How to shop for an audio interface

If you’re just starting out your home studio, or looking to upgrade your audio interface, there are many factors to consider in order to make an informed decision that gets you the best bang for your buck. An audio interface is the traffic cop of your home studio, controlling all the physical inputs and outputs.

Using an audio interface is always better for a home recording studio than the built-in soundcard on your computer. An audio interface:

  • will allow you to connect guitars, synthesizers, and professional microphones
  • can achieve lower latency, so you don’t hear a delay while recording or playing a software synthesizer
  • is designed to record and playback at the same time; a soundcard, not so much

With the right feature set for your home studio, you can improve your workflow and focus on the creative rather than the technical. Don’t get me wrong, though – you still have to understand the technical, so here we go.

Number of inputs

The first and potentially most important thing to consider is the number of inputs you have. You need as many inputs as things you’ll be recording at the same time. Interfaces generally come with 2, 4 or 8 analogue inputs.  Manufacturers usually state the number of inputs in the model name, and almost all of the time, it’s the first number.  For example, a Focusrite 2i4 has 2 inputs (and 4 outputs, but we’ll get to that in a bit). A Presonus AudioBox 44VSL has 4 inputs and 4 outputs.

What’s crucial to understand here is that you only need enough inputs for one recording pass. For example, if you record guitar first, then vocals, then bass, you really only need one input. If you’re recording all three at the same time, you’ll need three inputs. Simultaneous recording not only captures the magic of musicians playing off one another, but recording them on discrete channels also gives you isolated tracks in your software for better mixing. (Note, mic bleed is a topic unto itself.)

Types of inputs

Inputs for microphones are XLR inputs – an XLR mic cable has three large pins in a circle on one end. Often, audio interfaces feature “combo jacks” which can take an XLR (mic) cable, or a standard ¼” cable, like a guitar patch cord. Other inputs may only take a ¼” cable.

Inputs are usually designed for one or more impedance levels. The definition of impedance doesn’t matter – just note that microphones, guitars (or any stringed instrument with a ¼” output), and synthesizers all have different types of output, and require three different setting for inputs. Mic level is the weakest of the three, instrument level (for guitars) is higher, and line level (synthesizers, CD players, your mobile music device) is the strongest signal. While most combo jacks automatically detect a mic or line level signal, only some feature a switch or option for instrument level. Activating the instrument level switch (sometimes called Hi-Z), if it’s available on your interface, ensures you get a good signal level from the instrument. This is about the same as patching your guitar through a DI box.

Input channels may also features a 20dB pad. This switch cuts the signal by 20dB, which is a significant drop. This is useful if you’re recording anything particularly loud, like a guitar amp or a drum, and ensures you won’t distort the signal. This feature is usually not found on the least expensive interfaces.

Some interfaces also include 5-pin MIDI input and output. While not strictly part of the audio system of your home studio, this can save you from investing in an additional USB MIDI interface if you have some older synthesizers you want to use. Most modern synthesizes and MIDI controllers connect directly to your computer via USB.

5-pin MIDI IN and OUT ports
5-pin MIDI IN and OUT ports

Preamps

When you plug in a microphone, the gain knob controls the volume of the input and engages the preamp. Ideally, these knobs are laid out beside each input, so it’s easy to know which knob controls which input. For most home studio setups, the preamps in modern audio interfaces are low-noise and transparent sounding. While some interfaces feature premium quality preamps (for a premium price), you need to keep in mind you should also have a premium microphone and an acoustically treated recording environment to really take advantage.

Phantom Power, or 48V

Every audio interface will have a switch or button for 48V power, also known as Phantom Power. This is required for using condenser microphones. Just remember to always switch on Phantom Power after plugging in your microphone, and switching it off before unplugging your mic. Phantom Power will not affect your dynamic microphones.

Some interfaces put the switch for 48V on the back of the interface. Ideally, the switch is on the front and has a light to indicate that it’s on. Some may even have the switch as part of the software interface, which in my opinion, is the least desirable place for it.

