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Help setting up a small basic studio

I've got about $3500 to use to set up a recording system for the music department at our local (small) high school. There are so many choices that I'm totally confused. I want to record live performances, usually either vocalist with piano or rehearsals of the choirs and bands, and save them on CD's that can be played on any standard audio CD player. I'm mainly interested in making stereo recordings of student performances for 1. The students to hear and critique themselves, 2. Honor group and college entrance auditions, 3. Demo performances of me performing pieces so the kids can listen to a finished performance at home.

I have a Gateway Pentium II computer with inboard CD burner. It presently has only the factory audio card. For audio software I have Adaptec Easy CD Creator, Music Match Jukebox, and Cool Edit Pro.

I thought I might begin with a pair of large diaphragm condenser mics set in a stereo bar. After that the issue becomes very complicated. Will I need a mic preamp or a stereo mic preamp, or none at all?

Should I get a DAT machine, a digital multitrack recorder, an outboard CD recorder, a bunch of sortware for the PC, or what? If I get a decent audio card, can I import audio into the PC, edit it there and burn it on the inboard CD burner? Cool Edit Pro supports WAV format. Is there a compatibility issue with external audio devices like DAT machines?

And then there's the simplicity issue. Most of the time I don't want to spend a lot of time making these recordings. Usually I'll want to record and playback quickly with a minimum of fuss or time spent (Kids need immediate feedback.)Only occasionally will I want to release a slick professional recording that I've spent lots of time mastering.

I really don't know how to proceed. This is a lot different than hooking a couple of mics to a cassette deck and making a tape. (Which is what I used to do. Quality was nothing to write hope about.)

Any advice for a totally confused rookie? I would welcome very specific equipment recommendations as I know absolutely nothing.

Comments

anonymous Sun, 02/10/2002 - 21:10
I'm not sure that there is much that is going to run on that P2 computer. You could try downloading ProTools Free from http://www.digidesign.com STORE link and see how it runs. You should be able to upgrade your computer easily to a P3 1Ghz+ or even switch to AMD Athlon XP1800+ with GA7DX motherboard and 512 MB of DDR ram easily enough for under 400.00. That would leave you roughly 3000.00 to spend on software/mics/preamps etc.
Here is my list:
1. GA7DX motherboard 85.00
2. 512 MB of DDR ram 160.00
3. XP1800 processor 135.00
4. IBM 60GXP 60GB ATA100 7200 rpm audio drive 108.00
5. Digi001 with ProTools LE 5.1 799.00
6. Rode NTK mic 400.00 http://www.bpmmusic.com
or Sound Projects C1 299.00 x 2 = 600-800.00
7. Shure SM57 mics 4@75.00=300.00
8. Presonus Digimax preamp. and I/O 799.00

Would give you 16 inputs, 4 mics for instruments, 2 mics for room or vocals or stereo instrument, 24 tracks of audio and unlimited midi and one of the fastest computers to run it.

Good luck.
Allen :w:

GZsound Sun, 02/10/2002 - 23:16
You can purchase a decent small mixer and a couple of good condenser mics (they do not need to be large condensers but two Rode NT1's would cost $400.00). You can get good small condenser mics that will work in an XY or Blumlein configuration with good results for around $125 each.

You could purchase a DAT deck and record to it in stereo and then purchase a digital sound card to transfer the two track stereo mix to the computer. Cool Edit will work well for cleaning up the tracks, normalization, etc. You can then burn the CD using your software.

Your existing computer should work fine if you are working with stereo files. Just keep in mind they are large and most audio software programs suggest two hard drives, one for the program and one for the sound files.

You could also spend a ton of money and upgrade your computer, buy a (nearly $1,000) sound card, buy Pro Tools and be out around ten grand.

I'd buy a Behringer 2004 board ($245.00), which has eight lo Z mic inputs, direct outs, four bus, etc., a reasonably priced DAT (you don't need a lot of bells and whistles for what you're doing), and a reasonably priced sound card with digital inputs to run from your DAT digital outs. All told, around fifteen hundred dollars which would include another hard drive in your computer.

Again, Cool Edit will do everything you need to accomplish your goals..

