Digital Recording

Mike Lawson • Archives • October 1, 2004

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Digital audio recording can have immediate impact on your music program. Most directors view recording as a final-stage tool exclusively for their concerts, but digital audio recording has opened up a whole new world of audio assessment possibilities. Now music educators can share ongoing improvement with students, parents and administrators via CD, either for distribution, playback and/or Internet posting. Fortunately, this technology has become very accessible and is relatively inexpensive compared to the thousands of dollars such software and hardware cost just a decade ago. Today, we have far more user-friendly and portable recording options that busy educators can take on field trips, use in the classroom, or any take to kind of concert hall.

There are three different types of portable entry-level digital audio recording systems that deserve your investigation – each has certain advantages depending on your needs. The most affordable are small, handheld portable digital recorders that work remotely with batteries and can be used with either the built-in microphone(s) or external microphones. The next level is the mini-size consoles – larger than hand-helds but significantly smaller than rack-mounted units – which usually require A/C for operation. The third tier is software applications for notebook computers, which are relatively inexpensive. However, the notebook hardware requirements of CPU’s can be expensive. However, notebook solutions can be a viable alternative solution to larger dedicated hardware units for those of you who already have a high-powered notebook or are looking for good way to use your notebook to record live concerts/rehearsals.

Regardless of which type of digital recording you select, I recommend sticking with one before expanding to others. Be aware that there are two kinds of recordings you can embark on: two-track stereo and multitrack. The advantage of the two-track is that you can easily record the finished product for stereo playback. Multitrack offers more options for editing and mixing the recording after the performance, but two-track recordings can also be enhanced as well.

Small Portable Digital Recorders: Stereo and Multitracks
Ever wish you could record your music groups anywhere, anytime without a lot of equipment and on a moment’s notice?

The handheld recorder products listed all record on SmartMedia cards, which helps to keep expenses down since hard disk drives are not necessary. These products are the Zoom PS04 (, the Yamaha Sound Sketcher ( and the Korg PXR4 ( The Zoom and Korg products are multitrack recorders while the Yamaha is a stereo product with mixing capabilities.

The Palmtop Studio PS-04 by Zoom is a hand-held four-track digital recorder that can do many things beyond digital recording with five types of effect algorithms provided: guitar/bass, mic, line, dual, and mastering. You can choose from 94 types of effects, six effects simultaneously with five effect modules. Memory is provided for saving up to 200 effects patches. In addition, the PS-04 can record two tracks in stereo with external microphone, or mono with its built-in microphone for “live” recordings with over five hours of four AA battery life. You can have a studio recording session with four audio tracks – each with 10 virtual tracks and editing tools like audio track editing, bounce tracks, copy/paste/erase, auto-manual punch in-out, and trim. Other features include: internal stereo drum tracks, bass track, multi-effects and the recording microphone with a preamp all built-in. Recording time is approximately 65 minutes with a 128 MB SmartMedia card. Priced at $199, this digital recorder is a good buy and comes with a 32 MB Smart Media card. The PS-04 has two recording modes: digital quality at 192 Kbps and extended recording at a lower resolution level.

The Yamaha Sound Sketcher is described as the first all-MP3 recorder. The petite size enables the user capture song ideas wherever you are and build them into complete songs. You can plug any electronic instrument directly into it, or play and sing into its built-in stereo microphone. This unit is larger than the Zoom handheld and fits into one’s purse or large pocket. It does contain stereo speakers, which lets you hear your work on the spot without headphones, as well as two built-in microphones. It includes 50+ effects, tuner, metronome, easy overdub and undo, USB port for computer connectivity, a 32 Smart Media card, and no removable storage.

The Sound Sketcher’s 192 Kbps provide good digital audio quality level directly on SmartMedia cards or through a USB cable connection for convenient transfer to a computer. In addition, you can connect a guitar or keyboard directly to the unit, making it easy to capture those inspired phrases. You can add professional touches to your recordings via Yamaha’s DSP effects, which include reverb, chorus, and equalization. The mixing record function lets the user create entire arrangements by overdubbing, or adding successively recorded layers, to the original recording. The user can also record audio from a CD, MD or other sound source. Sing a duet or play along with your favorite artist and use the mix recoding function to record the results. Data recorded with the Sound Sketcher is stored in memory cards as MP3 or .WAV file data. Since these are standard sound file formats, you can use these files in your computer, as well.

Ordinarily, you would use the built-in speakers for audio playback, but you can also use a pair of stereo headphones for those times you’d like to listen privately. You can also connect the unit to an audio system, guitar amplifier or sound reinforcement system.