Outputs

Most audio interfaces will have balanced TRS (tip, ring, and sleeve) connections for outputs. The TRS cable looks similar to a ¼” patch cord (unbalanced TS cable), but it has an additional ring on the connector pin, indicating that it can be used for a balanced TRS connection, or carries a stereo signal, like your headphone cable. Generally, balanced TRS connections are less susceptible to introducing hum or noise in your signal path over longer distances.

TRS vs TS cable
TRS vs TS cable

Outputs are normally reserved to connect your studio monitors. This takes two outputs – one for the left speaker, one for the right. Interfaces with more than one output pair can be used to connect additional speakers, or connect to a desktop mixer. Connecting to a second set of speakers can be useful in testing your mixes.

Don’t discount the value of a big honking volume knob. Some interfaces feature this, and personally, I think it’s a great value add. Volume of your playback is one of the most frequently used controls in your home studio, and sometimes you need to adjust it quickly; you don’t want to be mousing around to find the control. Some interfaces also feature a mute button, which is ideal (i.e. you don’t want your monitors sounding while you’re recording from a microphone).

Digital inputs and outputs

Some interfaces also include digital inputs and outputs. These are used if you have a device with a corresponding output (S/PDIF or optical). The optical (sometimes called ADAT) signal can carry 8 discrete channels. For example, you could expand your two-input setup with an 8-channel preamp with an optical output, for a total of 10 microphone or instrument inputs. The S/PDIF connection only carries a 2-channel stereo signal, and is usually found on synthesizers or CD players.

Sometimes audio interfaces are marketed as having 10 inputs, while only two mic inputs are visible. That’s because the manufacturer is also counting the 8 digital inputs via an optical connection.

Monitoring options

All interfaces have an option for zero-latency monitoring. Generally, if you want to include a reverb in software for your vocalist while recording, you’ll introduce latency while the computer processes the signal, applies the reverb, and sends it back out to be heard. A zero-latency switch (often called direct monitor, or input) allows you to hear the input in real time, without latency, along with the computer playback. Some interfaces allow you to adjust the relative levels of input and playback material.

On-board DSP

Some interfaces include on-board digital effects processing. This allows you to record with very low latency and still apply a reverb or other effect to the monitored input. In my opinion, this is only an issue with older or very budget-level computers. With most modern systems and non-DSP audio interfaces, you can get latency down to a few milliseconds and use a software reverb. It’s best to use a low-CPU taxing plug-in for this. It’s important to note that the reverb in this case won’t be recorded; it’s only used for monitoring. You can still use a better reverb plug-in after the recording is complete. Many singers prefer a bit of reverb in their headphones while recording.

Power supply

Many of the two-channel interfaces are powered by their USB connection to your computer, making them ideal for a mobile recording studio. The larger interfaces, with four or more inputs, usually require a separate power supply in addition to the USB connection, and a power switch. This is something to consider if you’re planning to go mobile with your studio.

Bundled software

The fact is, there are a lot of interface options out there, especially in the two-channel range. One way to decide which one to buy is to look at their bundled software. Many manufacturers include a light version of recording software, like Cubase or Abelton Live. If you prefer one software choice over another, but you haven’t invested in it yet, sometimes getting the light version with your interface gives you a discount when upgrading to the full version. You can check with the software companies to find out more, or download trial versions if you haven’t settled on one yet.

Conclusion

Ultimately, I can’t tell you what interface to buy. If you want to know which one I have, and which ones I’ve had in the past, check out my blog post about the history of my home studio. You have to assess your needs and come to your own conclusion. Hopefully, this article has armed you with the knowledge to make a good choice.

Do you see anything on an interface that I haven’t covered here, or have any questions? Comment below and let me know, and I’ll get back to you. I also accept heaps of praise and accolades.

Beige Shelter – Rumours we make, Paths we Take production

I first met singer-songwriter Adi Aman, aka Beige Shelter, at the Songwriter’s Cafe meetup. He appeared on Song Talk Radio in 2014. His songs instantly appealed to me for their 90’s alt-rock inspired style, and his often spiritually deep lyrics. On Song Talk Radio, I recall commenting how his songs are actually about something.

Last year (late 2015), Adi contacted me with a request to have his songs produced as an album. We had a brief meeting during which I got to know Adi a bit more, and really saw his personality as a generous, people-loving individual, and how that shone through in his songs. We came to an agreement, and began work shortly thereafter. The plan was to produce 12 songs for an album.

