Category: Blog Entry

Blog Entry, Technology

Audio Interfaces

OK so if you’ve been playing the home game I left your cords dangling at the end of that last post on ports. Time to grab your cable and stick it into something!! You’re thinking about sex again aren’t you? Ugh you people.. Audio interfaces people!!!! Lets talk dirty about those.

So what is an audio interface? Don’t I have one built into my computer? Why are you making spend more money on stuff?!?! So you have a sound board built into your computer most likely, but those are not intended to connect to musical instruments and professional microphones and equipment, so we need something to do that properly.

So what are we looking for when we buy an audio interface? Well that depends on what you are planning to do. Let’s take a look at a simple entry level interface and see what we have. I’m using a Presonus Audio Box as an example, but there are a number of other good ones out there, the Focusrite 2i2 comes to mind as well. You will see on the front there are two jacks on the front. It is a combination Microphone/Instrument jack so you can plug either into it. What is not on there is a Line input so you can plug keyboards or the such into it.

This is a good time to discuss the differences between them. Microphones typically use a type of jack called XLR. This is what it looks like:

So if you are planning on mic’ing anything you will need to be able to support that with the right connection. Now there are many different types of mics, which we will discuss in depth later. Some types of microphones require power, 48 volts to be exact which is why that 48v button appears. Depending on the manufacturer that also may be referred to as the much cooler sounding Phantom Power. Now what comes out of microphones is an extremely quiet signal, which means it needs to be amplified before it can be amplified, hence the term preamp.

Microphone preamps are a discussion all within themselves, and standalone preamps can run hundreds, thousands, into tens of thousands of dollars for some of the boutique preamps. Ever seen Sound City by Dave Grohl? If not you should, but one of the reasons that board sounds the way it does is because of the legendary Neve 1073 preamps in it. You are not getting that with a budget interface, what you are getting are transparent clean mic pres. What that means is that the microphone preamps don’t colour the sound of the microphones these days. The technology has come a long way and pretty well any audio interface you buy these days is going to sound light years ahead of what was made in the past.

Now back to that jack, see the whole in the middle? That’s for an instrument, as in a guitar. It’s called a Hi-Z plug. Looks like the same quarter inch cable that would plug into the back would plug into that. It would, but this is a great time to talk about impedance.

This a really geeky topic, but I’ll do my best to explain it using plain english. In an electronic circuit you need something to prevent electricity from moving. That is called the impedance, in the old days that number would vary and as a result sounds would change and it’s what would help give vintage equipment an identifiable sound. These days everyone sticks to defined numbers for consistency and so things will work the way they are supposed to. Microphones have a specific impedance, as do instruments like guitars and basses, as do external pieces of equipment like compressors and external mic pres.

Now there are pieces of equipment like a DI box that will let your guitar plug into your mic pres, but why add more equipment if you can have it right out of the box? So I would suggest looking for an interface that has a mic pre, a Hi-Z input for instruments and line inputs and outputs for other gear you may have. Another note here to complicate matters, consumer grade equipment like CD players and turntables, and things that have RCA jacks on them are not meant for pro audio grade line inputs, so if you are going to be using that, add those onto the requirements you need for your audio interface.

OK, the MIDI port on the back. Another should have, or must have if you are planning on connecting keyboards that use that. Most keyboards these days will have USB on it as well, but honestly I do find having Midi ports handy.

So you got stuff hooked up and you want to play. Let’s talk about some of the other things going on with audio interfaces. In this case that little knob called mixer, which has input or playback. This will hearken back to my last post and the nasty little subject of latency.

Latency is the time it takes your system to receive the signal, send it to the computer, process it, and then send it back. If it’s low, you won’t notice it, if it’s not, you will hit a note, and then a split second (or longer), you will hear it. Obviously this can be a horrible thing. To mitigate that manufacturers add a mix signal so you will hear what you are playing as you play it by using the signal before it gets sent to the computer. Totally reduces latency but you will not hear the processed signal (so think if it’s a guitar and you’re adding distortion, you will hear the dry undistorted signal).

I have found this problem to be most prevalent in USB devices on Windows. More often than not it can be resolved by properly tuning a system, but it depends on your setup.

That’s the basics. Now things to consider are. Are you planning on expanding in the future? Under Windows you are limited to one interface at a time if it’s USB. With Firewire and Thunderbolt you can daisy chain interfaces that support it. So I have an Apollo, and an Apollo Twin, they connect to each other, and one cable to the PC(or Mac) and I have one big Apollo unit. Likewise I have a pair of firewire Presonus 16.4.2 mixers that connect to each other and then the computer to form one big 32 channel mixing board/audio interface. So you may want to see if you’re units can be daisy chained, or if they support ADAT. What is ADAT, why let me tell you.

