Until very recently, if you wanted to use the recording and composing tools found in your home studio, you needed to be at home. The idea that you could write and record music sitting in your car, at the beach, at your favorite cafe, commuting to and from work, waiting for a flight, or perched atop some distant mountain was pretty preposterous. But with today's powerful laptop computers, incredible digital audio programs, excellent virtual instruments, and abundant laptop-compatible recording gear, locations like these can be the norm during a productive day of composing.
That is not to say that a good laptop music system can, or should, entirely replace your home studio. There are a few areas in which the home studio will always have the advantage, namely, hardware (such as a big mixing board and analog sound modules) and superior recording isolation (as in a vocal booth). But when you are writing the initial parts to a song, these conveniences aren't crucial. The virtual mixers found in most digital audio sequencers offer much of the power of the best hardware consoles; current virtual synths and samplers sound nearly as good as their real-world counterparts; line instruments (like guitar or bass) can be recorded directly into your laptop's audio interface at rates as high as 24-bit, 96 kHz; and scratch vocal tracks can be recorded just about anywhere. Once a song's basic elements are laid down, it's a piece of cake to transfer them to your home studio as audio and MIDI files for final production and mixdown.
In this article I will discuss systems that go from simple to complex and range in price from a few hundred to thousands of dollars, not including the laptop (see the table “Interfaces and Controllers” for features and prices of the audio hardware mentioned). You can write tracks with your laptop and a single good music program, of course, but without a controller and an audio interface, your recording choices will be limited. Finding the right peripherals to go with your laptop and software is the trick to building a system that is as powerful as it is portable. The endgame is to put a system together that, far from frustrating your writing efforts, enables and inspires them. turn your laptop into a portable studio.
The core of this system is your laptop, so make sure it has a fast CPU (see the sidebar “Suggested Laptops” for recommended computers) and lots of RAM (256 MB at the very least). The internal hard drive should be as big as possible — 20 GB is an acceptable minimum size. A large screen (15 inches, for example) is also important. Yes, that can add significantly to the laptop's cost and weight, but if you plan on using a multiwindowed digital audio sequencer for many hours at a stretch, a good-size screen will make the experience much more pleasant.
Make sure that your laptop's expansion ports include USB and FireWire; a PC CardBus Slot is also good. Several portable keyboard controllers are USB based, as are a number of MIDI and basic audio interfaces. More professional audio interfaces, which typically offer many simultaneous channels of I/O and feature XLR mic inputs with phantom power, employ FireWire (IEEE 1394). For adding more storage, such as Zip or hard drives, USB and FireWire ports are also key. For an even more extensive system, you can use full-size PCI cards with your laptop by adding an expansion chassis that connects to the PC CardBus Slot. Finally, having an on-board CD writer is very convenient for making backups and transfers and, of course, burning reference audio CDs.
There are numerous choices in sound cards these days, but for ease of use, compact size, and all-around compatibility, nothing beats a USB audio interface. These little boxes are the perfect laptop companions because most are equipped with a headphone output and can draw power directly from the USB port. Their I/O configurations vary by model, but there are bandwidth limitations to USB, and most of them can't handle more than six total channels of simultaneous recording and playback. When you are working alone, however, that is usually adequate.
When you want to record several instruments at the same time or send more than six simultaneous tracks of audio to an external console for mixing, you'll need to step up to a multi-I/O FireWire interface. MOTU makes a couple of great units, the 828 and 896. Both of these offer up to 18 simultaneous inputs and outputs (8 analog, 8 ADAT optical, and 2 digital), high-quality converters, headphone outputs, and XLR microphone inputs with phantom power. The downside is that they require an external power source. If there is an AC outlet available, you're in business; otherwise, you'll need some sort of portable power supply (I'll cover some of the possible solutions in a minute).
If you want to use a PCI card in your laptop studio, Mobility Electronics' Magma series offers some good choices. These PCI Card expansion chassis plug in to your laptop's PC CardBus Slot and come in a variety of configurations, including 1-, 2-, and 4-slot models (see the sidebar “Magma PC CardBus Slot Chassis for PCI Cards”). The 2-slot box is available in AC- and DC-power models, and the 1-slot units will run on DC with an optional power cable. The DC-power options will let you run the boxes from a car battery (I will discuss remote power supplies shortly). Any of these would allow you to use a Digidesign Digi 001 system with your rig, for example, or add extra processing power with a dedicated DSP board such as the Universal Audio UAD-1 Powered Plug-Ins bundle. You could even run Pro Tools TDM (I haven't personally tried such a TDM setup, but I've seen Magma demonstrate it).
