Computer-Music.com contains articles and product reviews related to making music using computers and creating 3D computer animation in sync with music. Computer-Music.com is also the home page of  Donald S. Griffin, an experienced professional composer, sound effects designer and audio consultant with an emphasis on computer games,  video games and internet music and sound effects. For pricing and contract availability send email to: DGriffin (@) Computer-Music (.) com

Computer-Music.com  contains articles and product reviews related to making music using computers and creating 3D computer animation in sync with music.
Computer-Music.com is also the home page of  Donald S. Griffin, an experienced professional composer, sound effects designer and audio consultant with an emphasis on computer games,  video games and internet music and sound effects. For pricing and contract availability send email to: DGriffin (@) Computer-Music (.) com



 

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Managing Increasing Studio Complexity Along With Studio Growth

As you learn more it is inevitable that you will start working with digital audio. Most sequencers today come in 'Audio' versions that allow you to work with digital audio and MIDI data side by side. This is an incredibly powerful working environment but it adds its own set of problems and can cause the complexity of your creative process, your software and your hardware to increase in leaps and bounds. If you have read my previous articles you may remember how long it took me to explain the MIDI signal path in and out of various devices, sometimes going in both directions at once. The good thing about that is the lack of audio cables. You pretty much only need audio cables from you synthesizer to your stereo system's aux inputs. If you add a few more synthesizers you might need a line mixer which is usually a pretty simple rack mounted box that gives you places to plug in the audio from all your synthesizers and one set of stereo outputs to send it all to an amplifier like that on your home stereo system or since you now have several synthesizers you may have decided to spend about $300 for a decent reference amplifier and a few hundred more for a decent pair of near field monitors. More recently self powered speakers have become affordable and are generally considered a better quality choice then their non-powered equivalents. Mackie and Genelec make self powered near field monitors that are among the most sought after and most expensive. At the extreme high end I think Meyer still makes the HD-1 which sold for about $4,500 each several years ago. They are really incredible speakers but you could spend your whole studio budget on a single monitor. If you need a 5.1 setup with 5 speakers and a powered sub bass and you are thinking Meyer you better consider selling your Porsche. There are cheaper models from Event, Alesis, Tannoy, Yamaha, JBL and a few others. They vary in quality not always commensurate with their price. Near field monitors are so called because they are not like normal hi-fi speakers. They are specially designed to be used within about three to six feet of the listener and they are very directional so you can more clearly hear, not only which sound is coming from which speaker but you can hear all of the sound you are supposed to hear. If you move your head away from the 'sweet spot' directly in the speaker's patch you listening experience is severely diminished. This speakers don't work well for home stereo entertainment systems just like those speakers would not make near field monitors. An inexpensive set is worth the investment. Don't use headphones except to listen to a music track while you are singing or playing another instrument. A mix created while listening to headphones will sound all wrong when you play it out of any kind of speakers. Anyway, there you are with a simple line mixer but now you need to start recording from microphones and you need headphone monitor outs and you may now realize you need a way to use reverb on some devices but a different set of effects on your vocals and still other effects on your guitar. This means you will have to break down and get a real mixer. For starters you can hardly go wrong with a Mackie 1604. Their smaller mixers are pretty nifty too. The 1604 looks deceptively simple but this is yet another case of how a complex machine can make your life simpler if you learn how to use it. If you start monkeying around with this device when you don't need it you can waste a lot of your time but if your studio starts getting a little more complicated you will be glad you have a single place to handle all your audio signals.

Since I wrote this three years ago the idea of moving the mixer into the PC chassis is looking better all the time. Probably within the next year you will find a Fire Wire or USB2 device that can provide you with a wide range of plugs, can handle a large number of audio channels moving in and out of your PC, and is completely controllable from within your sequencer software. So you may want to hold off on spending a lot of money on a large, external mixing console. If you like real faders (sliders) more than virtual ones (on the computer screen) you can buy MIDI control fader boxes that are either generic (like the Peavey PC1600) or custom built to go with your software like the new device Mackie is building for Logic.

But wait. If you are handling audio you may need to handle digital audio going from one device to another. (Since I wrote this there are a lot more external synthesizer modules with digital audio outputs.) Now you have four fundamentally different kinds of cables floating around your studio. They all need to be routed and plugged into stuff and you need to be able to turn them all on and off in one way or another. First you have all those power cables. Don' forget a good surge suppressor or two or three. Not those cheap ones you get in the supermarket but something that can handle a load. Computer stores usually have the right type. Remember that if even one of your electronic devices that is somehow connected to the others is exposed to a power surge like a power fluctuation or a lightening strike it has the potential to fry every device to which it is in any way connected. That is why there are surge suppressors that have a place to plug your telephone line in and back out on the way to your computer. Every device must be plugged into a surge suppressor. In this case the more you have, the more you have to lose so the more sense it makes to be sure this issue is handled properly.

