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Accelerate Your Mac!
Bring in the Noise
by Thad Brown

The Studio upgrade special report

How can I do all those fun things you are always talking about?

So you want to start or upgrade your home studio. Apparently you think that right now you have too much money and too much spare time, and want to change that. Perhaps you and your significant other have not been arguing enough lately, and proposing to turn his/her office into an isolation booth for tracking vocals is just the thing to get you back to that cats and dogs state you have been missing. Even if all you want to do is find the limits of your local noise ordinances from neighbors so inspired by your performances that they alert the authorities, read on.

I'm going to assume a few things, you have a Mac, you have some kind of workstation with a decent amount or real estate to put some of the expensive new toys you are going to buy, and you have some patience. OK, you have a lot of patience. I'll go into some detail for various setups later, but for now, let's split up the things we need to consider in building things up. To keep things easy, I'll talk about three categories, non-computer hardware (the analog end of things, mics, mixers, decks), computer hardware (drives, burners, cards), and software. The easiest end of this is actually the computer hardware, just buy a 9600, stuff 36GB of high end drives into it, spend ten grand on a Lexicon or Pro Tools system with some 24 bit converters, and you're all set. Heh heh.

In general, on the non-computer hardware end, you need a few things no matter what. Some kind of mixer to route you audio signal, an amplifier to boost those signals, speakers to monitor the results, and microphones if you intend to record any live audio. If you really want to keep things cheap, you can use your stereo to amplify and monitor your audio, though I don't recommend that. The $50 multimedia speakers that came from work are unacceptable for anything other than seeing how bad your gorgeous audio will sound over the web. Go to a pro audio or music store and listen to a bunch of monitors and take the ones you like the best. When doing this, be sure to take a CD that you know very well so you can get a good idea what the monitors sound like, and don't just pick the ones that make a bad record sound good, you want bad recordings to sound bad. Like almost everyone I know, I use a Mackie mixer for routing and monitoring. Mine is a 1202 I have had for years, they can be had for $200 used, and have four pretty good mic preamps, 12 inputs, with eight in the form of stereo pairs. They are built like tanks and never seem to break. In fact, the sure sign that someone is trying to get serious in their studio is when the upgrade from their Mackie to another board, and start telling you how much Mackie sucks. Save your money, buy their Mackie, and laugh at them when you get home. Then there are microphones. If you really don't have enough gear lust and pain in your life, go and listen to a couple of Danish Pro Audio or Neuman mics for a few minutes. Now go buy that Shure SM58 anyway, and start to cry. Seriously, if you are going to have only one mic in your studio, it probably should be a SM58. They sound pretty good, dutifully sound pretty good in the studio and live, work on vocals and instruments about equally well, and in a pinch you can use it to break open the lock on your equipment cabinet when you lose the key and it'll probably still work when you're done.

For software, you will at least need something to open, view and edit sound files. As I have said a dozen times here, go to the Prosoniq site, stop briefly to drool over the nice stuff, and download SonicWORX Basic. Depending on what you want to do, you will most likely need a lot of other stuff as well, but you will certainly need this one.

A quick word about formats. There are two and a half protocols and three kinds of connectors for digital audio. It's like the difference between TCP/IP and Ethernet, TCP/IP is a protocol, Ethernet is a kind of cable. The protocols are AES/EBU, S/PDIF, and ADAT Lightpipe. The connectors are XLR, TOSLINK optical, and sometimes quarter inch TRS. AES/EBU is the pro protocol that is extensible, already supports 96Khz audio, has no copy protection, and has a cable in the specification. The cable specified is an XLR connector that is identical to the XLR three pin connector on a good mic cable, though the cabling itself is different. AES/EBU is especially useful for sync to video situations because that kind of cabling can run 100 feet with little or no problems. S/PDIF is the consumer format that currently runs up to (I think) 24 bit, 48k audio, and does not specify a connector. More and more, S/PDIF is getting transferred via TOSLINK optical connectors, but traditionally has been on RCA connectors, and will sometimes show up on almost anything. ADAT Lightpipe is a protocol that uses a TOSLINK connector to pass 8 channels of digital audio simultaneously, and not surprisingly was invented by Alesis to allow transfer of audio between multiple ADAT decks and between ADATs and computers. More and more cards and devices are using Lightpipe to talk to each other, though, including many that are not made by Alesis. So to sum up, if you have a digital out or in, and it's RCA chances are it's S/PDIF, if it's on an XLR, chances are very good it's AES/EBU, if it's TOSLINK it's almost certainly Lightpipe or S/PDIF. Of course, there are lots of people willing to take your money and give you a box that will make these things talk to each other as well.

