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Q. How do I choose between computer-based recording and dedicated units?

I have been recording tracks on my computer's hard disk for two years, but I now realise that the results are less than average. The sound quality isn't that good and some 'cracks' and 'pops' enter the audio tracks from the hard disk when it is recording. Should I continue with the PC route and upgrade, or should I buy a dedicated hard disk digital multitracker? What are the pros and cons of these two recording routes? The multitrackers appear to be increasing popular but are PCs, with their big screens and expandabilty, better? I am using a Pentium 333MHz Celeron PC with 64Mb RAM, a Maxtor 8Gb 7200 HD and Sound Blaster Live! Platinum soundcard.

If I upgrade, I am thinking about buying a Pentium III 800MHz with another soundcard or HD. If I go the multitrack route, I'm looking at the Roland VS1680, Korg D16 and the new Fostex VF16. I would like a machine that could produce releaseable recordings (or ones which need minor studio tweakings). I have £1000 budget.


Assistant Editor Sam Inglis replies: Before you consider scrapping your existing system, I think it might be worth your while thoroughly checking to see if it's working properly. Your existing PC setup should, in theory, be capable of producing good‑quality results, provided you don't want to play back a great number of simultaneous tracks or use a lot of plug‑in effects. If there are cracks and pops, and the sound quality is noticeably bad, there's probably something wrong with the way the computer, software or soundcard is set up. The speed of the processor and hard drive will affect the number of tracks you can run, and the amount of real‑time effects processing you can do, but shouldn't make any difference to the sound quality. The SoundBlaster Live! Platinum soundcard is not quite as good as modern specialist cards in terms of signal‑to‑noise ratio, but should be capable of good sound quality when recording line‑level signals, and certainly shouldn't produce clicks and pops.

You don't say if you are using a separate microphone preamp, or whether you're using the mic amp that's built into the soundcard. If you're just plugging your microphone straight into the soundcard, this would explain the poor sound quality (though not the pops and clicks) — the biggest improvement in sound quality you could get would be by buying an external preamp and sending the signal into the soundcard at line level.

The general question about computer‑based recording versus dedicated units is really impossible to answer in the abstract. Different people will find that the different systems suit them more or less, depending on the way they like to work. Some of the advantages of computer systems are:

  • Full‑screen, graphic, cut and paste editing.
  • Full integration of MIDI and audio recording.
  • Flexibility in terms of the allocation of processing power to different tasks, number of tracks available, and so on.
  • The ability, these days, to integrate soft synths and samplers with your recording software.
  • Upgradeability.

Some of the advantages of stand‑alone systems are:

  • Reliability.
  • Portability.
  • The provision of physical faders and knobs. Generally, they make less mechanical noise than computers, and the screens don't interfere with guitar pickups.

Which one is for you really depends on which of these advantages are most important to your way of working.