Progress Of A Mix Conclusion

This is the last part of a series intended to follow a  mix through to completion. In a sense, this is exactly what happened. We have a completed work, yet not something I would consider  release ready material. What we ended up with in the end was a nice demo.

So what differentiates a demo from something you would release to the general public? I guess that answer is highly subjective. In this example we had a mix that was pretty good yet had a few fatal flaws that were simply more difficult to correct than to simply move on. Lessons learned. That’s ok. The song never had commercial intentions and was mainly a pilot song to see if this kind of combination was working.

In hindsight I was probably a bit too bold in attempting something new for me in the rhythm department. Sreyashi was a real trooper though and we managed to hammer out something respectable.

Some of the issues that probably killed the song from the beginning were-

  • A rhythm that didn’t entirely sit well with everyone
  • An initial drum take that combined the cymbal track audio with audio from other drum tracks. Retaking and splitting those tracks proved too time consuming for me as a part time mixer to correct to the level we needed.

The initial scope of the song changed over time. Sometimes this is a good thing. To use the mixing process as a part of the creative process. We do this in small ways all the time. In this case, some changes were larger than that.

I never seen this as a loss. More like a good way to determine a better direction for future projects. I had hope we would have a killer mix to present. Unfortunately the elements of the mix are less than stellar. One great outcome though, has been that many have heard Sreyashi’s amazing vocal ability. From this she has found another project. I wish her the very best!

The mix has some errors still. Some parts are slightly too loud and the music is out of sync with the vocals slightly in a few places. This is only one example of about 5 examples of the mix in various renditions. I didn’t see the point in further work on it with the other problems it had.

 

In the end I had about 1.5 gb of audio from the project. In the future maybe this can be utilized to a better end. Right now though, I think we simply decided to give it a rest and move on to other productive tasks.

Here’s one example of the mix. There were several. I chose this one as the last to display for now.

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Progress Of A Mix Part 2

In part one of this series I began a mix with Sreyashi, a  woman from India with a real talent for singing and lyrics. Sreyashi said  the rhythm interested her. We continue to work together on “Together” to get the track as good as it can be.  Some of the upper drum parts were clashing and somewhat uneven. The consensus of others who I asked was about 50/50 when they listened to the track rhythm with some saying that they like the track and others not so much.

At one point I stripped to entire drums track away and made another drum track. Once again the consensus was split. I liked both tracks, yet both tracks needed work. In the end we settled on the first version and decided to rework some of it and try to make the track sit better in the mix.

I kept the mix in Studio One 3 Professional. To re work the track I loaded Addicitve Drums 2 into the mix and removed the prior drum tracks. I copied and loaded the same midi patterns I had before into AD2 inside Studio One 3. I then decided to edit some midi parts in the tracks. Instead of splitting individual tracks I decided this time I would control the drum mix with the mixer inside AD2. This proved to be very helpful in making better drum adjustments with less complexity. Since none of the drum audio was printed I could continue to refine the mix in the AD2 mixer.Using the reverb bus I was able to give the drum mix a present place in the mix.

To better mix the cymbals I resorted to another drum program inside of Kontakt called 90’s drums. I pulled the faders for cymbals and high hats down in the AD2 kit and used the 90’s drum kit only for the cymbals patterns which were locked to tempo.

I added some looped percussion tracks during the quiet break. One track was a shaker and the other a hip hop loop. I decided the JRR Vocal plug in was a bit too up front on Sreyashi’s voice, so I deleted that plug in and added another plug in by waves called CLA Vocals. This gives her voice a warmer sound. It also allowed me to give her very mono voice some stereo spread which added some body to it and opened up her sound. I loaded an EQ and lowered the 3K range 2db. This helped to take some of the excessive bite away.

I doubled the bass originally created in Rapture with a secondary bass loop positioned underneath the bass attacks in Rapture. Since Sreyashi’s voice is the main part I wanted to keep it up front, but not so much it over powers the rest. I believe I’ve struck a happy medium here.Her voice might be too up front for some people, but I like the way it’s developing.

In the beginning I used a few of the plug ins native to Studio one. Many of these instrument specific plug in chains have multiple plugs inside of them. I discovered in some cases I was ‘over mixing” using unnecessary plug ins and adopted a more naked approach since some of those presets made the mix sound worse. I think you really need to be selective when using some presets and determine which work best or if they are needed at all.

Further adjustments were made to the volume automation. I exported to 16/44.1 wav. Files recorded on 48/24 wav.  Imported the master into Sonar one more time in order to add a little more volume using the Adaptive limiter in Cakewalk Sonar. I feel like the track is now close to completion.

Undoubtedly there will be a few more changes, but I feel as if we’re getting close now!

 

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Anatomy And Progress Of A Mix

Most mixes go through numerous changes throughout the process. In some cases you might not recognize the first examples compared to the end result.

Today I’ll be covering the various stages a new song called ” Together” is going through to get to completion. Both the engineer and the talent can get tired of working the same song over an extended period of time if things don’t click right away.

When the mix also involves a progressing artistic direction things can get complicated very fast. All mixes are just a bit different, so what worked for one mix might not work exactly for another mix.

This project might be different than some others because unlike a studio that is only mixing, I was also guiding the musical direction of the song. Many studios today do the same thing with musicians also mixing. In this regard, things  are a changing in how music gets made compared to several decades ago.

