Badtux the Snarky Penguin

In a time of chimpanzees, I was a penguin.

Religious fundamentalists are motivated by the sneaking suspicion that someone, somewhere, is having fun -- and that this must be stopped.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Making music the Macbook way

Now that I have the cute little Macbook, I'm sorta dissatisfied with my recording setup. My old USB sound system works, but is slow and has more lag than modern ones. My mixer sorta works, but I gotta keep remembering to work around some issues it has because at a gig a bass player plugged his amp into the wrong place and let the magic smoke out (and I ain't kidding about the magic smoke bit, it went "Pop!" and smoke started coming out of it, to say that I was sick to my stomach about my mixer's semi-demise is sorta an understatement!). Besides, it's clunky and this is a small apartment. Modern USB sound systems will accept XLR inputs directly from the mikes as well as accepting input from mixers via the traditional plugs, eliminating the need for a separate mixer entirely if you're not going to be recording a whole band at one time. Also, my USB MIDI interface is a separate thingy and my Macbook has only two USB plugs. So if I want to do MIDI instruments via my keyboard at the same time that I'm recording vocals, my Macbook looks like a freakin' wire farm and I have no USB plugs left.

Okay, so I went and did my research and found that a lot of folks like the Lexicon Lambda for $150 for recording with their Macbooks. You can use Garageband or the software which comes with it, Garageband is a lot easier to use though I'll tell you that much and has plenty of its own effects which work just fine. This also has MIDI IN/OUT plugs. So there goes the mixer, the MIDI controller, and one wall wart...

While I was there I went to look for good vocals and instrument mikes for studio use. Last time I was in the mike market, the only low-cost condenser microphone was a Russian small-diaphragm one for around $200 (Oktava mk-012), which had the typical Russian "quality" (you never knew what you were getting when you bought one). However, as with everything else, the Chinese have come into this market with a bang. Lots of people seem to like the Audio Technica AT2020 Studio Microphone for $100 for both vocals and miking a guitar. Other than a little harshness at the top end easily controlled with a teensy bit of EQ, folks rave that it does as good a job as their $500+ studio mikes yet is cheap and durable enough that they can take it out on gigs if desired without shitting a brick at the thought of their expensive studio mike getting smashed. For a low-end instrument mike, folks have been getting the Behringer C2 Chinese mikes, which come as a pair for $60.

So anyhow, I think I'm going to go ahead and order all this, the mikes are better than what I have (which are live performance mikes that emphasize durability over fidelity -- a good thing, since they definitely show some wear and tear on them) and the USB sound system is *way* better than my antique. Hmm. Basically a complete recording studio for $350 (minus the cost of the laptop)? Whoa! While I must admit some qualms about using the product of Chinese slave labor in my home studio, if it's a choice between no home studio and using the product of Chinese slave labor, I guess there just isn't much choice. Besides, my Macbook was made in China too, as was my previous HP laptop, my keyboard, my mixer, ... Sigh :-(.

-- Badtux the Music Penguin

Labels: ,

Posted by: BadTux / 7/22/2007 10:38:00 AM  


Slightly OT: Do you have any experience using MusixGNU ? I'm not at all musical myself, but I have some musician who have acquantences with very little money. I'm wondering if it would be worth their time to try this OS.
# posted by Rachel : 22/7/07 5:55 PM  

It looks like another Debian offshoot similar to Ubuntu Studio. I've recounted my frustration with the current state of Linux sound systems in other postings. For the most part it makes more sense to stick with Windows or MacOS for sound work. For example, I successfully used Audacity (a free program) on Windows to do some hard disk recording. Getting it to work on Linux sometimes works, other times the gnome esd sound daemon grabs the sound card or the kde arts sound daemon grabs the sound card and you end up having to track down processes and kill them in order for Audacity to get access to the sound card. On Windows it just works. I haven't tried it on MacOS yet, since my Macbook came with GarageBand, which has a lot of nifty plugins and such and handles MIDI tracks too.

