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Field of Dreams

October 1, 2002
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The number of hard-disk recorders on the market continues to grow, and there is a recorder for every task and almost every budget. The winner is the musician who has a personal studio, because a powerful recording system is easily within his or her grasp.

But how do you sort through the terrifying array of options? Simply ask the right questions. This article will show you how to narrow down your search and pick the recorder that's right for you.

THE FIRST STEP'S A DOOZY

It's natural to want what you see in the four-color ads. But before you make that impulse buy, a bit of self-evaluation is in order. Buying the right recorder requires thought, research, and lots of patience. It's difficult to put off your shopping spree, but the more you know about your individual needs and tastes, the more likely you'll purchase the perfect system — the first time.

A hard-disk recorder can be used as an entity unto itself, or it can exist as part of a larger studio system. The products are as individual as the people who will use them, so it's just a matter of finding the perfect match. For example, the film composer who wants to sync sequenced MIDI instruments to audio tracks will have different needs from the classical guitarist who merely wants to document his playing in the studio and onstage.

Hard-disk recorders fall into three categories: the computer-based digital-audio workstation (DAW) that combines hardware I/O and a software interface; the personal digital studio (PDS), which includes a mixing surface and effects; and the modular hard-disk recorder (M-HDR), which is a stand-alone recorder. Each format offers nonlinear, random-access recording; nondestructive editing (sometimes with unlimited undos); and sync capabilities that don't require you to waste an audio track.

The defining characteristics of each format go beyond the recording and editing capabilities. The interface of each recorder helps determine the unit's suitability for certain tasks, but size, features, and adaptability — not to mention your own style of working — also play an important role.

PERSONALITY AND STYLE

Recordists often fit somewhere between two basic personality types. At one end is the person whose main goal is to get the new system up and running quickly, with as little downtime as possible. Such people are satisfied with what today's technology offers and will be happy with a system that is stable, is easy to use, and serves their immediate needs. The expansion capabilities of the recording system are unimportant. In fact, these users will avoid most upgrades and expansion in order to keep the system stable. That makes sense for anyone whose livelihood rides on a dependable system.

At the other end of the spectrum are the people to whom the technology itself is as important as the music. These people want a system that can expand and grow with their needs and with the technology. In fact, the ability to totally customize the recording setup is a big plus. For someone in this camp, a closed system, such as a PDS, may not be a good choice, because it offers little or no expandability. This mind-set almost certainly guarantees the need for future investments in gear, such as a faster computer, which leads to plug-in and software upgrades.

The above examples are indeed extreme, and users will likely place themselves somewhere between the personality types. But knowing which traits you relate to is helpful, because manufacturers design products with either — or both — of these potential users in mind.

20 QUESTIONS … AT LEAST

It's time to determine what you need to make music now and in the future. Don't let this seemingly endless list of questions intimidate you; you may already know the answers!

Although many of the questions that follow seem obvious, be careful not to rush through them — especially the ones that are closely related. Evaluating your answers in order and one at time is the key to a successful purchase. Answering all of them will help you view your options from different angles. In addition, write down your answers as you go. That will help you remember minor details and give you a place to explore new questions as they arise.

I will mention specific products to clarify ideas throughout; please do not construe those mentions as product endorsements. To see a comprehensive list of what's available in hard-disk recorders, visit EM's Personal Studio Buyer's Guide, 2003, online.

What kind of work will you do? Will you be scoring for picture? Recording your band's CD? Making music for computer games? Your immediate and future needs will determine the system you choose. The more you know about your plans, the easier it will be to pick the system that's right for you; each type of hard-disk recorder has its own strengths and weaknesses, and you want to make sure the recorder you choose will do what you need it to.

If your requirements seem to point toward a DAW-based virtual studio, for example, where all recording, sequencing, and processing are done in software, then choose a software package that does what you need (see Fig. 1). Occasionally, that will narrow down the options for computer platform, I/O, drivers, and plug-in formats.

