A random look at the life and times of Jim Rising recovering radio addict and newspaper columnist.

Friday, March 28, 2008

For techno Audio Geeks only

Like any story about computer technology this story is a path you have to follow.
It begins about 6-8 months ago when my studio computer began doing bad things. This machine is used only for audio and is about 2 years old. It has two hard drives which store projects that I work on, band recordings and various other commercial audio endeavors which I make a little dough from now and then.
It’s equipped with Adobe Audition (version 1.0) and a sound card that I have used now in three computers. It is, I believe now at least ten years old-a “Layla” by Echo. 20 bit 8 in 8 out bi directional. It’s always performed flawlessly.
Up until it didn’t. Adobe began to stop without warning. A big problem if you are recording a band. Then in the past month or so it began to throw messages like “the file you are trying to open is not compatible with the sound card you are using.” Huh? It's not opening mp3’s that I have used a hundred times? It gets worse. Wednesday I had a session scheduled with a musician who has recorded bits and pieces for an upcoming CD. He wanted to bring in a fiddle player to track some overdubs from a disc. Not a real complex process.
As is my custom I went out to my studio an hour early (it’s in the top of my garage) and got the heat running and booted up my machine. Now it won’t work at ALL! In fact it won’t even play any audio from any player, media recorder, music match, nothing. Dead in the water. I frantically called my client and waved him off until Thursday with the hope I could figure something out.
Back up a few weeks. I have wanted to do some audio blogs here. Maybe some pod casting. But it’s kind of a pain to fire up the big studio. Or maybe I am just lazy. Choose one. In any case I investigated USB capable mikes so I could record at this laptop which is on my kitchen table. I found something even better. MXL (previously called Marshall) which makes a great line of condenser mikes has a converter. They call it the Mic Mate. It has an analog mike (canon input) to USB. Even powers a condenser mike! I have loads of mikes so this was a great choice. Got one for $40 on Ebay.
It took me about two days to make the darn thing work. First off it didn’t work at all. After some finagling with the settings in windows audio I got it to record but there was this HORRIBLE hummmmm. Like AC hum but loud. I tried everything I could. Running the laptop on battery. Running a mike cable a long distance from the machine. Standing on my head. Nothing worked. Well I could still use it. I would just have to noise reduce all the files with Audition. A pain but doable. This is for the internet, after all.
So I tried some dry runs. It sounded ok. Not great. Hollow.
I moved to the bedroom with carpets on the floor and the big bed to suck up echo. Still not good. Tried a small closet. Still bad.
By accident I recorded a file without the outboard USB mike deal connected. It recorded my voice! What the hell?
Turns out the Dell Inspiron 600 m I am using has an onboard mike. Who knew? I spent a few tedious hours trying to figure out how to mute the thing but no joy. Finally I just plugged a headphone adapter into the mike input on the Dell and now it works great. Evidently the hum was from the internal mike fighting with the USB one. Who knows? It’s gone and that’s that.
I am using a Neumann TLM 103. With it’s shock mount about a $1500 mike. In terms of audio to the internet this is sort of like making a silk purse out of sow’s ear. But it’s the right size and makes me feel good so what the heck. I guess I could use an SM-58 but….
Back to the big studio.
Got my computer oriented son (we will call him the 1.0 model) on the horn. He was very patient with me. Which was good since I was in total panic mode. It’s a funny sort of role reversal. While I am usually able to trouble shoot problems this one pretty well had me buffaloed.
He’s a Mac guy. His first suggestion was “buy a Mac”.
Not a bad idea but for me to start over again on a new platform would be difficult at best, not to mention I have $0 to do this with.
“Drivers” he said.
This “Layla” is so old that the company no longer supports it. They have on their site a driver archive. Eight different ones for this unit. All “beta” with stern warnings about how they are tested but not guaranteed to work.
None of the eight did anything to fix the problem.
“Put the card in another machine.” Version 1.0 suggested.
A real pain that was. The old studio machine is in pieces in the house in my office. It wouldn’t boot for a while. Now it boots but the on off button has no effect. So to use it you have to unplug it from the wall. It’s Win 98. Don’t laugh.
Got the soundcard in and got it hooked up and booted. After several weird screens (BSOD twice!) I got to a screen that said “Your LAYLA card is not present.” I showed the computer that it was. Held it up to the unit so it could see it. No dice.
Well at least now we know its hardware. When I bought the “Layla” it was $800. Version 1.0 found me some comparable cards for $175. But they all had phone jack (RCA) connectors (?) and all my stuff is ¼ inch jacks. It would be a pain to rewire it so I went looking for a “Layla.” Hey you go with what you know, right?
Found two 20 bit models for sale right here in W/B. Guy had an old WIN 98 machine (HP) and a 12 channel Behringer Eurorack 2642A console on EBAY for $275. Local delivery only. Made some comment in the auction text about how it was “Old School” stuff but good for a starter setup. Humph.
Guy won’t sell just the two “Laylas.” Wants enough dough for a drum machine. I might buy the stuff anyway although I don’t need another console. Or a computer. Or two “Old school” “Laylas.” But then again…More Gear! So if his auction goes belly up maybe I will offer him a couple of bucks to take it off his hands. Don’t tell my wife.
Found another guy selling a used new one. You know what I mean. It is a used version of the “Layla” of the current model. 3.0! They retail for around $4-500 so I got it and paid $230 for it. Had to stay up until midnight to get it. He claims it was only driven on Sundays by a little old lady band on the way to church. We will see. I am sure it will give me some grief in the install when it arrives. Next week sometime.
But I still have this tracking session. Tomorrow. Hmmm.
I have the MXL Mic Mate. I could maybe make this work.
So I plugged my trusty Marshall 2001 ( I like it better than the Neuman for most things!) into my snake (channel one if you must know) in the tracking studio-plugged the control room end into the MXL Mic mate and that into a USB port on my computer. Didn’t work. I made the changes to the driver on the windows sound card, set up a radio in the tracking room and as the French say “Voila!” Level seemed fine and the software recorded about 20 minutes of Froggy 101 without a burp.
I ran a lead from the headphone out of the computer into my console and fed that into my headphone monitor system.
So now the session could happen! The fiddle player could hear the track to play to in headphones but not himself since the computers simple sound card is unidirectional. So he did the old “One ear” method.
The session went fine. The only real issue was we couldn’t hear the fiddle in the control room because A: it wasn’t going thru the console and B: the sound card was busy recording and being unidirectional only and couldn’t get us playback.
The moral of this rather long, technical story is “Where there is a will there is a way” I guess. I don’t really need a moral, but there you go.


MadDrummer said...

Brought back pleasant memories of the past when things HAD to work.

Once had to use a rubber band OVER a belt to make the take up reel behave!

Could you have torn apart a Mac, swapped parts, bought others for 2-300 dollars and do the session? Not likely.

BTW: Do you read TapeOp? Its the best FREE magazine around.


Jim Rising said...

Necessity is a mother! When I first built my studio I knew squat about ground loops caused by dimmer switches. If we had the lights on anything but full bright (which musicians hate!) we got this low level hum. This was back in the days of my trusty 8 track ½” reel machine so noise reduction of that sort was a distant dream.
We used candles and kerosene lamps. Lucky we didn’t burn the place down to the ground.
Thanks for the tip about tape op. Looks great!

Anonymous said...

trusty 8 track ½” reel machine so noise reduction of that sort was a distant dream.

Tascam 80-8?
Otari MX7800?

Jim Rising said...
This comment has been removed by the author.