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Getting Started – Audio (Brief Overview)

cross platform

 

 

 

 

This is intended as a bare bones getting started overview for someone very new to the idea of working on a basic audio studio setup powered mostly by quality free (or for next to nothing) software.

For more links and resources beyond this short breakdown here I recommend you check out this page.

NOTE :  The main idea is to try to gather deep knowledge on a few fully featured tools and also a general workable knowledge of the other peripheral supporting packages.

Quick Links

Hardware

Software

 

 

Where to start?

It’s easy to be confronted with too many ideas, not know where to start or what you need and then abandon the whole enterprise. The easiest place to start is with the hardware, a budget and intent. First of all I should imagine you wont be getting far without a computer…

KEY HARDWARE

Computer & Mouse

If you get a laptop, then you’ll likely benefit if you get a 3 button mouse for it too. It’s not absolutely essential but a lot of applications are by default setup to rely on a 3 button mouse setup and they are easy and cheap to come by.  Make sure there are enough USB inputs for other potential items too, such as an external hard drive, audio interface and a MIDI keyboard, that’s potentially 4 inputs right there. We’ll come to those though in a moment.

Tech Specs
Very simply put 2GB RAM and a dual core processor should be okay if you don’t plan on stretching the software with tons of tracks and effects. However, it is preferable if you can operate with at least 4GB and a QuadCore processor. You should be able to get something off the shelf (online google search under shopping) for around 300 to 400 dollars/pounds that should easily suffice.

TomsHardware is the goto place for computer hardware reviews and customisation if you really want to get into it. Plus there is this reasonably recent link regarding building a high end audio machine that still has some good information regardless about how the components are affecting operation.

For more clarity on specifications here is a link to the recommended technical specifications for one of the potentially processor heavy applications you might be using

Technical specs for Kontakt

 

Digital Audio Interface

FocusriteSaffire6

Focusrite Saffire 6 USB Audio Interface

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

For the visual side of things we would consider the graphics card as a factor in the computer & mouse category. For the audio side of things we would consider the sound card. However it is very unlikely that the internal soundcard will be versatile enough for audio. This is where an external USB digital audio interface comes in to essentially take it’s place.

With a dedicated audio interface we’ve more chance to be able to use the standard sized 1/4″ jack leads to connect to our speaker monitors, use XLR and 1/4″ jack inputs for the instruments, use phantom power for condenser microphones and have a clean noise free signal when you need to boost the signal coming in.

So which interface really depends. How many inputs would you like? How many jack leads will need to be simultaneously connected? Do you need XLR inputs for your equipment? Phantom power? Can your ears recognise the difference between manufacturers preamps? Do you need MIDI inputs? Then of course there’s the price to consider.

Audio Interface option
A good cheap end example is the Focusrite Saffire 6 Audio Interface, a highly recommended interface with all the trimmings.

In short you should be able to pick something decent up that would allow a reasonable flexibility of setup for around 100 quid. The Focusrite seems to be going for about 150 to 200 dollars in the US and about 150 quid in the UK. If you don’t need many of the elements of an audio interface that are mentioned here then you can probably go much cheaper. In any case with this item at the very core of your setup and it being subjective it’s always good to get a second opinion.

 

Headphones & Monitor Speakers

These will both plug into the audio interface and allow us to get a clear and flat response designed to not flatter or accentuate your mix. That way it’ll be possible to create a mix that has the best chance of sounding good on all kinds of speakers, be it car speakers, club speakers or even laptop speakers.

So whatever you use it’s really about being familiar with the sound they generate and also be clear enough with a large enough frequency range to highlight any potential problems that can be hidden by other speakers. So play lots of music you are very familiar with on them. It’s widely agreed that it’s not necessary to have massive and expensive monitors to generate a great mix, just that you know your own well.

Closed back headphones are the preferred kind of headphones for recording. This is because if you are using them to listen to the mix to play or sing against then this gives you the best chance of eliminating bleed. Obviously you only want to record your instrument not the tinny sound of  a distant unfinished mix bleeding from the headphones into the mic.

One thing to note is it isn’t generally advised to mix entirely on these though unless all you ever do is listen to music through headphones. Even then it’s always advantageous to check your mixes on multiple sets of speakers to give your ears a fresh perspective.

Headphones and Monitors Rough Pricing
You can get something very workable for under 100 quid/150 dollars be it monitors or headphones.

 

MIDI Keyboard

Akai MPK Mini - Mini Keyboard & Drum Pads with Assignable Controls

Akai MPK Mini – Mini Keyboard & Drum Pads with Assignable Controls

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It’s very likely (especially if you are mostly intending to be an electronic artist) you’ll need a USB interface MIDI keyboard. These can be really simple and around 50 quid/75 dollars. Some of the factors to consider are whether you feel you’d like 2 octaves or 4, pressure sensitivity (highly recommended), weighted keys (if you’re used to a piano response) and aftertouch for generating for example a delayed or intermittent vibrato to the played notes (if your sound is setup to respond to that).