I'll split things up into situations,

  • Burning CDs and web audio
  • Integrating the computer into a MIDI setup with some audio
  • Cutting all or nearly all audio demos
  • Working with audio for video
  • Cutting production quality music

So take a deep breath, thing good thoughts, and go listen to "These Arms of Mine" by Otis Redding on your new monitors, like I am. As you watch your money moving out like the tide, remember that Otis did it for real in mono, something to consider.

I just wanna burn discs and hear music on my computer

The biggest problem beginners have is dealing with recording levels. Unlike analog, digital recording should never or almost never "go into the red." on the meters. Analog tape will compress and pleasantly distort a little, digital will distort a lot and nastily. Work on getting levels right. On the horizon for more casual audio folks are some nifty USB boxes, and more and more digital outputs and inputs on consumer audio gear. Many newer CD players, Mini Disc decks, DVD players, and satellite dishes have TOSLINK optical connectors for transferring audio digitally.

Non-Computer hardware: You alone can probably get by using your stereo as a monitor/mixer, though a small mixer would help, especially since the output level on the Mac is pretty low. All you need is a couple of cables to convert the stereo mini-jack on the Mac to a pair or RCA connectors to run to your stereo. They can be had in Radio Shack stores and audio stores. If you have the cash later, you might want to think about upgrading sound hardware if you are dissatisfied with the results of you Mac alone, or you have gear with one of the digital outputs mentioned above. Be aware that the startup sound on you Mac is MUCH louder than anything noise you will ever make. I promise you will scare yourself to death at least once by booting the Mac and getting that C chord like the wrath of God.

Computer hardware: Practically none. If you have burner, it probably came with Toast, which can burn audio CDs easily enough. They aren't duplication ready, but they will play just fine.

Software: You probably can work with shareware and freeware. SonicWORX Basic will record and edit audio, various shareware apps will rip audio from CDs and such. Freeware MPEG players will let you play web audio back.

I have a MIDI rig, now I want some audio too.

Many synth players have been using computer based MIDI sequencers for a long time. Adding audio is pretty easy, as long as you don't mind the converters on your Mac.

Non-Computer hardware: This kind of work demands a MIDI interface for the Mac, which can vary from $30 single channel devices to $1000 boxes with all kinds of doodads. Most MIDI people already have these. A mixer is a necessity to monitor the synths and the incoming and recorded audio, as well as at least one, preferable more mics. For final mixes, the synth tracks can be recorded onto the Mac as audio, or mixed to a DAT deck.

Computer hardware: Once again, not much. A Power Mac or clone from the past year or so should get you 8 tracks of audio, maybe not every Power Mac, but most of them. If the Mac converters don't cut it, you may have to buy and audio card, and you will need a decent hard disk to record the audio. That said, a SCSI-1 bus can run 20 tracks of audio if the seek time of the drive is good, so you don't need a Cheetah RAID of anything. I use a SCSI-2, narrow Cuda for audio and have never had any problems with the disk holding me up.

Software: Most sequencers now include audio to a greater or lesser extent. If you have been using Performer, for instance, just upgrading to Digital Performer gets you right there. If you are starting out, spend some time finding an app you like, you'll spend a lot of time with it. You may want to think about a software synth as well.

I want to replace my cassette 4 track with my Mac

Non-computer hardware: Now the price of poker starts going up and fast. You will need at least a few good mics, at least one compressor/limiter, and lots of cables, adapters and stuff. The compressor is NECESSARY, don't skimp on this one. Compressors reduce the dynamic range of incoming audio by lowering the volume a certain amount when it exceed a certain level. To get maximum performance with digital audio you have to track with levels as high as possible without clipping, and you need a compressor/limiter at least to catch the big spikes so they don't distort when they are converted. When buying mics, try to get some variety, not every mic sounds good in every application. In addition, if you spend a grand on a vocal mic, you probably won't want to take it out and use it to record bird calls even it would do a good job. Having a mix of dynamic and condenser mics, and a mix of omni and cardiod patterns lets you customize you mic/instrument relationship, a big boost to the final sound.

Computer hardware: You probably will not be satisfied with the converters on your Mac. Sound cards start at around $400 for a digital only card, and go up into the thousands for systems with built in DSP and such. If you already own a DAT deck or an ADAT deck, the digital only card may work fine, you can use the digital outs on your deck to feed the computer. That will also remove the converters from the electrical interference maelstrom that is the inside of your computer, a very very good thing for your sound quality. Fast and big drives are also a necessity, 5 MB/s per track will add up fast, I regularly have songs go over a gig. The better your mics, the more you will notice the excruciatingly loud fan in you Mac. I'm still working on this one myself.

Software: To get started, you may want to think about the special offer that Digidesign is running where they will send you Pro Tools 3.4 for free. It supports up to 16 tracks of audio with the internal sound hardware of the Mac and Sound Manager. Not bad for free. Long term, you definitely want to learn an audio app very well, and there are five big recorder/sequencers to look into. Cubase, Logic, Performer, Pro Tools, and Studio Vision. For your use, any will work fine, and the 16 bit audio versions of most of them are quite reasonably priced. If you spend a lot of time editing samples or mixes, SonicWORX Basic, though groovy, may not cut it either. Peak or PeakLE and the commercial SonicWORX products are worth a look.

