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Building your basic digital audio workstation (Part 1)

The biggest challenge I’ve had to deal with throughout my time handling MMS 172 was getting students to learn how to use audio software. Most students would come into the program with some experience editing photos and graphics. A handful would be familiar with a bit of video editing. But very few would have had used much beyond audio players. Audio editing is largely alien. Worse, sometimes, the world of audio is taken for granted by students prior to taking the course. That makes going from practically tone deaf to a competent audio creator in a span of ten weeks a daunting task.

Luckily, an application such as Audacity is relatively easy to use for basic tasks which are enough to meet the requirements of MMS 172. However, it’s shortcomings become apparent as students become more ambitious and attempt to start more complex projects. In such cases, it would be more appropriate to employ full digital audio workstation (DAW) software. And that can be a whole new level of possibilities and difficulties. Majority of students would opt to not go for it and stick with simpler tools. And I can’t blame them.

This isn’t just about MMS 172, though. This is more about working with The Digital Collective. Or maybe you just want to go that extra mile for the quality of your work as a BAMS student. Either way, if you’re here and reading this, it’s likely that you want to up your audio game.

Before considering your options with software, it might be a good idea to deal with your hardware needs first. I would always say to my students that an audio interface, a pair of decent headphones and a microphone would be an ideal basic setup. A field recorder such as a Zoom H1 has been a fair alternative. However, while they slightly overlap in terms of coverage of applications, there will be instances where either of them are inappropriate or inconvenient.

Now, aside from being relatively simpler to use and less taxing on computer system resources, editors like Audacity or Audition can work with the mentioned hardware and it would be possible to record cleanly and clearly with them. So why bother with more complicated software?

  • Multitracking – DAWs handle multiple tracks better. Hands down.
  • Real-time and non-destructive editing – effects are added like layers that don’t actually alter the dry audio signal until finally rendering them. While some destructive audio editors such as Audacity are able to do this to a limited degree by having the Undo and Redo functions available, effects are typically applied and rendered one at a time, which is not just time consuming, but it forces you to be careful about irreparably altering your audio files.
  • Third party plugins – DAWs are highly extensible. If there’s an effect or functionality not available in its core toolset, you can find third party software that will work perfectly with it.
  • Musical Instrument Digital Interface (MIDI) –  If you’re going to work with MIDI and virtual instruments, or music production in general, DAWs are essential.

I’m sure an engineer can provide more detailed pros and cons from a more technical standpoint, but in my experience, these are what drove me to go ahead and learn to use DAWs. If you have found yourself coming to the same conclusion, then please proceed with the rest of this article to start building your own little personal studio.

Hardware

I am going to assume that you already own, or have access to a decent desktop or laptop computer. By decent, I mean a rig with at least an Intel Core i3/i5 processor (or AMD equivalent) with 4GB of RAM with at least a few hundred gigabytes of free disk space (the higher the specs, the better, of course). Up until my upgrade last year, I had, for several years, been more than fine with a second generation Intel Core i5 based system with 8GB of RAM.

If you already have that in place, then you’re going to need audio hardware. I already have a slightly expanded rig, but the heart of it is the same as would you should have — an audio interface, a good set of speakers or headphones and a microphone. Yes, it’s going to be unavoidable to spend some money, but it is very much possible to cut down on the costs. You’re going to see a lot of tutorials that will tell you the same thing. Below is one of the videos that I intently watched before I set out to build my rig.

Take note that the video is more than three years old at the time of this writing. You can go even lower than US$300 these days. But sadly, these things are significantly more expensive here in the Philippines than say, the US or Japan. You’re also going to be hard-pressed to get a comparable audio interface for around 5-6k. So, let’s localize the options and accounting and see the local cost of what I think is a good basic setup.

  1. Audio interface (~PHP8,000-10,000) – I would go for at least a 2-input interface that would allow the simultaneous recording of two mono inputs. The Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 would be my first option in this price range, because of the company’s track record. But the Behringer U-Phoria 202HD might be a viable option. Both of these have 1-input versions which are significantly cheaper and still usable. But I wouldn’t go for those personally. I’d rather get a field recorder.
  2. Headphones (~PHP1,500-3,000) – Getting a pair of good desktop monitors would probably double your budget, so that’s a no go for most of you. On ther other hand, using those flimsy earbuds that came with your phone is a bad idea for many reasons. So, headphones are a good option. The Samson SR850 has gotten more expensive since I bought one for myself. But it remains one of the best values out there. However, if you can find the Sennheiser HD201 at a low price, then I trust in Graham Cochrane and his recommendation.
  3. Condenser microphone (~PHP4,000-5,000) – Either the Behringer C-1 or the Samson CO1 would be fine starters.
  4. Cables (~PHP500) – You’re going to need at least one microphone cable and one USB cable.
  5. Mic stand (~PHP500-1,000) – I’d probably go for a desktop stand, as it ends up seeing more use in my office. But a full boom stand would also be nice.
  6. Pop filter (~PHP250) – Prices of these things really vary, but they can be had for cheap. You can even build your own makeshift filter with a piece of wire and stockings. It’s essential if you’re going to do voice work with a condenser microphone.

The above will set you back within the 15-18K range. I wish I could be more exact, but prices really vary. You could go cheaper by buying used gear. But I wouldn’t recommend going for lower specs. You’ll only end up spending more later on once you realize it’s a mistake in the long term. Interestingly enough, there  are bundles available out there. JB Music sells the Scarlett 2i2 bundle which might save you some money, depending on price and prevailing bargains.

