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Choosing A Recording Setup, Part 3

Tips & Techniques By Paul White
Published September 1998

Choosing A Recording Setup, Part 3

PART 3: What do you need to put together to create your own studio? Paul White investigates practical options for a core system based on preferred methods of creating music. This is the third article in a five‑part series.

Over the past two issues, I've looked at the various recording options available, both analogue and digital, as well as touching on some aspects of digital mixers. Now it's time to put the various bits of equipment together to form practical systems.

At this point, it's also interesting to identify what support equipment is needed before your core system can actually function as a recording studio. For example, if you've decided to build your studio around a computer‑based MIDI sequencer, you'll still need a MIDI interface of some kind as well as sound modules and some way to mix them — that's unless you're happy to stick with whatever the computer's internal soundcard offers.

But no matter what type of system you go for, you're going to need a monitoring system and a stereo master recorder. So rather than repeat what I've already said in the first two articles, I'll take it for granted that you have allowed for monitoring and mastering in your budget.

The MIDI‑Only Studio

Figure 1: A MIDI‑only studio setup.Figure 1: A MIDI‑only studio setup.

Possibly the simplest studio setup of all is one where all the sound sources are controlled by MIDI and where any snatches of 'real' audio that are required come from a sampler. Here the choice is between a hardware sequencer and a computer sequencer. Computer‑based systems are undeniably the most powerful, and the majority support MIDI interfaces with several ports so that you aren't limited to 16 MIDI channels. On the other hand, the systems are more difficult to learn, computers make a certain amount of physical noise, and, of course, software has a habit of crashing now and then.

Which approach is most appropriate to your working method is a matter of personal choice. The greatest practical difference between hardware and software sequencers is the ability to support multiple MIDI ports — an essential prerequisite if you have more than two multitimbral synths. Another important factor is that computer‑based systems also offer a number of powerful editing features that make life easier for the less technically adept player (in other words, people like me!). While editing is quite possible on hardware sequencers, it generally tends to be less sophisticated and more long‑winded to implement.

This is not the place to air the Mac v PC argument, but it is worth noting that Windows 95 can only support a maximum of 11 MIDI ports — and that's counting any 'virtual port' drivers that may have been installed along with your soundcard. If you have more than 11, the system will crash. Macs can, I believe, support up to 128 MIDI ports, though I don't know of anyone who has tested this limit.

PC users have the option of using external synths and modules or using the sounds from their soundcards. For serious use, the Yamaha XG cards are the only low‑cost options we at SOS have tried that provide anything like professional results. If you're happy with your soundcard, then all you need to do is plug its output into a hi‑fi system for monitoring and mastering, install your choice of sequencing software, and you're away. An entry‑level MIDI master keyboard will cost from around £100 upwards. A basic soundcard usually provides one MIDI output port in addition to being able to address its internal sounds as virtual MIDI ports, so if you need more, you'll need to budget for an external multi‑port interface.

Mac users have fewer options when it comes to sounds inside the computer, though some of the software synths available are quite impressive. For serious work, you're going to need an external MIDI interface — ideally one with multiple ports to allow for future expansion — and one or more synths and/or modules (and a separate MIDI keyboard if you don't have a MIDI synth in your collection). And of course, you'll also have to budget for suitable software.

If you only have one sound source, such as a card or multitimbral synth, then you can record the output directly to cassette, DAT, MiniDisc or whatever takes your fancy. That then is your master. However, most MIDI studios comprise a number of modules, which may include samplers, synths and drum machines. As soon as you get two or more sound modules, you'll need some way to mix the various sounds together, so an external mixer becomes a prerequisite. This is the most likely scenario for a MIDI studio and a block diagram is shown in Figure 1, above. Though dedicated keyboard line‑level mixers are available, if you don't have too many sound sources to mix, a simple 8:2 or 12:2 analogue mixer will work fine, but always try to have enough spare inputs for future expansion. In a larger system, a digital mixer may offer more controllability and the possibility of automation, but as most serious MIDI sequencers provide for MIDI control of volume, pan and other synth parameters, you can automate your mixes to a certain degree without having to buy an automated mixer.

MIDI + Audio On Computer

Figure 2: A recording setup based around a MIDI + Audio sequencer.Figure 2: A recording setup based around a MIDI + Audio sequencer.

