How to Build a Digital Audio Workstation

If you want to turn your custom build into the centerpiece of a recording studio, there are specialized components out there to help you accomplish the task. The parts we’ll cover are designed to allow your computer to accept the various connections used for professional microphones, mixers, musical instruments, and anything else you may need to hook up.

Join DIY all day as we “record” our thoughts on audio recording and editing workstations.

[This article is a sub-guide of our site’s larger How to Build a Computer guide.  It assumes that you have  already read Buying Parts, CPUs, Motherboards, RAM, HDDs, Optical Drives, Cases, Wirless NICs, PSUs and OSs.]

[Want to skip the specialized systems and workstations?  Skip ahead to Before You Place Your Order.]

General Hardware Requirements

Professional audio is recorded a type of WAVE file called “Raw PCM.” Raw PCM is fairly large; it’s about 25 megabytes per minute depending on how much sound is happening on the track. Translating that into hard drive space, if you set aside 500 gigabytes of your hard drive for recording, you could get about 350 hours of RAW PCM audio on it, which is a lot. Note that this doesn’t translate into 350 hours of finished product.

For the hobbyist like myself 100 to 200 GB is plenty. I have 81 “sessions” on my computer which only occupy 21 GB. For the self producing active musician or band 200 – 500 GB should be plenty. It’s really only the commercial producers that need bookshelves full of external hard drives.

We’ll be using a 1TB hard drive in our pick your parts list and we’ll also be including an external hard drive. When it comes to original work, backing up your data is super important.

As for the other system components, an $80 – $120 Intel processor and 8GB of RAM will more than handle any professional audio applications you intend to use. If you intend to run multiple interfaces (make sure this is supported) you may want to spend $200 or more on your processor.

If you’re not intending to do any gaming with your system you can purchase a motherboard with onboard graphics. For light gaming or watching HD video an $80 – $100 video card will get the job done.

Computer Recording Interfaces

The best way to record music digitally is by using a computer recording interface. Essentially CRIs are sound cards that accept inputs for musical equipment. When you install one, it will appear in Windows as a sound card. The industry hasn’t quite settled on a term for these products and you’ll see that many sites have different names for them such as: computer recording interface, audio interface, sound card or digital recording interface.

Computer recording interfaces hook up to the computer in a variety ways such as USB, Firewire, PCI and PCIe. I prefer the internal cards, but the external interfaces are just functional.

The advantage of these devices is that each input can be recorded as its own track in your recording software. This is different from USB mixers which typically only send a single stereo track to the computer. (I don’t recommend getting a USB mixer for computer recording.) With a CRI mixing and mastering can be done through software giving you have virtually limitless editing ability.

Another advantage to CRIs it that they typically have as many outputs as they do inputs. The outputs are typically programmable through the driver software. This means that you can route all (or part) of your mix to several different devices.

Basics of Digital Recording Inputs, Terminology and Methodology

If you’re new to digital recording to you’ll need a little background to understand the listings for these interfaces. So here’s your crash course:

  • When looking at number analog inputs on these interfaces, keep in mind that many instruments like keyboards, effects pedals, and drum machines have the option to output in stereo. Using the stereo output will make these devices sound better but will require two analog inputs. These can be paired in your recording software to occupy a single stereo channel or “stereo pair.”
  • 1/4 inch Patch cables come in two varieties: TS and TRS. TS cables (Tip Sleeve) are commonly referred to as “instrument cables.” Because they have a positive and a negative connection but no ground they are also referred to as “Unbalanced.” TRS (Tip Ring Sleeve) are used to hook up various types of pro-audio equipment. These cables include a ground and are called “balanced.” You’ll see this same terminology applied to analog inputs on recording interfaces. Make sure as your picking out your various pieces of equipment and cables that your jacks and cables match. Many CRIs use inputs that support both TS and TRS cables to improve compatibility.
  • The two primary analog hookups are “instrument” and “XLR.” Instrument hookups are used for guitars, basses and many other instruments. XLR hookups are used for microphones. For CRIs, typically the analog inputs are either instrument or “combo” meaning that they support both XLR and instrument cables. Some interfaces only include instrument jacks. To hook microphones to a CRI with only instrument jacks use a microphone pre-amp.
  •  Condenser microphones require 48-volt phantom power, most XLR jacks on a CRI are going to provide this, but check to make sure. Many of the nicer studio and drum mics are condenser style, so it’s a plus to have available on your interface. Phantom power is not required for dynamic mics.
  • Two common digital inputs on these interfaces are S/PDIF and ADAT. S/PDIF may be found as an output on certain high-end drum machines, keyboards and effects pedals. It delivers a stereo output of uncompressed (RAW) PCM. ADAT inputs are used to hook up analog-to-digital converters to add eight additional analog jacks to an interface for each set input/output jacks.
  • A third type of digital input is MIDI which stands for “musical instrument digital interface.” Instruments do not use the MIDI input; the input is used for hooking up a MIDI controller. MIDI is quite versatile, a series of audio samples are recorded (or created) at different pitches to make a “virtual instrument,” which is played using the controller. The concept is similar to a synthesizer, but because the samples are stored on the computer’s hard drive rather than on the instrument tens of thousands of different tones can easily be supported. Like a synthesizer, MIDI can imitate any instrument (some better than others) in addition to thousands of synthetic instruments and ambient and percussive sounds.
  • If you’re using multiple input devices, you’ll likely need to configure wordclock settings in your recording software or driver utility to make sure all the audio is correctly synced. You may also have hook up the wordclock ports on your hardware if timing issues can’t be resolved in the software alone. Some hardware configurations may require an external “master clock” to make all your studio components work together properly. Make sure you do you research on all the additional components you’ll be hooking up to your CRI. The M-Audio Forums are a good place to go to see what actual users have had success with on their setups.
  • Professionally recorded drums have each drum miked and recorded onto its own track. Doing this will require a more expensive interface. Although the quality is lower, drums can be recorded with far fewer microphones, even with a single microphone.
  • The typical approach to studio recording is to record and master each performer one at a time starting with the drums. Being able to record everyone at once is sometimes useful in the studio, but is only absolutely necessary for live recording. Keep this in mind as you’re planning your system’s cost and input requirements.

Hopefully all that’s understandable enough to get you started. We don’t want to go too much in-depth about the actual studio setup; our focus here is on building the computer for the studio.

Featured Interfaces

Our affiliate partner for these interfaces is B&H Photo. Musician’s Friend is the top site for this type of stuff but they’re quite over-priced. Check it out for yourself. You may save $100 or more on some interfaces at B&H.

I’m a big M-Audio fan when it comes to this stuff, so all my featured interfaces will be M-Audio products.

Basic/Starter/Personal interfaces

There are several low-cost options for getting your feet wet in the digital recording waters. Our featured interface for this category is the M-Audio MobilePre MK II.

The MobilePre MK II connects to the computer via USB 2.0. It has two combo ports that can record two mono tracks simultaneously or the inputs can be combined into a single stereo pair. It can be used to record individual performers one at a time but is limited in its ability to record drums by its small number on inputs. It includes Pro Tools SE Recording software.

Live/Home-Studio/Professional-Studio Interfaces.

If you’re ready to take your recording to the next level, a more expensive rack mount interface will help you get there. Many of these interfaces offer enough inputs to record a large band live. Our featured interface is the M-Audio Profire 2626.

The Profire 2626 has eight combo inputs and two instrument inputs. You can add 16 additional analog inputs with ADAT analog to digital converters. It connects to the computer via Firewire. It includes digital inputs for MIDI, S/PDIF and ADAT. It also features wordclock in and out ports, which may be needed to get all your inputs properly synced if you’re using ADAT devices with it. Again check the M-Audio forum to see what end users have had success with for ADAT setups. No recording software is bundled with the Profire 2626.

