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Build a Laptop Studio on Any Budget

May 1, 2009
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Photo: Bob Montesclaros

Photo: Bob Montesclaros

The latest laptop computers are powerful enough to make them a viable alternative to the tower in the personal studio, especially for musicians for whom portability is an important factor. Whether you are a touring musician, a weekend gigger, or just someone who wants to make music while on vacation, there's a lot you can do with just your laptop and a few choice pieces of gear. Play your cards right, and you can fit the whole setup into a gig bag or a backpack.

Although there are many reasons for choosing a laptop for music making, we've focused on three common scenarios: the software-only, all-in-the-box setup for the composer-performer; the songwriter's studio, which will need mics for recording voices and instruments; and the multitrack live-recording rig. Even if what you do doesn't fit neatly into one of these areas, our reasons for choosing particular pieces of gear may help you with your own buying decisions.

For this article, we'll assume that you already have a laptop or are getting ready to purchase one. (With so many options and price ranges to choose from, it would be impractical to factor the computer into the cost of these studios.) In addition, we expect that you already have a digital audio sequencer that you're comfortable with, so we've designed these studios in such a way that for the most part, it doesn't matter what software or platform you prefer. (The exception, of course, is Digidesign Pro Tools, which requires that you use a Digidesign or M-Audio interface.) The prices, rounded to the dollar, are average street, such as you would find on the Web or in a brick-and-mortar store.

The Software-Only Studio
By Len Sasso

In this section, I'll cover studios designed for creating music completely within your computer using your chosen sequencing software, virtual instruments, and sound libraries. At the budget end, the cost is considerably lower than that of the other studios here because it doesn't include mics, multiport audio interfaces, mic preamps, and ancillary recording hardware.

Ultracompact on a Modest Budget
($89 to $1,000)

For starters, you need a way to hear your music. I suggest either the M-Audio IE-10 Professional Reference earphones ($89) or the Audio-Technica ATH-M50 closed-back headphones ($159). The earphones look cool and are certainly more convenient if you're sitting in the middle seat on a coach flight. The headphones offer higher fidelity, better isolation, and greater comfort. You can use either of them with your computer's built-in audio output. Because most sequencing software gives you complete operational access (including primitive note entry) from the computer keyboard and mouse, you can make a lot of music with nothing more.

Of course, using your computer keyboard for writing and mixing music gets old pretty quickly. If compactness is the ultimate issue, consider one or more of the USB Korg nanoSeries control surfaces (). The nanoKey ($49) has 25 Velocity-sensitive keys along with pitch-bend, mod-wheel, and octave-shift buttons, and its CC mode provides access to other MIDI Control Change messages. The nanoPad ($59) is a 12-pad drum-synth controller. You can configure its pads to trigger chords, and it has an x-y pad with roll and flam modes. The nanoKontrol ($59) provides transport buttons along with 9 sliders, 9 knobs, and 18 switches for mixing duties. The nanoSeries control surfaces are just over a foot wide and weigh less than a pound.

FIG. 1: The Novation ReMote SL Compact 25 delivers a lot of control in a small footprint.

FIG. 1: The Novation ReMote SL Compact 25 delivers a lot of control in a small footprint.

For a more conventional solution, I recommend the Novation ReMote SL Compact 25 ($285; see Fig. 1). If you don't need keys and want a smaller footprint, consider the Frontier AlphaTrack ($199). Both units are supported by most DAW software and will follow your selections to give you instant access to mixing and plug-in parameters. In addition, the ReMote SL's Automap Universal software lets you customize its plug-in mappings.

Finally, you can get the music out of your ear and improve on your computer's built-in audio while staying within your budget with the Alesis M1Active 320 USB ($99). This powered-speaker system doubles as a 16-bit, 44.1/48 kHz USB 1.1 audio interface with two inputs and stereo headphone output. In the best of all budget worlds, you can have everything here for about $1,000.