On the other hand, if you want a DAW based around a hardware control surface and your software needs are simple, check out controllers first. Most control surfaces come bundled with a lite version of one of the popular music applications, which allows you to get up and running fairly quickly. Starting with a lite version is also a good way to find out if an application suits your music-making style before you spring for the full version. If you're on a very tight budget, you'll need to decide whether it's more important to have the software you really want or buy a control surface right away and live with the bundled lite software until you can afford to move up.

What is the destination? Is your music destined for the Web, for film, for CD, or for DVD? Do you want a system that lets you record, mix, and master your music, and spits out a CD-R when you're done (see Fig. 2)? Does the CD-R need to be fully compliant with the Red Book standard, or do you want it to contain standardized files, such as WAV or MP3? Knowing the final delivery format for your music will help you determine your data-resolution needs.

Perhaps you want the ability to record and edit basic tracks at the highest audio quality possible, with the intention of using a commercial facility for overdubbing, mixing, or mastering. In that case, data format and compatibility are important factors to consider.

How many audio tracks do you need? It's easy to underestimate the number of tracks you'll need, especially if you've never used a hard-disk recorder. Unlike analog and digital tape-based devices, some hard-disk recorders offer virtual tracks, which allow you to record more than the specified track count: you just can't play them back all at once (see Fig. 3). You can record multiple passes of a solo to virtual tracks, for example, and then choose the best of the bunch. Of course, the more tracks you have, the more tracks you are likely to use.

Another question to ask yourself is how many channels you need in order to move between devices in your studio. Will you have the connections to do that? Are they built in to the device you are buying, or do you have to purchase additional I/O cards? This is especially important if you plan to move high-resolution multitrack audio between, say, a digital mixer and your recorder.

What data resolution and sound quality do you want? The factors that affect the sound quality of digital recorders include the converters, the data resolution (bit depth and sampling rate), and the use of data compression. But sound quality is not determined by numbers alone. Like any product, digital converters vary in quality, and you may have to pay a little more for your interface to get the sound quality you want.

Although the Red Book standard for CD — 16-bit, 44.1 kHz — is still the most prevalent commercial delivery format, there are plenty of reasons to record at higher or lower resolutions. If your music is destined for DVD, for example, you might choose a recorder that supports 24-bit, 96 kHz resolution. (Some even promise 192 kHz and higher.) If you're creating music for games or the Web, you want a system that lets you easily create files that don't take up much bandwidth.

High-resolution audio comes with its own set of concerns. On most systems, recording at high sampling rates lowers the track count. Typically, a recorder that offers 24 tracks at 16-bit/48 kHz, will give you 12 tracks at 24-bit/48 kHz, and 6 tracks at 24-bit/96 kHz.

In addition, the greater the bit depth and sampling rate, the more disk space you'll need. Your hard drive will begin looking smaller once you store 24 channels of 24-bit, 96 kHz data on it.

Finally, moving multiple channels of 24-bit, 96 kHz audio between, say, an M-HDR and a digital mixer is not a trivial matter. Interfacing your system with the outside world will require specific I/O cards and a suitable clocking setup so that you don't degrade the audio quality you spent so much money to capture.

At the other end of the resolution spectrum is data compression. Compressed files take up less space on a disk, which results in more recording time. The trade-off, of course, is reduced audio quality, and each compression scheme sounds different. Some of the Roland PDSs, for example, offer as many as six compression schemes. The trick is to use the data compression that suits the project. Some kinds of music — particularly those with high levels and a small dynamic range — tolerate data compression better than others.

What sorts of instruments will you record? Will you record acoustic instruments or voices that require mics and preamps; line- or instrument-level electronic instruments; or a combination of these? Knowing what you plan to record will help you determine the kinds of I/O you need (XLR, balanced ¼-inch, RCA, and so on), and it may further clarify your needs in terms of audio quality (see the sidebar “Two Exercises”).

How many tracks do you want to record simultaneously? Just because a hard-disk recorder is a 16-track machine doesn't mean it can record all 16 tracks at once. If you answered the previous question, you already know the kinds of inputs you'll need. Now you need to determine which ones you'll use at once. The more tracks you want to record simultaneously, the more you can expect to pay for your system.

