Saturday, 31 March 2012

Look sir, droids

I'll start with my hardware. Even though I've been playing around with computers forever (BBC Micro, several Amigas and assorted Windows PCs) I never seemed to get around to doing any audio recording. At some point I dreamed of a 4 track cassette and read loads of articles/reviews, but never got the gear. In recent years the prices have come down so that it's hard to resist getting something.

Bit dusty in there
The hub of my studio is my PC. This isn't really anything special. I built it about five years ago based around an AMD 64 X2 4600+. Originally it had 2GB and recently went up to 4GB. The original hard drive died and was replaced by a 500GB SATA. The Antec case+PSU may be better than some, but the fans still give off some noticeable noise. I replaced the original AMD CPU cooler with a better one, but that didn't make a huge difference. I'd like it quieter, but it's generally not audible on my acoustic recordings.

A while back I changed from the old 19" CRT to a 23" LCD that gives me a lot more screen space and then acquired a little 15" that's handy as a second screen.

After some experiments with the on-board sound card my first proper recording hardware was a Zoom H4 handheld recorder. This seemed ideal for my needs. You can use it as a standalone stereo or 4-track recorder, or as a USB interface. I've used it in all these ways. I've done a fair few field recordings at concerts my kids played at and at band practices. The built in microphones are pretty good. I've also plugged in my guitar and used the effects, but these are very fiddly to set up using the limited (and tiny) controls. I've heard some impressive results done just on an H4, but I found that a bit frustrating. David from the Six String Bliss forum did a great Thomas Dolby cover using H4 effects. I did a Metallica cover with my acoustic and the H4 4-track. Feeling Good is a simple live recording with the H4 on a tripod above me. I've done other tracks using it as an interface and as my microphone as I don't have anything else decent to use. You can plug microphones in, but I haven't had a need to buy any just yet.

One small issue with the H4 is that it is not easily attached to a standard microphone stand as it just has an adaptor for a camera tripod. I eventually worked out that I could strap a mini tripod onto a microphone stand to make it easier to position.

Omni I/O box
Eventually I decided I needed a better audio interface that would be more versatile and offer better quality. Options on Linux are more limited than other platforms. Many of the newer USB 2.0 and Firewire interfaces are not supported. The older USB 1.1 interfaces generally work, but the limited bandwidth restricts the number of channels and quality (bit depth and sample rate). I did a lot of research into this and recorded some of it on the Linux Musicians wiki for the benefit of others. One range that are well supported are the M-Audio Delta PCI cards. These have been around for ages, but audio standards have not changed much in that time. 24 bit at 96kHz should be ample for my needs. I was able to get a Delta 66 card and the Omni I/O box on ebay for a good price. The Omni is great as it mostly removes the need for a mixer. I can plug in a guitar or microphone (if I had one) and twiddle physical knobs to set the levels. It also has 2 headphone outputs. There are lots of sockets for effects loops etc that I have yet to use, but I just have the H4 line out running into 2 of the channels for the microphones. I can now record up to 4 channels at once. I could even do six if I had something to plug into the SP/DIF input. This is all supported as standard on Linux and you just need to install the Envy24 mixer to set all the levels. I'm still learning how to use that.

I have a few other bits including a MIDI interface to hook up my old Casio keyboard and a Korg nanoKontrol that gives me some knobs and faders to control applications.

Like many musicians I suffer from GAS. It's easy to think that you could make better music with more gear, but I've realised that people produce amazing results with less than I have. I would be better off working on the techniques of recording. That said, there are a few items I want to get some time soon. I'm listening on either my old Yamaha computer speakers, which are better than some, or on headphones. When you are mixing audio you need to hear the full range. Eventually I hope to get some reasonable monitors. I also fancy the Behringer FCB1010 foot controller, but that's lower priority. I have a wish list.

Mention must be made of the Ikea Jerker desk. It's a really versatile platform for all this gear. It's just a shame they don't sell it any more as I could consider adding even more shelves to mine.
The whole set-up