Monthly Archives: September 2014

Become a Recording Star without Leaving Home, Part 2

MXL CR89 Microphone

I discovered a new music group that I enjoy very much.  The name is Postmodern Jukebox, lead by a brilliant piano player and arranger, Scott Brandlee.  He has hit YouTube pretty hard.  I’m not sure how long it would have taken him to become known without it, but the visibility certainly helped.

I really like his unique treatments of current songs.  But, it’s the simplicity of his recordings that really make an important point.  Today, all a group or artist needs is a basic audio recording system and a camera to get discovered.  When I think about studio recording, the picture that comes to mind is of John Lennon standing with his young son Sean, pontificating over an extremely complicated looking mixing board.  It doesn’t have to be that way to get a good sound today.

This article is intended to be a broad stroke guideline to setting up a home audio and video studio and not a detailed How-To.  There are a lot of articles that go into product related details.  I want to give you some general characteristics to get you started.

If there is one takeaway I want you to get from this, it is that all music distribution will eventually end up on YouTube and that’s where your music should be if you want to get discovered.

From Forbes.com: Youtube “is the leading online platform for music discovery, as well as the preferred music service for those 18 and younger. In fact, 38.4% of all its video views come from music, and 10 of YouTube’s top 20 channels are dedicated to music, according to the YouTube analytics firm Tubular.”

YouTube and the like have changed the way we consume entertainment in a profound way.  When producing music, a plan to add video is a must.  There are a number of ways an audio track can be produced these days.  There are two basic ways to get a record:  you either record in a studio or in a live setting. This blog post is about setting up a studio.

In the past, the only way to get a good audio recording was to rent a music studio.  In the extreme cases of A+ talent with plenty of financial backing, that is still the way things are done.  They use top notch, state-of-the-art equipment.  Now though, more and more start ups are going to scaled-down recording studios or even setting them up in their homes.

What does an aspiring artist need to set up a home recording studio?

The Brains of the Outfit

The centerpiece of a home recording studio is the computer, and the software program.  Whether Mac or PC, there are excellent recording programs.  Apple computers come with GarageBand built in.  It’s free, already on the computer, and adequate for basic recording.  PC users have to buy a recording program separately as each PC manufacturer has its own suite of software built in. Whatever you buy, I suggest you consult with an experienced home recording user to get advice on the kind of computer and software that will suit your needs, based on your level of proficiency.  One thing is for sure: if you are just getting started, you will upgrade as you gain experience.

Microphone

Interestingly enough, the microphone is where most musicians and recording engineers consider the most creative aspect of the recording process.  It is where everything starts and will change the tone of the recording.  The recording can be as simple as a single mic or an entire array of them wired into a mixer.

On the simple side, one USB mic plugged directly into a computer is adequate for a track-by-track recording.  The next step up is to use a traditional studio condenser mic with a digital interface.  The quality of sound is generally better than a USB mic.  It also opens you up to various mics, each with its own sound characteristics.

Analog-To-Digital Interface

This is the plug-in device that turns analog signals into digital signals.  An artist plugs their microphones and instruments into the interface in order to record directly into a computer.  Interfaces come in all price points and can have one input, or multiples.  The multiples have mixing capabilities but differ from a full mixing board.  An interface can have both mic and line level inputs.  An interface is still considered a device for more informal home recording.

Mixing Board

Once you get to a more proficient level, you may want a full mixing board, like the ones you see in a recording studio.  This gives you the ability to adjust the sound characteristics of each input before it gets recorded.  The mix is recorded onto some sort of recording media and later turned into a digital signal after the mix is completed.  Some artists prefer to create a “live” studio recording, having all instruments and mics plugged in at one time and then they go back later to tweak the mix.

Cables

The weakest link in any system is the cable.  Whenever there is a problem in a system, the first things I check are all of the cables and connections.  Most of the time that’s where the problem lies.  I also find that cable is where most novice users cut corners.  I can see why someone would think that all cables are alike…they look alike.  But to the experienced recording engineer, the cable makes all the difference in the world.

You don’t necessarily need the most expensive cable, but the difference in cost between a really good one and a not-so-good one is usually not that much.  Of course, we recommend Mogami for a number of reasons.  Try buying two or three different kinds and compare the sounds.  Another thing to pay attention to is the way a cable rolls and unrolls.  This is important if you are moving it a lot.  The lower quality cables will tend to kink up when they are packed up often.  It’s that kink that affects the performance.