Ted Nightshade Mon, 02/11/2002 - 05:49
I wouldn't recommend large diaphragm mics for your only pair. The off axis response is not as even as with small diameter mics. This is a big issue when recording a room sound at a distance.
You might also consider having the mics be of an omni pattern rather than the usual cardioid pattern. This is a popular approach with classical engineers, who are usually trying to do what you seem to be: Capturing the performance as literally as possible in a room designed for music. The omni pattern eliminates the proximity effect.
If you want it to be simple and easy just keep the computer out of the picture altogether.
If you use a standalone CD burner instead of a DAT, you'll be able to play the result anywhere, or wend it home with a kid. Bet one of the kids can duplicate them!
Skip the cheapie mixer (what's to mix with two mics?). If you have two good mics, a good CD burner, and a really good preamp, you will be in business. You will be making (with some experience) recordings good enough that you can tell what is the performance and what is shortcomings of the recording (a biggie for a kid trying to learn to play to a room) and if you get a good performance some kid can use it as a demo for further education or whatever without apologies.
It may seem overboard but a really good preamp will last for many years, as will the mics, so put as much of your budget there as you can. Maybe you can get an educational discount somewhere.
Example system:
(2) Neumann KM183 (omni pattern small diapragm condenser) $1200
Tascam CD recorder ($400)
or better (might be $800 for one with better A/D conversion)
(Alesis Masterlink is a good one that does 24 bit recording and some basic editing for a bit more)
Quality preamp (don't mess around) $1000-$1500
for example RME ADI-PRO or whatever their two channel one is with the nice converters (converters make a big difference)

*Other quality preamp suggestions?

This is simple, sounds great, and the mics and pres will keep their value for years to come.
Good luck with your work! Wish I'd had more of that when I was in school!
Ted

anonymous Tue, 02/12/2002 - 12:48
Thanks for the responses. I see that I made a mistake in my original post. The computer in the music room is a Pentium 3 with a basic from-the-factory audio card, not a P2 as I originally specified. Does this make any difference when considering whether to use the computer as a workstation?

Someone local suggested that I use an ART Pro MPA stereo mic preamp, run it into a DAT machine and then into a CD recorder. What do you think of the ART preamp? (I know it gives tube color to the signal. Is this good?)

And why use a DAT machine in this way? Why not just go directly to a CD recorder? What advantage does the DAT machine give? And would there be any editing capability at all with such a setup?

What audio cards would you recommend?

Ted Nightshade Tue, 02/12/2002 - 15:26
Skip the DAT.
I don't know if Masterlink CD recorder would have enough editing for what you need. Do you just want to sequence the cuts and adjust levels or are you wanting to do punch-ins to fix little errors and that? I say make the students get a good performance without editing, that's the best way to learn. Don't know the protocol on editing audition tapes, if it's kosher or not. I'm always amazed so much editing goes on during classical sessions. I thought those folks were more hardcore.
Most of the color in the ART preamps is cheap circuitry. Not recommended for classical recording!
The tube coloration in a Manley pre (about the least expensive tube pre worth buying, really! The mid-priced stuff ain't worth it, and you only need two channels) is rather nice, it's still superclean. The transformer distortion is much more colorful.
Do put most of your money in 2 good mics and 2 channels of good preamp. You have the budget to do this and still get a CD recorder and/or some computer software if need be.
Two tracks is not a lot to ask of a computer system.
RME makes very good soundcards for a very good price.
Ted

Curve Dominant Tue, 02/12/2002 - 18:58
Someone local suggested that I use an ART Pro MPA stereo mic preamp...What do you think of the ART preamp? (I know it gives tube color to the signal. Is this good?)
If you're using it to blow-out a sampling groovebox for hiphop tracks, yeah, it's cool.

I have one of those Art "PRO" MPAs, given to me for home-studio use after my "big-brother" studio broke down and bought Avalons, Neve's, UAs, et al. It makes for a nice rack-mounted distortion box, with phantom power. Use it on vocals, with a large diaphragm condensor mic, for that lo-fi sound. Ditto guitar, bass, synthe, samples. The ART PRO MPA is GREAT for getting that "grimey" sound, if that's what you're after. You could probably find one used for about $50.

