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Build a Desktop Studio on Any Budget

July 1, 2005
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Every few years, we throw caution to the wind and publish an article in which EM's editors specify the products that we would buy for our dream studios. Sure, we know that we'll catch heat from readers (and manufacturers) whose favorite products were left out, no matter which products we choose, but we think you'll enjoy the story and will learn more about products that can help you produce better recordings.

Our most recent story of this sort, “Build a Personal Studio on Any Budget,” was published in the July 2002 issue of EM. That article described a wide variety of studio rigs — some with computers, some without. This time, we're going to focus entirely on computer-based studios, something we haven't done since “The Complete Desktop Studio” in the July 1999 issue.

In “The Complete Desktop Studio,” we were so focused on computer software that we did not specify mics, speakers, preamps, and MIDI controllers. We also didn't budget money for a computer. This time around, we included computers, mics, speakers, preamps, and MIDI controllers, bringing us closer to a real-world price estimate.

We still didn't include every possible product type found in a computer-based studio, though, because the story would have gotten out of hand. So you won't read about cables, stands, adapters, and other such ancillary hardware in this story. We left out acoustical materials as well because we can't specify them without making broad assumptions about your room. But then, all the prices we QUOTE are MSRP or the equivalent, and you can find deals on most of these products. With the money that you save, you can at least buy stands, cables, and adapters.

We limited ourselves to currently available (new) products that satisfy our demand for quality, are affordable by EM standards, offer complementary features, and integrate well into a coherent system. We work within specific budgets, as we would if we were actually building these studios. Obviously, working within limited budgets means leaving many cool products out, although we tried to cover a lot of territory. But if you are building or upgrading your studio, those are the types of decisions that you face.

Each editor had considerable freedom of choice, so the products chosen reflect our various personalities and musical objectives. Of course, your point of view will differ from all of ours at times. So I recommend that you read the whole article, not just the sections that reflect your budget and computer platform of choice, because the information you need might be found in unexpected places. So without further ado, here are our six dream desktop studios!

Steve O staff

The Lower-Price Windows Studio

By Dennis Miller

My entry-level Windows system allows me to create music for lots of situations, including electronic-music production and sound design for games, theater, and more. I am not concerned about recording acoustic and electroacoustic instruments in this studio, which is why I didn't buy a lot of mics and preamps.

At the heart of my studio is a 3.2 GHz Pentium 4 processor. I needed $2,000 to pick up a computer that has 1 GB of RAM, a 160 GB SATA system drive, a 400 GB SATA data drive, a 19-inch CRT or 17-inch flat-panel display, and Windows XP SP 2. The Dell Precision Workstation 370 met that spec.

Another option is to purchase a machine that is designed specifically for music production. Sweetwater's Creation Station Pro 3.2 (www.sweetwater.com), for example, costs about the same and uses silent fans and other noise-reducing components. Among its other benefits are a DVD-RW, dual SATA drives from Glyph, and seven USB 2.0 and two FireWire 400 ports. Digidesign also recommends this system for use with Pro Tools, although we aren't specifying Pro Tools for this studio. You'll spend extra for a monitor, but you can probably make some of that up by pressing your sales rep for a BREAK on an accompanying software bundle (but don't tell them I told you so).

Cabled to the computer is an M-Audio FireWire Solo audio interface (see Fig. 1), which provides drivers (including ASIO2, WDM, and GSIF2) for a variety of production environments, S/PDIF digital I/O, 24-bit/96 kHz audio support, and flexible software-controlled routing. I can send the headphone outs to a video deck or other peripheral device when needed, and the separate level controls for the two inputs (XLR mic/line) add to the unit's flexibility.

I chose to pipe the FireWire Solo's output to a pair of M-Audio BX8 powered monitors, which are sharp-looking and a good value. The BX8s provide excellent frequency response (37 Hz to 20 kHz) with their 8-inch woofers and 1-inch tweeters and should be well suited for most tasks. Monitors are a matter of personal taste, so feel free to substitute others if you have a preference. For those late-night moments when inspiration strikes, I chose to have a set of Sony MDR-7505 headphones on hand.

The Soft Side

Owning a wide range of software ensures that you always have the best tool for the job. Heading up my software choices is Sony Media Software's Sound Forge 8, a stereo audio editor that has a large number of effects (see Fig. 2). Although I have audio-editing options in some of my other software, you can't beat Sound Forge's tool set. The new capabilities in version 8, which include a Scrub tool and support for ASIO and VST plug-ins, make it an invaluable resource.

For MIDI sequencing, I chose Steinberg's Cubase SL3, which has many of the same features that the flagship Cubase SX3 does, but it costs $300 less. Cubase SL3 has 32 VST slots, an unlimited number of MIDI tracks, three modes of time stretching and pitch shifting, and many other high-end features to keep you busy.

For my sample library, I chose Garritan Personal Orchestra (GPO), which works standalone, using the Native Instruments Kontakt Player, or as a VST plug-in. The library offers a wide range of great-sounding solo-instrument samples and a comprehensive collection of string bowings, such as pizzicato and marcato. The percussion section is robust and includes all the standard orchestral instruments, as well as a wind machine and a variety of percussive toys. Woodwinds and brass are also out in full force. GPO has been smartly programmed to produce numerous realistic playing techniques in response to real-time MIDI Control Change messages. Without too much effort, you can become a one-person band simply by using a MIDI keyboard.

I selected Native's Instruments' Reaktor 4 for my studio environment (see Fig. 3). Reaktor ships with an extensive instrument collection, much of which is documented in its Reaktor Library Instrument Guide. Additionally, the vast number of free downloadable user-contributed patches (nearly 2,000 at last count) will satisfy your every need.

Reaktor's excellent sampling features, though no match for a dedicated sampler such as Tascam's GigaSampler 3 or Steinberg's Halion, are more than adequate for my purposes, and its vast set of sound-design modules provide the raw materials for those wanting to create custom instruments or effects. Incidentally, if Reaktor is more toolkit than you need, a good alternative is Plogue Bidule 0.8 ($75, www.plogue.com), a modular synthesis and processing system. Bidule (which means “gadget” in French) is an open-ended application that has a large number of building blocks for constructing sonic networks of all varieties.

Freeware and shareware programs can enhance a software collection without blowing the budget. It never hurts to have a wealth of reverbs, so I picked up a copy of Christian Knufinke's free SIR impulse-response processor. SIR can be used to apply the room ambience of any acoustic space onto a sound file of your choosing. Want to make your drum tracks sound like they were recorded in a car's trunk? SIR can do the job. But since you can use any arbitrary WAV file as an impulse, you can create sonic crossings inspired by your wildest dreams — ocean wave meets hi-hat, lion meets Harley-Davidson, you name it! With SIR installed, I visited NoiseVault (www.noisevault.com) to pick up free impulses extracted from high-end effects units by Eventide, Kurzweil, Lexicon, and Quantec, to name a few.

To add some plucked-string sounds to my arsenal, I grabbed a copy of Ugo's free String Theory 1.5, which runs as a VST plug-in and has oscillator, filter, and effects sections, as well as a flexible arpeggiator. The Pick Noise and Bow parameters can be adjusted to add (or avoid) realism. And for experimenting with alternate types of control surfaces, I downloaded the JoyMachine soft sampler (currently freeware but soon to be shareware) from the AcousModules Web site. JoyMachine puts 128 samples under the control of a joystick, a graphics tablet, or a mouse and offers a number of other unusual triggering options. At the same site, you'll find a multiplicity of programs that explore surround and other spatial techniques, something that is certain to become an important part of many studios before long.

Take Command

To control this jam-packed rig, I chose an Edirol PCR-M50 keyboard controller/interface. The unit is loaded with programmable sliders, buttons, and knobs (27 in all), and its action is quieter than that of its predecessor, the PCR-50, though I like the old silver color better than the new gray-black. The Pitch-Bend and Mod wheels on the new model also have a better feel. The PCR-M50 comes with a software editor that allows you to select from 12 Velocity curves and can store more than a dozen setups. Like most keyboards in its class, the unit can be powered by a USB or an AC adapter.

Although audio recording won't be the main goal of this studio, the versatile Audio-Technica AT-822 mic is a smart addition for an occasional voiceover, for a vocal sound effect, or for sampling in the field. The AT-822 will be more than adequate for recording solo instruments or a small ensemble as well.

