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Setting up a Comptuer Home Studio

SETTING UP A COMPUTER HOME STUDIO

The first thing you will need is a computer. I will, of course, be using a PC as an example, not an Apple, though the general principles are the same. I’m writing and posting this article as I have spent far too much time on message boards going over the same information for newbies time and again. So it is a very basic primer, and I can send this eddress in lieu of writing it out again. The bold faced material will be explained farther in the article, the second bold-faced item having the explanation.

Almost any contemporary computer is capable of running music software successfully. The faster the processor, the better, but at one time I ran plenty of audio tracks in Cakewalk on a 333 MHz (megahertz) AMD processor. I couldn’t run many effects at once, and no high-end reverb without choking the audio output (and this was before soft-synths), but it would run. So you don’t need to get the highest end model available, but don’t use a Celeron processor if you can help it. They lack the math co-processors that help run reverbs, etc, and are therefore cheaper (but slower) for intensive sound work. That being said, my own home system is a Celeron 1.2 MHz, so they do work, just not as well as a Pentium, Athalon etc. Most processors sold today are faster than it is.

INSIDE YOUR COMPUTER (Actual)

However, you will need some extra goodies to make your home computer run efficiently. First, memory. Windows XP requires 256 MB (megabites) just to function with basic programs. Music programs need more to run efficiently. Memory is cheap, and will make your computing a much happier experience. 512 MB is the least you should have, and a gig is even better. You can put in memory chips yourself, if your computer needs more. I’ll talk about cracking the computer case open after discussing the other internal parts you may need. Next is a second hard drive. This is to run your audio separately from your boot drive. You’ll get a much higher track count if your computer isn’t having to wait to stream your audio while it accesses the hard drive to run the program. If you are using a laptop, you’ll probably need an external drive that communicates over Firewire or USB 2. A desktop can access an external drive, too. Your audio drive should run at 7200 RPM (revolution per minute), which allows you to run as many tracks at once at your processor is likely to handle or you are ever going to need.

The last thing you will need is a soundcard of some sort. Most computers today have a soundcard built into the Motherboard, but it won’t cut it for doing any serious audio work. It will have an audio input and audio output, but isn’t built for real work. The input will usually accept a mic, but the Preamp is just plain bad and the input is Mono. You will need to purchase a soundcard to use. Most of them remain PCI Card based, although more and more are external units that use Firewire or USB to get sound in and out of your computer.

The soundcard, at the very least, is an in/out (I/O) for audio. As such, it will have at least stereo I/O. Stereo simply means 2 channels, just as your home stereo or computer speakers have two distinct outputs. This system better replicates the original soundstage aural image of a recording compared to a Mono, or single speaker system. When hi-fi (high fidelity) stereo was introduced into consumer sound systems in the 1960s, the recording industry didn’t really know what to do with it and were concerned with the compatibility of their new stereo recordings on older, mono systems (which represented the bulk of home systems for years – much like CDs when they came out, and car speakers until much latter). Some of the early Beatles albums had each instrument and voice coming out of one speaker only. Another great example is Cream’s “Sunshine of your love,” in which Ginger Baker’s drums all come out of one side of the a stereo system. Pretty soon all rock (and jazz, even classical) albums were trying to recreate a virtual soundstage, balancing the instruments and drums across both speakers (although the bass and bass drum are usually centered, since bass sounds require the most power and benefit from having both speakers pump out the low end). In the ‘70s quadraphonic (4 speakers) systems were introduced, and Pink Floyd could fly sounds around in space, side to side and front to back. That was commercially unsuccessful, but has been resurrected in home theater systems with 5.1. This is quadraphonic, but with a center speaker added for movie dialog and a subwoofer for low frequency effects or your extremely low notes. Many consumer computer soundcards (such as Creative’s) have a digital out for use with your home theater or game set up. Which brings us back to soundcards.

Your soundcard is where most of your musical information comes in and out of your computer. There are two main forms of this information – audio and MIDI. The Creative line of cards is the lowest-priced card that you can do descent recording on, so we will use it as an example. It has a stereo-in for recording audio and two sets of stereo outs (one for your computer speakers, and the other can be hooked up to a better monitoring system – such as your home stereo). Two channels in means that you can record your CDs in glorious stereo through them, or your stereo synthesizer, or you singing your favorite folk song with a mic for you and another for your guitar. Any stereo sound source or two mono sound sources can be recorded at once. It is also a duplex card, meaning it can record stereo while also playing back stereo (so you can accompany yourself with another instrument or sing back up tracks while listening to your previous recorded tracks).