What are your editing needs? Every hard-disk recorder gives you tools for moving sections of a file. If all you need is a way to rearrange parts of a song, you will be satisfied with the editing capabilities of any system you choose. On the other hand, if you need the ability to edit waveforms at the sample level, your system choices narrow down considerably.

Do you need a sequencer? If you do need a sequencer, how do you plan to use it? As a fancy metronome for laying down tracks? As inspiration for songwriting? Or will it be the main focus of your music? If you want an integrated recording and sequencing setup, you've again narrowed down your list of system choices.

But just because you want to use a sequencer doesn't mean you have to go with a computer-based digital audio sequencer. A number of PDSs, for example, include internal sounds and offer basic sequencing and looping capabilities. The trick is to determine the level of sequencing you need, whether it's simple loop-based song assembly or full control of the deeper aspects of MIDI, such as event lists and Control Change messages.

How will you use MIDI? MIDI is not just for playing instruments. It can be used for controlling effects, starting and stopping machines, and automating fader levels. Do you want a recorder than can act as master and slave to the other devices in your studio? If you have a digital mixer and want to supplement it with a hard-disk recorder (so you can engage the recorder's transport controls remotely, for example), choose an M-HDR that supports MIDI Time Code (MTC) and MIDI Machine Control (MMC).

Do you need portability? If it were easy to move your studio to another place for a day — such as a church, warehouse, or another studio — would you do it? If the answer is yes or even maybe, a portable system is worth considering. Each hard-disk format is available in a portable configuration. But if mobile recording is a high priority, the more portable, the better.

Begin by determining your requirements: Do you need ease of setup? Durability? Flexibility? Regardless of other considerations, you will need a device that lets you simultaneously record a specific number of tracks and contains the I/O to do it. In addition, you need to consider the amount of disk space needed to store all of your tracks for the duration of the session or concert. Recording an hour-long concert on two channels of 16-bit, 44.1 kHz audio takes much less disk space than at 24 bits and 96 kHz. If you do your homework, you'll know exactly what to pack for the road.

Do you have components you want to keep? Knowing what to buy often includes determining how much to buy. Many musicians assemble the various odds and ends they've collected over the years into a studio-like situation without considering the bigger picture. Such a setup may combine consumer devices (with unbalanced I/O operating at -10 dBV) and professional-level gear (with balanced I/O operating at +4 dBu) without level converters. This is not an ideal situation, especially if you plan on doing professional work.

However, some of the components may be compatible with your new hard-disk recorder. For example, if you're happy with the mixer, mic preamps, and effects processors you already have, explore the M-HDR option. If you recently purchased a computer and it has enough RAM and a fast enough processor to run the applications you like, consider the DAW option. The hands-on type should consider control surfaces with audio interfaces, which come in many sizes and price ranges (see Fig. 4). On the other hand, if the gear you want to keep operates at -10 dBV, your choice of recorder should include interfacing options that match. This kind of planning will keep you from spending money on redundant items.

Although these suggestions seem obvious, deciding to scrap parts of your studio can be difficult. It requires you to be honest with yourself about your goals and then follow through. Change is difficult, especially in the realm of music making.

Does it play well with others? If you plan to work with other musicians and in other studios, compatibility and connectivity are prime considerations. As you examine a recording system, note how it interfaces with the outside world. Can you easily import and export files? What audio file formats does it support? Are they common ones, such as WAV or AIFF files? What multitrack I/O formats does it offer (see Fig. 5)?

How will you back up files and synchronize your devices? Once you have stored your data, you will want to back it up. The more convenient it is to do this, the better. Find out what kinds of file-transfer and backup options are available, and which ones are built in to the unit. Transferring the data from high-resolution multitrack recordings may require add-ons, and you'll want to know about them in advance.

A related issue is synchronization. If you have multiple digital devices in your studio, you will want the ability to clock the components from a single, stable source. Can the recording system act as a master and slave for word clock and MTC? If you plan to create sound for picture, the hard-disk recorder you choose should be able to work at the common frame rates.

Do you want integrated instruments and effects? Many studio chores, such as effects processing and synthesis, that are commonly relegated to hardware can be done in software. In addition, modeling technology opens up the world of speaker-cabinet and mic-preamp emulation.

