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Music Production hardware and software tips, Part 2

Music Production hardware and software tips, Part 2

By Piotr Koczewski

< Back to Part 1

Hardware continued

Selection of monitors (video) – First of all, you have to pay attention to the same contrast of a monitor, when purchasing a few HD monitors. Once I worked at two different monitors of the same company and I had to set contrast manually, which didn’t solve the problem in 100% and I had to get used to two different colours of the same workspace. The larger the screen resolution on a monitor, the more tracks are visible, and the more time can be spent on composing and listening, not on scrolling windows. In 2011 Spectrasonics released one of the first music applications Omni TR for an iPad. Although the application is used only to control the creation of Dubstep sounds, it can be used instead of modulation controller in steering keyboards. If you have problems with delays during your work on music for a video, you can use the method from the 90s, i.e. playing the video on a separate TV, laptop of smartphone screen. As far as the best multi-screen display division is concerned, the correct order is as follows: the first screen is the main display; the second is for piano roll, the third for VST, the fourth for a mixer, the fifth for a video (it can be also substituted with a projector or a TV). If we have more than 3 screens, we can make one big display instead of 4 separate ones; however, to do so, we will need screen outriggers (a trick, which will enhance the visibility of the screen, is auto-hiding the taskbar). Probably the only disadvantage of working on many screens is moving the cursor using a mouse – it is both very tiring and time consuming. The solution to this problem is purchasing a tablet, commonly used by many kinds of graphic artists. The next opportunity is LCD touch screens, which can turn into music paper or even a mixer thanks to a pointing device (a special pen). If we have an ordinary LCD screen and an LCD touch screen, we can clone the image of the main screen, and we can place or lay the touch screen close to us in order to correct notes with a pen.

Choosing a steering keyboard – It is best to choose a keyboard with 88 fully weighted keys, with a mini mixer and CC (Continuous Controller) keys and pans. Cutting a long story short, we can assign CC controllers for changing the instrument key switches without searching and hitting the keyboard notes, turning the effects on and off, and many more. Keyboards differ from steering keys with the number of inbuilt sounds (there are certain external versions of some of the keyboards, e.g. sound banks, such as Yamaha Motif and Korg Triton). In addition you can purchase steering pedals (expression and sustain) to the keyboard, which simulate playing on a real piano. In contrary to most of the steering keys, keyboards give an opportunity to choose the midi channel without using a mouse, which proves helpful when you are behind the schedule. A keyboard with a small number of keys, but with an octave switch is helpful when you work on a laptop.

Now time has come for some curiosities. If we need a larger mixer, than the one on a steering keyboard, then the External Mixer has to be MIDI USB compatible (optionally we may need a phantom power amplifier or a microphone input, if we record sound apart from music). USB mixers can be combined into one mixer, if we don’t have enough cash for a large mixer. If our loudspeakers don’t have any knobs, then we may need a loudspeaker amplifier with a remote control (instead of an amplifier, we can use special keys on a wireless keyboard). A wireless mouse, wireless keyboard and trackball can facilitate the creation of music as well.

Another thing is SSD external hard drives with installed VST, which can be used as means of quick access to data or as a backup. However, before instrument files reach RAM, they have to be entered and uploaded from a drive, which takes some time, depending on their number. However, when we work on something important, every minute matters.

If we don’t have a powerful computer, it gets overloaded when we check the real time panorama using an iZotope Ozone plug. We can save this problem by checking the panorama during breaks, using e.g. the Wavelab program, after saving the work in progress version as mp3.

Plugins for MAC’s

Recent studies have revealed that the more efficient employees work on Macintosh computers. It is nothing new, because Apple has always been producing the least fallible computers in the world.

However, as far as the cooperation of a few Apple computers is concerned, they operate on the basis of the Midi Network Setup. In order to connect a few computers, they should be joined with Firewire cables (which transmit CPU clock and audio) and ethernet cables (which transmit Midi). It works in the same way as FX Teleport, and the only difference is that you need more cables. In addition Teleport programme could be useful, which is used to control the mouse and keyboard when working on a few Macs simultaneously.

The Native Instruments Kontakt Memory Server is an opposite of the FX Teleport program. The former was issued only for MAC computers and is built in the Kontact Player. The Kontakt Memory Server loads instruments to RAM memory for a longer time and enables to ‘freeze’ the free memory resources to an unused instrument. A similar method is purge samples, but it is more time-consuming and requires switching instruments off manually. Purge samples acts in the same way as mono function on every instrument, except for the fact that it switches off sounds from memory for good, releasing its resources (it doesn’t mean that we cannot upload data back quickly in the same way). We can do it in a state of emergency, when we know that these elements are ready in the current project and we won’t have to correct them.

