Thursday, December 29, 2016

Choosing an Audio Interface for the Home Studio

If you’ve ever tried looking for audio interfaces for home recording, you would have noticed there are a lot of different options available that have a variety of different features. Depending on what kind of music you work with, you may not need all these features or they could be absolutely essential. We’ll take a look at some of the features that are common to a lot of audio interfaces and how they could be advantages in different recording situations.

The very first thing to consider when choosing an audio interface is the type of connection available. There are a few different options such as USB, FireWire, and thunderbolt. We recommend USB interfaces. These are the most common and give you the most options since they’ll be compatible with just about any computer, whereas FireWire and Thunderbolt are not found on all computers. This will give you the most options if you choose to change computers in the future and you won’t be stuck only looking for a computer with a compatible connection.

Another consideration to make is the analog to digital conversion capabilities of the audio interface. Most audio interfaces are capable of recording at a bit depth of 24 bit, which will give you plenty of recording headroom. If you see an interface that is only capable of 16 bit, it is likely older technology or a very cheap interface and should definitely be avoided. The audio interfaces also have different maximum sample rate capabilities. Some will only record up to 44.1 kHz, which is the quality of most music. Most recordings are done at a much higher sample rate, such as 96 kHz or 192 kHz, since this gives more accuracy and better wave reproduction during editing. We recommend you consider an interface that is able to record at least 96 kHz.

MIDI is another common feature of a lot of audio interfaces, but it can be absent on some of the entry level units. MIDI allows you to connect digital instruments such as keyboards or el¬ectronic drums and record it as MIDI instead of a direct audio file. This allows the performance itself to be edited instead of just the recording sound, and is a huge advantage of these instruments. ¬ It also allows the use of different virtual instruments that may be included in computer software but are not found on your particular keyboard or drum machine. If you’re planning on using any of these instruments, or may use them in the future, you definitely need to get an interface with MIDI support. On the other hand, if you do simple recordings such as acoustic instruments or podcasting, you may be able to save some money by getting an interface without MIDI support.

Depending on what kind of instruments you record, you’ll need to consider how many preamps and inputs your interface will have. Some budget interfaces may only have one or two inputs. These are great for people who only work with one microphone at a time, or record instruments like a guitar direct. If you plan on doing any sort of stereo recording, you’ll need an interface with 2 inputs. Drums can require a lot more inputs. Those who are recording drums need a minimum of 4 microphones inputs, but 8 or 16 is usually better. Keep in mind that not all the inputs of your audio interface necessarily have preamps, so they can’t all bring up a microphone to line level, or power a condenser microphone that requires 48 V phantom power. This is a way to reduce the upfront costs of the interface, since you can use external preamps and plug them into the extra inputs. Some interfaces also have optical inputs for plugging in an extra set of 8 preamps. This is a great solution if you’re not looking to spend too much on the interface to start but may need to expand in the future.

The final consideration to make with an audio interface is the form factor. Some interfaces are designed to fit on a desk and others are meant to be installed in a rack. Typically, the smaller interfaces with only a few inputs are desktop while those with 8 or 16 inputs are installed in a rack. This is a matter of preference and depends on how you plan on setting up your studio, but it doesn’t really have any effect on the capability of the interface.


There are a few different audio interfaces we recommend depending on your budget. Each of these are different quality and have different features, depending on how much you’re willing to spend.

Steinberg UR12

At the low end, there is the Steinberg UR12. This interface is the cheapest model we'll cover and has minimal features. We wouldn’t recommend an audio interface with any less features than what this has. It has one XLR input and an instrument input for direct electric guitar or bass recording. There are separate headphone and line outputs for speakers. One advantage of such a simple audio interface is that it doesn’t require much power to run. This means this interface can be powered via USB, and does not require an external power supply to operate. It can easily be used with a laptop and is great for someone who is looking for a portable audio interface.

Behringer U-PHORIA UMC404HD

If you’re able to spend a little more, you should consider the Behringer U-PHORIA UMC404HD. This interface has 4 inputs and outputs, which is great for stereo recording and also allows for some basic drum recording. As previously mentioned, MIDI is a great feature for electronic instruments, and this interface is the first on our list to support this feature.