Adi would send me his demo recordings, along with lyric and chord sheets. For most recordings, I would set up a session in Sonar with a simple drum loop (of my own creation, of course, since I am a drummer). He would then come over and record guitar and vocals to the beat. Often he would ask for extra “guitar licks” tracks and/or vocal doubles.

The producer brain

For some of the songs, I would make melodic suggestions for the guitar licks, or arrangement ideas for when to include instrumental breaks. I also added drums, bass, piano, strings, and other instruments using my keyboard and MIDI. Of all the aspects of producing, I enjoy this arranging process the most. It takes a careful listen to each song, finding creative ways to supplement the original performance, and at the same time, taking it up a notch. My piano and bass parts were often quite understated, providing a foundation for Adi’s performance without overpowering it. I think this is a key point for any successful production.

For one song, Midnight, Adi had written a lovely arpeggio pattern on the guitar for the intro. The rest of the song rocked out. I suggested a break in the middle where he would repeat the intro pattern at tempo. This served to open the song up and provide a breath before the final chorus.

Adi had a neat riff and chord progression for a song, but no lyric. We worked together as I made chord suggestions (on piano) and a key shift for the bridge. Adi worked out lyrics about racial diversity and inclusion, with some tweaks from me. We share the songwriting credit for Colours.

For Who I Am, Adi had written it as a medium-tempo guitar rocker with harmonica. He wanted to try it out as a piano ballad, so I took his chords and developed a piano, strings, and drums arrangement. We had to re-record his vocals, as the rocker style didn’t really fit with the more ballad-esque piano arrangement. We also forewent the harmonica in favour of a cello solo. I think this song helps to open up the variety on the album.

Adi wasn’t entirely happy with his song EdenI made a suggestion for chord changes in the chorus, which opened up the song to sound bigger. Interestingly, this song is almost entirely comprised of major chords (only one minor chord). In some ways, it’s my favourite track on the album, as it has elements of progressive rock.

Mixing, mastering and fine-tuning

I spent a lot of time going through each song with a fine-tooth comb, fixing notes in the MIDI tracks and tightening up the timing. For some, I used a fixed tempo grid to quantize all the tracks, and for others, I used Adi’s guitar recording as a tempo map. Since they were mostly recorded to a fixed drum loop, they were fairly consistent, but minor tempo variations still occur, and sometimes it’s better to embrace them rather than forcing them to fit a fixed tempo.

I also mixed and mastered the songs. I wanted punchy, clear drums and bass, and forward vocals to ensure all the lyrics were well heard. My new best friend became Native Instrument’s Transient Master.

Ironically, the sonically simplest song, She Now Flies, presented the greatest mixing challenge. It’s actually easier when you’ve got 6 or more instruments in the mix, with guitars, piano, bass and drums, than mixing a song with only guitar and vocals.

For the mastering process, I suggested to Adi that we each come up with a sequence for the album, then compare notes. He then arrived at a sequence that was a combination of my list and his. I made minor tweaks to the EQ of some songs, and applied the final volumes. There’s some finesse here too, as I didn’t want the softer ballads mastered to the same volume as the rockers. Hopefully someone out there still listens to complete albums!

The paths we take

Before we even finished the album, I was accompanying Adi on percussion for his gigs. Since then, we’ve roped in a bass player and lead guitarist as well.

It’s been an absolute joy working with Adi on this record. He had a very balanced approach to owning his songs and being open to suggestions for changes. As the producer, I would always take the approach of allowing Adi the veto power, to reject any suggestion I made. As it turns out, he took most of them. You can’t be too precious about your ideas, and understand that the vision for the record should be the artist’s, not the producer’s.

Listen to the album

 

The generosity of Don Campbell

My singer-songwriter friend Jeff Greenway invited me to a BS Fridays  music showcase at the Cameron House in August. I was pleased to also see Melanie Peterson‘s name on the bill. Melanie is also a friend and a very talented singer-songwriter.