To play back and record audio, the card has Digital to Analog converters as well as (you guessed it!) Analog to Digital converters. Only a few companies make the chips that accomplish this magic, so most similarly priced soundcards use the same chips. That doesn’t mean a higher priced card doesn’t sound better – there are other aspects to design and build that effect the sound quality. The converters turn analog sound (waves) into discrete packets of numbers that the computer then can use and manipulate. There are two measurements that describe this information – Sample Rate and Bit Depth. Sample Rate determines how many times a second (Kilohertz or KHz) the converter captures a digital snapshot of the sound. “CD quality” means that this is captured 44,100 times a second. There is science behind this rate, based upon the theory that humans only hear up to 20 KHz. Pro equipment use to use 48 KHz on the theory the more the better (DAT machines use this rate). Now rates up to 192 KHz are used, but anything over 48 KHz is probably overkill in a home studio. Bit Rate, essentially, determines the difference between the softest and loudest sound captured. Once again, the more the merrier. 16 bits gives you a theoretical range of 0 – 96 decibels(dB), while 24 bits gives you 144 dB to play with (every 6 dB equals doubling the loudness of the sound. Anything over 24 bits is, again, overkill to try to achieve in your bedroom studio. There are too many other factors that will degrade your sound before it gets into (or out of) your computer to worry about going above 48 KHz/24 bits. Once your sound is recorded and stored as digital audio, it can be manipulated like any other information.

MIDI is the other means of interfacing your computer with sound. In this case, usually external synthesizers. It was developed back in the early/mid ‘80s as a way of recording, editing and playing back a keyboard performance (this was long before digital recording was commonly available). You plugged your synth into your computer via a MIDI cable and they could communicate with one another. You could record your keyboard part into the computer, and it would record which notes were played, how hard the key was struck and how long it was held. You could edit the notes, etc., tell the computer to tell the keyboard to change the preset at a certain point, etc. etc. Then you could save the performance and later have it “play” this back to your external synth(s). MIDI has 16 channels, each capable of playing a different synth or synth sound in a multi-timbral synthesizer. There are also MIDI interfaces that have multiple in and outs, which lets your computer play more than 16 parts by assigning different physical outs to different synths. And there are different MIDI controllers today, although keyboards remain the most common. There are guitar controllers, drums, wind instruments and pans and faders that replicate the controls found on analog Mixers.

The Creative soundcards also contain their own synthesizer, a Sampler. A Sampler also uses digital recordings, but usually of a single instrument arranged across the keyboard so it sounds like an electric or acoustic instrument. This sampler runs on its own hardware, so your computer doesn’t have to waste CPU cycles on it, although the sampler sounds are loaded into your computer’s memory (samples are one reason to get as much memory as possible). So, if you can’t cram that grand piano or pipe organ into your bedroom studio, you can use the sampler for it. It is not quite as good as the real thing, but is also a lot cheaper and doesn’t take up nearly as much real estate.

Another type of synth computers use is a soft synth. This just uses your computer's computational power to replace a hardware synth. They can be samplers, as well as virtual analog synths.

So, you’ve got your computer out, along with more memory, a hard drive and a new soundcard. Working inside your computer is not that hard. I don’t know if you can train a monkey to do, but you can surely learn. There are two caveats to this, however. One, always ground yourself before going inside your computer by touching the metal case, etc. A static electric discharge will fry most or all your computer’s components. Also, treat your computer like a dog or child, be gentle but firm. Don’t force anything, or you might make a doorstop out of your computer.

There are steps provided in your manual or on the net to do all the below, so I will be brief, as one picture is worth a 1000 words. One side of your computer opens up. It is opposite the one the Motherboard is attached to. The side will screw or slide off. The Motherboard is the large, flat plastic board that runs the length of the computer case. It is where all the other components attach to. There will be slots for your memory card. One or more will already be full. The end with metal contacts slide into the memory slots. Usually there is a clasp at one or both ends of the slot that will snap to once the card is properly seated. Be sure to ground yourself before starting, that the clasp is open and the notch in the memory card lines up with the notch inside the memory slot. Only then firmly seat the card. Don’t force it in, as you could crack the motherboard. Once it is in, that is all you have to do. The computer, on boot up, will know it is smarter. And it is a good idea to reboot your computer as you complete each step, just so that you will know everything went OK with each step.

