When you start out you don’t know the right questions to ask, and in any case you don’t understand the terminology used.
I’m a veteran beginner and address this blurb to starting-out beginners. If it’s considered useful, it will be blasted out of here and put in the articles section on MacMusic after improvement.
It’s highly subjective and mainly concerns audio, plugs, holes, money and noise. Here goes:
If you don’t mind using a cheap microphone, or don’t intend to use one, and if you don’t mind the sound your computer speakers make, put all your money into a noisy top of the range desktop computer and enjoy the games you get with it. I’m exaggerating a little but you have to decide which weak links in the chain don’t matter to you, or whether you can tolerate weak links. I prefer to have the same quality all along the chain, which meant a bottom of the range ibook on OS9 was and is still sufficient for me.
Unless you’re rich, forget the computer and software for the moment. First make a list of all the other things you might need to buy. Then the choice of computer and app become comparatively simple. If you only want to use sampled sounds and midi, the choice of other equipment is simpler and cheaper (I think). My low level experience is with audio.
I’ve done a search on the web for a clear glossary to help you out with technical terms, but I haven’t found one that even explains MIDI and audio usefully, so I’ve tried to be simple. Many of the points I cover briefly are explained more comprehensively in various Articles on MacMusic.
- if you like music, you probably like to hear good quality sound. You can use your hifi stuff at first. Headphones are indispensable unless you have only deaf and dumb neighbours. If you haven’t got any hifi stuff at all, quality headphones could suffice, but they get a bit uncomfortable after a while. Later you may find your computer is the centre of your music universe, so you may wish to buy some nearfield monitors - that means special speakers you put a couple of metres apart and a couple of metres from your ears. Listening is my priority so I got good ones. Mine are active monitors, which means there’s an amp (or two) in each monitor. The pair cost more than my ibook!
- you need a good microphone (mono) or two (for stereo) for recording sounds you make with your voice or a traditional instrument. For good recording, you need mics that will handle up to 20K Hertz signals - you can’t go wrong with condensor mics. I use a pair of miniature ones which aren’t too fragile and aren’t stuck on my desk. You can even stick them down the hole in your wash basin and listen to the gurgles your bath water makes when you pull out the plug. You can also stick them on your head like on the tele. I use a pair because I like real stereo. Still, if you sing on stage and sometimes use your mic as a hammer, you probably have a Sure SM57 cardioid mic. You could use it for starters. For info on mics, try the “microphone university” section on http://www.dpamicrophones.com/
- you can use the line out holes on your hifi amp or keyboard to get sound signals directly without using a mic.
- you can also get sound signals directly from the jack hole in your guitar - this is not line out, it’s instrument.
- you can get sound signals from your LP turntable but don’t ask me how - when I tried, I had to send my monitors to the other side of Europe to get them fixed. I think there was a short somewhere. Use your search button.
Anyway, whatever the sound you record or play, it’s called audio.
- if you have a midi keyboard, for example, its got midi in, midi out, and midi through holes in the back. These holes are not for sound signals. MIDI is a language that tells electronic instruments, or the computer, when and how to play the sampled sounds they have stored somewhere. I don’t use midi so once again use the search button. You may need a midi interface to link midi instruments to the computer. They aren’t expensive. Some midi instruments have a usb hole and hook up to the computer directly.
- If you plug a wire from any of the various audio sources into the audio-in hole in a computer (usually right next to the phones hole), you’ll probably either be disappointed with the weak crackly results, or blow something.
- a special sound interface (Mbox for example) takes the various types of sound signal through its pair of mic, line and instrument holes, and converts them into a signal your computer and its music app(s) can use. There’s a button to tell the interface which type of input you are giving it.
- there’s a phones hole with a volume knob so you can listen to the converted input signal(s).
- there’re two volume knobs to make sure the two input signals don’t make the red light come on too much (saturated sound)
- these converted signals are taken from the interface’s usb or firewire hole and sent through the appropriate cable to the computer.
- if there’s only one firewire hole in the computer you finally use for pottering with music, you can reserve it for an external hard disk. That’s why I got an interface with a usb hole in it. I think you can get two firewire devices to use the same hole but you’d need an adapter or hub.
- simple interfaces have no preamp inside and no phantom power so you’ll find the sound you get from good mics is very weak. Phantom power, usually 48V, is for powering condensor mics, and the preamp is for getting the signal up to other audio signal levels. I bought my first interface before discovering MacMusic.org: a single-input/output griffin. Its been gathering dust since the first week I had it, but if you use the search button you might find what uses it could have. Try this http://www.macmusic.org/articles/view.php/.../lang/EN/id/88/
- you really need two inputs unless you are quite satisfied with placing mono sounds somewhere between left and right.
- you slide volume knobs up and down - one for each track you’re listening to. You can buy one, perhaps with the interface features included, but you can start with the virtual one in the music app you get.
Have a look at the Digi 002, it’s got the mixing faders (volume knobs), is an audio and midi interface, loads of holes for various plugs including four mic ins and ... well do a search on the web. You even get an excellent music app, protools, and some nice plugins (add-on apps). Have a look. It’ll give you an idea of what components you might need, but if you want it, it’ll cost you.
Plugs on wires
- you may end up with quite a plate of spaghetti
- XLR plugs are better than jacks which are better than mini-jacks, but you buy the wires with plugs on each end depending on what holes the various equipment have.
Studio and place to record
- buy an acoustically wonderful barn loft with lots of wooden beams
I’m very lucky. That’s where I have my stuff.
- most people have to make do with a corner of their hard-walled bedroom where the window vibrates when cars go by. I suppose that’s why so many people prefer MIDI and seem to forget how useful microphones can be.
- if you want to record your band where you practise, the loud sound you make should mask outside noise.
- recording at gigs can be done with just a pair of mics on a stand. It’s the only way to get great live recording with little equipment assuming the room’s acoustics aren’t too crappy. Wait till you get gigs where the acoustics are good and don’t play too badly. Live recordings with a few mistakes are so much better than the boring sterile perfection that comes out of professional recording studios. Ouch. I suppose I shouldn’t say that here
Music app and plugins
- I got Protools LE free (MacOS9) with my Mbox interface and its fine for audio - easy to do things with quickly, but if you’re willing to learn, its a pro. It works with Digidesign interfaces.
- you get a few plug-ins with it. They modify the audio you’ve recorded and for example can make it sound as though you were in a large echoey hall. They do lots of other things to your sound and some are a must. Good quality ones have to be bought and they aren’t cheap.
- if you have to buy an app, you’re probably going to look at Logic or Digital Performer, but there are others. Here again use the MacMusic or Web search button or just browse around the various sections of MacMusic.
- It now depends on how much money you have left after investing in all the other things you think are indispensable.
- if you need to record live audio, the computer must make as little noise as possible - this probably means a laptop.
- if you don’t want to be stuck to your desk, you definitely need a laptop.
- if you want to use lots of plugins, you’ll need power, so you’ll have to get as good a laptop as you can afford or go for an equivalent desktop which will be cheaper.
- if you want to use cubase, get a super-computer.
- I got a bottom of the range ibook for recording, and am careful about what and where I record. Remember what everybody says “shit in, shit out”. I also have an emac which has more processing power if I want to potter alot with my little ‘sessions’ but I’ll have to get the protools OSX upgrade.
- PC or Mac? Macs are Personal Computers so if you prefer PCs go for a Mac
- lots. A state of the art studio is just an expensive toy if you don’t make anything worth listening to.
- lots. It makes the investment worth it even it you aren’t a musical and technical genius.
- MacMusic forums, of course.
If you’ve got this far, feel free to make comments on this blurb.