Sunday, September 30, 2007

Console Porn!

What has a blog devoted to the budget conscious studio got to do with a $1M console? Honestly not much, however, it's always interesting to look at what's out there and with all the tweaky-geeky toys available it's also informative to see what's actually being used in real world situations.

The snapshot above is my favorite live broadcast production console, the all digital Calrec Alpha. Designed & built to be fast, rugged, flexible and sonically excellent, it's a joy to mix on & surprisingly intuitive given it's complexity.

Of course much of the price ticket goes to qualities not really needed by the budget studio. Extreme ruggedness, the ability to be operational 24/7 and the required manufacturer support all add to the cost. These consoles tend to be like great sports cars, nice to have but the upkeep is steep!

Friday, September 28, 2007

Laptop, Drum Machine, CDJ or Whatever Stand

Thanks to reader Mark for pointing out this useful hack from Ikeahacker. Using a pair of $9 Slinga brackets and some wood creates this laptop stand. Because the brackets are not connected until you add a top all manner of custom sizes can be created. Use a Lack shelf for a desk over-bridge perhaps? These would be great for DJ use too.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Tuning for Speed

I've been a Mac user for pretty much my entire computing life, however, Cheapskate Studio is an equal opportunity blog and I know many people are happily creating music on their PCs. In fact popular packages such as Gigastudio & Sonar are still PC only.

There seems to be a lot of questions around performance tweaks for Windows machines & plenty of manufacturers offering audio-specific machines that supposedly address these with optimized equipment.

However, if you're handy around the control panel in XP you can do most of this yourself using this excellent & easy to follow guide from MusicXP. Some of the tweaks are fairly obvious but many are pretty deep. Best of all is the cost - nothing!

Weekend DIY Project

If you're handy with a soldering iron, have less than $10 and want to solve a common studio problem, here's a little weekend project.

If you drive your studio monitors from the headphone/audio out of your laptop or computer sound card you find yourself constantly clicking on the sound control panel to change the volume or mute your speakers. Here is a simple design using all Radio Shack parts that will give you a high-quality passive volume control at your finger tips.
Only one side of the stereo is shown for clarity. All the - sides of your inputs are tied to ground. I've shown this using mini-jack sockets, however, any type of input could be used to suit your preference. As for a box, since some shielding would be nice, I'd recommend an old standby, the Altoid tin (eat the mints first). Of course, the more handy can come up with all kinds of attractive boxes.

So, no more desperate clicking around when the phone rings.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Plug-Ins for Free

Many of the free plug-ins available (look for a continuing series here) are frankly not worth the disc space they occupy. iZotope's Vinyl certainly is. A simple VST, RTAS, MAS or AU plug-in that recreates the sound of old vinyl (and shellac I guess) by adding noise and filtering the audio. I've used it to do all kinds of tricks, including the old "voice on the telephone" sound. I really like the ability to adjust individual parameters to get effects far beyond the intended purpose. Using automation to "morph" in & out of an effect like this would be interesting too. iZotope's other products (particularly Ozone which I use) are unfortunately not free but still well worth a look.

Parts is Parts

A great source for creative DIY products is Parts Express. Although they have a Pro-Audio division, it's the parts & speaker construction sections that offer an interesting array of solutions at great prices. Many of their products are the OEMs that you see re-badged (and re-priced) by more famous brands! Sign up for their big, free catalog on the website.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

LoFi Sounds

If you're into the LoFi bleepy-bloopy world of 8 bit, game system and Commodore 64 music you're probably already familiar with the likes of 8 bit bEtty (free album for download), Tobiah and the 8 bit Operators. Using Game Boy cartridges and the C64's SID sound chip many of these acts are producing sophisticated music.