RME also offers a CardBus solution that consists of a PC CardBus card and the half-rackspace Multiface breakout box (reviewed in the April 2002 EM). The breakout box connects to the PC CardBus card with a standard FireWire cable (a PCI interface is also available). Just keep in mind that anything attached to a PC CardBus card, whether it's a fully loaded expansion chassis or simply an I/O box, will likely require AC power.
Because laptops aren't equipped with dual processors yet and can't reach the full processing potential of desktop computers, it's especially crucial that your audio interface's driver be as efficient as possible. An interface that's the same brand as your digital audio sequencer (for example, Steinberg's Cubase SX with an AudioLink 96 Mobile card and Multiset interface or Digidesign's Pro Tools LE, which is included with its new Mbox audio interface) is often a good bet. If such a combination isn't an option for you, almost every digital audio sequencer will work with an audio interface that has an “enhanced” audio protocol, such as ASIO or WDM. However, it's important to note that not all audio drivers are built alike, and a poorly written driver will drain your laptop's processing resources, leaving you with less power and, sometimes, an unstable system. To avoid this pitfall, use only audio interfaces that are recommended by the manufacturer of your digital audio sequencer.
When composing in a public place, headphones are the obvious choice for monitoring your laptop's audio. Because most pro headphones now include adapters for both ¼-inch and minijack, and most audio interfaces employ one of these types of headphone jacks, your regular studio headphones may work. However, if your headphones aren't designed with such an adapter and you're thinking that an aftermarket adapter will get the job done, a word of warning: most compact aftermarket adapters (especially going from ¼-inch to minijack) add too much weight to the headphone's plug and, over time, can cause your audio interface's headphone jack to short out. If you must get an adapter, try to find one that's part of an extension cable — the type with lightweight molded plastic ends — to avoid overstressing the headphone jack.
If you must buy a new pair of headphones for the road, I suggest getting a pair with a fold-up design (many Sony models, such as the venerable MDR-V6, incorporate this feature). Though the ultimate test of a pair of headphones is sound quality and comfort, compact size is an important consideration in terms of convenience.
Always keep a pair of headphones handy, but know also that there are other possible monitoring options. Small, shielded self-amped speakers designed to be used with desktop computers work well if you're in a space where you can make noise (they're also a nice break from headphones and a great way to share your music with friends). There are many such speakers available, but for carrying and setup ease, stick with models that are lightweight and battery powered, if possible. The smaller these speakers are, the worse they usually sound, so consider finding a pair with a separate subwoofer for better bottom end. Most models get their input directly from the analog output of your audio interface (usually through a minijack), but USB models offer the advantage of a digital connection for improved fidelity (dependent, of course, on the quality of the speakers' built-in D/A converters). For example, check out the USBgear Tornado USB Sub-Woofer System, which retails for about $79.
Cassette adapters that are made to plug portable CD players in to your car's tape deck will let you turn your car's stereo into a monitoring system. I always keep one of these adapters stashed in my laptop's bag for the times when I find myself waiting in my car — if your stereo sounds decent, it's like having your own private studio on wheels. Having a few different types of cables in your bag for plugging in to different systems is also a good idea. For example, any home stereo system can be used for monitoring if the proper connections are made. The cabling you need to carry depends on your audio interface, but it will probably be a Y-cable with a stereo ¼-inch or minijack that splits out to two RCA ends.
A new breed of USB-based keyboard controllers has sprung up in recent times (see the article “Surfin' USB” in the September 2002 EM). These compact, lightweight keyboards can draw their power right from your laptop's USB port, making them wonderfully carefree. Good examples are Edirol's 49-key PC-300 and M-Audio's 25-key Oxygen 8. Because they don't have the keyboard range of a full-size unit, octave up/down buttons are provided to give you access to different octave ranges. The Oxygen 8, despite its diminutive size, also sports eight assignable knobs for tweaking plug-ins and soft synths.
