It's amazing how far studio software has come on in the last decade, as this month's Studio SOS candidate found out when he upgraded his ageing Logic‑based PC system...
John Davis called on the Studio SOS team because he'd been out of recording for a while and was just getting a new system together. His previous experience was on a PC running a very old version of Emagic Logic, dating from the pre‑Apple days, so after some deliberation, he made the decision to buy a 3.2GHz quad‑core Mac Pro and Logic 9, rather than upgrade his PC and start learning a completely new DAW package. To this he added an NI Komplete software instrument and effects package, and he'd installed both this and Logic before I arrived at his house, which certainly saved a few hours!
John also had a pair of the original Mackie HR624 studio monitors, a couple of pre‑MIDI analogue synths (a Sequential Circuits Pro One and a Roland SH101), a Roland TB303 and a Kenton Pro 2 MIDI‑to‑CV box, plus an M‑Audio ProFire 2626 audio interface and a MOTU MIDI Express 128, so that he could add further MIDI synths without running out of MIDI ports. He'd also bought an M‑Audio Keystation 61 master keyboard and a UAD2 Duo DSP card.
That all amounted to quite a serious investment, but having been out of the game for a while, he lacked the confidence to cable it all up, and wasn't sure of how best to configure it. Furthermore, the arrival of a baby in the household meant he could no longer use a corner of the lounge for recording, so he'd been relocated to a small room measuring just 2 x 2.5 metres.
We exchanged a few emails so that John could get hold of the necessary cables before I arrived at his Cambridgeshire home, and I also mapped out how I thought the system should be set up. John's previous setup had included an analogue mixer, so he wasn't sure how his external keyboards would fit into this new, streamlined system.
On my arrival, John and I looked at the studio room to see what space we had and where best to site everything. It was immediately evident that the bare plaster‑on‑brick walls made the room sound very lively and coloured, so some acoustic treatment was going to be needed. John had already installed an L‑shaped desk and set up his Mac and monitor speakers so that the speakers aimed down the longer axis of the room, which is always best in small rooms. He'd also invested in a pair of Primacoustic Recoil RX7 speaker platforms, which are a great idea when the speakers need to be set up on a desk or shelf, as they provide both stability and isolation from transmitted vibration.
However, nothing was connected to anything else, and the UAD2 card hadn't been installed, as John was rather wary of opening up his new Mac. The Mac was equipped only with Firewire 800 sockets, whereas his M‑Audio interface was designed to work on the Firewire 400 system, but fortunately he had bought the correct adaptor cable to get around this. Firewire 400 devices are quite happy connected to the Firewire 800 bus, although they'll still only work at Firewire 400 speeds. The extra bandwidth can still be advantageous, however, if you want to also connect a Firewire hard drive, for example.
When setting up a new system such as this, it's always best to do it a bit at a time and check the results as you go along, so stage one was to fit the UAD2 card into a spare slot inside the computer, then install the software for both the UAD2 card and the M‑Audio interface. This inevitably involved a lot of unplugging and restarting, at which point John was starting to wish he hadn't invented such a long user password! The M‑Audio interface refused to show up at first, so we went to the web site and downloaded a more recent driver, which immediately solved the problem. Just because you've bought something new in glossy packaging doesn't necessarily mean the included software is up to date: it's always a good idea to check the manufacturer's web site in case there's a newer version available.
This prompted John to ask whether it was wise to have his studio machine connected to the Internet. My own view is that you do need it connected because of the number of updates and online software purchases that you usually end up dealing with, but I still turn the connection off when it is not needed, in case some automatic software update routine slows down the computer during a recording session.
I also set the computer to use the M‑Audio interface as the default output device, so that John could put some known reference tracks into iTunes and then use them to check his own mixes. Launching Logic showed the M‑Audio interface available as an audio device, but of course we had to wait for Logic to validate all the UA plug‑ins that we'd installed. That took a few minutes, giving us time to take stock over a cup of coffee.
Next came the MIDI interface, and again I needed to go to the MOTU web site to get a more recent driver before it would play nicely. Once that was behaving correctly, we could stop worrying and make a start on the cabling.
The idea was to connect the powered monitor speakers directly to the outputs of the M‑Audio interface, as the latter has a physical monitor volume control built in, eliminating the need for a separate monitor controller. A few seconds of playback from iTunes confirmed that this was all OK, and we then checked that the system would record audio, using an electric guitar as a convenient sound source. Again, it all worked fine.
Input one on the interface was left free for recording via mic or DI, while the antique analogue synths and the Roland TB303 were plugged into the last three inputs on the interface, so they could be routed 'live' directly into the DAW mix. These instruments all have mono outputs, so they needed only one jack cable each to connect them, but if John needs many more hardware synths, there's always the option of accessing further channels for his interface via its ADAT expander ports. John's Kenton box could only drive two devices at a time, so we connected it to MIDI Out Port 1 on the MIDI Express, and then hooked up the mini‑jack cables to send CV and Gate signals to the Pro One and SH101.
That took care of the wiring, but to make all this work effectively, we needed to set up a project template in Logic. Getting your template as you want it can take up to an hour or so, but it's time well spent, as it makes starting a new project so much easier. As John doesn't use a lot of 'real' audio, I set up four audio tracks, 12 software instrument tracks and three live auxiliary mixer inputs, fed from the interface inputs hooked up to the analogue hardware synths. More tracks can always be added later.
