Category Archives for Gear

Laptop Digital Recording – Recording on a Laptop

Digital recording doesn't always stay in the same place. Laptop digital recording moves with you. 

You may have a bedroom studio, but there are times when you just need to be somewhere else. Maybe it's at a friend's house. Maybe a choir at church. Maybe it's a live concert to record.

>> Location recording is going somewhere that is not a studio. I also call it laptop digital recording.

You don't need lots of expensive equipment to do location recording. In fact, you probably can do it with what you already have.

I take my preamps and audio interface from my studio when I go on location. My regular mics work fine.

So here's what you need:

When you go mobile you will want lighter equipment. Rugged gear works better for the rigors of transport and many setups/teardowns. You also want something that can be set up and tore down fairly quickly.

Microphones don't generally vary much in relation to mobile laptop digital recording. Use the same rules you would regularly about what mic to choose and where to place it.

Cables are a smaller issue in location recording, but still pertinent - sometimes you need to run a hundred feet or more. I have several 100 foot cables. Don't use several 30' cables together (if you can help it). Why? It's more chances for the sound quality to have problems.

For the main gear (preamp and interface), an all-in-one box is definitely a nice hassle-free way to go. Check out MOTU's line of interfaces, specifically the 4-Pre, the 8-Pre, the UltraLite, or the 828mk3. I use the 828. It has two built in preamps and uses FireWire into the computer. 

Also look at some smaller interfaces, like the Lexicon Lambda or E-Mu 0204 USB. They have a few XLR inputs and go USB to the computer.

You can also use a separate preamp and go into the interface. This will take more cables and more space on your makeshift console.

case is really handy - something to put the core things like the preamp and interface. It's so nice to just grab that and go.

What kind of laptop?

Just a few guidelines for the laptop computer ensure a smooth recording experience. It should have decent speed as well as modest RAM and HD space. 

It does NOT have to be the best and fastest.

The exact model doesn't matter.

It doesn't matter if the laptop is Windows or Mac powered. It doesn't matter exactly what speed it is. 

Why? all you need is a decent amount of speed and memory. Record to an external hard drive (the internal one will probably be overloaded).

In the past, I used an Apple iBook G4 1.2gHz with 768MB RAM and a 60GB hard drive. The recording went to an external USB drive. My setup handled 3-4 tracks of 24bit audio just fine. 

The hardest things for a laptop are plugins. Regular recording doesn't need them much. (That comes later, in the mixing.)

You don't need a new model laptop to handle 4 tracks. If you already have a laptop, do a test by hooking up your equipment and recording something. See how it does.

How long does it take from the time you push record until it actually starts recording?

If your laptop is overloaded, try using a smaller program like Audacity to record the tracks. You can import them into your main audio editor later.

Here's what I use

You don't need much equipment to go onsite laptop digital recording. Here's what I take when I go out of the studio:

It seems like a lot (especially in my car's backseat), but it isn't all that much. It helps to get a small 4 or 6 space portable rack, like the Gator GR-4L. It holds the interface, preamp, power strip, some cables, and my headphones.

Mobile laptop digital recording doesn't take all kinds of expensive equipment. It just takes ordinary gear, like the stuff you have. Just pack it up and take it with you. 

Check out some of the light-weight portable audio interfaces available. They combine preamps with the interface, eliminating unnecessary clutter and gear. Get a good laptop, but that doesn't mean it has to be top of the line. Try experimenting with software. And have fun!

Studio Headphones – a studio monitor’s sidekick

Why headphones for home recording?

Every studio should have a set of headphones. From the smallest project studio to the largest commercial production studio, they play an important role in helping engineers, producers and artists hear and judge the music they are making. 

Headphones (or cans, as they're sometimes called) have totally different sound than a set studio monitors. The whole audio spectrum is different, largely because of the distance from the speaker to your ear. Even near field monitors are 2-4 feet away, while heaphone speakers are less than 2 inches. 

Because of this the tonal qualities will be different. The music will sound "up there", or right at you. Because the speakers are right beside your ear, a track panned to center will seem to come from inside your head, not in front of you. 