All of the performers were unique and talented, and one singer-songwriter, new to me, really impressed. Don Campbell‘s performance had a great rock energy, and his songs were catchy and well written. I introduced myself to Don after his performance, and told him about Song Talk Radio. I also purchased one of his CD’s, Sail the Grateful Way. I took a cue from another fan of his and had him sign the album insert with a generic personal message like “Neel, thanks for the support! Enjoy the album.” (You can’t expect a personal message from someone you just met.)

After I got home that night, I realized I didn’t have his CD with me. I must have left it on a table at the venue and neglected to put it in my bag satchel man purse messenger bag. I immediately messaged Melanie, who was one of the event organizers, to see if someone perhaps turned it in to her. No luck.

The next day, I contacted Don on Facebook and conveyed my woes. Don was very understanding, and graciously offered to give me a free replacement CD!

It took some back and forth, but last week we met for coffee and Don gave me another CD, again signed with a generic personal message. We shared a great conversation about performing, songwriting, and other stuff.

As for the person who snatched up my original purchase, you got some great music for free. And every time you open the CD you’ll see my name and remember what you did.

Thank you Don for your generosity!

Don Campbell CD signed personal message

Being an introvert and meeting people

I was always labelled the “shy one” or the “quiet one” at family gatherings, and even school group activities and other social functions. Being an impressionable child, I just believed what I was told and didn’t actually do anything about it.

I don’t think I noticed, as I grew older, that I could carry on one-on-one conversations really well, or that I gravitated to very small groups of people; I believe my ideal group size, to this day, is two or three people. Any more than that, and it’s a sliding scale to anxiety.

Several years ago, well, maybe at this point, many years ago, I read The Introvert Advantage by Marti Olsen Laney.  Marti says, “Introverts are like a rechargeable battery. They need to stop expending energy and rest in order to recharge. Extroverts are like solar panels that need the sun to recharge. Extroverts need to be out and about to refuel.” It’s how we’re wired, so there’s not much you can do to change that. You can, however, accept and embrace and leverage your “introvertedness” to your advantage.

At large parties, I take a few minutes of alone time, step away from the fray and literally recharge. When I engage in the party again, I feel refreshed and ready to talk. I try to engage people one-on-one as much as possible. I accept that I am comfortable spending time alone – it allows me to pursue many things I value, like writing this blog.

Of course, words like “introvert” and “extrovert” make it look like it’s a binary system. The truth is, it’s a scale, or a gradient. No one is fully introverted or extroverted; everyone falls somewhere in the middle, and it also depends on the environment or the activity. You can say you’re strongly introverted or extroverted, for example, or more extroverted in certain situations.

I’m old enough to clearly remember a time before the internet. It sucked. The internet is an introvert’s playground. While some of what we do online is technically for the world to see, many of the social interactions are one-on-one. At the very least, as an introvert, you have time to consider, edit, or save and come back to, anything you post. Except on twitter, which is something I still don’t fully get.

Meetup.com is a great place to bring together the online and offline worlds. There’s a meetup group for quite literally every interest imaginable. (OK, so I haven’t looked up “ritual dancing barefoot in the forest with unicorns” yet.) I was first introduced to meetup.com by someone I was chatting with on an online dating site, before online dating was as mainstream as it is now.

So, one truth about introverts is that we despise small talk. We’re much better at, and enjoy, meaty, meaningful conversations. Get philosophical, go on a rant about life, the universe, and everything – we’re game. Part of the challenge, particularly with a new acquaintance, is getting past the small talk. Usually it helps when you’ve already got a common interest.

The first meetup groups I joined were for songwriting and photography. Right off the bat, I could easily engage anyone in a conversation.

Ironically, this was harder at the “Introvert Social” meetup (yes, it exists, and it’s gigantic, perfect for introverts #sarcasm). The first Introvert Social meeting I went to was at a pub (not the quietest, but pretty good for introverts) with about 12 other people, and I was the most talkative one there. That’s never happened before, or since. The trouble here, of course, is that everyone is introverted, so no one wants to start a conversation in a large group. Plus, there’s no common interest except for being introverted, and introverts don’t want to talk about that unless it’s a group therapy session ;). For myself, I started engaging with only the two or so people around me, and before I knew it, I was ranting about something, and the whole table was listening.

