Evolution of my home recording studio

I recently purchased a new audio interface for my studio, after the mic inputs on my old one starting giving me static or no signal at all. I thought it would be interesting for others to see how I went about making the choice of which interface to buy, within the framework of the evolution of my studio.

So, even though I starting making MIDI-based instrumental music on my computer back in 1988 on a Commodore Amiga 2000, I didn’t really get into audio recording until around 2002 on my first Windows-based PC. One of the first purchases to be made was an audio interface.  At the time, I had a Roland D70 synthesizer, a drum machine, and (potentially) a microphone. I knew that I only needed to be able to record one track a time into the software on my PC. The first thing I learned was the difference between consumer-level “audio cards” (e.g. Soundblaster) vs. professional interfaces.  Primarily, the professional ones allow you to more effectively record audio while playing back audio at the same time. This is essential for any multi-tracking studio.

I opted for an M-Audio 24/96 interface, which was really just a PCI card with 2 RCA inputs, 2 RCA outputs, and MIDI in and out jacks. I fronted the interface with a 12-channel Behringer mixer with an Alt-bus (or submix bus). This allowed me to send only the keyboard, or only the mic signal, for example, into the M-Audio to be recorded on the computer, while still using the mixer to listen to playback from the computer and my keyboard.

Understanding this flow of signals, both MIDI and audio, was essential to making the purchasing decisions. Suffice to say, I figured out exactly how I was going to connect everything before ever laying down a dime. (Incidentally, this process also allowed me to know and purchase only the cables I needed.)

Over the next few years, I slowly expanded my studio to include monitors (speakers) and a couple of guitars. The extra inputs on the mixer made it easy to patch any of these extras in and use the alt-bus to send each one to be recorded on the PC.

The home studio, circa 2006
The home studio, circa 2006

Of course, as with most budget-gear, the Behringer mixer started crackling and hissing with static after a few years of use. At this point, I figured a multi-input interface would be a good idea. This would allow me to eliminate the hardware mixer entirely, thereby simplifying gain staging and improving signal path quality. I opted for an E-MU 1820 in 2007, which had a digital PCI card and a “break-out box” with 2 mic inputs and a few analogue inputs. Of course, it also had MIDI I/O.

By this time, I had sold off the old Roland D70 synth and got a CME U7 keyboard controller and a Roland JV-1010 sound module on eBay. This, together with the plethora of virtual synthesizers on the computer made my old Roland seem very quaint and limiting. I also gave up on the guitars (instead investing in killer guitar software).The EMU interface served me very well for several years. I attached the Roland JV-1010 and another drum synth to the other inputs. Theoretically, I could record up to 8 tracks at once, but the opportunity to do so never came up.The one limitation with the EMU was the lack of a dedicated output knob. I ended up picking up a Mackie 402-VLZ3 mixer which was used as a glorified volume control and mute button for my monitors, and in a pinch, I could also use its mic inputs if I needed.

Finally on to my latest setup. On July, I purchased a Focusrite Scarlett 2i4 interface. While my old EMU allowed me to record up to 8 tracks at one, the Focusrite only allows 2. I figure if I hadn’t needed more than 2 inputs in the last few years, chances are I’m never going to. It has a dedicated volume knob, so I no longer need the Mackie mixer. However, my Roland JV-1010 has nothing to plug into (previously it plugged into line inputs on the EMU). This is not such a big loss, as I haven’t used the Roland in several months, since software synthesizers and samples are getting better and better.

The Focusrite is wonderfully simple. The only driver interface is to set the latency buffer. No software mixer panel, no built-in effects suite, just pure input and output. I picked the 2i4 model over the 2i2 model to have the variable control over the input vs. playback monitoring, and I thought I could use the extra outputs to feed into my Mackie, but didn’t end up using them. Plus I prefer to have real, old-school MIDI connections rather than USB for my keyboard.I did also check out the Presonus 44VSL interface, which has 4 mic inputs, for a possible future when I might actually need to record more than 2 tracks at once. The Presonus was more costly, but quality-wise felt and sounded about the same as the Focusrite. However, I was unable to get the latency for software synths to work – it was quite bad, in fact. I chose to shop at Long & McQuade, who offer a 30-day no-questions-asked return policy, so the Presonus went back and I kept the Focusrite.

So I think the take-away message here is to really examine your needs, do your research, and make informed purchases. You don’t need to spend a fortune to get good quality sound. If there’s one truth to the evolution of my studio, it’s this: the longer I do this, the simpler my system becomes – in other words, fewer parts. Part of this is the fact that newer computers can handle more of the workload, so your outboard gear can be pretty minimal, but part of it is also understanding signal flow and boiling your setup down to the essentials.

The studio earlier in 2013
The studio earlier in 2013

The Weekend to End Women’s Cancer Recital

I was asked by my friend Kira Braun to record and photograph her “Weekend to End Women’s Cancer” fundraising recital. Kira performed with several of her friends and her teacher on some classical and contemporary tunes. It was a fantastic show, and the talent on stage absolutely top-notch.