Future Earnings

For comparatively little money, we have a credible studio that's built with expansion in mind: it can easily accommodate more sample libraries and soft synths, a second display, or external hard drives. I'll have computing power to burn and plenty of good software. Let's fire up the rig and get busy!

The Lower-Price Windows Studio:

ITEMS PRICE
Acousmodules JoyMachine soft sampler Free
Audio Technica AT-822 stereo small-diaphragm condenser mic $419
Christian Knufinke SIR 1.8 convolution software Free
Dell Precision Workstation 370 computer $2,000
Edirol PCR-M50 keyboard controller/interface $285
Garritan Personal Orchestra sample library $279
M-Audio BX8 powered monitors $399
M-Audio FireWire Solo audio interface $249
Native Instruments Reaktor 4 soft-synth toolkit $559
Sony MDR-7505 headphones $79
Sony Media Software Sound Forge 8 stereo audio editor $299
Steinberg Cubase SL3 digital audio sequencer $499
Ugo String Theory 1.5 soft-string synth Free
TOTAL $5,067

The Lower-Price Mac Studio

By Len Sasso

Given $5,000, I've designed a studio for creating electronic music and doing sound design completely inside the computer. Sound design is an integral part of electronic-music composition, but it also has broader applications, including music for games, video scoring, and sound-effects production. Staying inside the box and not recording acoustic or electroacoustic sounds implies some reliance on prerecorded content, and to stay within my budget, I've chosen software applications that include large and varied content libraries.

I took a somewhat nonstandard approach in designing my studio and ignored the wisdom that a serious sequencing and sound-design studio must be built around one of the major digital audio sequencers. That is a fine approach, and you will find it well represented in this article, but the prevalence of loops, samples, and virtual instruments in today's desktop music makes my approach equally valid.

One advantage of my approach is that the applications around which it is based — Propellerhead Software's Reason, Ableton's Live, and Apple's GarageBand — are relatively easy to learn and will allow beginners to start making music quickly. Another advantage is that those programs come bundled with loads of content covering a variety of genres. If you're starting from scratch, that is a big bonus. Furthermore, much of the software is widely used and cross-platform, which facilitates collaboration with other desktop musicians.

What's Not Included

You won't find tools for score editing and printing in this studio, because scoring in standard notation is not among my goals. The MIDI editing tools are also less full-featured than you'll find in high-end digital audio sequencers such as Apple Logic, Steinberg Cubase, and Mark of the Unicorn (MOTU) Digital Performer, but the tools I've selected are adequate for my purposes.

Another thing you won't find is a full-size, weighted-action MIDI keyboard; if you're a keyboard player, you may want to forgo some of the specialty software in favor of a better keyboard. In that case, you might opt for a different MIDI and audio interface and add a dedicated MIDI control surface, such as the Evolution UC-33e or one of the Behringer 2000 series.

Finally, as noted, I've taken a completely inside-the-computer approach to music making and have not devoted any of my budget to live recording or field sampling. The necessary software tools for live recording are there, and the audio interface even has a phantom-powered mic input, but if you want to use those tools, some of the specialty-software budget will have to go toward mics.

The Box to Put It In

In a $5,000 Macintosh studio, Apple is clearly going to take a big bite out of the budget. The computer, however, is no place to skimp, and the $1,899 I've budgeted for a 1.8 GHz G5 iMac with a gigabyte of additional memory puts me in good shape. I've spent a little more for the model with a 160 GB hard drive and a 20-inch screen, because when making music, you can never have too much storage and screen real estate.

For getting MIDI and audio in and out of the computer I've chosen an M-Audio Ozonic FireWire audio and MIDI interface with a built-in 3-octave keyboard and control surface. It is by no means high end, but it will do the job. The Ozonic features four channels of 24-bit, 96 kHz audio I/O; a set of MIDI I/O ports; a 3-octave, Velocity-sensitive keyboard; and 40 programmable MIDI sliders, knobs, and buttons.

To hear the results, I've chosen a pair of Fostex PM2 powered monitors and Sony MDR-V600 headphones. The Fostex monitors scored high in EM's March 2005 survey of budget powered monitors, and the MDR-V600s are excellent headphones for the price.

Essential Software

Four programs make up the core of my studio: Ableton Live, Apple GarageBand, Propellerhead Reason, and i3 DSP-Quattro. Live and GarageBand offer MIDI and audio recording and sequencing, but their strengths and feature sets differ significantly. Reason also offers MIDI sequencing, but I have included it for its distinctive collection of instruments and effects and the step-sequencing tools that accompany them. DSP-Quattro provides a full complement of sample-editing functions.

Live has traditional track-based audio and MIDI recording and sequencing, hosts effects and virtual instruments in Audio Units (AU) and VST formats, provides track- and clip-based automation, and will render your songs to disk as audio files. Live also offers an alternative way of working with audio and MIDI clips (see Fig. 4), in which clips can be triggered individually or in groups using MIDI or the computer keyboard. Furthermore, clip triggering can be recorded to create tracks for traditional track-based sequencing. Another key Live feature is its flexible, high-quality audio time warping and pitch shifting, which makes it possible to mix and match audio clips that wouldn't otherwise be compatible.

Don't ignore GarageBand just because it's free with all new Macs and incredibly inexpensive as part of Apple's iLife package. It has traditional track-based audio and MIDI recording and sequencing, hosts AU plug-ins, and comes with a large collection of virtual instruments and effects. It also offers basic score editing and display of MIDI data. But GarageBand's real claim to fame is its handling of Apple Loops, which are Apple's answer to Acid loops. (GarageBand can handle Acid loops as well). GarageBand includes a large collection of Apple Loops, and additional reasonably priced Jam Pack loop collections are available from Apple and other vendors. You can even use GarageBand to create your own Apple Loops.

The Reasonable Alternative

Propellerhead Reason provides a user-configurable rack of instruments and effects (see Fig. 5) that can be played live, controlled by its built-in sequencer, or integrated with other software (including Live and GarageBand) using Propellerhead Software's ReWire protocol. Reason's complement of instruments includes two samplers (basic and complex), two synthesizers (subtractive and Graintable), a sample-based drum machine, and a REX-file player. REX files are presliced audio files. They offer an alternative approach to time warping, and in addition, you can rearrange and process the individual slices on the fly. Like Live and GarageBand, Reason comes with a large library of samples, REX files, and presets for all of its instruments and effects. Additional free and commercial content is available from Propellerhead Software and other vendors.

Beyond their individual features, what makes Live, GarageBand, and Reason a powerful combination is their interconnectivity using ReWire. With ReWire, one application acts as the master, sending MIDI and receiving audio. All other running ReWire applications act as slaves, receiving MIDI from and sending audio to the master application. In addition, the master application controls tempo and transport functions. Reason can be only a ReWire slave, GarageBand can be only a ReWire master, and Live can be either. Therefore, when you want to use all three programs together, GarageBand must be the master (see Web Clip 1).

DSP-Quattro, from i3 Software, performs a variety of essential functions (see Fig. 6). It offers full-featured sample editing, including loop, region, and marker management; digital signal processing; and destructive or nondestructive processing with AU and VST plug-in effects. It also hosts virtual instruments and has play-list management with CD burning, audio file-format conversion (including bit depth and sampling rate), and batch processing. When you need to clean up your audio files or burn your next hit CD, turn to DSP-Quattro.

In Case That Isn't Enough

With a slightly more than $500 left in the budget, things started to get personal, and price was a primary consideration. I chose three virtual instruments (one of which is free) and five utilities (two of which are free).

Native Instruments' Electronic Instruments 2XT bundle includes five unusual virtual instruments and three effects. It can be used standalone or as an AU or a VST plug-in. Green Oak's Crystal (free) is another interesting virtual instrument. It combines subtractive and FM synthesis and offers extensive modulation routing. Glaresoft's iDrum AU plug-in is an easy-to-use beatbox that has a lot of content and a user interface that is much like that of GarageBand.

The most expensive utility in the budget is Propellerhead Software's ReCycle 2.1. ReCycle allows you to slice up any audio file and export it in the REX 2 file format used by Reason's Dr.Rex instrument, among other programs. Although you can buy a lot of REX files off the shelf, it is such a flexible format that it seems well worth the expense to be able to slice your own.

What Was That?

Iced Audio's AudioFinder is an indispensable tool for any Mac studio. It takes the pain out of finding, auditioning, moving, copying, renaming, and otherwise managing your audio files. In addition, it provides some basic DSP and will manage your libraries of AU and VST plug-ins.