Monitors

A studio monitor is what will play the recording back.  This will affect your perception of the recording.  No speaker is perfect; each one adds its own sound.  That is the physics behind speakers. There is no avoiding it.  There are speakers that will scope out to be perfectly flat.  That doesn’t mean that they all sound alike.  Listen to a number of speakers before choosing one.  Remember that everything in the chain will affect the sound.  So try and use the same electronics and cables so you are truly comparing just speakers and not full systems.  Find the one you like the most, as the sound you are mixing is your vision of the music.  There is no such thing as a perfect mix.  Perfect is the sound you like the most.

Environment

A real studio recording is one in which the room is as “dead” as possible.  Sound absorbing tiles will do just that, absorb the sounds, which means that the only sound the mic will pick up is the primary sound.  As a test clap your hands.  A hand clap will have no echo in a dead room. 

A dead room has almost always been the goal of a studio recording.  The opposite of that is a “live” recording, where room echo is a part of the sound.  It seems that today, the trend is away from a dead room.  There are numerous TV shows that are recorded in a live environment.  Again, the sound is your interpretation.  If you like the sound of a live room, that’s what you should have.

On the other hand, you definitely want to keep unwanted sounds out of the recording.  A song with dogs barking and lawnmowers running in the background is not acceptable.  Find the quite environment, and decide how much of the room acoustics you want.  Items such as sound tiles and reflection filters are items you may want to use.

These are a few suggestions for your audio recording.  In the next installment, I will discuss adding video to your creation.  It’s the video that will help get the song discovered on Youtube.


sable_guitarMany thanks to Sable Cantus for his contributions to this article. Sable is a higher education instructor of Digital Arts at Goldenwest College in Huntington Beach, where he teaches digital music recording.  He is also an accomplished musician, performer, music teacher, and arranger.  

Become a Recording Star Without Leaving Home

MXL Tempo USB microphone
Your home recording studio could be as simple as a MXL Tempo WR USB Microphone plugged into a laptop.
This is the first in a series of posts about creating and sharing music yourself.

It’s been 5 years since I joined MXL.  I came from the consumer electronics industry, where I spent most of my career in video.  I have been an amateur performer all of my life, participating in school plays, standup comedy, and as a musician.  I am no stranger to the microphone.  But working with MXL has really opened my eyes to all the different ways microphones are used.

I looked at all of the web sites that sell our mics and read the user reviews.  It didn’t take long to find out that people were using these microphones in their home studios.  I had thought that studio condenser mics were used in, well, recording studios.  But the majority of them aren’t.  They are being used in people’s homes.  I found out that the growth of home recording was exploding.  It was because of the growth of personal computers and programs like Garage Band and Mixcraft, and digital interfaces like Steinberg.  I knew people recorded music at home, I just didn’t know it was that many people.  That discovery raised another question in my mind.

How Are They Sharing Their Music?

The answer to that question is what changed my outlook on our products, and on my approach to everything I do creatively.  The answer is YouTube.  That technology…those two words, put together, has changed the face of entertainment and communications in a profound manner.

“YouTube  is the primary music platform  for  the 18-34-year-old crowd, the demo YouTube-parent Google  calls “Generation C”  who discover content online, via computer, smartphone and tablet.” – Forbes

With the advent of YouTube, anyone can share their music.  It was one thing to be able to record music yourself, in your home. Before the PC, a musician had to record in a studio.  It was expensive and reserved for the serious musician with financial backing.  And before Social media, in order to share it, artists needed to have a label to distribute their CDs.  Now, with the PC and a mic, anyone can record at home and distribute it to millions!

If a song is played in the woods, and there is no one there to hear it, is it still a song?

With YouTube and other social media, the artist can put their work out for the world to discover.  The other side of recording is listening.  What was once a complicated process – recording a song, finding a label, and then getting playtime – is now as easy as using a computer.

The Keyboard and The Keyboard

It’s ironic that the same word describes both an instrument used to make music and the object we use to control our computer when we create and share that music. There’s less and less distinction between the two. And MXL is in the forefront of this movement.

Our mission is to design and build quality mics at affordable prices, so that everyone who wants to record their art is able to do so.   From the most popular selling 990/991 vocal and instrument recording kit, to the stunning red and gold tube mic, the Genesis, MXL offers a wide range of value priced mics.  Each mic has its own unique sound and look.

