I realise that some of you either don’t have a computer to use or don’t want to use a computer. Well, although things will undoubtedly be trickier to fix post recording (as editing on a small LCD screen isn’t the easiest thing to do), you will be learning to record in the same way as the greats, who would have recorded to tape in their day. I’m not going to put a negative spin on this way of recording because if you persevere and don’t get too frustrated, your technique and skill will improve much faster than usual.
No, money down!
When buying a standalone recorder – don’t cheap out. They’re going to be much more expensive than buying an audio interface because an audio interface isn’t a complete solution – it requires a computer of some kind. Buying a good quality unit will not only ensure that the preamps and converters are good, but that the circuitry (which will play a bigger part in the sound quality than you’d imagine), the FX, and the user interface (editing, menus, etc.) will be better quality too. Put it this way, if you see a sturdy, solid, 2-input unit and a light-weight, plastic, 8-input unit with a million features in the same price bracket – don’t buy the latter, the former is of much better quality and will usually be easier to use as more effort has gone into creating a good user interface.
Racking up tracks
If you are a solo musician hoping to record acoustic guitar and voice, a 4-track unit will be fine. If you want to record more instruments, then 4 tracks simply isn’t going to be enough. Along with the track count, the amount of inputs will obviously come into it. Even if you are a solo musician with an acoustic guitar, you’ll probably want to look at something with two mic pres and phantom power – otherwise you’re limited to the sound you’ll achieve with a single mic on the guitar. Bouncing is always considered a viable option for improving on track count, but you will have no control over the bounced tracks once this operation has been completed, and they’ll no doubt require level changes and panning in the mix once your song is finished. You’re already limiting yourself in some ways, why add to that to save a bit of cash?
It’s pretty quick and easy to record yourself speaking into the internal mics at the store, and it will allow you to see how easy or difficult it is to edit pre-recorded audio. This is going to be the thing that ends up causing you to tear your hair out! Just try cutting the audio at a certain point, shifting the audio to meter/bar positions, and simple things like fades. Also, see how easy or difficult it is to apply fx to a track, along with EQ and compression – you still need to do all this!
Don’t run before you can walk
The benefit of computer recording is that you can do so much after the recording to fix things, improve the sound, edit, mix, that it’s hard to beat – especially when it comes to larger, more complex songs – and don’t underestimate how easy editing is when you have a big, high-resolution screen, a mouse and a keyboard. You won’t have this benefit, so you’ll have to pretty much hit the nail on the head when recording. If the take is sloppy – record it again. If someone is out of time – record it again. If the guitar doesn’t sound right – record it again. Of course, as bad as this sounds, it will improve your recording abilities. After a year of this, you’ll be nailing takes and knowing exactly how to get the sound you want before pressing record. However, there is a pitfall here too. Once you excel at recording with the unit you have bought, you will find it difficult to use any other unit or indeed a computer. This last point is a real problem with older guys who use their 8-track recorder until it dies and have to get to grips with a new generation unit. It’s like learning to drive again when you buy a new car!
So, as always, there are pros and cons. But, don’t cheap out, take your time, and stay up-to-date, and you’ll find that you can record happily without a computer.