Computer Digital Recording Software

Stereo Digital Recording

Most PCs come with some type of sound recorder software installed, however; the Microsoft supplied sound recorder software is memory based, not cached to the hard drive, therefore the average user only gets about a minute of high quality recording time, making this piece of "out of the box" software not readily usable for serious recording work.

Most sound cards come with either shareware or some older, full version of software for audio recording and sometimes one for MIDI playback is also included. One card I got, for example, came with an older version of Voyetra which included a very nice audio recorder along with their Orchestrator Plus MIDI software that featured full, easy to use editing of MIDI files.

For those not totally familiar with MIDI (Musical Industry Digital Interface) this is a digital set of instructions that communicates a musical idea. It is based on an 8 bit oriented system using the numbers 1 to 128, that correspond to pitch, duration, velocity, aftertouch, volume, pan, tempo, etc. They also relay information about some special effects common to keyboards, such as the bending of notes or pitches (whammy bar type effects for those of you who are guitarists). The concept of MIDI is similar to the way that sheet music works. You still need a musician to play (and interpret) the written music. In the case of midi, you need a synthesizer or ‘sound generator’ to play the "idea file" of numeric values. For all intents and purposes a MIDI file is a lot like a player piano roll or the old punch tape used in mainframe computers or Teletype machines.

MIDI was introduced around 1980 and several enhanced formats such as GS MIDI soon followed (and some or all of these may not be supported by every sound card or musical instrument). Because they are simple numeric value for a limited number of parameters, MIDI files are very small, as compared to audio WAV files used for recorded audio. Most sound cards include a MIDI synthesizer equivalent to a Yamaha DX-7 or a Roland D-6 offering 128 (or more)sounds (or “patches”) and one or more drum kits. Some sound cards offer sampled (WAV file based) instrument sounds as opposed to digitally synthesized (via an oscillating tone that is filtered and enveloped – which means give a distinctive attack, sustain, decay and release, ADSR which comes from the original analog synthesizers of the 1970s such as the ARP, Prophet and Moog). Some sound cards have both synthesizer and sampled wave forms. Some cards allow you to make your own digital WAV samples or install other ‘audio fonts’ into the card (known as a wave table).

General MIDI (the most common process found) is divided into channels, banks, tracks and instrument patches or sounds. There are generally 16 channels, several banks, tracks vary from instrument and software package. Cakewalk, for example, has 256 tracks by default and offers 16,000 combinations of 128 patches, offering about 2 million total combinations. By assigning MIDI musical instruments to different channels and tracks it is possible for dozens of keyboards to play different parts and sounds at one time and record all of these on separate tracks, provided you are very familiar with how to assign MIDI channels and banks to the various tracks and instrument patches, which will be a bit of a learning curve for most.

Above is the actual analog sound wave.
Above is an 8 bit sample at 44 KHz sample rate.
Note the gaps between samplescausing audio 'holes'.
Above is a full spectrum 16 bit digital sampling at
44 KHz. Note there are still holes between points
on the original sound, but the 'resolution' is much
finer and capable of fooling the ear.
Above is a 16 bit recording at 22 KHz, note that the
high end is lost above 11 KHz (most people can hear
to 17.5 KHz).
Audio recorders, on the other hand, sample actual sounds and converts the complex audio wave into a series of numbers representing the shape and characteristics of that audio wave. A digital sample is akin to a JPEG picture file, it is not a total picture of the audio sound, but merely partial capturing of the sound with enough detail to render a close, accurate picture. Think of a wave file as one of those connect the dots pictures. The digital samples are the dot, while the actually analog audio sound wave is the final picture with lines drawn between the dots! So, while not every grain of sand on the beach is recorded (indeed only a scoop of sand is actually taken here for a wave file), the amount of numbers required to make a minimal digital file at full hearing spectrum (20 Hz to 20,000 Hz) is still quite immense. The size of your file depends on sample rate and bit resolution. At 44100 samples per second with resolution of 16 bit resolution (audio CD standard), it takes about 5 MB per track per minute. For a stereo final mix of a 4 minute song that would be about 30 megabytes of memory and disk space!

