Archive for the ‘recording gear’ Category

studio buildout, part 5: sound interfaces

Hello, Thursday! Yes, I know, DIY day is Wednesday, I was busy, with Stuff. I DIDN’T FORGET YOU GUYS! <3

Last week, we talked about microphones! As part of setup for that, we talked about XLR interfaces and balanced signals. If you missed it, go read up on that.

Now, let’s talk about why you really, really want an external sound device, rather than using your super-l33t gaming sound card. I mean, you paid good money for that thing, right?

Well, aside from the connectors and signal types, there’s noise. The inside of a computer cabinet is really, really noisy, from an electrical standpoint. And microphone signals are really, really small. The balanced signal noise cancellation falls over as soon as you hit the connector, so you don’t have that protecting you. And if you’re recording, the last thing you want is unintentional electrical noise on every track.

Having the sound card be outside the box, and converting everything to digital before it gets to your computer solves all those problems. It also lets you have the computer in a closet, where its fan noise and hard drive noise are nice and safely locked away from your microphones, and where it is safely out of the way your crazy bassist who likes to kick things.

Also, from this guy.

But aside from that, let’s talk goals again. We discussed goals quite a bit in monitors and monitor amps: sound equipment is built to particular goals. Onboard soundcards are built to make cheap computer speakers sound better; gamer kit cards are built to make games sound awesome. And those are both really good goals!

But they are not your goals in the studio. You need sound equipment that is precise, and which treats different sounds similarly, across the frequency spectrum. You need AtoD and DtoA converters which are “musical,” which is to say, are accurate and even-tempered. You don’t want help, because you can’t be assured of getting it out in the wild when people are playing your music back.

I mean, if it’s all you have and you really, really can’t afford anything else? Fine. Of course you should use what you have. Chiptunes people can do this pretty effectively, as can anybody not using microphones or live instruments. Use what control you have over whatever sound card you have to minimise or disable all “sound enhancement,” “bass boost,” “loudness,” “surround effect,” anything like that you can find. Turn all that shit off, dig until you’re sure there’s nothing left to turn off, and you can do okay.

Honestly, people, it’s not that hard

But let’s say you’re not doing that. What do you need in one of these?

First: at least two inputs. If you’re willing to stick to recording one person at a time and not recording a drum kit, you can get away with only two. The inputs need to support XLR connectors. Almost all these days will also support TRS (a.k.a. 1/4″ plug, a.k.a. “patch cord”) connections on the same inputs; it’s a combined socket and really clever.

“But Solarbird!” I hear you cry. “You just told us last week, never use TRS connectors!” Wrong, minion! I said, no microphone worth the time will have those, and that’s still true. But a lot of other devices will have them – synth, electronic keyboards of other types, drum machines which aren’t purely software, Weird Shit You Build Yourself – it’s a big list.

Optical theremins do need apply

You can even connect an electric guitar straight to one of these, and people will do that. If you’re a classic rock guitarist and want to sound like Tom Scholz? Now you know. (Okay, it’s a little more complicated than that. BUT NOT MUCH.)

Second: Those input connectors need to support phantom power. Phantom power needs to be switchable (on and off) separately to the device as a whole. And it should be 48v. There are specs now for lower-voltage phantom power, but a lot of equipment won’t work on it.

I see what you did there

Phantom power is a way of throwing DC power on the line in such a way that it’s invisible to the audio signal, but can still be used by the condenser microphone connected to it to power the condenser pickup. We talked a little about this last time.

Third: A headphone jack which includes passive or live or real-time monitoring in the unit itself. This requires some explanation.

When you’re doing multitrack recording – which is to say, recording one instrument, then another instrument, then vocals, all separately – you need to be able to hear what you’ve recorded so far, on headphones. These headphones need to be pretty sound-tight so that what you’re listening to doesn’t get picked up by the microphone again and re-recorded.

But you also want to be able to hear yourself, and good headphones will block a lot of the sound you’re trying to record as well. Trust me, this is important. You further need to hear the sounds you’re playing as you’re making them – like in real life – without any processing lag.