Now, maybe that’s a lot. That’s why I don’t force students to buy these things. Something like a Zoom H1n costs around 6-7K which makes it the most cost effective solution for MMS 172. The problem is it has limitations which will prevent you from getting into more serious production work.

Admittedly, despite having the benefit of being able to buy my gear when they’re on sale or even outside the country, I still built my setup incrementally. I wanted to start with something slightly better, but it wouldn’t have been wise for me to plop down so much money at once. I myself have been slowly trying to figure out my needs and wants and I am thankful that the process was relatively efficient. Then again, I see students willing to spend so much more for their cameras.

 

This is how my workstation ended up looking like.

 

It’s all about the goals you set for yourself. And again, if you are reading this, that means you have already taken those first steps in being more serious about working with audio. So, it’s certainly a good idea to start investing.

 

To be continued.

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Tools of the Trade for BAMS Students

One of the most frequently asked, if not obvious questions which students have is what equipment do they need when taking BAMS courses. I had always been hesitant to address such questions head on, as UP had always espoused a certain neutrality when it comes to employing any sort of tools in teaching.

I get it. UP students shouldn’t be expected to spend huge amounts of money on equipment in order to pass all their courses. It’s great if it would be possible to graduate with minimal expenses beyond tuition.

Unfortunately, this often makes matters more difficult at a later point. Students are expected to produce artifacts that meets certain standards which can be challenging, perhaps at times, more challenging than it’s supposed to be. Some make do with subpar output, hoping it will be enough to pass. Some end up buying what they need, anyway. It’s just too bad that there are instances where the acquisition of gear happens too late and ends up not being of much help, anyway. Lucky are those who are able to afford their decision to invest in their equipment early on, despite my hesitation to give them proper guidance.

I’d like to change my approach now. Instead of sidestepping the issue, maybe taking a definite stance regarding equipment will be of more benefit.

 

The Essentials

Being in an online campus, it goes without saying that a computer and an Internet connection are the two things that a student cannot do without. Now, while it is possible to get through most courses being dependent on computer shops and net cafés, that is far from ideal. It is highly likely for students to find themselves in situations where accessibility at any given time is necessary.

 

Workstation

A desktop or laptop with ample processing power and storage to meet system requirements of your applications will be necessary. Now, just how much ample really is depends on the software and other peripherals that you might be using. Check their respective product information to find out. Some of the teachers may also prescribe specific requirements, as dictated by the needs of the courses they handle. Make sure to keep an eye for those.

 

Internet Connection

As with workstations, ample bandwidth is required. But there is no definite consensus on how much that exactly is. It really depends on what you’re doing. But if your connection allows you to stream high definition video flawlessly, or if you can join a video chat session with high audio and video quality, chances are, you are going to be fine.

 

Studying at your Workplace

For working students, there is the appeal of being able to study from the office. Now, without even discussing the ethics, not to mention company policies pertinent to the practice, this poses additional issues. Depending on your company, there may be restrictions regarding what applications you are able to use with your office computer. It is also likely that your IT department has measures in place that will restrict access to anything your company deems inappropriate in the work place. And yes, that can include anything from the UPOU domain. Before using office facilities for the purpose of studying, please make sure that your management is ok with it first.

 

Using Mobile Devices

Over the years, mobile devices have become more and more ubiquitous. Students have started to rely heavily on tablets and even smart phones for their schoolwork. And why not? The modern mobile device has proven to be powerful multi-purpose tools, useful for a wide array of tasks. While UPOU has already taken steps in supporting mobile devices, appropriate learning experience is still far from guaranteed. Desktop and laptop computers remain as the recommended primary platform for your learning needs.

Going the Extra Mile

Again, it is true that it’s possible to get through just about anything with a computer and your mobile phone. But as you may already be aware of, there’s getting by to survive, and then there’s excellence. Yes, excellence is something that comes from within. But at the same time, achieving excellence usually require an additional set of tools. This hold particularly true in the field of multimedia.

These are some of what can be considered as equipment needed to go the extra mile:

  1. A big computer screen – one of the limitations of laptops (even more so with mobile devices), is the size of their LCD screens. There is something to be said about the user experience when working with one or more monitors with screen sizes of 24 inches or higher. It allows for a more immersive experience and greater attention to detail than with a 13 inch screen (let alone those 4-5 inch touchscreens on your phones).
  2. Camera – A discrete camera is necessary in learning how to consistently shoot high quality photos and videos as prescribed by some of the courses in the BAMS program. The DSLR has been the symbol of good photography work for many students. It certainly helps. But that is not your only option. Smaller mirrorless cameras can now allow you to do as good a job as the DSLR.
  3. Microphone or field recorder – As observed in past student output, sometimes, a decent microphone would have been the biggest difference maker in building audio and video projects.
  4. Audio interface and monitor speakers – audio may as well be the final frontier or the unknown for many BAMS students. It is typically the least appreciated modality in media, which the BAMS program intends to rectify among students. However, good audio cannot be created or even appreciated with flimsy earphones and your computer’s cheap sound card.
  5. Pen tablet – it definitely poses a learning curve, but it is all but necessary if you require a high level of precision for your image editing work.

 

One can certainly opt to go for more specialized equipment. But all of the above, in my honest opinion, will be more than enough to allow for a higher ceiling in terms of work quality. In the end, it is the student’s decision to go with whatever he or she wants.

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