Most audio recording software is capable of making lower quality recordings that generate smaller files. The bit level should always be at 16 to prevent noise and distortions from happening. Sampling rates of 22 MHz (which provides 20 Hz to 11,000 Hz recordings), however, do generate a reasonably good sound file that can be used in a pinch when you find it is impossible to generate a full 44 MHz CD quality file (it should be noted that CD-R disks will not as a general rule generate pristine CD quality, most experts rate a CD-R sound delivery at 50 Hz to 17,500 Hz, cassettes deliver about the same frequency response, with vinyl records having an even lower spectrum) but where possible stick with 44 MHz. In fact, our mutual associate Jeff Sherman, who supplies pro-audio gear to major recording studios and artists like Nirvana, is a fan of over sampling and is pushing for a 24 bit audio standard with a sampling rate above 44 MHz to capture the inaudible transients found in some analog recordings.

Today the buzz word is MP3 and this is an ultra compressed digital file. At a sample rate of 128 an MP3 file is roughly 1/10th the size of a 16 bit 44.1 raw WAV file, but at a rate of 96 it is almost half this size -- 1/20th of a full WAV! This means the already low amount of digital samples (dots in your connect a dot picture) are reduced even further. MP3 works using a special substitution program that only records the changes from one sample to the next and not the whole sample. MP3 technology comes from the video world and is based on the MPEG compression method. In video imaging only the changed pixels in a picture are listed using the MPEG process. This is essentially what happens here with MP3 files. A sample is taken and recorded in full. The next sample is taken but only those parameters that have changed get turned into data, so the audio device holds the first tonal image and adds some new information to this image. In a WAV file each digital sample is recorded fully and complete unto itself. This is how you can reduce a 30 MB, 16bit 44.1 MHz CD quality sound file down to a mere 4 MB file in MP3 format.

Many PC computers generally tend to come with (and most consumers tend to buy as an add on), the Creative Labs Sound Blaster audio cards. The package of software that comes with these is usually pretty good (some of the more expensive cards, from Creative Labs and other companies, may even include full versions of programs like Cakewalk, which offer even more resources for recording)! My Sound Blaster Live card came with an excellent sound recorder that adjusts whether you record from microphone, line or ‘what you hear.’ It also included a wave studio that allows for fades, volume changes, muting of highlighted areas, cut and paste, along with some other interesting modifications to the final track. It's fast and intuitive and I find myself using both the record and the wave studio quite a lot.

Also included in my pack is their audio environments, which includes some very good reverb samples, chorus, echo and distortion. You can modify the parameters of these effects and adjust the intensity of any element. By using the recorder on “what you hear” you can play back through Wave Studio or any other recorder and add effects to the new recording, saving this to a new file name, thus leaving your original file intact.

You can also find many shareware and demo programs on the web. One interesting program I found was written by Xavier Cirac( in Delphi (Borland's competition for Visual BASIC). This two track recorder has a fully adjustable parametric equalizer (notch filter) filter – this allows you to select a specific range of tone, width of the range and amount of boost or cut. It also includes a graphic equalizer to contour wide bands of tones. Speed (pitch) changes are possible as is normalization, volume and the adding of reverb to the wave.

While far from perfect (the demo sometimes crashes on me) I still find it very useful for doing some types of work on my wave files and the demo is free to use!

Multi-track Studio Software

The process of digital recording goes back to the original PCM systems created by Sony in the late 1970s of which the first reel to reel studio two track machines cost tens of thousands of dollars. Then Sony introduced the lower cost F-1 in 1980 (around $2,000) which recorded the data on video tape (generally using either a VHS, Betamax or U-Matic recorder). The PCM 501-ES, priced just over $1,000, put digital technology into the hands of the home recordist. Back then recording audio on a PC or Mac was not yet perfected, in fact interfacing with MIDI keyboards was only just beginning at this point in time. Than along came the DAT machine which recorded a two track signal on a small cassette size tape and TASCAM introduced the 8 track A-DAT format (priced around $2,500) which is now the primary digital interface for sophisticated computer cards.

