Recording with a computer doesn't mean you're tied to sitting right in front of it. Choose the most suitable remote control possibility and you could regain the freedom of your studio.
Computers are now hugely powerful recording tools, but their user interfaces often leave something to be desired when it comes to running MIDI + Audio sequencing applications. Many musicians thus use MIDI or other controller interfaces, which provide dedicated knobs, sliders, and buttons with a more satisfying tactile response, plus the possibility of changing several parameters simultaneously. Moreover, while the humble keyboard, mouse and monitor screen combination is amazingly versatile, it's often tricky to find the best place for these devices in a studio environment.
If you're mixing you'll want to see your software's Arrange page in front of you between the monitor speakers, and also have your PC keyboard and mouse within easy reach for editing purposes. When recording MIDI parts, however, most keyboard players want their music keyboard placed between the speakers to hear the best stereo image. It can be difficult to find a suitable place for the computer keyboard and mouse without compromising one keyboard or the other, even when using slide-out shelves. Vocalists, guitarists and acoustic instrument players, meanwhile, usually want to get further away from the PC to avoid possible acoustic and electrical interference from computer and monitor during recording, but still want to control their sequencer easily. The ideal answer to all these problems is remote control — a way to move the user interface from place to place so you can control the PC from multiple locations.
Perhaps the most obvious way to provide a PC with remote control is to extend its monitor, keyboard and mouse cables. Since the information they carry is low-speed digital, you should be able to extend mouse and keyboard cables to tens of metres without any problems due to signal degradation, and even USB cables can officially be up to five metres long. Some flat-screen monitors provide a digital input, and if your graphics card supports this then a compatible extension cable should work well. However, you should take a little more care before extending analogue video monitor cables, since this can affect their picture quality.
Belkin products (www.belkin.co.uk) always get good reviews, and there are high-quality extension cables in their range for monitors, keyboards, and mice, of up to 15 metres in length. If you want to extend all three cables simultaneously, the generic name to look for is a KVM (Keyboard Video Mouse) extender.
Extenders give you more choice over where you site your PC — if it's noisy, you can install it in a custom cabinet or cupboard, or even place it in the next room. Longer cables may also provide more options for siting your monitor screen. Most musicians put this in between their speakers, but doing so invariably compromises the stereo image, especially with the huge footprint of a CRT monitor. Flat-screen TFT monitors are considerably better in this respect, but an even better alternative is often to hang a larger flat-screen monitor on the wall behind your monitor speakers.
KVM switchers allow you to connect two or more PCs to one keyboard, mouse, and monitor, which is useful if you run one main machine and additional PCs for soft synths or soft samplers. Although I've not seen many people doing this, it's perfectly possible to take the opposite approach: to connect multiple keyboards and mice to a single PC, so you can have one set by your mixing position, and the other atop your music keyboard. As long as you don't operate both simultaneously your PC will be perfectly happy. After all, this is no different from laptops that provide external mouse and monitor sockets to supplement the internal trackpad and flat-screen display. You don't have to use a full-sized second keyboard either — it's possible to buy stand-alone laptop-sized models that may prove more convenient, as well as keyboards with integral trackpads or trackballs. Similarly, if you have a dual-head graphics card, you don't have to use it to provide split-screen viewing: you can normally also use them in Clone mode to provide two identical displays at different places in your studio.
Many musicians are investigating ways to free themselves up from being permanently wired to the PC, so it's hardly surprising that wireless keyboards and mice are becoming increasingly popular, because you can pick them up and operate your MIDI + Audio sequencer from a distance of several metres (assuming you can still see the monitor screen clearly).
Two main technologies are used in wireless remotes: IR (infra-red) and RF (radio-frequency). IR devices are often slightly cheaper, but their range tends to be limited to a couple of metres, and like most TV remotes, they have to be aiming in the general direction of the receiver (line-of-sight) to provide reliable performance. This is mostly fine for mice and keyboards, but for more reliable use at greater range, RF is the more robust solution, since an RF remote doesn't need to be aimed at its receiver to operate reliably.
