MELDING CORNER: Melding Basics

By Tiago Rodrigues

Hi, and welcome to the Materia Melding Corner! This blog series will be all about crafting your own video game music arrangements, covers and remixes. We will cover a lot of the more techinical aspects of music-making, such as production mixing.

Considering this is the first post in the series, I thought it would make sense to tackle the essential tools and equipment needed to get started. Let’s take a look at what you’ll need:

  • Computer
  • DAW
  • Audio Interface
  • Microphones
  • Playback

In this age, building a capable home studio without making your bank account cry is definitely feasible. I will do my best at keeping all this info short and simple. Let’s get started!

 

Computer

Chances are, if you’re reading this, you’re probably using a computer that already allows you to get started.

If you’re considering buying a new one, the first thing I’d think about would be portability. How important is the concept of portability for you? Where do you see yourself producing and recording? Are you always on the move? Maybe you don’t see yourself creating in any other place besides your room. There’s no absolute winner as it really depends on your needs. A desktop can be cheaper and more versatile when considering upgrades but is difficult to transport. A laptop is definitely easier to carry anywhere.

In terms of specifications, my suggestion would be to acquire one with the fastest processor your budget allows and at least 4GB of RAM. 8GB would be even better. GPUs don’t really factor into the equation since the software you’ll be using won’t be processed by it. An onboard GPU will do just as fine as a state-of-the-art GPU. I wouldn’t fret about whether to get a PC or MAC as both are excellent choices. It is a matter of personal taste and what you’re used to. Additionally, you won’t find any problems getting a digital audio workstation for either system, as we will cover next.

 

DAW

A digital audio workstation (DAW) is a computer software application that allows you to record, play and edit audio. It will be the main software you use to craft your music. There are a lot of choices here and it’s all about choosing one that best fits your workflow. Here are some suggestions that won’t cost you a dime:

  • Presonus Studio One 3 Prime – This is the free, feature-limited, entry-level version of their paid software. While it might not have all the features the other versions do, it is a legitimate program for beginners to start with. (Available for both MAC and PC)
  • Zynewave Podium Free – A feature limited version of its big brother, Podium, although there are not too many restrictions. This might be work if it fits your workflow. (PC exclusive)
  • MuTools MuLab – A stripped down version of their software is available for free. The limitations (which you can check for yourself here) seem to be rather harsh. If the free user restrictions  don’t phase you, it might be a good choice. (Available for both MAC and PC)
  • REAPER – I’d like to start by saying that REAPER isn’t free. It offers a fully featured, 60-day evaluation period. However, after the trial is over, they kindly ask that you purchase a license for it while continuing to offer unrestricted access to the program. Basically, they’ll call upon your honour to buy their software if it suits your needs. Personally, I have been using REAPER for several years and I have a biased view of it.  (Available for both MAC and PC)

There are several other choices that might please you. For the sake of brevity, here’s a quick list of other DAWs out there:

Feel free to check the websites linked above, check any trials available and see which one suits you best. It doesn’t really matter which DAW you use because ultimately, they are merely tools to serve your workflow. The music you’ll create with it is far more important.

I’d also like to mention two other pieces of software that don’t fall into the DAW category but can prove useful in your quest to make music. They are Audacity and Musescore. The former is an editing and multi-track recording software while the latter is a notation program which can come in handy if you’re used to making fancy sheets!

 

Audio Interface

Every computer already has a sound card internally embedded to its motherboard. That’s where you connect your headphones and hear music all day, and it sounds just fine! Wouldn’t that sound card be enough to create and produce music?

Technically, it is capable of playing audio but its features are limited when it comes to recording. It is definitely inferior when compared to an audio interface. It lacks processing power, connectivity options; in short, it just wasn’t designed for the purpose of producing music.

Think of the audio interface as an upgrade to your computer’s onboard audio chipset. It is more capable, has higher quality, features additional connections and plenty more.  Nowadays, most of them are externally connected to your computer via USB, Firewire or Thunderbolt. There is a 4th option which is only available to desktop computers – PCIe audio interfaces – which are connected internally.