If your sound interface sends the microphone input to the computer and has the computer send it back for monitoring purposes, that will take enough time and introduce enough lag that it will really screw you up. Seriously, it’s like a tenth of a second or more.

So a decent external sound interface will provide the ability to throw both playback and what’s coming in the microphones back into the headset at the same time. Playback and microphone monitor levels should be separately controllable, too.

You’d think somebody would have a picture of a monitor lizard wearing headphones, would you. WELL, WOULDN’T YOU?! All I could find was this rather nicely-rendered Gecko.

Fourth: Studio monitor outputs. These will usually be RCA connectors, but might be TRS connectors. They’re for playing back things you’ve recorded on an amplifier – your studio monitor amp and the speakers connected to it.

Finally: Good quality analogue-to-digital converters and digital cable connection to your computer. You can get away with USB 1.1 equipment if you’re down at two channels or fewer; more than that, USB 2.0 is a bare minimum. Firewire and Thunderbolt are of course both better, but unless you’re working on a larger scale than anybody I imagine reading this will be doing, unnecessary.

Those are the required features. There are other options nice to have; inserts (to add effects boxes live on your inputs, if you feel the need to do that for some reason after input), pad controls for particularly “hot” input, things like that. They’re nice, but less important.

Plus, of course, more input connectors! Why that’s better should be obvious. But I need to point out here that more is not intrinsically better. Every additional input requires duplication of an entire channel of circuitry. Remember back on monitor amps, where I showed how the left and right amplification channels had mirrored circuits? Each additional input has another set of input channels, just like that.

More != Better

Those cost money. At any given price point, there’s only so much money to spend on hardware. So if you have two inputs on a $250 device, you have a lot more hardware money to spend on the quality and feature set of each channel than you do if you have, say, eight channels on a $250 device.

Particularly at our budget, small differences in money make big differences in quality. Let’s take a couple of examples; I have a TASCAM US-800 (eight channel, six with microphone preamps) and an M-Audio USB Fast Track Pro (two channel, effectively).

The US-800 listed new for $370, was discontinued about a year ago, but is still floating around on clearance new for around $200. The Fast Track Pro retailed – I believe – for $280 originally; it’s floating around for $150-$200-ish. Both have all the basic features listed above. The US-800 is USB 2.0; the Fast Track Pro is USB 1.1.

If you do the math against retail – which is our best ratio, for getting at manufacturing cost – you’re spending $46.25/channel on the US-800, and $140/channel on the Fast Track Pro. And that shows up. Some of it is in features per channel; the Fast Track Pro is quite feature-rich for its price and size.

But it’s also audible. You hear it in the quality of the microphone preamps inside.

Don’t get me wrong; the US-800 is good. At lower gain, it’s very good. I use it heavily. It’s fast, it was hell and a half to get working on Linux (hi, I have a custom kernel configuration now!) but it works. But despite being more expensive overall… it’s just plain noisier, at high gain. You simply can’t boost the microphones as much you can as on the Fast Track Pro.

So if I need extra mic gain, and I don’t need more than two inputs, I’ll hop over to the Fast Track. It has fewer inputs and is stuck at USB 1.1, but also preamps that don’t add noise at high gain. As always, it’s a matter of making the right tradeoffs, and picking the right tool for the right job.

To wit

So that’s a basic overview of audio interfaces! We had some great commentary last week on microphones, mostly on the Livejournal echo, but also on Dreamwidth, including ideas for making your own pressure-zone microphone out of piezoelectrics and glass, a lot of commentary on micing bodhran, some thoughts on pickups, and the sudden and strange return to popularity of the ribbon microphone. If you wanted more on microphones, go check out those discussions!

Next week, we’ll talk a little about cheap/open source digital audio workstation software. And, of course, if you have any thoughts or questions on sound interfaces, let’s hear ’em! Some of you guys are recording, what do you use?