I've now had the opportunity to test out several RF wireless key/mouse combos in review PCs from Digital Village and Red Submarine, and didn't have any problems with interference (always a possibility where RF is involved close to digital gear such as synths, CD players, and so on). Wireless mice are always significantly heavier than their corded cousins due to internal batteries, which may take a little getting used to, and you will have to replace these periodically unless you buy a model featuring batteries that can be recharged by plugging the mouse into a USB port. However, their speed of response shouldn't be any different, despite what you may hear from games players.
The increased weight of wireless keyboards is largely irrelevant, but to save battery power most dispense with the normal trio of Num Lock, Caps Lock and Scroll Lock indicators, which anyone who does a lot of typing may miss. As with standard keyboards and mice, wireless keyboards are also available with integral trackpads or trackballs, which makes even more sense when you're frequently moving them from one place to another.
Many hardware MIDI controllers include dedicated transport controls as well as faders and/or synth editing controls. There are various other ways to achieve the same end. For instance, Cubase VST and SX users could just plug in a USB numeric keypad, which duplicates the cluster of buttons normally found on the right-hand side of a standard PC keyboard. Primarily intended for use with laptops that lack these functions, they can also be extremely useful on the end of a long cable placed next to your music keyboard, to provide transport, marker and other controls. The keypad just appears to Windows as another standard keyboard, and shouldn't require any special drivers. Other sequencer users could also use this device if their application provides configurable keyboard shortcuts — I've seen postings from Cool Edit Pro users who have done this — and even if this isn't possible there's Windows software that can help, as we'll see shortly.
Cool Edit Pro 2 users also have the option of the Red Rover, which is a small hardware box connected via USB that incorporates a cluster of transport controls among others. There are also various other USB devices that promise similar or enhanced control possibilities, such as the Videonics Command Post (www.focusinfo.com), Contour Shuttle Pro and Space Shuttle A/V (www.contouravs.com), all with various combinations of jog/shuttle wheels and user-definable buttons.
Of course, many musicians will already have wireless remotes offering dedicated transport controls, numeric keys, function keys and quite probably up/down volume buttons, for controlling hi-fis, TVs and DVD players. Wouldn't it be nice to be able to use these to control your MIDI + Audio sequencer? Well, it might be possible. A few consumer soundcards, notably Creative's Audigy and Audigy 2 Platinum models, are provided with their own infra-red remote handsets for use with the Creative Remote Center software.
Most modern PC laptops also now have built-in infra-red receivers, and many standard PC motherboards already have connectors for an IR receiver, although few PC desktop or tower cases make provision in their front panels for the receiving device itself. Unfortunately, both types nearly always comply with IrDA (Infrared Data Association) specs, which are rather different from those of the standard remote control handsets that you already have lying about the house, and were never designed to decode their signals. So, in most cases you will still need a suitable IR receiver, even if you already have a remote to hand.
The IRa (infra-red adaptor) from Home Electronics (www.home-electro.com) is one example of a PC receiver that overcomes this problem; it's an IR receiver on a four-foot-long cable that plugs into any spare serial port, and costs around $20. Using this, it's possible to use an existing TV or video remote control to send commands to your PC. Judging by my research, it should work with most TV, video and hi-fi remotes, as well as with Creative's soundcard remote handset.
You could also build a serial-port IR receiver yourself — it's possible to do this with just six components including the serial port connector. After all, all it needs to do is respond to incoming pulses of infra-red from an existing remote control — each model will emit different streams of pulses for each button, and it's the software that decodes these. More complex receivers use small processors to decode incoming pulses, which will save your main CPU having to do the work, but these also restrict which transmitter devices they can use.
For a more generic solution, you can buy a dedicated IR remote and PC receiver combination. Streamzap (www.streamzap.com) seems to be one of the most popular in the US at around $40, with an IR receiver that plugs into a USB port, plus a hand-held remote featuring a good selection of controls including a set of transport controls, numeric keys, a cursor cluster with a central OK button, and four user-definable coloured buttons across the bottom. It comes with software that runs on Windows 98, ME, 2000 and XP, but this mainly supports a wide range of player applications including Winamp and Microsoft's Media Player, and not any MIDI + Audio sequencer applications. Streamzap sadly has no UK distribution at present.
