MTR or DAW?
If you are a musician, chances are you have dabbled in some form of home recording or another. Truthfully, most of us take a look at some over the top all-in-one Multi Track Recorder (commonly reffered to as MTR) and decided it was too much hassle or lack the technical knowledge to easily set up a computer-based studio (also known as DAW or Digital Audio Work Station). The aim of this article is not to detail out every option you have, but simply to give some simple instructions and advice on how to get started for any one out there looking for some easy and helpful pointers. For more detailed info on DAW, MTR, Recording Software, Mics, and other Studio information, please see my other articles in the series.
First off, if you are reading this, chances are you don't know much about the difference between DAW's or MTR's. Your choice here is actually the most important, at least in my opinion. The finished product's quality on either medium can truly be indecipherable. In fact, these days both types use your standard type Hard Drive or SD Cards (and in some cases other types of removable media) for storage. The difference here is possibly the sole reason for your success or failure, early on at least. Why, you ask? You are an artist of audio are you not? Then put the same thought in your art as a visual artist would choose pastel, watercolors, oil, or canvas. These are your tools. The way you will translate ideas into real audible artistry.
First, let's consider MTR's. If you have ever seen a recording studio in person or on television, then you have seen the long panels, with hundreds of knobs, dials, faders, and so forth. Visually speaking, this is the concept of the home MTR. A solid, tangible, at-your-fingertips piece of equipment. This type of equipment is best for those who want that physical anchor to their work, and prefer not to mess with computer software to get the job done. Many are portable (useful for recording drum kits), and some even have battery operation and/or built-in condenser mics ( check out the ZOOM R16). While they have virtually no "set-up" and are ready to record out of the box, figuring out how to use them is often frustrating. Most MTR's use small (or even tiny) screens to navigate through menus that are sometimes counter-intuitive. This is where I see the biggest flaw in the MTR. While they are fairly easy to simply switch on and hit record, the more subtle things like effects and other features can take quite a bit of manual reading to figure out. In other words, recording a jam might be as simple as the push of a button, however actually producing professional sounding pieces will be much more challenging and possibly more limited as well.
Now what about the DAW? One pro with the DAW is that most people already own the main piece of equipment centered around a DAW, the personal computer. The real strength of the DAW is the sheer amount of freedom you have to use any software (including pulg-ins) or interface you prefer. Laptop, Desktop and virtually any Operating System. Your real focus here in the beginning is going to be Software and trust me, there is PLENTY to choose from. Some tasks that seem impossible on the MTR can be simple and easy to figure out on a DAW. Most programs have HUGE amounts of flexibility, options, user friendly interfaces, and plug-ins (which can be used for desired effects and special purposes) . If you have listened to the radio within the past ten years, you have heard one of the most popular types of plugins ever, Autotune. Which can essentially be used to make your voice or instrument in perfect pitch for any song or key.
With a DAW, you will also require some way to get the signal from your instruments and mics to the software. For this, you will need an interface that connects to your computer. Keep in mind you can connect into your Mic or Input via 1/8" connections for a direct audio connection. You may also connect an interface via USB and Firewire. With so many choices and options in the way of setting up your own DAW, you can be sure that somewhere along the line you will run into problems (as is often the case with computers). You are also limited to the power and capability of the computer you are working with. Which means you may need to invest in a more power system or beef up your current system with upgrades.
Whichever you choose, there will of course be amazing Pro's and glaring Con's. Just remember that when you are starting out, think simple. Read reviews on particular pieces of equipment. Don't go right for the complex and expensive, with no experience under your belt. Believe me, no matter how much you spend, your success and sound will be limited to your experience and creativity.