By putting the sound so close to your ear, headphones will let you listen more critically to the mix. Some eliminate external sound, and they all let you listen to the more subtle dynamics and other possible background noises that might've been introduced during recording. 

Since the speakers are so close to your ears, the sound doesn't need to be nearly as loud as nearfield studio monitors. The cones are much smaller, like 1 or 2 inches instead of 5 to 8 inches. (Just imagine an 8 inch speaker mounted in a set of phones!) 

But by being smaller, the bass response is limited. They do well at covering it up and sounding good at the lower frequencies, but you will never get the bass you can "feel". I make up for that by leaving my monitors on so it fills out the low end, but doing the critical listening with the cans. 

There are many kinds of headphones available; we'll look briefly at a few:

  • Open back
  • Closed back
  • In ear
  • Wireless
  • Noise canceling

Audio Technica Headphones

Sennheiser Headphones

Open back headphones are just what they sound like - open backed. They leave room for room ambience or other sound to come in to the ear as well as the signal coming. That eliminates the need for saying "Huh?" everytime someone wants to tell you something. If you are doing overdubs, either with an instrument or vocally, open backs will let you hear what you are playing or singing live as well as the recorded materal. 

Closed back headphones are opposite of open back - they close off that area and isolate the ear from ambient noises. I prefer these for mixing, because nothing gets in - just what you want to listen to. But wearing closed backs for a long stretch is a little taxing to the ears - mine start to feel stifled and ready for a break after a while. 

In ear headphones come in two formats - earbuds or in ear monitoring. Earbuds generally don't seal out sound, but just half the distance of regular phones to your ear. These may be ok for iPods, but not for studio mixing and listening. 

In ear monitors are designed to seal off outside noise, like closed back headphones, but to a much larger degree. These are used on stage sometimes, in lieu of stage monitors. They are better suited to use on the stage rather than the studio. 

Wireless headphones are becoming wildly popular it seems. The concept is exciting - just put them on and forget about the cords! They are nice, but you won't find them in studios for the same reason you won't find wireless microphones - wireless just doesn't give you the sound quality of wired equipment. 

Noise canceling is a technology that senses the ambient noise and tries to add counter balancing white noise to make it seem that the ambient noise is not there. In my opinion, it just messes with the sound quality. It's a great idea for subways and airplanes, but a studio (even a small project studio) needs something more. 

So what are some good models to look for? I like the Audio Technica ATH-M40 Headphones. I own a pair of Audio Technica headphones, and really like the quality and build of them.

In the meantime, why don't you let me know which are your favorite headphones, and why. 

Event 20/20BAS studio monitors – make better mixes

It's true. Studio monitors help make mixes better. And nothing hits that sweet spot of a good speaker at an affordable price range better than the Event 20/20BAS studio monitor.

In my discussion about studio monitors, I mentioned that I use Event TR6 monitors. I love them. They are accurate, affordable, and do the job well. But you can't get them any more (discontinued). Bummer.

But there's good news. Event has a better set of monitors than the Tuned Reference Series (TR6 for tuned reference 6"). It's called the 20/20BAS.

20/20 for the frequency response - 20Hz - 20kHz. Standard fare. BAS for bi-amplified speaker - two amplifiers. One for the low end, another for the high. Again, standard.

But the quality is far better than "standard." Event studio monitors strike again.

The making of a great product

Event used to be a failing company. Their products were not that great. But then Rode bought them out - Rode is another sound company that makes great mics.

The first project was to totally revamp the product lines. Everything was discontinued. They spent millions of dollars researching speaker technology. The result was the Opal, a $2,000 monitor.

Today, you can get that same technology wrapped up in a smaller, affordable package. You guessed it - it's the Event 20/20BAS V3. It's gone over some revisions over the years, and they are at version 3 (V3 for short).

The good stuff

The V3 has all the power you'll ever need for a small studio. The amplifiers feed the speaker plenty of power: 130 watts for the low end, and 70 watts for the high end. Combined 200 watts. That's a lot of power for nearfield studio monitors.

Even with all that power, these monitors do not distort the sound. Studio monitors should give you accurate sound, not distorted sounds. With the Event 2020bas you get pristine audio at high volume (when you need it).