This all started out with a catchy drum pattern I liked. I especially liked the toms. I was looking for something other than the standard pop/rock beats we so often hear. This was in the form of a midi pattern I obtained awhile back from loop loft. I modified the pattern slightly and loaded it as a project file into Sonar Platinum. After going back and forth between different drum programs, I eventually decided to used Addictive Drums 2 as my main virtual drummer. This was convenient because AD2 is well supported in Sonar Platinum with templates already built for it. Using these templates I had a nice drum mix established fairly quickly. I had actually named the project AD2 at that point because I didn’t know what else to call it. The AD2 template I had split all drum tracks into independent tracks, but also has a master track and busses for room and overhead mics.

As fate would have it the project sat dormant for months. I decided to further develop it with a synth called Hybrid I had recently purchased. I liked many of the capabilities it has for synced arpeggio lines. I used an altered version of a patch in Hybrid to run with the drum tracks. I really liked the way it was developing. Still no definite direction though. I had some vocal Ideas for it which I tracked. These were some decent ideas or so I thought. The vocal was initially a faster more stabbing kind of thing.

I eventually posted the track as a rough track in the collaboration section of Songstuff  located at www.songstuff.com. I  offered to mix new ideas. A few very promising  artists came along with some great ideas and suggestions.  One of those was Sreyashi who I didn’t know at the time is an excellent vocalist/lyricist. Sreyashi had some interesting ideas and a great lyric. Her ideas took the vocal into a different direction. Instead of singing directly to the beat, she opted to sing longer syllables over the beat. This gave the track a really interesting direction. Her lyrics over shot the track length by at least a minute, so I needed to do some arranging to lengthen the track and make it fit the intended lyric. In order to do this I imported all tracks into a different daw, Presonus Studio One 3 Professional. I like the way that daw works for arrangement and song reorganization.

After moving everything over from Sonar to Studio One, I was able to make the changes with little trouble, although the initial re arrangement process left a few noticeable blips in the audio which I needed to edit out. This kind of thing can get a little tedious to get right.

Sreyashi was very keen to detect places in the mix where her vocal timing wasn’t quite right. After a few retakes and some editing she was spot on the beat. I found Sreyashi’s vocal tracks were by necessity recorded in mp4 format. They still translated pretty well for a compressed file. Unfortunately I couldn’t get Studio One to import these files into the mix, so I had to go back to my old friend Sonar Platinum and import her files, write them to .wav, export and then import into Studio One. This is the reason it can be very helpful to use more than one daw. Some are better at certain tasks.

I knew from the beginning that the drums would need to be tamed since mixes like this need a good beat but also the vocalist needs to be heard. I relied heavily on the use of dynamic equalization to tame the more apparent peaks with the drums. This can be a tight rope to walk because the drums basically carry the tune. They need to be heard, but not over heard.The cymbals were a nice touch but seemed to be a little much, so I added some volume automation.

For the guitar part,I used an HSS electric guitar on a single coil neck pick up setting played through a zoom guitar effects box using a clean factory patch. This track also fought for domination and needed to be tamed. For bass I used a patch in a synth called Rapture driven by midi. I kept the bass low in volume and low passed below 60hz.

I added organ parts from a product made by AIR. The sax was taken from a Kontakt factory sound and sculpted slightly in EQ. For the echos at the end of ” together” and “forever”I copied the endings of the vocal parts onto another track and used a delay in Studio One. Sonar Platinum lets you add effects to specific clips which is much easier than my work around in Studio One 3. If this is offered in Studio One I couldn’t readily find it and didn’t see anything in the operation manual. I was almost tempted at that point to port the mix back into Sonar. I used automation to mix in the delay only when it was wanted. Volume automation is applied at various places throughout the mix to almost all parts. The building rush sound at the intro is a movie effect applied from a 3rd party library in Kontakt dedicated to movie effects.

Sreyashi sent vocal backup parts which were added to the mix and made to fit with her other vocals. I used the Waves plug in JPP vocals to enhance the vocals. I used a custom setting in it because the female vocal settings were a bit to up front in my opinion. I might re visit that part of the mix.

For reverb I only used one and put it on a separate buss. I used that reverb as my global reverb and added sends from each track to that buss. Reverb is a bit on the lush side which gives the mix a more airy feel.

On the master buss, I added some mastering plug ins included with Studio One including the fat channel to narrow the band in some places as channel inserts and a multiband compressor, another plug in to remove DC offset. In the post efx bin I added a limiter set to a fairly aggressive setting and a dynamic EQ set to take some of the mid range bite out of the mix. The limiter is the last thing in the chain. Mixed volume mainly by K-14. Exported to soundcloud as a 16/44.1 .wav. What you hear streamed is a 128mp3.

I immediately noticed a cymbal hit at about 1:30 I didn’t like. I still need to sculpt individual EQ on tracks to give the mix more clarity.I plan to further develop M/S for the background vocals. Still some issues. The drums are still powerful even after being tamed. they might need some more taming. This is the mix so far, I’ll update here on further enhancements in the future. I’m  happy with Sreyashi’s work and overall happy with the basic mix direction. She has a great voice. Still work to do-

 

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How I Approach Gain Staging

How I approach Gain Staging in DAW Production
by Jeff Evans

Introduction
When we look at how we managed gain staging in the days of mixers and reel to reel multitrack analog tape recorders, there were conventions that were designed for a good reason and they actually worked!

