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From Signal to Song: A Home Studio Synopsis

How did they get “that sound”?

In the world of studios based around laptops, where software often trumps the massive consoles and hulking tube amps of old, one may think we have reached a point where quality has been compromised for simplicity and portability.
However, this is not necessarily so. Software is consistently improving, and so for those people wishing to create an effective studio environment with limited means and budget, the future seems bright.

Of course, it’s not as easy as just picking up some software. Generally, folks don’t get to the point of having “that sound” without first having a plan and test-driving several different solutions before they can consistently crank out quality music from their work shed.

Often the best (and most cost-effective) way to learn is by other people’s experience. In order to get a feel for what is being used out there in the real world, we asked a handful of home studio engineers to impart their experiences to us. We’ll look at what hardware and software they use, and we’ll look also put the gear into perspective through a few project flow scenarios.

Parts of the system
There are of course several pieces to the small studio puzzle. However what you end up putting together as your home (or church closet) recording solution is sometimes determined solely on the decision you make about the cornerstone of your layout: your software.

Something to make note of before moving on- there is a distinct difference between music notation and music recording software. This may be totally common sense for some, but perhaps not to folks who are looking for something to break out of the box and start experimenting with.

Music specialist and performer Terry Wilhite sums up the difference between notation and recording software this way: “Sibelius and Finale are notation programs. Yes, you can play (via MIDI) music into the computer, to get notes on the screen. And you can “play the screen” to get music out, but they are not really recording software; they just let you hear your arrangement to see if you’re on track.”

Notation programs make for an incredible addition to a project flow, and can become invaluable assets for creating and distributing compositions. You should have a general sense of how to read and write music before you can make the most of these programs. However, notation programs are often a good way to understand the basics of how music theory works. Notation programs differ from recording software in that they aren’t generally designed to allow you to just plug in and rock out.

As far as recording software, Wilhite suggests a program called Ableton Live 7. “Ableton Live 7 is price pointed at $150 for a “lite” version, or street priced around $499 for the full edition.” he says. “While the software will accommodate soft synths – sampled sounds residing on one’s computer – and any audio input that one chooses, one can choose to go as simple or as complex as desired. If you’re simply recording MIDI for notation or data, a $150 keyboard with MIDI out will get MIDI into the computer. What you play the MIDI back through depends upon the quality of audio you desire.”

Sometimes, based on the sound you are looking for, simplicity is the key. That doesn’t mean that you can just grab some software for your laptop and go for it.

“I believe a lot of folks who are thinking about getting into digital audio recording don’t realize that they need more than software; they need an audio to digital interface unit.” Wilhite explains. “The A/D is the box that takes microphone and keyboard audio inputs and transforms them into digital audio captured by the software, and then offers audio outs so that you can listen to what you’ve recorded using your software. The quality of the A/D unit’s microphone pre-amps and the number of inputs/outputs are vital to the success of digital audio recording. I use a Presonus FireStudio with 26 inputs and 26 outputs, and their software matrix router that is terrific. I can route any “in” to any “out” on screen and I have their desktop controller that is small and lets me pick and choose my studio monitors, including a surround sound configuration, and provides talkback to talent. And if you don’t want to ‘mouse every movement’ on screen, a physical controller, like the Mackie Control Universal that I use is a welcome addition.”

Brian Steckler is a Producer, Composer, Songwriter, Engineer and Mixer who owns his own studio in northern California.
Brian uses ProTools as the software centerpiece for his recording and mixing interface.

“Depending on the Digidesign hardware you want to use, a ProTools set up could be as simple as a MacBook and an M-Box mini.” Steckler says. “It gives you a mic/line input and headphone and outputs for your speakers. But if you’re building a full recording studio around a ProTools HD system, you’ll want a fast MacPro with plenty of RAM (6 or 8 Gig is a good start) to house the PCI cards. Then you’ll need the interface for A/D and D/A conversion. Digidesign’s top of the line converter is the 192 i/o, but you can also use a number of third-party converters.”

There again is a reference to an appropriate A/D converter. It’s an extremely important piece of the puzzle to consider. Even if you’re working with MIDI, you will want to hear your virtual instruments (soft synths) or real instruments, driven by MIDI, played out of your recording software via the A/D device.

“If you plan to mix ‘in the box’ in ProTools, you’ll want to add a compliment of plug-ins, [which digitally provide] EQs, compressors, tape simulators, reverbs, delays, etc.” Steckler reminds us. “Then of course, you’ll need all the usual recording studio gear: microphone preamps, mics, speakers, a monitoring system, headphone talkback system, etc. Then, if you really want to go all the way, check out Digidesign’s Icon.”

When we get down to the brass tacks, the system that Brian Steckler recommends may end up being a little high in price for some.
“As far as the cost involved, a basic M-Box or 003 system will set you back $2000 to $5000 with a laptop or basic MacPro and some plug-ins. HD systems start around $7000 and the sky is the limit as you add processing power, expansion chassis, plug-ins and control surfaces like Icon.”
Compare Steckler’s studio to the recommended setup of a gentleman named Steve Myers, who is Music Director for a quaint little church in South Barrington Illinois called Willow Creek.