Full-Featured In-the-Box
($2,700 to $4,600)

With a higher budget, you can improve your audio experience as well as make your laptop serve as a viable home studio. For road work, you might want to upgrade your headphones with either the M-Audio IE-30 earphones ($225) or a pair of Sennheiser HD 380 Pro headphones ($199). The IE-30s add dual-driver technology, separate canals for high and low frequencies, and an in-line level control. They boast the same noise isolation of 26 dB as the IE-10s, but a greater frequency response — 20 Hz to 16 kHz versus 13 kHz for the IE-10s. The closed-back Sennheisers claim ambient noise suppression of 32 dB, a maximum 110 dB SPL, and a frequency response of 8 Hz to 27 kHz, and they weigh 7.75 ounces.

For use at home, where you're not constrained by noise or weight, you have more speaker options. Nothing compares with being able to audition speakers unhurriedly in a good listening environment and, whenever possible, in your studio. Having said that, I recommend a pair of Genelec 8030As ($1,499 per pair). These biamped monitors give you a variety of mounting options to make them work in any space and orientation. For better low-end resolution, add the 7050B powered subwoofer ($1,229).

Your range of options for an audio interface depends on your laptop's I/O. For multitrack audio, FireWire is the preferred choice. However, USB 2.0 is a reasonable alternative, especially if you're not concerned with high track counts when multichannel recording. For compactness and quality in a USB interface, consider the new U42S in the Lexicon Ionix line ($399). It has 24-bit, 96 kHz resolution and puts the controls and metering for its stereo output and two headphone channels conveniently next to your laptop. It includes S/PDIF digital I/O as well as a single-port MIDI interface. In case you decide to venture outside the box and do some live recording, you get four mic/line inputs with mic preamps and 48V phantom power along with DI instrument inputs on the first two channels.

FIG. 2: The MOTU UltraLite mk3 doubles as a FireWire audio interface and a standalone 10-by-14 mixer.

FIG. 2: The MOTU UltraLite mk3 doubles as a FireWire audio interface and a standalone 10-by-14 mixer.

If your laptop has FireWire, the MOTU UltraLite mk3 ($549) is a compact option that doubles as a standalone portable mixer (see Fig. 2). It features 24-bit, 192 kHz operation (96 kHz for S/PDIF) and has 10 inputs and 14 outputs, making it suitable for stereo, quad, and surround. Its onboard CueMix FX digital mixer and built-in DSP effects provide no-latency processing with no hit on your computer's CPU. All controls are accessible from the UltraLite mk3 front panel. You can use FireWire bus power if your laptop supports it, or use the included power supply. MacBook Pro users should also consider the 2-channel Apogee Duet ($495). It lacks the multichannel recording and mixing capabilities of the UltraLite mk3 but gives you 24-bit, 96 kHz processing and the renowned Apogee converters.

For road work, you might prefer one of the compact control-surface options mentioned earlier. For home-studio use, I've chosen the Studiologic VMK-161 Plus keyboard controller ($620). Its 5-octave keyboard features full-size, weighted piano-action keys; a combo Pitch Bend and Mod Wheel joystick; transport buttons; 25 programmable knobs, sliders, and buttons; and 3 pedal inputs. At 33 pounds, the VMK-161 Plus isn't something you'd jam into your backpack, but its Fatar Grand Touch action is the best I've played. For more DAW and plug-in management, you could add the Novation ReMote Zero SL ($275), which has the same features as the Novation ReMote SL Compact 25 but without the keys.

With a little restraint, you can put this studio together for around $2,700, or you can go full bore, including the Genelec subwoofer, for around $4,600. Either way, you'll have a pro-quality rig both at home and on the road.

The Songwriter's Studio
By Mike Levine

If you're a songwriter, you want a laptop studio that lets you record your creations as fully realized arrangements, including drum tracks and MIDI keyboard parts. At the same time, you want to retain as much portability as possible. Here are two options, the first weighted toward low price and a small footprint, and the second offering higher quality and more flexibility.

Budget Songwriter's Studio
($1,162 to $1,582)

This studio is designed to be both inexpensive and highly portable. Not including your mic stands, you should be able to fit it into a backpack. It will serve as a traveling rig — for writing and recording in hotel rooms and on tour buses, for example — and also work well for the stay-at-home songwriter who wants to keep costs down but still produce solid demos. This setup gives you the ability to record vocals, instruments, and MIDI tracks. It doesn't provide for recording live drums, so I'm assuming that any drum tracks you'll have will be loop or MIDI based (or both).