It's also possible to go further than a dedicated remote and control one PC from another, connected using some sort of network. While many industry professionals are extremely familiar with networks, most musicians are still novices, so here are some basic facts. PC laptops often need to have their contents updated or downloaded to a desktop machine, so nearly all have featured integral network sockets for some years. Many PC desktop motherboards now incorporate integrated LAN functions as well, but if yours doesn't already feature an RJ45 jack socket, you can now buy suitable 10/100 PCI network cards for around £10 per PC, although you will of course need a spare expansion slot.
If you only want to connect two PCs, you just need a 'crossover' cable between them, which is wired differently from a standard one. However, a more ambitious setup with three or more PCs will need some sort of hub. If you don't expect to be moving huge files and are therefore happy with slower transfer speeds, there are now special USB cables that let you connect two PCs and transfer data between them without any additional hardware. Typical transfer rates are only 750 kilobytes/second (or 45MB/minute), but for the majority of data files apart from audio and video this should be quite sufficient.
If it's inconvenient to attach your various PCs with cables then a range of wireless options exist, just like the remote controls I describe in the main text. Belkin have a USB infra-red Smartbeam device for about £50, which plugs into a USB port and can then receive data from a nearby (up to one metre) IrDA device such as a laptop at up to 115kbps, although its range isn't nearly enough for our purposes. In general I suspect that an RF wireless option is once again the most suitable for our purposes, and here there are a lot of options.
Bluetooth (www.bluetooth.com) technology only works over a short range of up to 10 metres and only transfers data at up to 1.2 megabits per second, which would still be quite fast enough for remote control, but probably not for full-on music editing. WiFi can manage a rather speedier 11Mbits per second (see SOS October 2002 for more details on these two technologies), and you could use this in conjuction with a Pocket PC as a remote control, although it does seem overkill compared to the dedicated RF remote I describe in the main text. As for software, both Windows XP Home and Professional already include the Remote Desktop, although unfortunately only the Professional version can act as a remote host, which is what you need to take control of the other PC.
As I've explained, RF provides far greater range and penetration than IR, as well as having no line-of-sight requirement. This makes it potentially far more useful in the studio, and RF remotes may also be applicable for use in a live situation where a full computer keyboard might be too fiddly to use in the heat of the moment.
During my research for this feature I discovered a prime candidate for the job in the shape of the ATI Remote Wonder. This is bundled with some ATI graphics cards such as the Radeon 7500, but you can also buy it separately either direct from the ATI web site for $49, or through various other outlets. In the UK, Blisware (www.blisware.com) are the exclusive sellers of this product, and you can order it direct from them for £29.36 inclusive of VAT and P&P. They kindly sent me one to try out, and I'm very glad they did.
Its RF receiver is smaller than a box of matches, and plugs into any USB port. In combination with the remote handset itself, which uses four AAA alkaline batteries, it's effective up to about 30 feet, and can even work through walls. Like Streamzap, the Remote Wonder features transport controls, numeric keypad, a cluster of cursor keys and an OK button that emulates the Enter key, plus six user-definable keys labelled A to F, and volume +/- and channel +/- rocker controls. However, it also has a thumb pad that acts like an eight-directional mouse, plus dedicated left and right 'mouse' buttons, minimise/restore key, drag function in conjunction with the thumb pad, and various other keys to launch specific applications such as Media Player and Browser. There's even a Power button to provide Alt+F4 close application duties. You don't have to have an associated ATI graphics card either — the only limitation when using it 'stand-alone' is that a few of the dedicated buttons such as TV and DVD won't be available.
Its polished silver casing, sky blue and occasional red buttons are certainly smart, and there's an integral red LED that indicates each button push, while the buttons themselves have a very positive feel. However, at eight inches long and around two inches wide it's larger than any other remote I've ever used, so it's a shame that the transport controls are right at the bottom, since this makes it more difficult to operate them 'one-handed'.
The supplied Remote Control software was only version 1.1, but the enhanced version 1.4 Remote Control I downloaded let you adjust the thumb pad speed and acceleration, and once tweaked I found it no more difficult to operate than a trackpad. This software also lets you assign a keyboard shortcut to each of the A to F user-definable buttons, or to launch an application from them, and to import plug-ins to control a variety of applications. Sadly these don't include any MIDI + Audio sequencers, and the user-defined buttons aren't sufficiently versatile in themselves for our purposes. There is an SDK (Software Development Kit) to write your own DLL plug-ins, but this is really the realm of the programmer, since it requires a suitable C compiler.