There are many interfaces to choose from, varying a great amount in pricing. Before choosing one, you should first understand how many inputs you need. Let’s take a look at a few examples:

  • EXAMPLE #1 – Meet Mary! She sings and plays the acoustic guitar. Often she does live shows around town but has never recorded anything by herself. Curiosity has struck her and now she would like to start recording some performances at home. She has two sound sources to capture (voice and guitar) and her intent is to record them simultaneously, so she picked up an interface with two inputs.
  • EXAMPLE #2 – Meet James! He started learning the drums for over a year now and has been recording his performances with his smartphone. He feels like his drumming ability has progressed a lot and would like to start capturing decent recordings. He read online that a lot of his favorite drum sounds were recorded with multiple mics so he is very eager on acquiring a setup that will allow him to experiment doing the same. He bought an eight-input audio interface at the nearest music store to do so.

As you can perceive from the examples above, the number of inputs is directly related to how many sound sources you wish to capture at a given time. That being said, here are few suggestions of audio interfaces:

While perusing the above links, you might have noticed something about MIDI inputs or MIDI interfaces. MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) is a protocol that carries events which specify data pertaining to music, like pitch or notation, among many other parameters. MIDI controllers – devices that allow you to play and/or control such data –  are an example. This is how many electronic musical instruments communicate with each other.  One of the main advantages of using MIDI versus regular recording is that you can alter the performance after it is in your computer. If you record a flute solo with your trustworthy microphone, you’re pretty much stuck with that performance. With MIDI, you can alter a multitude of settings after the fact. Notes, timing, volume – you can even assign the composition to a different a instrument. I strongly recommend having an audio interface with MIDI inputs/outputs. You won’t notice the difference in pricing that much and it will reveal useful in the future.

Starting out, you’ll want to avoid worrying about which is the absolute best interface out there. There are too many choices and a multitude of contradicting opinions. My suggestion would be to first understand how many and what kind of inputs you need, set a budget for an interface and then, go for one within that budget. Simplify!

 

Microphones

There are many different kinds of microphones for many different applications, varying greatly in sound and in price. But first, what is a microphone? The simplest answer would be – a transducer. That means that microphones are instruments that convert mechanical energy (sound waves) into electrical energy, which you’ll be able to amplify and record.

There is a lot to know about this topic so for simplicity sake, we are solely focusing on two different types: dynamic and condenser microphones.

Microphones have diaphragms that will respond to sound pressure by oscillating, thus creating an electric current.  Dynamic microphones usually feature a heavy, fixed diaphragm while condensers, commonly contain a  smaller, more flexible one. I mention this because the size of the diaphragm will affect how sound is captured. High frequency sound waves are smaller than their low frequency counterparts and due to that reason, produce less energy. Therefore, this makes condensers more responsive to higher frequencies and dynamics more responsive to low frequencies. Consequently, as an unwritten rule, condensers frequently do better with instruments that have a lot of high frequency content (imagine the cymbals of a drum kit as an example) and the opposite goes for dynamic microphones. Acoustic performers might consider condensers because they are more sensitive and will capture the subtleties of the instrument a bit better than dynamics do. That does not mean that dynamics won’t work at all; they will merely have a different sonority.

Due to having larger and heavier diaphragms, dynamic microphones generate enough current on their own, making them passive. In other words, they don’t need an external source of power. That is not the case for condenser microphones. Their smaller diaphragms need additional voltage in order to function. It is referred to as phantom power, which makes them more sensitive thus being able to record softer sounds. As a result, condensers are regarded as fragile as they can’t withstand high sound pressure levels like dynamic microphones do.

Choosing a microphone has to do with application and a particular sound aesthetic you envision. Dynamic or condenser, every microphone has its own frequency response which will greatly shape how your recordings will sound. Think of it as every single one of them having a distinct ear that perceives sound in a different way. Also, the same sound source can sound excellent with both dynamic and condenser microphones – just different. There is much more to know about microphones as I am only scratching the surface however, I believe this is enough for you to make an informed decision. Now, theory aside, let’s look at some suggestions!