Note which of these technologies interest you. Some recording formats are stronger in these areas than others, and knowing how tweaky you are will help you determine to what level of madness you're willing to descend.

Are you already familiar with a particular interface? You need to determine how much time you want to spend setting up and learning the new system. Choosing a recorder similar to one you're used to will make for a comfortable transition.

If you cut your teeth on cassette multitrackers, for example, the layout and features of a PDS will be familiar. If you've used tape-based modular digital multitracks, such as the Alesis ADAT or Tascam DA-88, an M-HDR may feel similar.

If you are apprehensive about using computers, consider whether you want to challenge yourself with a DAW. If you buy wisely and have a good support system, you might be able to conquer your fears and get into a computer-based system.

Do you plan to expand? Perhaps today you need only the ability to record and play back two tracks simultaneously. Even so, if you intend to record a full band or work with surround audio in the future, you should look for a system that has that capability now or consider an expandable system.

How is the support? Certainly you won't want to base your judgment of a recording system on the manual, but it doesn't hurt to know what's in store for you support-wise. The more complex the hard-disk recorder is, the more documentation you will need. That is especially true of a system that combines products from different manufacturers, because it's likely that at some point you will need to troubleshoot a problem.

If you don't already have a sense, find out how the manufacturer is in terms of support. A good place to begin is by checking user groups and polling friends and acquaintances that know the system you're considering. If a certain manufacturer has a reputation for terrible support, think hard about sinking your money into its products.

What do you think you want? “Often a customer has a gut-level preference about what they want, and often it's correct,” says Nika Aldrich, senior sales engineer at Sweetwater Sound. “We follow his lead unless it really doesn't make sense for his application.”

It's good to keep an open mind about your options, but it's just as important to follow your instincts. If you prefer the look and feel of an M-HDR to the DAW and PDS, and it still makes sense after you've answered the questions I've mentioned so far, it may just be the system you're looking for.

What's your budget? Although it seems as though budgetary questions should be asked early on in the process, it can be helpful to wait until the answers to other questions are sorted out first: the perspective you get by looking at the product features in all price ranges will often help you make the best choice.

For example, even though you saved up for a particular PDS, you might find that you absolutely need a feature, such as motorized faders or a touch screen, that is available only on a more expensive model. Once you isolate your budget, you narrow down the solutions.

Have you done your homework? Although you can get an overall gestalt of a recorder's features from the manufacturer's Web site and magazine ads, you should dig much deeper into what a product really offers. It's not uncommon for features initially advertised in a product to be only partially implemented at first. Additionally, phrases like “as many as” may lead you to believe the device records or mixes more tracks than it really does.

Begin your research by reading EM product reviews and checking out Internet user groups. Try to find people that already use the recorders you're interested in. If you can find someone, get his or her feedback on the device and see if they'll give you a demo. Although you can get a demo from a salesperson in a music store, hands-on time with a recorder in a studio environment is far more revealing and is worth the effort.

By now you should have a good idea of what you need — and don't need — in a hard-disk recorder. With that information in hand, let's look at how the different recorder formats compare to each other, using our list of questions as our guide.

DAW IN THE FAMILY

The computer-based DAW combines a hardware audio interface with a personal-computer-based software front end. If you enjoy working with computers, you'll feel comfortable using a DAW.

Depending on your situation and needs, the DAW runs the gamut of affordability, from cheapest (if you already have a computer) to one of the most expensive ways to go. At the low end, even the most basic computer these days includes 2-channel audio capabilities, and there is plenty of freeware and shareware to cover basic music activities. If you want greater flexibility and higher audio quality, you'll need to spend some money.

Because of the level of customization the format allows, a DAW can cover just about any job, from film scoring and sound design to multitrack and field recording. How successfully it does the job will depend on how specialized your system is. For example, portability, once a major drawback of computer-based DAWs, is no longer an issue with the advent of faster and more powerful laptop computers.