The Millennia pre is clear. It's also pricey, but it is clear. Good for mic'ing some Beyer 160s on a 1926 Mason & Hamlin, or a cello and violin quartet.

Pre's are tricky, especially if you want one that has "glowy" things inside. Expect to do a lot of research, a lot of testing, and a lot of spending $$$ in trial-and-error experimentation. Welcome to the jungle.

E

anonymous Wed, 02/13/2002 - 13:10
Do you just want to sequence the cuts and adjust levels or are you wanting to do punch-ins to fix little errors and that? I say make the students get a good performance without editing, that's the best way to learn. Don't know the protocol on editing audition tapes, if it's kosher or not. I'm always amazed so much editing goes on during classical sessions. I thought those folks were more hardcore.
You're absolutely right. The students need to learn to do it right in one take. And the protocol on audition tapes is: make the cleanest recording possible, but don't use editing to misrepresent the student's ability. For me, this means that students do everything in complete takes, with no punch-in fixes or pitch adjustments. I do edit out lengthy piano introductions and endings to save the listener's time.

But it would be nice to have punch-in capability for me to use. (Did I ever mention that I'm the choir/voice teacher?) I make dozens of rehearsal tapes or CD's for my soloists. I usually include myself performing the piece, and a little background information on the composer, style, foreign language diction, etc. This is a fabulous rehearsal tool, as the student takes it home and practices nearly as effectively as if I were there with them. The thing is, I crank these demos out pretty fast and I am often sightreading. It's hard for me to get everything perfect in one complete take. It would help me a lot if I had punch-in fixes available. I'm grinning just thinking of the time and frustration I could save!

You've given me a lot of good suggestions. What I'm hearing is that I should get some really good mics, set them up in stereo configuration and just keep a stereo signal path through a good preamp and into a CD recorder. From there I should use an upgraded audio card to get the signal into the P3 computer for edits as needed, and store the info on a separate hard drive. Then what? Do I use the inboard CD burner, or do I export back to the external CD recorder for the final copy?

anonymous Wed, 02/13/2002 - 18:40
BtMusicMan,

$3500
Digidesign MBox List $495
Universal Audio 2-610 $2295
2 AT 4033 (large diam condenser mics List $495 each.
I

Total list $3780
Street price Approx. $2900
You still have $600 for a CD-r or to upgrade your mics to AT4050s

The reason I chose the previous for your solution is, a couple of reasons. I feel like I know what you are wanting to accomplish. You need to make quality recordings, with little fuss, and you need some editing capabilities. You also need mics that can double as Vocal mics. The MBox still allows you to record 24 tracks at 24 bit, but it only has 2 inputs at a time. But you don't need anymore. You will still have the flexibility of being able to edit and master with very nice software (Pro Tools). The mic pre amp is a very nice Mic pre that is pro and hi end. You won't out grow it. The mics are great starters. There are so many different ways to meet your needs, it all comes down to what you want to accomplish, and how you feel comfortable doing it. If you have any questions please email me and I will do my best to help you out.

Thanks

Darren
http://www.dixondigital.com

anonymous Thu, 02/14/2002 - 02:57
Given that it's a PIII and not a PII, I would lean towards Darren's suggestion of the Pro Tools M-Box. It'll have pretty good mic pres built in and the editing power of Pro-Tools is hard to beat. Plus, PT comes with a pretty nice set of Digital Signal Processors right out of the box.

One thing you did not mention is the size of your hard drive, however. When recording direct to .Wav, you're creating huge files that eat up hard drive space fast. You may need to run a second hard drive dedicated to music data, then mix and archive to CD. Still not very expensive - a second SCSI hard drive will run you about $250 to $300 all told. So for $795 and the computer, you've got a 24 track digital recording studio. You can spend the rest of the money on mics.

People here are talking about recording direct to CD - I'm not aware of that as a viable method. CD burners are not fast enough to record in real time, nor are they reliable enough to trust with a session. You either need to go to DAT, or right to the computer hard drive in real time.

Sound
http://

GZsound Thu, 02/14/2002 - 06:01
The only thing I could add to the above posts is to not buy a 4033. I record lots of acoustic bands and groups and a Rode NT2, NT1 or NT1000 is a much better purchase. My understanding is that the 4033 is not a true large condenser and in mastering I really have to work to get the 4033 to sound natural. I have recorded the same group at the same venue using both 4033 and NT1 direct to digital keeping all eq flat and the difference is dramatic.