If you'd rather use your favorite MIDI instrument, like a guitar controller or drum pads, you'll need a USB MIDI interface to make the connection with your laptop. When you're working solo, a single MIDI port (In and Out) is usually fine. Edirol's donglelike UM-1S interface is an inexpensive and convenient solution. Interfaces such as this don't usually require external power, though your connected MIDI controller certainly will. Some USB audio interfaces also have a MIDI port, like Tascam's US-224 and M-Audio's Quattro. If you're using an audio interface with a built-in MIDI port, you probably won't need a separate MIDI interface.
For situations in which you need more MIDI ports (for example, to record several MIDI inputs at the same time), multiport USB MIDI interfaces are available. One tried-and-true unit is MOTU's MTP AV, which has eight ports, programmable presets, professional synchronization features, and four control knobs that can be used to tweak plug-ins. However, even though these interfaces are USB, they generally need AC power.
PLENTY OF PROGRAMS
For the most part, the software you use on your desktop computer will also work on your laptop. That includes all the top digital audio sequencers. If you use the Pro Tools LE or TDM versions in your studio and aren't interested in the PC CardBus Slot setup I discussed earlier, Pro Tools Free Session files can be interchanged between the versions (as long as your computer platforms are the same — for example, an Apple PowerBook to an Apple G4 desktop). It's a good idea to work with the same digital audio sequencer in your home studio and on your laptop. That guarantees easy file transfers between your systems.
Some digital audio sequencers, such as Cakewalk's Sonar, come with their own arsenal of virtual instruments, but the really killer instruments usually need to be purchased separately. No matter what kind of music you write, you will most likely need a sampler or sample-playback instrument and a drum machine. Good soft samplers include Steinberg's HALion, Native Instruments' Kontakt, and Emagic's EXS24 for Logic; IK Multimedia's SampleTank is a wonderful sample-playback instrument. All these instruments read Akai-formatted sound libraries, so there are lots of sounds available. Native Instruments Battery is a powerful drum machine with a lot of realistic-sounding kits, as is Steinberg's LM-4 MarkII. Waldorf's Attack is perfect for electronic drum sounds. Soft synths are largely a matter of taste, and luckily there are plenty to choose from. Native Instruments makes several great instruments, including some very cool re-creations of vintage models. If you're not familiar with virtual instruments, exploring this company's offerings is a good place to start.
A dedicated audio editor lets you tweak samples and manipulate audio in ways that may not be possible in your digital audio sequencer and is a handy application on the road. If the editor includes a batch converter, you can quickly convert handfuls of files from one format to another. For example, if you have a bunch of AIFF drum hits but your drum machine only reads WAV files, a batch converter can solve this file-format problem in a snap. Examples of audio editors that include a batch converter are BIAS Peak and TC Works Spark on the Mac, and Steinberg WaveLab on the PC. Sonic Foundry's Sound Forge 6.0 bundle (Win) also includes Batch Converter 5.0, a stand-alone utility (see Fig. 1).
Though most laptops that have an onboard CD burner also come with burning software, those stock programs aren't always the most flexible. For example, the ability to adjust pause times between audio tracks is an amenity that is often missing from basic consumer-oriented programs. Roxio's Toast Platinum (Mac) gives you a choice of various preset pause times and can write different CD-ROM formats (like ISO9660, Mac Volume, or custom hybrids). If you want to create custom pause times and write actual crossfades between your tracks, check out Roxio's Toast with Jam bundle (Mac) or Sonic Foundry's recently rereleased CD Architect (Win). PC users can often find excellent CD-burning features directly in their audio editors — both WaveLab and Magix's Samplitude Producer offer professional-quality CD-authoring options, for example.
Most applications allow for multiple installations from their original CD-ROM, with copy protection using serial code, dongle, or CD-ROM authentication. Only software that employs challenge-and-response copy protection to authorize a single hard drive is problematic when it comes to running multiple installations. For these types of programs, you will need to call (or e-mail) the manufacturer and ask for a second response code. In the worst case, you may need to purchase a second response (prices vary but are usually less than the original application). When you hit the road, remember to bring the CD-ROMs for programs that perform random CD-ROM spot-checks and your copy-protection dongles. There's nothing worse than sitting down to write music and realizing that you can't boot up a program because you're missing its authorization gadget.