Mixers

In mixers we aimed for a uniform level flowing down the channel strip once the correct amount of front end gain was either added or subtracted to the input signal. The levels arriving at mixer inputs can be varied and over a very wide range of levels. Eg from Mic levels -60 dBu on a quiet day, to -40 dBu up to ­20 dBu for some synths, then into domestic line levels such as -10 dBV or -8 dBu. 0 dBu and +4 dBu are also popular line level reference levels. The reference level travelling down a mixer channel strip may have varied somewhat too but at the end of the day the required gain was added to bring the final output up to a reference standard such as 0 dBu or +4 dBu.
Our DAW track, buss and stereo mix levels can also be at a reference level. We can apply this technique across to DAW operation. With a decent hardware mixer, an average level of +4 dBu output coming from the main outputs should be able to reach at least +24dBu before the onset of clipping. Indicating 20 dB of headroom. Headroom in mixers is built into the design. Headroom can be built into the DAW by making the reference level somewhere well down and away from 0 dB FS such as -18 or -20.

Tape Machines

With these we tended to record everything on each track at the nominal reference level which is when the VU meter read around 0 dB VU on the scale. Going In and coming OUT. Apart from percussion and fast transient sounds, the average rms level on each multi track was the same. The ref or 0dB VU. Headroom existed due to the very nature of tape itself. It had built in headroom. 15 dB or so. Before tape machines start to sound compressed and crunchy. They added hiss into the equation.
DAW operation simply means we can aim to record tracks at a given reference level as well using the VU meter as a guide to most input sources. The headroom is also built in because of the chosen reference level. There is no need to record tracks to the point of clipping or distortion or loud. In fact it is one of the finest things about digital multi track recording. The tracks can easily be noiseless and have zero distortion. Exposing the recording itself making it as naked as it can be. Better had record things nice then!

Types of Complex Signals

Any complex signal had two parts to it. The attack transient is followed by the meat of the sound for much longer usually and this part of the signal tends to sit at a reference level for a longer time. Up to seconds in fact. Anything over 100 mS is considered a long time in terms of rms measurement. Peak meters are good for the initial fast attack transient as they are fast enough to show even the shortest transient eg 5 mS and the rms meter (VU) is good for the rest of the signal. The VU is slow and takes 300 mS to reach its full scale deflection. The VU shows the solid part of the signal and for longer. It is better to monitor a complex signal with both types of meters especially when the signals are in the percussion and drums area. But for a great majority of signal types the rms meter works well alone.

Gain Staging in your DAW

One thing that works is that if concern yourself with mostly the rms levels being consistent in several parts of your production signal flow, then you will be safe in the knowledge that the available headroom is coping very easily with not only average rms levels but the peaks too. Without them crashing into 0dB FS. The peaks are varying all over the place in relation to the rms components of the signal. But none of them are really crashing into 0dB FS so there is no clipping mostly everywhere so no red clip lights are coming on either. An ideal situation. I only see a red clipping light on the odd occasion. On the master buss a limiter can be set there to nothing other than limit the output peaks to some value below 0 dB FS eg -0.5 dB FS. That will keep your master buss from clipping as well. Elegantly that is. The overall mix is more likely to cause an overload clip light.

Keeping an eye on rms

It’s about keeping your rms levels at a comfortable level on the digital scale. And combining that with a decent amount of headroom above to take care of those wildly varying peaks. Without them showing any clipping. Keeping everything super clean in fact. Taking full advantage of the digital recording medium. Because even when you select a reference level like -20 dB FS as being 0 dB VU for example or the K System -20 reference, if you are working initially at 24 bit resolution then the theoretical digital noise floor is -124 dB below -20. Even if you shave off 6 dB for real world performance, then that still puts the digital noise floor around -118 dB (below -20 that is!) which, is a long way down or damn quiet!
No need to worry about having to record at loud digital volumes now. Think, lower the average rms levels everywhere in your system. And put a VU meter set for the desired reference whenever you want. So you need to think about what reference level you are going lock 0 dB VU to.

Plugins

Monitoring the VU rms level before and after any important plugin is a great thing to do. Before, during and after complete plugin chains is also a good idea. By keeping rms levels at a nice ref level like this you will never clip a plugin again either. Many plugins are calibrated to work at -18. Using a -20 ref level is no biggie here either. It is just dropping the level by 2dB which is increasing the headroom in reality.
Check the level you sending into a reverb for example. Important. It is easy to over drive some reverbs and not know it at first.
Many plugins have output controls and these are excellent places to fine tune and reset levels that are flowing out of plugins or plugin chains.

Monitoring in your Studio

The system will go quieter as you lower ref levels. But as a counter measure we turn up our monitoring system now in our control room. K System refers to digital reference levels as well as monitoring SPL levels in your working environment. And the relationship between them being linked.
Monitoring how loud you are listening to everything you do is super important. When people are monitoring too low they are pushing everything higher in their systems level wise and then in many parts of your DAW production you are clipping and rms levels are way too high. If you are serious about this type of work it is imperative that you have the ability to monitor at a wide range of SPL levels. I use 85 for a lot of long term general work operations but 95 and 105 are excellent for checking mixes and listening for many other things. Not to mention but everything sounds great at 105! I find having a permanent SPL meter in operation well positioned too for accuracy is a great thing to have. It keeps you very honest too! I also listen super quiet too eg 65 dB SPL through a single small mono speaker and put the mix into mono while doing this. This is also great for revealing many other things about your mix too.