Seventh String Software's Transcribe 7 is a little-known tool designed for notating and learning recorded audio material. I've included it here because of its usefulness in analyzing chords and melodies — a task that you're bound to run up against when trying to mix content from your collection of sound libraries.

Finally, I chose two free utilities: Snoize Software's MIDI Monitor, which allows you to view the MIDI messages flowing through your computer; and Cycling '74's Soundflower, which lets you route audio between different applications. If you can't figure out why Reason is not responding to one of your MIDI controllers or you want to capture GarageBand's output in Live or DSP-Quattro, those utilities will help you out.

When more money rolls in, there are a number of ways in which you can spend it. More content and more plug-ins, however, should be high on the list. Until that happy time, there's a lot here to keep you busy.

The Lower-Price Mac Studio:

ITEMS PRICE
Ableton Live 4 digital audio sequencer $499
Apple GarageBand 2 digital audio sequencer Free with
Apple iMac G5 1.8 GHz computer $1,899
Cycling '74 Soundflower audio-routing software Free
Fostex PM2 powered monitors $599
Glaresoft iDrum soft drum machine $69
Green Oak Crystal soft synth Free
i3 Software DSP-Quattro stereo audio editor $149
Iced Audio AudioFinder audio-file manager $59
M-Audio Ozonic FireWire MIDI keyboard/audio interface $599
Memory Solutions 1 GB RAM upgrade $119
Native Instruments Electronic Instruments 2XT soft-synth bundle $119
Propellerhead Software Reason 3.0 soft-synth workstation $499
Propellerhead Software ReCycle 2.1 loop editor $249
Seventh String Transcribe 7 music analyzer $49
Snoize MIDI Monitor data viewer Free
Sony MDR-V600 headphones $99
TOTAL $5,007

The Midprice Windows Studio

By Dennis Miller

My midprice Windows studio is a production powerhouse. I selected software for composition, real-time interactive performance, sound design, audio for video, mixing, mastering, and a host of other music applications. Top-quality components are located throughout the system, as well as options for delivering music in multiple media. EM pinchpenny-in-chief Steve O allocated $10,000 for this studio, but I'm spending closer to $12,500. So far, he has not asked me where I got the extra money, and I'm not telling!

I devoted $5,500 to a top-of-the-line computer with dual 3.6 GHz processors, 2 GB of RAM, a pair of 250 SATA internal drives, a 19-inch LCD monitor, a DVD+R/W drive with an authoring bundle, and a workstation-level video card. Using Dell as a benchmark again, the Precision Workstation 670 with the required components fit my budget. It's well suited for tasks that employ multithreading, such as video editing and rendering. With a three-year on-site warranty, I'll be in good shape if I encounter any problems down the road.

Had I wanted to focus on only music production and not needed the horsepower for video work, the Rain Recording Labs Element (www.rainrecording.com) would have been a good alternative. For around $500 less than the Dell, you can boost the processor to a hyperthreaded 3.8 GHz Pentium 4 chip, though you would lose the second CPU and get slightly smaller drives. That's not a bad trade-off, though, because the Element includes several components that I had to add to the Dell. I'll cover those as we move through the rest of the configuration.

Sounds Good

The audio interface is a top-of-the-line E-mu 1820m, purchased as part of the Emulator X Studio 1.5 bundle (see Fig. 7). (The Rain system price includes the E-mu 1212m, which has the same high-quality converters but fewer I/O options.) The system has a BREAKout box for cabling that attaches to an internal PCI interface card. Its DSP-powered effects, which you can use with any VST host, let the CPU focus on other tasks.

The 1820m offers six balanced ins and eight outs on ¼-inch connectors, two mic/line/high-impedance preamps, a turntable input, four stereo ⅛-inch outs for surround sound, and a variety of digital inputs and outputs, including 24/192 switchable ADAT-S/PDIF optical and S/PDIF connectors. There are two sets of MIDI ports, a headphone out, and a FireWire 400 interface. The 1820m's mixing software allows me to design and store presets for the various routing and monitoring configurations that I'll need.

I dedicated two of the 1820m's inputs to the output of a Kurzweil KME61 keyboard synth, which also serves as my master keyboard controller. The KME61 has 32 voices of polyphony, 256 presets (based on samples from Kurzweil's PC2R tone module), several dozen effects, and two pedals and two wheels for real-time control. It's housed in a durable case, which makes it suitable for live performance, and its internal sounds complement the sound set that comes with the 1820m. Though I would prefer a heavier action, the KME61 sounds great (particularly strings and voices) and is just right for my studio.

The Emulator X bundle also includes powerful sampling software that is based on E-mu's Emulator hardware. The sampler offers most of the features of its hardware brethren, such as E-mu's world-famous Z-Plane morphing filters, and various tools that make it easy to create patches from raw sample data. Emulator X functions as a standalone application and as a VST plug-in, which allows it to integrate with the software I'll cover next. Its included sound libraries are a great addition.

Keep It Soft

The first product in my software bundle is Sonar 4 Producer Edition, Cakewalk's top-of-the-line sequencer (see Fig. 8). Sonar has developed into a high-end audio-production environment and now includes extensive surround capabilities, a video track, sophisticated looping tools, and Lexicon's highly rated Pantheon surround reverb. Sonar's new Folder Track feature helps you keep large, multitrack productions organized, and the numerous configurable metering options let you view your audio whichever way that best suits your needs. The Track Freeze function helps you get better performance by reducing the demands on your CPU, and the included sound modules, such as the TTS-1 DXi Rhythm Module, give you a versatile synth rack right out of the box.

I chose Cycling '74's Max/MSP 4.5 for my programming environment. Max is focused on MIDI, and MSP is directed toward audio processing. Together, they are a powerful duo for creating self-playing sound gadgets, interactive programs that listen to a performer's input and react on demand, custom control surfaces for a variety of gear (CD players, lighting systems, and the like), and much more. Jitter, which is included in the Cycling '74 bundle that I selected, can synthesize images using data extracted from live audio or files on disk and can process video in innumerable ways. New user-contributed Jitter patches appear regularly at the company's Web site, as they do for Max and MSP, and a large number of examples and excellent documentation will help get you up to speed.

With all the video projects that I have in mind for my studio, Sony Media Software's Vegas 6 and DVD Architect video-editing and DVD-authoring combo will come in handy. Vegas lets you mix an unlimited number of audio and video tracks using an intuitive interface and supports a large number of output file formats. The powerful features of DVD Architect allow me to easily make DVDs containing music and video. State-of-the-art high-definition video and surround-audio support put this studio on the forefront of media production.

For a dedicated audio editor, I chose Sony's Sound Forge 8, although Steinberg WaveLab 5 is also well worth considering. WaveLab brings users deep into the world of DVD-Audio authoring, and its multitrack Montage interface is a pleasure to use. But for hardcore audio editing and processing, Sound Forge gets the nod.

Now Hear This

Because I am relying so heavily on the PC for audio resources, I added several synthesis applications to the toolkit. As with the lower-price Windows system, I selected Native Instruments Reaktor 4 and then immediately headed to Native Instruments' Web site to see what new sound-mangling gadgets Reaktor users uploaded.

Even with all its power, though, there's one area that Reaktor hasn't fully exploited: physical modeling. For that, I opted for Applied Acoustics Tassman 4 (see Fig. 9), a modular toolkit for building virtual instruments that can change their characteristics in real time. Wonder what the sound of a cello changing size as it plays might sound like? Tassman lets you find out. How about playing a marimba with a mallet that gets softer with each note? That's also easy to do with Tassman. Using its new Audio In module, you can use your voice or an audio file to excite any type of resonator (a pipe, a beam, or a flute body, for example). With its greatly expanded examples library, Tassman 4 offers a working prototype for almost any sound-design application that you can imagine. Long-overdue support for MIDI Program Changes makes Tassman 4 even more useful as a plug-in synth.

Control Booth

Although my sonic arsenal is extensive, there will be times when I need to sample a sound for some custom sound-design situation. For that, I chose a Røde NT4 stereo condenser microphone. The NT4 has XLR and mini connectors and can run off a 9V battery, which is perfect for field recording. Its fixed x-y stereo configuration provides excellent stereo imaging, and its small size and rugged build enhance its portability.

