Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Home Recording Hardware Setup Contrast And Comparison

I have a pretty large network of friends, fellow musicians and acquaintances around my area and on social media. So it's no surprise that quite often I am asked by someone who put off getting into digital recording for years, to help them make sense of it all and help them get started.

The one thing I find to be pretty common between them all is that the hardware setup seems to confuse them. Here's a short list of the most FAQ (frequently asked questions).
  • How do I make it sound good?
  • What's that box thing do?
  • Am I going to need more floppy disks?
  • Where do I plug in my guitar?
If the list above doesn't strike you as obviously sarcastic, then you are in the right place, read on!

Before I give some examples of a few different hardware setup scenarios, I want to give a basic explanation of the chain. In my examples I'll assume we want to record a vocal microphone and/or an electric guitar.

Chain: Microphone - Interface - Computer
That's it, not as complex as you thought is it?

Now that we have an understanding of the basic idea, I'll go into a few different setup scenarios and explain the different connection types. Using that information you should be able to figure out which setup is right for you.

Setup 1 - The popularly experimented with but rarely re-used, Mic in the sound card setup.

This setup is what most people try the first few times they record to their computer. Justifiably so since most computers already have a sound card installed which has a microphone input. So why not use it, right?
There are a couple of problems with connecting your microphone directly to your computers microphone input if you are trying to record music using more than one track.
Sure this setup works fine if you are just recording your voice or other single track project, but that's about it.

Why does this setup suck, Eric?
Here's why: The sound card that comes already installed in your computer is a very low dollar piece of equipment which isn't meant for precise full duplex (simultaneous playback and recording) synchronization. In other words, if you record say your guitar, then go back and record your vocal while the guitar track plays back, they will most likely end up out of sync, making it sound like you have no sense of timing.

  • Easy setup
  • Computer already has the input
  • You'll need to get multiple adapters to convert from the microphones XLR type , to the computers 1/8 inch type
  • No ASIO (Low latency, good sync) driver
  • Playback/Recording sync is bad
  • Only one input

Setup 2 - The Ever Popular USB Microphone

There are many USB microphones on the market and many of them are very high quality, nice pieces of equipment. I actually own three different ones which I use for making video tutorials and things of that nature.

USB Microphones are a snap to use because they're what's called "Plug and play". Meaning there's no driver or software to install, you just plug it in to any available USB port on your computer and Windows will install a driver for it automatically and then let you know when it's ready for use.

The issue with these microphones is that again, there's no asio driver, making it rely on Windows wav or wavert drivers to run playback and recording simultaneously. Yep, sync issues again show their fuglyness. That issue alone makes these types of microphones great for doing voice overs, radio or podcast shows, single track recordings, etc. But not optimal for doing multi-track music recording.

  • Very easy setup
  • Most computers have multiple USB ports
  • Good quality
  • Only one input
  • Playback/Recording sync is bad

Setup 3 - Small USB or Firewire Interface (2 to 4 inputs)

Here's the setup that works best for most home recording enthusiasts. Why? Because it's fairly inexpensive, the device comes with an asio driver making sync issues and latency a thing of the past, and you'll have multiple inputs. These units can range from $50 to $400 depending on features and brand, etc. I really like and recommend the Focusrite 2i2 for this category, the asio driver is excellent and gives me lower latency than some $1000 units I've used, and it's only about $150 bucks.

  • Fairly inexpensive
  • Comes with asio driver for low latency and great sync
  • Provides the user with multiple inputs
  • Will usually have a channel input level adjustment right on the interface
  • You need to install the specialized asio driver for it. That's not a huge issue but it's the only con I can come up with :-)

Setup 4 - A Familiar Mixing Console and A Higher End Interface

Here's where we start getting into some really nice stuff that is not only extremely functional and versatile for home and pro studio setup, but will give you (The old analog guy) a familiar mixing board to use.
You would use a mixer which has an output for each channel. I actually used a Mackie 16x4 for years like this. It had TRS inserts on each channel, which allowed me to plug a 1/4 signal cable into them half way down, to get a send which I then connected to my interface. You can see it in the picture with me sitting at my recording desk. You can watch me setting levels and things with it in this Rock and Metal tutorial video

The outputs on the mixer would go to your interface, in my case I used two Presonus 8 channel rack mounted interfaces, giving me 16 simultaneous inputs. I was able to adjust input levels via the mixer, along with equalizing and using a hardware compressor. This really refined my signals before they reached the computer and the daw (Mixcraft in my case).

