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How to Set Up Digital Audio
So, then how do we get our sounds into the computer? On this page we get into digital audio. Yep, the same kind of audio, consisting as ones and zeros, with which your CDs are made. But fear not my friend, its not that complex. I am here to deliver to you all the advanced concepts of digital audio you need to start your own studio, and when I am done with you, you will be able to hang with today's studio wizards and hold your own. When you have the right tools, recording digital audio is not harder than using a cassette recorder.
To start, I'm going to get your head on straight so you can make some good decisions for your future rig. There are 6 common approaches here, and we'll talk about each briefly.
Shorthand for "In the Box" is ITB. This means the piece was recorded and mixed inside the computer. OTB, or out of the box, means the song was mixed outside the computer, most likely on a hardware mixer or console.
A cheap sound card, like the one that comes with your PC that only has 1/8"
MIC and LINE ins poses a problem right away. You'll have to use a
cheap mic to connect to the little 1/8 inch phone jack, and you'll need a
little adapter (1/4" to 1/8") to connect the guitar to the MIC in. (be
careful to keep you guitar at very low volume. You can try the line in
but it will be weak). Truth is, the guitar output does not "mesh" well with
onboard soundcards. If you have a pedal, connect that to the LINE IN. You also connect your
synths to the Line In, again, with the 1/4" to 1/8" adapter. As you
might guess, this is not a very good solution. The Mic preamps are
often hissy, usually worse than an old cassette deck. The DACS are poor on these cards and the cables are always
falling out of the jacks due to the weight of the adapters. Also you will find
yourself always plugging and unplugging stuff in this very inaccessible area
behind your computer.
The classic solution here is to get a small mixer that lets you connect the mixer output to the LINE IN jacks on the soundcard. The Mixer will let you use better microphones with XLR jacks and will have better clearer sounding preamps. Also a Mixer will be able to boost the guitar signal just right, making it easy to use pedals and all the cool guitar gadgets you might have. I call this the Mixer/Soundcard approach. The little mixer shown to the left may be of great benefit to those who record one track at a time to audio. Its the Mackie 402 VLZ3. A decent soundcard for a computer with an open PCI slot is the M-Audio 2496.
You should know that as PCI slots start to disappear from the modern PC, Firewire and USB 2.0 approaches are becoming the favored approaches. Yet if you already have a decent soundcard you like, adding a mixer is easy, cheap and convenient.
A third way to connect audio sources to a computer is with an audio interface, which 100% replaces all the functions of a soundcard, with mixer-quality mic preamps and line inputs and outputs.
Some audio interfaces come with PCI cards and others with Firewire or USB2.0 interfaces. You don't need another soundcard if you have an audio interface--it is your soundcard. If you get one with Mic preamps, you don't need a mixer. We will call this the "mixerless" approach.
There are many different Firewire and USB audio interfaces available, and they are not all small like the ones above. To get an idea of the options available to you, take a look at my PCI and Firewire comparison charts. They give you a good rundown of what features you get at the different price points.
A fourth way to connect your audio sources to a computer is to get an analog mixer that has a firewire port or USB port. You don't need a soundcard or an audio interface with these devices.
The NRV10 is a full function 8x2 analog mixer, with a built-in 10x10 audio interface, does not need a soundcard. At the high end of this class of mixer/interface, is the Allen & Heath ZEDR 16 which connects by Firewire. There are also many inexpensive analog mixers with simple USB 1.1 interfaces tacked on, like with the Behringer XENYX 2442FX, which is OK to get you started. One of the newer Mixers with integrated audio interface is the Mackie 1640i. The 1640i has a 16x16 audio interface matched to a 16 channel 4 bus mixer.
These are not mixers. They are control surfaces with an integrated audio interface. The faders control the software mixer inside your computer sequencer application. These typically have microphone preamps, analog and digital ins and outs and MIDI ins and outs. There is a lot going on development wise in this area. One trend is towards the hardware box that does everything you need and works seamlessly with your DAW (computer). We are not quite there yet, but we are moving closer. These are usually Firewire interfaces. The Tascam FW1884 is popular. Others that are similar is the Digi 003 (for Pro Tools LE), the Project Mix and Alesis Master Control. The most inexpensive of this group is the Tascam FW1082 which is popular among those starting out.
