Last week we covered the eight essentials I chose to create the ultimate portable studio. This week we’ll discuss seven extras that will help make your portable studio “ultimate”: external microphone preamps, RAM, the Apple iPod and iSight, plug-ins I’ve found to be especially useful for musicians, and more. I’ll also share tips on learning to use your new gear. Read on, or click a heading below to jump to a specific section.
Yes, your audio interface does have a mic preamp. But the consensus among professional musicians and engineers is that a dedicated, class A mic preamp makes a big difference in your sound. Whether most people can tell the difference between something recorded with a built-in mic preamp and a high-quality external one is another subject, but I can tell you that most professionals choose the external route.
There are many pristine mic preamps from many boutique companies. My personal top three choices, trying to balance quality, budget, and ease of use, are the Grace Design 101, Universal Audio M-610, and Manley Labs Langevin Dual Mono with EQ.
The more RAM you have when using Pro Tools, the better the performance—and the fewer the problems. I suggest that new users have around 2GB of memory, the maximum the current Apple PowerBook supports.
The PowerBook has two memory slots, each of which can hold a single DIMM memory card with capacity up to 1GB. The stock PowerBook configuration is 512MB of RAM on one DIMM. If you buy an additional 512MB DIMM (giving you 1GB total memory), you’ll take up both slots. That means that if you ever upgrade your memory further, you’ll have to take out one DIMM to make room for the upgrade and either put it away or sell it on eBay.
Something else to be aware of: That additional 512MB DIMM costs $150 if you buy it from Apple. You can buy third-party RAM substantially cheaper—512MB DIMMs cost an average of $50 as of this writing. I don’t understand why Apple’s memory has a 300 percent markup; I pretty much always buy my memory from third-party sources. The best way to go is to buy a single 1GB chip, which averages $135 at most vendors.
If you’re comfortable installing or removing memory chips (which is quite simple after you’ve done it once), then I recommend a great website called Ramseeker.com. It tells you the latest prices from a number of third-party RAM vendors, as well as price trends. I buy from 18004Memory.com and have had nothing but great experiences with them for years.
The only two advantages of buying your RAM at Apple are that they install it for you and that it makes warranty service easier. If you have a problem with your computer and you call Apple for help, one of the first questions they’ll ask will be, “Do you have third-party memory?” If you answer yes, Apple requires you to open the computer and remove the offending chips before they attempt a fix. This is one of those times when I think it’s okay to lie, and I confess that I do it when and if I need Apple support.
Long story short, you should have a minimum of 1GB of memory, but try to get 2GB. It will be worth it in the long run.
This subject is something I am very passionate about; it could easily take pages upon pages to cover. For now, I’ll simply list what I believe to be the essential plug-ins for musicians and songwriters.
Native Instruments Guitar Rig. If you play guitar, this plug-in is invaluable. Besides the software, you also get a hardware pedal board. But the software alone is unbelievable. Picture every possible guitar effect or pedal—delays, distortions, panners, a tuner, metronome, etc.—all in one plug-in. This software can transform one strum of a chord into a repeating, arpeggiated, distorted wall of creativity or can give you the cleanest, crispest Strat tones.
Antares Auto-Tune. Regardless whether or not you believe that using this plug-in is cheating (while you use your spell-checkers and peruse your Photoshop-polished magazines), this pitch-correction plug-in is a necessity in any Pro Tools rig.
Synthogy Ivory. If you play piano, this virtual instrument is brilliant—the best piano plug-in I’ve used. It’s simple and straightforward and has a very versatile library of pianos. It also allows you to layer your piano sounds with pads or strings, quickly and easily.
SoundToys (everything). These may not be necessary for the average songwriter, but I couldn’t live without them. SoundToys makes absolutely the most creative plug-ins. Their Ultra FX bundle is the best deal for the money; it consists of four amazing plug-ins: FilterFreak, PhaseMistress, Crystallizer, and Tremolator. Their latest plug-in, Echo Boy, is by far the best delay plug-in I’ve ever used. If you like easy-to-use, creative, original delays and effects, these plug-ins are mandatory.
Spectrasonics (everything). Again, not a necessity, but three of my favorite instrument plug-ins are Spectrasonics’ Stylus RMX, Trilogy, and Atmosphere. Stylus RMX is a loop and drum sound module with a collection of incredible loops. The loops tend to be more for contemporary pop with a processed, vibe-y sound.
Trilogy is all basses. These are gorgeous, warm upright, fretless, and fretted sounds that will blow you away. There’s nothing like an authentic Tony Levin bass part, but if you’re writing and want a great bass sound to work with, this is your plug-in.
Atmosphere is my all-time favorite. It’s a plug-in designed by sonic genius Eric Persing and contains almost four gigabytes of pads, strings, and textures that are pristine, luscious, deep, and extremely inspirational.
At an average of $350 each, the Spectrasonics virtual instruments aren’t cheap, so you may want to start with one and slowly add to your collection.
Besides enabling me to walk around with my favorite artists and bands, the iPod lets me keep my entire catalog of my own music with me at all times. I think of it as a pocket-size portfolio.
The iPod is not just an MP3 player; when you plug this little gadget into your computer’s FireWire port, it shows up on your desktop as a hard drive. I use it to transport sessions between studios, to store a library of loops for writing, and to back up sessions when I’m done working. I also keep a folder of many of my songs in full CD resolution in case I need to burn someone a CD of my work.
And the iPod is not just for music storage. I also keep a folder on mine containing my resume, bio, and discography. If I’m out of town, I can run by any Kinko’s and print anything simply by plugging my iPod into any of their computers.
My iPod is also my calendar and phone book. There are countless sites with iPod software and games that make this little white box impossible to leave at home.