Hard drives are harder. Inside the computer you’ll probably have 2 metal cages located at the front of the unit. One holds your CD/DVD player(s)/recorder(s). If you want to upgrade these you can later, using the same steps as the hard drive. The other cage holds the hard drive. The cage may come out or not. Either way you have to detach the power cables and ribbon cable attached to already installed hard drive. Power cables should be small red and white wires bundled together. The connector is notched. Ribbon cables carry the info between your hard drive and CPU and are wide, thin and ribbed. Their connector is notched, too. Both attach to the back end of the drive. Before the new drive can be put in the cage you should set the jumpers on the back to make it a slave drive. There should be info with the drive, or on line, telling you how to set them so the computer sees the drive as a slave of the primary drive. The new drive will screw into the cage. The ribbon cable and power cable should be doubled, so you just trace back each one back to where it splits. Then hook up the second connectors as well as the first ones you detached. After booting up your computer, it should find the new drive. You may have to format it and you can rename it. You can do this from Control Panel>Administrative Tools>Computer Management. On my system, A: is for floppy and C: is for the main, boot up drive. This is normal, with your CD drive probably named D: I partitioned my main 60 gig drive into 2 – C: and D: C: boots up as my regular computer, with all my music/video apps as well as Office and Internet connectivity. D: is for music/video only and has nothing more than I need for running those apps. E: is a DVD writer, F is a CD writer and G: is an 80 gig drive for audio/video files.

Finally, you can put in the sound card. PCI Cards are, not surprisingly, inserted into PCI slots. Once the PCI card is plugged into the motherboard it doesn’t need any cables for info or power to work directly with the computer’s CPU. There are 3-5 PCI slots in most computers, and one slot is usually taken up by the modem. One end of the PCI cards sticks out of the the back of the computer and open to the outside world, so you can plug your phone jack or other cables into them. There is a false back plate that covers this hole if no PCI card is plugged in. One screw holds the back plate in. Take the screw out (putting it in a secure spot, you’ll need it later) and the back plate pulls straight out. The PCI card inserts just like the memory card and also might have a clasp. You’ll also have to plug in the CD and/or DVD audio output into your card. The audio cables are even thinner than the power cables (but still red and white) and plug into the connector along the upper edge (there should be some writing saying “CD in, Aux in”). All this should be in the manual that came with the card or is on line. Once that is figured out, put the screw back in to hold the face plate in place. The Creative Audigy series also has a game port out for use with MIDI out on a separate face plate and connected to card itself by a smallish ribbon cable. This is called a daughter card. Take out the false face plate and screw the MIDI one in, after connecting the ribbon cable. This takes up a face plate spot on the back of the computer, but not the PCI slot itself. You’ll have to get an adaptor to make the game port work with MIDI. Other cards, such as EMU’s, bundle all the cables on one face plate. Once the soundcard is in, close up the computer and you are ready. Not to make beautiful music but install the Drivers for your card.

INSIDE YOUR COMPUTER (VIRTUALLY)

Drivers are little bits of software code that allow your hardware to connect with your computer. Fortunately, Windows now recognizes new hardware once it is connected and will prompt you to load the drivers (if it doesn’t already have them preloaded) and Windows or a program on the CD that came with your new hardware will walk you through the installation. You should also go to the manufacturer of all hardware and check for any new drivers you can download from their website. You can also periodically check the site for new updates.

