Bag of Spoons
Just off the A1(M)

Tue, 25 Jan 2011

Upgrading the studio

As previously written I've finally been doing what I would classify as 'proper' recording at home. This is something I have wanted to do for years, but have not got around to. I did a little more at the weekend and have been thinking about what I should do to make the process easier, more productive and improve the quality of what I record.

Some people have said I'm making life hard for myself by using Linux. I've not used any recent Windows/Mac audio applications. I'm aware that applications such as Reaper can run on Linux via Wine, but I'd prefer to use the open source options where possible. I have no plans to install Windows. I dumped it a few years back and haven't felt any need to have it again. Linux has a number of applications in active development that should suit my needs. They are available for free, but I am happy to contribute financially to the projects. I need to explore more of these, including the various software guitar effects.

I've been exploring what Ardour can do. There's so much more in there than I really need, but it's pretty simple to do a basic recording. You create a project, add a track, connect it to an input (can be audio interface or another application), arm the track and hit Record.

Last weekend I recorded two tracks. The first was a composition my daughter wrote for a school project. This consisted of a piano/keyboard backing from my old Casio, a Stylophone solo(!) and a vocal. The keyboard and Stylophone were recorded via the PC aux in. Vocals used the Zoom H4. For the piano we recorded one verse/chorus and copied it. I'm thinking of re-doing the piano by sequencing it and using a soft-synth to get a better sound. I may try Rosegarden for that.

The second track was an instrumental I've been thinking about for a while. It's a version of some hornpipes we play at the acoustic session with added rhythm guitar and drums. Drums were done with Hydrogen, once I'd worked out how to copy sections. All guitars went via my Korg Pandora. The playing is a bit rough, but I wanted to try building a track from scratch.

Heavy hornpipes by steevc

With both tracks we had some issues with levels and something is not right with my Jack settings as we were getting a lot of xruns. Getting that optimised is probably the trickiest part of getting set up and can involve editing some configuration files, but most of it uses GUI forms. The fact that I was switching between the soundcard and the Zoom made it a little trickier as you have to stop Jack to change the input source.

The studio got a slight upgrade this month with the arrival of a 23" Samsung LCD monitor to replace the mighty 19" Iiyama CRT. The extra width is useful when editing tracks. I'm wondering whether I should run a second screen, perhaps a smaller LCD where I can put the secondary apps where I can keep an eye on them.

A potentially useful accessory comes via my Android phone. Fingerplay MIDI is an app that provides several screens of touch-sensitive controls that can send MIDI data to applications via a host application on the PC. I've had it controlling aspects of Hydrogen, but need to learn how to configure it. The main use for this would be to remotely start/stop recording as I'm sometimes across the room. I found some instructions on getting it working with Jack at woo, tanger.

So I seem to have the tools I need to make music. I need to learn more about the techniques. Luckily there has never been a better time to learn as there is so much information on-line. I listen to a couple of podcasts on the subject, read some blogs and participate in some forums. I recently found out that the Stack Overflow/Exchange Q&A sites now include some covering audio production and guitars.

One effect of all these information sources is that I know how much wonderful gear is out there. I don't plan on spending a fortune on this hobby, but I can see a few areas where a moderate expenditure would make life easier, and, I hope, encourage me to do it more.

The Zoom H4 functions as an audio interface as well as a recorder, but has some limitations. It only records 16 bit via USB and it's fiddly to change settings. I'd prefer an interface that could sit on the desk all the time with convenient controls for adjusting levels etc. There are plenty of these available. I don't think I need more than two inputs for now and I'm thinking I could still use the H4 as a microphone by feeding the line out into the interface. At the lower end of the price range the Lexicon Alpha looks interesting. It has a mono instrument input for a guitar if I wanted to use software effects or I could feed it stereo from something like the Pandora. It lacks second headphone output for when I want to record with others, e.g. the kids. I may check out the second hand market as people must be upgrading all the time.

My Yamaha PC speakers are better than a lot I've seen, but are nowhere near hi-fi quality. If I'm to do any sort of accurate mixing I could do with something better. Again there are lots of options, but I'd probably be looking at spending at least £200 for reasonable powered monitors. An alternative may be to get some reasonable speakers that I can run from the old Sony amplifier I have here.

Finally, I could do with something to make it easier to control the various audio application without having to navigate via keyboard and mouse. A lot of the budget USB devices in this area work with Linux. I considered the Korg Nano devices, but the Akai MPK Mini appeals as it combines a two octave keyboard, drum pads and some control knobs in a compact device that would fit in the desk.

Something else I should consider is making the PC quieter. It's not outrageously loud, but the fans may be audible if I'm recording vocals or acoustic guitar. My old Athlon CPU has the fan that came with it, which is not going to be the quietest. I need to do some checking to see if the PSU and case fans would also need replacing. At least the hard drive I boughht recently is practically inaudible. If I don't fix the fans for now then my friend Dave has written a piece on noise removal using Audacity. I use it for basic editing, but had not explored this aspect.

Even if I don't buy any more gear for now I will carry on recording. I have some tracks to work on for the next Six String Bliss album. I've got my own track to do and others have invited contributions on theirs. Stay tuned.

[21:57] | [/Studio] | Comments | G
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