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Q. Can a computer recording setup meet my requirements?

I'm a musician in the UK looking to start running a Cubase VST‑based home studio. I'll need to record a full guitar/bass/vox/keyboards/drums band (and the drummer in particular wants to set up 10 mics on his kit alone, although we're unsure if this will be possible). The computer used will probably be a notebook. We'd like to be able to master our own CDs eventually.

I presently own a Roland VS1680 and a Mackie 1402VLZ mixer, to give you an idea of what I'm used to working with. Could you give me answers to a few questions?

  • Is there a difference in performance and features between cards on Macs and PCs, given the different drivers? I'm not sure which platform to go for — could you advise? Are iMacs/iBooks powerful and practical enough?
  • What sort of system specification would you recommend (RAM, hard‑disk space, CPU speed, and so on).
  • I was thinking about using a Hammerfall DSP card. Is this appropriate?
  • What does the absence of a 9‑pin sync output mean in practical terms (ie. what limitations does it impose, and are these likely to be important to me in practice?)

Are there any other things I should be thinking of, with respect to setting up the studio, that I may have missed?

Tony Sarma

Assistant Editor Sam Inglis replies: It's reasonably common for the performance and feature set of soundcards to vary between Mac and PC, although this is usually in minor ways. For instance, some drivers implement software gain controls on one platform but not the other, and obviously factors such as latency will vary. It would be rare for there to be major features not implemented on both sets of drivers, though. iMacs and iBooks are pretty powerful: the main problems with using them for music are to do with the lack of expandability rather than the lack of power. For instance, current iBooks don't have a PCMCIA card slot, which rules out the use of products such as the Hammerfall DSP, Digigram's VX Pocket and Magma's PCI Chassis, while many iMacs don't have any means of adding audio I/O except using USB, which is not really up to the demands of professional recording.

In general, most of the SOS staff would favour Macs over PCs, where possible. They tend to be more reliable and less prone to headache‑inducing problems originating from inscrutable settings in the bowels of the operating system...

For the project you envisage, you'll need a fairly high‑spec computer. I'd recommend as much RAM as you can afford (at least 256Mb) and as much hard drive space as you can get, the most crucial thing being that you get a separate hard drive for audio. Since you want to run a lot of tracks simultaneously, you're much better off streaming the audio from and to a different drive than is used for your system software.

If you really want to record 10 mics or more, simultaneously to separate channels, and you want to do so on a laptop, your options are severely limited. MOTU's 828 connects via Firewire (standard on iBooks and Powerbooks, but not on all PC portables) and offers eight channels of analogue I/O (though only two mic preamps). With the recent arrival of new drivers for the 828, you can also connect up to three 828s to your computer simultaneously, via a USB hub (check for essential info on which hardware this facility works with). The Hammerfall DSP connects via PCMCIA (so you can't use it on iBooks) and offers many more channels, but they're all in digital formats, although the add‑on 'Multiface' offers eight channels of analogue I/O. I know of no other products that will do the job. Unless you want to sync the audio to video running on an external device, or you want to use certain hardware remote controllers, you shouldn't need 9‑pin sync. Good luck!