His setup includes a Mac G5 quad (8GB RAM), two flat screen monitors, Pro Tools LE (with Mbox2), Logic 8, four external fire wire drives (one for recording, three for software instrument libraries), Waves, Sound Toys, Roger Nichols plug ins (RNDigital Inc.), Tech Tool Pro, Drive Genius and Disk Warrior. Myers also uses Finale as his composition and notation software.
“At $600.00, the full version of Finale is an expensive option for most houses of worship.” Myers says. “However, programs like Allegro, Print Music and Songwriter are excellent and inexpensive options.”
So to summarize, it seems as if the major parts you need to put together for a good home studio setup are:

• A decent computer with a large hard drive and sufficient RAM
• A competent recording software platform
• A notation software program (if you’re composing or writing scores)
• A solid A/D and D/A converter
• USB or Firewire inputs (depending on the peripherals you use)
• Some external effects plug ins and other digital toys
• Mics, patch cables, MIDI cables and the “usual” recording gear

Project Flow Scenarios
Now that we have a more appropriate sense of what some home systems are made of, now let’s see what some tangible project flows look like.

Terry Wilhite takes us from start to finish this way:

• Fire up the software (choose your MIDI/Audio Drivers Preferences)
• “Arm” your track or tracks
• Choose the track’s input
• Press Record
• Start making music
• Play it back on an “honest” set of speakers

Wilhite stresses using monitor speakers that don’t “color” the sound – that have a flat frequency response and advises, never mix with a set of headphones, no matter how good they are.

Steve Myers details an exemplary project flow in two scenarios for us:

Scenario A:
• Start with an arrangement in Finale
• Export the standard MIDI file to a sequencing program
• Choose your software instruments
• Record the software instruments (driven by MIDI) as audio
• Mix and master
• Create printed lead sheets for rhythm section, strings, horns etc.
• Live band plays the charts with the supplemental recorded tracks

Scenario B:
• Start by recording an arrangement in a sequencing program
• Export the MIDI files and import in to Finale
• Create the lead sheets for live performance

Dan Collison is Worship Arts Pastor at Wooddale Church in Eden Prairie, Minnesota, and he uses Finale software to bring a project from start to finish. His project flow maps out this way:

• Find music and work out the administrative tasks of royalties, permissions, and arrangement specifics
• Arrangers then do the work of creating in Finale then send Dan the files
• Print and format files for performing musicians

“The hands-on work that I do in Finale is playback for review, key changes, editing existing material, and occasionally creating original works.” Collison explains. “There is an online Christian music publishing company,, that allows you to purchase their music arrangements in Finale file format. This has been revolutionary in my music department because we can now control the key of music and print directly from scores, etc. directly from a publishing company that has thousands of arrangements to choose from.”

Brian Steckler’s progression of events comes together a little differently. If he is recording a song with a band and they are cutting the drums and bass at a big studio, and coming back to his place for everything else and the mix, before the session he follows this sequence.

• Build a new ProTools session that includes a click track, a scratch guitar or piano track and a scratch vocal
• Throw this on a hard drive and bring it to the other studio
• Open that up on the studio’s ProTools system
• Create the tracks needed for drums and bass, and record the vocals and piano already created to the click
• Bring the drive with the ‘keeper’ takes back to home studio
• Do some editing on the drums and bass to tighten up the groove
• Start in on the overdubs (for electric guitars, he’ll plug direct into ProTools and sometimes use the amp simulator called Eleven or Velvet, a Rhodes and Wurlitzer virtual instrument to add some keys)
• Once everything is recorded, use AutoTune to fix a few flat vocal notes, and start in on the mix
• Add some compressor plug-ins, a convolution reverb room, tweak the EQ
• Record a stereo mix on a new track, export it as a WAV or mp3 or whatever format is needed.

Closing Recommendations
Expansion should be at the forefront of your mind while you build your system. Because of the increasing interconnectivity of computer and audio devices, the plan may be to build from the ground up with the intent to expand as funds become available.

“I’ve consulted with many other music directors in the U.S. and internationally who want to get set up technically to meet the complex needs of putting together a modern or traditional worship service.” states Steve Myers, “Their congregations range from 100 to 10,000 in size. The first item of discussion is always the computer: Mac, PC, laptop, tower… I recommend that they get whatever they can afford, then adjust the software and peripherals to the computer’s capabilities and budget.”

“Always, always check the minimum requirements of the software,” Wilhite adds. “They’re not fudging when they state what they are – any less engine won’t pull the load.”

The main thing is to experiment with the tools at your disposal. Play around with effects, and dig into the features in the programs you decide to purchase. Although the inclination is sometimes to get more gear, there is a chance that you may already have access to the sound you’re looking for. Unquestionably, going digital- downsizing traditional recording gear- is the trend.

Experimenting with the software and the hardware and trying new things with recording techniques (like enclosing your closet in heavy drapes and using it as a vocal booth) is a great way to learn the capabilities of your setup. Then once you’ve tried everything, you can convince the folks who hold the purse strings that you really do need that $1500 effects processor.

In the end, it’s about having fun creating, whether it’s by yourself or with other people, so make sure you don’t lose that in the process.

Kevin Rogers Cobus is Executive Editor of Technologies For Worship Magazine. He is also in the midst of draping his closet and convincing his wife that he’ll put everything back when he’s done.

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