For $100, the iSight camera is another exceptional value from Apple. Again, it’s not a necessity for a studio, but it is an incredibly useful communication tool as you meet and work with more people.
The second half of the toolbox is iChat, the underappreciated communication application that comes with every Mac. When people hear “chat app,” they picture a teenager in a bedroom typing cutesy shorthand notes. But to call iChat a chat app is an insult; it’s AOL Instant Messenger or MSN Messenger on steroids. iChat has become my telephone, fax machine, video phone, and file-transfer system. It seems like every important person I’m working with is using iChat now.
I collaborate on music with people around the world. I like to work with full-resolution audio tracks, so a four-minute stereo audio file might be 50MB. Rather than copy the file to my FTP server, I use iChat.
In iChat, you have a Buddy List window of all the people you work with. To send a file, you simply drag and drop your file onto the person’s name in the Buddy list. They get a window asking them to accept the file.
That’s it. It’s extremely fast, unlike Skype or similar applications. When I’ve finished working on a client’s track, I send them my work via iChat and then we use the program to communicate via audio or video about changes they want. The audio is clear and just as usable as a telephone line, without the cost of an overseas call. The video isn’t full-motion, but it is a dramatic improvement over the robotic videoconferencing of the very recent past.
I must admit that I also use the iSight camera to keep up with my family and friends. It helps me stay in touch with my nieces and nephews, and when I’m away from home, I can always see my spouse and talk to my dogs. Recently, my studio underwent renovation, and while I was traveling, I used my iSight to keep an eye on the contractors. If only I could get my shrink online.
If you’re going to be portable, you really need a Wi-Fi wireless network device (which Apple calls AirPort) in your laptop. Fortunately, AirPort circuitry is built into the new PowerBooks. With a Wi-Fi network in every Starbucks, airport, and many hotels and libraries, it’s easy to get online.
Another handy wireless technology is Bluetooth, which is designed for low-power, short-range communication. With a Bluetooth-equipped laptop and cell phone, you can be on the Internet anywhere your phone can connect to a data service. Whether I’m at home or sitting at the tip of Cape Cod, I’m always on the Internet. It allows me to have my workspace anywhere I go, and do my best work regardless of where I am.
I can even upgrade my studio while I’m on the go, because most software is available by download. For example, you can go to SoundToys.com, type in your credit card number, and simply download their plug-ins and install them—no waiting for a CD from UPS. There are numerous sites like FindSounds where you can search for sound effects or loops for a song you’re working on. Again, you just pop in your credit card number and download the audio files. I can honestly say that I buy 100 percent of everything for my studio on the Internet now and I have never had a problem.
Download the update. One of the most important uses of high-speed Internet is for software updates. If you are connected to the Internet, an increasing number of programs will automatically look for updates, tell you when they are available, and install them for you.
For the rest, there’s a great piece of software called Version Tracker Pro that, once installed, will look through your entire computer, analyze all your software, and tell you whether or not you have the latest version. Version Tracker Pro then gives you a download link.
I’ve had interns from practically every audio school in the country. Most of them were even “Pro Tools certified.” However, I can honestly say that not one graduate of these programs had a usable, professional knowledge of Pro Tools. I don’t have much good to say about the abundance of cookie-cutter audio schools, but that’s another article. My advice is to not waste your money taking a class; instead, get on the Internet and find an experienced Pro Tools engineer to train you in your own home.
Post a request at one of the Pro Tools user forums, offering to hire an experienced user for a few hours to get you up and running. (Start with the Digidesign User Conference or ProToolsUsers.org.) Or call a local Pro Tools studio and offer to hire one of their engineers to train you. Getting one-on-one training from an experienced Pro Tools user is the best way to go.
You can expect to spend from $30 to $75 an hour, but two hours with a professional will save you the expense and frustration of trying to do it alone or spending six weeks in a classroom.
Similarly, if you read part 1 of this series, you may think that $4,000 to $6,000 is a lot to spend for a portable studio. But what did you spend on your last professional recording? And how many flaws did you let slide because the studio time was adding up? How many times have you wished you could remix a song or re-sing a vocal just one more time? Less than ten years ago, it took over $100,000 in gear to do what this small investment can—and then some.
The Ultimate Studio: Enhancements
|Grace Design 101 Preamp||$595|
|2GB Additional RAM ($135 per DIMM)||$270|
|Apple 60 GB iPod||$400|
|Apple iSight Camera||$100|
|Native Instruments Guitar Rig||$500|
|SoundToys Ultra FX||$400|
|Spectrasonics Stylus RMX||$300|
I highly recommend sitting down with Pro Tools before you spend your money on a system or a school. Very few music stores have the gear set up correctly or the educated staff to show you the endless possibilities with a Pro Tools system. Again, you may want to call a local Pro Tools studio, pay for an hour or two of studio time, and get a brief tour of how a professional engineer uses Pro Tools. Ask them to let you record something yourself. Try to talk to and learn from the people using the gear professionally, not necessarily the ones selling it or teaching it in classrooms. If you do take a class, be sure to check out the teacher’s professional credentials first.
While a portable studio has limitations when it comes to recording drums or bands, it’s perfect for pre-production work. Once you have those basic ideas down, you can bring them into other studios or upload them to sites like mine (eSession.com) that allow major session musicians to play on your songs by transferring files across the Internet. A portable studio is also a perfect solution for songwriters who collaborate with other writers, or musicians who tour.
If you’re intimidated by the technology, just look back to the time when the washing machine looked like something overwhelming and indecipherable too. With a little patience, a little guidance, and a lot of persistence, you can start recording world-class demos and albums anywhere you go.
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