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DAVE GALE: Understanding What's Best

Sounding Off By Dave Gale
Published March 1998

DAVE GALE: Understanding What's Best

The latest digital recording systems offer smart facilities in spades, but if you're a newcomer to recording technology it can be hard to find out what's really best for your often simple requirements. Dave Gale wonders who you gonna call...

You have a good grasp of MIDI sequencing, and you like the way your compositions are produced — OK, they might not be to the same quality as Abbey Road, but for a project musician on a tight budget they sound great.

So what's missing from your world of electronic sound? Quite possibly the unmistakable presence of a live performer in the mix. Even the most seasoned composer of instrumental music will probably want to use a singer at one time or another, so what are the options? Well, there was a time when you knew exactly where you stood if you wanted to record 'live' sound. With a mere £400 in your pocket, you could venture down to your local music store and purchase a 'Portastudio' [Tascam trademark], which would allow you to record your tracks one after the other with reasonable quality. The more money you spent, the better the machine you'd get, often equipped with high‑speed tape transport, dbx or Dolby C noise reduction, or perhaps more tracks. But now a new and almost sinister technology has emerged, allowing mere mortals with £400 in their pockets to purchase a program that will run on a Mac or PC, and allow them to sing over the top of their MIDI tracks and even see the audio! Is this too good to be true? YES! Primarily because life will never be as simple as those Portastudio days again.

A friend of mine, who is a vocalist, recently decided to make the move into sequencing. He asked for my advice, which I was happy to give, and I also suggested that he took a wander up to the West End of London to look at some equipment. He had an idea that he wanted to buy a Macintosh computer with Emagic Logic software, but he was confused by the whole concept of recording. As he's a singer, the ability to record live audio tracks is quite important. Would he be better off with a tape‑based multitrack, a hard disk or MiniDisc multitrack, or should he buy an audio program for his Mac? A salesperson in one shop he ventured into quite happily told him that he should most definitely purchase Logic Audio, because he only had to take his Shure SM58 microphone and plug it into the back of the Mac and he would get perfect recording results every time! Now, for the uninitiated, the only audio sockets you find on the back of the current generation of Macs run at line level, so if you connected a microphone to that input, you'd barely hear a whisper, because there's no mic preamplifier built in to boost the signal. To my knowledge, this is generally the case for external audio cards as well.My friend, having heard me talk about computer‑based hard disk recording, and the best mixers for that task, also asked the salesperson which mixer he should buy, to which the reply came 'Oh you don't need a mixer!'

Quite how my friend was going to listen to his synthesizer and his audio at the same time, without the use of a mixer, is beyond me — not to mention the fact that without a mixer or mic preamp he wouldn't have a signal to record anyway! How can advice such as this come from a supposedly trained member of staff in a well known music store?

I wish I could say that this sort of bad guidance is rare, but as I visit and talk to people in connection with my freelance work, it seems to be a common story. Is it the case that some companies hope that, when the customer complains that their system doesn't work, they can merely sell them more equipment so that it does work? Do the staff just not use the equipment enough to know the pitfalls of some of the products available today? Or perhaps some shop wages are so low that staff are desperate to sell gear just for the commission.

Whose advice can you trust? Over the years, I've found that the best advice you can get comes from current users of the equipment you're interested in buying. Ten years ago that meant a close circle of friends, but now, of course, the world can be your friend via the Internet.

You can be sure that someone out there has already experienced the problems that you might come across if you decide to buy a given item. There are many user groups on the Internet that will help you in your hour of need — people who use the products day in, day out, and can often advise you better than your local music store, as they have specialist knowledge.

As for purchasing equipment, read as much as you can on the subject before you buy. If you're buying a computer system to run MIDI + Audio software, buy it from one outlet rather than going to different shops for different bits, in search of the lowest overall price. It might cost you a little more, but at least you can be more confident that it will all work together. If it doesn't work, take it all back to the supplier and tell them to fix it or give you a refund.

So what of my friend? Well, he's very happy with his Macintosh and MIDI‑only Logic, and on my advice has bought himself a cassette multitracker for very little money — about a third of the cost of a Logic Audio system. The technical quality may not be up to the standard of a digital recorder, but the artistic presence of his voice is great. What's more, it works just fine!

If you'd like to air your views in this column, please send your ideas to: Sounding Off, Sound On Sound, Media House, Trafalgar Way, Bar Hill, Cambridge CB3 8SQ.

Any comments on the contents of previous columns are also welcome, and should be sent to the Editor at the same address.