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Topic: Newb with Q's about setting up home composition studio

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  1. #1

    Newb with Q's about setting up home composition studio

    Hello all,

    I've done some composing with GPO and other various libraries, but am looking to step it up in the quality department and am not really sure where to begin, was wondering if you could share some advice/guidance.

    I am looking to set up a studio I will be using for composing music using a MIDI keyboard, and I will be using Cubase 5. I already have good enough computer, my questions are mainly about hardware.

    I plan on purchasing a decent set of studio monitors/headphones, and herein lies my question. What else do I need? I believe I need a good soundcard, but am not sure what it needs to have for my needs, I've also read about DACs but have no idea what they are or if they are for me? I just want the quality of sound that I produce to be the best it can be, and I have a decent budget, probably around $1000 but flexible.

    thanks for the help

  2. #2

    Re: Newb with Q's about setting up home composition studio

    Welcome to the board. You will many very informed and experienced opinions here -usually in a friendly and helpful manner. It's one of the best forums on the web.

    The monitors/headphones thing seems to be a big sticking point with many. I know it is with me. If you are mixing for anyone other than yourself, or for a speaker environment then I recommend mixing with speakers. Headphones are okay for general work if you need to use them, or for late at night etc. but for final mixes and mastering I am a speaker advocate!

    I use Mackie HR824s in my studio. I grew up in a time when "Mackie" stood for "Most Agonizing Consoles Known In Existence" and steered clear for years. But...these speakers, near-field active monitors actually, are the best. I love how clear they are. So that's my recommendation on speakers.

    For years I worked with two Klipsch Heresies and two Yamaha NS-10Ms. They were okay but the Mackies blow them outta the water. Maybe someday I'll use the Heresies and NS10Ms in a home theatre or something.

    I've composed professionally for almost thirty years. God, I'm old. Anyway there's a big difference in my mind between composing, writing and recording. I mainly write for live ensembles and use what recording knowledge I've gained to provide example audio to customers. I have produced some audio-only projects however that I've thought were reasonably well done.

    Many people believe recording something means one "wrote it." In my mind it's not "written" until it's on a page somewhere, or a screen, in music or other notation. This might appear to be nit-picking but I think it's an important distinction.

    Why am I telling you this? I have no idea! I sat down and started writing and this is what came out! HAHA! So...

    Take it for what it's worth. Best of luck developing your studio!
    In theory there is no difference between theory and practice, but in practice there is.

    http://reberclark.blogspot.com http://reberclark.bandcamp.com http://www.youtube.com/reberclark

  3. #3
    Senior Member
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    Re: Newb with Q's about setting up home composition studio

    Before buying anything, it is important to try to figure out what you will be needing to do.

    Will you just be composing using samples, working strictly in the box using Cubase 5? Will you be needing to do live recording of small/large ensembles? What sorts of music will you be composing: film, classical chamber, orchestral, rock/pop songs, or all of the above, etc.?

    What works well for one, may not be the best choice for another. For example many, many classical albums over the years were mastered on B&W speakers. For most contemporary composers B&W are for all practical purposes, unknown.

    Practical comments:

    Once you have figured out the number of inputs and outputs you need, then start searching for the appropriate sound card. Regarding sound cards one does indeed get what one pays for. If all you will be doing is writing music on your computer, i.e. no recording of live instruments at all, a 2x2 card will suffice, unless you plan on doing surround sound. At the very least get a card with balanced ins and outs. Balanced cards avoid certain noise issues that unbalanced cards do not. Note: if your cable runs are very short, unbalanced will probably work ok.

    As for brands of soundcards, if budget allows, RME and Lynx are both outstanding and provide better fidelity. RME drivers in particular are a known good thing. One rung down, but still very good, are cards by MOTU. Those cards sometimes tend to work better with a Mac rather than a PC: from time to time driver issues have cropped up with PC's, but many have success. Other more "budget" brands to consider are Echo and M-Audio. The M-Audio Audiophile 192 is a very decent card 2x2 card for $179. Obviously, it is not the equal of an RME.

    As for type of soundcard, internal PCI or PCIe is generally better than either firewire or USB, and provides the lowest latency. The firewire protocol generally has better latency than USB, although RME does equally well with both. Unfortunately, it tends to have compatibility issues, and only consistently works well with a TI firewire chipset. In particular, if you are using a new or recent laptop, do NOT consider firewire: problems now abound with relatively few solutions.

    Given you are just starting out, consider trying to find a good set of used speakers. Unlike computers, a well-cared for set of speakers can last decades, and used prices are far more reasonable than new. When testing speakers, make sure you listen to CD's that you are very familiar with in order to help recognize sound differences between speaker sets.