On top of that, there is no self noise in these speakers. Self noise is the little pffffff you hear when a speaker is on but not playing anything. Check out a regular set of speakers and try to hear the self noise. The 20/20 doesn't have that. Well, so little that you won't even think about it.

It is easy on the ears with a smooth response. It doesn't produce extra sound in the entire range, giving your ears a break to hear what's actually there.

The response is accurate and quick. As a mixing engineer, you need to hear exactly what's going on with the mix. The Event 20/20BAS lets you hear only what's there. Now you can focus on making the music better. The cone and dome are made from materials that act immediately on sound (mineral filled polypropylene, and silk). The music is clearer this way, because the materials are designed to be super quick.

I'm sure you figured this out by now, but let me say it clearly: the Event 20/20BAS is a really great studio monitor.

If you need to get a good quality monitor, but don't have the budget for high dollar speakers, this is the one for you. It's a stalwart - it won't let you down.

See more details at AmazonzZounds, or SamAsh. You can also get these speakers in a pair.

Audio Recording Equipment Guide

What home recording equipment do you need? With so many things competing for your wallet, you must know exactly what you need so you can shop with confidence.

When I started looking into home recording, I had no idea what kind of equipment I needed. That's when I went to other people to help. That did the trick! I felt so much more confident when shopping for audio gear.

Your turn. This page will guide you to picking out what you need to get started recording.

You Must learn what you do and don't need

Categories of recording equipment

Here is a brief tour of what is out there. You will NOT need one of everything here - this list is an overview of everything that might apply. 

It can be as simple as a mic, cable, interface, computer, and headphones.

Here is a quick overview:

We can't go into all the details here - click through to each link above to learn more about what you need.

To make a recording, you must have some of them, but not everything. Probably the most important of all? The interface. It's what connects your computer to the audio side of things

The next most important recording equipment is microphones. They capture the sound from the air and convert it to electrical signals. Think of them as the windows into your system. If the window is clear, people can see through easily. If not, it's harder to "see" what's going on.

What you actually need

If you're starting out, I recommend this as a starter package.

  • A good microphone
  • A mic cable
  • A mic stand
  • An audio interface than includes a preamp
  • A computer (you probably already have this)
  • Recording software (whether something free or better featured)

This is what I started with, and it worked fine. It's OK to save and get cheaper things sometimes, but not for the mic. Get the best one you can. That's true for all audio gear, but especially mics. 

Why? Because it will make a difference in the quality of your sound.

Does it affect your sound?

When you're researching recording equipment, this is the question to ask:

Does it affect my sound?

A microphone affects your sound. Audio plugins affect your sound. A preamp affects your sound. A volume control for the monitors does not affect your sound.

So your sound will be better for buying a mic or plugins, but not for buying a controller.

This isn't an exciting way to think about it, but it is helpful.

How do we use this?

Now we understand how recording equipment works together. How can we use this information to our benefit? 

When you want to make a recording, evaluate what you need. 

If you don't have something, now you know what to shop for. You know what you'll be using it for, so you can look for something to suit your needs perfectly. 

Ask other people about what they have. See what other people like or dislike - this can be valuable help. 

For example

Say you want to record a voice for a radio ad. He got a sound track and wants to do the mixing on his computer, but he wants you to record someone speaking the ad. What do you need? 

Easy. Run down the chain - looks like you need a mic, cable, computer interface and your computer. The interface includes a preamp so you're good to go. 

Where is a good place to buy audio equipment?

Audio cables and more

Ah, audio cables. They are essential to pretty much anything electrical (unless it's a handheld battery game!). In the recording studio, cables come in many shapes and sizes.

What do you need to know about cables? There is a surprising amount of things to know - we'll cover the basics here.

You already know about power cables. Your coffee pot has one, your computer has one, and you wish your dog had one that you could yank sometimes. A power cable is pretty much like, well, a power cable. Just keep the right one with the right piece of gear and you'll be fine.

Audio cables are many, but let's divide them into distinct categories - mic and line level. There's no rule that says a mic cable has to have a mic level signal, but that makes a nice split point. (What's a mic level signal? See the article on signal strength.)