TASCAM US-16x08

Those who are looking at recording drums should consider the Tascam US-16x08. At this price point, there’s really no other interface available that is capable of simultaneously recording 16 tracks. Though this interface has 16 inputs, there are only 10 preamps so you’ll need to use external preamps to take advantage of those last 6 inputs. Even without additional preamps, this interface is plenty capable of recording an entire drum kit. There are also dedicate outputs on the back, which can be used for sending tracks to outboard gear such as equalizers, compressors, and reverb effects units. This interface features support for MIDI and is rackmountable, so it is great for professionals who have a lot of other audio procession equipment.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

The Ultimate Guide to Guitar Accessories for Beginners

When learning guitar for the first time, there are a few accessories that you need to be aware of. These accessories are either absolutely necessary for certain songs, or will just help you improve your playing and make it easier to learn. Either way, here are some things to consider when you’re just starting off.




Tuners

A good quality tuner is absolutely essential to learning to play guitar. If you’re not a musician, you may struggle to tune your guitar properly. If this is the case, you’ll sound awful no matter how well you play. There are many different types of tuners available. Some pick up sound through a microphone, others clip onto the headstock of the guitar, and a few can also pick up a signal by being plugged directly in to an electric guitar. Headstock tuners area the most convenient, especially for a beginner. They work great in loud environments and don’t require a cable to be plugged in, so they can be used with both electric and acoustic guitars. They’re also clearly visible when you’re looking at the headstock to tune and inexpensive compared to some of the professional style tuners. A good choice for a beginner would be the Snark SN5X Clip-On Tuner.

Capos

As you look through some of the music for songs you’re trying to learn, you may notice they need a capo. This tends to be more common on acoustic guitar songs, and it allows you to play in a different key while still playing the same open chord shapes. Without a capo, playing some songs would not be possible, or it would be difficult since it would require bar chords. The capo clamps your strings across a fret you set it at, and basically becomes like the nut at a higher position on the fretboard. A good choice is the Kyser KG6B 6 String Capo. This capo clamps solidly to the fretboard so there’s no buzz when using it, and it releases easily so it can change frets quickly. It also features rubber padding to prevent it from damaging the finish on the guitar neck.

String Winders

A string winder is really helpful, though not completely necessary, when changing strings. Many guitar tuners have a high gear ratio, so it takes many turns to get the string to wrap once around the post. String winders allow you to quickly wind the string on the post, and it will save a lot of time if you change your strings often. Some string winders, such as the Planet Waves Pro Winder also feature a cutter so you can trim the excess string when you’re finished.

Strap and Strap Locks

If you’re planning on playing with a band or doing any sort of performance, you’re going to need a solid guitar strap and a set of strap locks. The strap locks are used to prevent the strap from slipping off the guitar while you’re playing. Though this may seem unlikely, it’s actually quite common, and the guitar can be damaged when the headstock hits the ground. For this reason, we also recommend a good quality strap that isn’t going to stretch too much as it’s used. Levy's Leather Straps tend to be reinforced and don’t stretch, especially when used with strap locks. We’ve covered a few of the different strap lock systems here and would recommend the Dunlop Straplok® Dual Design Strap Retainer System, since it features strap buttons that can easily be used with different straps.

Polish

If you’re playing a guitar with a very shiny finish, you’ll definitely find that it gets covered in finger prints very quickly. To keep your guitar looking it’s best, you should use a proper guitar polish that won’t damage your finish or cause it to deteriorate over time. A good option is the Ernie Ball Guitar Polish, which also includes a cloth that won’t scratch your guitar.

For those with rosewood fretboards, applying lemon oil to the fretboard will keep it from drying out a provides a nice appearance. We recommend this for use each time you change your strings, but keep it mind it can’t be used on maple fretboards. We recommend the Dunlop Ultimate Lemon Oil for use on your guitars.

Guitar Stands

Any guitar player should have a guitar stand. This gives you a safe place to put it down when you’re not playing and helps prevent it from being damaged. In most cases, a simple tripod stand such as the On Stage Tripod Guitar Stand will work just fine. If you find you’re low on space or have many guitars, you may consider hanging them from the wall (as long as you don’t rent of course). The Hercules Guitar Wall Hanger is a solid choice, and it even locks the guitar when there is weight placed on the hanger to prevent it from being accidentally knocked off and damaged.

