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Lap Of The Gods?

Published May 2007

Every so often someone asks me to write a Leader column about 'where it's all going'. Today's studio equipment is so capable and affordable that if there's a missing ingredient it's more often musical ideas than technology, but one trend that does strike me is the introduction of super-powerful laptop computers such as the Macbook Pro range, which has prompted a number of people to set up mobile recording systems, either in addition to their main studios or even instead of them. A laptop doesn't give you the kind of screen real-estate you'd expect from the desktop setup, but some laptops allow you to plug in a second monitor for those occasions where you need to split your operations over two screens, so even that isn't the limitation it used to be.

There are now several affordable Firewire interfaces that offer eight channels of microphone amplification (with phantom power), often with one or two ADAT expansion ports to allow more channels to be added when necessary. For more serious applications, there are high-end converter systems around now that can offer up to 32 channels of I/O on a laptop with very low latency, by using the card expansion slot instead of Firewire. The Firewire interface I use with my laptop draws its power from the Firewire bus, so setup is very simple, and headphone monitoring is built in, enabling me to check what I'm recording on location. I can record all the simultaneous tracks I'm ever likely to need onto the internal hard drive without overtaxing the system, then back up to an external drive for archiving when I get home, so recording space is no longer the restriction it once was. I'm seriously considering modifying a guitar case to take the laptop, the interface and all the microphones and headphones, so that the entire system, other than mic stands and cables, is in one fully portable case!

One of the great things about having a mobile setup is that you get asked to take on some very interesting jobs that you might not have the opportunity to work on in a typical home studio, for reasons of space or acoustics. For example, this coming weekend I'm scheduled to record a live concert involving voices, harp, violin and some form of ancient bass cello. The same recording system can also be used at home for personal recording projects and now that we have such great-sounding plug-ins available, and the necessary laptop power to run them, I'm finding that I can do a lot of my work without ever switching on my main studio system. Furthermore, laptops can be almost silent, which can't be said of my Mac G5.

I'm a keen advocate of hardware control surfaces, at least for basic transport operations, and we now see a few miniature units coming to market that would be ideal for mobile use. Often these combine transport controls with dedicated buttons for key parameters, plus a single motorised fader for adjusting the currently selected track, and at the recording stage that may be all you require. One USB cable is all you need to hook them up and they significantly improve the experience of driving typical DAW software. The other advantage of a compact system like this when used at home is that it takes up less desk space, enabling you to create a better ergonomic layout to include your keyboards or other instruments.

So, getting back to what the future holds in store, I wouldn't be at all surprised to find the home studio of the future based around a laptop with minimal extra hardware, and the mobile studio of the future may well become part of a new generation of multi-purpose MP3 player/web browser/telephone/GPS packages. Boss already have a four-track studio the size of a guitar tuner, so it is clearly possible. I don't think we'll be seeing as much miniaturisation in the areas of mics and mic stands, though, and when I go out to make a mobile recording my bag of cables is now the heaviest single item I have to carry, so perhaps the laptop is as small as it needs to get for now?

Paul White Editor In Chief