Next you have MIDI cables. Possibly two for each device. By now you have enough devices that you need some sort of  MIDI patch bay to allow you to control which MIDI signals go where. I have found the Music Quest 8PortSE parallel port MIDI interface to be very useful. Not only does it have 8 ins and 8 outs that can be controlled and accessed by my computer via a parallel cable, but it has presets that work even when it is not connected to the computer so I can program it then use it as a stand-alone used with older DOS software or out on a gig if I am not using a computer. When I am using my older DOS sequencer software I access it via a normal MIDI card which sends to one of the in ports on the 8PortSE which has several presets I can select from to tell it how to re-route that signal to the other devices. In this case I am using it as though it is not connected to the computer at all. Still, this is one more device to buy and incorporate into your system and it does require a certain amount of attention. But by choosing this device over another one I have cut down on some of the problems that might otherwise have taken away more of my creative time.

Next you have something you might not have had much of before: audio cables. A mixer becomes one more device you have to learn how to use. One more thing that might be the reason you are not getting any sound from your keyboard. But if you set it up in a simple and practical way it will also give you an easy way of managing which devices you want to hear and maybe and easy way to add that new effect box to any device in the studio including a guitar or a vocal microphone. You can plug your tape deck and CD player and TV into it so you have a way to mix your background noise with your other noise if you are that kind of person. It also makes it easy to record your results on a cassette to send to a friend without disconnecting your tape deck from one system and plugging it into another. (Most people now can burn CDs but cassette decks are not completely dead yet so I left this in.)  In general any time I am plugging a device into something I ask myself if this is the last time I will have to do this. If this answer is no then I am doing something wrong somewhere and it will keep costing me time in the future. If your audio setup out grows your mixer you may not need another mixer. You might need an audio patch bay. They look like those old fashioned telephone switchboards where the operator had to plug in cables. You plug all your equipment into sockets in the back and the signal goes in the top one and out the bottom one of each vertical pair. If you want to temporarily change a signal path you do so by plugging in short patch cables and routing the signal a different way on the front of the patch bay. This way when you are done with that particular unusual setup you can put everything back the way it was by simply unplugging any cables that are visible on front. Patch bays cost money, about $100 dollars each and you may need more than one, the patch cables you use on the front to re-route signals cost more money and wherever you needed 1 cable before you now need 2. Instead of a cable going from a synth to a mixer it now goes from a synth to the back of the patch bay and another goes from the socket below it on the back of the patch bay out to the mixer. That can be a lot of money in new cables. Still, if your setup has reached the level of complexity that you need a patch bay you will welcome the flexibility it can give you. If you end up with a modern Fire Wire or USB or USB2 mixer then it may not have enough ports for all your junk. In that case you may not have a separate mixing console but you may still need one or more patch bays.

Next you may need digital audio cables, SP/DIF or AESEBU type or maybe a fiber optic cable. Three years ago I wrote "I have digital cables going from my CD player to my computer for taking library sound effects off of CDs directly into my computer without altering the signal." Today, three years later, most CDRW drives allow you to directly extract audio digitally from an audio CD. This is called "ripping". This can be done as fast as 40 times the speed of normal audio playback. It goes without saying that this is a tremendous time saver if you are bringing audio in from sound effects CDs that are in Red Book audio format. Three years ago I wrote about a digital connection to my DAT (digital audio tape) deck. At the time they were the standard way to deliver music to a CD mastering plant. Today you should be able to burn an audio CD in a format acceptable for mastering if you do a bit of checking first. Otherwise the mastering facility can at least use the data from the CD and alter the formatting to be acceptable. Today I only use DAT for recording live in the studio when I don't want any PC fan noise and my sound enclosure won't cut it. Or to record sound effects in the field. So it is still valid to have a DAT deck in many cases, though it is not really the standard requirement it once was. If you have enough digital audio capable devices it is possible to use an audio patch bay to route them. I recommend de-normalling the sockets you will be using for this purpose and hooking up the in and out pair of each device to one vertical pair. A patch bay is called 'normalled' if it is wired so that the signal going in the top rear socket is passed out to whatever is plugged into the bottom rear socket. By de-normalling the sockets you are using for digital audio pairs you will make sure a digital signal loop is not set up which can mess up your signal royally or confuse your equipment. This is a case where you will probably want to know a digital signal is only flowing if you see a patch cable on the front of the patch bay.

If you continue with MIDI and get more adventurous or start doing some more professional work you won't be able to avoid adding some more gear and along with more gear comes more cables and more complex routing situations. If you plan ahead with a realistic idea of what you will need and what you will not need you can avoid a lot of redundancy which wastes your studio space, your money, and your time. Keep an eye out for devices, systems or ways or working that will reduce the number, variety and complexity of devices in your studio. Remember the goal is to compose and/or record good music. Everything else associated with that task is just an unavoidable nuisance. Take a good, close look at each nuisance and make sure it really is unavoidable

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