All of the remote devices mentioned so far are primarily designed to control specific software applications such as those used for playing CDs, DVDs, MP3 files, or changing TV channels with a suitable TV tuner graphics card, and while some do support their own format of plug-ins, you are still largely dependent on programmers to write something suitable for other applications. Sometimes, as in the case of the Remote Wonder, the transport controls may also transmit standard commands to Windows. However, these functions may only be supported by Windows applications that respond to WM_APPCOMMAND, and no music applications do to my knowledge. Apparently these commands are also issued by the additional 'multimedia' keys on various PC keyboards.
So, whether you opt for infra-red or RF, or are trying to map multimedia keys, most bundled software is restricted in the software applications it can control, and we still need another way to convert the remote signals being received into commands suitable for operating music software. Thankfully there are various PC utilities that aim to do this, and one of the most comprehensive seems to be Girder (www.girder.nl). The fact that it's also freeware makes it extremely popular.
Girder will run with Windows 95, 98, SE, Me, NT 4.0, 2000 and XP, and can control any input or output device with a suitable plug-in. For example, it can translate the various incoming instructions from a remote handset into suitable Windows or keyboard commands, but in addition to this, Girder is also capable of translating standard PC keyboard input into other actions on your PC, which could mean you can finally make use of those redundant keys on your multimedia PC keyboard to control your sequencer. It can also translate mouse actions and movements into commands, and perform most common Windows tasks, such as closing windows, switching between them, and powering down the PC.
It's totally user-configurable and is bundled with quite a few plug-ins to control different devices, including one for IRa, while there is also a wide range of user 'plug-ins' for you to download separately, including one to make Streamzap more versatile, and several for ATI's Remote Wonder. Essentially you first load a plug-in that recognises your particular input device, whether it's a remote control, computer key press, timer, and so on. Multiple plug-ins can be loaded if required, and then Girder can receive real-time 'Events' from them all (its taskbar icon flashes whenever a remote message is received).
To configure your own setups, you then use the Add Command function in the Explorer-like tree structure on the left hand side of Girder's interface, choose an action from one of the various tabbed windows on the lower right, and then activate Learn Event and press one of the buttons on your remote device to attach the command to it. These include various Windows actions such as maximise, minimise and set focus, OS commands including shut down and Play WAV, commands that Windows sends to its dialogues plus mouse clicks and their position on screen, a selection of Girder actions to reconfigure your setups in real time, along with actions that simulate the various mouse movements and series of key-presses, and further plug-ins that can perform more complex tasks.
Another advantage for our purposes is that it can pass commands to specific windows, whether they are currently active or inactive. This means, for instance, that you could still have transport control of your sequencer while working in a stand-alone synth editor. The commands can also be given States, so that they perform one action on the first press, another on the second, and so on. You could use this to open and then close a window, for instance, or to sequentially select between various on-screen options. Yet another option is to designate one two-state toggled button as Shift or Control to double or treble the effective number of other buttons on your remote.
It would take a few hours' work to create a preset file to control an audio application like Cool Edit Pro, Cubase, Logic Audio, Sonar, Wavelab, and so on, but you should find few restrictions once you get your head round all the options, and Girder also has an active user forum if you get confused by the many options. My own feeling is that ATI's Remote Wonder is the remote package for the musician to go for in conjunction with Girder, although I'd be interested to hear from any musician who has got encouraging results from infra-red hardware.
During the course of writing this feature I created a Girder Remote Wonder/Cubase SX preset that provides control over the transport buttons, markers, cursor cluster and various other functions, while the thumb pad and its buttons are perfectly usable as an emergency mouse. It's still evolving, but drop me an email (firstname.lastname@example.org) if you would like a copy, or if there's sufficient demand I'll post it on the SOS web site. Even two floors away from my studio the Remote Wonder is still reliably controlling Cubase, and now that I've experienced the total freedom that RF control offers, I'm hooked!
Many thanks to Blisware, who supplied the ATI Remote Wonder described in this feature.