Other sources

It is not hard to track incoming signals and aim for a lot of 0 dB VU recording levels. There are other sources and virtual instruments are another commonly used source. Once you get savvy at using a VU meter in all the vital points in your production, you start to find that when you monitor the outputs from virtual instruments, they are all over the place in terms of a ref set VU meter. Some will blow it off the scale others will make it barely move. For example my Korg Wavestation synth plugin sounds amazing but is quite a low level. I have to add the +6 dB output boost just to get it to start moving the VU nicely. And even add some gain sometimes on a quiet patch. The volume controls on some virtual instruments need to be turned up that extra mile, often fully clockwise.
On another synth plugin, you load a patch and play it and the VU blasts over and pins the poor needle. Well it’s time to turn these types way down. Some output levels need to be almost turned off to get the VU to move nicely up to and around 0 dB VU. Over the range of your playing aim for the VU showing 0 dB most of the time.
Check the dynamics of your playing eg midi velocities. These are easy to look at, edit and change overall if needed. On some patches the velocity changes make a huge difference.

VU meters have other benefits

As soon as you start inserting dynamics processing over a source signal, the VU ballistics of the needle will change. Real VU’s, and quality ones at that, are a dream to watch ballistics wise. It is sublime how they move to the music. Very well mixed or mastered material has a very definite ballistic over the whole mix for example. When your own mixes are not as good, the ballistic looks and feels a bit wrong. Once you start doing the right things in a mix the ballistic looks right. The VU is good for showing up a rogue track that has too much something anyway, dynamics usually. Once that one track is fixed the overall stereo mix ballistic starts to change for the better usually.
VU meter plugins are doing their best to copy the ballistic of a quality VU meter. Some are better than others. Right now one of the closest is the Klanghelm meter. I have devised a series of complex tests for testing VU meter ballistics. Real and virtual. I can sit the virtual meters (at the bottom of a screen that is sitting on top of the real VU meter box) right above the real ones and compare how they both move together.
Presonus VU Meters

Presonus have kindly given away their VU meters. The range of ref levels is limited unfortunately. I am hoping they improve this over time because making the meter adjustable to any ref level is obviously the smarter way to go. Because I work at -14 as one of my ref levels a lot, the Presonus -12 setting is the closest setting to this ref level of -14. By fiddling with the sensitivity knob it is possible to get the needed FSD (Full Scale deflection ie up to 0 dB VU that is) showing mainly a normal VU swing up to and around 0 dB VU. Only falling a tiny bit short. A -18 or -20 ref level does not work so well with the Presonus meters because then they are always falling short of 0 dB VU about 4 to 6 dB which is significant. Making this meter adjustable to -18 or -20 would be an excellent addition.
What is great about the Presonus meters are their ability to open up and show themselves on tracks and everywhere which is pretty handy for some quick ref level checks. It’s great to see so many VU meters moving at once!
VU meters can be inserted on the input channels right before the signal even hits a track for recording. The Studio One level meter is also excellent for this type of work. Simply put into K System -14 or -20 mode shows them swinging nice right up to 0 dB VU. Although a bar graph, it moves rather slow which is true of an rms meter by design. As long as you are aiming for that incoming level to be hovering up to and around 0 dB VU then you will be good to go for tracking.

Don’t forget the Peak Meters

Once the input sources start getting fast and transient eg drums then get those peak meters out and just make sure they are rising to decent enough level but not hitting 0 dB FS. It only takes a slight increase in power from the player of a snare hit to slam right into 0dB FS. Keep the input gain down low as to prevent this happening. You can always lower the dynamics and raise the overall rms level of even transient sounds later in production. Once you start sending a bunch of fast attack sounds to a buss, then the rms level on that buss will rise. A normal VU meter on a drum buss will start moving nicely in fact. Toms can still be open and the kick drum too so quite high rms components in some drum sounds can still be possible.

Calibration

It is not a bad idea to get some test signals flowing around your DAW either from the test tone generator or by playing back test tones on tracks. Ensure mono test signals are on mono tracks and stereo ones on stereo tracks too.
For the test tone generator in Studio One select a sinewave for say 400 Hz and the output level is adjusted for the desired level. Eg -14 or -18 or -20 etc.

Why different reference levels ?

It depends a bit on what the final outcome will be. If a client wants a very loud master then starting all your work at -14 means not too far to go master for those rms levels to come up. A decent limiter will add 4 dB of rms level over a mix without hesitation and it should do it at high quality and sound great as well. PSP Xenon does this very well. That means you are now creating a -10 dB rms master which is damn loud but still has some transients and punch. You can master higher of course up to levels such as -8 and even -6 but as well know these sound horrible. Like many I am hoping for a time where -14 and even -20 masters become the norm. Once you turn up loud a mix like that it is hard to beat.
Starting at -20 means you have further to go mastering wise if you want a very loud master at the end of the day. But the -18 and -20 ref levels have superb dynamics and the most lovely of transients because the transients are basically being left alone and not being altered. ie Pristine is a word that comes to mind. So no harm in having a super clean -18 or -20 pre mastered mix that is. I treat mastering as a separate process anyway so for me the premastered mix is important.

