Sunday, March 13, 2016

Current Recording Studio Setup

It seems like a good week to talk about recording gear. Six years ago this last Monday I bought a used USB interface at Deseret Industries, which jumpstarted my ability to record music. Here’s a post to celebrate.

Over the past couple of months, I’ve had several friends ask me what I use to record. I’ve been tinkering with recording for years now, and while I’m certainly no expert, I enjoy it and have gradually put together a setup that works well for me, and which didn’t cost all that much. It’s worked for recording my own projects, as well as those of friends. So, for the benefit of those who have asked, here’s my current setup, with links. 

Full disclosure: The Amazon links below are Amazon Affiliate links. If you access Amazon through one of these links, ANYTHING you buy through Amazon during that session results in Amazon paying me a small advertising fee. It’s a cool program: It doesn’t cost you anything extra, and it helps support the Mind of Brian, (read: helps me buy more music gear…) for those so inclined. That said, I don’t post links for anything I haven’t bought, or at least used, and which I wouldn’t recommend.


                Custom Desktop:
I bought this used from a friend, who built it as a gaming rig. I call it the Jet - It’s powerful, but the fans are loud. This would be a problem if I were recording with my microphones in the same room, instead of in the walk in closet I use as a sound booth. If I were building a new computer with recording specifically in mind, I’d look long and hard at making it as quiet as possible. The best part of this machine, from a recording standpoint, is the solid state hard drive, where I installed the operating system, Microsoft Office, and other frequently used programs, especially those which take a while to load, like Reaper and EZ Drummer.
                Backup: Lenovo Thinkpad 410
It’s not nearly as fast as the desktop I bought to replace it, but it still works when I need to record in another location, and has all the same programs and plugins installed. Honestly, this 5 year old laptop still does about everything I need, recording-wise. If you have a decent laptop and are just starting out, use it.

                Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 :
I bought this in 2012 as a replacement for my aging Tascam US-122 (which I bought for $2 at Deseret Industries and wrote about here). The Scarlett has two instrument/microphone inputs and 48v phantom power for microphones that require it. It’s a good unit, reasonably priced, and the included EQ, Reverb, and Compression plugins sound good. I highly recommend it unless you need to record more than two sources simultaneously. For those applications, Focusrite also has versions with more inputs.


                Cockos Reaper:
This is a great multitrack recording program, which I’ve used for years. I don’t use all of the available features, but it works well for what I do, and it has a very active user community with plenty of tutorials available for when I get stuck. It’s also open source, and can be customized with user-designed patches, or used as is. One of the best parts though- it’s free to download and demo, and Cockos doesn’t cripple the functionality of the demo version, even after the 60 day demo period expires. If you decide you want to buy the software, the individual license is only $60, a full $40 less than the Lite version of Cubase. It also seems to run well on older systems like my venerable ThinkPad.

Software Plugins/VSTi: (to be used in DAW)

My setup has a LOT of plugins and virtual instruments, most of which I got for free, and most of which I don’t use all that often. (As much as I like tinkering with new sounds, most of my music remains pretty simple.) This one though, I use on almost everything I record. If the song calls for drums, and I’m not recording a live drummer, I’m using EZD2. With EZD2, I can create drum tracks using either the provided drum loops, which are in MIDI format, or create my own, either by entering them with the mouse or a MIDI device like a keyboard or electronic drumset. The sky is really the limit with this program. If you want to see this program put to the test, I recommend Cloudkicker’s album The Discovery, which showcases the power of the previous version of EZ Drummer in all its odd-time signature glory.

One of my favorite aspects of EZD2 is the expansion packs that are available. These add more drum sounds and MIDI drum loops that make the program even more versatile. They go on sale periodically, and I've gotten really good deals just for the minor inconvenience of staying on Toontrack's email list. 

I’m currently using the following EZX expansions:
                Synth Plugins:

I don’t use synths very often, as I’m not a keyboard player, but I have a few on hand to play around with. These include:

Tweakbench Bundle – For $5, this bundle of synth instruments is great for those wanting the sound of old Nintendo games. Good fun, and worth the price.
                                    Kairatune – Free to download, with a bunch of spacy sounding synths.
DSK also has a number of free plugins worth exploring. They’re not the most realistic sounds I’ve ever heard, but they’re free and easy to use. 

I use an M-audio Keystation 49e (a $10 DI find!) to control the synths, but any MIDI-capable keyboard or electronic piano will work. Just make sure any interface you use is MIDI capable, or use one of these cables instead.

