The Suitcase Studio: Are We There Yet?

It would have been unthinkable just a decade ago: People are using inexpensive laptops to record, play back, master, do sessions, play live, and of course, download questionable material from the Internet at the hotel room after the gig. Just the idea of a laptop is liberating, but the idea of it serving as your lightweight, portable, low noise studio is even better.
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In the world of business, it’s getting more common for executives to ditch their desktops and bring a laptop to the office, which they can take with them wherever they go. But the demands of recording or mixing audio are far more stringent. Can a laptop really replace a good desktop machine?

GOOD NEWS, BAD NEWS

Laptops are not as powerful as today’s desktop computers, and probably never will be — all the “good stuff” shows up in desktops first, then migrates to the portable world once a bunch of engineers figure out how to put all that technology in a tiny box. Being optimized for portability and low battery life means processors run slower, hard drives don’t spin as fast, and any internal audio I/O is . . . well, let’s just say it won’t put Apogee out of business. However, today’s laptops are more powerful than desktops that were considered pro-level just a few short years ago. For many — but not all — applications, laptops will indeed do the job. I’ve used both Apple (Figure 1) and Windows laptops as the heart of my solo musical act for a few years, and (knock on wood!) they’ve worked flawlessly.

Getting quality audio I/O used to be a major problem, but these days, there are so many FireWire, USB, and USB 2.0 interfaces (Figure 2) that are perfectly suited for laptops that I/O is simply not an issue. And if you don’t want to go through a port, you can use a PCMCIA interface, such as those made by Digigram, Echo, and E-mu. One advantage to using an external interface is that you can connect it via a reasonably long cable, and secure the interface to a table, stand, etc. You can then plug all your cables into the external box; if cables get ripped out of that, you’re much better off than having them ripped out of your laptop.

If you’re absolutely dead set on using a PCI card with your laptop, companies like Magma make PCI expansion adapters that do the job for Mac or Windows. Bear in mind, though, that an expansion chassis is one more piece of gear, one more cable, and one more thing to go wrong.

Another problem is the average laptop’s slower hard drive speed, which limits the number of tracks that can stream from disk. But there are workarounds, such as adding a fast external FireWire drive, or installing as much RAM as the laptop allows. This means it won’t have to swap data to the hard drive as often, which translates to faster operation, longer battery live, and more bandwidth for your drive.

But also consider limitations that extend beyond performance. If a desktop computer breaks down, it’s not too hard to swap out a few pieces of hardware and get back in action. Although laptops are getting better about user-replaceable parts — often the hard drive is user-replaceable, as is the keyboard — installation can be much more “fiddly” or require specialized tools.

Laptops are also more fragile and unfortunately, fairly easy to steal so backup becomes even more essential than usual. One ham-fisted airport security person, or one solid drop to the floor, may mean the end of not just your laptop but your data as well. And while the portability of laptops is a major selling point, running from battery rather than the AC adapter may bring battery-saving measures into play that degrade performance even further.

One laptop bonus is that it can also serve as an “expansion module” to a desktop setup. Load it up with some software synths and trigger it via MIDI; or with appropriate Steinberg software, use their VST System Link. As the laptop will have a display, this also provides some of the benefits of a dual monitor setup.

PLAYING IT SAFE

Having your studio dependent on a laptop is not a secure feeling, but there are also some reliability advantages to laptops: You can hand-carry them on a plane rather than check them, so they needn’t be subjected to the uncertainties of baggage handlers. They also are fairly immune to power problems; most laptop adapters will run on 115 or 240VAC, and if there’s a power outage, your battery will take over. The adapter/battery combo will also absorb a lot of transients and spikes that could sink other gear.

Even if your data is backed up, though, there’s something else to consider when you’re far away from home: software or hardware failures that require re-installation or other drastic measures. If you’re truly dependent on your laptop, carry a copy of your operating system or software restore software, as well as crucial program discs. If your computer fails while traveling, you may be able to find a loaner or buy a new machine outright, load up your files, and carry on. That’s also a good argument for using cross-platform software — you’ll be covered with either Mac or Windows. Also, if you know how to do basic computer maintenance, carry whatever tools are necessary to disassemble your computer. Once I was working in Belize when a PowerBook floppy drive got stuck, and because I had a Torx wrench, was able to take it apart, massage the drive’s worm gear, and get back into business. (This certainly beat going to the nearest Apple service center, which was somewhere in Guatemala.)

Copy-protected software is particularly problematic. If you’re miles from home and need to insert a CD periodically for authorization, you’re in trouble if you didn’t remember to bring it along. Most software license agreements prohibit running programs on multiple machines; applications that tie protection into running on a specific hardware configuration are especially problematic, because you can’t easily uninstall/reinstall every time you want to move from desktop to laptop.

There are a few workarounds. Morally, I have no problem with installing a program on both my desktop and laptop if it’s possible. After all, I use only one machine at a time, so I don’t feel that violates the spirit of the “only one machine” license. Sometimes you can call the software company, explain your situation, and get another install as long as you’re a legit user. Companies don’t want to upset paying customers; they just want to discourage the ones who aren’t.

Dongles may or may not be a good solution. Those who use only programs with iLok copy protection can stick all their authorizations on one dongle, bring their distribution media with them, and install wherever they like — desktop, laptop, or even when guesting at another studio. Multiple dongles are harder to manage; adding a USB hub reduces portability. In any event, for USB dongles buy a USB extension cord so the dongle doesn’t plug directly into your machine. It’s way too easy for a dongle to break off when you’re on the road.

ACCESSORIZING YOUR SUITCASE STUDIO

There are definitely a few items you’ll need to pack when you’re bringing along a suitcase studio.

--Small near-field monitors. Listening to headphones all the time can be very fatiguing, and some small speakers don’t sound too bad.-- USB memory stick. Get a 1 or 2GB model, as it provides a super-simple way to transfer files from one computer to another — no burning CDs or even going online. Also, you can use it for temporary file backup.

--AC barrier strip. Whoever designed hotel rooms seems to have a problem with AC outlets, because there are never enough of them for a zillion little chargers and AC-powered thingamajigs. A plastic barrier strip doesn’t weigh much, and besides, can be a good conversation starter with TSA people at the airport.

--External hard drive. You can get really tiny portable drives these days for a little over a hundred dollars; think of it as insurance. You can mirror your data on it and store it separately from your laptop, so in case thieves make off with your computer, you still have its data. Or, use it as an audio-only drive for recording so you don’t have to work your poor system drive too hard.

--Why you don’t need a printer. If you need to print out lead sheets, session notes, chord charts, etc. while on the road, you might be tempted to go for one of those small, portable printers. But unless you really need high-quality printing or color, it’s often easier to plug your computer into the hotel’s phone line in your room, and fax what needs to be printed to the hotel — to your attention, of course. If you need higher quality, drop the data on to your USB stick, and take it to a Kinko’s.

--A really, really good computer case. Go for something as sturdy as humanly possible, because one drop and it could be curtains for your pet brain. A foam-lined hard case is better, although bulkier and heavier, than a Tenba or similar bag.

-- USB microphone. Even if you have an audio interface, a USB mic is great for backup. I frankly thought the idea was kind of stupid until I got one, and found out that it can come in very useful when you least expect it.

SO . . . ARE WE THERE YET?

As long as you treat your laptop with kid gloves, and preferably have a backup available, you should be able to keep Murphy’s Law at bay in the world of your portable studio. Make sure your computer is well-secured, buy the best laptop case you can afford, and never leave it unattended: Theft is harder to deal with than a hard drive crash.