Some Mix Tips

Staring with all your tracks at an even ref rms level puts you in a great place prior to mixing. You will never need to add or subtract gain from a channel or track. Use the clip gain handle to fine tune your individual audio events too. It makes a big difference. Studio One shows the waveform height changes as you change the clip gain handle. This is good because you can after a while become quite skilled at matching rms levels by eye.
Groups of tracks can be sent to buss with the buss fader at unity or near 0 dB. The tracks themselves will only have to be a little lower than unity on their faders in order for a buss to end up at the ref level again. I like the channel faders reflecting the mix visually. It was also how it was done mixing on large analog consoles too. The aim was to get the final mix at the ref level. On the console VU meters.
Groups of busses can be sent to the main stereo mix buss. The buss levels then can be tweaked down slightly. I find they only need be at slightly lower then unity for the final mix to end up nicely at the ref level as well. It’s OK to fine tune buss levels too. That is what the main buss faders are for! If you have got all your horns going to horn buss then fine tune the level of that total horn sound to fit into the mix.
Keep an eye on the main stereo VU meters at all times too, You can almost mix into VU’s. Get the drum buss pumping for example and add that to the main mix but only up to say -3 or -4 dB VU. As you slowly bring in the other remaining buses which will complete the picture, you find yourself with the whole mix just peaking up real nice to 0 dB VU once again.
If you pre master 10 tracks for an album say all at the same rms ref level then you are in an ideal place for mastering all those tracks too. They will all be at the same level loudness wise overall so you won’t have to spend any time matching rms levels in mastering on your tracks. The mastering compressor is going to be pretty right for all of them!
If someone sends you a multitrack mix to mix for them the best thing you can do is choose an rms ref level and adjust each and every track in an editing program to conform to it. Then once again you will be in a perfect place to start a mix. You will amazed at how wildly the track levels will vary in a situation like this. Many have no idea how to track really well and consistently. Or how a multitrack mix should be checked and edited before it is sent out to the mix engineer. Some basic things there.
Get all this right at the source and the rest just falls into place.

Finale

I am not saying this is the only approach. It is how I like to work most of the time. I have inherited these techniques over from the good old analog days of mixer and tape operations. It worked very well then and it seems to be so adaptable into our modern DAW world now. We have got better tools than ever now for recording and we have the benefit of very low noise floors and low distortion. Not to mention the ability to put back into our mixes so much like console and tape emulation. Fun. Happy gain staging!

 

Jeff Evans is a composer, teacher and recording engineer living in Ballarat , Austrailia

 

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Recording Hound- Mixing and Mastering Services

 

 

Yes that’s right!! You heard it here first!!

Recording hound now offers mixing and mastering services!! We won’t be going away after all! I know you haven’t heard from me in awhile. It took some time to arrive at the solutions to a few issues that have now been resolved!

I can make instrumental backing tracks if needed. Clean up mixes and offer mastering. Contact me for pricing options.

Periodically I’ll post examples of mixes and how they can be improved  either in your studio or as a service I offer to you. I’ll give tips on how to successfully track  rough tracks for mixing/mastering. I’ll give suggestions on how to get the maximum benefits from your daw.

It always helps to have a second opinion. Mixes that sound good on one system might not sound good on all systems. One of my specialties is making the track the best it can be on every system it is played on.

I’ll give you up to three revisions FREE for any track I work on. Speaking of free, I offer free initial consultation and  very  reasonable pricing. You don’t need to pay for an entire album all at once. If money is tight I can do pay as you go one track at a time.

You may contact me at the following email-

tim@recordinghound.com

 

 

 

 

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Buying A Keyboard

Introduction

This article is intended to help you find the best keyboard for your home studio or gigging. The answer won’t be the same for everyone, so I’ll give a few ideas based on a few different user types. One of these should have you covered.

There are advantages in having the ability to visit a local music store with a great selection of all the most popular keyboards, and it might be worth a drive some distance to find such a place if one isn’t close to you. Not many music stores stock all of the brands and types unless you happen to live close to a major national music distributor who also happens to have a large show room.

Usually the store stock is based on the kind of customer most prone to frequent the store with brands that are known to have had appeal in the past. Undoubtedly some consideration can also be made for markup and profit. After all, the store is in business to make money. I won’t get into the possibility that you may be shown brand A in contrast to brand B because it has a higher profit margin, but it probably happens.

Many music stores have quiet areas for acoustic players to demo instruments. Not so much for keyboards. You might get to the store and several other people could be demoing keyboards all hooked up to audio systems and all going at once. My local Guitar Center is one of these kinds of setups. For this reason it’s best to call ahead and ask if you can have a private time to see the keyboards or when the best times are to try out the stock when there would be less customers there.

How a keyboard sounds though headphones may be way different than how it sounds through studio monitors, all depending on the headphones/monitors, so I think it’s a good idea to demo keyboards you might be interested in in both ways.

Many of these keyboards are very complex and a simple visit to the store might not yield all the information you need to make an educated decision. This is why I suggest doing a lot of web research on the keyboards you’re interested in. Read lots of user reviews. Find out what things you like and see which keyboard would suit you best after you’ve done some homework. Hopefully this article will help you along.

I wouldn’t eliminate used keyboards as an option. If the keyboard has been well cared for it might be just the thing you need without spending a ton of money. One drawback is a warranty isn’t usually offered on used keyboards.

What kind of user are you?

We’ll begin at the bottom of the market which accounts for a large portion of keyboard sales, beginners. Most beginners have no idea what some of the more recent keyboards are capable of, and it really doesn’t matter because they simply need something they can play that makes sound. At the very low end of the market are beginner keyboards. These keyboards are excellent for children just starting out in music. Surprisingly many of these keyboards sound good!