Added May 2013: The original version of this article mentioned crosstalk in the US-800. This turned out to be an unrelated wiring problem, and not intrinsic to the TASCAM unit itself.
Added January 2014: The noise issue at high gain got substantially quieter with the addition of ferrite chokes on all power cords. Turns out the building’s wiring is genuinely rotten with RF! A better board wouldn’t’ve cared, but this one does. Still, it’s a cheap fix – $10 for 10 chokes at Amazon.


This post is part of The DIY Studio Buildout Series, on building out a home recording studio.

studio buildout, part 4: so now about we talk microphones

I promised a microphone post today, and even though my arms are all cranky at me for rebuilding the front porch all week, MICROPHONES IT IS!

The porch looks good, by the way.

yeaaaaah, not hardly

First, I have to confess; this is way less DIYish than the previous few posts have been. Why? Because you really don’t want to be building microphones. Sure, you can, and if you want to, go for it! If you’re starting from scratch – actually building a microphone instead of just repurposing an existing mic – you’ll probably want to start with an old-school carbon or button microphone, the sort that were used in telephones for decades and decades. You’ll find yourself wandering down all sorts of crazy paths including flame speakers, which are awesome and totally dangerous.

Also, fully endorsed by the Fire Nation Broadcasting Network. But I digress.

Actually less cool

But let’s say you’re looking for a cheap way to do some recording. There are a few things you need to know. First! You’ll need an external sound card. We’ll talk in more detail about why, in another entry – there are lots of reasons. It’ll need to support phantom power, and other other features, but the most important for right now is that you’ll need an interface that accepts this kind of plug:

XLR Connectors

This is the standard for professional audio. It’s a three-wire cable that carries something called a “balanced signal,” wherein noise spikes picked up by the cable are intrinsically neutralised without any active circuitry. It’s really clever and if you didn’t understand that, don’t worry about it. You just need to know what kind of connector that is.

There’s also a five-wire stereo variant, but I’m the only person I know who has a five-wire microphone, and I had to build my own interface cable to break it into a pair of XLR mono cables. You’ll probably never run into a microphone that uses it.

You will, however, run into plenty of cheap microphones with cables like this:

TRS connectors

Just walk away. Don’t even try. There are almost no microphones worth bothering with which even support this kind of connector. Not none – I own one of these exceptions, I use it for percussion – but this is rare enough that you almost certainly won’t run into it.

Now, with that out of the way, let’s talk about the microphones themselves.

There are several technology paths in microphones. Which is better for you and your recording depends upon environment and what you’re recording. Even old-school carbon microphones are still being made today, for specialty applications! You won’t run into one, unless you take apart a really old rotary-dial phone, but they’re out there.

What you will run into are:

  • dynamic microphones
  • small-can condenser microphones, and
  • large-can condenser microphones

You may also run into ribbon microphones and pressure zone microphones, but that’s less likely, so I’ll leave them aside for now.

Let’s talk about these by technology class. Dynamic microphones are an older technology still in regular use live, and sometimes in studio. As a group, they’re durable and rugged. They don’t mind dampness too much. If you overload them with too much sound, you’re not going to do any harm as a result, so you see them fairly often in drum recording. They’re good at picking up sound in the immediate area of the microphone, but not sounds further away, which has both good and bad points. And at the low-professional end, where we’re talking, they’re bad at picking up subtleties.

The dirt-common models are the Shure SM-57 and SM-58, for instruments and vocals, respectively. They were a huge technological advance when invented, and are beloved by many older performers. The two models both have the same pickup inside, but different enclosures, which changes the sound.

The Shure SM58. You’ve seen this before.

Do you want one? Well, if you play out, it’s good to have an SM-58 in the studio to practice against, mostly because it’s really fond of amplifying your vocal plosives. If you don’t know what those are, put your hand in front of your mouth right now and say “plosive,” or “plant.” Feel that gust of air with the “Pl” sound? That’s a plosive, and an SM58 is pretty good at making those REALLY LOUD.