In the 1990’s Pro Tools was introduced for the Macintosh, allowing 24 track audio recording and mixing directly on the computer directly from sound sources or from a mixing board. Priced then (and still) at over $4,000 (complete packages with all the hardware can run over $40,000) this is a truly professional, real time digital recording in box system good enough for the most demanding professional. Equivalent to the Avid editing system for video and film (which is from the same company, hence the similarities). Digidesign has come out with a consumer version the Digi001 that is really quite nice, full function 8 track hard disk recording/editing system for under $1000 including the hardware.

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Pro Tools for the Mac was probably the first and certainly the most expensive. Designed to work in tandem with multitrack hardware to record music in groups of 8 tracks, easily allowing you to record 24 audio tracks at a single time, just like on dedicated pro analog and digital recording equipment, plus you can also record MIDI tracks from keyboards, guitars and sequencers along side of the audio tracks. You can have a host of virtual tracks allowing you to pick and chose from many digital audio wave files and midi files.

Since the introduction of this software and hardware combination a lot of less expensive clones have appeared in the market place putting this technology within the grasp of just about anyone. The leader in the low end is probably Data Becker, an adaptation of Quartz Audiomaster from Canam Computers. I first saw a shareware demo version of this several years ago that allowed you to run 4 tracks of audio and several MIDI tracks. I later bought in to version 2.29 at store because it was very well priced at under $50 and it seemed to offer a lot of features -- which it does -- but there are a lot of inconveniences with this particular version as well!

The first problem I discovered quite quickly was a control panel with start and ending points written in measures and beats, which I am not particularly used to as I come from the recording world where we deal in time – minutes and seconds. Since you're counting in 4 beat, with increments down to at least a 1/64th note the numbering sequence and fractions annoys me to no end (base 64 -- how's that for new math)!

The next thing I noticed was a lag time on the volume changes and mute button of up to 3 seconds going in and 2 second coming out – and I have a fast computer. I am using a P3 running at 850 MHz with 256 MB of RAM and a 7200 RPM Western Digital 60 GB Hard drive. Even by today's standards that's a modestly fast machine, considering the program specs call for at least P2 running at 250 MHz with a lot less RAM. My system is fast enough to accommodate full motion video, let alone audio!

While using the audio effects (reverb, etc.) was pretty intuitive, the ones available were a little to preset for my liking, reminding me a lot of the Mini-Verb – that $200 low end live sound effects device you buy when you can’t afford a Quadraverb, Roland, Yamaha or Lexicon!

All in all you get what you pay for and for $50 or a free download on the Internet of the 4 track version (still available from some archives) you actually get a lot as compared to say a $300 TASCAM 4 track cassette recorder which only gives you a few tone controls and an outboard effects patch with no effects built-in. For $50+ you get close to a Fostex 16 track recorder with a low cost Mackie type board and a Mini Verb for effects, but in the world of real hardware you are talking $4,000+ new and half of that used, so I can't complain too much about the Data Becker as compared in price with an out of the box to a product like Cakewalk, which is probably one of the most widely used software packages among the PC user.

Priced around $500 you have to be somewhat serious about what you are doing when you make a purchase of Cakewalk.While Cakewalk solved some of my problems with the Data Becker, I found it had a few headaches of its own. For starts, it was not quite as intuitive to use as the Data Becker. Next the cut, paste and move tools do not seem to work right for me. They don't behave like similar tools in an Adobe Photo Shop or Word XP or Corel Draw. In Data Becker you put the scissors on the track it marked a cut, put the scissors at another location to mark another cut, then you simply took the hand tool and moved your little piece of audio track around. Simple. Intuitive. Like you've come to expect from any Windows program dating back to 1990. Not so with Cakewalk (or maybe I'm dense or the instructions are weird).

To solve this problem I cut and paste in Creative’s Wave Studio and then import into Cakewalk. For Midi tracks, I can usually record over a section with blank nothing and it will then isolate a fragment of the Midi track – which works but that's not what one should have to do to isolate a segment of MIDI!

