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Pro Tools All-in-One Desk Reference For Dummies
By Jeff Strong
John Wiley & SonsISBN: 0-7645-5714-9
Chapter OneDiscovering What You Need
In This Chapter
Whether you use a PC- or Mac-based system for your Pro Tools studio, your home recording system of choice employs much of the same basic technology. In fact, your simple Pro Tools studio consists of the same basic components as a typical million-dollar professional studio complex.
In this chapter, you discover the purpose of each individual component of a home recording studio - and you also discover how each of these components relates to the quality of sound you ultimately get from your studio. This knowledge will help you to spend the right amount of money on the right stuff. (See Book 2, Chapter 1 for more on purchasing gear.)
Eyeing the Big Picture
In spite of what you may surmise from this chapter - with its long list of equipment - you only need a few things in order to do multitrack recording with Pro Tools. This simple list comprises instruments and microphones (called input devices), a computer, a Digidesign audio interface, Pro Tools software, and monitors (speakers, to you home-stereo enthusiasts). No matter how complicated your system becomes and how many pieces of gear you end up accumulating, your studio will still consist of these basic parts.
This chapter breaks down recording systems into the components they have to have - but you may not need to purchase every component separately to get a great-sounding system. Many of these components come bundled together. For example, your Digidesign hardware will include at least two preamps or you may find speakers that come with a power amp inside them.
Focusing on the Details
As you begin to build your home studio, you'll notice a long list of components - okay, let's go ahead and call them "extras" - lurking within the Top Four of computer, interface, software, and monitors. In this section, I focus on these details so you can understand just what roles they play in your system.
As you get more and more involved in recording, you'll find you can add almost any of these components to your existing system to expand and enhance what you can do.
Interpreting input devices
All your expensive recording gear is useless if you have nothing to plug into it. This is where the input device comes into play. An input device is, simply, any instrument, microphone, or sound module that produces or delivers a sound to the recorder.
Your electric guitar, bass, synthesizer, and drum machines are typical of the instruments that plug into the interface and represent most of the input devices that you use in your studio. The synthesizer and drum machine can plug directly into the Line In inputs of your interface, whereas your electric guitar and bass need a direct box (or its equivalent) to plug into first. (In the case of your Digidesign interface, you need to use one of the inputs with a preamp.)
A direct box is an intermediary device that allows you to plug your guitar directly into the mixer without going through your amp first. (For more on direct boxes, see the upcoming section, "Deciphering direct boxes.") Check out Figure 1-1 for an example of an instrument-input device.
A microphone (abbreviated mic) enables you to record the sound of a voice or an acoustic instrument - sound sources that, last time we checked, couldn't be plugged directly into the interface. A microphone converts sound waves into electrical energy that can be understood by the interface. I detail the several types of microphones in Book 1, Chapter 5. Check out Figure 1-2 for a look at a microphone.
Sound modules are special kinds of synthesizers and/or drum machines. What makes a sound module different from a regular synthesizer or drum machine is that these contain no triggers or keys that you can play. Instead, sound modules are controlled externally by another synthesizer's keyboard or by a Musical Instrument Digital Interface (MIDI) controller (a specialized box designed to control MIDI instruments). Sound modules have MIDI ports (MIDI jacks) to enable you to connect them to other equipment.
Often sound modules are rack-mountable, meaning they have screw holes and mounting ears so you can put them into an audio component rack. Some controllers, however, are not rack-mountable; Figure 1-3, for example, shows a drum module that rests on a stand or tabletop.
Deciphering direct boxes
A direct box (or DI box, short for Direct Induction) is used to connect your guitar or bass directly into the mixer without having to run it through your amp first. A direct box's purpose is twofold: to change the guitar's impedance level so the mixer can create the best sound possible, and to change the nature of the connection from unbalanced (quarter-inch) to balanced (XLR) so you can use a long cord without creating noise. (For more on cord types and balanced-versus-unbalanced signals, go to Book 1, Chapter 2.)
For most home recordists, the main purpose of a direct box is to act as an impedance transformer. You're unlikely to need a long run of cords from your guitar to your mixer. Without a direct box changing your impedance levels, your guitar signal may sound thin or may have excess noise.
Perusing the preamp
Microphones produce a lower signal level than do line-level devices (synthesizers, for example); thus they need to have their signal level increased. For this purpose, you need a preamp, a device that boosts a microphone's output. Preamps can be internal or external, meaning they could reside within your mixer or be a separate unit that you have to plug in between your microphone and mixer.
The preamp is one of the most crucial elements of a recording system. It can affect your instrument's sound significantly. Most professional recording studios have a variety of preamps to choose from, and engineers use a particular preamp based upon the type of sound they're trying to capture.
The three basic types of preamps available are solid state, tube, and hybrid (you can find out more about preamps in Book 1, Chapter 5).
Solid-state preamps use transistors to boost the level of the microphone or instrument. Top-quality (expensive) solid state preamps are generally designed to produce a sound that's clear and accurate (GML and Crane Song brands, for instance). Solid-state preamps can also be designed to add a pleasing distortion to the music (Neve and Neve-clone preamps, for example). Many recording professionals prefer the clear and accurate sound of a solid-state preamp for acoustic or classical music or any situation when capturing a very natural sound is important. The preamps in your Digidesign interface are solid state, though not as high a quality as many of the more-expensive external preamps.