If you aren’t bringing your own microphone to gigs – which happens at festivals, open mics, and so on – you’ll want to practice against that, to avoid doing it on stage. Also, some old-time country musicians and rock musicians insist upon them, for their particular sound. If you want that sound on your vocals, then, yes! You want one. Absolutely.

But if you’re only buying one microphone? It really shouldn’t be one of these. Their response curve is a little strange, they’re not generally good – not even the 57 – for recording instruments with any subtlety at all. They’re wretched for recording mandolin and not noticeably better on zouk, for example.

You’ll see instruments miced with them on stage, occasionally, but if it’s an option you can avoid? I’d avoid it.

Condenser microphones are far more commonly used in studios. There are, again, multiple types, which we’ll distill into large can (or large diaphragm) and small can (or small diaphragm) types. The difference is centred around the size of the sound pickup diaphragm, as well as the manufacturing technologies used to produce them.

Small-can condenser microphones have traditionally been the more affordable of the condenser microphones out there, but that all changed…

…when a small number of companies all figured out how to make large-can condenser microphones at far lower cost. (See? I changed it up on you.)

This has been a huge boon to home recording, because if you can only afford one, or one pair of microphones? You’re really best off going with this technology. I like the M-Audio Nova (no longer made, but – unlike many of the other cheap large-can capacitor microphones of its generation – retaining its price level in used territory) and the AKG Perception 200. I do a Nova pair for the mandolin, a mix of Nova and AKG for zouk, and vocals – as of recently, anyway – on the Perception.

I really, really wish I’d had the Perceptions for Dick Tracy Must Die.

If you can’t afford specialised mics, this is a really good route to maximixing what you can do with what you’re able to spend. If you dig around, you can find them for $90 or so used… and you won’t do too badly that way. You really won’t. They’re pretty flat pickup response, they have nice sensitivity, and they’re pretty good at picking up the details that make such a cumulative difference in recording.

But! There is a downside. They’re very sensitive. They’re relatively fragile. Loud enough noises can break the microphone, so you don’t want to be close-micing drums with these things. They may and may not survive a fall.

Condenser microphone diaphragm

Small-can condenser microphones tend on average to be more durable. They’re also, as a class, the most precise at picking up transient changes in sound. You can close-mic drums with many of them – where you can’t, use dynamics, like the SM57 again – and they’re great on cymbals and snares. They’re popular for live show recording, and a lot of instrument recording. If you’ve seen a Zoom H4, H4n, H2, or any of that sort of recorder? You’re looking at small-can condenser microphones.

I have a Sony ECM-957 in studio. Unlike the other cases above, that’s not a recommendation; it took me forever to figure out what this mic was actually good for. It was a terrible mic for vocals, and a poor one for most of my instruments – but turned out to be a great close-mic for drums!

And the moral of that story is even the weird microphones will have their uses. You never know where that’ll be, but it’ll be out there.

So! Inventory what you’re likely to record – vocals if applicable, the instruments you and your friends play. Tailor your purchases to that, using the capabilities of the various technologies as a general guide. And if you can only afford one microphone at all, a large can condenser microphone is almost certainly going to be your best overall bet.

Next week, let’s talk audio interfaces! Until then, what microphones do you use, and for what purposes? This is just my experience set. How about you?


This post is part of The DIY Studio Buildout Series, on building out a home recording studio.

thrift and pawn shop spelunking

I want to talk about kitting out on the cheap, but first, an update: I’ve heard from Meg Davis, and the fundraiser has met its goals! She has an iPad and is already working with it, learning about software. When she wrote, she was having what had been a bad day – the kind that would keep her from doing anything – but thanks to this device, she was catching up on business and email, and seeing how Garage Band works. Seriously, way to go, you guys. o/ Well done.

Now, on to cheap equipment!