Ted Nightshade Thu, 02/14/2002 - 08:02
"People here are talking about recording direct to CD - I'm not aware of that as a viable method. CD burners are not fast enough to record in real time, nor are they reliable enough to trust with a session. You either need to go to DAT, or right to the computer hard drive in real time."

I've heard this works well at lest with the best ones- been racking my brain trying to remember who's was recommended. Does Bang and Olafson (sic) make one? This needs more investigation. DAT's are borderline obsolete, it seems. Hmmm.

BTW, it's hard to see why the gent needs a 24 track studio for his purposes. a few wave files is not such a big deal for drive space. But it sounds like the computer is a bit antique.

Also something noisy like a computer will have to be placed where it won't pick up on the mics, maybe getting into longer cable runs and that. Some kind of quiet recorder can be put right on stage.
Good ideas?
Ted

anonymous Fri, 02/15/2002 - 03:55
I've never dealt with Masterlink, and I don't know anyone who has. (Big help I am!)

But, it appears you are shooting for simplicity. Looking at the Masterlink, I can think of quite a few shortcomings as compared to the Digi M-Box and a beefy computer, but there are advantages also. The shortcomings would be:

1. Sound quality - The M-Box has Focusrite mike preamps built in. It's not clear what kind of mike preamps the Masterlink has, but they probably don't compare.

2. Input - It's likely you'll have to purchase a small mixer to provide phantom power for the condensor mikes and control the input signal to the Masterlink. The M-Box is a small mixer in itself. (I'm pretty sure it has phantom power also.)

2. Edit Capability - This thing seems to be intended as a mastering device and not an editing system. Editing on a computer using Pro Tools as compared to editing through the Masterlink will be like the difference between delivering a baby in a hospital delivery room as opposed to the back of a taxicab. Also, is it capable of punch-ins and punch outs?

3. Expandability - You're limited by the Masterlink hardware. Somewhere down the line you're going to wish you had [insert feature here] and you'll probably have to go and buy a new piece of hardware to get it. Chances are Pro-Tools already has it, or you'll be able to expand with software.

4. Price - The M-Box is considerably cheaper, given the fact that you have a computer already with a CD-RW drive. Even if you need to get a second hard drive, you're still ahead of the game on price.

The Masterlink could possibly have a few big advantages, though. Those would be:

1. Ease of use - There's a learning curve for recording and editing music on a computer. It can be pretty frustrating for the beginner. I suspect that using the Masterlink will be simpler.

2. Stability - I can't speak for the stability/reliability of the Masterlink, but the computer is probably using a Windows operating system. Ergo, expect system crashes and inexplicable error messages to occur on an ongoing basis. It's just something we live with in the world that Bill Gates gave us.

I hope this helps and doesn't confuse you further. Good luck with your final purchase.

Soundsurfr
http://

knightfly Fri, 02/15/2002 - 09:39
"CD burners are not fast enough to record in real time" - I was under the impression that 1x WAS realtime - burners are now up to 20x and better for "write once" disks (CD-R). I haven't tried this yet, but the only limitation should be whether your software allows you to record direct to CD from sound card inputs. You would have to go into your burner software and set the burn speed to 1x. My version of CD Creator (4) lets you set the record speed at anything from 1x up to the limitation of the drive.

Inverse-square law - If recording to computer (vs. something quiet) how 'bout mic pre local, computer behind a stage curtain 50 feet away ? The signal out of the pre would be lo-Z balanced line level, then if whatever sound card is used requires hi-Z unbal, go thru a DI box into the sound card. This would keep the long run at minimum noise.