Working on a laptop could be an option for people creating Dance or Dubstep music, because they do not need a very “powerful” working station. Working on a laptop is advantageous in all kinds of ways.

Don’t fear the Windows system

Virtual memory acts in the same way as ‘freezing’ notes in .wav files, but it is not so perfect. A disadvantage of using virtual memory is the fact that we have to have a plugged-in hard drive, where we arranged some capacity for virtual memory. We also have to take into consideration the fact that our computer will work slower, because virtual memory is not as fast as RAM (with the exception of SSD hard drives, where virtual memory was set up).

The program for Windows system – FX Teleport – which I wrote about in the previous part is divided into a few versions serving one host computer and one, two, three, four or even more servers. It is worth remembering that you have to install such virtual instruments on the server computer, not to put the load on the host computer. In my opinion, it is worth investing in this program and a few computers, in order to develop your own scheme for quick work, even, if you work on an antique equipment. In addition, the Giga Teleport program works similarly, but only for the Giga Sampler plugin.

The only errors I encountered when working with Windows 7 operating system were related to the music software, such as Kontakt (in order to avoid the errors, you should purchase Kontakt sampler update from time to time) and notifications about the graphic card overload due to keeping the computer in a locked cabinet without ventilation. It is worth remembering that a graphic card which is plug into many displays consumes more electric energy and hence heats to a higher extent. Hans Zimmer was the one who implemented the idea for “cooling” the equipment a long time ago, but it was Brian Tyler who was the first composer to speak about it during an interview in a studio.

Below you will find a summary of all computer working stations.

Hardware Summary

PC

Strengths

  • Main Boards with 16 AMD Processor and Up to 130 GB of RAM
  • Subassemblies development price

Weaknesses

  • Only 6-core processor on Intel Main Boards
  • Potential problems with the system

Mac

Strengths

  • 12-core processor
  • The least fallible operating system in history

Weaknesses

  • Only 32 GB of RAM the maximum
  • Computer development is not cheap
  • In case of a breakdown, the whole computer is taken to the service (refers to the iMac)

Laptop

 

Strengths

  • You can create music anywhere and anytime.
  • Easy and quick configuration

Weaknesses

  • No possibility to change sub assemblies (may not refer to RAM in certain models)
  • Only RAM memory may be developed but not very much.Very hard to repair or roll back

Hardware Summary Addendum


My IT knowledge gained during computer studies combined with musical knowledge allowed me to save time by not searching for answers about errors on software manufacturers’ websites and not spending too much money on employing helpdesk to choose equipment and install software.

Such things, as cold solders and equipment failures are symptoms of workstation overheating, since a computer works on its top capacity, when it records a file with several dozen layers and saves to .mp3 or .wav formats. Therefore it is extremely important to cool the computer and keep it in a cupboard (if possible, a glass one, since it gives heat away the quickest) and placing two fans inside of it – one for letting hot air out and the other for blowing cold air in. The equipment has to be cooled down in order to function longer; it doesn’t matter, whether it is cooled using liquid nitrogen, mineral oil or cooled air. The more screens are plugged to an internal graphic card, the faster it will heat up. Some graphic cards are equipped with temperature indicator, which is very helpful. Many devices, e.g. hard drives, can switch off due to a feeder’s low power supply. Therefore, before we purchase a few drives and a triple head graphic card, we have to remember about choosing the right feeder to our computer.

There are times when notes are playing in our heads and we have to make use of a piece of paper, which is however more and more often substituted with Garage Band software on an iPhone.

What’s funny, we still use the old, small, high-tone Genius loudspeakers from the 90s, which have a ‘3D sound’ button; when I press it, I don’t need headphones to ‘discover’ all high-tone sounds.

Another curiosity is a parody of the song ‘I’m on a boat’, entitled ‘I’m on a Mac’, sung by comedians Pantless Knights. They show in a satirical way the differences between PC and Mac computer. The funny thing is that after the release of Windows 7, jokes about the Windows system started to be meaningless.

About the author: Piotr Koczewski started
working in game development in 2006 as a Musician and Sound Designer. In
2008 he released an ambient music album inspired by post-nuclear SF, called
“Wasteland Theme”. He co-organized in 2009 the Video Games Live
concert in Poland. You can listen Piotr`s music at his website www.piotrkoczewski.com
Music Production hardware and software tips, Part 1

Music Production hardware and software tips, Part 1

By Piotr Koczewski

Many composers talk about creating music, but few discuss the tools required to do it. What I mean is the IT side of music creation. I will do my best to explore this broad topic providing the most concrete information.

