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What is the difference between computer-based and standalone recorders?

What is the difference between computer-based and standalone recorders?

When it comes to multitrack recording, the options can be overwhelming. Host-based or native, all-in-one or standalone - how does one make sense of it all, and pick the best system? We'll try to de-mystify the choices and give you a better idea of what it all means in relation to your recording needs.

There are two main categories of recording technology: computer-based and standalone. We'll take a look at both of these, then see how they compare.

Going native
Native DAWs (Digital Audio Workstations) generally have an A/D/A card that handles the audio digitizing tasks, and rely on your computer to handle all recording functions, such as tracking, editing, and effects. The computer also has to manage normal OS stuff like display, interface, file management, and more. The obvious downside to this is that you're asking your computer to do a lot of work! This means you have to take care to keep your system in top operating condition - defragging hard drives, managing memory carefully, not loading your system up with flashy interface add-ons, networking goodies, and more. However, computers are getting faster and much more powerful, RAM is getting ridiculously cheap, there's incredible support by third-party plug-in developers, and the software is relatively mature, stable, and inexpensive. It's no stretch to record 24 tracks of 24-bit, 48kHz audio, with plug-in compressors, EQ, and effects sweetening the mix.

Splitting the difference
The difficulties begin when you start adding a lot of plug-ins. EQ and effects plugs will eat up some of your processing power, and pro-quality reverb plugs are notoriously CPU-hungry, even on the latest and greatest systems! To counter this, a few manufacturers have created powerful DSP cards that take over some of the plug-in processing, leaving your computer's CPU better able to handle the more mundane tasks of recording and file management.

The host with the most
Host-based DAWs live on the other end of the computer recording spectrum, using the computer solely as host to proprietary DSP cards. The big advantage is that your recording system is as powerful as you want it to be, regardless of the power of your computer. Need more 'verbs? Add another card! Of course, all this power and flexibility comes at a price - cold, hard, cash. And lots of it - Digidesign's ProTools is the industry standard in this category, and a full-blown system can easily cost $30k!

We don't need no stinkin' computers
Both host-based and native systems have one thing in common - a computer. Yet there are times when either you can't, or just don't want to deal with one. You may be recording a live show, are on location, or simply want to keep your recording chain clean and direct. What are your options?

Standalone
Imagine just plugging in, pressing record, and capturing your masterpiece for all time! That's a pretty rosy picture, and it's almost that easy. A standalone recorder bypasses the need for a host computer and functions for the most part like the tape recorders of yore. There are a lot of options in this category.

Going tape
ADAT machines and DA tapes are digital tape-based eight-track recorders. They are cost-effective, easily linked for more tracks, and are very easy to use. Like their analog cousins, they do require regular maintenance to maintain quality recording, and all recording and editing is done in a linear fashion. If you buy a one hour tape, whether you record one track or eight you still get one hour's worth of recording time. Edits are also destructive in nature - punch in over a previous take, and that take is erased. This may or may not be a good thing! The beauty of these machines is their ubiquity. Most recording facilities have the ability to read either ADAT or DA tapes. This makes it easy to maximize your recording dollar by, for example, recording your basic tracks in a large studio, then doing overdubs in your home studio.

Doing it the hard way
Hard-disk recorders bypass tape altogether in favor of a high-speed hard disk. A dedicated computer handles all the disk and file management chores. Recording and editing are random-access, and usually non-destructive, and your available recording time is a combination of disk size, track count, sample rate, and bit-depth. Furthermore, your available track count can be affected by your chosen sample rate. It takes more care to manage the recording process to ensure you have enough disk space to finish your project, but the flexibility of editing and the higher track counts (compared to tape-based digital recorders) makes hard-disk recording a very powerful option. Generally, hard drives can be swapped in and out, and the drastically low price of disks these days make hard-drive recording very affordable.

But wait, there's more
Whether hard-disk or tape-based, these recorders all need a mixer to get the most out of them (or in to them, as the case may be)! There may be times when you want to absolutely minimize both the amount of gear you're carrying around, and the cost of doing business. This is where digital audio workstations come into play.

First one on the block
Combining mixers, effects, recording, and varying degrees of portability, digital audio workstations give you everything you need in one package. Gone is the need to boot up your computer, manage your operating system, patch in your mixer and effects, hook up a CD burner, and figure out how to move it all from point A to point B. Simply plug in your mics and instruments, then record, overdub, edit, mix, sweeten, master, and burn a CD all within one unit. The disadvantage? Like any integrated system, you get what they give, for better or worse. However, this is not a big issue - workstations are a huge part of this market, and the quality has been improving steadily since the original tape-based Portastudio hit the market over twenty years ago!

Decisions, decisions
So which one is best? Whichever one fits your budget and recording needs! For example, I regularly do live recording through an analog mixer to an old eight-track HD recorder, then bring it home and move it into a Macintosh-based native DAW for editing and mixing. When I record in the studio, I bypass the standalone HD completely, and go into the DAW through a digital mixer. Whatever your needs, you're sure to find one at a price point that fits your budget. And remember, the final decision for how good any recording platform sounds will be in the hands of the engineer - you!

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