The ADAT standard was created by Alesis as a digital replacement for analogue tape and stands for Alesis Digital Audio Tape. Back then they used VHS tapes to digitally store the audio data. The tape part has disappeared but the tiny optical connectors stuck around and is still widely used today for expansions of digital audio interfaces. Initially there ADAT maxed out at eight channels of 48khz 24 bit audio, but through a process called SMUXing (basically using two ADAT ports) you can achieve 8 channels at 96khz 24 bit, or 4 channles at 192 Khz 24 bit.

If your interface supports ADAT, you can then use something like a Focusrite Octopre to add 8 additional channels of audio to your interface.

Damn, that’s a lot of information. Now some advice. I’ve gone through a ton of different audio interfaces, mistakes were made. For me personally I find myself using my Universal Audio interfaces the most, however if you are just starting out, you DON’T need a high end interface. As a matter of fact I would argue you are better off getting something inexpensive and learning how to get the best sound out of that. As mentioned earlier audio interfaces these days are light years ahead of what was offered in the past in terms of sound quality so you can get an amazing sound out of pretty well anything you buy these days with a little work.

What you should keep in mind is what you plan on doing with it. If you are in a bedroom recording yourself a two channel interface should be enough. If you are a drummer you should really start at eight channels and make sure you have an ADAT expansion port on the back to add additional channels of audio should you need it. Regardless get in there and start recording….. Oh wait! You need software for that, which means next up DAW software!

Blog Entry, Technology

Let’s Talk Tech

It’s kinda funny that I’ve focused on audio talk and remixes but never get into what I actually make a living at and how it relates to audio. So as you may or may not know I’ve worked in IT for 20 something years. I love technology in all it’s various forms and in particular as it relates to the arts, even more specifically the audio arts. It’s one of the areas that two seemingly disparate disciplines combine to make beautifully awesome things.

Enough of that, some of the guys that I play in a band with have been asking about how to put together their own studios at home and have asked for advice. I got me thinking I should probably share some of what I’ve learned over the last couple years as it relates to the music production process. I’ll start in the most place which is the computer.

The computer, what do I go with? Mac or PC? Why? I will tell you in my particular case I use both. That might not be an option for most people though, both have their strengths and weaknesses, so I’ll tell you my experience with both and what I’ve discovered during this process.

Come from a business IT background, I have more than a passing knowledge of Windows based machines so that’s where I started. The PC world offers really great bang for the buck, and you can get into the game fairly inexpensively. Pretty well any modern PC you buy will allow you to hook up an audio interface (we’ll get to those separately) and start recording music.

Now, having said that, recording a few tracks one or two at a time is easy, but recording more at a time, while listening back, and adding effects to each of those tracks, and or groups of tracks, and then mixing them can require substantially more horsepower. So let’s break down what you need to worry about, and this applies to both Mac or PC based computers.

The CPU

The CPU or processor. Intel or AMD? Honestly either these days will work fine. My suggestion when it comes to this stuff is to try and get and least a mid level processor. You will need the horsepower when it comes to adding plugins. If you’re new to this world, don’t worry, we’ll get to explaining what plugins are as well! For my mac, I’m using a mini with a 6 six core I5. My audio PC’s are a 6 six core I7 laptop and an older 6 core Xeon workstation.

Let’s talk about those CPU descriptions. Intel has a number of processors, their consumer line is currently referred to as their Core series, so Core I3, I5, I7, I9. The 3 being entry level, 9 being beast gaming processors. An I5 will provide you very acceptable performance, if you suspect you will be doing a lot of manipulation of lots of tracks, you may want to set your sights higher, there is of course a cost associated with that though. AMD similarly has their Ryzen 3, 5,7,9 and Threadripper lines. I would start at the 7 line for those.

Now, that Xeon I mentioned? Here’s the thing, Xeon chips were/are aimed at the server and workstation market. Meaning they are by design, monsters. That Xeon I picked up was a used 2012 HP Z420 workstation, I added more memory, a SSD, and for $700 total I had a machine that benchmarked almost identically to a $2k gaming machine I built in 2017 with consumer components. If you are technically minded, I would tell you to look into used Xeon based machines, you can create an absolutely killer audio rig with that stuff (here’s a great article on building a 32 thread monster really inexpensively).