The choice of displays (audio) – the more displays with a different bandwidth, the better, because the entire bandwidth consists of a low (bass), medium (female voice) and high (drums) band. Therefore if we want to hear all bands clearly, we have to gather as many displays or HI FI loudspeakers, as possible.


Photo from the Green Street Studios 2011. In 2006 the photo of the Green
Street Studios presented two working stations and a wide cabinet with a
lot of external devices filling the entire room (at that time there was
the Matrix film code as the computer wallpaper).

The choice of headphones. – Headphones are a very useful thing, especially when creating music at night. They might serve as an additional tool when checking the bandwidth in ready songs. It is worth paying attention to the softness of membrane surroundings and the comfort of wearing the bow, because listening for a few hours and working on uncomfortable headphones might result in earache.

The choice of sound card. – It is worth remembering that external sound cards have to possess a processor in order to serve well when working on music (it is similar to the difference experienced when using a processor without additional cores). Sound cards without a processor enable only recording the sound from the outside, because they do not have a large ASIO latency, and therefore i.e. one cannot record sounds from a microphone and sounds being played simultaneously. It refers to recording vocal for background music (modern computers allow creating music using integrated sound cards without ASIO support. In such case you should choose the ASIO Full Duplex option in the music creation programme audio settings). The power input is very significant, because we may lose time on setting appropriate volume and changing it from quiet to loud. In 2010 the AVID sound cards producer presented the cheapest and most efficient external sound cards, which cooperate with every music programme. One of the technically advanced devices intercepting audio channels in real time is MOTU, which was the most popular equipment used in studios, before the external Pro Tools HD set appeared. A lot of external devices may be plugged in to it (e.g. the effects) without being concerned about the processor overload.

I have been asking myself one question for a very long time: why do we need compressors, sound processors, effects, sound banks and other external devices at all? The answer is: because they do not occupy the memory and processor in the real time.

The choice of the graphic card. – In order to plug in more than two HD displays, one has to possess a PCI dual/triple head graphic card (graphic cards manufactured by Zotac are for those who want to play and simultaneously create music on a few screens, or for those who only want to work on their PC) or an external graphic card manufactured by Matrox. Some composers use HD TVs apart from ordinary displays, alongside a laptop screen and more and more frequently touchscreens manufactured by Apple. Apple computers are equipped with ATI Radeon cards, which enable to plug in many displays (and provide the opportunity of plugging in a few graphic cards).

More Power Capitan !

Let`s count power for Macs with 1-core, 2-core, 4-core, 8-core and 12-core processors (the maximum 12-core processor is available only on Mac Pro 2 computers). PC computers may handle a 16-core processor manufactured by AMD, which has already been put on sales (Intel has produced so far only a 6-core processor). When choosing a processor, pay attention to the cache memory.


In 2009 there was a breakthrough in the computer development. The largest obstacle in their expansion was the high price of the RAM memory. Now the average amount of the RAM memory in the computers owned by composers is 8 – 12 GB RAM, and the cutting edge PC mainboards operate with as much as 130 GB RAM. When purchasing the RAM memory, bear in mind not only the amount of memory, but also its speed (MHz frequency). I can tell from my own experience about a situation when the servicing agent put the wrong RAM memory into a computer I ordered – it was too slow as for the given mainboard. In consequence I had to cope with the system errors called “Blue Screen of Death” for a couple of days (when the computer was freezing, it was making similar sounds as during the “Neo awakening” in the Matrix movie). It was especially annoying during a few-hour work on music. Of course the memory was exchanged, which came as a huge surprise for the computer shop owner. Therefore for the future I recommend choosing a more expensive mainboard, which will “survive” a couple of years, because it will be possible to purchase more and more RAM memory to it and change the processor without the necessity to install a new PC operating system and music software.

However, if you have two left hands or don’t know, which computer parts could be exchanged for the more modern ones, I recommend purchasing ready computers of the “all in one” kind, e.g. manufactured by HP, Asus or MSI, which are very similar to the Macintosh sets (some models have a touchscreen, which will have a significant impact on the quality of work when writing in the note processor).

If you have little RAM memory and constantly complain about the “buzzing” of the computer not coping with a large number of switched on virtual instruments, then I have a remedy for you. The Cubase programme has the option of recoding ready notes from a virtual instrument onto WAV tracks “on the run” (the process takes literally a few minutes and can lighten the RAM memory’s load up to 90%). This function is called Freeze VST and can also lighten your computer’s load in terms of the effects switched on in a Mixer. Unfortunately, after “freezing” the virtual instrument track it cannot be edited later (only notes may be copied), unless it is “unfrozen” – this action takes less than 5 seconds. You can also save and import ready WAV tracks manually in other programmes not having this function, but it is very time-consuming.