With powerful programs such as Cubase VST, Logic Audio and Studio Vision for both PC and Mac, it's tempting to go for the 'whole‑studio‑in‑a‑box' approach. The pros and cons of this approach have been discussed in the preceding parts of this series, but the main negative points are the restrictions on simultaneous processing due to available computing power. This is alleviated to some extent if you choose a system that has its own DSP capacity, such as Digidesign's Pro Tools. The physical noise of computers and hard drives can also be a problem when you're recording audio in the same room as the equipment. And, of course, you have to do all the mixing by mouse unless you buy a hardware interface, such as a MIDI fader controller.

If you're happy to mix and process entirely in the virtual world, and you only need to overdub one or two tracks at a time, then you only need a soundcard with stereo ins and outs. If you wish to record several tracks at a time, a multi‑input/multi‑output card or external breakout box is essential. ADAT users (or those with ADAT‑compatible digital mixers) also have the option of buying cards with an ADAT optical interface so that the converters in the ADAT can be used during recording. This arrangement also allows data to be passed to and from an ADAT in the digital domain, which opens up a lot of new editing possibilities However, you will need a sync box for the ADAT, such as a BRC or a JL Cooper DataSync.

A basic system will need a MIDI interface, ideally with multiple ports, and an external mixer to combine the digital audio with the outputs from your MIDI modules. The system illustrated in Figure 2, on page 168, shows an eight‑output soundcard — this offers more flexibility when it comes to adding external effects via your mixer. Because virtual reverb tends to take up a lot of processing power, it can be beneficial to employ an external hardware reverb processor. A similar wiring arrangement is used if you run a system such as Soundscape, SADiE or Pro Tools that provides dedicated hardware to relieve the computer from the full burden of hard disk recording, mixing and processing. A MIDI hardware control surface is also a worthwhile addition, hence its inclusion in the diagram.

MIDI Sequencer Plus Tapeless Recorder

Figure 3: A setup in which MIDI sequencing is handled by computer, but audio recording is done on a separate digital multitracker.Figure 3: A setup in which MIDI sequencing is handled by computer, but audio recording is done on a separate digital multitracker.

Letting your computer handle all the hard disk recording as well as MIDI sequencing can be problematic — we frequently get queries from users experiencing system crashes or drifting audio timing. A practical alternative is to use a separate hardware recorder, either in the form of a stand‑alone hard disk recorder, or one of the new generation of digital multitrackers. The sequencer can then be slaved to the recorder using MTC.

Working this way means your computer isn't involved in the audio side at all, so MIDI timing is likely to be tighter. However, you can't use software‑based effects. If you have only one or two MIDI modules, then a digital multitracker makes a lot of sense because there will probably be four or more inputs free at mixdown to handle your MIDI instruments. If you need more inputs for MIDI instruments, you could use a small line mixer, then feed the output of that into two of your multitracker inputs. Alternatively, pick a stand‑alone recorder and an external mixer for maximum flexibility, especially if you already have a number of effects units and signal processors.

To get the best of both worlds, you could go for a stand‑alone model such as the Akai DR8 or DR16 that can also be accessed via the audio part of your sequencer package. This will let you use the simple hardware interface for recording, but then you can retreat into the virtual world of your computer for editing.

Apart from taking the load off your computer, there are some very real advantages to using hardware recorders, not least of which is that most are somewhat quieter than computers. When recording critical audio parts, you can make a rough mix of your MIDI backing on one or two tracks of the recorder, shut down the computer and overdub just as you would when using a tape machine. When you're done, switch on the computer and you can mix all those virtual MIDI tracks with complete freedom.

Another major advantage of hardware‑based systems is that they generally handle punch‑ins and outs better than computer systems. The musician working alone generally needs a footswitch for hands‑off, real‑time punch in and out — something that most computer systems just don't give you. You have to be careful when choosing your external hardware because while some will let you punch in and out on the fly as many times as you like, others will only let you punch in and out once before you have to stop the recorder. For me, the former facility is essential for patching up vocal takes. Some computer systems will only let you punch in and out if you pre‑program the punch points, then run the whole process automatically. I have to say that I've never in my life been tempted to use an auto‑punch‑in/out system — doing the job manually is just as easy and much, much faster. Figure 3, left, shows a system based around a computer sequencer and a digital multitracker with a small line mixer used to mix the MIDI instruments. A system using a dedicated hardware recorder and an external mixer gives the same flexibility as an all‑in‑one, disk‑based studio, but gives you the benefit of greater flexibility in the way that external effects and processors can be connected.