The classic picture of a recording studio control room involves an engineer sitting at an expansive recording console with a slew of faders and even more knobs and buttons, all designed to help record and mix a great sounding track.
In today’s digital studios -- and particularly in home studios -- you’re more likely to find an engineer sitting in front of a computer with nothing more than a mouse and a computer keyboard. And this raises the question: Do you need a recording console for your home studio?
There’s no direct answer to the question, however, because while you can make a great sounding album without a console, some prefer the physical control consoles give them when it comes to recording and mixing. To decide what would work best for you, it’s important to understand exactly what today’s consoles are, and what they can do.
We should start by specifying that we’re only referring to digital recording here, as analog recording to tape is a completely different beast.
In its simplest terms, a console will be your audio interface where you connect your incoming audio sources. As such, it will contain built-in preamps, though you can also route that audio through external preamps before it comes into the console. Secondly, the console has those aforementioned faders and knobs that allow you to control your DAW on the physical hardware itself.
Many large studios will have large consoles that offer physical control over many different tracks. Depending on the console, this can include volume faders, pan controls, EQ and compression controls, playback, automation and much more. Many models also include level meters that allow for easy monitoring of levels during recording and mixing.
When working with a large amount of tracks, as many large studios will, having this ability can serve to simplify things in the studio -- particularly during the editing process.
Simply put, they are not required in digital recording; everything you would control on a console can be controlled directly on the computer.
Additionally, consoles tend to be very expensive. Even small eight input-consoles can cost thousands of dollars, and the large boards used in big studios can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. Additionally, compatibility can be an issue depending on the particular DAW you use. For example, not all consoles will correctly control all aspects of all recording software.
Still, the ease of use of the physical hardware easily overcomes these obstacles for some engineers.
Another option is to use a control surface, which is physical hardware that serves to control commands in the DAW, but does not act as an audio interface. Therefore, you would still need a separate audio interface to input your audio into the DAW.
These can be something of a happy medium for those that want physical control, but don’t want a full console. However, they have the same compatibility problems and often can be relatively expensive considering you also have to buy an interface.
So again, the question of whether you need a recording console comes down to what works best for the way you work and your budget.