A lot of newbies confuse approach 4 with approach 5 and they are vastly different. We'll come back to this later, but for now, understand that a control surface is NOT a mixer and a Mixer is not a control surface. A control surface is a controller that controls your software mixer. It sends midi signals to your software, it does not have audio running through the fader section.
A final and fifth method is an alternative to the computer midi and audio sequencer for those who don't want to mess with computers that much. It is the dedicated standalone multi-track recorder. You basically do all your work on the recorder, not on the computer, but can use its built in interface (usually USB) to port files over to the computer for editing or whole songs over after the mix.
Today there are multi-track recorders you can slip in your pocket like the Zoom H4n and those like the Tascam X48 designed for professional installations and many in between at nearly every price point.
A newer, cheaper MTR with removable storage, which can also function as an audio interface is the Zoom r-16. This might be nice for a lot of people, and give you a choice of recording on the computer or on the removable storage.
OK, I've showed you the 6 basic approaches to getting audio recorded in your studio. While some of these approaches may seem consumer-friendly and inexpensive, the principles carry over to the ultra high end of gear. There are mixer-based approaches that may cost upwards of $100,000, massive multi track studios featuring cascaded 48 track recorders and more common today, large computer-based rigs with expanded audio interfaces and outfitted with extremely high end preamps and converters that may cost upwards of $2,000 a single mono channel. We will get into some of the high end stuff later, but for now, we just want to get started painlessly. So start thinking about which way you want your studio to take form. If you are to have a recording studio, you'll need to go down one of these paths. When we get to the coming Rigs page, you'll read about many different rigs that fall into these 5 approaches.
Regardless of which approach you use, after you connect your sources and make noise, the sound will go through a microprocessor called the digital audio converter (DAC) which contains 2 parts. 1) Analog to digital conversion (a/d) and 2) Digital to analog (d/a) conversion. Some call the DAC an ad/da converter. The analog audio Signal goes to the a/d, where it is converted to digital data, then to the CPU, memory, and storage. The stored digital audio (often formatted as a .WAV file) goes back to the memory, CPU, then out the d/a where it is converted back to an analog signal. Simple enough. Yep!
The digital audio/MIDI sequencer allows you to record the analog output of your synths, guitars and microphones as digital audio .wav files. Regardless of what method you choose to get audio to the computer it goes through the DAC to computer memory and hard disk. This type of data is correctly called digital audio data. If you record at "CD quality" (which, by the by, is one of the lowest quality recordings you can make now) each second of sound is divided into 44,100 slices. What is this data? It's just numbers, man. But unlike MIDI data, which is just numbers that represent what notes you played, digital audio data is a numerical representation of the actual soundwave. It "is" the sound, captured in numbers. So you should be digging that audio data is thousands of times larger than midi data, right? It is.
This is a graphical representation of audio data. The computer sees it as a stream of numbers. Because it is data, we can apply operations that alter and enhance it. While it appears that these signals go through chains of effects what is really happening is a mathematical process.
You might be asking now, so how does MIDI become audio, is there some "conversion" utility? Heh, if I could count how many times I have had to answer this. No utility is needed. Its simpler than that. You just connect the analog outputs of your synth to the soundcard (or audio interface, or mixer with firewire, etc.,) and then press record. The analog waveforms stream in from the synth, goes through the DAC, turns into numbers, and viola! you have digital audio data. The cool thing about the sequencer is first you record the MIDI track, then perfect it in the editors, and then record it as audio so you have the "perfect" track. (Well maybe not perfect, nothing ever is). If you are using software synths, the process is called "bouncing" but it is the same. The computer generates the sound of the track from the MIDI data and records it as audio.
Now it's time to process these perfectly synced wave files with
effects. Or you can keep your synth tracks in the MIDI domain (where they
are always freely editable) and add your voice, or guitars, or whatever else you
want as audio tracks. Getting the
idea? In the sequencer, you can have MIDI and Audio tracks side by side.
After you get done recording all your tracks,
then you take off the composer's hat and put on the audio engineer's cap.
It's time for the mix, and in the modern sequencer you have a complete
virtual mixing console with full automation at your command. When it all sounds the way you
like it you MIXDOWN to your format of choice. You can do this internally
in the sequencer, or ITB, (if you recorded your MIDI tracks as Audio tracks). This
process is called "bouncing" or "audio mixdown" , where several sequencer audio tracks are
combined to a single stereo track. Or if you are using external keyboards
and synths that you are not recording as audio tracks, you can blend them with
the soundcard output in your mixer and route that to a tape deck, DAT, cd
recorder or even to the unused inputs of your audio interface or to the inputs of a second soundcard.