Suffice to say, meetup is still a great place to meet others and make new friends. Through meetup, I went with a group of 30 photographers to Cuba for a week, and also became a host of a songwriting radio show. I’ve made new friends, and even improved my own skills in my areas of interest.

I have found that for myself, I’m less of an introvert when engaging in an activity that I’m passionate about, and can talk about with confidence. Another truth about introverts is that we don’t like public speaking, and would rather write our thoughts out. But I’ve started presenting workshops on songwriting and home recording, two things I know a lot about and can talk on for 90 minutes. Naturally, I plan the crap out of them with power point and notes, so there’s little spontaneity, but I manage to cover everything I need to.

My experience on Song Talk Radio is similar; I rely more on scripting parts of the show than my co-hosts. I’m also drumming for a band started by a music production client of mine. This is a safe place for me, even though it may seem ironic that the “shy guy” is pounding away in a rock band (at least I’m not singing lead vocals).

When I worked for a non-profit organization, my job was largely behind the scenes, managing the website, doing layouts for newsletters and e-mail blasts, and writing articles. Sounds like the ideal job for an introvert. Once a year, though, my introversion got pushed a bit. During the organization’s annual conference, part of my responsibility was to engage the conference delegates and take their photos for a large-screen slideshow at the banquet dinner. We referred to these photos as “happy snaps.”

Now, walking up to strangers with a big camera and asking them to smile for a photo is not ideal for an introvert. At first, I had a hard time approaching people. Then I realized that the engagement was so temporal as to make it kind of fun and fascinating. I would ask, take a quick photo or two, say thank you, that’s a lovely photo, and move on. This was as close as I was ever going to get to any of our members, and that was an amusing thought. After the first couple of years doing this, I even had members ask me to take their photos because they enjoyed seeing their friend’s smiling faces at last year’s banquet.

So all in all, I feel I’ve carved out a nice space for myself as an introvert. It’s a long process, with lots of trial and error, but like most things, the more you practice it, the better you get at it. You begin to predict what choices are going to work for you, and how to prepare for the situations where you’re not at your best. Large family gatherings can still be an energy drain for me, but I’ve got enough me-friendly things going on to keep me happy, energized, and confident.

Start here, or don’t

So this is the “sticky” post, meaning whatever else I blog about, this post will forever retain its priority position at the top of my homepage. Above the fold, as it were. So what to put here? Heck, since my blog has no centralized message, thesis or sales pitch, I don’t really need a sticky post. Enjoy the rest of the site.

Beige Shelter show at Lee’s Palace

As part of the band Beige Shelter (drums, percussion), we played our biggest show yet at the historic Lee’s Palace. The crowd was receptive, enthusiastic and supportive. Of course, since this was a “real” concert venue, the stage lights made it almost impossible to see anyone in the audience. But we know what we heard.

The Beige Shelter line up is: Adi Aman (songs, guitar, uke, vocals), Neel Modi (drums, percussion), Tom Kuczynski (bass guitar), and Karan Sabharwal (lead guitar).

I’m thankful to be playing with such talented musicians and Adi’s songs are passionate, heartfelt, and even spiritual. This is music in fine form.

Beige Shelter performing at Lee's Palace - L to R: Karan, Tom, Adi and Neel
Beige Shelter performing at Lee’s Palace – L to R: Karan, Tom, Adi and Neel

We also performed a well known hit from the 80’s:

Is Canada Delivering On The Promises Of Medicare – Presentation

I worked closely with Tony Dagnone, the former CEO of London Health Sciences Centre, on his presentation for the 2016 CHES Conference. Tony wanted to see some creative “whiteboard” illustrations to bring some visual interest to his narrative. For these animations, I used a combination of stock drawings and my own illustrations.

Most of the time, whiteboard animated videos include a recorded voice-over narration. For Tony’s presentation, I had to time the animations to his live narrative and split the animations to insert into Power Point. This way, an animation would finish before Tony would finish his taking point and remain on the final frame of the video, and he could finish talking before proceeding to the next slide / animation. We also worked collaboratively on streamlining his narrative text.

For some of the slides, a simple photograph sufficed. For others, we needed charts and graphs. Between the several types of media, Tony’s presentation had a great variety and dynamic.

