Following on, from the previous article of the budget setup, where we looked at, the basic fundamentals, to get you up and running in the world of electronic music production. In this article, I would like to take it up a notch, in relation to hardware and software based products, which are currently available right now. I will be looking towards a more hands on approach for your productions and encourage users to move away from the use of a mouse.
Firstly we will look to our audio. This after all is what it is about so to achieve this we will need look at our audio interface and our monitors. I want to achieve all of us with around a budget of £1000 approx. I would like to add that this is an article for intermediate, therefore implying you already have a computer or laptop and the necessary software DAW e.g. Logic or Ableton etc. Then we are going to touch on the world of virtual synthesis and its capabilities and then finally speak about drum machines. Ok so let’s get started.
There are so many choices available today, when choosing your audio interface, it can be a potential chin stroker. For this article, I budgeted somewhere in the region of £150 to £175 pounds. After some deliberation I decided to choose the very aesthetically pleasing Akai EIE Pro. Akai of course have been on the circuit for a while now and delve into many aspects of the production world, especially through the medium of controllers, but most notably the legendary samplers, the MPC series. However this should not detract from the fact that the EIE Pro is quality audio interface. The PRO is an update on the original model, which as a result gives improved spec.
The interface itself is housed in a solid well built unit. The design has a very cool retro vibe about it. The knobs feel sturdy and reliable than won’t break off at the first moment of maltreatment. On the front of the panel there are 4 hybrid inputs, which allow you, to switch between Mic and Guitar via a cool cockpit like switch, should you feel the need to lay down some funky bass lines or vocals. To the right are twin vintage looking VU meters to monitor your levels and your master which incorporates a very nice feature of a mono/stereo functionality.
To the rear of the unit, is your standard MIDI I/O connections and a three-way USB hub. This allows you to connect, midi controllers, external hard drives or USB sticks to access sample libraries. This of course helps out with CPU usage, should your laptop or PC been struggling at times, by accessing your samples from an external source and not your internal hard drive. This multi-port option would definitely appeal to Mac users who have limited USB ports. The four audio outputs again is a nice addition as it offers the option, of connecting two sets of monitors to reference your mixes against.
In summary you could not go too far wrong with this fella. It provides great functionality and high sound quality (Sample rates of up to 96kHz are available at 24-bit resolution) for a good price. Full spec below
• USB audio interface with up to 24-bit recording resolution supporting all standard sample rates (44.1kHz/48kHz/88.2kHz/96kHz)
• Four XLR-¼” combo jacks with phantom power and gain control
• Four nickel-plated ¼” outputs
• Two classic, high-quality VU level meters with switchable sources and RED peak LEDS
• Three additional USB ports for connecting other devices through to a computer
• 5 Pin DIN MIDI Interface
• Headphone output with switchable source and direct monitoring dial
• Table-top, solid construction with a great-looking, classic design
Next up again was a tough choice. Having set out my initial budget I was going to sacrifice a few pounds to fit in with the overall budget. After thinking it through I decided to play the long game and splash out the extra few pounds, to ensure this will be a purchase that can go the distance. I mentioned in the previous budget article that speakers seemed to fall a bit in the pecking order of importance, when starting a studio, when really they should take precedence over anything. So to practise what I preach, I have decided to spend that extra few pounds to attain a better quality product and in the long run pay off with better produced tracks. To be honest, this is an intermediate article, so by now I assume you realise, how important they are. Someone once said to me, doing a mixdown is a lot like driving in the fog. The poorer the speaker, the denser the fog. I couldn’t agree more.
So my choice of monitors, are the M-Audio M3-8.These retail for £500 a pair, which I know is half the budget but is worth every penny. This beautiful wood grained finished monitor delves into the world of three way monitoring. This is opposed to the 2 way monitoring, which is incorporated by most speakers. M-Audio can be now seen as the pioneers three way speaker as this price point and what a cracking job they have done. Three way, essentially means that the lows, mids and highs are segregated with 3 drivers as opposed to 2. Two way – Bass driver and tweeter, whilst three way – Bass driver, tweeter and mid range driver. The beauty of these is they retain the size as a standard 8 inch woofer speaker by designing the mid and high into what seems like one driver on the top. Well done m-audio!
The three amplifiers provide enough power to produce a total of 220 Watts. This in turn enables more than enough headroom for even the loudest mixes. Finely tuned crossovers deliver rich tonality across the entire frequency spectrum. The powerful three-band EQ – and a switchable low-cut filter—allow you to shape the sound to match your listening environment. The result is an outstanding monitor able to perform in the most critical of listening environments. Full spec below
• Three-way fidelity in a compact two-way footprint
• Inline mid and high drivers offer superior imaging
• Baffle: Real wood, optimised internal bracing
• LF Driver: 8″ woven Kevlar
• MF Driver: 5″ woven Kevlar
• Tweeter: 1″ silk dome tweeter with integrated waveguide
• Power: Tri-amp Class A/B Power, 220 Watts
• Inputs: XLR and 1/4″ Balanced, RCA Unbalanced
• EQ: 3-Band EQ with bypass, switchable low-cut filter
• Controls: Rear-mounted volume and power control
Now we have our audio and monitoring sorted, I would like to look at sound design. To start this off, I have chosen a bit of kit, which I own myself. I purchased about two months ago and have been blown away by its quality for its price.