Mic cables are usually XLR. It stands for Xtended Locking Round. Wow, what an imagination! Anyway, basically all decent mics have an XLR connector, and the preamps take the same. Smaller equipment (or consumer stuff) uses 1/4 inch or 1/8 inch TRS or TS connectors, but it's just not the standard (for microphones).

Why? I'm no scientist, but I think it has to do with the contacts. You have more surface area on an XLR connector than a 1/4 TRS (more on TRS below). The contacts are separated by distance and insulators, so signal leakage is brought to a minimum. You can get gold plated contacts on mic cables, but personally I don't think it's worth it. Spend the extra money on another cable.

Any mic cable worth its salt will be balanced and shielded. What is a balanced cable? That will have to wait for another article, but here it is quickly. When audio goes through a cable, it can pick up interference. To combat this, a balanced cable splits the audio into two identical channels, and inverts the one. At the other side, the second channel is re-inverted to the original phase, and combined with the first channel. That is supposed to erase any interference picked up during transmittal. Clear as mud? Don't worry about it now, just know that a balanced cable will eliminate most interference on the signal going through it.

If you can feel the cable in the store where you buy it (not with online purchases), see how it flexes, if it's brittle. You don't want something that will break after a few months of use.

Just use common sense when buying a mic cable (or any audio cable). Don't go for the absolute cheapest for quality's sake, but also don't go with the most expensive either - it's not actually that much better.

TRS cables use a standard 1/4 inch plug. They can carry stereo audio, or a balanced mono track. Same principles as using a mic cable. These are used for many purposes in the studio, like connecting monitors or patching from one piece of equipment to another (tape decks, samplers, CD players, preamps, computer interfaces). 1/4 inch TRS cables are all around cords.Then there are a few other assorted and various cables. One of my preamps doesn't have a TRS output - it's an XLR. So to get that into my hardware computer interface I need an XLR to TRS cable. MIDI cables take data signals between keyboards, computers, and synths or samplers. 

Of course you need plenty of adapters to go around all of the stuff, like 1/4" to 1/8", or a splitter for dual headphones, or a breakout cable to take a stereo channel into 2 mono channels. Just keep a bunch of adapters handy for when you need them.

Computer data cables are also a necessity. You will probably want a few spare USB and FireWire cables, in case one goes bad or something.

One of the most aggravating things that can happen in a studio is to want to do something, but can't because you don't have the correct cable. Trust me, that is maddening! If you go to do location recording, make sure you have the audio cables you will need (not what you think you will need!).

OK, I'll finally give one recommendation for a microphone cable. Check out this audio cable for mics  on Amazon.com.

Audio Technica M40fs Headphones

Audio Technica Headphones

Audio Technica headphones are an excellent investment in any recording studio. As I'm sure you know, headphones are important in helping evaluate a mix during mixdown. They let you hear deep down inside, catching things you might have otherwise missed. Audio Technica headphones work very well for this application.

Audio Technica M40fs Headphones

I've used the M40fs headphones for years now, so much that I need to get a new pair soon! I absolutely love them for the clear sound and decent bass response. I see that there is another model with extra bass response (the the D40fs - they are just a tad more in cost). Personally, I'm completely satisfied with the M40fs and will get them again. But if you decide to try the D40fs, please let me know how they work.

Here's another tribute to the M40fs - I've owned my pair for about seven years now, and they are still kicking strong. I rolled my chair over them enough times that the cable is starting to go bad, and my beard took its toll on the padding around the earpiece, but otherwise they are still good to go!

Audio Technica has a few other headphone models, mostly under the cost/quality of the M40fs. For studio purposes, I would just stay away from them, because the M40fs is inexpensive enough to use, and I would be disappointed with the lower quality headphones.

So what should you do now? Definitely buy a pair of the Audio Technica M40fs headphones!

An Audio Interface Primer

The audio interface is an integral part of the recording chain. But it's also kind of nebulous, and hard to figure out sometimes. Just what is it, how does it work, and what do we need to know about it?

The recording interface is the last step in the chain before your audio goes to the computer. The sound goes into the mic, is converted to electrical signals, passed along through cables and a mic preamp, and into the audio interface. There (or before, in some cases), it is converted from analog to digital, and passed on to the computer via FireWire, USB, or another third party connection.