The Korg PXR4 is a serious recording product in a portable package. It has high-quality digital recording and playback, comprehensive editing, special effects, USB port, and a built-in stereo microphone. The heart of PXR4 is its 4-track digital recorder, which records directly to Smart Media cards. There are three recording modes: standard, high-quality and economy, enabling the user to select the setting that’s right for the task at hand. SmartMedia cards from 4 to 128 MB can be used and, via its built-in USB port, the PXR4 can also transfer song data to and from your computer in stereo MPEG format.

The PXR4 features eight virtual tracks per track, so multiple takes of the same part can be recorded and the best take can be selected. It’s also the world’s first pocket-sized multitrack recorder to deliver full editing capabilities. With easy-to-use punch in/out, bounce, copy and delete functions, the PXR4 is equipped with functionality you’d expect from a digital recorder many times larger. It offers time compression/expansion making it possible to speed up or slow down phrases without altering their pitch.

The PXR4’s front panel contains five faders, one per track, plus one master fader, as well as controls for all the unit’s key features. It also offers a surprisingly full-sized complement of I/O’s: For inputs, there are a 1/4″ jack with a hi/low impedance plus a stereo line/mic input; For outputs, there are an 1/8″ stereo out jack, a stereo headphone out and a USB port.

There are 77 different built-in effects, 100 factory multi-effects programs (with up to five effects used at once) and enough room for an additional 100 user programs. The PXR4 relies on Korg’s proprietary REMS technology to deliver studio-quality effects that range from ultra-realistic models of amazing guitar amps and pedals to some of the greatest microphones plus studio essentials such as reverbs, delays, various modulation effects, and more.

There are also 55 different rhythm patterns and 32 metronome patterns that use high-quality PCM sounds. The patterns range from simple to complex and include rock, funk, house, reggae, hip-hop, r&b, jazz, and more. This compact unit is 4.88″ wide, 4.33″ high and 1.33″ deep and runs on either AA batteries or with an AC adapter.

I recommend using an external microphone stereo microphone with a hand-held recorder for the best audio quality. One of the very best for the money is the Sony Electret Condenser Stereo Microphone (model ECM-MS907, – not only for its excellent audio quality, but because you can adjust the recording coverage from wide-angle (120 degrees) to telephoto (90 degrees). Distant recordings are surprisingly good with little audience sound. At $99 it is worth every dollar to ensure you get the highest quality recording.

Mini Consoles
Roland ( makes a number of mini-size consoles that go far beyond the handheld digital recorders with more tracks and more post-recording options. Starting with the small BR-532, they gradually expand in size to more advanced models that have more tracks adding to the recording options with their BR-864 8-Track Studio, BR-1180 CD 8-Track and BR-1600CD with a 16-Track recorder. The four-track BR-532 also has eight virtual tracks per track which allows you to mix down using the onboard effects and transfer to a computer or CD burner via SmartMedia card, USB port, and a optical digital output for mastering to computer or a stand-alone CD burner. The virtual tracks allow the user to try alternate takes and solos, or bounce four tracks to a stereo pair. There is a built-in microphone and battery power for recording on the go. The BR-532 is a complete studio in a portable box with two independent effects processors (insert and loop) that allow you to produce professional-sounding tracks complete with COSM Guitar Amp Modeling and a Bass Simulator. There’s plenty of reverb, delay, chorus and EQ plus many more effects that can “printed” while recording or applied during mixdown.

The BR-864 is an enhanced version of the BR-532 that also has battery power options. With its eight playback tracks you can add effects and cut out the stuff you don’t like, set a click track for timing, and more. The user can have MIDI tracks over several tracks and have students record along on a stereo track, mixing the end-result at a later stage. How often do you get a “live” two track stereo recording and all you hear is the choir with an unbalanced accompaniment and obnoxious applause that you can’t edit out? Or a marching band and all you get is drums or trumpet? Not so with this unit which is also easier to use than most recorders on the market.

The BR-1180 by Roland is a more powerful digital studio recorder, providing eight playback tracks, a stereo Master Track and 80 Virtual Tracks for recordings. It also includes a 20 GB hard drive and internal CD-RW drive to burn your music to CD. The BR-1600CD is even more powerful with a 16-track recorder that includes a 40 GB hard drive, CD R/RW drive, and USB port. It also has eight inputs, so you could record your whole ensemble “live” and still be able to mix later and take advantage of features such as pitch-correct. The unit even has a built-in drum machine and bass simulator so you could add your own rhythm tracks. What makes these two larger models desirable is that you don’t need a computer because they have their own hard disk drive and a CD RW burner built-in to complete mastering a concert for duplication.