For Creative cards, you should be careful about loading in the extra programs that come with it. Game stuff and other non-essential programs won’t hurt your computer, but don’t do you much good either and might just cause some conflicts. It took a while to keep Creative Playcenter (which is part of the basic program load) from taking over playing .WAV and other media files. Most “pro” cards load in their only the necessary drivers and a software Mixer. A mixer, basically, takes different inputs and combine them with control over the various levels and send them back out. Hardware Mixers do this for your analog sounds, and your card has a virtual mixer for use within your computer. In the Creative AudioHQ there is a tab for mixer. Click on it (or in the software equivalent for your card, found under Start>Programs>card name) and your mixer will pop up. Different cards are different, but for the Creative you have a choice for your output (volume control/bass and treble – just like your home stereo) as well as an attached panel for inputs. These are Wave/MP3, MIDI, CD Audio, Line-In, CD digital and PC speaker Icon, and an icon for “record what you hear.” Each of these has a mute (or silence) button as well as a volume slider (or Fader). To hear your audio files you need the Wave/MP3 fader up and enabled. To hear your Creative synth A or B, MIDI needs to be enabled and up. To hear or record audio coming in your Line input you need the same applies to Line-In. “What you hear” records what you hear coming out of the attached speaker to your Audigy and it can be up. CD digital and PC speaker should be checked mute. Another place where you might have trouble and not be able to hear anything is in the speaker section. Use Advanced Mode button on the speaker or just click on Speaker in the AudioHQ and choose 4/4.1 mode. Now both the stereo outputs on the Creative card are enabled (hence the 4 – the .1 is for a subwoofer for digital output). You can also test your speaker here to make sure your right is right and whether you have hooked up the front or rear speaker outs to the correct speakers set.

If you are still not getting any sound of your speakers, there is one other place to check. Start>Control Panel>Sounds and Audio Devices will pop up a properties page. If the volume for your new card isn’t shown on the first tab (volume), it needs to be chosen. Go to audio tab and pick out your card for the drop down menu for Sound playback, Sound recording and MIDI music playback. You can do the same for voice. That should connect your new card to the computer and computer speakers, if you are using a Creative card (or any other multiple output card) and want to use it with your computer speakers as well as music monitors. If your card only has 2 outs, you can leave your motherboard’s card set to give you program beeps and other sounds, as well as listen to CD’s over your computer speakers. When you do music, you can use the outputs of your pro card connected to a full size speaker/amp. You still should choose your card for recording, but leave your motherboard card highlighted for playback and MIDI music. Just be sure and have the “Use only default devices” unchecked.

If you want to disable your motherboard sound card, you can hit the hardware tab and it will show you all the hardware active on your computer. Find your pro card, hit properties and make sure it is enabled and that the drivers etc. are working properly. Then find the motherboard soundcard – you can disable it here if you don’t need it. If you have any hardware problems, Help will send you here, so get familiar with this page. You’ll probably get all too familiar with it before long.

If you still don’t hear any sound through your chosen listening system, open your DAW. DAW stands for Digital Audio Workstation. It is the program that records and plays back both your audio and MIDI, edits and mixes them down for output to your speakers or a file for burning to CD. On the PC, the two main companies left making DAWs are Steinberg and Cakewalk. Your DAW will most likely be one of them. If you don’t need MIDI, your main recorder will be audio only, and Sony’s (previously by Sonic Foundry) VEGAS and Adobe’s Audition are the big one’s there, along with Sony’s Acid as the main loop creation tool (although Reason’s loop machine is another competing product, though it does a lot more than just loop audio). All these products, however, have a properties page where you choose your driver of choice. In Cakewalk, go to Options>Audio. Under the General Tab you have to pick Playback and Recording Timing Master from the drop down menu. You also need to choose Audio Driver Bit Depth, new projects settings and Mixing Latency. Under the advanced tab you can choose your Driver mode (which sound card driver you want to use). ASIO is best, and most cards support it. If WDM is your only choice, it is fine, too. Both are just different standards, but ASIO usually let your computer run with less latency, or how long it takes for the computer to process your sound from in to out. This becomes important if you are trying to record vocals or play along with previously recorded material. Any other driver, like MME should be a last resort.

Under the Driver's tab you have more choices. In my home system, I have a Creative card and a M-Audio Transit USB audio interface I use either ASIO or WDM drivers. Both work. If I use the ASIO drivers, there are a lot more choices available with the Creative card. WDM is usually stereo I/O only. But the Creative card has about 11 different outputs, most of them I’ll never use. So why use the Creative card at all if I have a Transit USB interface? To listen to my computer speakers. The Transit hooks up via USB to the computer. I have the output plugged into my mixer and my mixer into my studio monitors. Computer speakers are OK, but not for doing any serious music work. You just can’t hear all that you need to hear out of such small speakers. If I am doodling around and decide I want to listen over my studio monitors, I can use the Transit, which sounds better. I used to have Creative’s 2nd stereo output hooked up to the mixer, but I don’t need them now.

