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Studio SOS: Synth & DAW Gremlins

Mark North By Hugh Robjohns & Paul White
Published June 2016

Studio SOS - Mark North.Mark in his revamped, reorganised bedroom studio.

A home studio visit sees the SOS team tackle some stubborn synth and DAW gremlins.

Mark North describes his music as experimental electronica, with influences ranging from world music to house and EDM. He programs his own beats rather than using loops, and his music favours a strong percussive element and deep bass. He has released tracks on a couple of labels — Itchy Pig in Sheffield (https://soundcloud.com/trigoney/bong-cong) and Aenaria Recordings in Italy (https://soundcloud.com/aenaria-recordings) — under the artist name Trigoney. His artwork is sold at the Quarr Gallery in Swanage.

Mark lost the use of his left arm following a head injury, and contacted us to help set up a working studio system from an assortment of gear he’d collected over the years. He has limited space, as his studio has to share his bedroom, and he finds it very difficult to make connections at the back of hardware boxes. As Mark composes entirely with MIDI instruments rather than recording audio, we didn’t have any complications such as setting up a recording space. However, it was soon clear that we’d have our work cut out trying to connect all his external MIDI rack synths at the same time, as he was limited to three physical MIDI ports: one on the back of his main audio interface, and two more on a MOTU Fast Lane MIDI interface. Furthermore, he didn’t have a mixer, so all audio returns from the hardware synth modules had to be fed back into his MOTU interface via its line inputs.

As much of the gear had been in storage, it had collected a fair amount of dust, and some items had also become separated from their manuals, cables, and power supplies. I set about dusting the kit while Hugh got on with taking a few photos. Mark wasn’t sure which of three possible audio interfaces to use, but as his MOTU 828 MkII had more inputs than the other two alternatives, we decided to try to base the system around that. For a controller keyboard, Mark had the option of a Novation Bass Station or a miniature Akai keyboard, but as he intended to use the Bass Station sounds anyway and it had full-size keys, we all agreed that would be the best option. Other gear in Mark’s collection included an Access Virus Rack synth, a Roland XV5080 synth module, a Roland TR-8 Rhythm Performer and a Roland TB-3 Touch Bassline.

Mark has been a long-time user of Mark Of The Unicorn’s Digital Performer, a DAW that neither Hugh nor myself are very familiar with. This was installed on a Mac Mini fitted with a 250GB hard drive and just 4GB of RAM. As there was very little free hard drive space remaining, we suggested that Mark should make it a priority to offload all his photos and other space-consuming files to a backup drive and/or cloud storage, otherwise the system could end up grinding to a halt. Both of us also felt that doubling up on the RAM would be advisable, too.

Desk Job

To save space on Mark’s small desk, we put the Mac Mini on top of a wide USB hub/platform with a USB fan between the hub and the Mac Mini to help with cooling. The Mac monitor was placed directly on top of the Mac Mini, where we reasoned that its aluminium support stand would help conduct away more heat. Mark also had a graphics tablet connected to the Mac via USB, which he used for other work, so we left that as he’d set it. This left just enough room on either side of the desk for Mark’s Yamaha MSP5 powered monitors, which we connected to the main outputs of the MOTU interface.

Having connected the interface to the Mac using a FireWire 800 cable, we first checked audio playback from songs in iTunes. When setting up a potentially complex system it is always best to work in simple stages and check each one as you go; that way, you can identify and fix problems like ground loops as they occur. Some time was also taken up going through a collection of wall-wart power supplies to figure out which one belonged to which piece of kit. Fortunately, I’d brought along my multimeter so could at least check the voltages and polarity.

Hugh assembles Mark’s interface and synth rack.Hugh assembles Mark’s interface and synth rack.

While I was checking the audio setup, Hugh was repositioning the synth modules in a wheeled rack stand so that Mark could reach them and see their LCDs from a seated position. We also had to be careful to position everything so that it could be operated by a right hand. A spare bedside cabinet was pressed into service as a stand for the Bass Station, and there was just room to stand this in front of his outboard rack.

Trigger Happy

As we started to get the rest of the system hooked up, Hugh spent some time browsing on his phone to find answers to questions that arose, such as how to set the Bass Station to Local Off mode. This was necessary in order to stop the keyboard triggering Bass Station sounds directly, so that they were only triggered by MIDI notes from the DAW (to stop a MIDI note retrigger loop). We connected the Bass Station via USB, and after much head-scratching in the alien environment of DP, we figured out how to send it MIDI from one track while bringing its audio back into the mix through a pair of line inputs on the 828 MkII. This worked, though even with Local set to Off, we occasionally got stuck-note issues, which seemed only to happen on certain patches. We weren’t really sure whether this was a hardware issue or not, but Mark said he could live with it as it didn’t seem to affect the keyboard’s ability to control other synths. If anyone reading this knows of a solution to the problem, please let us know and we’ll forward the info to Mark. We also plugged in his little Akai keyboard, again via USB, so that he could use it and its integral drum pads when composing.