I want to do audio for my video

More and more people are trying to do audio for video work on computers and in smaller studios. This area can be anything from working with home videos and "massaging" the audio recorded with the digital video camera, or doing much more serious scoring or mixing for video and film.

Non-computer hardware: Often, the analog audio end is a good bit easier, because someone else does the recording. That doesn't mean it's done right, or well, or documented, but at least it's there. You will need, at some point, the ability to sync to external time sources, or sometimes to generate time code as well. Opcode and Mark of the Unicorn make dedicated boxes that let you sync everything but your coffee maker to an external clock, unless your coffee maker can sync to SMPTE, of course. Include the cost of one of those boxes in your budget and save yourself a mountain of hassle down the road. You also may want to consider a remote recording rig of some kind. One of the best ways to make your sound effects and samples sound good is to get them yourself, from the actual world instead of using canned samples. Audio nerds like myself complain that to a video person, a slamming door is a slamming door, where we can hear a hundred different possibilities for a slamming door, wood, metal, lock, room size, how hard it's slammed, and so on, the video people just hear a door that slams. Believe me, nothing beats the real thing. I use Mini Disc and either binaural or single point stereo mics for this kind of thing, mostly so I can avoid worrying about mic placement, just point and shoot. Pros use DAT decks or high end analog reel to reel decks for this, but I hate DATs, Mini Discs sound as good, and they only cost $300 so if you drop it it's not such a big deal. Word to the wise, be careful when recording, it's real easy to be watching the levels on the recorder and walk out into traffic and stuff.

Computer hardware: This largely depends on the video gear you are using. Often, there will be no need for much tracking, just capturing the video and audio and working on it in the box. Do be aware, though, that many video capture cards with audio capability have horrible audio specs, you may want to upgrade the audio inputs. Also, if you are capturing the video to disk, often the best way to work is to export your audio track at the best resolution possible, export your video in QuickTime movie format, and open the movie in an audio app. I have done this a number of times with Cubase, the video runs in sync with the audio according to the internal clock of the Mac, and it saves time rewinding and such as well.

Software: Once again, this has a great deal to do with the video software you are using. Most likely you will need a audio/MIDI integrated app like the ones mentioned above. The integrated environment means less hassling with separate apps for sync and that kind of thing. If you are working more in sound design, samplers and "nutty" apps are quite useful as well, stuff like the SFX Machine from Bias, software synths, and the SonicWORX editors.

Special Note: With the oncoming train of 5.1 surround audio and DVD production, it is particularly important for audio for picture people to leave room for growth in their monitoring, mixing, and software environments. It'll be an issue for the audio folks soon enough as well, but for video it will matter even sooner.

I wanna make releasable records in my house

Non-computer hardware: I won't go into this much here, since I don't think that many people who read my column want to do this kind of work. I don't even have the ability to track drums in my setup, I go to a commercial studio for that. For non-audio hardware, lots of mics, a big mixing board, and a good sounding room are critical. You will have to interface with studios that are both larger and smaller than you, so that means ADATs, DA-88s or both. Computer based systems are now powerful enough that full production can be done on them, but most people still track with ADATs, fly a few tracks over to the computer, tweak them, and fly them back to tape. Digital mixers are coming down in price to reachable levels. For $5000 you can get a great sounding, intuitive feeling, Spirit or Panasonic mixer with as many outs as you could need, and hook them up to a couple of ADATs and your Mac at the same time. They are also great for surround mixing.

Computer hardware: Big fast disks, high quality audio interfaces, and a quad speed burner are necessities. Dual monitors are a nice plus.

Software: All of it. Apps, plug-ins, editors, the whole ball of wax. You should also take a look at the Special Note from the previous example, DVD Audio, or some kind of surround sound spec will be here soon, be ready.

Now quit reading this and start spending the rent money

A few final notes. Often when recording, you will only be using one or maybe two mics at a time. Having one or two really great sounding signal paths to the converters is a good idea. You might want to look into single box "channel strip in a rack" type things which have a mic preamp, compression, EQ, and level controls in one box. I use a Joe Meek box for that quite a lot, just plug my mic into the box, run one output to my mixer to monitor and one to the computer. It's the quickest, cleanest way to track. Don't expect anything to work right away. Each piece of software and hardware you add will likely bring the whole house of cards crashing down. Expect that to happen, budget time for the rebuilding process and leave well enough alone if you can.

Finally, nobody has built that box that makes anyone write better songs. I doubt anyone ever will. And Otis did if for real in mono.

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