I’ve been pawn-and-thrift-store spelunking again, this time for good camera tripods. I started at UW Surplus (no), then hit Goodwill and a local pawn store near Goodwill, and came up with two tripods – one that just needed cleaning and its camera pad re-glued, and one – a Slik U-210 – that needed a bit more work. I talked about that a little on Thursday here, if you’re curious, but the details aren’t really important. The U-210 is a heavy-duty no-fucking-around professional’s tripod; the successor is the U-212, which isn’t as tall. It’ll hold up a small building.

U210 on the left

I don’t need that much; to be honest, I’m probably fine with a generic $40 “prosumer” model made in China, with a 10% junk/return rate. But I hate doing that, and mostly just won’t. So if you don’t do that either, and you’re trying to kit out, here are a few key things I’ve found important to know.

  1. Learn to judge quality in a general sense. That’s not easy to teach, frankly, but you can avoid loose fittings, cheap rivets, overly-thin aluminium, flimsy or brittle plastics. Heft is no guarantee, but it generally doesn’t hurt, either. Similarly, learn to identify excessive wear. If there’s a moving part, make sure it still fits well with the parts it’s moving against. Broken is almost always easier to fix than worn out.

    If you have no idea where to start here, try watching a bunch of back episodes of the old late-90s BBC show, Bargain Hunt. Pay attention to the experts on that show and try to pick up on how they think.

  2. Talking of broken, be willing to fiddle with things and take them apart. If you’re not at least a bit of a DIYer, or interested in being one, don’t waste your time on this approach. But if you are, and are prepared to apply it, you can make off like a bandit. Recommended reading: The Readers Digest Fix-It-Yourself Manual. Not for any one repair, tho’ it’s good for that, but for a general idea about how you approach these kinds of problems.
  3. Be willing to see past dirt. Thrift stores in particular get a lot of estate-sale leftovers and storeroom cleanouts. Great grandmother finally passed on, and the kids aren’t photographers, and now I have a serious business tripod – a tripod that sat in a crawlspace by the furnace for 20 years, getting coated with grime. Now? Cleaned and lubricated, it’s ready to go.
  4. Recognise what’s out of place. If a pawn shop has a lot of something, it’s probably not that good a deal; they know it, they recognise it, they go through a lot of it, and they can price it with confidence rather than searching the internet and hoping. Guitar amps are a perfect example of that; they know crummy guitar amps, and they move well. DJ equipment, too, to a lesser degree. But if they have only one of something, and it doesn’t look like the other things? That’s the interesting item. Particularly if it’s dusty.

    (There are exceptions, of course. If you need an SM-57 or SM-58 microphone, those don’t stand out, and they know what they are, but they’re such commodities that the price will be good, and the damn things are nearly indestructible. Knowing when it doesn’t matter is a lesser skill, but a skill nonetheless.)

  5. Play with stuff in the store. Plug it in, bring in your equipment and use it. If they won’t let you, go somewhere else.
  6. Pawn shops always negotiate. Never pay what’s on the label, always bring cash, and if you get it out, make sure you don’t have enough to pay the label price anyway.

Examples: A: My PA’s board/amplifier unit met rules 4 and rule 1, spectacularly. The pawn shouldn’t ever have taken it. It’s not DJ equipment, it’s not a guitar amp, it’s not a car stereo. Few of their customers know what it is, and almost none of them know how to use it, or are even interested. It was missing a knob, which I replaced easily without even taking the unit apart, so I’m not counting it as rule 2, but that didn’t hurt, either. B: My speaker main, an old-school Crate, met rules 4, 3, 2, and 1. It was some arena-band-wanna-be’s stage monitor, and a total monster, and more than I’ll ever need for primary PA. It was dirty but would clean up well; it had a bad coil in the tweeter horn ($26 total repair cost), reeked of quality despite that, and it was totally out of place.

I got them both for dirt – seriously, like 90% off new retail – and for about 60% of the pawn’s asking price in both cases, because they didn’t want them around anymore. They stood out, saying, “this doesn’t belong here,” and were idle too long on the floor.