Memory

Now, memory. These days we measure in Gigabytes, 8 being what I would consider the minimum, 16 is really the sweet spot, 32 if you are doing a ton of tracks.

Storage

Storage. Back in the day we used mechanical hard disks, they were slow and prone to other issues compared to today’s SSDs (Solid State Drives) with no moving parts. Computers are sold with both. Don’t cheap out here, spend the money to get an SSD for your operating system and for you plan to record/mix from. You can (and should) get an external drive for archiving and storing data you don’t use on a day to day basis, but believe me when I say this is the choke point a lot of the time and it’s well worth doing it right. You can get 500 gig SSD’s these days that should be enough to keep you happy. Unless you are planning on using large virtual instrument collections, which we will also get to, and will also require larger drives.

Ports, that is going to be my next topic of conversation, but these days USB is king in terms of availability, to confuse the issue there is USB Type C which is newer, faster and better, but there is not a lot of product available for it, yet. There is also Thunderbolt, which in terms of performance (and price) is at the top. Firewire is dead in terms of the mainstream, but still very much alive in the audio world, and for good reason, but we will have that discussion next time.

The Big Question

Now Mac or PC? Here’s what it boiled down to for me. ASIO vs Core Audio. Those are the two components that allow access to your audio interface. ASIO (Audio Stream Input Output) for Windows, and Core Audio for Mac. They dictate what interfaces you can use, how quickly you can access their features and how you work with external equipment.

Initially I used a Windows based machine and I will tell you first hand, dealing with ASIO was a nightmare. I had huge problems with latency (the time it takes for sound to be captured, processed and then output back to the interface), stability, and compatibility. For me the biggest issue was one brand at a time. You can not use a Presonus unit and Focusrite unit (for example) at the same time, it’s one or the other. We can get into complex tricks to get around this later, but essentially if you want to record large track counts at the same time you are tied to one vendors products.

Now to be fair, using one brand is going to be fine for the VAST majority of people. I love tech and toys and want to push the limits. So unless you are planning on running a crazy setup of equipment chances are you will never run into the problems I had. The big selling point for Windows based machines is bang for the buck. You can get a WAY more powerful Windows machine for less money than you could for a Mac.

Which brings us to the Apple Mac and Core Audio. Core Audio lets you basically plug and play, combine interfaces to make one giant monster. It is fast, stable and honestly painless to work with. For tracking (recording) a band, and a very good chunk of my mixing it is my go to. That being said when I get into crazy 100 track plus sessions I move to my Windows machine because it is more powerful.

Could we just have the answer already?

So what in the end would I recommend? Almost every article I’ve read, says the same thing, go buy what you’re comfortable with, ya great thanks for that 😉 I’ll take a different route, if you want less problems, and can afford it, get a Mac, the best that you can afford. If price is an issue, or you want more than just an audio workstation, or you want to maximize what you get for your budget go with a PC. Or get both, problem solved 😉

Blog Entry, Remixes

Chase K – Long Long Way Down Remix

One of the things I love about mixing is the exposure to different types of music I normally don’t listen to. Take this remix, it’s a pop song, not generally speaking my thing. I start assembling it by adjusting each instrument part and it’s individual sound one by one to what I think it should be. In building up each part you become really familiar with every little bit of the song. How each note or beat works in the context of the song and you can’t help but gain an appreciation for it as a result. If it’s good that is, which this one is.

For me I always like to listen to the original after I’ve finished my interpretation of it, and it always amazes me how different they sound. This one was no different in that regard. If you’re interested in such things the original is here. Below is my crack at it, which I mixed using Studio One for the first time:

Blog Entry

Trying Out The Presonus Ecosystem Part Two – Mixing

Kind of jumping all over the place here in terms of the process, but rather than starting with recording I thought I would start by mixing a track. The track I chose was a nice little acoustic number called Long Long Way Down by ChaseK.

The Gear

I thought I should really try to use whatever Presonus equipment I had for this so I used StudioLive 16.4.2 mixer, my Faderport 8 control surface and Studio One Artist version 4. I have a some other equipment as well, but for mixing really that’s all I needed this go around. I started the mix on my Mac Mini, and then continued and finished it on my Alienware laptop.

I will start off by saying, as a working environment, Presonus have created a nice little system. The way everything is recognized and integrated into Studio One automatically is pretty well flawless. My mixer and control surface were ready for me to use right off the bat, so the only thing to do is import the audio for the session and get off and running.