Gig Bags and Cases

Depending on how much you plan on traveling with your guitar, you may consider either a gig bag or a hard case to protect it. Some of these are generic, such as the Gator Electric Guitar Bag, which will fit just about any electric guitar. Keep in mind that an electric guitar gig bag will not fit an acoustic guitar or bass, since they are both too large. You can also get a hard cover case for an electric guitar. There are cases that will fit any electric guitar, or some that are designed to tightly fit common models such as a Les Paul or Stratocaster. If you have an acoustic guitar, you should definitely use a hard case, since these guitars are much more delicate. You’ll have to consider what style your guitar is, but most will fit in a dreadnought case such as the Musician's Gear Hardshell Dreadnaught Case.

Picks

Choosing picks for playing guitar is a very personal decision and depends a lot on your playing style. There are different shapes and thicknesses of picks, but a good balance is the 0.73 nylon picks. Thinner picks are nice for strumming, since they tend to pluck the strings effortlessly and have a softer attack. Thicker picks can give you more control and work well for fast picking, with a heavier sound. If you’re not sure where to start, we recommend the Snarling Dogs Brain 0.73 Guitar Picks. These picks are easy to use and have a grip that prevents them from sliding out of your hands if they get sweaty while you’re playing.

Cables

The last accessory you may need is a cable if you’re playing electric guitar to connect to your amp. Many guitar starter packs will come with a cable, but they’re typically pretty low quality and won’t last very long. Instead, choose a good cable with proper shielding and it will last much longer. We recommend something like the Fender Custom Shop Cable. From personal experience, this brand of cable has lasted much longer than any other we’ve purchased in the past.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

The 4 Best Strap Lock Systems for Guitar and Bass

Whether you’re a professional musician or you’re just practicing at home, strap locks are one of the best ways to prevent damage to your instruments by accidentally dropping them while playing. These systems are inexpensive and lock your strap which prevents it from slipping off the guitar in even the most extreme playing conditions. They can be installed in minutes on just about any guitar, and don’t require any special tools other than a screwdriver. There are a variety of different strap locks on the market today, each with a varying quality and ease of installation.

4. Fender Strap Blocks

The Fender Strap Blocks are an inexpensive solution for anyone looking to secure their instrument with minimal hassle. This system consists or two rubber pieces that slip over your strap after it is on the existing strap buttons and prevent it from sliding off easily. This system won’t be as secure as many of the true locking systems, and results may vary based on the size and quality of the existing strap buttons on the instrument. They do have the advantage of allowing you to use them on different instruments and straps, whereas the other systems are limited to being installed on only one guitar and strap at a time.

3. Ernie Ball Super Locks

The Ernie Ball Super Locks are a replacement for the existing strap buttons on the guitar. They also have a part that clamps down on a strap and holds it securely in the strap button. These strap locks appear very large and may not look nice on all guitars. They also limit you to only using a strap with the system installed, since the small strap buttons would not securely hold a strap on its own.

2. Schaller Security Straplocks

 
The Schaller Security Straplocks include a replacement strap button and locking system for one guitar and strap. It has a pull release system and the weight of the guitar rests in a U-shaped metal pocket connected to the strap, instead of the strap itself which can stretch and work its way loose over time. This system seems secure and will definitely hold the weight of the guitar, but the design prevents to much swiveling of the strap. The strap is secured by a washer and thread system, which makes installation easy for a variety of different strap thicknesses. It is possible to use this system with other straps since it can also be used as a regular strap button, but this strap button is small and the strap could easily come loose. The Schaller strap locks come in a few different finishes to match your guitar hardware.

1. Dunlop Straplok® Dual Design Strap Retainer System

In our opinion, the Dunlop Straplok® Dual Design Strap Retainer System is the best of its kind on the market. It features the dual design strap buttons, meaning it works great as a strap lock system or as regular strap buttons with any other kind of strap. The strap buttons are much larger than the Schaller system so they’ll be able to hold a regular strap much more securely. Depending on how thick of a strap you plan on using, this system may be a little harder to install since it relies on a clip instead of a nut and washer to secure the strap. This system features an easy push-button release mechanism, and we’ve never had any problems with it releasing accidentally. The Dunlop strap locks allow the strap to swivel freely and the variety of different finishes with allow you to choose a type that matches nicely with just about any guitar hardware.