My wonderful partner Hema was volun-told 🙂 to handle video while I took photos and recorded the audio on my Zoom recorder, which resulted in better audio quality than the camcorder. I then synced the audio and video and uploaded 13 videos to youTube.

The final performance was the highlight for me, and certainly they saved the most fun song for last!

Songwriter’s Showcase Event

I hosted a showcase event for our Songwriter’s Cafe meetup group today at the Central Bar. It was a great experience, and I got to see many great performances. In addition to announcing the performers, I also photographed and sound recorded the event to share with the individual performers.

Live mixing was handled by Phil, and Bruce helped out with some stage management. Belinda (our lead organizer) brought members from her other groups to populate the audience, and took some great photos too.

This event was unique in that almost all the songs performed were originals.

The Orange Purple Yellow Song

This is my latest song, about a guy and a girl, and another guy, with rather colourful names.  I wrote this song in one evening, music, melody and lyrics.  That hasn’t happened in a very long time.  Enjoy!

Download the full album for free.

Burn yellow train inside
Look blind and hide

Orange say you bite
French fry
Overnight if the sunrise

Purple mane on high
Red light
Orange with plight

Yellow ball of white
Stay dry
Tie the magenta kite right
Flip under weight and die
Tear sheet safe flight

Orange leave your sight
And sigh
Watercrest with the moonrise

Purple taking flight
They cry
Carpet stain pile

Yellow being like
They lied
Keep the hurricane mile high

Carmen Toth / Social Potion

I provided digital photography, video and audio recording of a independent singer-songwriter showcase. I used both “on-board” and room sound recordings for the highest quality audio, combining an intimate sound with the feel of a live venue.

All of the final videos are available here: bit.ly/O6uMVF

Hoarding Forum keynote video

I recorded a keynote presentation by Dr. Randy Frost, an expect on the issue of hoarding, for the Ontario Non-Profit Housing Association. Dr. Frost asked that his slides be excluded from the video, as they contained images of people’s private homes. I ran a line from the room mixer direct into the camcorder to get optimum sound quality.

Gear Acquisition Syndrome

Let’s face it: home studio recording can be a pretty expensive endeavour, whether it’s just a hobby or you’re doing it professionally. It’s also true that it doesn’t actually take very much equipment to make a pretty decent recording. It really comes down to skill, attention to detail, and practice.

I’m constantly being bombarded with advertising for the latest gadget, software plug-in, or instrument that promises to deliver “that sound.” Temptations are high to freshen things up, try something new, and lay down the cash to make it happen. I’ve resolved, however, to learn to work well with what I have, and only invest when I’ve really reached the limits of what I can do in the studio.

Case in point, I recently purchased a clip-on boom mic stand, and a new condenser mic. This allows me to record guitar and vocals at the same time, which I could not do before. It changes a fundamental aspect of the recording process.

OK, so I also splurged on an upgrade to my drum machine software, but man, it sounds good.  And I deserve it.

Hello Time Travel – Quiet Defiant

I worked closely with a solo singer-songwriter Erica McLachlan (aka Hello Time Travel) to produce, record, and perform on her independent CD release. I also provided photography, video and layout services. The CD included a music video that I shot, directed, and edited.

A happy accident occurred on our first recording session. For Erica’s first song (and single) Underground, I accidentally had my Apex 430 microphone pointing backwards (i.e. the back was facing the singer). Frankly, with some of these large-diaphragm condenser mics, they look almost identical on the front and the back. Here’s both sides of my Apex 430:

Which side is the front? Unless you know what those little icons mean, it’s hard to tell. The front side has a cardioid microphone pattern on it, indicating that on this side, the mic picks up sound in this pattern. On the back, the icon indicates that it rejects sound from this side. This is hard to tell for a beginner. Since then, I’ve put a piece of coloured tape on the front, just in case.

I didn’t figure out why her vocal sounded a little distant and weird until after the recording session was over. I told Erica we had to re-record the vocals, but as it turned out, she actually liked the lo-fi sound of the “improper” recording. We decided to go with it and turned the whole track lo-fi, including the video.

Listen to the album

Check out the graphics

Watch the music video

 

Hello Time Travel production

I’ve been working for a while with a solo artist named Erica, aka Hello Time Travel.  She’s a university-educated musician, a talented songwriter and a joy to work with. We’ve just started recording the second song of her 6-song EP, and it’s going well. For the most part, it’s piano and vocals, but for some of the songs she’ll be adding some acoustic and electric guitar, and I will be adding some percussion and bass with my keyboard.

She has a very eclectic style, like Tori Amos or Regina Spektor with interesting, distinctly contemporary lyrics and a wonderful soprano voice that ranges from rock grit to choir-style.

erica_and_i