FIG. 3: The PreSonus FireBox audio interface combines portability with flexible I/O.

FIG. 3: The PreSonus FireBox audio interface combines portability with flexible I/O.

For those whose laptops have FireWire ports, I suggest the PreSonus FireBox ($299) as an audio interface (see Fig. 3). This half-rack unit offers two mic/instrument inputs, an additional pair of line inputs, a pair of S/PDIF inputs, MIDI In/Out, and six balanced outputs.

If you don't have a FireWire port, substitute an M-Audio Fast Track Ultra USB 2.0 interface ($349). Although a bit costlier, it has four mic preamps, two of which are mic/instrument combo jacks, and six balanced line inputs and outputs, as well as S/PDIF I/O (giving you up to eight channels of audio input at a time). It also includes dual headphone amps. Both the FireBox and the Fast Track Ultra offer low-latency monitoring.

If you plan to run Pro Tools, you can substitute a Digidesign Mbox 2 Pro ($699) on FireWire-equipped laptops. Or you can run Pro Tools M-Powered on the Fast Track Ultra.

To keep things really portable, the MIDI controller for this setup is an M-Audio Oxygen 8 ($119), which gives you MIDI input through USB and a diminutive 25-key keyboard. If you're a keyboard player, you might want to substitute a larger controller with more keys, such as the M-Audio Oxygen 49 ($139), although your setup will be less portable that way.

To keep costs down, this studio has only two mics, both of the budget variety. The Sterling Audio ST51 ($99) is a large-diaphragm condenser that will serve as the primary vocal mic. It was rated very highly in an EM comparison of budget large-diaphragm condensers, where it did well on vocals and on acoustic guitar (see “Budget Mics, Big Sound” in the May 2008 issue, available at emusician.com). The other mic, a Røde M3 ($199), is a small-diaphragm condenser that is a versatile workhorse for instrument sources and can also be used as an alternate vocal mic. It's double the price of the ST51, but it adds flexibility and excellent sound quality to your studio.

For monitoring, I've chosen a pair of Mackie MR5 powered monitors ($149 each), which garnered a 2009 EM Editors' Choice Award. These speakers offer a relatively flat frequency response and, with 5.25-inch woofers, don't take up much space.

For situations where you can't use the speakers, I've included two pairs of headphones. The primary set is the Sennheiser HD-280 Pro ($99), which gives you a circumaural (closed) design for good sound isolation. I've also included the AKG K 77 ($49) for when you're recording with another musician or singer.

Full-Featured Songwriter's Studio
($4,068 to $5,271)

I have expanded this setup to allow you to record live drums as well as vocal, instrument, and MIDI tracks with your laptop. Not only does it offer more recording possibilities than the budget studio, but it also has better-quality components. As a result, its price tag is considerably higher. In the interest of keeping it affordable, I've picked items that offer good value. This studio is still quite portable, but it will require more than a backpack to cart it around.

Because I'm configuring this setup for drum recording, I'll need more inputs than in the budget studio, but I also want quality mic preamps. I opted for the Focusrite Sapphire Pro 40 audio interface ($499). It has eight Focusrite mic preamps/instrument inputs on combo jacks, a pair of headphone buses, and low-latency monitoring, among other features.

If you don't have FireWire, my USB 2.0 alternative is the M-Audio Fast Track Ultra 8R ($499), which has eight mic preamps on combo jacks, a pair of front-panel instrument inputs, MIDI and S/PDIF on a breakout cable, and low-latency monitoring. It also can run Pro Tools M-Powered, which might be useful depending on your situation. If you want to run Pro Tools on a FireWire-equipped laptop, you could substitute a Digidesign 003 Rack+ ($1,549), which includes eight mic preamps.

I chose the Novation ReMote SL Compact 49 ($399) for the USB MIDI keyboard controller. It gives you 49 keys, 8 drum pads, programmable buttons and knobs, and Novation's Automap Universal software.