However, the DAW requires some DIY initiative, because there are many choices that need to be made, such as platform, interface, software, and plug-in format. Matching the individual components that meet your specific needs and budget takes research, and setting them up takes time and some experimentation.

Companies such as Carillon (Win), Wave Digital Systems (Mac), and Sound Chaser (Mac/Win) offer rackmountable turnkey DAWs that are optimized for specific hardware and software combinations. Carillon even improves the off-the-shelf computer by adding a quieter studio-friendly fan (see Fig. 6). A turnkey system takes much of the guesswork out of setting up a DAW, but be prepared to pay more than you would if you were to configure it yourself. For some, the convenience is worth the added expense.

The choice of computer platform — Mac or PC — needs to be made. In terms of market share, the Windows operating system dominates and opens the door to a greater variety of inexpensive software and hardware options. For pro-audio purposes, however, the playing field quickly levels out between the two platforms.

Sticking with the platform that you're already familiar with means you'll have an easier time getting your music system up and running. But it's worthwhile to check out the recording systems available for the other platform, because many popular programs are available for only one platform. For example, MOTU Digital Performer is Mac only, and Cakewalk Sonar is Windows only.

The audio interface you choose is also determined by the kinds of work you do. Your choice should be influenced by your answers to the questions about audio quality, the final destination of your audio, the number and types of inputs you need, the kinds of instruments you will record, and to what level you need MIDI. The computer and interface you choose will also be an influence on your choice of bus system, which may be SCSI, USB, or FireWire, for example (see Fig. 7).

Many interfaces are bundled with a lite version of a well-known digital audio sequencer. One strategy is to determine what you need from an interface, find the products that fit your needs, and see what apps are bundled with them. The software manufacturer is hoping you'll upgrade to the full version: because the upgrade price is cheaper than the off-the-shelf version, that is often an economical way to go. Many musicians find that the lite version of a program is all they ever need.

If you want a more powerful system but don't want the hassle of matching a handful of third-party components, consider choosing one manufacturer — such as Digidesign, Emagic, MOTU, or Steinberg — and sticking with its product line. Among the benefits of using the products of one manufacturer are tighter audio and MIDI timing. Although this isn't the cheapest way to go, you can be sure that all of the products are fully compatible.

If you already know which application and plug-ins you want to use, but need to find the computer, make sure the computer's specs match the software requirements. Of special importance are processor speed and RAM amount. If you're using a computer you already have, there are products for bolstering your ability to process audio, such as TC Works PowerCore and Mackie UAD-1.

The DAW clearly leads other hard-disk recorders in editing capabilities. The ability to view multiple files graphically on a large screen and use the mouse to alter data is one of the biggest advantages a DAW has over the other hard-disk formats. Although there are products in the PDS and M-HDR formats that offer the ability to work with a VGA monitor and mouse, the DAW still gives you a deeper level of editing.

Latency is an issue with many DAWs. The time delays are caused not only by drivers, effects processing, or A/D and D/A conversion, but also by qualities inherent to USB and FireWire. Most systems can be tweaked to get latency times to a workable minimum in high-bandwidth situations. As manufacturers improve their products, latency times will continue to drop. (See “Square One: Better Latent? Never!” in the June 2002 issue). Latency is an issue that PDS and M-HDR users won't have to deal with.

PORTABLE DIGITAL STUDIO

The name says it all: a PDS is a portable studio, complete with mixer, preamps, and effects. It's the perfect choice if you want an all-in-one recorder that you can take almost anywhere.

Besides portability, the main selling point of this format is simplicity. Unlike a DAW, the PDS has a software engine written specifically for recording music, and the device comes ready to use: there's no need to match components or worry about software conflicts. If you want to upgrade the operating system at a later date, it's a straightforward process compared with upgrading a computer's operating system and troubleshooting the rest of your DAW.

The new PDS user should be prepared to spend time getting to know the interface and learning the various functions of each button, knob, slider, and menu. If you do a bit of research, you'll quickly learn that certain products are more intuitive and ergonomically designed than others. Find the ones that are user-friendly, because the easier it is to get around on your PDS, the more fun you'll have using it.