Keyboards in this range have built in speakers and may have educational helps built in such as keys that light up to indicate when they are to be played, or built in song sets to play along with. Made of light weight plastic with keys that are functional, but have a flimsy cheap feel to them. These keyboards are battery or wall powered.
A few words of advice to the beginning keyboard buyer:

If you intend to transfer skills learned to a piano don’t buy a keyboard with mini keys. I would recommend to get a keyboard with full sized keys even if you never play on a real piano since any future purchase will almost certainly involve a more advanced keyboard with full sized keys. The larger keys make playing easier.

When buying a keyboard there’s semi-weighted, non weighted and weighted keys. The most common keys on beginner keyboards are non weighted. The most common key beds on intermediate keyboards are semi weighted, sometimes called “keyboard feel”. Keyboard feel strikes a balance between something that doesn’t feel cheap when playing but isn’t fully weighted. Since semi weighted keys are usually lighter and faster than weighted keys, many keyboardists prefer semi-weighted keys when playing fast synthesizer parts.Weighted keys are mostly reserved for people who desire the keyboard to feel as much like a real piano as possible.

It is possible to buy a low end keyboard with 88 keys and a feel close to a real piano. This is a great choice for anyone who wants to learn piano on a budget. These keyboards are slightly more expensive, but I feel are a good investment in a young player who doesn’t have a piano available and who is taking piano lessons.

The number of keys is usually 49 and upwards. I recommend a minimum of 61 keys. Some configurations eliminate the lowest octave and a few of the highest notes which are seldom played and come up with a 73 or 76 key keyboard. On the least expensive keyboards 61 keys are most common. You might find a 76 or 88 key keyboard for about the same price if you shop around.

Electronic keyboards rely on something called velocity layers to get the sound being played to become louder or softer. If each key has four velocity layers, there are four potential sound levels. Depending on how hard and how fast the keys are played each of these velocity layers is triggered and give the overall effect of playing a real acoustic piano. In the less expensive keyboards there are less velocity layers. The implementation of the layers isn’t as responsive, which makes the instrument feel less responsive to your playing. This is why a better keyboard plays better.
Sometimes additional nuances are also programmed into the sound based on the layers. For instance, playing a key harder might give a piano sound more resonance or an electric piano sound more grit. The less expensive beginner keyboards have less of these features or none at all.

The Gigger

Keyboardists who play out frequently are usually trained pianists and they like a solid instrument that won’t let them down in gigs. Since most keyboards don’t usually offer everything you need at a gig, gigging keyboardists take several keyboards to a gig that has a lot of material from different styles or genres. One keyboard might have an excellent B-3 organ sound while another has the best piano sound. They usually have at least one 88 key weighted keyboard of good quality. These players demand the best. They want something they don’t need to fool around with on stage. They prefer light weight if possible, but they will usually select a heavier keyboard if it’s a better keyboard unless their back is giving out. Although midi controllers have been in vogue using outboard computers, these are usually limited to the techno crowd. A regular gigging keyboardist doesn’t want to hook up cables and boot up computers.

The Yamaha Motif has gained a reputation as a road worthy sturdy instrument that has great sounds and doesn’t require a lot of hassle to operate in a live situation. The trade off is that it isn’t a light instrument, but it has a great key bed. Nord is a Scandinavian maker who make very well built good sounding intuitive keyboards. Usually their designs have an easy interface and not too many additional features that could actually end up becoming problematic for a live player. You might see Korgs and Rolands in the gigging setup among others.

Sometimes the gigging keyboardist goes into the studio and records, so it’s always good for them to have a keyboard they are accustomed to playing that can adapt well to the studio. They don’t usually want or need a sequencer,sci fi sounds or 100’s of thick pads. Most live players are too busy playing out to sit in the studio programming or making mood music, but this is a stereotype, and I’m sure there are some who do both.

The Studio Musician

This group accounts for a very large segment of musicians who buy keyboards. Probably the majority of mid to high end keyboard purchases are studio musicians.This group can comprise a lot of personality types. Some of these musicians are people who like to play organ or piano and have picked up a few recording skills along the say. They might not have the time or the desire to gig, so they make music at home with a keyboard and a computer. They might be a multi-instrumentalist who combines tracks to make songs, or they might use the different sounds in the keyboard.

There seem to be several different types of studio musicians and combinations of both. There are the programmer types who aren’t especially strong musically but they love computers and they like to sit in a room and program midi or play with recording software to make tracks. These are the people who make their living usually involving computers or some other technical line of work. They like gizmos and gadgets and they like to see how they work together. Most of their work would be considered more technical than artistic, but this point could be argued.

There are the musically gifted and or trained musicians who adopted technology to further their artistic pursuits. These are the people who wouldn’t use technology at all if it wasn’t a necessity in making music. This group sometimes sees technology as a necessary evil and they don’t always like to deal with it.If they can come to grips with the technology, it’s like giving them a set of wings.

There are musicians who are good at both technical and musical pursuits and everything in between. There probably isn’t an ideal keyboard for all of these people, so there are many types to choose from.

The prime consideration in making music for distribution at home for this larger group is this: Will you make music inside the computer or will you make music inside the keyboard? This is purely a choice you will make based on your needs and wants.

