Studio-in-a-Box: The New Era of Computer Recording Technology Book Review

With the right dose of knowledge, today's desktop musician can assemble a powerful yet cost-effective virtual studio that incorporates plug-in effects,

With the right dose of knowledge, today's desktop musician can assemble a powerful yet cost-effective virtual studio that incorporates plug-in effects, software synths, MIDI control surfaces, and more. To help you better understand the hardware and software issues, Erik Hawkins's 263-page, nine-part Studio-in-a-Box: The New Era of Computer Recording Technology ($34.95) provides a comprehensive overview of virtual-studio technology along with helpful, practical tips and concise product reviews. The book progresses from general and basic concepts to increasingly complex and detailed examinations of virtual-studio applications, enabling the novice to achieve a higher level of understanding.

Laying the Foundation

Parts I and II discuss the reasons for “going virtual,” including applications for mastering, scoring to picture, and automated mixing. The book broadly examines the essential functions of a virtual studio with descriptions of computer hardware, digital audio sequencers, plug-ins, audio cards, MIDI interfaces, and controllers.

Hawkins explores the maze of options for configuring a computer system. The book compares Mac OS, Windows, Linux, and BeOS operating systems, examines different processor speeds and types, and discusses system RAM requirements. He also gives practical, in-depth coverage of hard-drive types and sizes (although he doesn't mention more recent 160 MB-per-second transfer-rate units) as well as the use of PCI expansion cards, various backup solutions, dual-monitor configurations, and options for rack-mounting computer hardware and for assembling a portable laptop-based system.

Meat and Potatoes

Part III focuses on the details of digital audio sequencing. It describes various multitrack recording, MIDI-sequencing, and editing functions and has a useful shopper's guide that is written as a series of brief and insightful product reviews.

Part IV covers effects plug-ins and includes an overview of plug-in formats, followed by discussions of RAM and processor considerations and methods for inserting effects into a mix using a host application. The book reviews essential plug-ins for EQ, dynamics, reverb, modulation, and delay. It also looks at more unusual plug-ins that are especially useful for experimental music and sound design. Several mastering, sweetening, emulation, and utility programs are also examined.

Part V explores the world of virtual instruments, including synthesizers, samplers, drum machines, and models of real-world instruments. It also includes short reviews of several popular products. Surprisingly, Tascam's GigaStudio and GigaSampler are omitted from the chapter on software samplers.

In part VI Hawkins identifies four basic types of audio interface cards: basic I/O, multi I/O, multi I/O with MIDI, and laptop connections. He explains important concepts, such as A/D versus D/A converters, connector types and digital formats, audio-quality considerations, and audio-driver types. After discussing concepts, Hawkins provides a set of reviews covering each card type.

Part VII explains the basic concepts relating to MIDI interfaces, drivers, and connections. Despite small errors in terminology, editing, and organization, the section on MIDI is informative and the brief product reviews are helpful.

Part VIII gives you a complete understanding of common as well as uncommon varieties of MIDI controllers. It presents reviews of performance controllers and control boxes and also focuses on digital mixer interfaces and combination audio and MIDI control surfaces.

Putting It Together

The final section of the book consists of a number of practical tips for setting up a virtual studio and for making the most of your system. It offers vital suggestions for keeping your power sources clean and consistent, avoiding ground loops, developing an efficient monitoring system, warming up your signals, and configuring your plug-in routing. Hawkins also offers excellent hints for obtaining good studio ergonomics.

This section provides a variety of useful tricks for ensuring that your sessions go smoothly and efficiently. From file saving and organization tips to system performance enhancements, Hawkins covers all the bases.

Box of Tools

Studio-in-a-Box is one of the best books available for learning how to buy, assemble, and effectively use a virtual studio. Hawkins's clear and concise writing style is perfect for beginners as well as more experienced readers. The book's organization lets you choose an appropriate level of study, and it lets you focus on the topics that are most relevant to your musical needs. The author provides lots of product-feature summaries, though I wish he had provided individual chapter summaries. A handy list of manufacturers and a glossary of terms makes the book a valuable reference source.

My only criticism concerns some minor editing and factual errors and omissions. I also regret that the subject matter is by its nature so time-sensitive. Many of the product reviews will become obsolete within a relatively short period as new products and systems are introduced. However, with Web updates available at the author's Web site (, those shortcomings could be repaired. Because Hawkins also offers up a lot of excellent technical information of a more general nature, I expect that much of the book will remain a useful resource well into the future.

Overall EM Rating (1 through 5): 3.5, LLC/Hal Leonard Corp. (distributor); tel. (414) 774-3630; Web