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Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Q. Can USB pen drives be used as a cheap way to record audio?

By Various

Someone suggested that I could use a USB pen drive to record audio on my laptop. Is this a good idea? How fast are they, and is it really a cheap way to separate my system and audio drives, or are there any problems inherent in this approach?

Mark Hinter

SOS contributor Martin Walker replies: USB pen drives (aka Flash drives and USB sticks) are an extremely convenient way to carry your personal data around, and to transfer data from one PC to another. They have increased in capacity over the last few years, from handy 64MB notepads to seriously capacious drives typically offering between 1GB and 8GB, at prices below $10.
Q. Can USB pen drives be used as a  cheap way to record audio?
With most modern operating systems, such as Mac OS X and Windows 2000, XP and Vista, they are also 'plug and play', requiring no drivers to be installed, so you can be confident that wherever you go you'll be able to plug in your USB pen drive, wait for it to be automatically detected, and then access your data.

However, recording audio is a rather more serious undertaking, and relies on the one parameter invariably omitted from USB pen drive specifications: sustained transfer rate, or — in layman's terms — speed. Although many are described as 'fast', this is invariably in comparison to older USB 1.1 compatible USB sticks that might take a couple of yawn‑worthy minutes to save a 30MB file.

But let's turn for a moment to the main reason for considering a USB pen drive: to separate your audio files from the single hard drive found on most laptops. Given that you can buy a 250GB internal hard drive for $30, it's scrimping on a Scrooge‑like scale not to install a dedicated audio drive on a desktop audio PC. However, laptops are intended to be portable devices, and carting around an external drive somewhat defeats the object, which is why I suspect folk are interested in trying a USB pen drive instead.

Many musicians expect audio nightmares when recording and/or playing back multiple audio files from a hard drive that already has Windows and all its applications installed on it. However, you shouldn't worry unduly about your operating system being on the same drive, since (as I showed back in PC Musician May 2005) Windows activity on a properly-tweaked audio PC tends to be minimal once you've loaded your sequencer application.

Ultimately, the question you should ask yourself is whether your internal laptop drive is fast enough to record and play back the maximum number of audio tracks you need. I carried out some tests on a variety of hard drives in PC Notes April 2004, including various laptop drives with speeds ranging from 4200rpm to 7200rpm and, despite slowish sustained transfer rates of between 23MB and 36MB/second, all of them were nevertheless perfectly capable of managing dozens of simultaneous audio tracks.
USB Flash Drives may be fast enough to play back a couple of dozen audio tracks, but are considerably slower than most laptop hard drives, unless you buy an expensive dual‑channel model that costs up to 10 times as much. 
USB Flash Drives may be fast enough to play back a couple of dozen audio tracks, but are considerably slower than most laptop hard drives, unless you buy an expensive dual‑channel model that costs up to 10 times as much.

 Let's turn our attention back to USB pen drive speed. It's tempting to assume that pen drives will have a similarly huge bandwidth to system RAM, but this isn't the case. I dug out several in my collection, and even the fastest 1GB Emtec 1GB USB 2.0 Flash drive bought just a couple of weeks ago (for about $7) only registered a modest 14MB/second, quite fast enough to manage up to perhaps 20 24‑bit/96kHz audio tracks, but still about half the speed of a typical 4200rpm laptop drive. The fastest pen drive I discovered on the Internet (an OCZ Rally2 Turbo Dual Channel Flashdrive model costing about $30) managed about 30MB/second, making it slightly slower than a typical 5400rpm laptop hard drive.

So, yes, you could plug in a USB pen drive and use it for audio recording, but simultaneous track counts are likely to be considerably lower than those of even the slowest of today's laptop hard drives, and if you're interested in performance, creating a partition devoted to audio files on the laptop's single internal hard drive will generally offer much better performance.

Published March 2009

Monday, June 26, 2017

Q. How do I approach the process of mixing an entire album?

Over the last couple of years I've mixed quite a lot of songs, but only single tracks here and there. Now I'm about to mix an album, and I'm wondering what would be the best way to do it. The recording has been done in a very decent studio, and they have been adding some programmed elements afterwards. I want to avoid a situation where I mix all the tracks so that they sound great on their own, only to realise later that they won't fit together as a whole. How would you approach this? Would you mix one track, and use it as a reference for the other mixes? Would you re‑use some of the settings (for example, use the same plug‑ins for the same tracks, with some tweaks)? Sadly, the budget doesn't allow for a separate mastering job, so I would have to do some limiting and final tweaks myself.

SOS Forum post

SOS contributor Mike Senior replies: If you're wanting a collection of tracks to fit together on your record, it makes sense to have some elements common to the different mixes, but at the same time you can't just duplicate your mix settings slavishly, because you also need to allow yourself enough flexibility to respond to each cut's unique mix‑processing needs as well, especially if the instrumentation changes radically from one to the next.

If you're seeking a cohesive feel, the approach required for mixing an entire album of material will usually be somewhat different from that for mixing a single track. 
If you're seeking a cohesive feel, the approach required for mixing an entire album of material will usually be somewhat different from that for mixing a single track.

One strategy would be to identify some common arrangement elements that could be used as a kind of 'sonic anchor' for the production as a whole — something that appears in nearly every track, and which, if given a consistent sound signature, might conceptually glue all the tracks together. The lead vocals are an obvious choice in a lot of cases, as they are usually very prominent in the mix, and consistency in this department is often desirable for 'brand recognition' purposes. However, any other important instrument might just as readily fulfil this role too: drums and bass for a rock band, perhaps; acoustic guitar or piano for a singer‑songwriter; or the kick‑drum samples for a house or hip‑hop act.

