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Dedicating your Computer
When you do recording this way, the heart of your system is your computer. It acts as your tape deck, your symphony and studio musicians, tape vault, effects units and even a mixing board. As you can imagine, this puts a heavy burden on the machine since it has to do so many things at once. Most people do almost nothing with their computer... simply surf the net, do email, their checkbook, write letters, play some games and maybe draw some pictures. This is... well... to a computer doing nothing. This type of computer use doesn't have to bring things together for an output... that is... you don't have to syncronize your checkbook with your Tomb Raider and you can't actively compose an email while you are looking up a find on Ebay. They are all asyncronous activities. The average hi-tech windows PC can do many asyncronous activites quite well because the limitation is you! You don't have the ability to do more than one thing at a time. You may argue that you are a guru and can multi-process... I'll win this one unless you have 8 keyboards and can type on all of them at once controlling different programs. So, how is this "syncronous" aspect different?
Doing too many things at once!
When you are recording, you start to tax your computer for the first time in it's life. It has to bring in and send out many different types of information perfectly in sync with one another. For example, it may read in eight digitally recorded tracks from disk, generate four synthesized instruments, apply reverb and equalization to many of the tracks, and still be expected to show you the lyrics and music in a scrolling window. If all of these aren't syncronized perfectly, it's like being in a band where every member has no concept of meter... it sounds horrible... or worse, the computer crashes and you lose everything. For an average windows PC as configured by your friendly computer store, this syncronization is impossible. Here is why.
Broken on Arrival
Since your computer arrived configured to do all the normal stuff, it's configured so that it won't work as a recording system. It has hardware and software that you need when you use it for other purposes (and usually a bunch of stuff you never need that benefits companies on the internet ;-)).
You need absolute control over what is running on the system and you can't have the stuff running that your manufacturer provided by default. They probably have at least some of the following startup everytime you turn your computer on:
While you are recording, you don't need a modem... you don't need a network interface card... you don't need a printer. PC architecture is badly "hacked" to overcome limitations established long ago. The average PC has more hardware devices than that architecture was designed to support. This creates conflicts that unique solutions get around in day to day simplistic use. For mainstream usage you seldom feel the effects of this problem, an occasional unexplained hang or reboot is about all you will experience... if that. Not true while recording. The effects are very serious and usually result in the loss of tracks or at minimum degrade your sound quality with noises and distortion and can even impact the levels you can obtain from your sound card. While I'd hope you wouldn't try to dial your ISP while recording and actually use these devices during a session, just having them present takes resources away from what you are trying to record.
Dedicate the Computer to recording
Before you dedicate your computer to recording, see the warning below and make sure you fully understand it before disabling any software that protects you on the net. When the computer is dedicated to recording, it cannot be connected to the net or have any external disks loaded.
If you are really rich and want to do it right, go buy a Macintosh just for recording and keep your PC for surfing the net and doing email. If you are moderately well-off, buy a second PC and dedicate it for recording. Now back to reality, you, like me, probably have one computer and have to make it work for everything. You may wonder how you can have your computer be a dedicated recording computer AND a virus-scanned, firewalled, mail reading, game playing computer? There are two fairly easy ways to do this. Both involve having to reboot when you record and reboot again when you return to normal use. This is important not only for your recording but to restore your protection program (such as Virus scanning) when you use the computer on the net (or load your buddy's floppy disk in the drive). The first is to get a second disk drive, Install your operating system on it, eliminating all unecessary hardware and software from the configuration and reboot from this disk whenever you are recording. Then you reboot to your other disk when you want to surf the net and load questionable game software.
The second way is identical in concept but more difficult to implement. Your computer can have more than one start-up profile. Each variant of windows has a slightly different way to implement this but the profile will allow you to specify which hardware devices are to be present when you boot... when you set up a profile, you get a choice at boot up where you can select the desired profile. Depending on which windows you use, look in control panel to find out how to setup a new profile. Remember that your "Recording" profile is going to have the hardware and software for unneeded devices disabled. This solution is a little more complex than the two-disk solution above because you can't use the profile to control what software starts. Well... in the first place, get rid of software that is truly unnecessary. See the link page for a list of sites dedicated to finding out how to do this. When you see several icons in your system tray, ask yourself "How often do I click on that?" and "Is that a virus or firewall protection program?". If the answers are "Never" (which it will be) and "No" (which most of the time it will be), you need to figure out how to get rid of that program both for your recording and surfing setups. Once this is done, you can manually turn on and off firewalls and virus scanners while you are recording.
USB Hardware and other external standards are becoming very common. One of the sound cards I use is a USB device. External devices that are linked together with one of these standards must share a maximum amount of information that can be sent though those "cables" (it's not really the cable but that works for me). If you use recording hardware that connects via USB or some other external method, unplug any unnecessary USB devices such as printers or scanners before you turn on your computer to record.
A bit about the power of your computer
When you go to purchase and install a multi-track recording package or a software synthesizer, it will tell you the minimum you need in terms of computer speed and memory. This depends a little on your variant of windows but if you've cleaned your computer up as discussed above, you can get by with as crude a machine as a 700 Mhz CPU and 256MB RAM. After going through the cleanup and process and dedicating my computer appropriately, I have found no limitations yet using a fairly old 900Mhz Athlon with 256 MB RAM. The computer was able to syncronize 12 analog tracks and 5 MIDI instruments. I'm hard pressed to need more than that. BTW, before I cleaned up and dedicated the machine, I could not do 5 analog tracks without losing syncronization and having all manner of weird noises in my final sound.
A bit about laptops
There is a tendency to want to have the convenience of a laptop for your recording computer. What could be cooler than carrying a small suitcase full of stuff that is a complete recording studio? This is perfectly doable but bear in mind that making components small and having them run at a lower temperature were number one design goals for the laptop. Usually, performance takes second place and in any given technology time window (state of the art at any one time) and you will need to buy a higher performance laptop to acheive the same performance as it's supposedly comparable desktop counterpart. The bottom line of this is you will spend more money to create a competent recording studio based on a laptop.
Never surf the net, read email, or load disks in your computer when you are running in your dedicated recording mode. Reboot and re-establish all your firewall and virus protection before doing so. I would go so far as to say, physically disconnect your network connection when you booted in a dedicated recording mode.
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