The presentation was very well received, and Tony was complimented on the visual interest of his presentation.

This video is an excerpt of some of the “whiteboard” animations I completed, with my own reading of Tony’s narration.

Milky Way Photo at Algonquin Provincial Park

I’ve always had an interest in astro-photography, having previously taken star trail photos and of course, the moon. One subject I hadn’t yet tackled yet was the milky way, or at least the slim, tiny portion that’s visible from Earth.

The most important thing you need for successful astro-photography is a clear, dark sky. Knowing that I was going to spending a few nights in Algonquin Provincial Park, I wanted to take advantage of the opportunity.

Milky Way photo from Whitefish Lake
Nikon D7000 with Sigma 10-20 DX lens at 10mm, f/5.6 at 30s and ISO 3200

I did some research online, finding a few helpful articles. Even with a relatively dark sky, the band of dense stars is faint and hard to make out with the naked eye. Enter a smartphone app, Sky Guide, to help me out. Run the app, point is at the sky, and it tells you in real time what you’re looking at. The greatest thing about the app is the ability to fast forward in time, to see where celestial objects will be, say, four hours from now. As a starting point, I knew that I needed to be facing south to see the milky way.

The first day at Algonquin, I staked out a spot near a river and dam that faced south over the water. Sky Guide told me that the moon would be out, and it would be full. A full moon, according to my research, is bad; bye-bye dark sky. Still, I tried it out, and sure enough, I ended up with dim star points on a gray sky. The location was less than ideal, too, as the close trees obscured much of the milky way.

I figured that with the moon being full and only starting to wane, my hopes of a good shot were diminished. The next two days at the park brought rain and cloud cover.

On day five, I spent the sunset taking photos at our campground’s beach (which faced north). While waiting for dusk, I looked again at the Sky Guide app to see what other opportunities might be in store for my final night before returning to the light polluted city. Sunset was just before 9 pm. I fast forwarded the time to 10 pm and turned my phone south to see a projection of the milky way. I then tried to locate the moon. Nowhere in the sky. What’s this? It’s below the horizon until after 11 pm!

So, I had a clear night and an invisible moon. The third thing I needed was a clear view south. I checked the park map for a close by location. The neighbouring campground, Whitefish Lake, had a south facing beach. Perfect!

Excited, I ventured out after dark and arrived at Whitefish Lake just after 10 pm. The beach was vacant and dark. It was Monday night, and the campground was relatively empty.

Shooting in the dark has its challenges. You can’t see your framing or if your horizon is straight. The first few photos I took were slanted and had more lake than sky, but the milky way was unmistakable. Anyway, with exposures lasting only 30 seconds, it was easy to have trial and error, unlike a star trail shot which can last 30 minutes or longer before you know whether you had success.

It took several tries before I finalized the framing; obviously, I wanted a ton of sky and hardly any lake.

The most surprising thing about the photo was the yellow glow behind the trees. Even though the sun had set over an hour ago, the long exposure picked up and amplified the latent bit of sunlight that was invisible to the naked eye. Truly, it is darkest just before the dawn.

The final shot didn’t take much post-processing; a small colour adjustment to make it cooler, some sharpening, and a slight straightening.

On the whole, planning and access to the Sky Guide app helped make this venture a success.

Music Event Flyers

I designed a few promotional event flyers for music shows in Toronto. Deadlines were very tight, and I provided files suitable for both printing and sharing on social media, including banners for the Facebook events.

Algonquin Provincial Park camping trip

For the first time in over two years, my wife and I headed up to Algonquin Provincial Park for camping. Now when I say camping, I mean, with the car about ten feet away, a large cooler, a tent made for six people that I can actually stand up in, an air mattress, and all my camera gear. Oh, and the ability to high-tail it into town for a Tim Horton’s breakfast when you wake up and it’s pouring rain (day 3).

Still, Algonquin is a natural wonder. It’s really the first major destination outside of Toronto where you truly feel like you’ve entered the rugged, beautiful Canadian wilderness.

Here are some of the photos I took while on various hikes off Hwy 60. For some, I used HDR (high dynamic range) photography, where two or three bracketed exposures are combined together, revealing both shadow and highlight details that would otherwise be impossible with a single exposure.