  4. #4

    Re: Newb with Q's about setting up home composition studio

    If you're using a desktop PC and your motherboard has an available PCIe slot, you should look into E-Mu's 0404 and 1212M sound cards (the 1212M is also available as a standard PCI card). After buying the wrong sound card with my new computer about 6 months ago, I recently purchased the E-Mu 1212M PCIe card from Amazon for a tad over $100. The 1212M's performance is just hands-down awesome, and I would not hesitate to recommend E-Mu products. Unfortunately, I can't say the same for any of the M-Audio cards, and they tend to get a lot of negative reviews from the customer support standpoint.

    Hope this helps.

    Steve
    If you'd like to hear a couple of pieces I might actually finish someday, please visit my virtual concert hall.

  5. #5

    Re: Newb with Q's about setting up home composition studio

    Thanks for the replies thus far!

    @ Reberclark: I will solely be composing orchestral works using sample libraries, and I'm glad you brought up the point about music not being 'written' until it is on paper, which begs me to ask the question:

    I will be using Cubase 5 as my DAW, but how do I convert my Midi files to orchestral scores? I would really like to know how to do this so I can actually have paper copies of my written score. Does Cubase have a feature where it can print out a score based on my MIDI composition? Or do I need another standalone program to achieve this?

    Also, thanks for the monitor recommendation!

    @ Noldar12: As mentioned I will be composing using only samples, so no live recordings whatsoever. I will be mainly composing film scores/orchestral works.

    With regard to your soundcard recommendations, I have to say that I didn't quite understand some of the terms you were using (2x2, balanced/unbalanced) but I can tell you what I need in my soundcard. I would prefer it to have inputs for both my monitors/headphones, and I do plan on utilizing surround sound.

    I am currently using an old set of logitech Z5500's, which I know aren't monitor quality, and was wondering if they could be hooked up somehow to a soundcard like the EMU 1212, I believe I would need to buy a certain specific type of cable? Remember total newb

    @ Steve J: Thanks for the soundcard recommendations, I am willing to spend a little more on a soundcard (something in the $200 range + I suppose) are there any other recommendations you have?

    Oh and I'm not sure if this matters at all but I connect my MIDI keyboard to my PC via a MIDI SPORT UNO Midi In/Out to USB cable.

    I'll end with a super general question, what's the difference between a DAC and a soundcard?


  6. #6

    Re: Newb with Q's about setting up home composition studio

    Quote Originally Posted by bullock444 View Post
    I will be using Cubase 5 as my DAW, but how do I convert my Midi files to orchestral scores? I would really like to know how to do this so I can actually have paper copies of my written score. Does Cubase have a feature where it can print out a score based on my MIDI composition? Or do I need another standalone program to achieve this?
    The score features of DAWs tend to be pretty rudimentary compared to stand-alone notation programs such as Finale and Sibelius. Although your workflow is the opposite of mine, MIDI file conversions are a two-way street, and any decent notation program should have little problem converting MIDI files into written scores. I've been a Finale fan since the early days of Finale 3.1 about twenty years ago, and the current version is great. Personally I think Finale is easier to use than Sibelius (which is ironic because it's named after my favorite composer!), although Sibelius offers lower-priced product options compared to Finale's $600 price tag for new customers. You may also want to take a look at Notation Composer.

    Thanks for the soundcard recommendations, I am willing to spend a little more on a soundcard (something in the $200 range + I suppose) are there any other recommendations you have?
    I'm on a tight budget, so as soon as I saw how much bang for the buck I would get with the E-Mu sound cards, I didn't bother even looking at cards in the $200+ price range. Maybe someone else can give you further recommendations.

    Steve
    If you'd like to hear a couple of pieces I might actually finish someday, please visit my virtual concert hall.

  7. #7

    Re: Newb with Q's about setting up home composition studio

    Quote Originally Posted by bullock444 View Post
    Thanks for the replies thus far!

    @ Reberclark: I will solely be composing orchestral works using sample libraries, and I'm glad you brought up the point about music not being 'written' until it is on paper, which begs me to ask the question:

    I will be using Cubase 5 as my DAW, but how do I convert my Midi files to orchestral scores? I would really like to know how to do this so I can actually have paper copies of my written score. Does Cubase have a feature where it can print out a score based on my MIDI composition? Or do I need another standalone program to achieve this?

    Also, thanks for the monitor recommendation!
    Getting my MIDI files into score form has always been a problem for me. I have tried many things and no solution is perfect.

    I generally work from MIDI (audio) to notation. Some folks work the other way around.

    After many years (I started with Finale 2.0 if I remember rightly) of wrestling with this my solution is to use pencil and paper in conjunction with my sequencing program (SONAR). I then transfer the music by hand to Finale. I do not use Hyperscribe (playing it in) in Finale - I use Speedy Entry.

