Your first home studio

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11:27 PM 5/9/2004

This is the story of my new opinion on home studios, equipment, and the general perfectionist present in many musicians and artists alike. If you don't have much time the moral of the story is don't buy "it" because you probably don't need it. Practice your art instead! All others, read on!

I have always been fascinated by home studios, specifically the ongoing development of my own! From the moment I first recorded those few words in 'Sound Recorder' with a crappy microphone on my first crappy Windows 95 computer I was hooked on digital recording. This setup of computer, sound card, and multitrack software is commonly referred to as a DAW or Digital Audio Workstation. Recently, for better or for worse, a bug to upgrade my current setup bit me and I was off to research new gear and eventually made a purchase.

The Windows 95 Sound Recorder would change my life.

I settled on buying an M-box from Digidesign. Why? I think the allure of having the full fledged version of Pro Tools in my hands was just too hard to resist. Everybody has heard of Pro Tools, right? It sounds so cool and EVERYBODY uses it, right? Well, this was my chance to be like all the best and I took it! Am I upset I bought it? No. Am I completely satisfied? Not really. Now that I have learned the Pro Tools basics and have a couple of sessions under my belt I guess I can say I "know" Pro Tools though I am far from being good at it I suppose. What I HAVE learned I would like to share with you.

First off, I would like you to acknowledge and thank Mr. Ethan Winer for all the valuable info posted on his website. You may visit his site by clicking here. I realized many things while perusing his articles. I stumbled upon his site while searching the web for "SoundFont" information. I do remember hearing about SoundFonts way back when but never really payed attention to them. I was actually searching for information that pertained to my secondary computer I used for general use and gaming, NOT the computer I had set up for ProTools. At that point I was a bit frustrated with ProTools.

Things I had accomplished so easily with my previous setup (an Echo Gina20 sound card running Cool Edit Pro) were now so difficult it seemed. Bouncing to disk, fade files, and fade folders all seemed like a step backward to me. Eventualy I bought a book to help me learn ProTools but in the meantime...

This secondary computer of mine had an older Creative "SoundBlaster Live! Value" card installed. (You can buy these cards for about $25 bucks nowadays!) I had this computer set up right next to my Pro Tools rig. One thing I absolutely loved about the M-box was the software it came with in addition to ProTools, specifically Reason Adapted. This made me wonder how other "soft-synths," as they are called, would perform on my secondary machine. I decided I would try it "(cue: old Russian voice) just for keeks!" After downloading a demo of Absynth from Native Intruments. I learned that the latency, or delay between striking a key and hearing the sound, was unbearable. I was about to give up on this idea when I remembered composing some MIDI tunes on an even older Sound Blaster (ISA) card years before on that crappy Windows 95 box. Surely there had to be a solution or at least an explanation of such horrible performance.

I fired up the latest Cakewalk software called Sonar and went to work. I set up a MIDI track and sure enough there was no latency issue at all. I played my keyboard and the response was immediate. Wonderful! Then I realized, shit, I am stuck with this cheesy set of sounds hardwired, so to speak, into this sound card. That was the tradeoff! I thought to myself...what if there was a way I could change these default sounds and plug in some really good ones? Then I saw the light! That is exactly what a SoundFont was! Just like you use differnet fonts for different looks in your word processor you can use SoundFonts for different sounds in your digital audio software. In less than half an hour I had downloaded a ton of FREE SoundFont files and was truly impressed by the quality of some of the samples. This was my great revelation.

On my left I had a 2.4Ghz system running ProTools with the M-box. On the right I had my year and a half old 1.7Ghz Celeron running my old-ass SB Live card. I never gave that SB Live card a fair chance or more precisely, I never really learned all I could about it. Had I bothered to learn all about Sound Fonts and realized some things about myself, I would have never bought the M-Box. This was my second revelation.

What did I really want to do with my home studio? What were my goals? What are your goals? Do you really want to be able to record "professional quality" music using the best A/D converters, preamps and all that crap? Do you really? I certainly thought I did. You can get so wrapped up in so many things and there is so much to learn in the world of digital audio that I guess you really can't blame yourself for letting your priorites go astray. My advice is not for the seasoned pro. It is for the beginning musician, sound/recording engineer, or budding hobbyist. Let your goals decide what you need. Focus on your goals and be specific. Now take a look at your goals and be realistic.

Most of us naturally assume that we need the best gear possible to convey our artistic visions. We will sell everything we own and max out the credit card in order to feel comfortable that we have done "all we can" for the sake of the music! Believe me, it doesn't have to be this way! I've been there and I'm still paying for it! I think my big mistake was trying to accomodate too many hypothetical situations at once. I thought of being able to colloborate with other musicians by choosing the right software. I thought if I presented my songs in the best possible quality that the band might want to take them on. I thought if I had the right setup I could subsidize the cost of all my gear by recording demos on a semi-pro level. Guess what has happened 5 years later?