I wouldn't put kids (or laymen) in the same room with ADAT or any other optical - Can't remember the last time I was successful soldering fiber-optics... Steve

anonymous Fri, 02/15/2002 - 18:34
OK here goes,

IBook 600MHz w/DVD-rom/CD-rw $1495
MBox $400
2 Baby Bottles $499ea
Wave Gold Native

All together $3275

The Ibook has a built in CD-rw, so you have everything taken care of ther to burn your CDs, Pro Tools has all the editing you need, and then some. The MBox runs off of the Laptop so you don't need any extra power(but is recommended for extended recording times). The Laptop is portable, quite, and perfect for ease of use. You can even take it home to work very simply. The Baby bottle mic are nice hand made mics that are "sleepers". Great value and not many people know about them yet. Great for vox or room recording on a budget. You then have money left over for decent headphones, extra cords, mic stands etc. Oh and the waves Gold bundle is a necesity for vocals and just tightening up production at low cost. You don't really have to have it but you'll be glad you did.

Let me know if you have any questions

Darren
http://www.dixondigital.com

anonymous Sat, 02/16/2002 - 04:22
"CD burners are not fast enough to record in real time" - I was under the impression that 1x WAS realtime - burners are now up to 20x and better for "write once" disks (CD-R). I haven't tried this yet, but the only limitation should be whether your software allows you to record direct to CD from sound card inputs. You would have to go into your burner software and set the burn speed to 1x. My version of CD Creator (4) lets you set the record speed at anything from 1x up to the limitation of the drive."

It's not a matter of how quickly the CD write mechanism can burn the physical CD, it's a matter of how fast the device can acquire data from the recorder into its buffer. Once the CD burner starts writing to disk, it cannot pause for even a millisecond, or you will have turned your CD blank into a drink coaster. It's called buffer under-run, and it's the cause of most CD burning mishaps. The CD-RW mechanisms in your computer acquire data and fill their buffers way in advance (not in real time), then start burning. They are not designed to record on the fly from an outside input.

Aside from the obvious concern for reliability, you also cannot punch in, punch out or stop the recording process for any reason until the performance is over, nor can you add effects or do editing to the disk, EVER. To do that, you have to dump what's on the disk onto your computer drive, then edit, then burn a new CD. The way the Masterlink gets around this is that it is really a mini DAW. It records the performance directly to a 3.2Gig hard disk, then burns the CD later, after you've edited and done signal processing.

I say go with the Pro-tools system. Darren's got it right.

Guest Sat, 02/16/2002 - 17:22
Sounds cool to me too, I've got that I book, it's sweet, no probs so far (touch wood)

:)

Hmm that M box seems cool, I may just get that as well thanks Darren...

We do a lot of vocal editing on PT for free as a secondary edit station to the studios Mix + rig..

But the track count has been a mild pain..

Burning off CD's however has been cool as a moose!

:)

anonymous Sat, 02/16/2002 - 20:37
Ted,
Sounds good. Beats chasing around the older computer. Make sure the mics are appropriate for classical recording- small diameter omnis are probably best.
Ted
I agree with you on the small diaphram mics, they probably are the most appropriate for classical recording. But in one of the posts made I think he was also wanting the mics to double as a vocal mic, for demos for the kids for doing pronunciation, and just learning the melody. Another use was for auditions for vocalists for competition, or even instrumentalists, I don't recall which...maybe both. This is why I suggested the Baby bottles. They are great handmade mics, with great value. I thought it would be a good starting place to get him going with quality components.

HTH

Darren
http://www.dixondigital.com

Ted Nightshade Sun, 02/17/2002 - 11:51
My sister is quite a capable aspiring opera singer, so I've heard some very well made vocal audition tapes. They seemed to be the usual classical room sound approach, not at all a close mic on vocals type of situation.
Considering that the 'example' tapes to show the students the pieces are strictly for learning purposes, and the "audition" tapes and 'evaluation' tapes seem more crucial, I think you could get away easily with using some small diaphragm omnis for the 'example' tapes. Did you follow that?
Ted

anonymous Mon, 02/18/2002 - 17:18
...vocal audition tapes. They seemed to be the usual classical room sound approach, not at all a close mic on vocals type of situation.
Considering that the 'example' tapes to show the students the pieces are strictly for learning purposes, and the "audition" tapes and 'evaluation' tapes seem more crucial, I think you could get away easily with using some small diaphragm omnis for the 'example' tapes.
I agree with this, Ted. My demo tapes are not meant to be judged on their technical quality, nor do I intend to spend a great deal of time cranking them out. The audition and evaluation tapes are the most important by far. It is not uncommon for singers to make their audition tapes at a professional recording studio, even at our level of competition. Our nearest recording studio is 70 miles... not a convenient location.