Having a large amount of the RAM memory and a few-core processor makes the work of every musician problem-free, which is related to the improvement in the music quality and the performance speed.

Pc versus Mac versus Laptops

Windows 7 takes up 1 GB of RAM memory, which is related to the loss of huge space otherwise used for recording virtual instruments (you can also choose the 64 version of Windows XP, which takes up a smaller amount of RAM – 500 MB. However, it is not supported by drivers and may operate at 16 GB RAM memory the maximum. Windows 7 operating system does not have as many mistakes as its previous versions and differs in terms of automated installation of devices drivers in the online mode.

The Mac computer is more expensive than the PC computer, not mentioning its sub-assemblies. The Leopard operating system update is expensive itself, not mentioning the additional update of programmes for Mac. If we wanted to install the same programmes on the newly purchased super computer MAC OS, we would have to record everything from the scratch. Meanwhile on the computer with the Windows operating system there are two ways of installing the whole software and data as file images, using Norton Ghost or Acronis True Image programmes, or as system settings backup (using Windows 7 main board – this refers to systems older than Windows 7).

The best way to minimize the loading time of the Windows system is to buy a few discs and assign different functions to them – office, creative, entertainment, diagnostic or backup. Nobody clever will do a few things simultaneously relying on the system operating speed and his own efficiency during one day.

I was surprised to discover that there is an opportunity to work on many PC computers at one time while creating music. Such an option existed once only in Macintosh computers (until 2003). FX Teleport enables the cooperation between computers via TCP/IP LAN (even remotely). It works on the basis of a Host computer or Server computers. Another programme which is similar to FX Teleport, but more advanced than it, is Jbridge.

Up next…

Writing the first part of the article I decided to refute the thesis (PC computer stereotype) about the proportional relation between the computing power used in music production and the thickness of the composer’s wallet. In the second part of the article I presented more informations about Hardware and the efficiency and capabilities of different programmes used to create music and sounds.

Continue to Part 2 >

About the author: Piotr Koczewski started
working in game development in 2006 as a Musician and Sound Designer. In
2008 he released an ambient music album inspired by post-nuclear SF, called
“Wasteland Theme”. He co-organized in 2009 the Video Games Live
concert in Poland. You can listen Piotr`s music at his website www.piotrkoczewski.com
Choosing the right burning speed when creating a CD in your own computer

Choosing the right burning speed when creating a CD in your own computer

We occasionally get this question or comment: “I created an Audio-CD from the downloaded WAV or MP3 files, and the CD doesn’t have a high enough sound quality.”

 

Here at Shockwave-Sound.Com, we deliver music files either in 44.1 khz uncompressed WAV files, or in 192-kbps mp3 files. 
The WAV files represent the original CD master recordings, untouched and uncompromised. They are, byte-for-byte, the same as what is put onto a commercial music-CD.

The mp3 files are encoded in 192 kbps format, and this is of sufficiently high quality to be nearly indistinguishable from the original recording, for all but the most exacting listeners. Not only are our files encoded to this high bit-rate, but they have also been encoded by the encoding-engine in Sonic Foundry (now Sony) SoundForge, which is widely known to be the best sounding mp3 encoding engine in existence today. The bottom line is that, when you create an Audio-CD from our WAV or MP3 files, it should sound every bit as good as the original master recordings.

In the event that the Audio-CD you produce does not have a high enough sound quality, this is most likely caused by too high burning-speed when you burned the CD. Most CD-burners in computers today are capable of burning CDs at extremely high speeds, like 40x or even 52x speed. This is good for data storage, but for audio-CD format, it is not recommended, because the Audio-CD format has less advanced error correction than the data storage format. At high burn speeds for audio, errors (called jitter and C1 and C2 errors) may be introduced during recording. Such errors can usually be corrected, but sometimes they cannot. Regardless, the process of correcting errors may in itself cause audible sonic degradation. Try re-burning the same files into an Audio-CD at 4x or 8x burning speed, and see if this helps. Here at Shockwave-Sound we always burn audio-discs at low speeds; certainly never any higher than 8x, usually slower.

Other factors that may also affect the sound quality of an Audio-CD are: Media quality, Playback equipment, and any CD-authoring software settings such as “filtering”, “volume normalizer”, “noise removal”, “eq”, “hiss removal” etc. We recommend switching OFF all such features when you burn an Audio-CD.