I have never collaborated ONCE with another musician on any projects. I have exchanged stereo .wav files with my buddy Jose (Jvibe) but I am talking about putting a whole Cubase, Sonar, or ProTools session on disk and exchanging it back and forth. Obviously, I don't need this kind of functionality!... The reason the band wasn't performing my songs had nothing to do with the way I was presenting it to them. It had to do more with the material itself and their ego(s). If you are in a band with an established songwriter think about this. Does that person present you with a polished demo of their new song? Probably not. In fact they probably romp through some chords on guitar or piano and sing you a rough out of tune melody, right? So why was I so worried about it? ...I have recorded a demo for a friend's girlfriend for $100 ONCE. I guess I really don't need to record more than two tracks at once now do I? This got me thinking ...what did I really want from a recording and what did I really want to be able to do?

I want to be able to put down my ideas so I don't forget them. I want to build a catalog of songs and archive them. I want them to sound good enough to present as "demo" quality. I want the vocals to be clear and intelligible. I want the mixes to be reasonably balanced. Since I tend to write on piano. I always have wanted a nice grand piano sound. Lastly, I prefer to input my drums through the keyboard rather than build patterns on a drum machine. I find the latter so tedious and time consuming. I have finally come to terms with not trying to have gear good enough for a "studio quality commercial release." Looking back on it I feel quite silly actually.

I still believe in good quality but I am not obsessed with the details anymore. I used to scrutinize every cable in the pathway and every possible source of noise. Now I try to look at things in terms of what is good enough for what I want to accomplish. Do you need 48 audio tracks running at once? Do you need to record in 24 bit? Do you need to be ready for DVD Audio and 5.1 Dolby Digital/DTS mixes? I don' least not yet. Here is what I really need: Making the time and discliping myself to write new material and actually record as often as possible. I applaud you if this comes easier to you than it does to me. Is that 2nd game of Quake III for the day or playing X-Box more important than practicing your art? Now that you have suffered through my personal history let me be specific. This is what I think you should buy if you are entering the world of digital audio for the very first time. My history is with Windows so my recommendation comes from experience and what I know. I don't hate Apple (in fact I would quite fancy the new G5's) ...once again, it's just what I know. I will assume that you have already been bitten by the recording bug and may have already tried to record with the current sound card built into your motherboard or what have you. Hey, if the quality of that is good enough for what you need then by all means keep using it. If not, read on.

The List:

1) A reasonably fast computer with at least 512MB of memory and preferrably a second hard drive just for the audio. If you are using mostly MIDI tracks and just one or two vocal tracks per song a second hard drive may not even be necessary. Even the slower processors nowadays, such as an Intel Celeron or an AMD Duron, will be fine for now. Don't worry about running 10 plug-ins at once for now. Even my old Pentium Pro 200 with 128MB of ram was good enough for 12 tracks of audio which was enough for a pretty good demo of the band I was in (Check out a sample here if you like). If you are building it yourself hop on the quiet bandwagon and get a case like the Antec Sonata to minimize noise. Nothing will help your recordings more than having a quiet environment to work in except the actual quality of your playing and the natural sound of your intrument(s)/voice. If you are buying it complete, get a Dell. They are quiet and seem to be the Apple computers of audio on the Windows side of things if that makes any sense. Besides, your mom and your girlfriend will think you are being sensible. Ha ha ha.

2) A Sound Blaster Audigy 2 sound card. You could go even cheaper and get an old SB Live card like the one I mentioned before but most people agree the Audigy is noticeably quieter than the Live card before it. The sound quality comparison can be a bit more subjective between the two but again the general consensus is the Audigy series sounds a tick more detailed. Yeah, yeah, I have heard that all the Sound Blaster cards resample their audio no matter what but you know what, I honestly don't know what that means and I don't think it really matters! As a beginner, will you be able to hear the difference? I don't think so.

If you want to splurge get the Audigy 2 ZS with the external I/O box. This will save you from having to get some adaptors such as 1/8' to 1/4' and special MIDI/joystick cables. It will also get you a convenient place to make all your connections right in front of your PC.

Sidebar: Once you get a bit experienced I recommend you check out the KX Project site. These fine folks have come up with an awesome driver that replaced the Creative driver with a feature set designed with the musician in mind. I believe the basis for this project was the EMU drivers, or APS, for their Creative chipset based pro-cards. Their driver includes an ASIO driver that had me playing with the Absynth soft synth demo all over again, this time with no perceptible latency, or only 8ms(!) as the KX Project states. I consider their driver an incredible find that unlocks the full potential of your SB card.

There are other cards that perform acceptably well BUT I highly recommend the use of SoundFonts at this level and these can only be done on a Creative board. There are software "wrappers" that can mimic these functions but why get complicated? Stick to what works. If you have a laptop and want to use SoundFonts you may be out of luck or you may have to research those wrappers after all. EMU made a pcmcia card called the EMU 8710 a while back that did the trick but as far as I can tell it only supports Win9x, not Windows 2000 or XP so I wouldn't recommend it. The key here is budget. Refills and VST intsruments are generally of very good quality but SoundFonts are much cheaper and a huge amount of them are free. Assuming your are actually buying your software and not downloading cracks it would cost you in the hundreds just to buy something like Absynth, Reason or Gigastudio. The software to manage SoundFonts and even build your own is included with a SB purchase or can be downloaded from their website. Searching for SoundFont information on the Internet will bring you tons of links. Fire up Google, try it and you'll see what I mean.