I gather that there are several schools of thought on mics and micing techniques. Maybe I should outline what I want to do so you can tailor your advice to my specific needs:

I would like to be able to record choirs of up to about 50 singers accurately so we can evaluate our own performances. We also have many singers working on solos and small ensembles ranging in size from 2 to 16 voices. These groups are usually accompanied by piano.

The same rehearsal room is also used by the band (50 - 70 students) and various instrumental solos and ensembles. The instrumental teacher does not seem very interested in making recordings, except last year when he needed an audition tape and didn't know how to go about making one. If we had the gear in place he would probably use it, but the vocalists have raised the money for the recording gear and I am primarily interested in meeting their needs.

There has been little discussion of portability. There is a small chance that we would wish to record our concerts, but the sad truth is that we perform in a gym that could be used for demonstrations of how not to design an acoustic environment. If I ever choose to make a fundraising CD (the high school choir's Fall Concert, only $20), I would probably not use live performance takes for that reason. Two of the local churches have excellent acoustics, as well as good organs. They would be a nice place to record. But portability is not real high on my list. Convenience and simplicity (user friendliness) would rank much higher. And at the top of the list is accurate, realistic sound.

Does any of this help guide the choice of mics and how to place them? Is it asking too much for one set of mics to perform all these tasks well? Am I better served with one pair of excellent all-purpose mics, or two pairs of cheaper, job-specific mics?

anonymous Tue, 02/19/2002 - 19:56
Two Mics that are higher quality most definately! Your budget is tight to begin with. If you add two more mics I think it will hurt the overall sound in the long run. I still think the Blue mics are a good way to go. When you use the small diaphram mics for the soloists and use them more as a room mic (like Ted suggested) you are at the mercy of the room acoustics. If you have great room acoustics you could have a great recording, I agree. Alot more depth. However, Most school environments are at best below adequate, (at least in my area). If this is your case you would be better off with mics used closer to the source. If you have decent to good acoustics in the room you could get by with Ted's suggestion for starters, and if you find yourself wanting better soloist recordings you could then address that when the time came.

Waves Gold Native, is a bundle of software plugins- that add greater funtionality to your Pro Tools Le software (the software that comes with the Digidesign MBox). It comes with reverb, compression, eq, and a few other bells and whistles that you could grow into.

Many decsions.... Easy to get overwhelmed. Stick to it you'll get it.

Darren
http://www.dixondigital.com

Ted Nightshade Tue, 02/19/2002 - 20:12
I don't see how you will record a fifty piece choir without using room mics. They would sound great in a good church, but you knew that.
I think a small diaphragm omni would make a very good solo vocal mic as well.
Take a look at http://www.dpamicrophones.com (a pair of these would be your whole budget, oh well) under "microphone university". This will give you a good overview of microphones- applications, various patterns and sizes, stereo techniques, etc.

" But portability is not real high on my list. Convenience and simplicity (user friendliness) would rank much higher. And at the top of the list is accurate, realistic sound."

This last one is a pretty tall order. It's at the top of my list too. You will want the best mics, preamps, and A/D converters you can possibly afford. Good thing you only need two channels worth! This approach makes it possible.
I'm glad you're persistent in your research. I think what you're looking for is just about possible with your budget. Is it at all flexible? If not, you will have to figure out what you're using as a recording medium before you know what will be left for mics, pres, A/D conversion, which is a big one for sure.
I would go for portability, just because your accurate, realistic sound will only be good sound if the room is good. A field trip to record in a church could be the ticket to good ensemble vocal sounds.
Ted

knightfly Tue, 02/19/2002 - 23:53
I second Ted's comments about going to good acoustics - One personal experience that transcended the crappiness of high school gym acoustics - I was in a 5-piece "lounge lizard" type band in early 80's, and we somehow got roped into playing a "battle of the bands" fiasco (anybody here NOT initiated?) Anyway, the acoustics were so bad in this National Guard Armory where it was held, that we (almost) got away with playing the first three chords of a song and leaving, letting the room "finish" the song - I doubt if anyone would have noticed unless they actually saw us leave... Steve

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