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Setting Up The Ultimate Digital Home Studio, Part IV

Welcome once again to the Virtual Studio. This is the fourth instalment in the series and I'm going to back up just a bit to cover a few items in more detail.

We discussed soundcards previously and based on some of the email I've received there are a couple points I would like to make as well as a couple products that It might be helpful to mention.

My first recommendation for anyone buying all the components with the intention of recording high quality audio is to get an audio card intended for the job such as the Gina from Event Electronics which I previously mentioned. What I also talked about was the common soundblaster type cards that many of you may already have in your computer. My perspective is that if you have the money and your intention is to create high quality recordings then don't even bother with the soundblaster card because it's not going to do the job. (Please note; I am using the term "soundblaster" in a generic sense to apply to any number of stock original equipment type soundcards that are commonly found already installed in many computers and intended for multimedia purposes, there are some cards by Creative Labs by that name that are suitable for audio recording.) On the other hand if you are more of a hobbyist or if your recordings are for the purpose of getting a rough demo down as opposed to a finished product, then you might as well see if the card you already have will work.

Since some of the email I get is from people who are trying to do more serious work than their soundcard allows, it occurs to me that this subjects needs further discussion.

Since money IS an obstacle in the real world it will be the case that some of you cannot afford to go out and buy the top of the line soundcard. For those of you who fall into that category I have a few suggestions; At the upper end of the price scale there is the "Darla" by Event Electronics. I mentioned this card briefly in a previous issue. The Darla is essentially the same as the Gina but does not have the digital I/O which you would only need if you wanted to transfer a digital signal to or from a DAT machine for example, or record directly from a CD player with digital output. I got the Gina because at the time I was mixing to DAT. These days I rarely use the digital I/O and may have opted not to have it if I were making the choice now.

The next couple steps down the price ladder would be the "Montego A3Dxstream" and the "Malibu Surround 64" both by Turtle Beach / Voyetra. Both cards are full duplex and feature an onboard wavetable synth (which you may or may not end up using) and a MIDI interface. Neither have digital I/O as standard but the Montego has an optional upgrade for digital I/O if you find you need it later.

These cards are all intended for use in audio recording and come bundled with software that may be useful as well. The prices are about $300.00 or so for the Darla and approx just over $100.00 for the Montego and about $80.00 for the Malibu. (my price lists are in Pounds Sterling so that's why I say approx. in dollars).

So, the bottom line is, if you don't know for sure that you need a serious pro-level card then go ahead and see what that old soundblaster you already have will do before you spend eighty or a hundred bucks for a new card. Those of you who want to make high quality "finished product" sounding recordings - save yourself the frustration and go for the Gina or the Darla etc. because you'll only be spinning your wheels with the stock soundblaster. Obviously, you have to access your own seriousness level.

One other card I will mention as well is the "Fiji" (also by Turtle Beach/ Voyetra). It is worth a look because although it is in a similar price range to the Darla, it includes MIDI and is bundled with Voyetra's "Digital Orchestrator" software which might make it an attractive choice for some of you.

So there you have it, something that will do the job even at under a hundred bucks!

Another item I want to backtrack for slightly is the software I talked about in the last instalment. I spoke about Cakewalk Audio and Cooledit Pro. First of all I want to stress again that here are many other fine products out there and we all have different reasons for choosing one or the other. I have friends using Logic Audio and Sound Forge etc. The main reason I tout Cakewalk and Cooledit Pro is because they are both less expensive than many of the others out there (around $400.00 compared to as much as $700.00 for Logic Audio Platinum) and the ease of use is unparalleled.

If you have already invested the money and time into a comparable program like Logic Audio then you can rest assured you have the software power you need. One of the big differences between some of the competitive products and Cakewalk, for example, is the use of slick graphics in the user interface. Cakewalk does not have any flashy and highly detailed graphic representations of it's mixing console or effects panels like some of the others do. This is also true of Cooledit Pro. Both have very functional and basic graphics for the effects and buttons etc. So at first glance it might be impressive the way Steinberg VST has something that almost looks like a photo of a mixing desk, for example, but the important thing is the way it WORKS not how it looks. There is some value to flashy graphics as well. Just as in the case of a commercial studio where you must impress the client with massive walls of outboard gear (even if you don't use it), you may also need slick looking editing software to impress clients (although I think to a lessor degree than in the case of hardware).

One other point I wanted to make about my two choices in software is the aspect of mixing and pre-mastering. Cakewalk will easily track and mix the project and you can do almost all your editing from within the program using it's own editing tools or active-x plugins. When you get to the stage of having a mix and you need to get that mix ready for CD is where you will most likely need to go to another program. Now, if you are going straight to a mastering studio to do all the CD mastering anyway, then you can most likely just burn the mix created in Cakewalk straight to a CD by simply exporting the two tracks into a separate file (this will create a stereo .wav file) and using your CD writing software.

If, on the other hand, you want to pre-master or master the CD at home you will not be able to do this easily using Cakewalk alone. Here is where Cooledit Pro shines again because all the trimming, fading out or in, level adjusting, EQing etc. can easily be done and in stereo. (You must have the ability to edit the file as a STEREO file because both sides need to receive exactly the same treatment, especially for things like compression / limiting and level adjustments, otherwise the stereo image will be compromised) Most of the functions you need are already in the program and anything else can be accessed as a direct-x device.

Anyway, I may go into detail at a later time about the intricacies of editing and mastering etc. I just want to make the point here that this is another distinction between the two programs and another use for Cooledit Pro.

So, I'm feeling like this may be a good place to stop for now and I will start fresh in the next instalment very soon. Until then, fly low and avoid the radar!

Go to Part III of this article

Go to Part V of this article

Digital recording column author Stewart Meredith has worked on the road and in the studio with the likes of Leon Russell and played on sessions in Nashville, Houston and Los Angeles. He was a content developer and beta tester for inovative software company Hotz Interactive in Los Angeles and has worked as assistant engineer in studios as well as session singer and keyboard player/programmer. He is available on a limited basis for freelance consulting in the London area.