The Superscope PSD 300 ( is the ultimate digital recorder for live two-track stereo recording. It is the most user-friendly recorder for high quality digital recordings with either low (XLR) or high impedance (1/4″) microphone jacks. The automatic level control (ALC) settings are great for recording your own concerts/rehearsals without having to do any pre-concert sound checks. The PSD 300 also has a second CD playback drive so you can also easily burn a CD. You can plug microphones directly into the unit for stereo recording without the need for a separate mic preamp and mixer. Its phantom power capability eliminates the need for batteries for phantom powered microphones, or you can use the built-in stereo microphone, which also does very well with most music applications.

The Superscope PSD300 is the world’s first CD Recording system for the performing arts that combines a professional CD-R/RW recorder with a CD-R/RW player featuring innovative CD manipulation controls. In addition to its recording drive, the unit’s CD player features the same performing arts controls found on the popular Superscope PSD230 portable CD player. These special controls allow musicians to practice with their favorite artist or a specialized music accompaniment CD and manipulate the key or tempo of that music in real time. Pedagogically, the variable key/tempo controls make for creative play-along recording practice. You can convert a CD to half speed as a duplication option – each note will be exactly one octave lower, at half the speed.

Because of its mixing capabilities, you can easily create digital recordings from analog cassette, LP, and tape recordings instantly onto a CD. There are no post-recording editing capabilities in the Superscope PSD 300, so what you record is what you get unless you import the recordings to your computer and use a post-recording software application.

Another mini-size console worth checking out is Yamaha’s AW16G (

Digital Audio Software with Notebook Computers
Generally, dedicated hardware takes fewer operation steps to digitally record, while software takes a few more steps. In addition, computers have been known to freeze up occasionally, whereas dedicated hardware rarely freezes up. But notebook computers offer some advantages over the mini-console dedicated proprietary hardware. It is cheaper to update software than purchase new hardware. For example, Cubase digital audio software ( emulates mixing/synthesizer hardware costing several thousand dollars at no additional charge and it is relatively inexpensive to update software.

For your notebook computer to produce good digital audio recordings, you need to purchase an audio/MIDI interface that will allow you to connect two external microphones to the notebook for a live stereo recording, since notebooks generally have only one microphone plug. The audio/MIDI interface also helps eliminate hard disk drive noise. A favorite audio/MIDI interface is the FireWire 410 by M-Audio ( It has low-latency software monitoring and is powered by the firewire notebook connection or DC supply. Yamaha ( also has some very good, inexpensive audio/MIDI USB interfaces, such as their UX16 for only $49.99 and their UX96 for $89.95.

The PC market has several outstanding entry-level digital audio recording software applications all under $100. The Mac platform has mostly professional level products in the $400 to $500 market. The two leading entry-level PC software products are Power Tracks Pro by PG Music ( at $49 and Home Studio and Home Studio 2004 by Cakewalk ( at $89 and $129, respectively. All of these products are solid performers that exceed performance expectations.

Home Studio offers very sophisticated features that rival professional level-products, such as: multitrack digital audio recording, MIDI sequencing, fully supports looping with ACID format, MP3, WAV, WMA and MIDI files, as well as sophisticated digital/audio/looping editing capabilities. With ReWire supports, Home Studio integrates with Project5, Kinetic, Reason and other ReWire synths. You can simultaneously record your whole band with support for multi-channel audio cards and record up to 24-bit/96 kHz audio. The program is very user-friendly and allows you to record unlimited audio and MIDI tracks and mix with real time effects. It also has support for real-time DirectX effects and ReWire-compatible soft synths, MIDI FX plug-ins and ACID-format audio loop technology, which takes your music farther and for less money than other comparable software products. Home Studio lets you concentrate on recording, editing, arranging, and mixing your music. With the built-in DXI software synthesizers, you can add hundreds of high quality instrument sounds to your studio with the Virtual Sound Canvas. For example, DreamStation DXI authentically recreates the sounds of analog-style synthesizers, modeling analog circuits and oscillators. You can sweeten your mix with chorus, reverb, EQ, delay and other professional audio effects. Home Studio 2004 includes DirectX plug-ins, sampler and an additional CD of audio samples.

PowerTracks Pro is an integrated digital audio and MIDI sequencer for Windows that is a full-feature digital audio recording application. You can load any MIDI file and instantly see the “pro” chord changes, render MIDI to audio in seconds with DXI support and harmonize a solo voice or audio instrument with up to four audio harmony parts using the TC-Helcon Audio Harmonies included in the product. For those of you that are not “techno buffs,” you will appreciate the beginning video tutorial that has been added to Version 9.

