Friday, May 23, 2008

Studio Setup

Somehow I wound up with two Digital Audio Workstations setup. I had been careful only to purchase virtual synths that I could use on both mac and PC. At one point I thought I'd do everything on the mac from now on, but in the Studio, there are a few bigger hardware items that just don't fit the mobile scheme that I had.

Several things fell into place in the studio. I downgraded my computer from Vista to XP Professional. I'm really glad I did that. Now several things that didn't quite work in Vista are working properly in XP, like rewire in cakewalk. I could never get cakewalk to open Reason running on Vista, but now that is a possible way to develop songs first in Reason, and then just open them up in a Sonar sequence. Remote Desktop Connection works now using the mac as a client now that I'm using XP again. That helps me in several other ways, in my programming work.

I bought a Korg microKontrol MIDI controller, thinking of it as a portable mini-keys kind of conrol surface. The damn thing weighs a ton, made of thick brushed aluminum. I love it, and have been using it upstairs in the den while I watch TV, noodling around with ideas using the mac notebook as a virtual synth.

The core of my virtual synths are now Minimonsta, the minimoog on steroids, impOScar, Oddity (arp odyssey emulator), Pro-53 Prophet Five emulator, and Absynth 4. These all work on both PC and Mac, so that if I create a new voice or write something that uses them, I can transport that from one DAW to the other.

In the Studio, I've got the Moog Prodigy, Roland Juno 60, Yamaha DX-21, Casio CZ-1000, Korg Polysix, and a full scale M-Audio keystation 49e. I find that the mini-keys on the microKontrol are fine for dreaming up songs, but the full scale keyboard makes for better craftsmanship in playing them to ultimately record. Not always, but in general, my hands have learned their way around a full size keyboard without me thinking about it. I tried using virtual keys where you type on the "typewriter" computer keyboard, but that is really dodgy. It takes forever to practice even the simplest melodies to try and play them that way.

On the mac notebook station I've got Logic Express 7, which matches everything on there, so I have no intention of updating until I retire this notebook and get something newer. That may be a while, I don't know. I like to use my stuff forever until they literally fall to pieces. My Polysix is nearly in that state after the battery spilled acid on the circuit board and wiped out the patch storage. The Juno 6 doesn't have a battery thankfully. (of course it has no memory either)

The PC in the studio has Cakewalk Sonar and an M-Audio Fast Track USB ASIO audio interface. It is an entry level interface, but is plenty sufficient for my needs at the moment. I've got all the same virtual synths on there as the mac, plus a few others. Mainly though, it is a faster machine with a bigger hard drive so is more suitable for the heavy lifting.

I had some problems getting the ASIO drivers to work, but finally sorted that out. The Mac is so much easier to deal with in that respect. Some day I may go to an all mac studio, but for now, I need to work with the gear I've got, and am quite satisfied with it all for my current needs.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Logic Express 7 and older macs

I'm still using my G4 Powerbook that has traveled with me all over the world, gone to school with me, been used almost constantly since 2003. Last year I bought a new Vista notebook with faster dual core processor and well, ... just never could make myself like it. I guess once you try Mac you never go back, or something like that.

But what to do with all my virtual synths and my ever present musical thoughts? I'm glad now that when I bought Minimonsta, Absynth, and other goodies, I made sure that I could download versions for both PC and Mac. I think the last straw was trying to get ASIO drivers for the PC with Vista. I'd fire up Sonar and try to record something but couldn't hear it. Vista really dogs out a computer, even with a fast processor and tons of RAM, it was like working in quicksand.

So my Powerbook is like 5 years old, titanium 1 Ghz, 1GB Ram. I love it. The paradox with Apple is that as soon as you buy a computer from them, a month later they're selling something twice as fast for the same price. On the other hand though, they stay backwards compatible for a long time. I'm going to keep Tiger and Logic Express 7 on here, because it seems that if you upgrade to anything UB, things become more resource intensive. I happen to be content with the features I have, so all is copacetic.

Using virtual au synths with Logic is great, and the main reason it works on an older computer is the "freeze" function. There's actually a little blue ice crystal looking button. You click it and the track is processed into an audio track, using your synth and its settings and its MIDI sequence to fix the track as audio, thus freeing up your CPU load. Then, it lies dormant until you want to unfreeze it. You have to unfreeze it if you want to change notes or other MIDI information, or change the voice of your synth. Other than that, after it is frozen, you just treat it like an audio track.

In an experiment, I found that I could sustain Minimonsta, impOSCar, 2 Oddity parts, and an Absynth line before the G4 started to max out. My typical recording style usually has a vocal track, maybe an audio track from my real life Moog Prodigy, or Juno 6, and then 4 or 5 virtual synth lines. It varies with each song, but that is a typical lineup for what I am likely to come up with.

Another nice thing about Logic Express (besides its price) was the ability to drag drum loops onto the arrangment view, so it works something like Garageband in that the loops adjust to tempo and the song's key.

If you use Reason, Logic Express can host it along with your song. I'm not sure how that would work out with the G4 processor doing all that at once. I'd probably work out something basic in Reason, export that to an audio track, and then embellish it in LE.

LE has some pretty nice virtual synths that come with it, a sampler, and can also use GarageBand instruments. It may not have all the features of Logic Pro, but was a great value for what it cost. On an old mac like my titanium PowerBook, it is just what I want for my needs.

Lastly, you can get even faster powerbooks on eBay for around $250-$400 on a regular basis right now. If you are looking for a way to get started with a mac, get one of these macs and look for LE 7 or 8. If you buy GForce, NI, Korg, and other soft synths, you may have access to Universal Binary software as well as programs for the PC, so you wont be locked in if you decide later to upgrade to an Intel mac, or a PC. The old macs may have screen issues, dead batteries, and may be dinged up a bit with a few scratches, so be prepared to get a machine that has been very loved by heavy use. But if you can get one that has a GB or more of RAM, you're getting a whole computer for basically the cost of upgrading the memory on one.