I would recommend getting something with some dials and/or sliders on too. They’ll come in handy for assigning custom properties such as the amount of EQ boost you would like to apply. In that case you would then be able to record frequency sweeps with a more human feel as you turn the dial.

 

Microphone/s

Behringer B2 Pro

Behringer B-2 Pro

If you’re wanting to record audio generated in the real world then you’ll need a microphone, if not then you don’t. It is handy to have one or two on board though, eventually you’ll probably find a sound you’ll want to record, perhaps as a sample.

Microphones can be very loosely and oversimplified into 2 catagories depending on whether you’re wanting to record very loud sounds or sounds quieter than that.

A condenser microphone is more sensitive and picks up more of the desired tones of vocal and acoustic instruments, it’s also a lot more sensitive and will likely need to be powered (by the phantom power on the audio interface). As it’s more sensitive it’s also more fragile and therefore not particularly suited to where the volume is moving the air a lot at lower frequencies. For those sounds we’ll need a dynamic microphone.

A dynamic microphone is less sensitive and doesn’t usually require phantom power. An example would be the ubiquitous live SM58 microphone (good for live as the lack of sensitivity reduces the

sm58

SM58

amount of potential feedback from onstage monitoring and audio spill from the other instruments). So these are good for very loud sounds like a bass drum and very close speaker placement.

For under 100 quid (150 dollars) and in some cases a lot less there are a few to choose from that get a lot of positive reviews in the Behringer condenser range. Also note that you might need to get yourself a stand for the microphone to attach to. There isn’t really much to say about those, they’re quite straightforward, easy to find and not very pricey.

A final note about microphones is that you’ll probably need a stand for it to attach to. Something to note is that a budget no-name mic stand and a heavy microphone usually means a not-so-comedy drooping of the mic towards the floor. A mic stand option that doesn’t suffer from this drooping is a universal Studiospares mic stand, recommended as having the best combination of quality and price.

 

And really that’s about it on the hardware side, well you could keep on going, getting multiple microphones, stands, leads, guitars and other bits and pieces but as for a reasonable bare bones amount of kit that should wrap things up. Now onto the digital tools…

 

KEY SOFTWARE

Key Software at a glance

RecommendedAlso Recommended
Digital Audio WorkstationReaperAudacity
SynthSynth1TAL - Noisemaker
VSTi's/AU's -
Organ
ElectricPiano
Piano
Drums
Strings
Brass
Guitar
.
Martinic:Combo Model F
Mr Tramp 2
4Front
ADM PC Drum Machine
DSK Strings
DSK Brass
DSK Guitars
.
Martinic:Combo Model V
MDA EPiano
MDA Piano
SR202
SamplerLinuxSampler (although it doesn't sound like it, this IS multiplatform!)Kontakt
UVI Workstation
SAMPLES -
Orchestral/Strings
Drums
Piano

.
Sonatina
Salamander Drumkit
Maestro Concert Grand V2
.
Music Radar
Music Radar
Mildon Lite Piano Free
FX
Reverb
Delay
EQ
Compressors/Limiters
Distortion/Saturation
Modulation
.
SmartElectronix:Ambience
TAL - DUB2
BlueCat Triple EQ
RoughRider
TAL - Tube
TAL - Chorus 60
.
Reaper's inhouse reverb
Reaper's inhouse delay
Reaper's inhouse EQ
W1
CamelCrusher
TAL - Flanger

 

DAW (Digital Audio Workstation)

This is the main application which will be your general recording, editing and mixing environment.

This application is absolutely central as your main working environment, interestingly though, your choice of DAW won’t actually effect your sound quality (not counting any FX or sounds). If you’re intending to only ever record live audio using microphones and no MIDI then you can pretty much stop here. Perhaps Audacity will be the answer for you, if you want to take advantage of the virtual instruments, samplers and fx or have a much more electronic music set of sensibilities then for 60 dollars I (along with many others) would recommend Reaper (whether you’re on a budget or not).

Many other professional grade DAW’s come in at around 300 to 400 pounds (400 to 500 dollars). Admittedly these usually do come with more peripherals than Reaper does, for example a fully featured Sampler (the sampler in Reaper is quite basic) and a whole cast of sounds, instruments and samples to go with it. To go out and buy an equivalent sampler with sample packs to match can often times be just as expensive.

There are other free samplers to try and there are plenty of other free sounds, instruments and samples to go with them, but it may be worth baring in mind that between the DAW and the sampler this may be where your largest financial investment lies.