Mac users have to hit the road running with professional-level digital Cubase sequencers like Logic Pro 6 by Apple (, Digital Performer by MOTU (, VST by Steinberg, Ableton Live by Ableton (, ProTools LE by Digidesign, Reason by M-Audio, or Audition by Adobe (

However, earlier this year, Apple introduced GarageBand, a virtual recording studio for Mac OS X. As part of the iLife ’04 creativity suite, GarageBand is bundled with iTunes 4.2, iPhoto 4, iMovie 4 and iDVD 4 at a modest price of $49.95. Apple’s GarageBand does it all: records audio in stereo and multitracks, plays back MIDI, and works well with its looping applications. Its soft synths are amazing, but do require a robust computer. A G4 notebook with 1 GB of RAM is a minimum configuration. The only downside is you can’t drive external MIDI instruments for MIDI playback so the only playback available is through the program’s internal software synthesis. But at $49.95, it is a steal and their soft synth fonts are outstanding!

If you need an entry-level Mac digital audio sequencing product, try Cubase SE by Steinberg, which boasts an array of features for $149.99. The application can record 48 audio tracks and unlimited MIDI tracks with professional 24-bit/96 kHz audio resolution and supports up to 16 VST instruments. It also has five insert effects and 8 send effects per channel plus a VST System Link and ReWire 2 compatible along with a complete set of audio and MIDI effect plug-ins. Best of all, CuBase SE has the same advanced user interface and functionality as Cubase Sl/SX, which is a standard in the digital audio recording industry.

If you’re looking for a free shareware digital audio product for both Mac and PC platforms, go to Apple Computer and search for Audacity.

It is also important that you use quality external microphones for digital audio recordings. Never use the internal microphone built-in to your notebook computer. Dynamic microphones are designed for use close to the instrument or voice. Dynamic mics are rugged and capable of handling sounds such as drums, brass and vocals. Two of the most popular dynamic mics are the Shure SM58 and SM57 ( The former is best is for vocals while the SM57 is more commonly used for micing instruments. Condenser microphones are good for all-around recording situations, but they are not as rugged as dynamic microphones. Condenser microphones require a power source via the mixer or the recording device. Be sure that the computer/I/O has phantom power capabilities or the mic will not work. Popular brands include the AKG C10-0S and the Shure KSM32.

For best results, it is important to note that you use an audio/MIDI interface box to connect external microphones to a notebook computer. The external box eliminates the possibility of hard disk drive noise and allows the user to record in two tracks for a stereo recording. For example, for band recording, two condenser microphones, such as M-Audio’s Solaris mics, could be placed in an X-Y configuration in a place similar to the conductor’s perspective (he’s the one “mixing” the music, so the proper balance is heard from his location). The mics would then be connected to an audio interface. Quality audio/MIDI interfaces are made by Yamaha, Edirol (, and M-Audio, among others. For computers with a firewire port, I prefer M-Audio’s FireWire 410; for computers with a USB port, I like M-Audio’s Omnistudio USB interface. Both of these devices have built-in mic preamplifiers with phantom power, so no other equipment will be necessary. M-Audio audio/MIDI interfaces work with all audio applications (except for ProTools), so any software you are using is fair game.

Post-Recording Options
For entry-level post-recording editing, I suggest you consider using Peak LE by Bias

( for Mac or ACID Music Studio ( by Sony Pictures. Both are like Swiss Army knives that allow the user to cut, paste, fade-in, fade-out, and more – and both software products retail for under $100. EQ (equalization) can also be added to a project. Adjusting the EQ is similar to adjusting the bass and treble knobs on your stereo to improve overall sonic balance. Additionally, plug-ins are available that include delay, echo and reverb.

Yes, it takes some time to master these post-editing techniques, but the results are a more professional sounding recording, even if the original one wasn’t as perfect. You don’t have to get into post-recording editing in order to record digitally; but you do have to record digitally before you can edit the recording. For simple two-track recording, any program could be used, such as Ableton Live, Adobe Audition, Cakewalk Home Studio and Sonar, Steinberg’s Cubase, Nuendo, and WaveLab, and so on. Once the recording is complete, it can be sweetened (equalization, compression, even a little reverb if you feel like it) and then burned to CD all within the laptop computer.

What’s Next?
With portability, you can record anywhere, anytime with outstanding quality and user-friendliness. I strongly recommend that you read the digital audio recording chapter (chapter 9) in Tom Rudolph’s book, Teaching Music with Technology, published by GIA (, which is becoming the standard publication for music educators dealing with the instructional uses of computer music technology. Good luck establishing new music traditions based on digital audio recording. It is an exciting application to improve the performance standards of your ensembles.

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