A good MIDI/Audio sequencer gives you the software you need to make a complete piece of music. You can sing or speak over massive orchestras, hip-hop beats, trance tapestries, audio loops, sampled snippets ripped from your music collection, whatever you can get in there. You should be getting an idea of how flexible a MIDI/Audio sequencer is, and how there is not a necessarily "best" way to go about making a final master. If it sounds good and you can record it--that's the bottom line.
What? You want me to draw you a picture? OK I will. Below you see a simple rig consisting of an entry level keyboard, a PCI soundcard, and a mixer with a recording bus with monitors. Add a decent Mic and you can get started. Yes it is that simple.
The picture above may have you asking
questions. That's good. To further clarify, lets go through the
basic process of making a song. Let's follow the recording path of
a 1) Microphone or guitar, 2)the MIDI keyboard with sounds, and 3) a typical soft synth or drum sample playback program.
All of these examples are based on the Soundcard/Mixer approach. To see
graphics of other approaches,
see this page.
The tracking phase is where material is recorded onto tracks, which play back together and are monitored while more tracks are are added, or "overdubbed". Generally speaking, in a studio you do all your tracking first, then you start your mix.
In a nutshell, that is the tracking process. Lets move to the Mixdown process.
From these simple 4 tracks you should be able
to see how MIDI and Audio tracks work together to make music in a computer
environment. Add as many tracks as you want. When the song is
finished you can mix to stereo. There are two basic ways to do this, the
digital mix (in the box, typically) and analog mix (out of
the box, typically).
Here you simply route the mixer's total output
to an external deck, like a CD recorder, or back to your audio interface inputs. I call it the
"analog" mix as the sounds are mixed in the analog domain on a mixer.
When you use a mixer you are mixing electrical voltages that are analogous
(i.e., the analog of) to sound. These voltages are made up of real
Tweak: Add a large audio interface with the Behringer SX4882 and you can do a 24 channel recording/mix on a real analog mixer. Heh, 15 years ago it would have cost about $30,000 to have a 24 track digital recorder and a 24 ch desk with Mix B. Today you can do the whole shot at a little over $3,000 using your computer as the recorder.
|This is part of Sonar's virtual mixer. Once the signal is digitized, all the mixing processes are numerical. There are no cables, hisses, hums or voltages in the digital domain and processes can be applied with incredible precision. Hence, digital processing is "clean". The cool thing about the virtual "software" mixer? You want more channels, you click your mouse and add as many as you want. You want 2 compresors on every vocal track and 3 cascaded delays on your guitar tracks? No problem. In the virtual console you can dream big!|
You record all the MIDI tracks as Audio then mix all the audio tracks to a stereo wave file. Its called a digital mix because the sounds are combined using mathematical processes inside the computer sequencer. The data is numerical and every process involves math. You don't "see" this math because it is all going on underneath a graphical mixer.
We will get into all these processes in great detail in the article Mixing in the Virtual Realm of the Sequencer
So above you see a typical simple midi/audio system and how the pieces connect and the process used when writing music. If you have quality components, add a few soft synths and samplers, and if you work carefully, even this simple system below can rival the sound of the advanced system. If you already have a good quality soundcard with a good mic preamp on it, all you need is a working midi keyboard (an old one will do), a sequencer like logic, cubase, digital performer or cakewalk, and a decent mic, and some form of MIDI interface. Even with just one module or soundcard, an immense wealth of music power is under your control. The more you learn about it, the better your music will be. All you need is a musical imagination and some basic gear and you are on your way.
OK, we are going to move on to the Rigs sections, where I will show you, in greater detail, how to configure your home recording studio to your needs. I'll give you everything you need to know to make an intelligent choice, and I'll warn you about the horrific mistakes some people make. But first, lets take on some noobie questions.
Q) Tweak! Cool stuff. Tell me about some of the other devices that can be used with a MIDI/ audio sequencer?
You can also add MIDI drum
machines, hardware samplers, and effects processors and control them all from the
sequencer. There's plenty of keyboards and sound modules of all types
around. Soft synths are so popular these days that keyboards are
sold that don't make sound of their own. These are called Keyboard
Controllers. You can add other controllers too, like a Control Surface,
which controls the functions of the virtual mixer in side the sequencer,
but does not (at least not always) pass actual analog audio. You can even
hook up V-drums or virtual drum kits you always see people banging on in
music stores. Its becoming a virtual world more and more each year. There
are also MIDI guitar controllers and MIDI wind controllers.
