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Monday, March 30, 2009

Audio Recording Software for Your Studio

This is Part 4 of the Makeshift Musician's Comprehensive Guide to Building Your Own Studio

We're now down to the last big component of your beast of a studio. To add this last piece, we need to dive into the prickly, sometimes confusing realm of software. Luckily for you, though, there are a lot of easy options to work with.

What does the software do? In the old days of recording, I'm talking, say, pre-Beatles era, audio-guys would just stick a microphone in front of a preforming band. The band would play, the mic would record onto a big reel of tape, and the audio-guy would call it a day and presumably get trashed afterward. Now, we've all listened to those old recordings and, well, they've got personality, but overall they sound pretty bad.

There's a misconception among folks that modern stuff sounds great in comparison because our space-age microphones and recording media are simply better, but that's actually only a very small part of the reason. Most engineers can't even tell the difference between a well-built microphone from the 1930's and a well built microphone just off the assembly-line.

The real reason modern recordings sound so good is because of the multitrack recording technique. Essentially multitracking allows you to record and synchronize multiple tracks at the same time, drums on one track, guitar on another and your vocals on a third, for example. You can add effects and edit each of these tracks without affecting the others or destroying or really even changing the original audio, allowing you free reign to tweak the sound until it's perfect. Since the edits you make are on top of the audio in a separate layer instead of integrated into it, if you mess up you don't need to rerecord -- you just take off the edit and you still have your pristine file. For a more in-depth explanation of how it works, read my very first article: An Introduction to Multitrack Recording. Back yet? Okay, now we can delve into software.

There are several options at your disposal and in fact some of them happen to be free of charge. Lets take a look at the free ones first.

GarageBand - If you're using an Apple computer for your studio, then, lucky you, you've already got software built-in. Professionals may scoff at it, but GarageBand is a true, honest-to-god multitrack system, that you can use to record real stuff. Like all Apple products, it's easy to use. This would be a great place to start, and it won't cost you a dime if you've already got a Mac.

Kristal - Another free bit of software, Kristal is so good they could charge $100 for it and people would be willing to pay it. 16 audio tracks, effects built in. VST support. This has everything. If you're just starting out, get this first. You can't beat free.

Those are the nice free ones, and are probably good enough for anything you might need. If you really want to go pro, however, then following is the studio software that'll take big chunks out of your wallet. Keep in mind, all these are competing with each other for your business, but really, ask any professional and they'll tell you they all do the same thing. The important thing is that you take the time to learn to use your software effectively.

DigiDesign ProTools - ProTools is usually the software choice for professionals. You can get the LE version for around $150. The high-end, HD version is much more, but seriously, you probably won't need it. The nice thing about ProTools is that there's a lot of specialized hardware, like mixing consoles and audio interfaces, that can accompany the software seamlessly. DigiDesign has built a whole, unified system around ProTools and supports it really well. I've used it some, and I believe it is geared more towards traditional studio recording, so it may have just slightly less support for purely electronic and MIDI setups.

Steinberg Cubase - This here is my software of choice. Steinberg invented the VST (Virtual Studio Technology) system, which is a platform, of sorts, for developers to create new systems that 'plug in' to Cubase, so you can add things like new effects processors or synthesizers. It has been so successful that other companies have added VST support to their systems. Anyway, Cubase is more geared towards electronic setups, but it can handle pure acoustic recording just fine, as I've used it for both. Cubase Studio 5, the current lower end version, goes for $299, which is pretty pricey.

Cakewalk Sonar - To be honest I don't know a whole lot about Cakewalk, and their product line is a little convoluted, but I know there are some artists that swear by it. The Home Studio version goes for a paltry (by comparison) $100, so it may be the most cost-effective of the bunch.

Remember to approach your software as you would an instrument: This is something you need to practice with and learn the intricacies of before you can really be effective with it. Find tutorials online and record and experiment as much as you can.

You'll most likely be overwhelmed by all the stuff onscreen when you boot up your software of choice for the first time. Here are some items to help get you oriented:

1. Find out how to get your Audio Interface talking to your Software. This is the first thing you need to do. You want to be able to hook up a microphone and start recording, so make sure it actually works when you do it. Go through the manuals for both products, and if all else fails ask the internet: search for both items in a single query on Google.

2. Figure out how to make new tracks. Also, each track has a 'recording input.' This is how it decides where it gets it's sound, be it from the microphone or the synthesizer or the bass guitar. Find out how to set this.

3. Automation. It's generally fairly simple to see how to change the volume of a track manually, but what you really want is to have the volume change throughout the song automatically, such as when an instrument fades out. This is usually called automation. Automation can cover other things too, like panning the sound left and right, or mixing effect levels.

4. Find the keyboard shortcuts. I can't emphasize this enough. Learn the keyboard commands! They will make your life easier.