To reiterate, I would recommend Reaper, and try the sampler options further below, in fact almost all the commercial samplers have free versions so you can really get to grips and test out what you prefer. If the free sampler options don’t fit your circumstances (perhaps you’ve switched to a newer or unsupported operating system or you simply can’t get them to work) then you haven’t lost out and can simply get a more intensive and professionally supported sampler if you feel you need it. On the other hand if like many other people you have no problem with the free alternatives then you certainly haven’t lost out!

Reaper –  A complete multitrack audio and MIDI recording, editing, processing, mixing, and mastering environment.

reaper

Reaper

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Audacity –  A free audio editor and recorder.

audacity

Audacity

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

SYNTHS

A lot of electronic music is centred around one particular beast, the synth. A synth can generate (synthesise) practically any sound, from drum snares to organs. However they’re best suited to provide uniquely electronic sounds that can’t be reproduced with traditional instruments. KVR’s One-Synth Challege shows off tracks made with a single synth for all sounds. Here are a few free recommendations

Synth1

Also recommended…  TAL – Noisemaker

synth1

Synth1

 

tal noisemaker

Tal Noisemaker


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Notable currently windows only suggestionOatmeal, RMXL, Kairatune

Notable currently mac only suggestionAutomat

VSTi’s (Virtual Studio Instruments)

Despite a synth’s versatility there are virtual instruments particularly tailored to generate certain real world instruments, and do a great job of emulating the timbre you’re looking for without having to turn to the usually more processing intensive sampler alternatives. In some cases VSTi’s can be just very simple user interfaces triggering sampled notes of the instrument in question, often referred to as a Rompler.

Here are some free examples…

Organ

Martinic:Combo Model F modelled after a well-known combo organ from the 1960s.

Organ Combo Model F

Organ – Combo Model F


 

 

 

 

Electric Piano

Mr Tramp2  a physical modeling simulation of the soulful Wurlitzer(TM) 200A Electric Piano

Mr Tramp 2

Mr Tramp 2


 

 

 

MDA – EPiano modelled around 31 carefully sampled and mastered Rhodes Piano samples.

MDA E Piano

MDA E Piano


 

 

 

 

Piano

MDA Piano 32 note polyphonic, decay, release and stereo width controls, stretch and random tuning

MDA Piano

 

 

 

 

 

4Front – Piano A small single sound instrument without any settings that reproduces a timbre of an upgright home piano.

4Front Piano

4Front Piano


 

 

 

 

Drums

ADM CM Virtual drum machine emulation of the classic Roland TR-606 beatbox, an exclusive in-built bank of CM samples, step-sequencing, filter/mangle effects, shuffle, MIDI control, and a lot more.

ADM PC Drum machine

ADM PC Drum machine


 

 

 

 

 

SR202 Loads up to 16 WAV or AIFF format samples (one for each pad), directly from the front panel.

SR202

SR202 Drum Machine


 

 

 

 

 

Notable currently windows only suggestions… Grizzly,   Drumatic

Strings

Notable windows only… DSK Strings

DSK Strings

DSK Strings(Windows Only)

 


 

 

 

 

Brass

Notable windows only…DSK Brass

DSK Brass

DSK Brass (Windows Only)

 


 

 

 

 

 

Guitars

Notable windows only… DSK Guitars 

DSK Guitar

DSK Guitar

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

SAMPLER

When you really need realistic emulation and you don’t have access to record the real thing you’ll most likely need to turn to a sampler. Having said that it is true that all kinds of interesting and unreal sounds can be generated from a sampler beyond ‘realistic’ sounds.

As mentioned earlier in the DAW section, the DAW and the sampler are most likely the 2 key audio applications. The sampler uses recordings (or “samples“) of sounds that are loaded or recorded into it by the user and then played back by means of the sampler program itself, a keyboard, sequencer or other triggering device to perform or compose music.

The information of what sample (WAV or AIFF file) gets played by which notes and at what velocity and how it loops is held within the sample format. Common open sample formats are SFZ, SF2 and GIG. Though these days most professional samplers use a closed, tailored and exclusive format.

You can pick up many of the ready constructed open formats at the locations described below.

I would encourage you to try all the sampler options as even many of the commercial samplers have very usable free versions.

Here are some fully featured free suggestions

LinuxSampler (perhaps confusingly titled as it is multiplatform). This can play several sample formats – SFZ, SF2, and can create GIG files.

LinuxSampler

LinuxSampler


 

 

 

 

 

Other notable free options for PC includeShort circuit v1.1.2 (widely used though no longer updated), TX16WX (updated more frequently).

 

Also recommendedKontakt & UVI Workstation

These have extensive paid versions so understandably the free versions are limited in some ways and come with a great but reduced library of sounds.