POWER TO GO
Though it's really convenient to use peripherals that get their power from your computer's USB bus, sometimes you need to use a piece of gear that requires outside power. Also, laptop batteries usually only last a few hours, so finding an outside power source to extend battery life is always a plus. Several companies make adapters for plugging your laptop in to a car's cigarette-lighter socket or the EmPower DC-power ports used on many commercial passenger jets. These units, like the ones made by SmartDisk, usually cost between $50 and $70.
Another possible solution is to get a power inverter to turn your car's cigarette lighter into a multiport AC-power receptacle (standard models usually sport two sockets). Prices for consumer-oriented power inverters, such as the Powermate by Coleman or similar units found at Radio Shack, start at around $100. Most inexpensive adapters and inverters are convenient and portable and fine for running your laptop but don't provide audiophile-quality power for digital recording. If that is satisfactory but you're worried about running down your car battery (I wouldn't worry about a jet plane's battery), use the adapter or inverter with an emergency-jumper battery pack (for example, Southern Equipment's 3in1 Power Station, available at Costco). You can pick these up at most automotive repair stores starting around $70. The RME Web site also has a few suggestions on portable battery packs suitable for running notebooks.
If you plan on making digital recordings that you would like to be “keepers,” then you need audiophile-quality power to ensure clean recordings. Such power is available in units that are rated as providing “pure sine-wave power.” Portable inverters of this class can cost thousands of dollars, so a more economical solution is to use an uninterruptible power supply (UPS) that puts out pure sine-wave power. A decent-size UPS will run your gear from its internal battery for several hours (how long depends on the gear you have connected and the size of the UPS). The OPTI-UPS PS Series models by Airblade Alternative Power Systems (AAPS) start at $241; you can purchase them online at www.aapspower.com. The company's owner suggests that you charge your UPS fully at an AC outlet prior to hitting the road so that you'll be ready to record when you get to your destination. And, if you're on location and need to extend the UPS's battery life, AAPS offers solar panels that will work for this task. (Incidentally, if you're into solar power, AAPS has a very cool laptop-battery-charging solar kit, SunWise, which retails for $360.)
Most of the same rules that apply to setting up your desktop computer also apply to setting up your laptop. For example, if you own a Mac laptop, when you install an application, make sure to perform the installation with a minimum of extensions running in order to avoid extension conflicts. Windows users should make sure all other programs are closed before installing an application. Laptops of all varieties (and some desktops) are typically set, by default, to go to sleep after about 10 minutes of inactivity to conserve power. That is fine if you're running a word processor, but it's not what you want when you're working with a digital audio sequencer. A computer that falls asleep in the middle of a session can upset your writing flow, may result in lost USB communications, and can crash when you try to wake it up. Try resetting your system's sleep preferences to a longer duration (say, 30 minutes) or turning them off entirely. You'll burn up more battery power running your laptop in this mode, but it beats having to reboot your entire system.
For storing audio files, it's always a good idea to have a hard drive that is separate from your system drive. This prevents the mixing of audio files and application resources that can result in a badly fragmented drive and lead to poor drive performance and system crashes. Connecting an external FireWire or USB drive to your laptop is one solution, but it's one more item to pack. If you do go with an external drive, however, make sure it is self-powered, like the HUSH 5400 series drives from AVammo, which store from 20 to 60 GB.
A more elegant solution is to split your system drive into two partitions, one for your system and program files and the other for audio files. This may, at first, seem like an inefficient way to use your system drive, but in the long run, it will help optimize your digital audio sequencer's performance and keep your files organized. Unless you use custom software such as PowerQuest's Partition Magic (Win), partitioning a drive must be done at the formatting stage, so make sure to partition your system drive before you start installing software. And choose your partition sizes carefully, because once they are set, you typically can't change them without reformatting (allow a minimum of 10 GB for your system and programs' partition).