5. Learn how to use Equalization and Effects. Equalization (EQ) is your best friend. You can use it to cut or boost, with great precision, any range of frequencies in your individual audio tracks. You do this so that you can fit lots of different sounds together without it all sounding like mud. Fiddle around with EQ a lot to learn how it works. Also experiment with effects as much as you can.

Go to part 3: Audio Interface, or How to Get Sound into the Computer

>>> Go to Part 5: What Speakers Should I Get?

Monday, March 16, 2009

Audio Interface, or, How to Get Sound into Your Computer

This is Part 3 of the Makeshift Musician's Comprehensive Guide to Building Your Own Studio

Now that you've got a computer, it's entirely possible that you're now standing in front of it with your guitar or piano or whatever, your eyes slowly moving back and forth between the two objects in a confused manner, wondering how to get sound into machine. At least, that's what I did.

You see, computers don't normally come with a usable audio interface. Sure, you've got a sound card, and it probably has a tiny microphone jack, but you're not actually thinking of using that, are you? Are you??

So what is an audio interface? It's a box that hooks up to your computer, usually through FireWire (you did remember to get a computer that has FireWire capability, right?) On this box is a number of inputs, for taking in sound, and outputs for, uh, outputting sound. I've made a little diagram to show you how it all works. This is to give you an idea of roughly how your studio should be set up:
Click on the image to see it full-size.

Now here are the different components that you want to look for in an audio interface:

Mic inputs

What can I say? These are for your microphones. If you do any acoustic stuff (guitars, drums, vocals, sound effects etc.) your audio interfac e should have at least two of these inputs on it. If you're recording a whole band, you'll want as many mic inputs as possible.

1/4-inch Line inputs

These are for bass guitars, keyboards, synthesizers, drum machines, turntables or anything electronic. If you've got a rack full of synths, you'll want more of these.

MIDI inputs

It's hard to find an audio interface that doesn't have MIDI inputs and outputs, but make sure yours has these anyway, especially if you're planning an all-software electronic setup.

With all this in mind, here are a few interfaces I found with a little digging on

PreSonus Inspire 1394 - This has two 1/4-inch inputs and two mic inputs for $200. No MIDI though.

Roland Edirol FA-66 - Now we're talkin'. 2 mic inputs, 4 1/4-inch inputs, RCA inputs (you know, those red-and-white cables on your DVD player?) MIDI in and out, this one looks pretty sweet. Not bad for $280.

Alesis iO|26 - If you've got a larger studio setup, or you just want to get fancy, this has more inputs than you'll ever need, plus you can use it to control your software. $430.

In my studio, I use an M-Audio FireWire 1814 , though these seem to be increasingly hard to find these days. It has eight 1/4-inch inputs, two mic inputs, MIDI and some other nice features. When it works, it works well, but it tends to crash a lot. Remember to do a lot of research before plunking down your cash for one of these devices. You can find reviews for just about any product by typing in the product name followed by the word 'review' on Google.

Hopefully, this can get you started with choosing an interface. What you get depends on your needs as a musician and recording artist. For example, I have more synths and workstations, so my interface has more 1/4-inch inputs. Some of you might have an all software setup, so you may only need midi inputs, in which case you'll be spending very little on hardware and spending more on software.

Speaking of software, that's our next issue to tackle. See you next week!

Go to Part 2: Get a Computer for Your Studio

>>> Go to Part 4: Audio Software

Monday, March 2, 2009

The Makeshift Musician's Comprehensive Guide to Building Your Own Studio

So you have a great band or you're a composer and you really want to make a sweet album yourself, but you don't know where to start? How does someone even record music? How does one go about putting together a studio? Don't you need to go to school for that kind of thing?

Fear not, gentle reader. Like the majestic albatross, I swoop down from the heavens and bestow upon you the greatest tool you'll ever receive, The Makeshift Musician's Comprehensive Guide to Building Your Own Studio.

My article Make Your Own Recording Studio is the most popular piece on this site. I've always felt like it was a bit short and lacking, so I really wanted to make something, well, more comprehensive and valuable. I hope this guide can help you make the whole process of home recording a little less daunting and mysterious and more fun.

Remember that there are roughly 5 million different ways to build a studio, and what I'm telling you covers just one way. The studio I've built for myself is a pretty good general purpose setup that is also highly portable and easily changeable, and that's about what you'll see in this guide.

Get a Computer for Your Studio

This is Part 2 of the Makeshift Musician's Comprehensive Guide to Building Your Own Studio.

The computer is the most important part of your studio. It is the brain, the place where all the audio and data crunching happens. You can make a studio without one, using a dedicated mixing console, but I find it more useful and intuitive to just use a computer. You can use it for not only recording, but also mastering and manipulating your files.