Because there are so many choices, I’ll try to list a few popular dynamic and condenser microphones:

  • Shure SM57 (Dynamic) – It is arguably the most popular dynamic microphone around. Frequently used on snares, toms, guitar amps, you name it. It’s a great all-purpose microphone to have around and it is fairly inexpensive.
  • Audio Technica AT2020 (Condenser) – A popular low-budget choice for many home studios. Often used on vocals and acoustic instruments.
  • Rode NT1-A (Condenser) – Commonly sold as a bundle that features a microphone stand and a pop filter at a very reasonable price.
  • Shure SM7B – (Dynamic) – A more expensive option. Has excellent reviews and seems to be a favorite for rock vocals. You can use it for a lot of other things, of course.
  • Samson C02 (Condenser) – Quite inexpensive, often sold as a matched pair. Boasts plenty of pleasing reviews. A good choice as drum kit overheads and acoustic instruments.

Additionally, I’d like to mention USB microphones. They’re like any other microphone but instead of having an XLR connector, you plug it in your PC through an USB port. This can be pretty handy if you’re not looking to invest in an audio interface as it bypasses it entirely. The Yeti line from Blue Microphones seems to be quite popular nowadays and a ton of people are making incredible recordings with them.

 

Playback

Depending on your current setup, is is possible you don’t have the space to accommodate studio monitors, and headphones are a more viable option. Or maybe you just prefer to hear your music coming out of a speaker.  Ideally, you’d get both. Here’s why:

When your ears perceive sound without headphones, your ears can actually determine the music’s direction by the difference in timing as it’s reaching your ears. An example – If a violin is playing directly to your left, its sound will reach your left ear first and your right ear second. Your brain will then calculate the times the lovely violin melodies reach both of your ears, and you will be able to pinpoint where it is coming from. This is a psychoacoustic phenomena known as the Precedence Effect or Haas Effect.

While using headphones, this effect is greatly mitigated due to the fact that your ears are given the same audio source at the same time, and what you hear appears to be originated from within yourself and not around you. This produces an exacerbated stereo image that gives you an unnatural perception of what something sounds like. Software exists to handle this concern and it is becoming more widely available, but it can be a costly solution, especially if you’re just starting out.

That being said, headphones are great analytical tools. Sounds that might go unnoticed on studio monitors can be easily picked up on a pair of headphones. Also, headphones are more portable, and you can use them any time of the day without disturbing others.

On the other hand, studio monitors, despite feeling more natural to the ears, are deeply affected by the room’s acoustics, meaning there is the possibility of hearing certain frequencies way too aggravated while others are terribly diminished. Also, properly placing them might be tough depending how your room is organized, and placement is crucial for studio monitors.

Despite the advantages and disadvantages regarding these two playback systems, rest assured that several professionals out there only use one or the other. Using both simply allows you to make more informed decisions concerning your audio.

Regarding headphones, you can get two different types: closed back or open back. The first are great at isolating outside noise while the latter aren’t. Closed backs are usually used when you’re recording, so the microphone doesn’t pick up any noise from them. Open backs are frequently used for mixing as they provide a more natural and pleasant hearing experience. I’ll list some suggestions below:

And here are a few studio monitors to consider

I would recommend reading some reviews online before making a decision.

Choosing headphones and studio monitors has a lot to do with personal taste. I have a pair of Yamaha HS50s just because they had the white cones that are  similar to the legendary NS10s, and that was reason enough for me. Not the best logic, I know, but they’ve worked out well. Find what works for you!

 

Forgotten Gear

When starting out it is normal to overlook some of the minor gear needed to get your home studio running. Here is a short checklist to have in mind when collecting materials to create your own music:

  • Adapters
  • Cables (any of the following, plus any additional cables your tools might require; consider spare cables, as well)
    • Instrument cables
    • MIDI cables
    • Optical Cables
    • XLR cables
    • Spare cables
  • Instrument stands or wall mounts
  • Microphone stands
  • Monitor stands

Hopefully, you can use this information to get started on creating your own musical workspace!