Studio Projects B1 – I got this one when I thought my studio was totally incomplete without a large diaphragm condenser mic. It’s a good mic, but very sensitive. Scratch your leg or shift your weight on your chair, and this mic will pick it up. Whether this is good or bad is contingent on your style, and your ability and willingness to sound condition/soundproof your recording space. You’ll want to use the included shock mount to isolate it from handling noise. (For example, if you bump the mic stand while recording) The B1, like other large diaphragm condensers, is somewhat fragile, and requires 48v phantom power to function. I’ve used this mic on acoustic guitar, electric guitar amps, and vocals, and had good results.

AKG D790 – A good, solid dynamic mic. I’ve used this for several live gigs, studio vocals, guitar cabs, and a few other things. I wouldn’t hesitate to use it for podcasting, either. It's been discontinued, and I'm not sure what replaced it in AKG's product line.

Shure SM57 – I tend to use this for mic-ing my guitar cab, but I’ve also used it on acoustic guitar and vocals with good results. The SM57 has been around for decades and has a reputation for tank-like durability, so it's a good option if you expect it to get bumped around.

Nady RSM-4 – I bought this one used from Michael Dean of the Freedom Feens Podcast, back when they had a heavy music and audio gear focus. He used it for podcasting. I tend to use it in tandem with the SM57 for guitar cabs. I also used it for vocals on a demo for David from White Collar Caddy and got a good sound. If you buy one of these, be aware that they are somewhat fragile, and connecting them to phantom power can and likely will fry the elements inside. They can also be damaged by extremely loud sounds, but mine has handled the moderate volume of my 15 watt tube amp without a problem. You may also want an external preamp, as the output’s on the quiet side. Handled right, it’s a good sounding mic.

Audio Technica AT801 – I inherited these from my great-grandpa. They’re quality mics, but being as old as or older than I am, mine require an AA battery and don’t support phantom power. The version currently in production (AT8010) supports phantom power. I don’t use these much, as they are omnidirectional, but have used them a couple of times for gang vocals, and could see using them for a live recording at some point, or maybe ambient/environmental recordings.


I like Monster Cables, be they for mics, instruments, or speakers. They last a very long time (I’ve had one of their guitar cables for 10 years, and the mic cables 7 or 8), and have a lifetime warranty, which to me justifies a little extra expense upfront. Most of mine are the entry-level Monster 100 series, which work fine. 

Universal Microphone Clip – I keep these on most of my mic stands. I could use the clips that are made for my individual mics, but honestly, that’s a hassle. These hold all my mics securely despite variations in mic diameter, and they’re convenient, compared to having to screw on a new clip anytime I want to change mics.

Boom Microphone Stand – All my mic stands are pretty basic, and can be picked up cheap. They also seem to pop up on and other online classified sites pretty frequently. \

For special applications, I’ve collected an assortment of bases, clamps, booms, and goosenecks that screw together, allowing me to make my own mic stands. Here you’re limited only by your imagination and budget. One of my favorites is a low profile, heavy stand I made for mic-ing guitar amps. I used a short locking boom arm , attached to a base I made by using epoxy and screws to attach a threaded flange mount to a weight I picked up at Deseret Industries.

Creamy Radio Audio – This site has some good information for podcasters, with some info on recording music as well. What I love about this site is Michael’s DIY attitude and ability to find inexpensive solutions that sound good. I’ve dealt with him a couple of times and he’s always been very helpful.

Ben Prunty – Ben’s site contains a wealth of information for the aspiring composer/musician. He’s got a great story and a humble attitude, as well as a willingness to help teach others his craft. His articles inspire me, and his music is excellent as well.

The Recording Revolution – Like Ben’s site, Graham’s is packed full of good articles. These mainly cover the technical aspects of recording and mixing, but there’s some great content to get you fired up about writing music, too. Like Michael, Graham tries to teach you how to get good recordings without spending a lot of money, and believes that technical limitations can actually help you make better music. Good stuff.

OK, that’s my somewhat wordy post about music gear. Now get out there and make some more music! Questions? You know where to find me.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Tiny Moment of Awesome, Week 8: Covert Family History

"Last week's Tiny Moment of Awesome: When Grandma's on a roll telling stories about her childhood, how her parents met and married, WWII, etc., and you manage to covertly record 35 straight minutes of it with your iPhone. Family history FTW."

I've used the voice recorder app on my phone for a long time now- mainly to capture snippets of guitar riffs I plan to develop into songs. I've also talked, for years, about how I wish I had recordings of some of my older relatives who have long since passed on. For some reason, I never managed to put two and two together until this past weekend, when my grandma stopped by to visit.