For studio monitors, I selected a pair of KRK Systems V8s. EM contributor Rob Shrock reviewed the V8s for the May 1999 issue of EM, in which he wrote, “in each case where I completely trusted the V8s, the new mixes were distinctly better than the original mixes.” Though slight of build, the V8s deliver a powerful low end, and their reasonable price make them an excellent value. I added a pair of Sony MDR-7506 headphones for private listening.

Expansive Options

My midprice Windows system is a production powerhouse, but looking ahead, there are a few things I'd love to have. I am a huge fan of the Symbolic Sound Kyma System, which I consider the ultimate sound-design, composition, and performance environment. Another dream item would be a pair of Genelec 1031As, which are some of the best-sounding monitors on the market.

But until I win the lottery or get my first call from a major Hollywood producer, I'll stick with this system. There's no doubt that it includes more than enough tools to tackle whatever music projects come along.

The Midprice Windows Studio:

ITEM PRICE
Applied Acoustics Tassman 4 soft synth $289
Cycling '74 Max/MSP/Jitter 4.5 programming environment $850
Dell Precision Workstation 670 $5,500
E-mu Emulator X Studio 1.5 audio interface/soft-sampler bundle $699
KRK Systems V8 powered monitors $900
Kurzweil KME61 MIDI keyboard $849
Native Instruments Reaktor 4 soft-synth toolkit $559
Røde NT4 stereo small-diaphragm condenser mic $899
Cakewalk Sonar 4 Producer Edition digital audio sequencer $959
Sony MDR-7506 headphones $99
Sony Media Software Sound Forge 8 stereo audio editor $299
Sony Vegas 6 multitrack audio editor with DVD Architect Production bundle $674
TOTAL $12,576

The Midprice Mac Studio

By Mike Levine

My midprice studio is designed primarily for CD production, so I wanted the ability to record live basic tracks, including drums. As a result, I had to allocate a sizeable amount of my $10,000 budget to mics, mic preamps, and headphones, leaving me with less money for software than some of the other studios detailed in this article. The studio, which can also be used for jingle projects, is self-contained, with the capability to handle tracking, mixing, and editing.

It Does Compute

The new Apple Mac G5 dual G5/2.3 GHz model was an easy choice for my CPU. Although it's not the fastest Mac, it's plenty peppy, and with the Memory Solutions 1 GB of RAM upgrade, it's ready to rock and roll. I added an internal Maxtor 300 GB hard drive with a 16 MB buffer for use as a recording drive.

Although I would have loved to buy an Apple Cinema Display to go with the G5, even the 20-inch model would blow my budget. Instead, I chose the less-expensive Planar PX191, which is not as aesthetically pleasing or as cool, but it offers a nice, crisp image and a 19-inch workspace.

Finding the Logic

Deciding on a digital audio sequencer was not easy. I like Mark of the Unicorn (MOTU) Digital Performer's combination of straightforward user interface and powerful features. When I started totaling up the cost of all the soft instruments and plug-ins that I wanted to supplement it with (Antares Auto-Tune, Native Instruments Guitar Rig, Waves Musician Bundle II, the MOTU Mach Five Sampler, and Propellerhead Reason), however, I didn't have a lot left over for some of the other items that I needed.

I decided to go with Apple Logic Pro 7.1 (see Fig. 10). Although Logic Pro, in my opinion, isn't as user-friendly as Digital Performer, it is competitive in terms of audio and MIDI recording and editing features and has a much larger plug-in selection. Logic Pro costs a couple of hundred dollars more than Digital Performer, but it's much more economical when you factor in how many quality plug-ins and soft instruments it contains. You get a boatload of excellent synth plug-ins; the EXS-24, a highly regarded sampler; Space Designer, a quality convolution reverb; Pitch Correction, a useful pitch-correction plug-in (although not as full-featured as Antares Auto-Tune); Guitar Amp Pro, a solid amp modeler; and all of Logic's reverbs, EQs, and dynamic effects.

Logic offers plenty of other extras, including an entire collection of Apple Loops and countless channel strips, which give you good starting points for instrument and effects settings. It also comes with WaveBurner software, so making CDs from your mixes is easy. The version 7.1 update adds automatic delay compensation, which Logic lacked in past versions.

Digidesign's Pro Tools digital audio sequencer is ubiquitous in the pop-music recording world, so some clients will probably bring in a Pro Tools project. To accommodate them, I wanted to have Pro Tools LE in addition to Logic. Because the Digi 002 Rack perfectly fit the bill for the type of FireWire audio interface that I wanted, and it comes bundled with Pro Tools LE, choosing it was a no-brainer (see Fig. 11). I get Pro Tools without spending significantly more than I would have had I purchased a comparable interface from another manufacturer.

In an attempt to save money for other necessities, I decided not to spring for BIAS Peak, one of the most popular Mac 2-track editors, although it would have been my top choice had budget not been a consideration. I opted instead for the less expensive but still robust i3 DSP-Quattro (a 2005 EM Editors' Choice Award winner).

I chose Edirol's PCR-M80 (see Fig. 12) for playing and controlling the many instruments in Logic Pro or Pro Tools. I also chose the PCR-M80 because it gives me the ability to control some of the onscreen mixing with faders. The PCR-M80 is a 61-key synth-action controller with a variety of programmable MIDI controllers, including eight knobs, eight sliders, and nine switches.

Following Signals

The aforementioned Digi 002 Rack gives my studio A/D/A conversion, four good-sounding mic/line/instrument preamps, four additional line inputs, and more. To record a band doing basic tracks, however, I need more than four mic preamps, so I added a couple of ART Tube MP Studio mic preamp/DI boxes, which bring my mic-pre count to six. I'd use four mics on the drums and one mic for the guitar amp during basics. The bass will go direct, and I can use one of the Tube MP Studios for that.

Although most of my dynamics processing is going to be done using plug-ins during mixdown, I want a hardware compressor that I can place at the inputs. For the money, it's hard to beat the FMR Really Nice Compressor (RNC), a half-rack unit that gives you excellent quality mono or stereo compression.

I don't need a lot of patching capabilities, but having some is convenient. Therefore, I bought the DBX PB-48 patch bay, which features 48 ¼-inch patch points that can be set for normaled or denormaled operation. That provides flexibility when patching the Digi 002 Rack's line inputs, the FMR RNC's I/O, and some of the Mackie Big Knob's many inputs and outputs.

Patterns of Excellence

Choosing mics is tough because there are so many good options. First, I needed a large-diaphragm condenser to use as a vocal mic and for critical instrument-miking applications. I chose the Røde NT2-A, because it offers an excellent combination of sound quality and versatility. It has multiple patterns, an adjustable pad, and a 3-way highpass filter.

I also needed a stereo pair of small-diaphragm condenser mics to use as drum overheads and for instrument miking (such as on acoustic guitars). I went with Audio-Technica's popular AT4041s, which are versatile, good sounding, and reasonably priced.

I needed a mic for kick drum that could also be used on a bass amp and other low-end sources. For that, I chose the tried-and-true AKG D112. The Audix D6 and Shure Beta 52 would also be good choices, but they are a little more expensive.

To round out my mic collection, I selected a pair of Shure SM57s. Those classic mics, which are found in virtually every commercial studio, are excellent for snare, guitar-cabinet, and various other instrument-miking applications.

Listen Up

I chose Event Tuned Reference 8XLs as my primary monitors because they have 8-inch drivers (important for hearing the bottom end of mixes). The 8XLs were also the hit of EM's recent powered-monitor roundup (see the March 2005 issue of EM), in which they were described as having a smooth sound and a full-frequency response. I like to have a second set of speakers for comparison during mixdown, and for that I selected a pair of M-Audio MX4 active monitors, which have 4-inch drivers and didn't do a lot of damage to my budget.

Even though I'll be mixing “in the box,” I still needed the equivalent of a mixer's monitoring section, and for that I chose the Mackie Big Knob. It's useful for talkback, switching between sources (in my case, the output of the Digi 002 Rack and the output from the G5), and switching between my Event and Audix speakers.

For my primary headphones, I picked AKG K 240 DFs, which are noted for their flat-frequency response. Because my studio was designed for recording a band doing basic tracks, I needed four additional pairs of headphones for the band. For those, I went with a more economical model, selecting four pairs of the closed-back Yamaha RH2Bs. I also took the economic route for my headphone amp, opting for the solid but simple Rolls HA43, which has one stereo TRS input and four stereo TRS outputs, each with individual volume controls.