Some people would prefer to do everything without ever looking at a computer. These are also the people who usually prefer hardware recorders For this group, something like the Korg Kronos would work nicely. Be forewarned that these keyboards have a steep learning curve because they are also a recording studio with multiple sound set types and layers of menus. It’s probably more difficult to learn one of these than to learn to use a computer to record. On the plus side. The sounds are some of the very best and it can be used with a computer. If you have the aptitude and the patience to learn the complexity of this instrument it will pay huge dividends. There are other brands of keyboards that can also record both audio and keys parts into an internal recorder via midi.

At some point, if you want to put your music on the web, you’ll still need to get it into a computer. Software synthesizers can be played by an external keyboard midi controller. This option is used quite frequently for several reasons. There are many very good software synthesizers that can be loaded into your computer that rival and even surpass the sounds in hardware keyboards for several reasons. They also usually cost less than typical keyboards and make a great way to expand any keyboard setup in the studio using any existing keyboard equipped with midi.

Dedicated midi controllers are usually less expensive than buying a keyboard with built in sounds. A word of advice, all midi controllers have midi but some offer more control over midi parameters. Velocity layers,midi channel programming and selection, the way the sustain pedal responds might be better thought out in one controller over another. Some controllers have 88 keys and some far less. Look for the same kinds of quality in a midi controller you would look for in any other keyboard.Also consider the level of control and access the controller offers when playing and controlling soft synths in real time.Most soft synths can be mapped to the controls of a midi controller.

Midi controllers are good choices for a studio musician who frequently use a computer and recording software. This kind of arrangement is best as a non mobile setup since moving a large controller and computer to a gig can be a real chore to unhook, and re connect, transport etc.Even when using a laptop cables still need to be connected and computers need to be booted up and connected to the controller. Some musicians go to the trouble because they like the way that setup works better than a hardware keyboard.

The Mobile DJ Musician

These are the people who love to mix loops. Some of them make their own loops. These types of musicians also work in a performance mode. Their palette is the loops and the way they mangle and mix the loops and tempos.They might combine loops as backing and play an instrument with it. There’s a lot of possibilities for the keyboardist/ DJ.

These methods can cross several genres such as rap, techno and electronica.

For these musicians the focus is usually on the groove and is heavily rhythm and beat oriented.They might use several different ways to control the beats. They may use pre made backing tracks with loops and playing added or it could be a totally improvised on the fly performance usually done with the aid of programs like Ableton.

The type of keyboard most favored by these musicians are smaller keyboards and controllers since they mostly play solos over loops or use the keys to trigger loops. The keys don’t need to be weighted action and the number of keys can be 49 or less. Midi controllers are usually favored over hardware keyboards with internal sounds.

This is the most common arrangement, however there are exceptions. If you want o get into the looping scene and want an 88 key controller no one is going to stop you.

One of the reasons DJ’s prefer a smaller keyboard is because a small keyboard and a laptop will fit right into a carry bag. Most don’t need a larger setup for this type of music.

Which Type Are You?

Ask yourself how you will use a keyboard and what you hope to accomplish with it. Will you be in the studio more often than you’ll be out gigging?
Or will you do both?

Do you prefer 88 keys and a weighted touch? Do you prefer semi weighted action over weighted action? Try a few keyboards out and decide for yourself.

Do you plan to record into a computer with recording software? Do you want to have sounds inside of the keyboard instead of or in addition to sounds and software synthesizers played from your keyboard and through a computer?

Is weight a factor in your purchase? Do you have the time to learn all of the functions in a sophisticated hardware synthesizer, and are you the type that isn’t frustrated with technology?

Considerations when comparing keyboards-

After you narrow down what it is you want in a keyboard it’s time to examine the most important features of keyboards and midi controllers.
– Velocity layers and touch sensitivity
– Key quality and action, weighed, non weighted and semi weighted
– Number of keys
– Most used features organized in an intuitive way
– Sound quality, PCM sampled or streamed from internal disk, methods used to achieve realism. Audible sound quality when compared to others
– User ratings,user supported sound programming, reliability, company support and warranty of product
– Connectivity for your applications, midi on/out, hardware 5 pin or usb connections? analog and or digital audio connections
– weight and transport considerations
– Construction quality
– Depth of control when using soft synths and or recording functions inside of a computer using keyboard controls
– The extent to which dedicated internal recording is implemented, both midi sequencing and audio recording
– Compatibility to outboard recording applications, drum templates, included interface software

In the end it’s going to be your choice because your needs may be entirely different than mine.

The Best Choice For Me

I’ll tell you the best choice for me based on my needs and why I made the choice.

My most recent keyboard purchase wasn’t due to a want but a need since a few of the keys were failing on my old Roland Keyboard that had, up until recently, been a great keyboard.

Things I considered based on my needs/wants and budget :

I have loads of sounds already in my computer, both the synths that came with my DAW software and some I had purchased, so I didn’t really need any sounds other than the basic staples such as a decent piano, organs, some nice pads. Bread and butter kinds of sounds.
I didn’t need or want to invest time in learning to record inside of a keyboard sequencer since I have recording software and computer plug-ins.I record both midi and audio in my studio computer.
The few gigs I play out usually have a piano on location, no keyboard needed. I only needed a keyboard for the occasional outdoor gig. That might only be once a year.
I would have been fine with one of my other keyboards and an 88 key midi controller. Instead I opted for the Casio PX-5S for the following reasons:
Pros-
The PX-5S was priced comparably to a good midi controller but it offered much more.
It has excellent midi I/O for my needs, both usb and 5 pin midi connections.
Excellent sounds and deep programming options for a keyboard at this price point
88 weighted keys with additional mapped knobs,sliders and mod wheel all could be mapped to other uses or used as programmed with the included sounds.
The sounds are excellent and surprisingly well done in a keyboard at this price point.I plan to use a few of them for recoding instead of my computer synths
Very responsive velocity and feel
Great factory support as can be seen in regular support over several years so far
A solid base of users who contribute additional sound programming and ideas on facebook and the Casio factory site
Very light weight, especially for an 88 key weighted keyboard
usb port can play prerecorded tracks on usb memory stick

Cons– Small screen. Programming and basic operation not intuitive.

