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Friday, April 25, 2008

What Speakers Should I Get?

This is Part 5 of the Makeshift Musician's Comprehensive Guide to Building Your Own Studio

Some folks, upon hearing that I had a studio, would immediately ask about what speakers I had. This aspect seemed to be the most important part to them. Audiophiles and engineers are a special breed. They love their speakers, to a degree that is frankly a little beyond me. This kind of thing used to intimidate me. You may be experiencing this if you have an audiophilic friend. You may feel the pressure to get some really expensive speakers as part of your rig/studio. Is this something you should be worrying about?

Before I give my opinion, let me get some things out of the way first. The point of high quality studio monitors (which is what audio folks call speakers) is to give a producer a flat frequency response. That means that all frequencies, from the deepest bass to most nasally voice to the highest note on a piccolo are given the same amount of power. The speaker will not favor any particular frequency range, so to speak. This helps the producer make a clean, well-balanced mix. If his speakers have a tendency for a heavy amount of bass (like most of the speakers you'll find at Best Buy), then the producer's music will probably end up with a weak bass sound, if he's not careful.

So should you be spending hundreds of dollars to get yourself a nice pair of real studio monitors, so you can have an authentic, flat sound? Only if you want to. I'd say when you're starting out, don't bother. Get something halfway decent and be happy. When you are working on your music, you should be more concerned with listening to your mix on a variety of speakers. When your song is nearly finished, burn it to a CD and listen to it in the car, on your home theater if you have it, boom box, laptop, weird ipod accessory, whatever you have. You will learn a lot from this sonic variety and you'll be able to make a great mix.

What do I have? For my studio, I do, in fact, use studio monitors. They're fairly cheap ones though: a pair of Behringer B2031P's. You need an amp for them, but they're still relatively inexpensive for a makeshift musician like me. On my Windows computer, the one I use for mastering and playing games, I have the Logitech Z-2300 set. It sounds great and I love it. If these sound good enough for me to do mastering, they should be good for anything.

Some things to consider when buying speakers:

Size DOES matter:
No matter what some manufacturers might tell you, tiny speakers are physically incapable of giving you a rich, full sound. Sound waves are literally shaped like the object they come from. Sound waves from a guitar are actually guitar-shaped. Because of the large resonating chamber that the guitar has, it's lower frequencies are massive. A small, 4 inch high speaker absolutely cannot accurately recreate the sound of a guitar's resonating chamber simply because of its size. My audio engineering teacher said once that the ideal speaker would match the exact size and shape of whatever it was recreating. Keep that in mind when buying speakers. If you want a nice, full sound, get something bigger; at least somewhat bigger than your fist. My Logitech's are relatively small, but they have a nice big subwoofer that helps makes up for it.

Speaker technology hasn't really changed or improved in
Well-built speakers from, say, the 1970's will sound just as good as well-built modern speakers, provided they haven't deteriorated yet. Making speakers into weird pod shapes does not actually make them better. Any talk of this or some sort of new technology is just a gimmick. Don't be fooled! Look for simple claims of high quality instead.

Search online for reviews of speakers to see what is best for your price range. By reading a several reviews of the same product, you can generally triangulate its quality yourself. And when your audiophile friend gives you a hard time for not buying 500-dollar (each!) speakers, just let him (it's always a him) know that he was probably ripped off!

Go to part 4: Audio Software

>>> Go to part 6: Microphones, Cables and Everything Else

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

The Makeshift Musician's Studio

I apologize to my loyal readers for the lack of articles recently. Rest assured that I have a lot more content on the way for your enjoyment. Also, if there's anything you would like to see covered in this blog, please let me know.

A very astute reader may have already figured out my studio setup after reading all the articles so far. But for clarity, lets just go over everything in my own studio. What does a makeshift musician use? I was lucky enough to be blessed with a single car garage. In this garage I've cobbled together a fairly nice studio (if I do say so myself.) One of the problems with the garage is that it has a slightly sloped floor to keep water from getting in. This is a little annoying because it makes my chair swivel when it should stay still, but most of the time I don't notice. Here's a list of equipment:

2.5 Ghz
Apple iMac with 2 megs of RAM - the iMac with OS X on it is so reliable that it's practically invisible. I almost never even think about the computer itself. This is what a computer should be. George Sanger, AKA The Fat Man talks in his book about turning the usually unreliable computer into a solid appliance by first making sure it is working and in stable condition, then sealing it up with duct tape and then writing "NO UPGRADES EVER" on it in sharpie. This is a great idea. Once your studio computer works well, try not to add much software or hardware to it. iMacs are great because they're already stable, self contained machines that work more like appliances than computers.