FIG. 4: The ribbon tweeter–equipped ADAM A5 can be supplemented with the Sub7 subwoofer.

FIG. 4: The ribbon tweeter–equipped ADAM A5 can be supplemented with the Sub7 subwoofer.

The mic collection starts with the Mojave Audio MA-200 ($995). This large-diaphragm cardioid condenser gives you pro audio quality at a reasonable price, and it will serve as your primary vocal mic. For instrument recording, I've also included a matched pair of Røde NT5 small-diaphragm condensers ($429 per pair). They work well on acoustic instruments and as drum overheads.

I've added some classic studio mics for the drum kit: an AKG D112 ($250) for the kick drum, and three Shure SM57s ($99 each). That gives you seven mics, covering kick, snare, one rack tom, and one floor tom, with an overhead pair and a room mic.

For monitors, I chose the ADAM A5 ($399 each), which is relatively small, with a 5.5-inch woofer and a ribbon tweeter (see Fig. 4). In his A5 review in our sister magazine Mix, Kevin Becka said he was “nothing short of astounded by their balance, smoothness, imaging, and detail.” If you're going to be doing a lot of mixing and you need more bottom end, you can always add the ADAM Sub7 subwoofer ($549).

For headphones, I chose the high-quality Sony MDR 7509HD ($189). In case you want to track a band, I'll add three pairs of the modestly priced AKG K77s ($49 each), as well as an ART Headamp4 headphone amp ($65) since you'll need extra headphone outputs.

The On-Location Laptop
By Geary Yelton

The latest generation of portable recorders is perfect for recording live performances in stereo (see “Studio in Your Pocket” in the June 2008 issue). For on-location multitrack recording, though, it's hard to beat a laptop rig with the right peripherals. No matter what your budget, you should be able to assemble a compact, portable studio you could pack in a suitcase and toss in the back of your car or even carry aboard a plane, train, or subway.

At the very least, any laptop recording setup needs the means to get multichannel audio into your computer, and headphones to monitor what's being recorded. The ideal approach to capturing live performances is to record individual channels from the front-of-house (FOH) mixer. Most sound-reinforcement consoles have separate outputs or at least effects sends for each channel, which allow you to route the console's signals to individual tracks in your audio sequencer. However, you'll run into problems if the house mix uses more channels than your system can record. If that's your situation, you'll either need to have your own mixer handy, record from the house's mixdown buses, or decide which channels are most essential to capturing the live performance.

Your audio interface will be the biggest determining factor for how many channels you can record. The more inputs the interface has, the greater your flexibility in handling different scenarios. The trade-off is that once you go beyond eight channels, your system will be less compact. For most situations, your best choice will be an interface with balanced TRS inputs, which can handle unbalanced signals when the need arises.

To get signals from the FOH mixer to your interface will require either separate audio cables or a multichannel snake. For speed and ease of setup and teardown, I highly recommend the snake. Keep in mind that its length will determine how far from the FOH mixer you can set up for recording.

For monitoring live sound, nothing beats a good pair of headphones. They should be durable enough for frequent transport and comfortable to wear for long periods. It's also important that they provide a good seal around your ears to prevent leakage from the outside world.

Low-Budget Mobile Recording
($446 to $703)

Even if your budget is extremely limited, you might be surprised at what you could do with some carefully chosen purchases. Let's look at a minimal setup and work our way up from there. You can get by with as few as three essential items: an 8-channel audio interface, an 8-channel snake, and a pair of stereo headphones.

You'll find no shortage of interfaces that would suit your needs, but if your computer has FireWire, the least expensive one I've found that has at least eight balanced inputs is the Edirol FA-101 ($379). Two of its inputs are combo jacks, and it delivers 24-bit, 96 kHz audio to your computer.

If you can spare a few more bucks, the MOTU UltraLite mk3 ($549) is an excellent choice. It gives you eight TRS inputs that handle balanced or unbalanced signals, as well as two additional inputs for instruments or microphones. As your budget grows, you could buy a second UltraLite and link them via FireWire, doubling the number of simultaneous channels you could record.