A MOTU 828 MkII handles all the line inputs from Mark’s hardware synths and sound modules.A MOTU 828 MkII handles all the line inputs from Mark’s hardware synths and sound modules.

In order to make the best use of the limited number of line inputs on the MOTU 828 MkII, we settled on connecting Mark’s XV-5080 using its S/PDIF output, and sending MIDI to just one of its two input ports from the MOTU Fast Lane. We used the MIDI ports on the MOTU 828 MkII to hook up the Virus Rack. Then it was back to DP to set up more MIDI tracks and more audio return tracks. This turned out to be a bit frustrating as we weren’t familiar with some of the DP terminology, but once we’d figured out how to configure additional audio inputs we were up and running. Well, almost up and running, as we kept running into a situation where random channels weren’t responding — until we remembered that the Bass Station was sending out Program Change and volume data whenever we adjusted it! This was being picked up by the other synths, so Hugh went back online trying to figure out where the MIDI-input filtering options were hidden in DP. Putting MIDI Input Filtering into DP’s help search came up with no results (as is frustratingly common with online manuals), but we eventually found out ourselves how to to block everything other than note and controller data from the Novation keyboard.

That did the trick, so I saved the project we had been working with the filename ‘Template’, then quit DP just to check it would load up OK. It didn’t. Every time we tried to load the Template project DP crashed and quit. Eventually I had to recreate it again from scratch, re-save it, and this time it all seemed to work fine with no crashes. Go figure!

Despite some initial teething problems, Paul managed to set up a working Digital Performer template that would allow the Novation Bass Station to act as a master keyboard for all the other synths.Despite some initial teething problems, Paul managed to set up a working Digital Performer template that would allow the Novation Bass Station to act as a master keyboard for all the other synths.

At this point I thought it might be a good idea for Mark to have a fallback position just in case something bad happened to his system in the future, so I suggested he install Apple’s GarageBand on the basis that it has an impressive selection of internal software instruments and a virtual drummer that would allow Mark to carry on composing without relying on anything external other than his audio interface. He was happy to pay the £3.99 App Store price for the program, but as luck would have it, he’d forgotten that he’s already paid for an earlier version, so the update turned out to be free. Of course this ate up even more of his remaining and very limited drive space, so offloading photos and other large files became even more pressing.

GarageBand worked right away, and I spent a few minutes showing Mark the basics, explaining that there was a wealth of instructional material online to get him up and running quickly. The quality of the virtual instruments always surprises me when you consider that you can pay more for a beer than the cost of this app! The main limitation with GarageBand, as far as Mark is concerned, is that it can’t address external MIDI synths. To do that he’d need to move up to Logic Pro, which may be more of a learning curve than he wants to take on at the moment.

Now, with everything working and accessible, and audible via the Yamaha speakers, Mark asked us if we could get the headphones working: he shares the house with a number of other people, so monitoring on speakers at anything other than very low levels is not an option. So, we reconfigured the MOTU’s headphone output to mirror the main outputs, so that Mark could work using his Sennheiser HD25 headphones without any problems.

TB Or Not TB?

By now we were running out of time as we faced a long drive home in foul weather, but we still hadn’t got the TR-8 or TB-3 working. There was only one MIDI port left on the Fast Track unit, but as there were plenty of spare USB sockets, we thought we’d try to fire up the TR-8. Setting up an audio return channel for it was easy enough through the MOTU interface, but we couldn’t get DP to see the required driver. So, once again, Hugh went back online to find out about the current driver, which is documented as working up to Mac OS 10.10 ‘Yosemite’. We had no problem going to the Roland web site and getting the driver, but Mark was now running 10.11 ‘El Capitan’ on his Mac Mini and the driver still didn’t show up in Digital Performer. Whether this was because the driver isn’t compatible with El Capitan or because we needed to dig into some other arcane corner of the DAW program I don’t know, but unfortunately, we had to leave before finding a solution. At least it is all connected up and ready for when either a new driver becomes available, or for when our DP gurus come up with an answer for Mark.

In all, this was a rather unusual but satisfying Studio SOS that was, for once, more about connecting and configuring equipment than solving monitoring problems or tracking down strange hums and buzzes.

Reader Reaction

Mark North: “Thank you so much for your visit today. It was great to meet you and everything is working a lot better than before. There’s still a strange aftertouch beep from the Bass Station but I can live with it! I am also going to explore GarageBand further — and maybe even take a look at Logic Pro.”

The Studio SOS Book

The Studio SOS Book is on sale in the SOS web shop. Have you got your copy yet?Using case studies to illustrate common problems, this 306-page book brings together a wide range of real solutions that are both affordable and easy to implement.

Written by Paul White, Hugh Robjohns and Dave Lockwood, the SOS team impart easy-to-understand, organised troubleshooting advice on a range of topics. Learn how to rid yourself of monitoring problems so you can accurately hear what you’re mixing, how to enhance the sound of your recording space, and how to perfect your instrumental and vocal recordings. Spend less time re-recording and mixing, simply by improving your room with advice from the guys who have seen it all when it comes to make-do small studios.

Get your copy from: www.soundonsound.com/shop/books/studio-sos-book

Published June 2016