Steinberg Cubase SE
- This is the software I use for recording and mixing. For the most part it is functionally identical to other software like Pro Tools and Cakewalk. The software's usefulness is really just a function of your own familiarity with it. Find a particular piece of software and stick with it. You'll get really good with it after a while.

M-Audio F
ireWire 1814 - This is how I hook up the keyboards, headphones, microphones and monitors (speakers) to the computer. When this thing works, it works perfectly. It is well built and solid. However, occasionally it will inexplicably lock up at random times, just like a computer crash. I have no idea what causes this, and it is always fixed simply by turning it off and on again, but it is incredibly annoying and is unacceptable for something so expensive. Next time I'll get something from a different manufacturer.

Behringer B2031P Studio Monitors
- ('monitor' is a pretentious word for speaker) These are relatively inexpensive and have great sound. Highly recommended. You need to get an amp for them though.

Yamaha Motif ES-6
- This is a high-end workstation keyboard. It's interface is cryptic and difficult to learn. I've only barely learned it's basic functionality, but it has some powerful ability to manipulate sound. It has a fantastic bank of crisp, loud patches covering almost every genre imaginable. It's wind and guitar instruments, in particular, sound incredible. This is where the majority of my sounds come from.

Korg ES-1 Drum Machine
- This thing is the oldest part of the Jupiterman studio. It's starting to show its age and has become much less relevant in recent years, but it it still reliable, tough-as-nails and embarrassingly easy to use. I say embarrassingly because the other devices that surround it are more advanced and more expensive and yet are still designed in a completely illogical way. If you've listened to music from, you'll likely hear a lot of glitchy, multilayered percussion, as in Rebuilding a City, the second half of Apathetic Macrocosm (after the lyrics end), or Continuous Welded Rail. That is all from this one drum machine.

Novation XioSynth
- A nice little synthesizer that replaced my old Korg Microkorg. It's a bit easier to use and has a more modern sound. I made a great recreation of a theremin with it. It's only problem is that it doesn't have MIDI input. Only an output, for some reason.

AKG Perception 200 Microphone
- This is a crisp, full-sounding microphone with some nice features. Plus it is relatively inexpensive.

What else is in there?
- a microphone stand,
- a couple of stools for whoever is playing an instrument,
- a large plastic container full of scrap metal, balloons and some other random junk for sound effects,
- a bean bag chair left over from the previous tenant,
- a few hippie-looking wall hangings and carpets on the walls and floor for sound dampening,
- a pair of bongos,
- books on audio engineering and chord progressions,
- manuals galore,
- illustrations from Stephen King's Dark Tower series on the wall (a major inspiration for me),
- and some christmas lights that I haven't gotten around to hooking up

Tell me your studio setup and maybe it will be featured in a later article!

Thursday, April 3, 2008

The Origins of American Music

In the last 100 years, the music output from American culture has become a dense and intricate web of interesting history, with new genres created and adored practically every few years, and musical styles splitting, forming, coalescing and ultimately mixing back with the styles they split from in the first place. It's all a very evolutionary process; the DNA of musical styles mutated by individual artists, their survival decided by record companies and ultimately listeners.

But the origins of American music can be traced back to relative simplicity. Essentially, if you learn nothing else, remember that almost all American music stems from the mixing of European folk music (mostly Irish) and African folk music. The Irish, Scottish, English, French and Spanish immigrants, many living in the Appalachian mountains, started hanging out with African former slaves, who's polyrhythmic spiritual music was already gaining popularity after the civil war. The Civil War itself brought many whites and blacks together simply out of necessity; soldiers' fighting together shared their music with each other. Modern bluegrass is the closest reflection of this ancient (by American standards) combination of styles.

Negro Christian Spiritual hymns gained popularity in the late 1800's, which were essentially old European hymns sung in an African call-and-response polyrhythmic style. Then near the end of the century, a peculiar African American dance gained popularity; an over-the-top parody of ballroom dancing called the Cakewalk, often accompanied by goofy costumes. The intense popularity of this led to ragtime, which then evolved into jazz, thanks mostly to African American marching and, bizarrely, funeral bands from New Orleans. Jazz, of course, became possibly the single most influential change in America music and led to blues and rock n' roll. You probably know the rest.

It is interesting to note that if it weren't for African Americans, the United States would probably still be listening to John-Philips Sousa and Irish-Appalachian jigs.

This is all a gross oversimplification of the full history of American music. I didn't even go into Native American music, Cajun, Latin-American, or any of the several other cultural styles that have had their effect on our culture. The amount of literature related to this subject seems near infinite; the depth at which you can research any particular sub-topic is really only limited by your own conviction. Now that you have this tiny bit of information, you can strike out on your own and maybe hear some new stuff on the way.