The point, though, is that it would probably be a waste of effort to try to match everything between the different mixes — it would take you ages and wouldn't make the mixes any better, because you'd be torn between making an instrument sound the same as on the other tracks and making it sound the way it needs to in that specific mix. Duplicate your plug‑in settings for a couple of the most important elements (maybe vocals and bass), and then work from there, trusting yourself to 'fill in the blanks' on each mix as you would normally do, and tweaking the duplicated plug‑in settings as necessary to make each mix work in its own right. Remember that, if nothing else, your own personal mixing style will also contribute to a consistent overall sound.

Another thing which might help is to decide on a basic core line‑up of send effects (especially reverbs and delays), supplementing them with other effects specific to each mix as required. Even though you'll need to adjust the levels and reverb/delay times of these core effects to match the different mixes, their basic sound will otherwise remain fairly consistent, giving all the cuts on the record something of a common environment, whether real or unreal sounding. And again, don't be afraid to tweak the duplicated effects if that works better in each specific mix; just having started with them as they were will have helped put you in the same mindset as you were in on the previous mixes.

I would certainly reference the full mixes against each other as you work, but I'd leave this comparison until you've got a pretty good draft mix up and running in each case, otherwise it's easy to start chasing your tail with individual instrument levels. Once you have a good first draft of a mix, import it into a new sequencer project so that you can compare it not only with the other mixes you've done, but also with a selection of representative commercial mixes. The main things to look for here, in my experience, are the levels of certain key instruments such as drums, bass and vocals (as these can be very genre‑dependent) and the overall tonality of each mix. Be careful of getting too obsessed with other, more minor, details, as this is usually a good way to spend lots of time for very little reward! This referencing project will also help with getting suitable loudness levels if you're going to be taking on the responsibility for loudness processing in the absence of a mastering engineer.

Published March 2009

Friday, June 23, 2017

Q. Which entry-level Sequencer should I choose?

I'm looking for advice about a software sequencer, mainly to record guitar, electric bass, basic keyboards and banjo, plus some small use of MIDI sampling to provide backing tracks and maybe drum tracks.

I do have Cubase SE but this seems quite complicated for use by a beginner, and I was attracted to a free version of Samplitude 9 SE because it looked more 'user friendly'. What would you recommend?
Malcolm Furneaux

Both Cubase SE3 (pictured) and Sequoia Samplitude 9SE are 'entry-level' versions of flagship software applications. They offer a useful set of features, but can take a little while to get used to.  
Both Cubase SE3 (pictured) and Sequoia Samplitude 9SE are 'entry-level' versions of flagship software applications. They offer a useful set of features, but can take a little while to get used to.

PC Music Specialist Martin Walker replies: Both Cubase SE3 and Samplitude 9SE have been used successfully by many beginners, but choosing a sequencer package tends to be a very personal thing, and what some consider 'easy to use', others may find initially impenetrable. Cubase SE (Special Edition) is described by Steinberg as 'your entry-level ticket to the world of computer-assisted music production”, yet it still contains a surprising number of features, supporting up to 48 audio tracks plus unlimited MIDI tracks, as well as providing 16 'slots' for VST Instruments, eight effect send channels, automation, drum editing, MIDI step recording, and more.

Similarly, Samplitude 9 SE is described by Magix as 'the ideal starting point for sound professionals, producers, and ambitious musicians”, and also manages to incorporate a huge number of features for its modest 50 Euro download price (it has also been featured on various magazine cover-mounted CD-ROMs).

The intention with both of these, and various others from competing developers, is to give you a foothold on a particular product range, so you can learn the basics and then upgrade to a more professional version with yet more features as and when required. (Magix, for instance, provide special discounts for any Samplitude 9 SE users who want to upgrade to Samplitude Master, Classic or Professional.) This makes these packages an absolute bargain for those who anticipate spending lots of time creating music, and especially those who intend to collaborate with other musicians using another package from the range, or who eventually intend to visit a recording studio that runs the flagship version, so they will already be familiar with all the basics.

However, if you simply want an easy-to-use MIDI + Audio sequencer for your own music-making, you have the luxury of being able to choose whichever sequencer initially seems the most 'user-friendly' to you. You don't mention which type of computer you're running, but since the Magix range is only available for Windows users I'll assume you're running a PC. Why not have a look at MU Lab Free (for Mac and PC) from Mutools (www.mutools.com), which is described as an 'ultra-light music application, designed to compose and perform music of different styles and flavours”. When I reviewed it in SOS September 2007 (www.soundonsound.com/sos/sep07/articles/pcmusician...) I found 'it still provides a rather more straightforward interface than those of many mainstream packages, that is also considerably easier to get to grips with”.

Another to consider is Reaper from Cockos Incorporated (www.cockos.com), which is considered by many musicians to be significantly easier to use than many other, similarly capable packages, despite its wealth of features.

You may, however, find it worth persevering with Cubase SE or Samplitude SE. It always takes at least a few hours of use before you enter the mind-set of a particular developer, and then things might suddenly click into place and become a lot clearer. You may even find that using a simpler application such as MU Lab Free will help you appreciate the advantages of all their extra features in the long run. Good luck with whichever sequencer you choose!

Published September 2008