Recording Software

There are many different professional programs out there for recording audio. The ones designed for recording music include support for MIDI and are typically called “sequencers” or “software DAWs” (Digital Audio Workstations.) The top programs are going to be Steinberg Cubase, Cakewalk Sonar, Avid Pro Tools, and Ableton Live. There are several other good programs out there as well. Most recording interfaces bundle a basic version of one of these programs.

There are also a number of recording programs out there that lack MIDI sequencers. The professional ones like Adobe Audition, are primarily designed for non-music audio recording and are commonly used at radio stations. Even if you don’t use MIDI now, it’s a good idea to get a program that supports it. As you gain studio experience you’ll likely want to add MIDI to your recordings to help fill out your sound.

Audio Recording Accessories

Aside from the instruments, microphones and any other equipment you may already own, you’ll probably need to pick up a few accessories with your interface.

  • At least one set of studio headphones if you don’t already own a pair. If you’re going to have multiple people listening in on the mix get additional sets. Some interfaces have multiple headphone ports–some don’t. For hooking up several sets of headphones a headphone amplifier is necessary.
  • Make sure to purchase any patch cables you need to hook everything up.
  • Since most headphone jacks on audio equipment are conveniently 1/4 even though nearly all headphones are 1/8, you’ll probably want to pick up a few 1/4 to 1/8 headphone adapters.
  • If using a USB or Firewire interface, make sure the included cable will be long enough to serve your needs. If not purchase a longer one.
  • Depending on the scale of your studio a cable tester can be extremely useful.

Pick-Your-Parts List

This pick-your-parts list assumes you’ll be running a single interface like the Profire 2626 and the processor has been picked accordingly. If you’re planning on running 3 or 4 delta interfaces, you’ll want to sub out a more expensive CPU. Also make sure your board has enough PCI slots, very few boards include more than three these days.
The motherboard link is pre-sorted to include only motherboards that have a firewire hookup. Even if you’re not going to be using a firewire interface now, it’s nice to have the option if you’re purchasing another interface in the future.

For reference on parts selection review my parts selection articles for CPUs, Motherboards, RAM, HDDs, Optical Drives, Cases, Wirless NICs, PSUs and OSs.

Don’t forget any additional items you may need.

These aren’t just any links…

When indicated, the links below will lead you to a specific part.  Most links lead to a Tiger Direct “guided search” path to show only compatible parts for this specific system.  By using these links, you will be only see parts that are compatible with each other.  The search paths lead to parts that have my recommended specs for this system type.  Make any purchases within fourteen days of your “click” to give DIY all day credit for the referral and help support our site.  Thank you!

 

CPUIntel Core i3-3220 Processor

Mobo:  Motherboards→Intel→Socket LGA 1155→ATX→Firewire

RAMMemory/RAM→240-Pin→DDR3→1600MHz→8GB→2 Modules

HDD:  Hard Drives→Internal→SATA→7200 RPM→3.5″→1TB-1.5TB

Optical:  CD/DVD/Bluray Burners→Bluray Burners→Intermal→SATA

CaseComputer Cases→ATX Mid-Tower

Video CardVideo/Graphics Cards→1GB-4GB→GDDR5

WirelessNetworking & Wireless→Wireless Networking→Wireless Adapters→802.11n

PSUPower Supplies→ATX→1 4-pin/8-pin EPS→600W-699W

OS: Microsoft Windows 8 64BIT – OEM DVD

External HDDExternal Hard Drives

Recording Equipment:

Other Recording Items?

Other Computer Items?

Thermal Compound: Heatsinks/Fans/Cooling→Thermal Paste

Monitor: Monitors→Widescreen

Keyboard:   Keyboards / Mice / Input →Keyboards & Keypads→Standard Keyboards

Mouse: Keyboards / Mice / Input→Mice & Trackballs→Optical Mice

Speakers: Computer Speakers→Auxiliary Input

 

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