    (Aside: Sibelius is now being distributed by Avid, who is also distributing M-Audio. Buyer beware!)

    After my first round of data entry I print out my draft Finale score - this usually has alot of gaps in it but the form is intact. I get alot of blank bars with the general thread of the piece laid down. I then use this score to orchestrate as well as finish up composition with pencil. I have gotten better lately in entering these changes directly into Finale - skipping alot of the pencil time. The upshot is that after I enter a significant portion of the score I will print out another, fuller copy. I use draft mode to use less ink. With my SONAR file on my speakers, and each MIDI track as a reference for finding exact notes if necessary, I complete my written score.

    Next for me is to edit parts in Finale and at the same time enter score corrections. Then parts and score are printed to PDF files - again correcting as I go.

    Then it's time to go back to SONAR and mix the MIDI file into a usable audio file.

    Seems like alot but I've done this for years and it seems to work for me.

    Finale (and I assume Sibelius) does have a MIDI import feature. You can import by track or channel. I have tried this and not been really pleased with it - not because the program doesn't work, but because I don't quantize very much when I am recording in SONAR so my timings are human timings. When this gets ported to a notation file the results are full of 128th (and possibly smaller?) rests and notes! I have found that correcting those timings in Finale is more time consuming (and frustrating) for me than hand entry.

    I hope all of that helped a bit. I figure CUBASE works like most sequencing programs.
    In theory there is no difference between theory and practice, but in practice there is.

    http://reberclark.blogspot.com http://reberclark.bandcamp.com http://www.youtube.com/reberclark

  8. #8

    Re: Newb with Q's about setting up home composition studio

    My work flow is also opposite of yours. Paper -> Sibelius -> Sonar; thus I find having a good desk to lay my paper(s) out on is a high priority for me. (I do not compose at the piano, but at the “desk”).

    The Sibelius vs Finale is an on going debate between the two camps and at times the camps can seem almost religious in devoted to their chosen program. I have been using Sibelius for almost ten years now. I found that the way the program works is close to the way that I think and like to work. I do strongly feel that Sibelius has a shorter learning curve to get started. And I would add that I personally have never had a problem dealing with the Sibelius company either before or after they where acquired buy Avid; but YMMV.

    Note: Sibelius has plug-ins to clean up imported midi files and you can set the quantization tolerance in the import, but I do rarely import midi files so I only know that the tools are there, but have not used them more than a couple of times.
    //
    // Ars longa, vita brevis
    // http://edosbear.blogspot.com/
    //

  9. #9
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    Re: Newb with Q's about setting up home composition studio

    2x2 refers to the number of ins and outs, in this case, 2 lines in, and 2 lines out.

    As it sounds like you are interested in doing surround mixes, that will mean you will need a more advanced card, as a two out card can only handle two outs i.e. stereo. The two ins would be fine, since you will not be doing live recording.

    One card that might be worth looking at based on your description, is the Echo Audio Gina card. It is a very budget friendly card, and has 2 analog ins and 6 analog outs (can therefore do more than just stereo mixing). It also includes an ADAT port, so that would potentially add 8 digital ins and 8 digital outs as well. Overall, Echo has a good reputation (better than M-Audio IIRC).

    One comment though, if you are just starting out is doing surround mixing at this point a good idea? There is much to learn even with just stereo mixing, and by going surround you will be making things far more complex.

    As for the Echo card, it is also balanced, a good thing. As far as "balanced" and "unbalanced" others here are far more technical than myself, and can probably explain it much better. In essence, professional level equipment works with balanced ins and outs, while consumer equipment is unbalanced. Balanced ins/outs has a couple main advantages over unbalanced: higher gain staging +4 vs -10, but even more important, balanced ins and outs are designed to reject noise that is picked up through mic/line cable runs. Overall, you will have cleaner audio signals. Again, others can explain it more exactly.

  10. #10

    Re: Newb with Q's about setting up home composition studio

    Quote Originally Posted by noldar12 View Post
    One comment though, if you are just starting out is doing surround mixing at this point a good idea? There is much to learn even with just stereo mixing, and by going surround you will be making things far more complex.
    I thought the same thing until I was advised (in SONAR) that a 2.1 surround mix is available when mixing surround sound. The advisor stated that using the 2.1 mix and not using the subwoofer (the ".1") was more effective at placing instruments in the stereo field than regular stereo panning. So, starting in on surround mixing needn't be that complex.

    However, I only tried this for a short while until paying projects demanded that I fall back on my regular stereo workflow. It seemed to me that there was better placement with the surround panner, but I didn't really delve too deeply. Just my 2 cents .
    In theory there is no difference between theory and practice, but in practice there is.

    http://reberclark.blogspot.com http://reberclark.bandcamp.com http://www.youtube.com/reberclark

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