At some point during the visit, she started telling stories about our ancestors. Some stories were vaguely familiar, and some I'd never heard. Someone commented offhand that we should probably be recording these stories, so I hit record on the app and just set the iPhone down while she talked. Obviously I had permission to record, but because the phone was sitting unobtrusively on the couch, I think Grandma forgot it was there, so she was able to talk naturally for the next half hour. I missed some stories at the beginning of the conversation, but I now have a more permanent record of a number of stories that, until now, may have only been preserved orally. The cherry on top is that I have these stories preserved in the voice of someone who was there to experience them firsthand.

Those of us with an interest in family history have a great opportunity to preserve some of that history, using the smartphones we likely carry around every day. This is especially true for those who do have older relatives still living. I remember, years ago, setting up a time to visit my great aunt to interview her, for largely the same reasons- preserving family history. That was made somewhat awkward for several reasons: We had to plan ahead to make sure we brought the video camera. Said camera was also hardly inconspicuous, which I think was distracting for her. With that bulky camera pointed at her, I'm sure the whole thing felt contrived, and more like an interrogation than a natural conversation.

I don't think we truly appreciate the power of the tools we now have. When you have a high quality voice recorder/still camera/video camera in your pocket, it's much easier to capture and preserve these memories, without making the "interviewee" nervous. Having the means to record at a moment's notice helps ensure you don't miss out on a great candid moment. This sort of candid preservation of family history is something I intend to continue pursuing whenever opportunities arise. I'd encourage anyone reading this to do likewise. (Before doing this, do make sure your relative knows you plan to record.)

Equipment-wise, all any of us need are our smartphones, using either the stock voice recorder app, or third-party app. My phone's microphone seems to record music or voice just fine, but because I'm addicted to Amazon and can't resist playing around with new gear, (especially when it's inexpensive and has good reviews...) I picked up an external microphone:

Tascam iM2

Hopefully this will give me a little better quality sound and minimize clipping when I'm recording a loud source. (normally not a problem when recording spoken audio, but it's been an issue when recording guitars...) I'll end up reviewing it at some point whether or not it works out. Either way, I look forward to preserving more family history. The goal here is more about capturing memories than producing audiophile-grade recordings. Some of the few recordings I have of my grandpa Gil were recorded on old VHS tapes. The picture and sound quality aren't amazing, and the videos weren't taken on any special occasion. Regardless, they have value for me because well over a decade after Gil's passing, I still get to hear his voice, remember his dry sense of humor, and smile. Someday my own kids will see these and other videos and will hopefully get a feel for who he was and what he was like. Hopefully they'll connect with him, along with Steve, Judd, Rose, Kay, Trudy, and all the others who they won't meet in this life, but who influenced them all the same. In the end, that's what this is about.

Happy recording, kids!

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Tiny Moment of Awesome, Week 7: Moab on Short Notice

"Tiny Moment of Awesome: (2/13/2016) Remembering that on this morning, a year ago, you were waking up to this:

Bonus: The fact that two days before, you weren't planning any kind of adventures, but dropped everything to go when the opportunity arose."

Funny how a week flies by and I don't even manage to copy and paste something from Facebook, isn't it? So here it is, a little late, with another couple posts to come in the next couple of days.

This particular Tiny Moment of Awesome came about last year on a Thursday, when my friend Scott called me at work to invite me to go camping in Moab with a group of friends the following day. I'm not naturally impulsive, so I had to think about it for a couple of hours before calling him back to confirm that I was coming.

We drove down together Friday after work, eating junk food, blasting punk and hardcore, and talking about our own planned musical projects. Once in Moab, we met up with Scott's friends at the grocery store and drove into the darkness outside of town. My car being unsuitable for the road to the campsite, we parked it and rode for several miles in the back of one of our crew's two trucks to reach camp.

Even (or perhaps especially) in the Utah desert, February is cold, and setting up the tent in loose sand, by the light of a headlamp, in near-freezing temperatures, was a perfect opportunity to develop patience. All that was made worth it by the view we woke up to the following morning:


We spent the rest of the day hiking to Corona Arch, four-wheeling to Dead Horse Point, and just generally trying to make the most of our limited time there. I'd say we were successful.



Saturday, February 6, 2016

Tiny Moment of Awesome Week 6: The Ancient Machine

Tiny Moment of Awesome, Week 6: The Ancient Machine

This week's Tiny Moment of Awesome: “When that weird project that you put off working on forever, and which was hard to explain to people, is finally finished.”