The biggest bang-for-the-buck computer upgrade is more RAM. Without enough RAM, your computer uses your much slower hard drive as virtual memory. You need at least a Gigabyte, but if you’re really into it, install the maximum your system can handle. Don’t know what kind of RAM your computer uses? Go to pny.com/configurator, search for your machine, and you’ll find out what type of memory you need to get.
If you’re recording in the field and can get away with mono, split the signal into left and right channels, and turn down one of the channels about 10dB. If an overload occurs on the main channel, you can likely use the signal from the other channel. Use a digital audio editor to choose the right splice point (for best results, “bookend” the replacement section with high-level transients), and adjust the gain as needed.
Most repairs these days are done through substitution, because the world is getting lazier and dumber. But you’re ambitious and smart, so do the subs yourself and save both $$$ and time. Buy replacements for mission-critical parts that will cause you the greatest grief if they fail: Power supplies and CPU fans are high on the list.
If you’re running a computer without an uninterruptible power supply (UPS), well, don’t say we didn’t warn you. And no, we don’t mean a surge suppressor, which is to a UPS as a fly swatter is to an Uzi. Don’t cheap out; spend a little more and get the kind with a replaceable battery, as that will save you money in the long run.
Got an idea for a melody line but you’re away from home? E.T. phone home, and hum it into your answering machine.
Don’t use ground lifters, unless you really know what you’re doing and the gear in question has a solid path to ground anyway. The ground connection is there for reasons that go beyond mere attempts to annoy you.
Keep a set of nail clippers in the studio. Guitarists can be neurotic about their fingernails, and if one breaks, they’re going to want to trim it.
Speaking of guitarists, keep a spare set of strings in the studio of the three most popular gauges (.008, .009, .010 for the high E). Or if business is bad, don’t keep a set of strings around, so the guitarist will have to go out and buy one while your clock is running.
Remember that recording and mastering is a service industry, and the customer is always right. That does not mean the customer isn’t a jerk; it just means if they want their music to sound pedestrian, that’s what you give them. However, you don’t have to put your name on the album, either.
Using a laptop for portable music? It may be a temptation to use the onboard audio, but it’s worth adding a small USB interface or PCMCIA card (e.g., Echo Indigo). You’ll get higher levels, better quality, and when your hard drive does its thing, you won’t hear sounds like small insects trapped in a conveyor belt.
It’s a good idea to back up data to two copies. It’s a better idea to use media made by different manufacturers for the two copies.
You don’t want equipment to get too cold or too hot. If you can’t leave heat on in your studio, then leave on two 100-Watt incandescent light bulbs. They’ll generate just enough heat to take off some of the chill.
Into using sample CDs? Copy them over to hard disk for faster access, and save any audio you use with your project. You don’t want to call up the project in a few months only to find out that it refuses to play unless you find the right CD-ROMs and stuff them in your drive.
Every now and then, a track or program material will have a “rogue resonance,” perhaps from bad acoustics, or a “perfect storm” of a singer’s voice coupled with a mic response peak in a room that accentuates the peak. To fix this, dial in a very narrow parametric bandpass response, push the gain up to max, turn down the monitors, and slooooowwwwwllllly sweep the EQ frequency. When you find frequencies that go into massively ballistic distortion, pull back on the gain to zero, then reduce it by a few dB. Ahhh . . . much better.
If you’re into rude noises, try guitar amp plug-ins on anything, particularly drums. Use the plug-in in parallel with the main sound, not in series. Or not, if you like really rude noises.
Want to do parallel processing, but you don’t have Bias’s Vbox? Well, get Vbox. But if you can’t wait, duplicate the track you want to process in your DAW, process each track separately, mix them together into a subgroup, then assign the subgroup to your master output.
If you’re doing field recording, always have at least one spare, fully charged battery for whatever you use to record. Make that two, actually.
We told you so, Part 1: No matter how many times we tell you how important it is to document your sessions, some of you will still be too lazy to do it, and regret it later on. So if all else fails, create a “comments track” in your DAW project, feed a mic into it, and describe your session — gear used, presets, mic placement, whatever. See? Documenting isn’t that hard.