Prior to this article I would never have considered Casio in my choices because I viewed Casio as being in the beginner segment of the market. A friend tipped me off to this keyboard since he had been using it to gig regularly, so I looked further into it and was pleasantly surprised.

My situation may be different than yours. Luckily, there’s enough information out there to make an informed choice based on your needs. I used my example as a way to show you the kind of research I usually do when buying a keyboard and hopefully this will help you in making your decision. Good Luck!!

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How To Build A Recording Computer Part 6 Adding Hard Drives, PCIe Cards and Making The Connections

How To Build A Recording Computer Part 6
Adding Hard Drives, PCIe Cards and Making The Connections

hound

I used Samsung Evo SATA III SSD’s for this build. Three of them. I think it’s always safer to err on the side of potentially having too much room than to run out of space in a few years, so I recommend you buy larger than 250gb for the storage drives if you plan to buy a lot of samples. A smaller size might be ok , but then again it might become too small should you decide to add more to the C drive later, so I opted for 500gb on all three.

Since all three drives look identical I decided to add identification to each one, so that I would know which one was which should I need to make a change or troubleshoot my setup. I used both colored tags on the drives and I also labeled each one. Mounting is as easy as securing each drive with the provided hardware.

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Notice how very small these drives are, making my case look cavernous in comparison. My case even has a place to mount an SSD on the other side of the motherboard. About as large as a wallet they mount up easily in the large spaces provided.

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Cable routing has almost become an artform in show PC’s. I think routing is important from a service access perspective as well.

You may want to mark an ID on each cable as well, not that this is really necessary but it can be helpful in the event you are looking at cables all the same color and need to identify one of them.
One of the most important considerations is that the wires shouldn’t interfere with the fans. Loose wires in close proximity to cooling fans can fall into the fans and stop cooling.

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If you decide to use a platter drive there are some considerations as mentioned in earlier sections.
Make sure it isn’t a “green” drive. Black designated drives are usually the best. The drive should be 7200 rpm.

Plugging the drives is very straight forward. The drives are shipped with the connection cables. Locate the SATA III sockets on the motherboard and plug in the drives lower numbers to higher.

Have You Been Carded?

If you have onboard video there’s no need to install a video card. PCIe slots are much smaller than PCI slots. There is no chance you can put a PCIe card in the wrong slot. If you’re trying use all new hardware in your build you will most certainly use PCIe or M2 slots for any cards. If you want to reuse a favorite audio card then you will want a motherboard that still has the necessary
Older PCI slot. These can still be found but I suspect they’ll go the way of the dodo bird soon.

I used an older firewire interface, so I opted for a firewire card and a video card. Note- All socket 2011-v3 motherboards require outboard video.

Firewire card with Texas Instruments chipset

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Video card- GeForce GT 740

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Seat the cards securely into the PCIe slots making sure to hold cards by the edges. The cards will need to be screwed into place with the provided screws as shown. That’s all there is to it.There is really no order to the way the cards need to be installed, although it is preferable to use the slots designated by lower numbers first. You may want to consider cable exit locations at the rear of your computer, for instance, if you have an interface with a very short cord you will need to locate that card as high as possible to be closer to the interface…or buy a longer cord.

Are You Well Connected?

There’s no strict sequence to making the connections from the power supply to the motherboard and SSD drives other than routing and access considerations.

All plugs are clearly labeled. At this time also connect the wires from your case that go to the on/off switch, HDD and power leds. These connections can be a little confusing because these aren’t usually molded plugs, though they are labeled. Look at the instructions that came with your motherboard and you will see the connection layout for these pins. It’s also marked on the motherboard. It is easy to get the orientation of the pins wrong, so make sure that you are looking at these pins the same way they are on the motherboard. There is little chance that you’ll have a serious problem if you happen to get the pins backwards..the main problem being that the indicator leds won’t light up.These are polarity sensitive connections.

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Most likely your case will have provision for external usb connection which is a nice feature because it brings the usb connections to the front of the computer. Otherwise you would only have the connections at the rear. Your motherboard should have a separate usb header. When making these connections it’s important to make sure you separate usb 2 from usb 3. If these are swapped your usb 3 devices will only work at usb 2.0.

If you need to remove a plug to reroute wires or for any other reason this is easily accomplished by pushing the lock tabs on the plastic plugs.

The hard drives and CD burners get their power from one power rail. The cooling fans in the case on on the motherboard are usually fed from a separate power branch from the motherboard since the bios will govern the fans. It isn’t unusual to see some power configurations with multiple plugs on one branch. The main power plug feeding power to the motherboard will be the largest plug and is hard to miss.

I only connect one hard drive which will be my C drive at the beginning. I connect the other drives after The OS is loaded. Another good rule of thumb is not to plug in any usb dongles or load any other discs until after you load the OS.

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Next up- Booting up and loading the OS.

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