From the novice to the most experienced recording artist, more and more recording is happening outside of the traditional recording studio.  For some, the creative process is enhanced by their surroundings.  I like to watch “Live From Daryl’s House,” a show on Palladia, which takes place at Daryl Hall’s (well known from his days with Hall and Oats) home.  He invites guest artists into his home to record music.  I also saw a documentary on Jeff Lynne (formerly of Electric Light Orchestra).  He has a recording studio set up in every room in his house.  Each room delivers its own unique sound.

That is what so many artists are doing these days.  Music creation comes from the soul.  The environment we record in can have a profound effect on the creative process.  Add to that the opportunity to share that work via You Tube, and you can now see why home recording is so popular.

We at MXL and Marshall are proud to be a part of that system which allows anyone with a song in their head the ability to transfer it to a recording.  In addition to our mics, we have cables (both Sound Runner and Mogami), and now video products to assist in the production and distribution of their art.  MXL offers an end-to-end solution for musicians everywhere.

I have come a long way in my understanding of the music recording process in the five years since I joined MXL.  It has helped me to lead the product design team and manufacture products that musicians need for today’s recording process.  MXL has also come a long way.  As we add new products, both audio and video, to our suite of products, we have become a unique brand in the industry.  Musicians can look to MXL and Marshall to give them a one brand, end-to-end solution.

Let us help you share your art with the world.

Web Conferencing 2.0: Better Picture, Better Audio

Old telephone set

Back in 1963, the Museum of Science & Industry in Chicago had a working picture phone.  It was two phones wired on a closed circuit together with TV cameras on both ends.  My cousin and I used to go to the museum and play with the picture phones, and dream about the day that we could do more than talk to each other, but also look at each other while we were talking.  It was so cool and so “Jetsons-esque.”

We got a big laugh when we talked about getting a “Picture Phone” call while we were in our underwear.  “How would we answer the phone?”  It was a big problem with picture phones that we weren’t sure how to solve.

Little did we know the real problems would be much more difficult to solve.

Fast forward to today. “Picture Phones” are everywhere.  I have been in electronics all my adult life, and have watched the progression from a series of low resolution still pictures with live audio, to full motion video.  What used to be futuristic is now everyday.

But video conferencing has a long way to go.  We are still in the early stages of development.  Limited bandwidth and low cost hardware delivers less than stellar picture quality.  And pinhole mics built in to the web cam, sitting on top of the monitor, 20 feet away from the furthest conference participant make that person difficult to hear.

I hate those web cams that sit on top of the monitor and look down on us.  It shows my bald spot.  I never knew my hair was getting that thin until I saw myself on the web cam in our conference room.  And on top of that, in order to get us all in, the lens is a fish eye.

But we accept this situation as the best that is available.  We are so happy to even be able to see each other, and not just hear, that a bad picture is acceptable.  And if the audio is a bit muddy, we learn to say “can you repeat that?” over and over again.

But it doesn’t have to be that way.  Right now, today, we have the technology to deliver a great picture and crystal clear sound.  And we don’t have to empty our bank accounts to do it.

I call it Component A/V.

At Marshall Electronics, we introduced a new, cutting edge way of delivering outstanding video and audio.  The concept is simple. Get the video and audio pick up devices down from the top of the monitor, separate them into their own chassis, and bring them closer to the participants.  And use high quality HD cameras for the video.

At Infocomm 2014, we showed a new kind of web conferencing system.  We used our new subcompact HD cameras, with interchangeable lenses for our web conferencing system.  These are the same broadcast quality cameras we sell into the TV production industry.  By running them through an HDSDI-to-USB 3 converter, it takes a broadcast quality picture and turns it into a beautiful web conferencing image.

Because the camera is so small and unobtrusive, it can be placed much closer to the conference participants, without being a distraction.  Bringing it down to eye level gave the conference a much more normal and intimate feel.  Also, by having a choice as to what lens to use, the picture is custom tailored to the specific need.  We all prefer to have conversations looking at each other directly in the eye, not looking down on each other.

Now that web conferencing is an everyday technology, it’s time to improve the picture and sound.  Companies are demanding better quality video and sound.  And, with the current technology, a quality HD web cam is well under $1,000.  It’s more than the $100 consumer web cam we are currently using but less than an airplane ticket and accommodations for a face-to-face meeting. As companies rely more and more on web conferencing to do business, they are willing to pay the additional cost of an HD web cam to make the picture look natural and thus the conversation becomes more natural.

And, since I don’t go to the office in my underwear, I don’t have to worry about taking calls in my boxer shorts!

There, I solved a few problems.  Better picture, and no underwear calls.  Next time we will talk about audio.