East Norfolk Sixth Form College needed help integrating their hardware multitracker with their computer sequencing system, so the SOS team travelled over to Great Yarmouth to lend a hand.
Back in the January and February issues of SOS I wrote a pair of workshop articles about the Roland VS2480 recorder. Within a couple of weeks of the second article going to press, I'd had two separate reader inquiries at the SOS office asking for a tutorial on the multitracker's remote control functions. Having a dedicated programmable fader bank in my own setup, I'd never needed to experiment with this aspect of the VS2480's operation, so I couldn't really provide any useful hands-on advice. However, I knew how the remote control functions were meant to work in theory, so I offered to head over to the studio of one of the two readers, Carl Simmonds, to help him get things worked out in practice.
Carl teaches music technology at East Norfolk Sixth Form College, where he manages a studio setup based around a Triton LE keyboard workstation, a PC running Steinberg Cubase SX, and a Roland VS2480 recorder. There were two main things which Carl wanted to do. Firstly, he wanted to configure the system such that the computer sequencer and the hardware multitracker would run in sync, under the direction of the hardware transport controls. Then he wanted to be able to use the VS2480's faders to control mixer parameters within Cubase SX. There is a dedicated fader layer within the Roland digital mixer for this purpose, but Carl was unsure how to get this working properly.
I enlisted the help of SOS contributor Tom Flint, himself an experienced user of digital multitrackers, and we headed over to Great Yarmouth where the college is based. On our arrival we found the small control room already half full of people, as some of the Music Technology 'A'-level students were keen to be in on the session, despite our visit coinciding with the half-term holidays!
With barely a pause to inhale our cups of tea, we set to work on synchronising the multitracker with the sequencer. The first thing to do was make sure that the multitracker was set up right. I explained to Carl that the most sensible method of synchronisation in his case would probably involve using MIDI Time Code (MTC). The other option would have been to use MIDI Clock, but that requires identical tempo and time-signature data to be set up in the sequencer and the multitracker, so can be a hassle if you have changes of time signature or tempo within any song. I also suggested that it would make most sense to have the sequencer as slave and the VS2480 as master, as most of the audio recording is done on the multitracker.
Dealing with the VS2480 was fairly quick — in the Utility menu the Sync page needed its MIDI Out Sync Gen parameter setting to MTC so that the multitracker would output MIDI Time Code, and I also checked that the MMC Mode switch in the MIDI settings page was at its default Master position. Transmission of SysEx messages is usually switched on by default, but I also checked this while I was in the MIDI settings page. In my own studio I run a VS2480 synchronised to a Yamaha QY700 hardware sequencer, which I'd brought along so that we could check that the college's VS2480 was working correctly before we delved into Cubase SX. Having connected the multitracker's MIDI Out to the MIDI In of my QY700, the sequencer synchronised immediately, so we re-plugged to the studio computer's MIDI In and set about sorting Cubase SX.
Being more of an Apple Logic user myself, I asked Carl to navigate to Cubase SX's Synchronisation Setup window, where we selected MIDI Time Code as the Timecode Source and specified the MIDI interface input port to which the VS2480's MIDI Out was connected. Finally, MIDI Machine Control was activated so that Cubase would respond to the VS2480's transport controls. Pressing Play on the VS2480 at this point had no effect on Cubase SX, so we had a quick look at the Transport bar and realised that the Sync button wasn't yet switched on. However, even switching that on yielded no result.
Knowing that we'd tested the VS2480 with the QY700, there was little doubt that the multitracker was set up correctly. Furthermore, MIDI was definitely reaching the sequencer, as could be seen from the MIDI input meter on Cubase SX 's Transport panel. This led us to suspect that we hadn't routed the MIDI Time Code correctly in the sequencer, so we tried setting different MIDI interface input ports from the Synchronisation Setup window. All of a sudden Cubase SX sprang into life, synchronising perfectly with the VS2480. When we'd first configured the Synchronisation Setup we'd set the wrong MIDI input port! It's at times like these that it pays off to have worked methodically — if we hadn't tested that the VS2480 was set up correctly before tangling with Cubase SX it could have taken us much longer to get to the crux of the problem.