Make a Wish

If more money were to become available for my studio, I'd get a higher-end mic preamp for recording vocals and other critical elements. I'd also like to get another quality large-diaphragm condenser mic to have some options for different vocalists. And although we haven't discussed cables in this story, I'd want to buy a mic snake so that I could more easily put the instruments in a distant room when tracking. But even without those additional items, my studio is well equipped to make some serious music. Bring on the bands!

The Midprice Mac Studio:

ITEMS PRICE
AKG D112 dynamic kick-drum mic $298
AKG K240 DF headphones $268
Apple Logic Pro 7.1 sequencer $999
Apple Power Mac Dual 2.3 GHz G5 computer $2,499
ART Tube MP Studio mic preamp/DI (2) $178
Audio-Technica AT4041 small-diaphragm condenser mic (2) $790
dbx PB-48 patch bay $149
Digidesign Digi O02 Rack FireWire interface $1,295
Edirol PCR-M80 USB MIDI keyboard controller $375
Event Tuned Reference 8XL active studio monitors (pair) $699
FMR Really Nice Compressor $199
i3 DSP-Quattro stereo audio editor $149
Mackie Big Knob audio controller $384
M-Audio DX4 active monitors (pair) $199
Maxtor L01S250 300 GB Ultra16 SATA/150 hard drive $250
Memory Solutions 1 GB RAM $101
Planar PX191 19" LCD monitor $529
Røde NT2-A large-diaphragm condenser mic $699
Rolls HA43 headphone amp $70
Shure SM57 dynamic mics (2) $292
Yamaha RH2B headphones (4) $399
TOTAL $10,821

The Higher-Price Windows Studio

By Gino Robair

My goal with this studio is to do pro-level multitrack recording, editing, mixing, and mastering. It also includes basic MIDI sequencing capabilities, but my main focus is on quality transducers as well as system adaptability: I needed to cover nearly any project that comes through the door, from demo work to indie soundtrack projects.

A Win-Win Situation

To head off the potential effects of Moore's Law on my bank account, my first task was to get a computer that I can live with for several years. The good news is that since I built a Windows-based studio, it didn't cost me an arm and a leg to get a tricked-out machine. After some preliminary budgeting, I allocated $5,000 — almost a quarter of my studio budget — for the computer.

As Dennis Miller points out in the lower-price Windows studio section, there are two options. The first is to go with an off-the-shelf computer and get as much bang for the buck in computing power as you can. Then you can assemble the software palette that best fits your needs, but you have to configure and troubleshoot it yourself. The second option is to go with a company that specializes in building DAWs for music, such as Alienware, Carillon, Rain, Spectral Computers, Truespec Systems, and Zealot Pro, to name a few. Those systems include audio software and an appropriate interface, as well as studio-friendly computer components that run quieter and cooler than the typical small-business machine. You can, however, expect to pay a premium for a preconfigured system. I chose to go with the first option, since I don't mind configuring my own system. If the computer is too noisy, I can shove it into the equipment closet.

The first stop for my credit card was Dell.com. I chose the Precision Workstation 670, with an Intel Pentium 4 Xeon 3.6 GHz processor, Windows XP Professional Edition, 4 GB of RAM, 400 GB and 160 GB hard drives, a DVD-R writer that covers all the major formats, an nVidia Quadro video card, a 19-inch flat CRT display, a three-year on-site service plan, and all the other trimmings you'd expect (including eight USB 2.0 ports and two FireWire ports). My total came to $4,684, which left me with $316 in my computer budget.

Heart and Soul

My digital multitrack audio editor of choice is Magix Samplitude 8 Professional (see Fig. 13). Over the years, Samplitude has gone from an austere product to one that is powerful and easy to use. Out of the box, it comes with an astounding set of tools, including built-in CD burning capabilities, DVD-Audio support, two types of convolution processors, automatic audio-file cutting and looping capabilities, a MIDI drum editor, POW-r dithering, and ASIO, VST, and ReWire support.

I considered going with Samplitude 8 Classic because I don't need the 5.1 surround features in Professional, and buying Classic would cut the cost of my purchase in half. The Professional version, however, offers many goodies that I couldn't pass up, including Elastic Audio, for real-time pitch change and correction; the Analog Modeling Suite of effects, which includes a compressor and a transient designer; real-time convolution reverb; numerous simultaneous plug-ins (including VST instruments) per insert; Robota Pro, an 8-voice virtual-analog synth with step sequencer; and 999 stereo or mono tracks (as opposed to 64 in Classic). It also allows me to do fancy things such as draw filter curves and apply effects on an object-by-object basis.

Samplitude 8's MIDI features aren't deep compared to those in Sonar or Cubase SX, but they're sufficient for my basic needs. Overall, Samplitude 8 is a powerful, stable, and mature digital multitrack audio editor that will serve me well as the core of my recording system.

I also needed a dedicated 2-track editor, so I -allocated money to purchase Sony Sound Forge 8, which supports almost two dozen audio file formats, allowing me to work with just about any project that crosses my desk. In addition to offering restoration plug-ins, spectral analysis, and support for DV, the latest version works with VST effects, offers scripting and batch conversion, and comes with Sony CD Architect 5 for disc burning.

Having high-quality plug-ins and processing power is important to me. To get the best of both worlds, I added a TC Electronic PowerCore FireWire to my system (see Fig. 14). This hardware DSP host comes bundled with 14 plug-ins that cover synthesis, compression, EQ, reverb, and mastering. It also has a virtual TC Finalizer and Character, which is a plug-in that combines compression and filtering. And because you can never have too many processors, I also sprung for Waves Native Power Pack. Although there will be some duplication of tools with the PowerCore FireWire bundle, I particularly wanted the Waves L1 Ultramaximizer, the Q10 Paragraphic Equalizer, and the C1 Parametric Compander in my toolkit, not to mention another killer reverb.

One last item in my dream studio is Digidesign Pro Tools LE with a Digi 002 Rack FireWire interface. I have Samplitude for audio editing and sequencing, but it's difficult to stay competitive in the studio biz without having some sort of Pro Tools compatibility. The Digi 002 Rack gives me eight channels of balanced analog I/O (four inputs have phantom-powered XLR jacks), eight channels of ADAT Lightpipe I/O, stereo S/PDIF I/O, 16 MIDI channels in, and 32 MIDI channels out. With 18 channels of audio I/O, I can accept clients that prefer to work in the Pro Tools environment.

No desktop studio is complete without a MIDI controller, and I wanted one with a midsize keyboard and at least a dozen assignable controllers. For my money, the Korg Kontrol49 fit the bill. It has a 49-note, full-size, Velocity-sensitive keyboard; pitch and modulation wheels; eight assignable sliders and knobs; and 16 Velocity-sensitive trigger pads that can be assigned as transport controls or used for programming drums. It also has two MIDI Out ports and USB 1.1 connectivity.

Mix and Match

Although my budget seems substantial, it will quickly disappear once I begin assembling the necessary hardware needed for a studio that is focused on audio recording, such as mic preamps and A/D/A converters. The best value lies in a digital mixer that offers all of those features, as well as EQ, dynamics processing, and a control surface. For that reason, I chose the Tascam DM-3200 digital console (see Fig. 15). I haven't had a chance to test the DM-3200 (except at a trade show), which I realize poses a bit of a risk. Normally, if I haven't tested a product, I would wait for the EM review to fill me in on the details. I feel pretty confident about this mixer, however, based on my past experience with other Tascam digital consoles, such as the DM-24.

The DM-3200 is a 48-channel (32 inputs and 16 auxiliary returns), 16-bus console that can handle 24-bit, 96 kHz audio at full track count. The mixer offers 16 analog inputs, each with an insert and a 20 dB pad, and you can choose between a phantom-powered XLR jack and a balanced ¼-inch jack on every channel. It also has a range of digital I/O (which allows me to interface with nearly every recording system available), including 24 channels of TDIF I/O, eight channels of ADAT Lightpipe I/O, two sets of S/PDIF I/O, and two sets of AES/EBU I/O. MIDI In, Out, and Thru and USB 1.1 ports are standard equipment. Two additional I/O card slots are available, so I added the IF-FW/DM FireWire card to the system. I will purchase the optional MU-1000 meter bridge at a later date.