Monday, December 26, 2016

How to Choose Headphones for Music Recording

Whether you’re a musician recording at home or working in a pro studio, you definitely need to know about the different kinds of headphones used in the home studio. This is an important decision, since the different types of headphones work best in different situations, and could lead to problems if you choose incorrectly.




Closed-Back Headphones

Closed-back headphones are great for musicians to wear when they are being recorded with microphones. They prevent the sound in the headphones from being picked up by the microphone. Unfortunately, this kind of sound isolation comes with a cost, since headphones that are more isolated tend to have a less accurate frequency response. This means mixing on these headphones is not recommended. These headphones are great for situations such as recording vocals or acoustic guitar when the musician is very close to a sensitive condenser microphone. A good set of closed-back headphones for the home studio are the Sennheiser HD 280 Pro Headphones.

There are also situations where you may need even more isolation. When recording drums, the musician may find it difficult to hear the music they are playing along with. In this case, the concern is not about sound leaking out of the headphones, but more so the sound of the instrument leaking in. Isolation headphones for drumming will not be as accurate as other headphones and could be uncomfortable to wear for prolonged periods of time. They will, however, allow the drummer to properly hear the music, and the drum sound picked up by the microphones can be played through the headphones mix. The Direct Sound EX-25 headphones are a fantastic choice for drummers to use in the studio.

Open-Back Headphones

Open-back headphones have a more accurate frequency response than closed-back headphones, but they don’t prevent sound leakage. Though mixing should always be done on monitor speakers, this isn’t always an option; open-back headphones are a much better choice for mixing than closed-back headphones. They are also great in recording situations where microphones are not close by, such as recording keyboard, electronic drums, or direct electric guitar or bass. At the lower end, the Beyerdynamic DT-990 is a good choice. If your looking to buy something of a little higher quality, we recommend you check out the Shure SRH1440.

Monday, December 12, 2016

Analog to Digital: Sample Rates

One of the first decisions that must be made when starting a new project is the sample rate it will be recorded at. Sample rate is involved in the conversion from an analog sound wave to digital data.

When an analog signal is converted to digital, the computer must take a "snapshot" of the wave amplitude at a set time interval. The sample rate of a track refers to how many times the signal is measure each second. In theory, a higher sample rates provides a better approximation of the sound wave. Whether or not using a high sample rate is actually beneficial is a highly debated topic in digital audio.

The Nyquist-Shannon Theorem

In 1928, physicist Harry Nyquist discovered a way to accurately represent analog sound as digital data. Nyquist stated that to capture an analog signal as digital samples, the sample rate must be greater than twice the highest frequency (known as the Nyquist frequency) of the sound being converted. If the frequency of the sound being recorded is above the Nyquist frequency, aliasing will occur.

Aliasing

Aliasing is when a digital audio converter does not take enough samples to accurately represent a sound wave being converted. This is because the sample rate is not fast enough to keep up with the frequency of the sound. Instead, we get a lower frequency within our range that was not present in the analog signal. The new frequency will be lower than the Nyquist frequency by the amount that the analog frequency was over by. That is, with a sample rate of 6,000 Hz (Nyquist frequency of 3,000 Hz) a wave of 4,000 Hz will result in a digital wave represented as 2,000 Hz.

How do we avoid aliasing?

A common way to avoid aliasing is to use an anti-aliasing filter. The anti-aliasing filter cuts off the frequency above the Nyquist frequency. Since the anti-aliasing filter cannot perfectly cut off the signal immediately above the Nyquist frequency, we must have a sample rate greater than twice the highest frequency. Thankfully, we don't have to worry about this because audio interfaces do it automatically. It is important, however, because some plugins can produce signals over our project's sampling rate and cause aliasing. In these cases, we can use oversampling with the plugin to prevent this.

So what sampling rate should I use?

Most digital audio uses a sampling rate of 44.1 kHz. This allows for a maximum frequency of 20,000 Hz, which is the upper limit of human hearing. Many home recording interfaces are capable of recording at up to 96 kHz, however this does not create any noticeable difference in sound quality. Going beyond a sample rate of 96 kHz up to 192 kHz can introduce intermodulation distortion, which would actually make the sound quality worse. In the end, a standard sample rate of 44.1 kHz (the sample rate used on CDs) is sufficient for most applications, but it is not recommended to exceed 96 kHz as a sample rate.