You can even find instruments that way, occasionally. They know guitars of all kinds, but they’re much less sure about anything else. I have a student violin for which I paid $40, including tax. It’s not a good violin, but it holds tune just fine, is complete with bow and case and all parts, and the screwed-up part wasn’t even broken, just, you know, screwed up. I put it back together correctly and saved it from a junk pile. Now I have my viLOLin. Tremendously useful? Eh, probably not. Fun to play around with and maybe even learn on? Oh yeah.

When the turret says, “I’m different!” – sometimes it is.

You got any suggestions for putting together a kit? Leave them in comments!

some answers, and another question

I’m going to round up the indie maker recommendations from the Recommendations Post, in a minute. But before that…

I have another question! It doesn’t work as a poll, so let’s just go for answers-in-comments again. Specifically:

Who inspires you?

Artistically, musically, engineeringly, whatever. Shit is all fucked up and bullshit, as the sign said, but people keep going anyway. Some of that’s determined ignorance, but not all of it. So: who inspires you? Not what: who.

Leave comments. Others might take notes.

And as promised, indie recommendations-from-fans time! These are all from comments:

And, of course, I recommend my own studio album, Dick Tracy Must Die, which is about as handmade as CDs and digital recordings can be. Buy the studio album for someone, or just for yourself! Short on cash, as so many people are right now? Download Cracksman Betty and/or Espionage: Live from Mars for anything you can afford, including free, and give as stocking stuffers.

G’wan, take a look. ^_^

Finally, I have SOLVED THE LINUX PROBLEM! o/ For details, see comments in the original post. Thanks go out to several people, but particularly to criacow on Twitter who pointed me at a sane explanation for how to swap out kernel images cleanly. I’m now running Linux kernel 3.1.5 underneath Ubuntu 10.4, which is vaguely hilarious, but which fixes the crash bug and gave me room enough to get the hardware running. Yay! My tiny studio is now somewhat less tiny! SIX CHANNEL RECORDING WOOOOOOOOOOOO! 😀

any linux kernel people out there


If so, I need their help. Please forward this around, I have a problem and I’d really like a workaround or fix.

THIS IS INTENSELY GEEKY. You have been warned.

I have a shiny new USB 2.0 Audio-compatible device, a TASCAM US-800. It validates as a generic USB 2.0 Audio device under OSX, and all the I/O ports are available. With drivers, it works also under Windows XP, to which my studio system can dual-boot. (Motherboard: Gigabyte GA-G31M-ES2L MB, BIOS version FI 2010/08/12.)

I plug it into my studio system when booted to Ubuntu (10.04 LTS (Lucid Lynx), 2.6.32-35-generic, all patches applied) and the Ubuntu machine falls over dead right after acknowledging the USB device. If I’m in Gnome the whole thing dies almost immediately; if I’m in a text console I have more time. The task queue fills because CPU0 soft-hangs.

Again, the exact same machine in exact same configuration, booted to Windows XP, works fine.

What appears to happen is some sort of interrupt fuckery (“ata3: lost interrupt (Status 0x58)”) and the USB hub controller loses an interrupt and doesn’t realise it, or, looking at the call stack and audio.c, maybe has an extra interrupt mapped to it somehow? With predictably hilarious, by which I mean disastrous, results.

Here is a syslog dump from a boot-through-dying session. It’s pretty typical. The adventures start at 15:41:29. Note the call stack. Note also “BUG: soft lockup – CPU#0 stuck for 61s! [khubd:29].”

This appears to be the most closely-related kernel bug report. It’s acknowledged as a bug but hasn’t been touched in a year. 🙁 I am not convinced it’s identical, in part because the workaround described down at the bottom (booting with noacpi) does not work for me.

I really, really, really want to be able to use this hardware on my Linux DAW. I can, yes, use it with my MacBook and Garage Band, or CUBASE on the same hardware as the Linux DAW, and shuffle files over. But both of those options kinda suck.

Anybody have a workaround? Or a dev machine that can analyse this? Pretty-please?

Return top

The Music