A PDS can tackle an assortment of basic multitrack-recording projects, assuming you have the right number of simultaneous record tracks and the right kinds of inputs for the job. Every PDS will record at least two tracks simultaneously, but you can choose a model that records 4, 8, 12, 16, or — in the case of the Roland VS-1880 — 18 tracks at a time (at a data resolution of 16 bits, 44.1 kHz). In addition to regular tracks, PDSs offer virtual tracks, and some even allow you to add several channels of streaming digital audio into your mix.

As you inspect the I/O options of a PDS, remember that you'll be living with them for as long as you keep the recorder. The trick is to get the right combination of balanced and unbalanced ¼-inch jacks; phantom-powered XLR jacks; and digital I/O, such as USB, optical and coaxial S/PDIF, or Lightpipe. The I/O you settle on will determine the gear that you can interface with and will influence other gear-related purchases.

As I mentioned earlier, some PDSs include internal sounds and offer limited sequencing and looping capabilities. These features are useful as a compositional aid, but if you need a full-featured sequencer, you'll have to connect your PDS to a computer or keyboard workstation. In that case, look for a PDS that has the MIDI implementation that suits your needs, such as the ability to send and receive MTC and MMC. This is also important if you want to record dynamic automation using a sequencer or coordinate your PDS with a digital mixer or DAW. Sync capabilities are crucial if you plan to create music for picture. Note that many, but not all, PDSs support the standard frame rates.

If you plan to collaborate with others, make sure you can save, import, and export files in a common file format, such as WAV. The ability to import common file types will also allow you to load instruments and construction kits from sample CDs.

Although the PDS is weaker than the DAW in terms of editing power, it is quickly catching up. Many machines offer waveform displays that improve the editing capabilities of the unit. If you want more than a backlit LCD to work on and you have the budget, Roland's VS-2480CD allows you to add a mouse and VGA monitor so you can edit more the way you would on a DAW (see Fig. 8).

In terms of recording resolution, 24-bit word lengths are becoming increasingly common, and sampling rates up to 96 kHz have begun to appear. Even the inexpensive units have 18-bit or greater A/D/A converters, which is useful even if you record at 16 bits. Just remember that your track count may be reduced when you record at higher bit and sampling rates.

The ability to customize your data-backup scheme depends on the PDS you choose. Some recorders have drive bays that allow you to swap hard disks or add a CD-RW drive; some have built-in CD drives and a SCSI port; others may have only a Zip drive. Determine the amount of data you'll create with your PDS and make sure you can get enough storage to match.

Of special note are a pair of handheld 4-track recorders that take the PDS format to a new level of portability. The Korg ToneWorks PXR4 and the Tascam Pocketstudio 5 technically are not hard-disk recorders, because they record to SmartMedia and CompactFlash cards, respectively (see Fig. 9). However, each offers a built-in microphone, analog and digital I/O, rhythm tracks, and programmable effects. Data compression is used on both recorders: MPEG-1 Audio Layer 2 on the PXR4 and MP3 on the Pocketstudio 5. For the musician looking for the ultimate in portability, these two items are worth further investigation. For a more in-depth look at portable digital studios, see “The Incredible Shrinking Studio” in the July 2001 issue.

I WANT MY M-HDR

Large-scale multitrack recording is the M-HDR's strongest suit. These rackmountable machines offer fewer bells and whistles than a DAW or PDS but are designed to be as easy to use as a tape recorder (see Fig. 10). And although M-HDRs are often larger than PDSs or laptop computers, they are portable.

Like the PDS, the M-HDR's operating system and interface are designed for audio recording, giving them high points for stability. And like the PDS, the M-HDR is not as powerful as the DAW in terms of editing. But unlike either the DAW or PDS, the M-HDR can handle professional-level multitracking jobs, in which quantity and quality are of major importance. If you want to split 24 channels off of a club's front-of-house mixer and run them into a recorder, an M-HDR is for you.

