $1691
PCI Yamaha waveforce 192 soundcard cybertech (ebay) $ 35
PCI Paris concept fx, w/ interface 2 private (ebay) $770
442 (multi channel interface) private (forum) $670
2nd PCI Paris bundle 2, card, 442, c-16 musicman (ebay) $1560
PROSOUNDCARDS SUBTOTAL $3035
(w/ single card and 442 only) ($1475)
(w/ single card bundle 2 only) ($1595)
Ross 8x2 mixer private (ebay) $223
MXL2001w/shockmount,cable caruso music (ebay) $238
sm57 LPDmusic (*ebay) $ 75
studio monitor headphones GuitarAffecs (ebay) $ 59.56
Cables (midi, ext 6' scsii) Axion (via pricewatch) $ 36.78
18' cables(1/4" plug)(four) Wixy (ebay) $ 38.50
tripod mikestand w/boom, two pepperdave (ebay) $ 53
AUDIOGEAR SUBTOTAL: $723.84
(w/ single card and 442 only) ($3890)
(w/ single card bundle 2 only)
40 Blank CDR media, w/ jewel cases xdr2 (ebay) $ 50
Diplomat PA Difioures music (*ebay) $305
micro mix 9volt 4-in 1-out preamp
Step 5: Recording Resources
I got a lot of information from the various home recording sites, and their links to other sites related to recording, from manufacturer's sites to personal sites. Some of them are guides to other sites, others focus on a specific subject, others are someone's personal site. Some are very active and present, some are almost out of date. There are many more sites that didn't apply to my needs or I just reach through the links on these pages, or just haven't gotten around to yet.
I got a lot of great information searching through the archives of all the available articles and forums in these site, and have cut out countless posts and pasted them into my own collection of files on different subjrcts. I used this method to accumulate the information to build my system, and I still make a regular round of the forums scanning for new information to add on all aspects of recording.
For example, these are some of my favorites:
This site is for users of the Paris system, and has a very active newsgroup/forum as well.
This site is the personal site of AnalogX, a musician who produces a near constant stream of very handy freeware utilities, often for paris users, but other ones as well.
and the great audio software archive at
This is a collection of forums and websites on various aspects of PC DAW recording:
Do I have one?
I spent more than I wanted to but still came in around the $5000 I thought it would cost. Though it will probably amount to more that in the end, easily if you count the PA.
I have gotten a lot more for the money than I expected as well, when I could have spent as much on a hot computer w/ a Dcard and a VS880 w/CDR, and not had all the audiogear bought yet. And I certainly came way under the price comparable new gear. All in all I did well, and if I had been even more patient on some things or more aggressive on others I could be doing even better. Mostly it was the Paris system, where I could have got a bundle 3 for the price I've paid for an incomplete bundle 2 the first time. And I ended up with a two card system when one would probably have done it. But that's the trouble with auctions, you can't count on anything. It took more time than I expected, almost three months from start to "finish", though the first three weeks were spent just researching and deciding what to get. It has been a bit of a strain making the decisions when I feel far out of my range of expertise in choosing equipment, often under the pressure of an auction deadline. I still don't know enough to tell if I did really well, just adequate, or could have done better; but I know I did good enough. At a certain point, sometimes just getting on with what you want to accomplish is more important than worrying about the details.
What I might do different?
I'd probably buy a new mixer rather than a used one, just to avoid the problems with dirt and corrosion on the sliders making noise. I'd have liked to have more time, ben able to wait a couple months for the deals I wanted to come along, get a better idea of what I wanted and needed, haunting the forums and auctions etc to get a better feel on prices and brands. Still I did well for pretty much starting from scratch.