Each of the mixer's 32 channels has a dynamics processor and 4-band parametric EQ. Two stereo multi-effects processors, which offer a TC Works reverb and other effects, are available through the aux sends. The control surface has transport buttons, a shuttle wheel, a talkback mic, and two headphone outputs. You can use its 17 motorized faders to control channels 1 through 16 or 17 through 32, 16 buses, 16 returns, 8 auxes, or your sequencer. The DM-3200 also lets you automate fader levels, aux and bus levels, EQ and dynamics settings, panning, and muting. Other features include 6.1 surround support and Mackie HUI emulation. All in all, the DM-3200 covers a lot of my studio needs, and it gives me more than enough I/O to start with. For the price, the DM-3200 is a heck of a bargain.

To reward myself for keeping a close rein on the money spent on mixing and processing, I splurged for at least two channels of high-quality tube-based mic preamplification. The Universal Audio 2-610 houses a pair of 610-style preamps, with variable control over input impedance, high- and low-shelving EQ, DI inputs, and balanced line-level inputs. That means you can use it to create vintage magic for miked sources, electric guitar and bass, or keyboards and drum machines. The 2-610 sounds great with high-end condensers, and it works wonders with ribbon mics and bread-and-butter dynamic mics. It's a rugged workhorse that is perfect for doing vocal and instrument overdubs.

Capturing

Because recording is the main focus of my studio, I didn't want to skimp on transducers. I needed an array of microphones that will cover a variety of sessions, from vocals and horns to a full drum set. Drum recording requires the largest number of mics, so I approached my new mic cabinet from that point of view, keeping in mind that each mic will do double duty on other instruments.

I wanted at least eight microphones for recording a drum set: one for each drum of a 5-piece kit, two overheads, and a room mic. For that purpose, I picked up the Audix DP5 drum pack, which has five dynamic mics: a D6 for the bass drum, a D4 for the floor tom, a pair of D2s for the rack toms, and a D1 for the snare. The collection includes clips that mount the mics to the drum rims (if you don't mind that style of mounting) and an aluminum carrying case. The D6's high- and low-end boost sounds fabulous on kick drum. The D6 should be in everyone's mic cabinet for recording low-frequency sources. The Audix dynamics sound great on nearly all percussion, and the mics are rugged and well built, making them perfect for stage and studio use.

I needed a matched stereo pair of small-diaphragm condenser mics for use as drum overheads and general-purpose recording. The Josephson Series Four C42 is my first choice (see Fig. 16). They have an excellent transient response, dimensionality, and high-end clarity, making them great for stereo recording. These American-made mics are available in matched pairs and ship with shockmounts and a protective Pelican case. The C42s sound like they cost twice as much, and they will get plenty of use in my studio.

I also wanted a large-diaphragm condenser mic for tracking vocals and acoustic instruments. I chose the Neumann TLM-103, a studio standard. It gives a round-but-accurate representation of whatever you're miking, and it works well as a room mic for drums or electric guitar.

To complete my mic collection, I selected an Audio Engineering Associates R84, which is a great-sounding ribbon mic at an amazing price. I'm especially excited about the prospect of using it with the Universal Audio 2-610 preamp. Whether I'm recording a crooner, a cornetist, a shredder, or a saxophonist, I know the R84 will yield excellent results.

Listening

With such a kick-ass collection of mics and preamps, I wasn't about to skimp on monitors. The Event Studio Precision 8 Active (ASP8) is a powered monitor with 1-inch and 8-inch drivers, XLR and balanced ¼-inch inputs, continuously variable high- and low-frequency trim controls for tuning the monitor to your room, and a highpass filter for use with a subwoofer. But forget those stats; these speakers are extremely revealing, which is exactly what you want in a close-field monitor. Their flat overall frequency response, excellent imaging, and transparency let you hear deep into your mix. I've been using a pair of ASP8s for months, and they have definitely changed the quality of my work.

For critical listening, I chose the open-backed Grado SR125 headphones. The SR125's have a balanced, accurate sound and are comfortable to wear — a must when you spend hours in an editing session. I also needed headphones for musicians, so I selected three pairs of Audio-Technica ATH-M40fs closed-back headphones, which are fairly robust and powerful, and a Furman HA-6 headphone amp to power them. That setup will cover basic rhythm-section tracking sessions, even in high-volume situations. And with all that, I still spent less than Geary Yelton did on his higher-price Mac studio!

The Higher-Price Windows Studio:

ITEMS PRICE
Audio Engineering Associates R84 ribbon mic $1,100
Audio-Technica ATH-M40fs headphones (3) $450
Audix DP5 dynamic-mic package $1,149
Dell Precision Workstation 670 computer $4,684
Digidesign Digi 002 Rack audio interface $1,295
Event Studio Precision 8 active monitors (pair) $1,499
Furman HA-6 headphone amp $399
Grado SR125 headphones $150
Josephson Series Four C42 small-diaphragm condenser mics (matched pair) $1,060
Korg Kontrol49 USB MIDI controller $500
Magix Samplitude 8 Professional digital audio sequencer $1,249
Neumann TLM-103 large-diaphragm condenser mic $995
Sony Media Software Sound Forge 8 stereo audio editor $299
Tascam DM-3200 digital mixer $3,700
Tascam IF-FW/DM 24-channel FireWire card $499
TC Electronic PowerCore FireWire DSP host/plug-in bundle $1,795
Universal Audio 2-610 tube mic preamp $2,295
Waves Native Power Pack plug-in bundle $500
TOTAL $23,618

The Higher-Price Mac Studio

By Geary Yelton

With $25,000 in hand (thanks to the generosity of EM philanthropist-in-chief Steve O), I can build a versatile desktop studio that will handle anything that clients throw at it, whether it's tracking, mixing, preproduction, post-production, or mastering. My studio should be capable of recording rock bands, drum kits, chamber groups, vocal ensembles, scoring sessions, voice-overs, and practically anything short of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. But why limit myself? Because it's a desktop studio, I could even throw all the equipment in a van and offer on-site recording services.

A generous budget affords tremendous leeway in selecting the software and hardware that make such a studio possible. Still, there's a reason that million-dollar studios cost a million dollars, and even $25,000 has its limits.

Make Me a Monster

Because my budget accommodates Apple's finest desktop computer, that's exactly what I chose. Apple's newest off-the-shelf, top-of-the-line Power Mac G5 has dual 2.7 GHz PowerPC G5 processors, 512 MB of DDR400 RAM, a 250 GB serial ATA drive, a 16x double-layer SuperDrive, 256 MB of DDR video RAM, and three PCI-X slots. With 64-bit processing, 128-bit memory, a 1.35 GHz front-side bus, and 512K of L2 cache, this baby is built for speed. In case I decide to buy a second monitor later (handy for a desktop studio), my video card supports dual displays. Software-wise, a new G5 includes iLife '05 (with GarageBand 2) and the new Mac OS X 10.4, aka Tiger.

I needed more memory, and because my Mac has eight RAM slots, I added four 512 MB DIMMs to bring the total to 2.5 GB, leaving two slots open for future expansion. To maintain full 128-bit data width, DIMMs must be installed in pairs of equal size (and besides, 1 GB chips cost more). The G5's standard hard drive is fast, but I wanted a second serial ATA drive for digital audio. The Maxtor does well in performance tests, so I chose the 300 GB model with a 16 MB cache.

A large video monitor is indispensable when working with lots of tracks and plug-ins. Once you've grown accustomed to mixing on a 23-inch monitor with a 16:9 ratio, anything else seems puny. I like my Apple Cinema HD Display, but if I were shopping for a similar display today, I'd go with the HP L2335. In addition to costing $100 less, the L2335 can pivot from landscape to portrait mode, is height adjustable, and has composite-, component-, S-video, analog, and digital VGA inputs.

Driving to Workstation

My first thought was to build a studio around Digidesign Pro Tools|HD. Such a setup would likely attract a high-end clientele and offer maximum compatibility with projects brought in from other studios. When I investigated the costs, however, I realized that after buying the necessary Digidesign software and hardware, even with all the bundled plug-ins, I wouldn't have enough money left over for everything else I wanted. Unless I was willing to compromise on monitors, microphones, or a control surface, I had to rethink my strategy. Consequently, I decided on a high-definition audio system built around Mark of the Unicorn's Digital Performer 4.52 and HD192 interface.