Most laptops come standard with two USB ports, but with so many USB peripherals to plug in (the keyboard controller, audio interface, and copy-protection dongles, and so on), two ports are sometimes not enough. Fortunately, USB hubs are inexpensive and easy to find. When choosing a hub, find one that can draw its power right from your computer's USB port. Some audio interfaces must be connected directly to the computer's first USB port and will not work plugged in to a hub. In these instances, connect the hub to your computer's second USB port and use it exclusively with devices that don't need much power (such as copy-protection dongles and battery-driven controllers).
Don't be cheap when choosing a case for your laptop. After spending so much money on the computer and many hours setting it up, you need to protect your investment. A little tumble in a cheap and poorly designed bag can be a costly accident that may have been easily avoided by spending a few extra bucks on a well-designed bag. Good computer stores sell backpacks that are specially designed for laptops and have plenty of pockets for cables, headphones, CDs, and small interfaces. You could also go with a more traditional, over-the-shoulder soft case. London Fog makes bags with a removable, soft, padded envelope that the laptop fits into. When the envelope is stowed in the main bag, there is a good amount of cushioning around your computer. Whatever style you choose, make sure it provides ample protection but isn't so heavy that it becomes a pain to carry when it's loaded with gear.
ON THE ROAD
No matter what type of system you decide to put together, remember that portability and ease of use are key factors. You don't want a system that is a big hassle to pack and painfully heavy to carry, nor do you want a setup that isn't powerful enough to get the job done. To make life easy on myself, I have assembled two separate setups for my laptop. One consists of a small USB audio interface and keyboard controller, which I grab when I want to travel light. The second is a 3-space rackmount system containing a mic preamp, a multiport MIDI interface, and a FireWire audio interface. I bring this setup with me when I plan to do multitrack recording and I know that there will be an external power source at my destination.
A compact and easy-to-use system can inspire you to compose and record music whenever you have time and wherever you are, instead of just when you make it into the studio. There's also the added bonus that composing in different locations can be a very enjoyable change of pace and an inspiration of its own. The portable rigs that I built have been some of the best investments I've ever made in terms of my productivity. They are not meant to replace my home studio (though the power is certainly there); they are simply another way to keep the music flowing. If daily life is eating up your every free moment and you would give anything to steal away for an hour or two of composing, you are probably a good candidate for a laptop-based writing and recording setup.
VisitErik Hawkins's fledgling record label at www.muzicali.com to hear music made with today's hottest studio gizmos and check out his new virtual-studio recording book, Studio-in-a-Box (Artist Pro/Hal Leonard).
MAGMA PC CARDBUS SLOT CHASSIS FOR PCI CARDS
See www.magma.com for details on these and other models.
1-slot CardBus-to-PCI expansion system (half-length) $945
1-slot CardBus-to-PCI expansion system (full-length) $995
2-slot CardBus-to-PCI expansion system (full-length) $895
INTERFACES AND CONTROLLERS
MODEL INTERFACE TYPE POWER SAMPLING RATES MAXIMUM SAMPLING RESOLUTION MIC PRE KEYBOARD REAL-TIME CONTROLLERS ANALOG INPUTS ANALOG OUTPUTS DIGITAL I/O MIDI I/O ADDITIONAL I/O PRICE AUDIO INTERFACES