We told you so, Part 2: No matter how many times we tell you how important it is to back up your sessions, some of you will still be too lazy to do it, and regret it later on. So here’s the easy option: Install a big honkin’ hard drive in your computer (surely there’s room for a spare; if not, get a big honkin’ external FireWire or USB drive) and copy your files over to it whenever you think of it. And you should think of it whenever you have something you don’t want to lose.
People don’t read manuals because, let’s face it, the plot sucks and character development is non-existent. But you’re not supposed to read it like you’d read War and Peace (or for some of you, comic books). Think of a manual as a buffet, where from time to time you go in and read a chapter or section. Do this with a highlighter in hand, and highlight all the sections that make you go “Huh, I didn’t know that!” You’d be amazed how many cool little shortcuts and things you forget if you don’t use something consistently.
You have a zillion little gizmos — iPod, Minidisc, digital camera, and the like — each with their own AC adapter, little special weird adapter cable, CD-ROM with drivers, non-standard format instruction manual, and so on. If you lose any of these, you’re hosed. So, go to Office Depot, Staples, etc., and get one of those plastic drawer units with lots of little drawers. Dedicate one drawer per gizmo.
For all of you who missed it the first time around, when you want to set a delay time to one beat, here’s the formula for music in 4/4 time: 60,000/tempo in BPM = Milliseconds per beat. For example, at 120 BPM, each beat lasts 500ms.
If you think the singer is on the verge of a truly great take, turn up the level in the phones 1dB just before the take. The tiny bit of extra volume can give that added, subtle psychological jolt that takes the vocal up a notch.
If someone from the band wants to be around when you mix, choose the bass player. Seriously. They’ll sit quietly in the corner and leave you alone, and when they do have comments, they’re invariably useful.
No matter what anyone says, mix at reasonably low volume levels, and turn up the levels only as a last minute reality check. The last thing you want while you mix are fatigued eardrums.
Always have a can of WD-40 sitting around for bass drum pedal squeaks, wa-wa pedals, stompbox footswitches, and other things that go squeak squeak squeak.
If you work solo in the studio, buy a Frontier Design Group Tranzport now (assuming it supports your DAW of choice). You won’t regret it, and you won’t understand why it’s cool until you have it. If that’s too much of a budget buster, and you use Sonar 4 (or higher), Adobe Audition, or Cool Edit Pro, the ADS Red Rover gets the runner-up award. Why do you want a remote? Because then you don’t have to jump back and forth between your keyboard, guitar amp, or whatever and the engineer’s seat.
73 Put a comfy chair or couch in your studio just for casual listening . . . not in the sweet spot or anything, just someplace where you can hear the sounds in the background as you relax. It’ll give you a different perspective on your mix.
74 When working with a laptop, never plug a dongle directly into the USB port. Always use a USB extension cord. If something applies pressure to the dongle and it breaks off at the base, not only is your authorization hosed, the motherboard on your computer will probably never be the same. And if you need to fix it, your budget won’t be the same, either.
When hooking USB devices into a Windows computer, use consistent port assignments for the various devices. Sometimes devices are “wedded” to a port when you install the drivers, and if you plug the device into a different USB port, it won’t be recognized.
Powered USB hubs with a transformer cost a bit more than the self-powered kind, but some USB devices simply won’t work with a self-powered hub.
Okay, so you got a cheap Windows computer. But there’s hope! Use a PCI audio interface card (or external USB/FireWire audio interface) instead of the onboard audio, and an AGP graphics card instead of the built-in low-rent graphics capabilities. Even a cheap AGP card will do. Just make sure you disable both the internal audio and internal graphics; if you forget to do that and your computer goes blue screen on you, don’t panic — reboot into safe mode, disable the onboard stuff, then re-boot and let Windows “discover” the new cards and install drivers for them.
Before you install a piece of software, including drivers for hardware, go to the manufacturer’s websites and check for updates, patches, or important notes like “Warning: Do not install the drivers shipped with the product, use these instead.”