Notes from the Shore

Work, marriage, kids and music

A Year of Gear

Yeah, so not too much published this year, which is unfortunate. I used to joke that with Sonar’s rolling updates I updated my recording software more often than I published music. Well, lamented more than joked. Bandlab has reinstated that issue by reinstating rolling updates with Cakewalk. However, this year I’ve taken it to a new high (low) by publishing two whole pieces but buying four new pieces of gear. In lieu of new music, here are my studio upgrades:

Music Computer

My old music computer served me well for a bunch of years – nearly a decade. Newer and more complex music software (not to mention an upgrade to Windows 10) left the Dell under-powered, and getting worse by the OS update. I was also unable to edit picture-in-picture video, so there was that.

I work part time as a youth soccer referee (in addition to my day job as a traffic engineer). The engineering pays the mortgage and other bills, and the referee gig provides me spending money for my hobbies – like music. I decided last spring to work as much as I could and save up for a smokin’ new music production machine. My IT-inclined son has been wanting to help me build one for several years now.

The tl/dr version of the build is that it’s an i5-8400 processor (as recommended by many of the composers on the vi-control forum), with 16 gig ram, a 250 GB SSD system drive and a 2 TB HD data drive. It really does scream. For anyone really curious about the build, here are the specs:

Case: Corsair Carbide Series 200R Compact ATX Case

Motherboard: GIGABYTE Z370P D3

Processor: Intel Core i5-8400

System Drive: PNY CS1311 240GB 2.5” SATA III Internal Solid State Drive (SSD)

Data Drive: Seagate 2TB BarraCuda SATA 6 Gb/s 7200 RPM

Memory: Crucial 8GB Single DDR4 2400 MT/s (PC4-19200) DR x8 DIMM 288-Pin Memory

Yeah, so seriously nerdy stuff. Aside from knowing I have an i5-8400, 16 GB of ram, a 240 GB SSD and 2 TB HD I don’t really know what most of the rest of it means. Fortunately, my son does. He also spec’ed out a decent cooling system for the machine. My old computer would spool up when it got hot (mostly under load, but sometimes for no reason) and it sounded like a jet plane preparing for takeoff. You can hear it at the beginning of the I Adore You video where I’m using the camera audio briefly.

Do I like it? Indeed I do. It handles the most complex audio mixes with aplomb, and I can watch multiple picture-in-picture streams with effects added to each in real time without too much of a quality hit. I’m very happy.

Audio Interface

Another development this summer was the death of my Focusrite Scarlett audio interface. I loved that interface, but all of the sudden it just stopped working. I contacted Focusrite and they walked me through a bunch of troubleshooting steps, eventually deciding that it had a hardware fault. I could send it to them (on my dime) and they could fix it for a little less than the cost of a new one, but I decided instead to just replace it.

I looked at a number of interfaces comparable to the Scarlett, with 4 preamps and 8 inputs, including ones by Presonus, Steinberg and even Native Instruments. I’ve long not been a fan of Behringer products, having had a Behringer mixer that didn’t last long before the faders and pots were getting scratchy. That being said, I’ve heard that their more recent gear is much higher quality.

In the midst of my search I stumbled across the Behringer interfaces, and like most Behringer gear, they run significantly cheaper than their competition. After searching a lot of reviews I decided to pull the trigger on the Behringer U-Phoria UMC 1820, which is an 18×20 interface with 8 built-in Midas preamps. The Midas’ are supposed to be very high quality (or at least they were then Behringer bought them). So far I don’t have any complaints but I also haven’t done any high end recording yet, either. I’m hoping to get a few sessions in over the Christmas break so we’ll see how they do for noise floor and fidelity.

Large Diaphragm Dynamic Microphone

I’ve been pining over an LDD mic for several years, now, as they can do a great job at capturing a powerful live-feel vocal recording, but with more clarity and less noise than the typical small-diaphragm dynamic like the venerable Shure SM58. I was looking for a reasonably priced, used Shure SM-7 when I (again) stumbled across the LDD from MXL, the BCD-1. I have another MXL mic, a tube condenser, that I really like, so I though for less than half the price of an SM-7 I’d give it a shot. Based on the reviews I purchased at the same time a universal shock mount for it, as the yoke that comes with it is reported to not work well.

Again, I haven’t had a chance to use it in any serious way, but initial results are promising. Like all dynamic mics, the output level is low, so it requires a lot of gain from the preamp in the Behringer. If I can pull these recording gigs off over Christmas I’ll know for sure how it works, as I bought the mic specifically for one of them – I want to record the lead signer and piano part live at the same time, meaning I will need the rejection that an LDD gives so well. Hopefully more on that to come.

MIDI Controller Keyboard

Many moons ago I bought a small 37-key controller for use with a laptop when I was trying to work at locations other than my home studio. The little M-Audio Oxygen 8 worked well enough, although I never did too much away from home. I was, however, sold on the ability to drop this unit in between my mouse and video monitors for quick and convenient data entry. So long as I wasn’t playing a full-on piano part if did just fine. The only caveat being that I never really figured out how to map the various knobs to different MIDI controllers.

Over time the knobs got buggy, and started throwing random MIDI controller codes. I kluged together a workflow where if I was using the Oxygen I went into the Sonar preferences and turn of Record CC. But, I had to remember to turn it back on before recording a piano part – I ruined many takes by not recording the sustain pedal!

I decided that this summer it was time to replace it, since the quality and feature sets of similarly-priced ($100-150) keyboards was through the roof. It was truly an embarrassment of riches. It was a tough decision, but eventually I decided to shoot for the new Native Instruments A-25 which tipped the scales right at $150. I had seen the older S-series from NI and wondered about how well they would integrate with my Kontakt libraries, which is what they are supposedly built to do. The A-series is quite stripped down compared to the S-series, but also quite a bit less expensive. Honestly, if I had reliazed how stripped down I would either have ponied up the extra cash for the S-25 (which has been discontinued) or gone for a different keyboard entirely, like the Akai MPK or the Novation Launchkey, which were my other two big contenders.

I will say that the NI is really solidly built, and using the Komplete Kontrol plug-in to load NI instruments means that the knobs are automatically mapped to the most important parameters for easy tweaking. I’m still exploring how to add older non-NKS libraries to Komplete Kontrol so I can use them similarly.

What I love the most about Komplete Kontrol, however, is that it is library agnostic. You pick the type of sound you want, narrow it down by several parameters, and it presents a list of instruments that meet those requirements. Clicking through the instrument list will variously load up Kontatk, FM8, Reactor, etc., automatically. I’m finding that I’m considering instruments that before I frankly didn’t know existed because I hadn’t dug through the immense patch lists of these other instruments.

So that’s my new hardware for 2018. I’ll probably add some sample libraries before the end of the year, taking advantage of some year-end sales that many dealers offer. I’m in the market for an early instruments (Medieval-Baroque) library so I’m keeping my eyes open for sales (the best ones are massive libraries with dozens of instruments for $300-500).

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