- Badtux the Music Penguin
# posted by BadTux : 22/7/07 6:24 PM  

When do we get to hear some music?
# posted by georg : 22/7/07 8:47 PM  

Put another nickel in, in the nicolodeiam (sp), and let there be music, music, music.
# posted by BBC : 22/7/07 8:50 PM  

Oh may be the solution to one of my many outstanding problems.

I need some help with our non-functioning MIDI workstation and I bet you have the technical knowledge to tell me what I'm doing wrong.

How should I go about this?
# posted by TheCultureGhost : 23/7/07 12:44 AM  

Beats me. All I've ever done is plug in the disk that came with my MIDI interface, install the software, then plug in the MIDI interface into my USB port, then it just worked. I prefer not to get too far under the computer's hood when it comes to music gear. I write computer operating systems for a living, I get plenty of poking around under the hood at work.

- Badtux the Technical Penguin
# posted by BadTux : 23/7/07 8:00 AM  

Actually, I believe is a communication problem between the driver, the keyboard and which port the software is searching for....
# posted by TheCultureGhost : 23/7/07 9:26 AM  

One thing to bear in mind is that there are two different USB systems under Windows, and with Windows XP if you install the one that comes with many USB-based hard-drive recording hardware modules, it tends to be rather single-minded about other sound hardware plugged into the system. I prefer not to know much about why and how that is so, I simply never install anything off the disk but, rather, use the native Windows XP drivers and the Audacity hard drive recording program. Whatever MIDI tracker came with my MIDI card knows how to import WAV files so then I can lay down MIDI tracks on top of my sound tracks. Clumsy, but workable. If you have a MIDI port on your sound card, on the other hand, I haven't a clue. My Windows laptop doesn't have a MIDI port, and that's the only Windows machine I own (unless you count the Parallels running on my Macbook!).

That said, on my Macbook it all Just Works(tm). Plug in USB sound system, plug in MIDI controller, go into Sound Preferences and choose the USB sound system as the source (I prefer using the native sound for the destination, just plug the headphones into the jack on the side of the Macbook, because my current USB sound system has way too much latency to do a round trip), choose the USB MIDI controller as the MIDI source (rather than the built-in Timidity), fire up GarageBand (which comes with the Macbook), and it all Just Works(tm).

- Badtux the"I love it when it Just Works!" Penguin
# posted by BadTux : 23/7/07 10:26 AM  

Just hit the "Checkout" button on my Zzounds shopping cart. Supposedly it'll ship today, which means I ought to get it on Monday of next week (takes a week for UPS to haul crap across the country by truck, and I selected the "Free Shipping" option i.e. UPS ground because, well, let's face it, I don't *need* this crap). Total damage: $308.90. For a USB sound system w/preamps and three studio mikes. Wow!

- Badtux the now-poorer (money-wise anyhow) Penguin
# posted by BadTux : 23/7/07 10:38 AM  

it appears that using technology with Chinese origins is not necessarily the short run...the danger lies in the potential of having to eat that technology...not a pretty sight, I'd guess
# posted by moderate : 23/7/07 2:02 PM  

Badtux: I a musician with a macbook and have been recording acoustic guitar and vocals just using the built in mic w/ some success (It's actually an okay mic)... but seriously thinking about purchasing the Audio Technica At2020 and the Lexicon Lambda. Are you having success with these two pieces of gear? I've got a Shure SM57 that doesn't seem to be very good w/ vocals. Anyway, I'm a newbie but keenly interested in your feedback when you get a moment. Thanks!
# posted by Jason : 2/8/07 12:31 PM  

The AT2020 and Lexicon Lambda work well together, I have no trouble getting sufficient volume for Garage Band and with sufficient tweaking can get the vocals sounding pretty good. The SM57 isn't that bad for vocals if you run it through some filtering during post-processing, but the Lambda really doesn't work well with dynamic mikes. It doesn't have enough input gain because it's USB-powered rather than having its own power block. If I want to hook a dynamic mike to the Lambda I have to run it to my old Boerhinger mixer first, twist up the gain, and run the output of the mixer to the Lambda. The result has a bit of hum in it but I know that's an artifact of the preamps on my mixer, not a problem with the Lambda -- the Lambda doesn't have enough amplification in its preamps to add a hum.

# posted by BadTux : 2/8/07 1:17 PM  

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