Sunday, May 8, 2011

How the Demo Comes Together: Part 1

Hey there non-followers!

This week, I'm going to go over what I use to make the demo once I've (more or less) finished the song.  This is going to get pretty involved, so bear with me...I might have to chop this into two or three parts.

Before I begin, let me say that up until 2009 or so, I was using Windows XP for my day to day recording needs using the software I will mention later. In 2009, I got SERIOUSLY irritated with Microsoft for making me "check in with the home office" every time I made a hardware change. That irritation led me to dual-boot Windows and the Linux distribution Ubuntu.  Basically, I was tethered to Windows by the DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) I was using. Lately, however, I have jumped completely clear of the Microsoft Juggernaut and all its encumbrances. I feel I am able to create music more easily now that I have an operating system that respects my Freedom.

First Things First: The Computer
My main audio production machine is an eight-year old Dell Dimension 3000 like this:

...with these laughably out-dated hardware specs:

CPU: 3.2 GHz Intel Pentium 4 with Hyper-Threading
RAM: 2 Gb (the max for this motherboard)
Hard Drive: the original 40 Gb drive it came with, and a 160 Gb drive for extra storage
Optical Drives: a 52X Dual Layer DVD RW with lightscribe
and one external 500 gb Western Digital MyBook for archiving

I have a random 19" widescreen Acer Monitor.

The Operating System
I am currently running Ubuntu 11.04 Natty Narwhal.  This in itself comes with a host of new issues. For example...I have no on-board 3d acceleration on this ancient motherboard, and the new Ubuntu Unity Desktop Environment REQUIRES it to run correctly....or, you can search for the package called "Unity-2d" and install that.  That's what I did.

One of the things that makes Linux such a powerful operating environment is the way you can configure  totally different environments depending on who's logged in. I have taken advantage of that: when I log in as my normal, non-audio user, such as when I'm just doing normal day-to-day computer user stuff (checking email, downloading podcasts, maintaining the system, listening to my music library) my desktop looks like this:

However, when I want to get down to some serious audio recording and editing, I simply log out and log back in as my Audio user. That desktop looks like this:

Really different, right? The Audio user's default desktop environment is XFCE. XFCE tends to use less resources than the standard Unity Desktop, and we need all of our CPU cycles for processing audio! Also, I have streamlined this user's startup script to only start thing that are ABSOLUTELY necessary for keeping the system running while we are recording our kick ass songs. 

Now for the REALLY mind-numbingly geeky section:

Software Tools I Need To Record Stuff
So now that we have an operating system running with a dedicated Audio user, we need to give that user the tools he or she needs to create music. 

Obviously, you need to have the ability to encode and decode MP3s, AIFFs and basically any other audio format you may be required to work with. So get those.

Linux as its own amazing audio workstation software: the best is undoubtedly Ardour, and I install that for my Audio user to use. But here's the deal: back in my Windows XP days, I tried several different kinds of DAW software, from SONAR to Cubase, Protools to Reason, to Emagic's Logic (before they were bought by Apple).  I was never all that happy with my results. Then I found REAPER. REAPER was nice for me because I found all of the controls easy to use, and I used it so much it became intuitive, not to mention, it worked with the demo of the drum software I really like: Addictive Drums.  

So now my shameful admission to my Linux buddies: I don't use Ardour much. I feel like the learning curve is too steep for me to get usable stuff done in a sane amount of time...and since you can't use tempo synced plugins like Addictive Drums in Ardour, it requires what I feel is a big time investment just to make it useful. I use Ardour only when I want to learn something new about that program....and when my Richard Stallman guilt compels me to do it.  

So I run REAPER in Linux. The thing about that is you need to do some extra hacking in order to get all these things to play nicely with one another. Since this is a songwriting blog and not an Audio Production in Linux blog, I'll just list all the stuff I do without getting into too much detail. 

To run Windows programs in Linux, you need to install WINE, to (not) emulate the windows runtime environment. You need JACK, the audio system for Linux that allows for low-latency audio. Also, I install wineasio and activate it so REAPER will communicate audio with very low-latency to the Linux JACK daemon.   

After that, it's just a matter of configuring REAPER and JACK to work well together. 

Getting Audio Into REAPER
So here's how my signal path goes:

For vocals and acoustic guitar, it's like this:

Either my mouth, or my homemade D-35 Style Dreadnaught:

Into a Studio Projects C1 Large Diaphragm Condenser Microphone:

(It's upside down because I've been recording vocals) 

Into an m-audio mobilepre preamplifier/audio interface:

Into the computer via USB.

If I am recording one of my electric guitars, I use this kind of signal path:

One of my guitars, probably my parts-o-caster:

Into my vintage Silvertone 1482 amplifier, miced with the worst possible micing technique with a Shure SM-58, thusly:

Into the same m-audio mobilepre.

If everything is set up correctly, you can record stuff in REAPER with low-latency and you may find you get something that really starts to resemble music. Like this:

I think I'll end here for this week, with most people's minds having been fully blown.  I will meet you here again after a recovery period of a week. At that point, I will describe how I set my session up and running and how I edit, mixdown and convert the song for the listening pleasure of the entire world!

Stay tuned!

This week:
Job Hunting For Freelance Work
Lessons on Commission?!
New song written Thursday, got it mostly recorded.
Rusty Wier
Ray Wylie Hubbard
No more Fender/Guild Custom Shop Nashville???

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