Oh yeah, you can record real instruments too, guitar, bass, sitar, tabla,
hurdy-gurdy (everyone needs one :)
Q) Tweak! Help Me out! Tell me what I need to get started! I don't have a lot of cash but I really want to get going with my music!
Hey there! Believe me, I have been on the lowest of the low end. Here's some Options:
The Really Really Cheap Studio (under $100 total)
You already have a soundcard and computer, right? Go down to the local pawn shop and dig for an old keyboard--just make sure it has a MIDI out. Probably find one for under $50 bucks. Get the MIDI cable for the soundcard. Find a cheap plastic mic with an 1/8 inch plug ($10 or so, maybe you already have one?). Get a basic entry level sequencer here for about $30. Yer Done. For a hundred smackers you have a recording studio. It'll work. It'll be fun, and you can get really serious if you want. If you have a Mac running OS X, you are in luck. Just get Garage Band if its not on your computer already.
The Inexpensive Studio, but Decent under 5 bills
At the same pawn shop look for a keyboard that has MIDI and sounds good and is multitimbral. Should be some there in the 200-300 range. Spring for a better entry level sequencer like Cakewalk Home Studio, Cubase SE, or GarageBand or Logic Express if you are on a Mac. Get a soundcard that has Mic and guitar inputs on it, or get a small mixer or preamp, and get a good XLR Mic.
A Fine quality Budget Studio, under a grand
All the stuff is on this page except the sound card. Look at the M-Audio Delta Cards. Get a fine digital audio sequencer like Sonar Home Studio, Cubase Studio, or Logic Express (if you are Mac-based). Sometimes the audio interface you choose will have basic versions of the top flight sequencers, like Cubase LE and Sonar LE. You have plenty of choices to go with the mixer/soundcard approach or with an audio interface "mixerless" approach.
Check out my Guide to Mixers page and Which Soundcard?" page which covers these options in more detail than we did here. Find a new keyboard you like. I also talk more about keyboards on m "Buy the Right Keyboard" Page. Later on you can add a software synth or sampler, esoteric plugins and more. The sky is open with a pro sequencer and a clean way to get audio in it. If you go this route, you'll enjoy excellent sound quality. This is enough stuff to make music at CD quality, your own original MP3s you can upload to places on the internet and more than enough to experiment with many different forms of music from classical to drum N bass to Hip Hop.
OK, my newbie friends, brace yourselves, I am going to call the pros back in. But never let these guys intimidate whether you are at the music store or on the newsgroups looking for answers. Instead, pay close attention to what they say. They can help you buy the right gear more than any store clerk can. People that make music with MIDI and computers are usually passionate about what they do. That's what all the squabbling is about. The choice of sequencer, computer platform, synth, plugin is all hotly debated because the end product is something as indefinable as quality. Electronic music is the most sublime of the arts! The secrets to making music is all about having fun with sound. The one warning is that when the music studio bug bites, it bites hard and you may find yourself in a lifelong pursuit of making dreams come true in music.
---Your First Test---
Think you understand MIDI and AUDIO? Here's a little test
OK, I promised you a test. No cheating. The TweakMeister will be watching. The answers are here.
1. True or False: MIDI data is digital audio data
2. True or False: You can only have one synth on each MIDI port
3. True or False: You need an external keyboard or module to hear the midi events
4. True or False: Once you record MIDI tracks, the tempo cannot be changed
5. True or False: You can use an audio plugin to add reverb to your midi track
6. True or False: All synths are GM compatible
7. True or False: You don't need to be a good keyboard player to write a great composition with MIDI.
8. True or False: You can freely transpose or alter the timing of any note in an audio track.
9. True or False: You can Connect and XLR Microphone to a Soundcard directly
10. True or False: If you have a Mic preamp, you don't need a Mixer
11. True or False: Digital audio refers to data created after an analog waveform goes through a DAC.
12. True or False: Several Wave files can be combined in the sequencer to make one single wave file
13. True or False: The MIDI Thru port has the same data as the MIDI OUT port
14. "Mixdown" is the art of combining several tracks to a stereo mix.
Best of Luck in your music making!
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