Digital Performer is one of the big guns of the audio-sequencer world. Just about anything you can do with any of its competitors — from audio time-stretching to microscopic MIDI editing — you can do with Digital Performer. Recent revisions to its user interface make it easier to use than other top-shelf sequencers. The number of audio and MIDI tracks that you can record is limited only by your computer hardware, and the list of bundled plug-ins is extensive. In addition to MOTU Audio Suite (MAS) plug-ins, Digital Performer supports AU, providing access to a vast selection of plug-ins. If I were to add Audio Ease VST Wrapper or FXpansion VST-AU Converter, Digital Performer would also be able to access VST instruments and effects, but that will have to wait until I have more money.

Although Digital Performer furnishes plug-ins for almost any effects or dynamics processing that you'll need, it's always a good idea to have a variety of high-quality processors available. To that end, I chose Universal Audio's UAD-1 Ultra Pak, which includes a suite of 24 hardware-accelerated plug-ins. The UAD-1 PCI card takes some of the load off the computer's processor, and the plug-ins offer everything from compressors and EQs to reverb and guitar-amp modeling. In addition to highly regarded software versions of the classic UA 1176 LN limiting amplifier, Teletronix LA-2A, and Pultec EQP-1A, the plug-ins include UA's DreamVerb, Cambridge EQ, and emulations of the EMT 140 plate reverb and the Fairchild 670 compressor.

I also wanted software that lets me edit stereo in even greater detail than Digital Performer does. Because of its rich feature set and suitability for mastering chores, I chose BIAS Peak Pro 5, the newest version of my favorite audio editor (see Fig. 17). Peak manages a huge variety of audio processing functions. Its looping tools are excellent. Several new DSP algorithms are available, and others have been improved. ImpulseVerb, Peak's convolution reverb, lets you create your own impulse responses. Peak's effects-routing extension, Vbox, now supports AU and VST plug-ins, dozens of which are included. Peak Pro 5 does batch processing; burns replication-ready, Red Book CDs; and much more.

To serve clients who want to clean up less-than-perfect recordings, I needed noise-reduction capabilities. BIAS SoundSoap 2 is a plug-in that reduces tape hiss and removes buzz, static, hum, and other undesirable sounds from audio tracks, making it an indispensable component in my studio toolbox. That is the entry-level version of SoundSoap, which is easy to use. If I hadn't already stretched my budget to the limit, I might have opted for SoundSoap Pro or bought the whole Peak Pro XT 5 bundle ($1,199), which includes SoundSoap Pro and many EQ, pitch-correction, dynamics-processing, and audio-analysis plug-ins.

My other audio editor is a 24-track program that can run as a plug-in within Digital Performer. Nothing beats Celemony Melodyne Studio Edition for pitch and timing correction (see Fig. 18). It lets you edit monophonic audio data as if it were MIDI data, easily transposing pitch and quantizing rhythm. If a singer is off-key on just one note or throughout an entire song, Melodyne can fix it. If you need to transpose an entire track to a different key, Melodyne will come closest to retaining the original sound. It even lets you play back audio using a MIDI controller to control pitch, phrasing, vibrato, and dynamics.

Performance Enhancers

A high-definition audio system requires a multiport interface that can handle 24-bit, 192 kHz audio. With 12 analog inputs, 12 analog outputs, and low-noise, low-distortion A/D conversion, the MOTU HD192 fits the bill perfectly. Two channels of 96 kHz AES/EBU I/O with automatic sampling-rate conversion and word-clock I/O deliver the flexibility needed to interface with other pro digital audio gear. Features such as 19-segment level meters and balanced XLR I/O throughout offer functionality that's essential in a mixerless studio. And because the HD192 uses MOTU's PCI-424 expansion card, I can add easily another audio interface for more audio channels in the future.

I admire Grace Design preamps, and the Lunatec V3 is perfect for the applications that I have in mind. In addition to a transparent-sounding preamp with 2-channel balanced XLR I/O, the Lunatec V3 is a 24-bit, 192 kHz A/D converter with two AES/EBU digital outputs. It's a perfect match for the HD192, and it provides an alternative to the HD192's internal preamps and dithering. It also has an M-S decoder, making it ideal for recording stereo sources.

The Mackie Big Knob (see Fig. 19) is a multipurpose device that fulfills several desktop studio needs. It has two headphone outputs and two outputs for a separate headphone amp (should I ever need one). It has a built-in talkback mic that takes care of communication between the control room and the recording booth. It lets you select monitor sources by switching among three stereo inputs, which can be balanced or unbalanced. When I can afford additional monitor speakers, it will also switch among three stereo outputs. The Big Knob isn't a floor wax or a dessert topping, but it takes care of numerous functions that might otherwise be missing because my studio lacks a mixing console.

I needed at least two dedicated direct boxes, and I selected the Tech 21 SansAmp XDI. The XDI is a straightforward, clean-sounding DI with normal and bright instrument inputs, an unbalanced ¼-inch output, and a balanced XLR output. It accepts phantom power, or you can power it with a DC adapter or a 9V battery.

Top-Notch Transducers

As soon as I was assigned the high-end Mac studio, I knew that I wanted a pair of new Genelecs for my close-field monitor speakers. I prefer powered monitors rather than a separate amplifier and speakers because the audio components in a good powered system are closely matched. I considered a pair of Genelec 8030As, but I wanted the increased power and extended frequency range of the biamplified 8040As (see Fig. 20). The amps drive the top and bottom with 90W (peak, into 8Ω) each. The 8040A is quite flat down to 48 Hz, according to Genelec's specs, and room-response controls let me tailor its output to my studio environment. The included IsoPod mounting stands provide plenty of flexibility in positioning the cabinets.

I also needed at least three pairs of headphones for the engineer and the musicians. For years, my favorite studio headphones have been the Fostex T20-RP; they're lightweight, comfortable, and durable, and they reproduce sound accurately. If a cable BREAKs, replacement is literally a snap.

A first-rate studio needs a nice assortment of quality microphones that can handle a variety of tasks. To make my mic cabinet as flexible as possible, I allotted almost 25 percent of my entire budget for mics, with models ranging from dynamic cardioids to a high-output ribbon mic, and some respectable condensers in between.

The Røde NT2000 is probably the most versatile large-diaphragm condenser mic you'll find for the money. In January 2005, EM gave the NT2000 an Editors' Choice award for Best Microphone, and with good reason: in addition to excellent sound, it gives you continuously variable control over its polar pattern, smoothly changing from omnidirectional and cardioid to figure-8. The NT2000 is ideal for so many recording tasks — from vocals and acoustic guitars to orchestral instruments — that I wanted two of them. Having two good condenser mics also gives me the option of recording in stereo.

I've always admired Royer mics, and my budget allowed me to purchase the one I'd most like to own. The Royer R-122 is a ribbon mic with active circuitry that has the output level of a condenser mic, yet it's extremely quiet. For miking acoustic and electric guitars, woodwinds, brass, or stringed instruments, the R-122 has a crisp, well-defined sound. In many situations, it would be ideal to have a choice between the NT2000 and the R-122 to determine which is best for the job at hand. Put simply, the R-122 is a great mic with loads of applications.

For recording drums, Earthworks' DrumKit System DK25/R is an excellent choice. Rather than the conventional practice of using one mic for each drum, the Earthworks system comprises only three dynamic mics: two TC25 omnis for overhead stereo and an SR25 cardioid for kick drum. The system also includes a KickPad, which optimizes the SR25's output for kick drum. In addition to sounding great on drums, the DK25/R gives me three high-quality mics that I can use for recording in general. The SR25 is exceptionally fine for almost any instrument (or even vocals), and the TC25s are outstanding for recording piano, vocal groups, or instrumental ensembles. In fact, you can use the TC25s any time that you need a pair of omnidirectional mics.

Because every studio needs at least a couple of basic dynamic mics for recording instruments, I chose a pair of Audix i5s. I generally favor Audix dynamic mics over Shures, and I prefer the i5 to the more popular SM57. Audix mics are tough and dependable, and you never know when you'll need a pair of them.

Chaos and Control

Compared to using real knobs and faders, mixing with a mouse is slow and tedious. When I began shopping for a control surface, I considered several models before settling on the tried-and-true Mackie Control Universal (MCU). Each of the MCU's eight channel strips has a 100 mm touch-sensitive motorized fader, an assignable rotary controller, and buttons to control functions such as mute, solo, and track arming. In addition to transport controls, the MCU has a bank of buttons that perform software-specific functions, and the 55-character LCD displays selected parameters and values. I doubled the number of channels by adding the MCU XT, an 8-channel extension unit without the master section. And because the MCU uses MIDI to communicate with the computer, I added the MOTU FastLane, a basic 2×2 MIDI interface.