We also set up two aux send buses, one to feed a Space Designer plate reverb and one to feed Logic's Tape Delay plug-in. Each of the analogue synths had two channels on the arrange page, one for the audio signal and one for the MIDI data controlling it via the Kenton box. I employed a few of Logic's stock icons to help identify these external synth tracks. In Logic's audio preferences, I also ensured that 24‑bit recording was turned on, along with independent record and playback fader levels. Recording at a 24‑bit word-length gives you a much lower noise floor than 16‑bit, and means that you don't have to run signals so 'hot' into the interface — which means that you can leave plenty of headroom and avoid the unpleasant sound of digital clipping.
With all this working fine, John said that he liked the idea of using Logic's built‑in arpeggiator, both to control any soft synths he might use and, ideally, to drive his Pro One and SH101. Logic's way of working with arpeggiators is that the arpeggiator 'object' shows up as an instrument, which is connected (using virtual cables) to the mixer channel running the software instrument to be arpeggiated. This is easily set up in the mixer layer of the Environment window, by choosing an arpeggiator from the New menu and then dragging its cable to the required channel.
To keep things simple, I set up three arpeggiators and named them arpeggiator one, two and three, but didn't cable them up. This would allow John to insert instruments into any of his 12 instrument tracks and then cable up any arpeggiator as required.
Using Logic's Screensets function, I put the arrange page on the computer keyboard's number 1 key, the mixer page on 2 and the mixer environment layer on number 3, so that John could get to it quickly. I also set up an arpeggiator to address MIDI Channel 2 on Port 1, where the Pro One was connected. All four arpeggiators were given tracks at the bottom of the Arrange page, where they could be used as needed.
When I first started setting up this song template, I couldn't find any of the usual right‑click mouse menus, and John said that his fancy new Apple mouse didn't seem to have a right‑click function. A quick look in the mouse‑preferences window showed that it did have one, but that it defaulted to being switched off — so I activated it and all was fine. The touch‑sensitive top of the mouse can also be used for vertical and horizontal scrolling, while holding down the Control key at the same time converts this to zooming — so getting around the screen using this mouse is very easy.
A final Logic tip is to use the low‑latency button (the one immediately right of centre in the transport bar, which turns orange when you click it) when overdubbing into a session that has a lot of plug‑ins active, as it temporarily bypasses any that would otherwise introduce excessive delays.
With the setup sorted, it was now time to turn our attention to the room itself, and to look at the acoustics. I had some 2-foot x 2‑foot Universal Acoustics foam panels to try, and using the old trick of sticking a CD to the back of the foam, we hung these panels on nails taken from some plastic cable clips. We placed one panel behind each speaker, two on the left wall and one propped up on the window ledge, to the right of the mix position. As expected, this dried up the mid-range and high frequencies, resulting in a much cleaner sound and decent stereo imaging.
The bass end, though, still sounded somewhat overblown. On checking the speaker settings, I found that these were set for full‑space operation and with maximum bass extension, so I reset them to quarter space and moved the cutoff switch to its 80Hz position. This tightened up the bass while still leaving the mixes sounding well‑balanced. In such a small room, it was probably the best compromise, as there is really no practical way to install effective bass traps with such limited space. All you can do is avoid putting deep bass into the room in the first place, double‑check your mixes against your reference commercial tracks, and also play them on other systems.
For vocals, John uses an AKG C3000S condenser mic, and I had brought along an SE Reflexion Filter, which had been kindly donated by Sonic Distribution, to help clean up his vocal recordings. Propping one of the foam panels behind the singer will help damp down any wall reflections that might otherwise bounce back into the live side of the mic, but with cardioid‑pattern mics, it is also very beneficial to screen the sides of the mic, as their off‑axis response tends to make them sound very coloured in these areas. The Reflexion Filter does this very well, though as usual I folded the mounting hardware back on itself to get the centre of gravity closer to the centre of John's lightweight boom stand.
With everything now working, we spent an hour or so exploring some of the more useful processing plug‑ins and software instruments. Even the simplest soft synths can produce unexpectedly good results, and John was particularly impressed by the Digital Stepper located in Apple GarageBand's instrument section. This has no direct counterpart in Logic, but it can create some lovely textures — so don't be put off, thinking that because it's from GarageBand that it's at all 'inferior'. John was also rather drawn to the weirdness of Logic's Sculpture modelling synth.
We then tried DI guitar recording, using Logic's Guitar Amp Pro and NI's Guitar Rig, both of which produced very credible results that made John think about buying some new strings and bringing his old Ibanez guitar out of retirement.
He was also extremely pleased that Logic finally had a bounce‑in‑place function, and he was intrigued by the possibilities of the Flex tool for massaging the timing of parts that didn't quite line up. In fact, when it was time to leave, I had the feeling that John's family wouldn't be seeing so much of him for quite some time!
John: "The switchover from PC to Mac has taken a good decade to realise and may have put future holidays on hold for a while! It was great having Paul install all of the drivers and making sure that everything worked as it should. Of particular interest and use are the arpeggiators in Logic that Paul set up. The Pro One has already succumbed to this, and has been further electrified by the UAD2 Pultec EQ — it sounds amazing! Paul was so helpful even before he visited, by recommending a number of products to consider. This was invaluable.
"The room sounds great, so it will be much easier to get a more accurate understanding of how my tracks will translate to other systems. And thanks to the suppliers for the acoustic treatment and Reflexion Filter.
"I've had a few head‑scratching moments in Logic, because I'm still getting used to the way the Mac works, but Paul has already set me straight on a few things. All in all, the day was a great learning experience. Maybe in 10 years' time I will be ready to write for SOS about Logic... but in the meantime I might just be asking Paul for a bit more advice!”