I won’t go through the whole process because who the hell wants to read that? Every system has it’s own little quirks and I’ll go through my experience with those.

To VST or Not To VST

The first one is kind of a big one for anyone thinking of going to any version below $550 CAD Professional version, VST/AU/Rewire plugins are not supported out of the box. You have to buy an add on for that which costs about $110 CAD alone or $137 CAD in an “Artist Booster Pack” which includes some other what you would think are standard features like MP3 import/export. Now I got the Artist version for free because it was bundled with some of my hardware, but if I had to pay the $138 CAD list price for it, I don’t know that I would be too happy about that, regardless I decided to bite the bullet and buy the booster pack because there were some plugins that I do use on a regular basis.

To be fair, some of the Presonus plugins that do come with standard are pretty good. The fat channel strip right off the bat I liked because it was a mirror of what is on the board, which I think is well laid out and most importantly sounds good. It comes with a high pass filter, Compressor, EQ, limiter and gate, which are exactly what I want in a channel strip. That being said, in this session there was some distortion and clipping that was really bothering me in the source so I wanted to break out my Izotope plugins to deal with that.

Presonus Studio One Fat Channel

This is where one issue started showing itself, that being high CPU usage when I started adding VST/AU plugins. Like I mention earlier, I started on my Mac, it’s a 2018 model with 16 gigs of RAM and 6 core I5 processor. To me it seemed a bit weird, so I thought I’d switch to the Alienware which has a 6 core I7. This is where another “problem” showed up. Some, not all, of my plugins would not load saying they couldn’t be found. I posted a note over on the community forums as well creating a support ticket with Presonus about it. Nada from the community but support got back to me a couple of days later saying the session was using AU plugins and I should switch over to the VST plugins instead. Studio One uses both, I noticed multiple instances of the plugins and never thought why that was. So I will chalk that one up to my bad, and hid all the AU versions on my Mac. Problem solved.

Now comes the BUT. CPU usage on the Alienware was also high. This I knew had to be a problem with Studio One, because Mixcraft or Protools for that matter never had problems with plugins no matter how many I threw at them. After some time researching on the net, it turns out this is indeed an issue with many people complaining about the high CPU usage of Studio One with VST plugins. This one for me is a deal breaker, and quite honestly something extremely annoying. If you are going to charge for VST support, it should work properly. So I cut the number of plugins and soldiered on.

Did I Miss The Bus?

In organizing the tracks I noticed a weird quirk with Studio One in it’s approach to bussing. When a Bus is created, it appears in the console view but not in the main mix window. Additionally there was no obvious way to add automation for busses. I think most people approach automation the way I do which is to mix tracks into a bus and then automate that rather than do each track individually so I started to worry a bit. A quick search revealed the way to automate busses, quirky but it works. The mix window could be helped by adding the bus there and then collapsing the child tracks into it to help better organize it. Not a deal breaker but it would help management of the session.

Studio One Mix Window
Studio One Console View

In The End

I know there’s been a lot of negative there, but that’s not really indicative of my view of it. Like I mentioned earlier I have a Faderport 8, that quite honestly I’ve never really used for mixing because while it works in Mixcraft, it just never quite fit into the process. With Studio One however I found myself using it a whole lot for transport, and especially for automation. What was interesting was that I found myself not looking at the screens and instead riding faders to get levels to where I wanted by listening which for me, made it a much better process. The buttons did what they were supposed to and I loved that I was listening for the right level instead of plotting it out with dots on a line.

I’ll publish the song either tonight or tomorrow. I think the results are pretty well par for the course in terms of what I would have come up with from any other DAW. That being said I’ll have to reflect more on where I go with Presonus Studio One from here. I do want to try tracking through it, so I’ll have to come up with a quick song to record. From what I’ve seen of Studio One and it’s companion piece Capture, I can potentially see those being used exclusively for tracking because the Presonus environment seems very organic and natural. That’s the thing right? When you’re trying to be creative you don’t want the technology getting in the way. You don’t want to worry about CPU load and why you hear crackling due to CPU spikes caused by plugins. I generally don’t use plugins while tracking so on paper, it sounds perfect for that purpose, unfortunately for mixing, it’s not.

Blog Entry, Remixes

Steve Maggoria – Whiskey Remix

Wow I suck…. I really haven’t updated this since summer 2017? Well then, time for an update. Still playing/engineering, thought not nearly as much as I would like. Last week I had to renew a subscription I have to site called Produce Like A Pro run by this rather interesting producer I’ve been following named Warren Huart . Cool music production/engineering site that offers the original sessions of songs for people to remix, I hadn’t downloaded one in a while so I thought I would see if anything interested me, and this was the first song I listened to. I downloaded it right away based on the first 10 seconds because I knew right away this one I had to do.