While I was working on Carl's VS2480, I noticed a number of things which would help him work more efficiently. For example, he had paired the channels of very few of his stereo signals, because he wanted independent control over the individual pan parameters. However, you can still access individual pan settings for stereo-linked channels if you cursor over to the Pan control in the channel parameter screen and press Enter — this brings up a little window with the separate pan values and the communal balance.
Another thing which speeds up the mixing process is setting the Knob/Fader Assign Switch in the Utility menu's Global pages to its Fader setting. This means that you can easily view and adjust aux send levels across sixteen channels at once, which is very useful when you're trying to remember which channels are sending to which effects. I also showed Carl how the User Knob/Fader Assign mode can be used to transform the channel fader into an EQ bypass switch for when you're setting up the channel equalisers — after all, it's very good practice to keep switching the processing in and out of circuit while you're deciding on the right setting.
The multitracker's internal patchbay was another source of frustration. Carl had been having to keep resetting it for each new project, because the default template wasn't suitable for the college's setup. Fortunately, the VS2480 patchbay has an option to save routing templates, and I demonstrated that these could be shared between different projects to solve his problem.
Finally, I demonstrated how, when using the VGA monitor option, you can lock the unit's LCD to show the waveform display permanently — very useful if you do a lot of editing. First you have to press the Page button by the LCD until the IDWave option appears over the F3 button. This switches you to waveform view, and then pressing F6 (IDHold) locks this view to the LCD — however, this waveform display will always show the currently selected channel.
The second task was to sort out the best way to control Cubase SX 's mixer from the VS2480's faders and rotary controls. The VS2480 has a dedicated fader layer (called V-Fader) within its digital mixer specifically designed for controlling external units. You enter the V-Fader mode by holding down the Shift key and pressing the bottom right-hand one of the Fader buttons above the master fader — the button has the V-Fader label underneath it. Each channel of the V-Fader layer sends out MIDI data on a separate MIDI channel, so the eighth fader and rotary control both send out MIDI on channel eight, for example. The controls can only send MIDI Continuous Controller messages, but you can specify which one each individual control transmits from the Utility menu's V-Fader pages. To start with we left the controllers at their default settings, so the faders and rotary controls were sending out Continuous Controller numbers seven and ten respectively.
Once again I connected the QY700 to the output of the VS2480 to confirm that the faders were indeed sending out the data that we had specified. This all checked out fine, so we plugged the VS2480's MIDI output cable back into the computer's MIDI interface before opening up the Cubase SX Device Manager window. Since there was no pre-programmed template designed for the VS2480, Carl used the Generic Remote mode to set things up from scratch. After choosing appropriate MIDI ports, Carl created an audio Fader in the Mixer window and this could immediately be controlled from the first fader in the V-Fader layer — by default Fader 1 was set to be controlled by Continuous Controller 7 messages on MIDI channel one. So far, so good...
Next we tried to get the hardware faders to reflect movements of the software faders, so that there would be no mismatches between hardware and software fader positions when using Cubase SX 's automation at mixdown. (Although the VS2480 has an internal mix-automation system, this doesn't extend to controlling the V-Fader layer). Again, I connected my QY700 up to the VS2480's MIDI Input and sent it MIDI Continuous Controller number seven messages. Although the VS2480's MIDI indicator LED showed that the data was reaching the VS2480, none of the V-Fader controls budged. Referring to the VS2480's manual, there was no mention of the V-Faders responding to incoming MIDI messages — only a list of which Continuous Controller assignments were fixed for external control of the multitracker's audio mixer. Just to test that the VS2480 was actually receiving the right messages, I switched on its external MIDI control facility (using the Mixer Control Type parameter in the Utility menu's MIDI pages), and sure enough one of the audio mixer's input faders began following the movements of the assignable controller wheel I'd set up on the QY700. (On my return to the SOS office, I contacted Roland UK's technical support team, who confirmed that the V-Faders only send MIDI data.)