There are many kinds of audio recording interfaces available, from a small one or two channel interface including mic preamps to a huge system of three interfaces daisy chained together for 72 channels. The confusing thing is that often an audio interface does more than just interface, so we need to figure out exactly what it does do.

The main job of a computer recording interface, as we said earlier, is to convert an analog signal into digital, and shuttle it to the computer. So we'll say that a audio recording interface is something that takes analog or digital audio, and has a FireWire, USB, or other computer connection.

Often these interfaces will come with extra features, like mic preamps or bundled software. This is where it can get confusing, but it doesn't have to be. Think of it this way - with the preamps included, you don't have to buy a separate piece of equipment. That's a good thing.

Here is a quick survey of several interfaces here to give you a taste of what is available.

The Lexicon Lambda is a great entry level interface. This is a no sweat, easy working interface bus-powered USB interface with two phantom powered preamps, two TRS 1/4" line inputs, and a headphone output. Definitely a lot of power for not that much dough. It's worth a look.

For only a slight step up from the Lambda, one can get a Lexicon Omega package. The spiff with this is that you get a complete kit, kind of like a "studio in a box." There are two phantom powered XLR inputs plus a bunch of others, allowing for a total of 4 simultaneous channels.

The next one is a MOTU 4-Pre. This is a really nice piece of gear, with four mic preamps. I think it hits the spot between a low of 2 and a high of 8. I use MOTU equipment, and I would really like to have this for a portable setup.


Motu 4-Pre Audio Interface

Looking at the FireWire side of things, we have the Focusrite Saffire LE, a step up from what we were looking at. It has 6 inputs and 8 outputs, a bit more than the Omega. The Saffire is also sold with a package, with a number of plugins: Compression, Reverb, EQ, and Amp modeling.

Presonus Firestudio Project


PreSonus makes some nice equipment, including audio interfaces and mic preamps. But with the PreSonus FireStudio Project, these two high quality pieces come together. The FireStudio offers pro quality preamps and digital to analog coverters - eight of them. It takes a while to run out of eight channels. Included with the FireStudio is the PreSonus ProPak Software Suite, which sports a DAW (digital audio workstation), over 25 plugins, and more than 2 GB of audio samples. If I were starting again, I would seriously consider this piece, simply for the EIGHT mic inputs combined in one unit.

MOTU 828 mk3


Finally, what I consider one of the best audio interfaces, is the MOTU 828mk3. I use it myself, so I might be biased, but it still is a great piece of gear. It includes two XLR inputs with preamps, but accepts 8 analog inputs, and two different banks of digital input (ADAT, TOSLink, and S/PDIF), for a total of 28 inputs and 30 outputs. Clearly a big machine. It can also serve as a digital mixer, and includes MOTU's AudioDesk software for Mac. If you want opportunity for future expandability, this is the way to go. I love my 828. I don't think you can go wrong with it. 🙂

Don't let me limit your choices to these - go check them out yourself. What I showed you here is only a sampling of what's available. See them in their categories here:

Microphones

Microphones – How They Work, and What They Do

Microphones. What are they and what do they do? How do I use them to get the best sound possible?

First things first – what do they do? In a sentence, they take sound waves from the air and convert it to electric signals. These signals are recorded and stored, usually digitally.

How do they do that? Generally, a mic has a diaphragm that reacts to sound waves in the air. This is converted to electricity various ways, then sent down the cable. From there, it is recorded and stored by different methods.

For a bit more in depth look at it, see this Wikipedia article.

But there are dozens of mics looking at you, waving their arms and screaming, “Pick me! Pick me!” How do you decide which one? What should be your first consideration?

Here are a few features to help you which is the best one:

  • transducer type
  • pickup pattern
  • body construction or diaphragm size
  • suitability to sound source

Also check out the Top 10 Vocal Microphone guide.

Transducer Type

The transducer is the part that converts sound in the air to an electrical signal. It's amazing how they actually do it, but there's no need to know exactly how.