I try not to listen to anymore than a snippet of the original because I like the exercise of closing my eyes, listening to the song and then mixing it according to what my head interprets it to be. This one pretty well painted a story and feeling right away. It felt like a hot humid summer night, kind of stuffy but in a pleasant way. In a bar that was basically a large screened in wooden porch with dim lighting, some tables and a dance floor. It smelt and tasted like alcohol after you’ve had a bit too much to drink, smooth and appealing and you really want to keep going with the full knowledge that it means bad news tomorrow, but who cares?

And so I start making choices of the way the guitar should sound in the imaginary bar that this all is taking place in, like a beat up old Strat playing through an older Fender amp that breaks up just the tiniest bit in a really pleasant way. I start working on the vocals and the picture gets painted even further of an ex walking into the bar, and just like the alcohol you’re drawn to them knowing there is nothing but a release and bad news ahead. It ends up in a head to head dance with the a sweet smell of whiskey on each others breath and the lyrics of the song running through your head. That of course fuels the choice to make the vocals slightly more “breathy” and to try and have the overall sound be some weird mash up of One Of These Nights by The Eagles and something by Vince Gill. So I start chasing a sound I can hear in my head but know I will never get it quite right.

Jesus this sounds like a 50 year old man’s version of a trashy romance novel. OK so enough of that, the short version is, this was a really great song that I just wanted to do. So here’s my version of the mix of Whiskey by Steve Maggoria:

Afterwards I had a chance to listen to the original as well of some other peoples interpretations of it, and really amazes me how the same song can be presented so differently from person to person. In listening back to my mix, I can still hear the little imperfections that would normally drive me crazy, but in this case they work in the context of the song for me. And the cool part is I’m actually happy with this one because it’s the way I want to listen to this song. That’s the first time that’s happened for me so I’m happy I decided to try this song.

Blog Entry

Welcome to The Sound Study

Hi everyone, my name is Rob Blazik and I am the owner of TheSoundStudy.com. I thought I would start off this site with a brief biography and explanation as to why I started this site and what purpose it will, in my mind fill.

As of today’s date I am a 47 year old, Father, Husband and IT manager. At a very young age I developed what would later become a life long love affair with music. That really started when I turned 9 years old and discovered KISS. From that point forward I became obsessed with the art form of music, primarily with the genre’s of Heavy Metal and Hard Rock. My horizon’s have widened in my later years, but I would still categorize those as my favorites.

My Mother thought it would be good for me to start guitar lessons around that time. They only lasted a couple of years and I dropped out because at the time, it wasn’t fun. Well in high school I made a friend who wanted to learn guitar, broke out the old guitar again and I haven’t stopped since. I’m not a great musician by any stretch of the imagination, but I don’t think that even matters. It is something I enjoy, and quite honestly is a really great outlet for releasing thoughts and energy, so I do the best that I can and enjoy every minute of it.

A few years ago, some friends and I started what amounts to a garage band. We all love music and this gave us a couple of hours of guy time every once in a while to enjoy each others company and make some noise. Well with that a song was written, and we decided to record it. Being a bit of a gadget geek I started purchasing the necessary equipment, read what I could on the internet and we recorded the song. I didn’t do a very good job of it to be honest, but it lit a fire in me that has led me here.

A year ago, I decided the recording arts were something I was REALLY interested in and signed up for a Recording Arts program at a local community college. Centennial College in Toronto to be more specific. At the time of this writing I’m about half way through that program, with the goal of becoming a sound engineer and producer.

At my age it’s not realistic to expect this to be a new career for me, but I’m hoping for it to become a side job, more for the love of doing it than anything else. As part of that I thought I would create this site as a document of this journey, and as a way of reaching people that may want to share in the exploration of music and recording.

The Sound Study is a bit of a play on words, seeing as I’m currently studying the art of recording it is a good way to describe my present situation, as I move forward however I would like to create a small studio type environment, where friends, fellow musicians, or anyone who is interested in the process can come together to learn,create and share, in a warm safe environment that feels like a library, or Study. I will share what I learn here and most likely babble on a bit about the things that I’m obsessed with. Hopefully it will also provide me with a place to meet new people that share the love I have for music, and the recording arts. So with that, thanks for reading, and welcome.

Rob