The Keylab 25 is a software/controller hybrid by French company Arturia. The controller is fitted with 25 semi weighted keys, which are velocity sensitive and also provide aftertouch. In addition it has 10 assignable knobs, 9 faders and 10 assignable switches. These are all well spaced out and the unit does not fell cluttered at all. This controller is well made and was bit shocked by its weight. But having seen Arturia grow over the last few years I’m not surprised. This company makes quality products that are fit for purpose and the rest.
What really drew to this though was the integration between the included Analog Lab software with the controller. The software is extremely powerful, with over 5000 classic synthesizer sounds from Arturia’s premier vintage analog recreations. Such legendary synths like the Mini V, Modular V, CS-80 V, ARP2600 V, Jupiter-8V, Prophet 5, Prophet VS, Oberheim SEM V and Wurlitze offer unparalleled audio quality.
In theory, this is all well and good, having a plethora of synths and sounds, but from a practicality purpose how easy is it in use? Well to be honest they have nailed it. My grandmother could use this. The libraries can be filtered down to find very specific sounds. Working from left to right, one chooses a particular synth or all synths, then move onto a type of sound, then even further again to a specific characteristic. See the picture below for a visual representation of the its clear and concise Interface, that would be working with. As you can see it is easy on the eye and very clinical.
So combined you get a well built solid controller with assignable faders an encoders to utilise in conjunction with 9 classic synth emulations of the past combining in total with over 5000 sounds. Yes this did sway me I must say but that is not all folks. The tipping point for me was the auto mapping of each synth to the encoders and faders. This meant, it now acted like a synth from the point I could turn knobs for the filters and adjust the faders for the ASDR of the original sound. This therefore gives the user a solid platform or leg up perhaps, to go on and create their own patches and sounds, without the need for a mouse or pre-mapping for each synth. It is all done for you and makes sound design fun. So how much is all this madness, well a very reasonable price of £170 pounds. Full spec below
• All Metal construction
• MIDI Control Center software for creating your own presets
• Includes Analog Lab with 5000 synth sounds
• 1:1 control of Analog Lab software.
• Straightforward editing, with complete array of parameters for tweaking sounds
Controls & Display:
• 2x Clickable Encoders
• 12x Encoders
• 9x Sliders
• Pitch Bend and Modulation Wheels
• 6x Backlit Transport Controls
• 15x Backlit Buttons
• Octave up/down Buttons
• 32-digit LED screen
• MIDI IN
• MIDI OUT
• Expression Pedal
• Sustain Pedal
• Aux foot switch
• Breath control
• USB connections
So this leaves me with the last item on the agenda, which is also the foundation of four to the floor electronic music and my favourite part, the drums. This was an easy choice for me considering the price I put aside in the original budget of estimated £1000 pounds. I went with the Maschine Mikro. Maschine is a hardware/software hybrid exactly like the Arturia Keylab. The hardware incorporates 16 pads in a 4 x 4 formation that was made famous by the Akai’s MPC. The unit itself is quite light and only weighs 1.2kg. To the left of them is a large rotary knob which enables you to search through Maschine sample library. The sample library included is probably the best out there in my opinion. Included in it is 18,000 samples, 7,000 one-shots, 400 loops, 300 drum kits with 1,400 patterns, 388 sampled instruments, 170 FX/multi-FX presets, and 60 demo projects. Bit of a mouth full I know, but not bad eh. All of this comes in at 6GB. To accompany this large sound bank are 23 high-quality effects – including Transient Master, Tape and Tube Saturators, reverbs, filters and EQs plus creative tools such as Grain-Delay, Ice Verb, Freq Shifter.
Laying down beats could not be easier. Open up the Maschine 2.0 software, which can operate as standalone or a VST within your DAW. Then navigate through the filters in the library akin to the Analog Lab. Then once you have decided on your sample of choice, drag and drop it to the pad you want. Hit the record button and you are off. It really is that easy. Maschine software was upgraded to a 2.0 version last October. Within the audio engine, they have now added sidechaining, unlimited groups and insert effects along with Multicore support ensures your computer handles it all in parallel with ultra-efficient processing. A new benchmark in software, was the introduction of the drum synths. They are plug-in instrument to create custom kicks, snare, hi-hat, tom and percussion. They give you several sound types for each drum sound, thats offers even more flexibility and shaping through using decay, tuning etc. Once your sound design and arrangement are done, you can jump to the mixer window to tweak volume and panning. There are level meters for each group and individual track. You then have the freedom to adjust levels and sends (2 per track).
Of course it capabilities go way beyond this, but for article purposes I wanted to talk about the main features and functionality. The Mikro comes in at £280 pounds and should provide a very solid foundation for your drum sequencing and future compositions.
So there you have it. A summary of the tools and their specifications for an intermediate studio set up. The total cost of this, came in over our estimate of £1000 pounds to a grand total of £1115 pounds, but i can safely it will be money well spent. Right so less of this reading malarkey, time to get back to writing some music.