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Choosing the Right Hardware for Your Digital Audio Studio

Introduction

Although analog gear produces amazing sound, the reality is that analog has had its day. Setting up a non-digital studio is extremely expensive, and requires a great deal of space and maintenance effort. Due to the ever-increasing speed and power of computers, those who once considered analog recording gear to be clearly superior are now having second thoughts. For both professionals and amateurs, the digital path is quickly becoming the only path to good sound.

With so many options available, its hard to know what you really need in your home studio. So many questions, so many opinions, so many options, and so few easy answers. Mac or PC? Single or dual processor? Condenser or dynamic microphone? The MIDI interface with the built-in audio interface, or separate components? USB or Firewire? The list goes on.

The choices for hardware can be overwhelming, so this article has been written to help you decide what you need to accomplish your audio quest. In our first article , we discussed various software options. This article will give you greater insight into some of the basic hardware components of a digital audio studio. The bare hardware necessities are a computer, an audio interface, and - for the musically inclined - a MIDI controller.

Mac Or PC Platform?

One of the most important initial decisions you will need to make is computer platform. This is the ages-old question: are you going to use a Mac or a PC? Personally, I prefer the PC over the Mac. PCs tend to outperform similarly clocked Macs , and PCs are cheaper. As if that weren't enough, there is a wealth of plugins available exclusively for the PC, and PCs are more widely compatible.

For me the choice is clear, but let's look at the flip side of the coin. Although PCs have many advantages in terms of speed and compatibility, the majority of the entertainment industry actually uses Macs! There are several reasons for this. First is the perception that if it costs more, it must be better. Well, this is not necessarily the case, but is a common misconception. One distinct advantage of shelling out the extra money for a Mac, however, is stability. My PC rarely crashes, but the potential to contract a virus is much greater for a PC user.

Another distinct advantage of using a Mac is the perception of user friendliness. I personally don't find Macs to be any more user friendly than PC's, but many people find PCs to be cumbersome. Perhaps I am biased because I have spent the majority of my life using a PC, but I find Windows XP to be quite intuitive.

One big disadvantage of Macs is that they are more exclusive than PCs. Many pieces of hardware and software are incompatible with even the latest version of the Mac OS, Tiger. However, to Apple's credit, Tiger is the first version of the Mac OS since OS9 (several years ago) to allow multiple audio interfaces to be connected simultaneously, something that was never a problem for Windows XP.

It is worth noting that Apple has included more robust support for MIDI in Tiger as well. In fact, Tiger has added many features targeted specifically at musicians and producers, including audio streaming. But while it may sound cool to be able to stream MIDI or audio in real time across LANs or the Internet, features like this aren't likely to benefit most producers or musicians.

Another feature from Apple is the plugin format called Audio Unit. Most plugins are compatible across platforms, but Apple has made sure that their plugin format works only for Mac, and that all of their software titles won't accept any other type of plugin. This is a curse in the disguise of a blessing. Thanks Apple! But, I digress.