DIGIDESIGNMboxUSBUSB44.1, 48 kHz24-bit(2)n/an/a(2) balanced/unbalanced ¼" TRS/XLR Neutrik combo connectors(2) ¼" balanced/unbalanced TRS; (1) ¼" headphone;(1) ¼" headphone(1 pr.) S/PDIF on RCA connectorsno(2) ¼" TRS analog inserts$495.00M-AUDIOAudio DuoUSB9 VAC wall wart11-96 kHz24-bit(2)n/an/a(2) balanced XLR mic; (2) balanced ¼" TRS*(2) ¼" unbalanced; (1) ¼" headphone(1 pr.) S/PDIF on RCA connectorsnon/a$349.95M-AUDIOQuattroUSB9 VAC wall wart11-96 kHz24-bit(2)*n/an/a(4) balanced/unbalanced ¼" TRS(4) ¼" balanced/unbalanced TRS; (2) ¼" headphone*n/ayesn/a$349.95MOTU828FireWireinternal44.1, 48 kHz24-bit(2)n/an/a(2) balanced/unbalanced ¼" TRS/XLR Neutrik combo connectors (6) balanced/unbalanced ¼" TRS(8) ¼;" (2) ¼" monitor out; (1) ¼" headphone(1 pr.) optical S/PDIF/ ADAT opticalnoADAT sync in; foot-switch input$795.00MOTU896FireWireinternal44.1, 48, 88.2, 96 kHz24-bit(8)n/an/a(8) balanced/unbalanced ¼" TRS/XLR Neutrik combo connectors(8) balanced XLR; (2) balanced XLR monitor out; (1) ¼" headphone(1 pr.) AES/EBU on XLR connectors; ADAT opticalnoword-clock I/O on BNC connectors; ADAT sync in; footswitch input$1,295.00RMEMultifacePC CardBus or PCI12 VAC wall (PC CardBus) internal (PCI)32-96 kHz24-bitnon/an/a(8) ¼" balanced/unbalanced TRS(8) ¼" balanced/unbalanced TRS; (1) ¼" headphone(1 pr.) S/PDIF on RCA connectors; (1) S/PDIF/ADAT opticalyesword-clock I/O on BNC connectors; ADAT sync in$1,305.00 (PC CardBus interface) or $1,235.00 (PCI interface)STEINBERGNuendo AudioLink 96 Mobile card/Multiset interfacePC CardBus or PCI12 VAC wall (PC CardBus) internal (PCI)32-96 kHz24-bitnon/an/a(8) ¼" balanced/unbalanced TRS(8) ¼" balanced/unbalanced TRS; (1) ¼" headphone(1 pr.) S/PDIF on RCA connectors; (1) S/PDIF/ADAT opticalyesword-clock I/O on BNC connectors; ADAT sync in$1,300.00 (PC CardBus interface) or $1,230.00 (PCI interface)TASCAMUS-224USBUSB44.1, 48 kHz24-bitnon/an/a(2) balanced XLR mic; (2) ¼" balanced line/unbalanced TRS guitar; (2) unbalanced RCA(1) unbalanced RCA; (1) ¼" headphone(1 pr.) S/PDIF on RCA connectorsyesn/a$375.00
EDIROLPC-300n/aUSB or wall wartn/an/an/a49 notes(1) assignable slider; Pitch-Bend/Mod Wheel combo levern/an/an/an/an/a$199.00M-AUDIOOxygen 8n/aUSB adapter, (6) AA batteries or wall wartn/an/an/a25 notes(1) assignable slider; (8) assignable knobs; Pitch-Bend wheel, Mod Wheeln/an/an/an/an/a$179.00
USB MIDI INTERFACES
EDIROLUM-1SUSBn/an/an/an/an/an/an/an/an/a(1) In, (1) Outn/a$39.00EDIROLUM-2USBn/an/an/an/an/an/an/an/an/a(2) In, (2) Outn/a$79.00MOTUMTP AVinternaln/an/an/an/an/an/an/an/an/a(8) MIDI In; (8) MIDI Out(1) SMPTE ¼" in; (1) SMPTE ¼" out; word-clock out (BNC); video in (BNC); ADAT 9-pin D-sync out; (2) footpedal inputs; Mac serial port; Network port$595.00*Available with the Omni/O optional breakout box.
The computers listed below are stock configurations and can be purchased as they appear, directly from the manufacturer or an authorized dealer. Prices are current as of this writing. For most models, you will probably want to add RAM, which will increase the total cost. For more suggestions on notebooks suitable for audio applications (especially audio recording) and other related tips, visit www.rme-audio.com and check out the Tech Info page.
Apple Titanium PowerBook
PowerPC G4/800 MHz
512 MB of system RAM (or more)
40 GB Ultra ATA drive
Combo drive (DVD-ROM/CD-RW)
(1) PC CardBus slot
Apple iBook PowerPC G3/700 MHz
256 MB of system RAM
30 GB Ultra ATA drive
Combo drive (DVD-ROM/CD-RW)
IBM Thinkpad A Series
Pentium 4/1.6 GHz
256 MB of system RAM
40 GB Ultra ATA drive
Combo drive (DVD-ROM/CD-RW)
(1) PC CardBus slot