FIG. 5: The Tascam US-1641 USB 2.0 interface offers plenty of features at an affordable price

FIG. 5: The Tascam US-1641 USB 2.0 interface offers plenty of features at an affordable price

If your computer has USB 2.0 instead of a FireWire connection, the Tascam US-1641 ($399) is the most cost-effective solution that would serve your needs (see Fig. 5). It gives you numerous additional inputs and, like the others, handles 24-bit, 96 kHz audio. Unlike the others, however, its balanced inputs use XLR jacks rather than TRS.

The least expensive 8-channel snake I've found is the Hosa CSS-803 ($47). It's almost 10 feet long and has molded TRS plugs on each end. If you need XLR plugs on one end, go for the almost-identical Hosa STX-803M ($51). If that's not long enough, the 23-foot Hosa CSS-807 ($65) has TRS plugs on each end, and the 23-foot Hosa STX-807M ($69) is terminated by TRS plugs on one end and XLRs on the other.

For headphones, the least expensive pair that will do the job is the no-nonsense Yamaha RH2C $20). They offer good isolation at a rock-bottom price. If you can afford more, step up to the Sony MDR-7505 headphones ($85), which offer superior sound and swiveling ear cups.

Bigger-Budget Mobile Recording
($1,912 to $4,025)

A more luxurious recording rig would record 16 channels simultaneously and include at least one pair of condenser microphones for capturing live room sound. Mics would also allow you to record performers in an environment without a house mix. With a bigger budget, you could also afford better headphones and a higher-quality snake.

When I started looking for a FireWire or USB interface with 16 TRS inputs, I was surprised to find none at all. The obvious solution, then, was to pick a matching pair of units with fewer inputs. Several models are designed to link together for expanded systems, and you could go beyond 16 channels if you needed more.

FireWire users have the greatest number of choices. Consider the new Focusrite Saffire Pro 40 ($499 each). A pair of them provides 16 balanced inputs on ¼-inch/XLR combo jacks, physical knobs for each input, and 4 separate headphone outputs.

Another very nice selection is a pair of MOTU Traveler mk3s ($849 each). The Traveler features 192 kHz A/D/A converters for optimum recording quality, and it can be battery powered for complete portability.

For USB 2.0 users, I recommend two MOTU 828mkII USB interfaces ($749 each). The interface handles 96 kHz sampling rates and has eight TRS inputs, as well as two combo inputs with mic preamps. Like other MOTU interfaces, it also includes the multitrack recording application AudioDesk (Mac).

FIG. 6: The Ultrasone HFI-580s are closed-back headphones that remain comfortable during long recording sessions.

FIG. 6: The Ultrasone HFI-580s are closed-back headphones that remain comfortable during long recording sessions.

You'll need either one 16-channel snake or two 8-channel snakes, but just so you'll have a backup, I recommend getting three 8-channel snakes. I like the ProCo MT8BQBQ-20 ($143), a 20-foot snake terminated by TRS plugs at each end. If you need more length, longer models are available.

For monitoring your recordings, I like the Ultrasone HFI-580 headphones ($199; see Fig. 6). They produce higher levels with less power than most headphones and block outside sounds quite effectively. They scored well in EM's headphone roundup “It's in the Can” in the July 2008 issue.

Last but not least expensive are microphones. Just about any mic you'd use in the studio is appropriate for live recording. You might want to steer away from ribbon or tube mics because they tend to be more susceptible to damage during transport, and you'll probably be moving them a lot. Small-diaphragm mics are a good choice for a compact, portable rig. If you're going to buy two to record in stereo, you should probably select a matched pair.

The Røde NT5 is an especially good deal when purchased as a pair ($429 total). They're versatile and excel at handling high sound-pressure levels. If you want to go all out, though, get a pair of Neumann KM 184s ($1,699 total). These cardioid condensers handle serious SPLs, and they're renowned for their sonic detail. With interfaces, snakes, headphones, and mics in hand, you'll be ready to record practically any club or concert performance.

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