Square One: Recording from the Ground Up
Getting Your Music into the Computer Cheap & Simple
By Jon Chappell
If someone asked you, What was the simplest and least-expensive to get into computer recording? What would your response be? Would you immediately recommend your favorite DAW? Would you steer them to a lite version of Cubase, Live, or Cakewalk? And what about an interface? Do you even know whats out there that is inexpensive and handles just the most basic needs? Well, these are the questions I grappled with when a friend approached me. Instead of getting overwhelmed and doing a ton of research, I made everything a lot easier for myself once I took into account the person asking the question.
You see, everyone approaches the computer differently when it comes to recording, even if theyre all novices (using the computer only for e-mail, web surfing, and word processing). For example, some want to use the computer to simply capture their performance. Some want to build arrangements. And some want to use the computer to aid in the actual creation of music. In my caseor rather my friendswe were dealing with an experienced gigging musician who wanted to get his performances down to do some objective listening. As a computer
user, he was probably typical of many people. But he was different from someone who had neither recording nor live experience in one tangible, significant way: He had lots of microphones and a sophisticated pickup system on his guitar. So I took that as my baseline and went from there.
USB in Miniature
I was careful to modulate my advice based on the fact that he had an arsenal of great gear, just none of it specifically recording oriented. His mic collection included mostly dynamic mics, and recording tends to favor condenser mics. Still, I decided to ignore this fact and recommend he check out CEntrances MicPort Pro because he could use his existing arsenal of microphones.
The MicPort Pro offers some impressive features in a small package: It records in high-definition (24-bit/96kHz) audio; has independent input and output level controls; phantom power, and a separate, zero-latency headphone output. In aggregation mode, you can use two MicPort Pros for stereo recording. Plus, its all housed in a unit the size of a roll of quarters. It could fit comfortably inside the compartment of a guitar case, and you could use it for recording both your guitar and your voiceassuming you did these as separate, overdubbed actions.
Because my friend has an electrified acoustic, though, he doesnt need to mic his guitar. He could easily use another CEntrance product, the AxePort Pro, which is the instrument equivalent to its microphone counterpart. So for about $250, he could have a very handy setup that goes inline with his existing cords and provides no clumsy, intermediary box to deal with. The trouble is, the AxePort Pro isnt shipping yet, so if my friend really wants to combine a mic for his voice and a line-in interface for his guitar, he has to consider another solution. So its on to Plan B: a more traditional USB interface.
USB in a Box
Both M-Audio and Line 6 make USB interfaces that can accommodate guitar and microphones in a single box. Both are available for under $200 and offer an array of attractive features. The M-Audio Fast Track Pro provides 4 x 4 I/O operation, inserts for outboard effects, balanced and unbalanced audio outputs, and S/PDIF and MIDI I/O (see Fig. 2). As well, it has near-zero latency direct hardware monitoring and low-latency ASIO software monitoring, plus an A/B source switch and dual output pairs for DJ-style cueing. Its a good solution for a setup that includes external effects devices.
The Line 6 TonePort UX2 is more for the guitar tweaker who also sings. It features amp, cab, and effects modeling drawn from the PODxt and Bass PODxt, but it also includes models of vocal preamps, which is very cool. A software utility called GearBox allows you to change effect parameters on your voice and guitars. In addition to two XLR mic inputs, it offers two 1/4" inputs (one for high-gain instruments), a digital output, two footswitch jacks, assignable VU meters, and two footswitch jacks.
The UX2 is really designed for guitar players who want to tweak their sound, and if you play electric, youll appreciate all the modeled amps and cabinets trickled down from the POD series. The Fast Track Pro feels and works more like a traditional interface and includes MIDI. But both offer features that would work well for multi-input recording and monitoring, and both ship with Ableton Live Lite software.
Blue as the Driven Snow
If youre dealing with someone who has virtually no gear, consider a USB microphone, such as the Snowball from Blue Microphones. This spherical recording microphone comes with a pair of electrets condenser capsules that offer two polar patterns, plus a 3-way switch to select between cardioid, cardioid with -10 dB pad, and omni. An LED on the front of the mic lets you know youre receiving phantom power, courtesy of the USB connection (which also transfers the audio signal to the computer).
What I like about the Snowball (and other USB mics of its ilk, including the Apex 191, Marshall Electronics MXL USB.006, and Samson G-Track) is that its a condenser micand that made it a good recommendation for my friend as well, who had no condenser mics. It performs the analog-to-digital conversion inside the mic housing, and it comes with a desk stand, making it suited to computer operation. The Snowball also has a gimbal-based swivel mount, allowing you to position the mic at any angle. The slightly futuristic white spherical housing and clean design make this mic very at home in a Mac laptop setting.
A Soft Approach
Whereas hardware requires you to make a decision as to how you spend your hard-earned dollars, software is a free lunch. Or more precisely, a free smorgasbord, as the nature of software vendors is such that they will let you sample their wares in the form of a reduced-feature version. This is often more than enough exposure to decide if you like the way the program works and if it seems to jibe with your way of making music.
If you really want something for free, consider either GarageBand or Audacity. GarageBand (which ships with the computer) is for Mac users only, but it features powerful loop-handling capabilities and the option for purchasing and downloading more loops. Audacity doesnt have the loop-handling capabilities of GarageBand, but it can perform wave-editing functions for more precise manipulation of the sound, similar to the way higher-end DAWs like Pro Tool, Cubase, Performer, and Sonar work (see Fig. 6). Audacity is open source, and was designed to work well on all three platforms (Linux, Mac, Windows) from the get-go, so it promises almost limitless feature additions and future improvement potential.
One thing to consider when advising someone about an interface, is that many of them ship with lite versions of popular high-end DAWs. As mentioned, both the Fast Track Pro and UX2 ship with Ableton Live Lite, which is usually more than enough DAW power to get someone up and running in the multi-track environment. Other interfaces usually come bundled with something similar, and Cubase and Sonar are very popular choices, too. You may not even need to try other demo versions or the free programs discussed above, but since the only cost is a couple of minutes of installation time, why not experiment? You may find your muse hidden in some as-yet-unknown software application. Because while the hardware interface should be transparent and functional, the software should inspire. And thats the whole reason many people turn to the computer in the first placeto expand their creative potential.
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