M-HDRs offer plenty of interfacing options. Most recorders give you a choice of I/O cards that cover the major digital interchange formats, such as Lightpipe, TDIF, AES/EBU, and S/PDIF. To save space on the rear panel of the M-HDR, the card may have a DB25 jack requiring a cable that breaks out to the individual connectors at the other end. (Remember to add these kinds of cables to your budget when you're doing price comparisons.) The Alesis ADAT HD24 differs in terms of I/O because it comes standard with 24 channels of analog I/O (on balanced ¼-inch TRS connectors) and 24 channels of digital I/O (on three Lightpipe connectors).

Although M-HDRs support high-resolution recording, the implementation differs from product to product. For example, the iZ Technologies Radar 24 has optional analog I/O cards that let you record at 96 and 192 kHz sampling rates. With the Mackie HDR24/96, on the other hand, analog I/O is not available for recording and playing 96 kHz tracks: you have to use AES/EBU or TDIF I/O. As with the PDSs, if you use sampling rates above 48 kHz, you reduce your track count.

M-HDRs offer a variety of storage options, allowing you to choose a compatible, qualified drive from a list of recommendations. Some drives are designed for real-time recording and playback, while others are purely for data backup. Some M-HDRs also offer Ethernet connections that let you use the recorder as an FTP server to copy files to a computer. The implementation of this feature differs between products, and setting it up is one of the trickiest aspects of an M-HDR. This is where you'll want to know how good a manufacturer's manual and tech support are.

Most M-HDRS support pro-level clocking and sync functions, so interfacing with other recording systems is always an option. If 24 tracks aren't enough, check to see if a pair of the products you like can be locked together, and find out which connectors it takes.

In commercial studios, noisy devices are usually tucked away in machine rooms and controlled remotely from the control room. However, in personal studios where space is an issue, fan noise can be a problem. If you're sensitive to ambient machine noise, the level of fan noise in a recorder is another factor you'll want to consider.

Although it records to a SmartMedia card, the DigiTech GNX3 Guitar Workstation is a floor-unit guitar processor that includes an 8-track digital recorder. The GNX3 has looping capabilities and the ability to punch in and out, making it well suited for songwriting. It records WAV files, and you can use the SmartMedia card to transfer your tracks to and from a computer. The GNX3 comes bundled with Cakewalk Guitar Tracks 2.0 (Win) and Pyro 1.5 (Win), and DigiTech's GenEdit (Mac/Win) editor/librarian.

MUSICIAN, RECORD THYSELF

Although the descriptions I've given here merely scratch the surface of each format's merits, you should now have a clearer sense of the features you want and the devices that can deliver them. Trust your intuition. If one kind of interface seems more inviting than another, investigate it further.

Try to get hands-on time with the products you're interested in, away from a sales environment. The members of user groups are often more than happy to answer questions about the system they use, and it's likely that one of them lives near you.

The bottom line is that a combination of self-evaluation and product research will quickly lead you through the tangle of products and options. Only after you've narrowed down your options to one or two hard-disk recorders should you even think about getting that credit card out.


Gino Robair is an associate editor at EM. He would like to thank David Battino, Marty Cutler, Steve Kirk, Brian Knave, Jor Van Gelder, Nika Aldrich and Adam Cohen of Sweetwater Sound, and Larry the O for their contributions to this article.

TWO EXERCISES

Here are two scenarios designed to help you hone your skills in selecting a hard-disk recorder. Put yourself in the shoes of the following prospective buyers and decide which kind of system you would pick. Compare your system to the ones in the sidebar “Check Your Answers.”

Solo artist

In this scenario, you are a singer-songwriter who is new to recording technology. You have two decent mics, an old desktop computer, and very specific requirements: a low-cost, highly portable system that records two tracks at a time; simple assembly editing features; and the ability to burn an audio CD-R. You want CD-quality audio for recording live performances, but you don't mind reduced sound quality if it buys you more hard-disk time when you write songs. You want to pay as little as possible.

You're in the band

Now you're a member of a five-piece, guitar-based rock band that wants to make its own record. You've recorded to cassette multitrackers but have also collected bits and pieces of quality studio gear — an analog mixer, mics and preamps, and effects processors.