Although these systems have their purists & devotees, composition can be a long and arduous task on these platforms. However, from LoFi Japanese band YMCK comes the free VST/AU plug-in Magical 8 Bit (demo'ed above). Now you easily create, from scratch LoFi music or just as interesting, incorporate some of these retro sounds into your exisiting songs.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Big Guitar

Traditionally, guitar players showed up with an amp or stack which was set up in the studio and mic'ed using a variety of techniques. Tweaking that sound became a relationship between the amp settings, the speaker type and the mic brand & position. Back in 1982 Boston's Tom Scholtz changed all this with the introduction of the Rockman which appeared on a thousand records & sparked another thousand debates over amp versus direct.

That argument still rages today with many types of preamp available and a third player, the plug-in. However, purists still believe that the interaction between amp, speaker, air and microphone cannot be replicated. Problem is that traditional guitar amps tend to be costly & need to run loud to get their full sound.

A solution for the astute studio could be the traditional Pignose amp. With a storied history & a price ticket less than $80 it can provide some serious sounds for the small studio. Add some packing blankets, or better still build an isolation box around it, and you can shred all night without waking the baby. Feed it from an aux out of your DAW in conjunction with a free amp simulating plug-in for the best of both worlds.

Capturing That "Analog" Sound

The current studio must-have seems to be some way to re-create the sound of an analog tape deck. Wherever it's a plug-in or a rack mount external device most solutions attempt to capture the essence of analog tape by reproducing the compression & noise artifacts inherent in the format. Needless to say these replicators are expensive and only imitate the original.

Another approach is to search ebay or your local Craigslist for the real thing! Quality analog 2 track reel to reel recorders can be had very cheaply, tape is still readily available (and reusable) and since most were built for professional use, they have stood the test of time well. Above is the most loved & highly affordable Revox A-77, other candidates include the Technics RS-1700 (technically a hifi deck) and the various Tascam units.

Make sure you are looking at a 1/2 track (you cannot turn the tape over & record on the other side) model and that the machine is at capable of 15ips (inches per second). Most domestic machines run at 3.75/7.5ips, the pro models were generally 7.5/15 ps with the top studio machines offering 30ips. Obviously, the usual care & attention should be paid when purchasing a mechanical device, be sure & examine the heads for excessive wear and the rubber rollers & pinch wheels for rot.

There are many creative options for using your new deck. Mixing down to it is the most obvious, but you could also use it as an echo, fed with an aux send and returned to a channel (a varispeed gives you the ability to change delay times). Or add it as an insert on a track, re-record that track back into the DAW and time offset/nudge it back in sync.

I'd love to hear some more tape-based hacks!

Saturday, September 22, 2007

5.1 Mixing & Monitoring

With the glaring exception of Pro Tools LE/M-Powered nearly all current DAWs support 5.1 recording & mixing. Apple's updated Logic Studio even has Dolby encoding. However, until recently decent 5.1 monitoring has been an expensive proposition. At around $1,200 Blue Sky's Media Desk 5.1 finally brings surround monitoring to the budget conscious studio. There are also packaged system alternatives from JBL & Genelec, albeit at higher prices.

There is a lot of confusion & misinformation about setting up 5.1 monitoring. A great free guide from the Recording Academy, Producers & Engineers Forum (warning PDF download) has very practical & simple set up instructions conforming to their professional standards.

Friday, September 21, 2007


We all know how expensive studio workstations are & frankly, the few I've owned have been pretty shoddy in terms of their strength & durability, and what's with the black on black anyway? Again from Ikea Hacker is this tremendous set up utilizing the Vika system & Lack shelf with some very clever modifications. Even if you don't need the sliding keyboard the Vika itself, combined with the racks outlined below would make for a great, low cost workstation (and one that the significant other might actually approve of).

Racks Pt. 2

This is another Ikea bedside table, the Corras. Slightly more expensive than the Rast at $29.99 but still cheaper than anything from Middle Atlantic. Plus it's got a choice of 3 finishes.

Racks Pt. 1

Courtesy of the always excellent Ikea Hacker comes this from Paul's Music Studio. Utilizing a $15 Ikea bedside table and some rack rails he has created some very functional and attractive racks (less than $25 total). Check your local Ikea for the stainable/paintable table, then find a great selection of rails at Markertek.