I also needed a keyboard for controlling software instruments and any sound modules that clients bring into my studio. I once owned and loved an 88-note hammer-action keyboard, and I recognize that many keyboardists would expect to find such a controller in a high-end studio. The price of 88-note controllers has fallen in the past year or so, and at the same time, newer keyboards offer the array of knobs and sliders that I want to control my software-based instruments.

I was intrigued by the promise of a new keyboard controller that appears to suit my needs, the CME UF8. Unfortunately, CME keyboards are so new in this country that I haven't had a chance to try one out yet, and I wanted to select something that I knew I could depend on. The M-Audio Keystation Pro 88 fits the bill just fine. In addition to an 88-note hammer action, it has a large graphic LCD, 24 knobs, 9 faders, and 22 buttons. Combined with the mod wheel, two footswitch jacks, and an expression-pedal jack, that's a total of 59 MIDI controllers that you can assign to control any software instrument or MIDI module. It also serves as a MIDI interface for external instruments and hardware, and the price is nice.

Synths and Sampler

Picking a soft sampler was simple: Native Instruments Kontakt 2 is powerful, versatile, and easy to use. Half of the included 15 GB sample library furnishes 30 orchestral instruments from the Vienna Symphonic Libraries. Kontakt 2 can load banks of 128 instruments and imports most sampler formats. Its modular architecture and script processing let you customize its operation to suit almost any situation or need. Kontakt 2's suite of surround-capable effects includes convolution reverb, and the software ships with more than 300 impulse responses.

Because soft synths are essential for the kind of work I do, selecting only the basics was difficult. The sheer number of great synth algorithms in Applied Acoustics Tassman 4, combined with its prodigious effects processing, made it impossible to omit. Tassman is a virtual modular synth that uses physical modeling to emulate dozens of modules and effects that range from commonplace to esoteric. You can use Tassman as a processor for other audio sources, too, offering effects such as octave division, speaker modeling, and synchronized tremolo.

The other synth I wouldn't want to do without is VirSyn Tera 2 (see Fig. 21). Like Tassman 4, Tera is a virtual modular synth with a comprehensive timbral palette. Virtual analog, FM, additive, and other forms of synthesis make optimum use of Tera's assortment of oscillators, filters, modulators, and other modular functions. Tera can process external audio signals, and it offers a powerful step sequencer in the classic analog mold. It takes you as deep as you want to go, and its wonderful collection of presets lets you find great sounds quickly. For acoustic emulations, bleeding-edge sound design, and anything in between, Tassman 4 and Tera 2 have plenty to offer.

Into the Future

One advantage of a computer-based studio is that new functionality is only a software package away. As funds became available, I would certainly invest in soundware to take advantage of Kontakt 2's capabilities and to provide fodder for loop sequencing. Sample-based virtual instruments, a software drum machine, and emulations of classic keyboards are also high on my list of upgrades. A broad selection of pianos, organs, and orchestral instruments would be most useful. Additional effects plug-ins would make my clients and me very happy. A premium convolution reverb would top the wish list.

On the hardware front, I could definitely use a couple more direct boxes. A full 8 GB of RAM would help with running all that new software, and it's inevitable that I'll eventually need some additional hard drives. A MOTU 24 I/O would give me a lot more TRS inputs, and it wouldn't require an additional PCI-424 card. A Mackie Control C4 would be very nice for hands-on software control. A few more mics and a tube preamp couldn't hurt, either. While we're throwing money around, I'd like a second 23-inch monitor. Once I could afford it, I would also invest in a 5.1 surround system, preferably with five Genelec 8030As and a 7060A subwoofer. And, incidentally, I'd finally buy a pair of Auratones.

The Higher-Price Mac Studio:

ITEMS PRICE
Apple Power Mac Dual 2.7 GHz G5 computer $2,999
Applied Acoustics Tassman 4 soft synth $349
Audix i5 dynamic mics (2) $358
BIAS Peak Pro 5 stereo audio editor $599
BIAS SoundSoap 2 noise-reduction plug-in $99
Celemony Melodyne Studio Edition multitrack audio editor $599
Earthworks DrumKit System dynamic mics $2,100
Fostex T20-RP headphones (3) $357
Genelec 8040A monitors (2) $2,390
Grace Design Lunatec V3 preamp $1,695
Hewlett-Packard L2335 video display $1,399
Kingmax 2×512 MB DDR400 SDRAM (2) $144
Mackie Big Knob audio controller $384
Mackie Control Universal control surface $1,299
Mackie Control Universal XT control extension $1,099
M-Audio Keystation Pro 88 USB/MIDI keyboard $600
Maxtor L01S250 300GB Ultra16 SATA/150 hard drive $250
MOTU Digital Performer 4.52 digital audio sequencer $795
MOTU FastLane MIDI interface $79
MOTU HD192 audio interface $1,895
Native Instruments Kontakt 2 soft sampler $579
Røde NT2000 large-diaphragm condenser mics (2) $1,798
Royer R-122 ribbon mic $1,695
Tech 21 SansAmp XDI direct box (2) $180
Universal Audio UAD-1 Ultra Pak DSP host/plug-in bundle $1,495
VirSyn Tera soft synth $339
TOTAL $25,575

Below is a list of URLs for the manufacturers mentioned in this article:

Ableton Software: www.ableton.com

AcousModules: http://acousmodules.free.fr/index_en.htm

AKG Acoustics, U.S.: www.akgusa.com

Apple Computer: www.apple.com

Applied Acoustics Systems: www.applied-acoustics.com

ART (Applied Research and Technology): www.artproaudio.com

Audio Engineering Associates (AEA): www.wesdooley.com

Audio-Technica: www.audio-technica.com

Audix: www.audixusa.com

BIAS (Berkley Integrated Audio Software): www.bias-inc.com

Cakewalk: www.cakewalk.com

Celemony: Software www.Celemony.com

Christian Knufinke: www.knufinke.de/sir/index_en.html

Cycling '74: www.cycling74.com

dbx Professional Products (Harman): www.dbxpro.com

Dell Computer: www.dell.com

Digidesign: www.digidesign.com

Earthworks Audio Products: www.earthworksaudio.com

Edirol: www.edirol.com

E-mu Systems: www.emu.com

Event Electronics: www.event1.com

FMR Audio: http://fmraudio.com

Fostex: www.fostex.com

Furman Sound: www.furmansound.com

Garritan: www.garritan.com

Genelec: www.genelecusa.com

Glaresoft: www.glaresoft.com

Grace Design: www.gracedesign.com

Grado Labs: www.gradolabs.com

Green Oak: www.greenoak.com

Hewlett-Packard: www.hp.com

i3 Software: www.i3net.it

Iced Audio: www.icedaudio.com

Josephson Engineering: www.josephson.com

Kingmax Semiconductor: www.kingmax.com

Korg USA: www.korg.com

KRK Systems: www.krksys.com/

Kurzweil Music Systems: www.kurzweilmusicsystems.com

Loud Technologies, Inc./Mackie: www.mackie.com

M-Audio: www.m-audio.com

Magix Entertainment: www.magix.net

Maxtor: www.maxtor.com

Memory Solutions: www.memorysolutions.com

MOTU: www.motu.com

Native Instruments: www.native-instruments.com

Neumann USA: www.neumannusa.com

Planar Systems Inc.: www.planar.com

Propellerhead Software: www.propellerhead.se

Røde Microphones: www.rodemic.com

Rolls Music Corp./Bellari: www.rolls.com

Royer Labs: www.royerlabs.com

Seventh String Software: www.seventhstring.com

Shure Incorporated: www.shure.com

Snoize Software: www.snoize.com

Sony Corp. of America: www.sony.com

Sony Media Software: http://mediasoftware.sonypictures.com/

Steinberg: www.steinberg.net

Tascam: www.tascam.com

TC Electronic: www.tcelectronic.com

Tech 21: www.tech21nyc.com

Ugo: www.cortidesign.com/ugo

Universal Audio: www.uaudio.com

VirSyn Software Synthesizer: www.virsyn.com

Waves: www.waves.com

Yamaha Corporation of America: www.yamaha.com


EM senior editors Gino Robair and Mike Levine and associate editors Dennis Miller, Geary Yelton, and Len Sasso had to work hard for the thousands of dollars in play money that editor-in-chief Steve O dealt for this article.

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