Audio Chain Stages as Hardware Devices

Now back to the real world. Basic tasks of all the stages are clear now, so let’s see in examples, which way the market does offer us these elements. As I’ve told, a real hardware product can include many combinations of mentioned functions – from one single stage up to the whole chain in one body, but historically they are produced as few most widespread following categories.

Devices by Rupert Neve.

The rack filled with “one in a body” devices designed by Rupert Neve – the true legend of audio industry.

One Device in a Body

It’s clear – either microphone preamp, EQ, compressor or ADC in its own body. Devices that are reasonable in this category are usually the quality ones, belonging to the high end of market. Of course, there are plenty of single-stage gear in a cheap end too, but it is not a good idea to spend money for separate devices when You can get most or all of them in one body for a better price and most likely of better quality, as in this case they, as a one single piece of gear, would naturally be designed and made to interact well with each other, which by the way is not guaranteed when You purchase separate devices especially from different manufacturers. Expensive high-end devices usually interact well with everything around, but because of their clarity they might over-exposure all the minor faults of other stages if You mix them up with low-end or even middle-class gear.

Talking about quality devices of this kind – their major pros is flexibility. You can have different kinds of preamps, different equalizers and compressors, and You can combine them any way You want depending on the result You would like to achieve, but this is a good option for those who have experience and know their equipment well enough to understand what particular piece of gear they would use to goal in a particular task. Needs time to learn and the downside is always a price.

Grace Design M103.

A high-end M103 channel strip by Grace Design.

Channel Strip

Channel strip is a combination of three devices – microphone preamplifier, EQ and compressor. These mostly fall into middle or high end of the market. Channel strips are quite popular and convenient, as You get all the analog parts of chain from single manufacturer built as a one solid piece of equipment, that again guarantees all the devices in a body to be perfectly matches and to interact without flaws. Sometimes channel strips have preamp and either one of devices – EQ or compressor, – but these are rare occasions. Major channel strips are usually much more affordable, then three of separate well-crafted devices.

Many people don’t need more that one or two channels in their project studios, so You might want to invest a good sum into one or two channel strips, but of world class quality, rather then to buy a bunch of different average class gear. Please, take time to choose the right one for Yourself! Don’t hurry, visit different stores, listen to different gear, preferably have Your microphone with You to test how it works with particular device. Maybe record samples to compare at home if stores allow You to. Take Your time and most likely You will enjoy the device for years.

Computer Audio Interface

These are all-in-one devices, that include all mandatory stages to record audio. They are made to connect directly to Your computer. This is the same as a sound card, but outboard devices are traditionally called audio interfaces, while inboard – sound cards. Buying an audio interface You get microphone preamps (usually from two to sixteen channels, sometimes even more), both ADC and DAC, headphone amplifier. Some of big ones have advanced built-in monitoring mixers (software operated) with many routing options, just like a regular console. That would be very convenient if You intend to do live recordings sometimes. Audio interfaces can belong to any price category. Remember, You get what You pay for.

ESI audio interface.

Budget end audio interface by ESI. Very affordable and of impressive quality for the price.

There are two types of audio interfaces, distincted by the bus they use – USB and FireWire. FireWire is preferred, as it is more stable, uses less computer resources and has lower noise level. I am not a computer jack, so I cannot explain why it is so, but based on my experience it is true and all of computer-wise people I know agree with me. Some tried to explain me the reasons, but it got a bit complicated and I am not sure, that I’ve got clear idea, so I wouldn’t try to share it with You. Anyway, the majority of high grade devices in this category are only FireWire based.

A quality audio interface is the top option for most of project studios and most likely the only option (assuming a budget of an average person) if You need way more then two channels, for example if You need to record drums. In this case You can still upgrade with one or two channel strips or microphone preamps any time and use them together with onboard preamps, as audio interfaces usually have some line inputs – channels, that don’t include microphone preamps, – exactly for the case if You have outboard ones. In this case You will also expand the amount of channels, usable for simultaneous multitrack recording with microphones. For example, You may have an eight-channel audio interface with four mic inputs and four line inputs. Naturally, You can use only four microphones at a time in the basic configuration, but if You have two outboard microphone preamps or channel strips and connect them to line inputs, You will result in six microphone channels. Of course, line inputs can also be used to connect any devices that provide line level signal – keyboards, samplers, drum machines, etc.

Portable Recorders

In spite of my past skepticism about these devices I have to admit, that they have made a huge breakthrough recently. You can have an impressive sound quality for a very reasonable price considering all the functions You get – You can record, listen, produce and mixdown right in the field (assuming, that You have very good headphones or a base with monitors available somewhere nearby), so if You intend to work on the field or to make mobile recordings – this option is for You. Much more convenient, then to carry a laptop and an audio interface around, not talking about an eternal headache of where to get a power.

Portable recorders is an interesting category, as You can have everything You need in one small independent device. This is a great (and only) option for travelers or field recorders, as You can put the whole studio in a pocket! Portable recorders usually include everything – a pair of built-in microphones for stereo recording, sometimes separate preamps for additional microphones You might want to connect, ADC, DAC and even its own built-in DAW.

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