A note on using compression and equalizers on your incoming signal:
If you do not know exactly what sound you are looking for, don't use tweaks like these because they are permanent. You cannot remove them if you don't like the way it sounds later in the mixing process.


  • High quality interface with excellent asio driver
  • Latency and sync issues all but gone
  • Familiar mixing console for level and other adjustments
  • Interface may have built in compression and other tools, which are usually very good quality
  • Can get the interface with just about any connection type you need, IE: USB, Firewire, Thunderbolt, Ethernet, etc.
  • Lots of simultaneous inputs, great for recoding drum kits or full bands.
  • You need a mixer, which is expensive unless you already have one
  • Interface will be higher cost than it's smaller cousins
  • Interface software is more complex and has a learning curve.

Setup 5 - Mixer and Interface In One (Digital Mixer)

This is my favorite setup now that I've had a chance to check them all out over the years that I have been running this studio. I currently use a Presonus StudioLive 16.0.2 in studio and a Presonus StudioLive 16.4.2 in the clubs for live sound and recording the artists performance.
This gives me 16 inputs to my daw/computer (daw stands for digital audio workstation, it refers to the recording software, such as Mixcraft or pro tools, etc.).
Each input has built in compression, equalizer, level adjustment, reverb, delay, chorus, and much more, though I generally only use the compression and levelers in studio.

Using this type of interface is very comfortable for both the analog guys and the computer geek who wants to do all the adjusting with a mouse.

  • Excellent asio driver for low latency and perfect sync
  • Very high quality onboard effects
  • Combines the mixer and the interface into one unit
  • Can be used for live performance or studio use
  • Many inputs for recording multiple inputs at once. How many depends on the unit.
  • This type of interface is not cheap!

Reviewing The Different Connection Types

There are 5 main types of connections for hooking up an interface to your PC. Simply determine which ones your computer has and then get an interface with that type of connection.

  • USB - The most common type. Make sure you do not buy something which has a USB 1.0 connection, it will be slow and cause issues. USB 2.0 and 3.0 are best. Note that a USB 3.0 jack on the computer will be blue in color.
  • Firewire - Also known as IEEE 1394, this type is great at just about any speed. They come in 400/800 and technically advanced 1600/3200. 400 or 800 is fine for you, trust me :-) A 1394 (firewire, remember?) will look like one of these show in the image here.
  • Thunderbolt - This is a mac only connection type, so unless you're a mac user, don't worry about it.
  • PCI - PCI is a bus type on your computers motherboard. If you purchase a pci type interface, you will be installing it inside the computer, leaving the connections hanging out the back of the box. I used to use pci interface cards on many computers, they were M-Audio Delta cards, one type was a 1010LT which had 8 analog inputs, and the other was a Delat44, I think that was only two inputs. In any case, M-Audio discontinued them after Windows XP went EOL (End of life), so I had to move on. There are others that are very nice if you are interested in this type of interface.
  • Ethernet - Ethernet interfaces are great for expandability on a home or pro network. You can easily add more of them as your needs grow. There's software running on the PC which discovers the interfaces plugged into your network via cat5 cables. So you can simply add another one here or there and it shows up as more inputs in the daw. You do need to know networking to some extent to configure and use these, which is why they're not more popular with non-techies.

My Interface Recommendations

I've had a chance to test or use many interface over the years. Whether it's for my own studio, live performances, friends who needed help with theirs, or whatever. Here are some of my favorites that I am sure you'll love if you choose one of them.

1 or 2 Input USB Type Interface

2 or 4 Input USB Type Interface

8 or More Input Interface

A final note: If you are wondering why I have not mentioned Behringer interfaces anywhere in this article, here's why.
Any Behringer interface I've ever tried to use had given me problems. They also distribute a driver called "asio4all" with some of their products, which to me is a complete cop-out from writing their own drivers. asio4all is a generic driver that is free from it's authors website and it attempts to work with any audio hardware. The key word being "attempts".
I don't like to bad mouth anybody or their work, and I have heard that some newer Behringer interfaces are great, I've just never tried one that was. Maybe I'll give them another chance...

1 comment:

  1. Great post Eric! Making it easier for old school dudes to take the leap into the world of digital audio. Long time coming bro!