NI Kontakt

NI Kontakt

 

 

 

 

 

 

UVI Workstation

UVI Workstation

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Also notable very cheap options…

ManyOne ($24.95) a fully-featured, high quality, sample player which comes with a wide range of sounds

 Notable mac onlyVSamp  ($19.50) A VST and AudioUnits plugin for playing VSamp instruments and banks

 

SAMPLES

As mentioned earlier the sampler is really only the shell for which to play and manipulate the samples. The samples can either be the WAV’s (or AIFF’s) of individual recordings of the instrument or thing you’re sampling. Or they can be a sample format that holds these individual WAV samples as well as the note mappings and other information for the sampler.

The sample format such as a soundfont for example can tell the sampler which sample to play, depending on the note played and how hard you hit it. Also if applicable the soundfont can instruct the sampler how to loop the note played if it is held down for long enough.

Common open sample formats are the soundfont, SF2, SFZ and Giga formats.

Many of the commercial samplers these days operate with their own tailored and exclusive format.

Samples

You can build your own, from any clip or sound, the best place to get those raw wav’s from ismusicradar

Some assorted ready assembled open sample formats can be found here – General

Orchestral/Strings – Sonatina

Drums – Salamander Drumkit

Piano – Maestro Concert Grand V2 by Mats Helgesson  & Mildon Lite Piano Free

 

 

FX

All this music will most likely need sprucing up a little bit. Here are some standard effects to get sprucing with. Most of these speak for themselves, if you’re unfamiliar with the others then I recommend you load them in and have a play…

Reverb – SmartElectronix:Ambience  a reverb that rivals the quality of the best commercial reverbs. You are free to decide yourself how much you want to pay for it, and when.

Ambience

Ambience


 

 

 

 

Delay – TAL – Dub 2   allows to add vintage distortion to the delayed signal, but its also possible to make clean delays

TAL-DUB 2

TAL-DUB 2

 

 

 

 

 

Equalizers – Bluecat Triple EQ  3 bands semi-parametric equalizer that can be controlled as a single filter with customizable shape. It includes a low shelf filter, a high shelf filter and a boost/cut peak filter.

Bluecat Triple EQ

Bluecat Triple EQ

 

 

 

 

 

Compressors/limiters/expanders – W1 Limiter  a clone of Waves L1, with identical output.

W1 Limiter

W1 Limiter

 

 

 

 

 

 

Also recommended…  RoughRider  Rough Rider is a modern compressor with a bit of “vintage” style bite and a uniquely warm sound.

RoughRider

RoughRider


 

 

 

Distortion/Saturation –  TAL Tube The characteristic of tubes and an additional amplifier mode. It’s very suitable for adding higher harmonics and can give more excitement and analog character to digital sounds or drums. At extreme values it can also be used as a grungy distortion effect.

tal tube

TAL-Tube


 

 

 

Also recommendedCamelCrusher a ‘colouring’ multi-effect plugin. It offers two characteristically different distortion sounds which can be blended together to create a wide variety of tones and textures.

Camel Crusher

Camel Crusher

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Modulation – TAL Chorus 60   Standard chorus

TAL Chorus 60

TAL Chorus 60

 

 

 

 

 

Also RecommendedTAL Flanger  easy to tweak stereo flanger effect with its own special sound and some asymmetric analog like components in the feedback corner. Useful for a wide range of flanger effects from subtle to extreme.

TAL Flanger

TAL Flanger


 

 

 

Legal bit..

If you’re planning on operating on any kind of world stage, and the internet is included in that then you should familiarise yourself with where you’re at legally. These days that has been made quite straightforward with the creative commons.

 

And we’re done! Well again we could keep on going but that should be more than enough to get writing, recording, editing, mixing and mastering any number of musical styles!

If you’re still looking for more stuff and info then check out this LINK here.

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  • Steve

    I would also like to add Linux multimedia studio to the software list although it says linux in the title you can get it for windows as well.
    http://lmms.sourceforge.net/

    • Hi Steve, you’re quite right – I use Windows myself and more
      specifically was using linuxsampler for some of the audio in the recent
      Rock, Paper, Scissors short.

      I’ve mentioned it on the page a bit further down that it’s multiplatform, based on your comment obviously it’s a bit hidden away, i’ll take your suggestion and make it more noticeable! Thanks, let me know if there’s anything else. 🙂

  • Hi Steve, you’re quite right, I use Windows myself and more specifically was using linuxsampler for some of the audio in the recent Rock, Paper, Scissors short.

    I’ve mentioned it on the page a bit further down that it’s multiplatform, based on your comment obviously it’s a bit hidden away, i’ll take your suggestion and make it more noticeable! Thanks, let me know if there’s anything else. 🙂

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