Cakewalk does have a MIDI editor that was similar to what I previously used on Orchestrator Plus which allows you to easily shift the pitch of a note, its position in the beat structure, add or delete notes.

Cakewalk has instantaneous punches, which allows me to record and mix the way I used to do in the real world at a 24 track studio. One feature I found lacking in both programs was the ability to create ‘punch’ scripts. We could script fader changes and punches in an analog 24 track studio (such as Clover Studios in Los Angeles, where I’ve done work) as far back as 1980. It is not hard to write such a program for a low end piece of software like Cakewalk to remember your punches and changes and then execute these automatically during final mixdown. I find this desirable because in the real world I can punch tracks with several fingers of my hand at one time and punch different tracks at different points. In the virtual world, one mouse pointer and click per mute, then you must quickly move it to the next rack and mute that one. This takes seconds, so you have to limit yourself to one immediate punch or a group of tracks that all get the same punch -- an you have to reconfigure your groups if you touch the wrong point on the program.A punch history script would be a nice additional to those low end programs and one is not that hard to write!

The way Cakewalk cuts, pastes and moves is annoying or, again, I don't fully understand their non-intuitive methods. You have to use that same position tool (which is identical to the one found in Data Beck with beats and fractions of a beat). Trying to paste in a small section of wave at exactly the precise location takes many, many tries find that right spot and you have to keep track of these weird location numbers. This can be a very fatiguing process if you are doing a lot of track editing and I do a considerable amount of that! In a current song I'm arranging the vocals were done a'capella and I have to cut the scratch vocal track into phrases and then put these on the beat. It took a month of part-time work just to assemble a whole verse and chorus using the tedious Cakewalk method.

I also don't like Cakewalks approach to effects. I found the Data Becker to be more intuitive, but the Cakewalk parameters and options are more like what I used to find in outboard studio gear, while the Data Becker was more like entry level home studio equipment from DOD. The preview function in Cakewalk for these effects is, however, very nice. It grabs a little nearby sound sample and lets you heard it with the selected effect in real time.

At $500 Cakewalk is priced around the same range as a used Tascam 688, but your PC offers generally better recording quality and more virtual tracks. I found the Tascam 688 scenes (the Tascam uses a one button controlled, LCD screen similar to the one found on the Roland D-6 keyboard) even more difficult to work with than the Cakewalk menus – in fact if you lose your Tascam 688 instruction book you are in serious trouble, while the Cakewalk help files are detailed enough to let you work things out.

As far as comparison programs goes, Cakewalk is to multitrack audio and MIDI what Microsoft Word XP is to Desk Top Publishing. It almost gets you there, but lets you down on the critical points. Word XP, however, can be obtained for as little as $250 in a light edition and if Cakewalk were priced like that I would say you get what you pay for. At $500, I think they need to work on the intuitive levels and make their program behave more like common Windows programs! Editing in Cakewalking can be royal pain for some people!

Also worth mentioning is the n-Track Midi and Wave studio a shareware product written by Flavio Antonioli.

Similar in features to both Cakewalk and the Data Becker, with an interface that seems to similar to aspects of both of these commercial programs, this one is free to use for 40 days, after which you are asked to pay the $40 registration. I've had little experience with this software, which looks quite nice and offers the promise of something good for an initial free trial and then continued use at a lower price if you find it works well for your need. This program even supports 20 and 24 bit sound if you have such a sound card, however how many tracks you can use at one time is based on your system. A modern P3 or P4 will probably handle a lot of both wave and midi tracks as this program was originally written with the PII in mind! It's available from Simtel and related sites, probably including ZDNet and -- for more information go to:< P align=justify>

-- Also contributing to this was Alan Mayer

Our Music Special continues with these other articles:
Learning Music | Promo Pictures | Booking Agents| Managers | Producers | Pressing CDs
Record Companies | Copyrights | Recording Software | Sound Cards | Guitar and Bass
Multi-Track Recorders | Live Sound Gear | Microphones | Recording Engineer | Bands in Texas
Teen Band: Y@nK | Gigs and Clubs | Music Theory | Radio Airplay

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