Although you like to record songs by overdubbing one track at a time, you also plan to record the full band during rehearsals and at gigs. Your simultaneous recording requirement is eight inputs: two guitars, bass, lead vocals, backing vocals, and three mics on the drums (one on kick and two overhead). You don't plan to do any fancy editing but would like to cut and paste song sections. And because the band members (two of whom have laptops) are splitting the cost, you can shell out a couple of grand for the recording system.

Selected Review Resources

Portable Digital Studios Issue
Akai DPS16 6/01
Fostex VF-16 2/01
Korg D16 7/00
Korg ToneWorks PXR4 5/02
Roland VS-2480 3/02
Yamaha AW4416 3/01
Zoom MRS-1044 4/02
Modular Hard-Disk Recorders
Alesis ADAT HD24 7/02
iZ Technology Radar 24 7/01
Mackie HDR24/96 10/01
Tascam MX-2424 12/00
Digital Audio Workstations
Digidesign Digi 001 4/00
Digidesign Pro Tools 24|Mix 7/00
Digidesign Pro Tools|HD 9/02
MOTU Digital Performer 1/02
Steinberg Nuendo 7/01
Tascam US-428 9/01

CHECK YOUR ANSWERS

As the singer-songwriter, you should know right away that an M-HDR is more than you need. Furthermore, getting a DAW will require a computer purchase in addition to the DAW software. In this case, a PDS with a built-in CD burner may be the best solution because it's portable, it's relatively inexpensive, and its feature set matches your needs.

In the band scenario, graduating from a cassette multitracker to a PDS makes sense in terms of recording style, but there will be some redundancy in gear. A wiser choice might be an M-HDR that complements the studio gear you have or a multichannel interface and complementary software for one of the laptops.

CONTACT SHEET

Akai Musical Instrument Corporation tel. (800) 433-5627 or (817) 831-9203; e-mail info@akaipro.com; Web www.akaipro.com

Alesis tel. (401) 295-9000; e-mail info@alesis.com; Web www.alesis.com

Cakewalk tel. (888) CAKEWALK or (617) 423-9004; e-mail sales@cakewalk.com; Web www.cakewalk.com

Carillon Audio Systems/Wave Distribution (distributor) tel. (973) 728-2425; e-mail info@carillonusa.com; Web www.carillonusa.com

Digidesign tel. (800) 333-2137 or (650) 731-6300; e-mail prodinfo@digidesign.com; Web www.digidesign.com

DigiTech tel. (801) 566-8800; e-mail customer@digitech.com; Web www.digitech.com

Emagic U.S.A. tel. (530) 477-1051; e-mail emagic@emagicusa.com; Web www.emagic.de

Event Electronics/4Front Technologies (distributor) tel. (310) 202-8530; e-mail info@event1.com; Web www.event1.com or www.eventelectronics.com

Fostex Corporation of America tel. (562) 921-1112; e-mail info@fostex.com; Web www.fostex.com

iZ Technology (Radar) tel. (604) 430-5818; Web www.izcorp.com or www.recordingtheworld.com

Korg U.S.A., Inc. tel. (516) 333-9100; Web www.korg.com

Mackie Designs tel. (800) 898-3211 or (425) 487-4333; e-mail sales@mackie.com; Web www.mackie.com

Roland Corporation U.S. tel. (323) 890-3700; Web www.rolandus.com

Sound Chaser tel. (800) 549-4371; e-mail pcdaw@soundchaser.com; Web www.soundchaser.com

Steinberg North America tel. (818) 678-5100; e-mail info@steinberg.net; Web www.us.steinberg.net or www.cubase.net

Tascam tel. (323) 726-0303; Web www.tascam.com

TC Works tel. (805) 373-1828; e-mail us@tcworks.de; Web www.tcworks.de

Wave Digital Systems tel. (877) 653-0709; e-mail info@wavedigital.com; Web www.wavedigital.com

Yamaha Corporation of America tel. (714) 522-9011; e-mail info@yamaha.com; Web www.yamaha.com or www.yamahasynth.com

Zoom/Samson Technologies Corporation (distributor) tel. (800) 328-2882 or (516) 364-2244; e-mail sales@samsontech.com; Web www.samsontech.com

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