Knowing that the VS2480's audio-mixer faders can send and receive MIDI controllers, and that Carl was only using a handful of these for mixing the VS2480's analogue inputs, I decided to quickly try using these to control Cubase SX in place of the faders on the V-Fader layer. Unfortunately, the sequencer's MIDI Thru function caused the hardware faders to 'fight' me whenever I attempted to move them, because the Cubase SX audio Faders were re-transmitting every Continuous Controller message back to the VS2480 as they were received. In the end, Carl settled for controlling the Cubase SX mixer from the V-Fader layer — at least this allowed sensible hardware control for projects up until the point at which software mixer automation was used.
Before we headed back, Carl played us one of the recordings that the students had made on the VS2480 — a funk-style track with drums, bass, guitars, and horns. The quality of the production was pretty impressive, with a particularly nice drum sound despite the main recording space being a 4 x 4m Esmono isolation room. This is a soundproof metal booth which can be built inside your own room to decrease sound leakage while recording. I encountered one of these rooms for the first time while interviewing Andy Cross for a Readerzone article back in SOS January 2003, and was struck not only by the effectiveness of the soundproofing, but also by how dry the internal acoustics were. The college's room was no exception — the room absorbed so much sound that you even felt yourself having to work hard to hold a conversation in there!
Admittedly, the drum sound was quite dry, but it suited the funk style of the track. I mentioned to Carl that he might have problems capturing any more roomy rock sound, and suggested that recording drum ambience from out in the corridor would probably help in such situations. I also suggested that he look at investing in one of the latest convolving reverb plug-ins — with such dry recordings he has to rely quite heavily on artificial reverb and delay, so I can imagine that high-quality reverb would make a real impact at the mixdown stage. Another alternative where a more natural recorded result was required would be to use hardboard panels to make the walls and floor more reflective when recording acoustic instruments.
Speaking of reverb, Tom and I felt there was too much of it on the horn tracks, giving rather a long reverb tail which seemed rather out of keeping with the overall sound of the mix. The first thing to do was to take off all the processing and check the balance of the three mic signals. After a small bit of track rearrangement we managed to get the three channels up on adjacent faders, and it turned out that only a little re-balancing was required to get the horns to sound more 'authentic' — funk horn sounds are often pretty dry, so there was little need to add reverb. I also thought that the compression settings used were a bit harsh, and compromised the punchiness of the original dynamics. I felt that switching off the dynamics processing was an improvement, and that where the odd phrase poked a little too far out of the mix it would probably be best to sort this out with the VS2480's automation at mixdown.
Tom pointed out that the rhythm guitars sounded quite middly and were having to compete directly with the horns, muddling the overall mid-range. Carl and the students had already EQ'd the guitars quite severely — low-end shelving and high-frequency boost — to get them to cut through more, but there was more that needed to be done. The EQ processor's high-pass filter proved a better tool for the job, allowing us to progressively remove low end until the mid-range cleared up satisfactorily.
The flagship digital multitrackers are complex beasts which present a serious learning curve to the home studio owner, and computer sequencers are even more complex, trying to be all things to all people. So it's hardly surprising that getting a multitracker to work with a software sequencer can be a headache. Most apparent hardware/software faults in the home studio are the result of incorrect setup — indeed, it was an erroneous MIDI port setting that threw a spanner in the works when we were trying to synchronise Carl's PC sequencer to the VS2480. However, the good news is that you can solve many studio configuration problems just by approaching them methodically, and a good technique here is to eliminate individual elements of a malfunctioning system from consideration until you can home in on the exact culprit, just as we did by testing the Cubase SX and VS2480 MIDI functions with the QY700 this month. Even the most complicated studio conundrums can usually be resolved if you can whittle them down to their root cause.
"I really appreciate the guys from SOS coming down to the college to help us out. We all learnt an awful lot about the capabilities of MIDI, and also received some helpful tips regarding our studio setup. Since the visit we have progressed on from just using the VS2480 as a mixer surface to control volumes and panning, and we're now using the faders to adjust individual channel settings (EQ settings, effect sends, dynamics controls, and so on) and the parameters within Hypersonic and Reason. We're also going to begin to investigate using the VS2480 to control the parameters in our Korg Triton as well. Is there no end to this unit's capability? I hope not, as it gives us something to do in the classroom... Thanks again!"