So what do you look for in a computer? The general rule of thumb is the more powerful, the better. You need RAM to manipulate multiple audio tracks at the same time; essential for multitrack studios. You need hard drive space to store all these recorded tracks. Again, that is essential. You need a speedy CPU so you can actually hear the audio while you're editing it, without delays. Jeez, it's starting to sound like you simply need the most expensive machine available, doesn't it?

Here's the thing though. If you have a computer that was built in the last few years, then it can probably work with multitrack software, and you can use it for your studio, just fine. You don't absolutely need the most powerful system money can buy. Computer makers prey on people's desire to own the best product and will release new systems every few months to maximize their profits. You don't need to give in to their pressure. As long as you have a system that works fine for you, you have no need to upgrade. Wrap that thing in duct tape and write "NO UPGRADES EVER" on it . That'll keep it working for years.

I'm reluctant to write down precisely what you should get since standards do change over time and will potentially make this article out of date. It is good to have a reference though, so I'll put the minimum that you should have in order to have a seamless, trouble free experience. Hopefully, if you're an advanced space-musician from the future, my writing will help you get the gist of what you should get for your Infini-core DNA Supercomputer even if the numbers I list seem laughably out of date.

  • CPU: Get something 1.5 Ghz or faster. This may sound a bit low to gamers or graphic designers but the fact is people have done multitracking on computers since the 1980's with much, much slower CPU's than that. I've personally recorded professional-level audio using Cubase on machines that were 700 Mhz and 1.5 Ghz and it's always worked without a hitch. This is the one area where you can afford to cut costs a little. Right now my iMac is a 2.4 Ghz. Not the fastest but it's respectable.
  • RAM: Simply get as much as you can afford. Again, I've recorded with as low as 512 megs and it worked out alright. Each track you record and mix into a song uses a chunk of your RAM while you're working on it. As you can imagine, it really starts to add up as you go and there is undeniably an upper limit to how many tracks you can have going at once. To guarantee a high number of tracks and a good comfort level for you, don't go below 1 gigabyte.
  • Hard Drive: You're going to be recording lots of audio, probably more than you realize right now, and you need a place to store it all. Get a big hard drive. Hard drives are relatively cheap these days, and a hundred dollars can get you pretty high capacity. Get two and use one to back up the other.
  • FireWire Port: Make sure your computer has a FireWire port or two. This will be necessary if you use an external device to plug in all your audio equipment. It will also be good if you use an external hard drive to backup your data.

Now, I'm going to break from my already feeble grasp of professionalism and give you some unofficial, personal, man-to-person advice, based on my experience. Get a Mac. I've used Windows-based PC's for lots of things, including recording. They generally work fine, but man, nothing is easier to use than a Mac. They're built for this kind of thing. You plug stuff into it and it works. A Mac works so well, in fact, that it is invisible. I never even have to think about it when I'm writing music or recording or backing up files or whatever. It's like using a reliable appliance: you turn it on and forget about it. Though I can't give up Windows on my sweet gaming rig, I'll probably never go back to PC for recording.

That said, there's nothing wrong with using a PC for recording. In some cases it may be better because any given piece of software is more likely to be written for Windows rather than Mac. And of course, PCs are cheap, and Apple has never understood the meaning of 'affordable', so that's not in their favor either.

What about a display? When working with software like ProTools or Cubase it's nice to have a big display with high resolution. A lot of data is displayed at once and can things go quicker when you don't have to keep closing some windows to make room for others. Many studios employ a dual-monitor setup (or duel-monitor setup, if they're badass.) For me, this is a luxury that I simply can't afford at the moment. It's nice, but not really necessary. Again, the general rule of thumb is the bigger the better, but even if you can only afford a 15-inch monitor, you'll still get by.

So, you've got your sweet computer, now how should you take care of it once you set it up for your studio?

The setup: The computer keyboard should always be placed in a way that makes it readily accessible. This may sound obvious, but it's always tempting, when working with limited space, to have your musical keyboard in front of you and push the computer keyboard to the side. This isn't going to be like web browsing where you only need your mouse, however. You will want to learn all the keyboard commands, or better yet, set them yourself, so that you can operate this beast with maximum efficiency. I've used a studio setup where the keyboard was mostly out of reach, and without having every function at the push of a button it can be almost crippling.

Backups: If you're the tech-savvy type, then you probably can come up with some sort of fancy automated system for regularly backing up your data. Even if you're like the rest of us, however, you can still backup your files pretty easily. Whatever kind of operating system you choose, Mac or Windows, learn the basics of how the filesystem works: know how to create folders, copy files and move them around. You bought two hard drives, right? On a regular basis, copy all your important music files over to this second drive.

Now that you've got your computer, it's time to start making some music on it. Check out the rest of the articles in the series, including getting an audio interface and software for your machine.

This is part 2 of the Studio Guide

Go to part 1: Do-It-Yourself Sound Dampening

>>> Go to part 3: Audio Interface, or, How to Get Sound Into Your Computer