IMPORTANT! I do not recommmend buying the "Audigy LS" card. I had a bitch of a time finding updated software for this beast on the Creative site (shame on them). This card seems to be a black sheep in the product line. Fortunately I found my original driver CD but that's another story altogether...

Don't expect to go to Guitar Center and be able to buy a SB card there unless you go for the more expensive EMU products. Try Pricewatch or go to Fry's, Comp USA, Best Buy, etc...Don't forget Ebay and other used gear sources either. For some reason the big push these days seems to be USB and Firewire devices. I see no point unless you have a laptop (even then the Echo Indigo I/O is probably a better choice). They all talk about portability in location and between computers. Are you going to record new lightsaber sounds for George Lucas out in the field? I'm not. Are you going to move your devices from computer to computer? It's not as easy as you may think especially with the increasingly stronger focus of software companies requiring you to authorize their software each time you install it or make big system changes. I simply upgraded my memory the other day and had to re-authorize my software.

3) Once you have your hardware together it's time to think of your recording software. At this level I would recommend something very affordable like the low end of the Cakewalk product line (Cakewalk Home Studio 2004 at $129 is an excellent choice). Yes, you MAY outgrow it but at least you won't frustrate yourself to death in trying to learn VST or ProTools on your first try. If you will be using MIDI and/or SoundFonts then make sure the application supports it. Some apps (like the excellent Adobe Audition, formerly Cool Edit Pro) only do audio and have only MIDI playback support. If you don't even care about MIDI and don't even have or play keyboard I would wholeheartedly recommend Adobe Audition. It is steep at about $300 but it would definitely grow with you and be easy enough to use as a beginner.

4) Obviously you will need a keyboard for recording MIDI. Anything with a MIDI out will do. I still use my old Yamaha Portasound PSR-500M. There are some other interesting options out there including computer keyboards with a set of keys built in like another Creative product, the Prodikeys. Then there are the various M-Audio controllers available in many configurations including ones with sliders for advanced MIDI controls. Like I said, any old keyboard with a MIDI out will do.

5) Unless you are strictly composing MIDI instrumentals you will also need a mic. A Shure SM57 will do just fine for both vocals and instruments. The SM58 is cool also. I just browsed through the latest Guitar Center ads and saw some cool deals on the Blue mics but I have yet to try one. The Blue Ball mic looks pretty interesting and it's cheap, too. I am pretty happy with my Rode NT2 microphone but it might be a bit too expensive for the beginner although they are a great value.

6) Don't get too crazy buying fancy cables and the like just yet. Wait till your ears tell you differently. Work with what you have for now. Even the most basic cables will do for now. That being said, don't go to Radio Shack and buy their flimsy crap either! I'm not completely knocking Radio Shack. Sometimes they have that great little adaptor or part you need at the last minute. I'm just saying don't go totally "el cheap-o."

7) Ahhh...monitors. This will be what you will play your music back through. That would be your speakers and their amplification in simple terms. Once again, what you have may be good enough. If your computer came with a decent set of speakers and a small subwoofer you should be in good shape. It has been said that you can record and mix on any set of decent speakers as long as you really "know" them. I don't think those flimsy "500 watt" speakers from the $5 store are going to work but chances are you shouldn't have to spend much to get a quality set for your first rig. If you want a brand new set try the 2.1 top of the line sets from Logitech and Klipsh. These are plenty loud, crisp, and reasonaby balanced. Recently I bought my cousin a $50 2.1 set from Logitech at Office Depot that was plenty impressive for the price. I ran across this Star Wars set from Klipcsh that I think is just too cool if you're a Star Wars fan like me.

I would personally love to have a set of Mackies or Genelecs but I just don't have the money so I use what I've got! One more thing, you may see pretty good deals on monitors from time to time but keep in mind they may not be self-powered or amplified meaning you would still need to buy a power amp or use a receiver. Read the product descriptions carefully.

8) I don't believe you need a mixer at this point. I personally don't think I'll need a mixer ever again. I am perfectly happy mixing "in the box." This means I make all adjustments and add all effects in your computer as opposed to bringing them "outside the box" to a mixer and DAT machine or what have you. Besides, it's cheaper to mix in the box.

Now that you have all your gear together it's time for the two most important steps. First, Read the fuckin' manual (or RTFM in Internet Jargon). I am trying to make it easy but let's face it, computers and software will never be like picking up the phone or using a VCR. You need to read the instructions that came with your shit!

Second, USE YOUR STUDIO! Don't let it and your brain collect dust like all the other bullshit you have bought in your life like the gym equipment and your bikes and all that crap you bought on sale! I am guilty of this in a big way and I plead with you, don't make the same mistake. As always, feel free to e-mail me with your rant or opinion. I would love to hear from you.