So, unless you have checked out all the above items, don’t worry about not hearing any sound. Usually, the companies that make your card will set everything up when you load their drivers and software, but stuff happens. Especially if you’ve loaded two different programs that both want to make things easy for you, the end user, and end up in conflict with one another. Apologies to Disney, but everything has to be connected in the great circle of sound. If you learned your lessons in the analog days, it was very simple, since everything had to be physically connected. In the virtual world of computers, the connectors can’t be seen in one glance.

So, let’s look at some typical but simple set up and the problems that pop up (especially on the message boards). You have a computer with a new soundcard and keyboard. In order to record and playback MIDI you need to have the keyboard hooked up by MIDI. Simple enough. But how do you hear the keyboard? Because, MIDI is not Sound. Even if your keyboard has built-in speakers, you won’t be able to hear soft synths or samples etc. from your DAW though your synth speakers. They will be coming out of your computer speaker. And your keyboard, at some point, needs to gets its audio output, as well as MIDI, into the computer if you want to burn a CD of your work. MIDI doesn’t work on CDs any better than your ears. You could plug your keyboard into your soundcard directly and then you can hear it over the computer speakers, but not over your monitors (a home speaker system, for example) if you don’t have 2 outputs on your card. And to add vocals or a guitar you’ll need to unplug your synth and PATCH in your new sound source(s). If you are using one or the other almost exclusively, then you don’t have that problem. But it you do, the simplest solution is a mixer. As stated above, this is a piece of hardware that combines inputs from different sound sources (computer, synth, mics), controls their relative volumes and send a mix of the sound out through one or more outputs. If you are going to use mics, you need one, or use more than one keyboard. They can be had for less than $100 (and on up to $100,000), and will make your life so much easier. Each instrument and mic can have an analog input and can put ROUTED to the output, which can then be routed out to your computer audio in as well as your monitor at one time. While a mixer can be seen as just more complexity, it actually makes things simpler for recording and mixing, and doesn’t really make more problems. Because all it really does is divide up problem sources. If you put all your sound sources through the mixer, but you can’t record it in your computer, the fault probably lies in your computer, not external hardware. And it is simpler to figure out if it is a cable/hardware problem. If your synth records but not your mic, then it is time to check the mic cable and you don’t have to figure that out by plugging/unplugging your synth and mic into your soundcard. And none of the above even deals with the convenience of built-in PREAMPS, which you’ll need to use most mics (see Outside the Box, below).

Finally, your computer audio interface can include a mixer, or at least have more than one stereo input. PCI slot cards can a input and output 8 or more separate sound channels at once. They are more expensive, natch, as they have to have more Analog to Digital to Analog (ADA) converters onboard. They also are usually built to a higher design standard as they are for professional use. I have a PreSonus Firestation, which doesn’t use PCI card or slot but uses a Firewire port to get audio and midi in and out of my computer. It is also a mixer, having 8 inputs and 8 outputs as well as a main out (the mixed channels) and headphones. More and more manufacturers are going the Firewire way or USB 2. USB 1, which all computers today have, isn’t capable of handling more than 4-6 channels at once (like the M-Audio Transit I also use). Firewire and USB 2 can handle as many tracks as you are likely to ever need to in or output at once. While Firewire and USB use requires higher overhead (or CPU cycles) than PCI slot, the drivers are getting more efficient all the time, as well as computers getting faster all the time. And you can’t use a PCI card with a laptop computer. Not only do these interfaces provide audio I/O, some of them look and act like mixers and serve as a hardware controller to mix the sound within your computer, just like an analog mixer does for your synths.

So, what sound card would I recommend as of the summer of '04? Probably the EMU 0404. This is brand new, but EMU has been doing audio since the 1970's and makes the soundchips in all the Creative cards. It looks like a real winner. It will do stereo I/O, analog and digital, up to 96/24, as well as midi. All for about $100. It has some great built-in effects (they make pro effects, too). Finally, you can add software to it that turns your computer into a S&S (Sample and Synthesis)sampler, with some very nice filters (the same ones that go on their $2000 samplers). Basically, it turns your computer into a full-fledged sampler for $200. It is hard to beat such cost-efficency.

OUTSIDE THE BOX (or what else you’ll need beside your computer)

This will be put up soon. It will cover more on mixers, lines, cables etc.

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