It IS important to know that there are a few different kinds. Most important are:

  • condenser (also called capacitor)
  • dynamic

Most studio mics are condenser mics. They are generally more detailed, smoother, and sweeter than dynamic ones. They must have some power through the cord, called phantom power. Most preamps and mixers will supply it.

Dynamic mics are usually used in live sound. They can take more rough & tumble handling, so they're better for traveling. They require no external power.

I would recommend looking at a condenser for your first one. If you can, try to demo several to get an idea how they differ.

Pickup Pattern

The pickup pattern is the area and directions around the diaphragm that sound gets picked up from. The names for these are very weird, but here they are:

  • Cardioid
  • Omni-directional
  • Super Cardioid
  • Hyper Cardioid
  • Figure 8

The main difference is the direction that the mic is most sensitive in. There are directional styles, and omni-directional styles. (Omni means all around.) All the others pick up from one end (or 2)

What difference does this make to you? Let’s say you are recording a quartet of voices. You have 4 microphones, one for each singer. You might want to put 1 mic in front of each singer, so it picks up only him/her.

But if the mic is an omni, it will end up recording all the voices. The people beside it will "leak" into it.

If you use a cardioid, which picks up what's right in front of it, it will get right singer and not the others. You can isolate that voice from the others.

If you were recording in a big hall, and wanted to get a lot of the reverb sound from the room, you might use an omni to catch sound from all different directions.

What about a figure 8? This pattern picks up from the front and back but not from the sides of the microphone.

What is different in the super and hyper cardioid from the regular cardioids? They are still directional microphones, but are more focused in the front. The trade-off is that a small amount of rear acceptance is let in. You might say that the super and hyper cardioid patterns are steps between a regular cardioid and a figure 8.

While cardioids (and other directional patterns) have good side and rear rejection, they will still pick up that sound. It just attenuates it (makes it quieter) so you can pick a spot to accent.

So what kind should you get? If you want to do several mics at a time for an ensemble, I would go the directional route. After you have a few cardioid mics, then expand into the omni world, but always experiment.

Size of Diaphragm

This refers to whether the microphone is called a large diaphragm, small diaphragm, or medium diaphragm.

That seems fairly obvious, but it can make a difference. A large diaphragm can pick up low frequency sound better than a small diaphragm, because it can vibrate slower and has a bigger surface.

Large diaphragms are usually found in side-address microphones. This means that it is set straight up, with the diaphragm pointed out the side. It has a large body, around 2 inches or so in diameter. (See the picture on the right.)

A larger diaphragm will sound a bit fuller and warmer, due to the detail in the lower frequencies.

Audio Technica AT4050
Photo of Rode NT4 Stereo Mic

Smaller diaphragms will sound better on high frequencies, because the diaphragm can move faster. They sound a bit more detailed on the high range, but still good overall. See an example of a small diaphragm mic on the left.

Which should you get? It depends a lot on what kind of recording you want to do. Vocals usually benefit from the warmness a large diaphragm can give. Classical ensembles and drums are usually recorded with small diaphragm condenser mics.

Guitars are done with just about anything, so take your pick, or ask a friend what they use.

Suitability to Sound Source

What do I mean by that? Every mic has its own unique “sound.” Slight variations in frequency response can color the sound in subtle ways.

Some bring out the sound of different instruments and voices better than others. But one mic is never the one! There just is no Swiss Army knife microphone! You can’t have a ‘one-size-fits-all’ mic. Bedroom-Recording.com has a Top 10 list that also gives ideas for a great starter mic.

Think of using microphones like paint colors on your "canvas" of sound. Certain shades may work OK, but a slightly different shade makes the image look better. A different mic might make the sound "pop."

OK, not everyone can go out and buy a whole bunch of mics. Some kinds work well as all around workhorses. Check out the list just above for some recommendations.

When looking at specific microphones, read reviews from other people. Check what they are advertised to work with the best. See what your gut feeling says.

And have fun!

Mic Placement/Technique

Now what? Where should you put the microphone? Does it make any difference? Yes it does! Mic placement makes a world of difference! So... how do you know what to do?

Just read the page on mic placement and technique. It's part of a series on voice recording, and I recommend you look at the whole series, starting here.