Since the beginning of the digital recording revolution, professionals have been complaining about the harshness of digital recording. As a result, many digital-recording pros prefer classic tube preamps because they can add warmth to the recording. This warmth is actually distortion, albeit a pleasing one. All-tube preamps are generally very expensive, but they are highly sought after among digital recording aficionados because of their sound. Tube preamps work well with music when you want to add color to the sound (that is, not produce an accurate representation of the original source sound). No wonder they show up a lot in rock and blues - and they're great for recording drums. You can also find tube preamps that are clean and open such as those made by Manley Labs.
A hybrid preamp contains both solid-state and tube components. Most of the inexpensive "tube" preamps that you find in the marketplace are actually hybrids. (These are also called starved-plate designs because the tubes don't run the same level of voltage as expensive tube designs.) These types of preamps are usually designed to add the classic tube warmth to your instrument's sound. How much the sound is colored by the tubes; how pleasing that colored sound is to the listener's ears is dependent on the quality of the preamp. Most hybrid preamps allow you to dial in the amount of character (pleasing distortion) that you want.
Your Digidesign interface will come with either two (Mbox and Digi 001) or four (Digi 002 and 002 Rack) preamps. If you want to plug in more mics than the number of preamps you have or if you want to be able to produce different sounds from your preamps, you need to buy one or more external preamps, such as the one shown in Figure 1-4.
Meeting the Mixer
The mixer is the heart of any recording system. Take a look at Figure 1-5. Although the mixer may seem daunting with all its knobs, buttons, sliders, and jacks, it's really one of the most interesting and versatile pieces of equipment that you'll have in your studio. With the mixer, you can control the level of the incoming signal, adjust the tonal quality of an instrument, blend the signals of two or more instruments together, and a host of other things. And don't worry; after you read through this book, you'll get the hang of all those knobs in no time.
For the Pro Tools home recordist (that's you), the mixer is incorporated into your computer software. (Of course, you can always use an external hardware mixer if you want.) The mixer in Pro Tools does the job well enough that you don't need an external mixer, although some people prefer having physical faders and knobs to mess with. If you're a knob-turner and like to physically touch the instrument you're playing (or, for that matter, the gadget you're tweaking), then a hardware mixer is your best choice. On the other hand, if you prefer clicking a mouse or typing on a keyboard (the kind with letters on the keys), then choose a software version.
An elegant and inexpensive solution for you knob-twiddlers is a dedicated control surface such as the Mackie Control (shown in Figure 1-6). With this unit, you get your knobs and faders while still using the internal mixer in Pro Tools. This can be an advantage because it eliminates the need for lots of analog-to-digital (ADC) and digital-to-analog (DAC) conversions (not to mention the actual converters, which can cost a lot of money).
Managing the MIDI controller
If you're like most home recordists, you'll end up using some sort of MIDI controller in your studio. (See Book 1, Chapter 4 for more about MIDI.) The purpose of this piece of equipment is to allow the various MIDI instruments to communicate and synchronize with one another.
MIDI (Music Instrument Digital Interface) is a protocol that musical instrument manufacturers (in a rare moment of cooperation) developed to allow one digital instrument to communicate with another. MIDI uses binary digital data, in the form of 1s and 0s, to tell an instrument to play or release a note, to change sounds, and a host of other messages. (Discover more about MIDI in Book 1, Chapter 4.)
MIDI controllers come in many shapes and sizes. The most common are computer software, keyboard, or standalone controllers. These controllers can reside within the computer (Pro Tools, for example, has MIDI capabilities), a keyboard (synthesizer), or a separate box. They enable you to either play, in real time, another instrument or to trigger another instrument with the sequencer, which is a MIDI program that allows you to play an instrument without actually playing (like old-time player pianos). They just need to have MIDI capability and be connected through their MIDI ports (using MIDI cables).
Recognizing the Recorder
The recorder is where your music actually gets, well, recorded. In Pro Tools, your recorder consists of your computer and the software. Sound becomes data and is stored as digital information, as 1s and 0s. Digital recording introduces very little noise into the final sound and can be copied without any loss in that sound quality. (Depending on the bit depth and sample rate you record at, of course. See next section.)
A digital recorder is included as part of your Pro Tools setup. Digital recorders use two terms to describe the overall quality of the sound that they produce - sampling rate and bit depth.
The sampling rate refers to the frequency at which the recorder samples the incoming sound source. When a recorder samples a sound, it actually takes a small snapshot of the audio signal. Typical sample rates for digital recorders are 44.1 kHz (the sample rate for audio CDs), 48 kHz, 88.2 kHz, and 96 kHz (the sampling rate for DVD audio). The higher the number, the more samples are taken each second, and the closer the recorded sound is to the original.
What do these numbers mean? Well, the more times per second that a digital recorder samples the sound of the incoming signal, the more of the original sound it includes (which means, among other things, a bigger sound file that takes up more space on your computer). These numbers are described in kHz (kilohertz) - that is, as taking place thousands of times per second. For example, when you record at 48 kHz, the sound is sampled 48,000 times every second. This sounds like an awful lot, but accurate sound requires lots of samples.
When you start looking at digital recorders, you'll hear jargon such as 16-bit (the bit depth of audio CDs), 20-bit, 24-bit, and so forth. This is the bit depth, which is described in terms of bits (a bit, short for BInary digiT, is the basic unit of information in the binary numbering system used by computers). The numbers 16, 20, and 24 relate to the amount of digital information that can be contained in each of those sample rates that I describe in the previous section, "Sampling rate." The higher the number, the more accurately the sound is represented; most professional audio gear now records at a 24-bit resolution. With that higher number, however, the sound is going to take up more of your digital storage space. This usually isn't a big deal, though, considering the low cost of huge hard drives.
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