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I set up my first portable studio—an acoustic guitar and a microcassette recorder—at age 11. In the early 1980s, at the ripe age of 18, I started using a computer and MIDI sequencers. Moving to New York City to attend NYU, I worked in every recording studio I possibly could. I bought my first digital audio system in 1992.

While I gradually built my own studio, I played in bands around the city, and soon began touring with other bands as the MIDI and digital audio tech. It was my job to choose the gear for the tour, getting the most functionality in the smallest possible space and budget.

In 1997, I moved my studio to a two-acre facility in Austin, Texas. Two years later, because Pro Tools was in such demand, I put together the Pro Toolbox, which was a “portable” Pro Tools rig consisting of two 16-space racks that took two burly men to move. That was state-of-the-art in portability at the time.

Until very recently, the only way to create a professional, computer-based studio was by installing a card in a bulky desktop computer and wiring up piles of expensive peripherals. Now, with the convenience of FireWire and the power of today’s laptops, world-class recording is both affordable and portable.

If you’re a musician, producer, engineer, or songwriter and have considered creating a professional “studio to go,” here’s all the information you need.

Pro Toolbox My portable Pro Tools studio, circa 1999: Roadies not included.

The Eight Essentials

In this article, I’ll introduce the eight essential items you’ll need in a pro laptop recording studio. Next week, I’ll walk you through seven additional tools that will greatly enhance your new studio. This isn’t one of those theoretical “you could buy this or you could buy that” catalog tours; all of the gear is equipment I’ve personally used and recommend. Here’s the list; click a heading to jump to that section, or just read in order.

  1. Computer
  2. Pro Tools
  3. Audio Interface
  4. FireWire Hard Drive
  5. Speakers
  6. MIDI Keyboard
  7. Headphones
  8. Microphone
Portable Studio 2005 In the 2005 version of my ultimate portable studio (MIDI keyboard not shown), the computer does the heavy lifting. Click to see components identified.

Essential #1: The Computer

I wholeheartedly encourage all new computer music producers to go with a Mac. I use both PC and Mac, but I find the Mac to be made for people who want to be more creative and less technical. The Mac is the ultimate creative machine. It is far superior in quality and simplicity. Someone with little to no experience using a computer can immediately be up and running with a Mac. If you want to save a few bucks, buy a PC, but I guarantee you will have headache upon headache trying to get everything working. With a Mac, you get what you pay for. If money is far more important than the frustration you will incur, then go with a PC.

The computer is the most important item in your portable studio, not to mention the bulk of your budget. Don’t necessarily go with what you have and try to make it work. You will spend more time and money in the long run trying to upgrade an old computer than you would just buying a new computer. Today’s software is built for the capabilities of the newest computers. Save yourself the hassle and frustration and just get a new laptop if at all possible.

What about the new “MacIntel” CPU? You may have heard that Apple is switching the Mac’s core processor chip from an IBM PowerPC to an Intel Pentium. Does it make sense to buy a new Mac now? Let me put it this way: If you were buying a car, would it really matter that next year’s engine was going to be different from this year’s? There are a lot of people who would say yes. I am not one of them. I don’t make spontaneous decisions when it comes to spending a large amount of money, but if I spent my entire career waiting for the next best model or operating system to be released, I would never move forward. I bought a G4 just as the G5 came out and I’m sure I’ll have a MacIntel 9 just in time for the MacIntel 10.

I have the highest respect for Steve Jobs and Apple. I think this move to the Intel chip is brilliant and is a decision based on forward thinking. I have transitioned with Apple from the 68k chip to the PowerPC chip and then transitioned from OS 9 to OS X. I took each one at my own pace and never felt left behind or resentful. My favorite software was still updated and available on the platform I was using for a reasonable amount of time. Some companies are still releasing OS 9 versions of their software four years after it was discontinued.

I predict there will simply be two installers on future software CDs, one for PowerPC and one for Intel, the exact same way there have been OS 9 and OS X installers on the same CD for the last few years. So I don’t buy into all the drama about doomsday for Apple or those of us with older machines.

But remember that our goal here is to make music. If it’s important to you have the latest, greatest computer, stop reading now and print this out for the end of 2006. But if you’re ready to start creating a new portable studio and go with what is working right now, then read on.

Which Mac? It all depends on your budget. Apple makes two models of laptops, the PowerBook and the iBook. I would definitely go with the PowerBook, mainly because it’s faster and upgradeable. It is so important to get a computer that you will grow into rather than a computer that you will grow out of in less than a year.

Another important feature of the PowerBook is the ability to connect a second monitor, so when you’re at home, you can hook up that 20-inch screen for more workspace. The PowerBooks start around $1,500 for the 12-inch screen and go up to $2,700 for the 17-inch. For digital audio, I find the 12 too small. There’s a $300 difference between the 15-inch and the 17-inch, and since my laptop is my office, I splurged and went with the 17. Having the extra screen space is worth the extra weight and size for me. Note that Apple has some very fair financing options. You can expect to pay around $50 a month for a 17-inch PowerBook.

Apple also has an incredible warranty called AppleCare; it is worth every penny. They will send a technician to your house to fix a problem, and their technical support is easy to reach, kind, and always helpful. Without AppleCare, you’re left to fend for yourself if you have problems. I rarely ever buy extra warranties, but this is one I don’t skimp on, especially with a machine that travels everywhere with me.

Essential #2: Digidesign Pro Tools

I also encourage new songwriters and engineers to use Pro Tools as their primary hardware and software. There are other solutions, such as Apple Logic, MOTU Digital Performer, and Steinberg Cubase, but I find them to be MIDI sequencers that—over the years—have added the ability to record audio. As a result, in these applications, the MIDI capabilities are usually stronger.

Pro Tools was designed and built as an audio recorder that then eventually added MIDI support. If you are primarily a keyboard player, don’t plan to be recording many audio tracks, and want more of a MIDI sequencer, then Pro Tools may not be the solution for you. If you want to do mostly techno music with programmed drums, loops, and synths, then Logic may be the best choice. But if you are a musician or songwriter and want the ability to record and edit acoustic instruments such as vocals, bass, drums, and piano, then Pro Tools is, in my opinion, the absolute best. And despite the “pro” name, it’s simple to use. If you can press Play and Record on a tape machine, you can use Pro Tools.

Pro Tools Audio Interfaces Five Pro Tools-compatible audio interfaces. The Mbox is on top—but not for long.

Essential #3: Audio Interface

Most laptop computers have audio inputs and outputs, but the sound quality is substandard, the connectors are flimsy, and you usually won’t get more than two channels of audio input at a time. That makes it impossible to record multiple instruments at once and send each to its own track for subsequent processing.

In addition, to use Pro Tools, you’ll need a Digidesign-certified audio interface. Until recently, these devices were only available through Digidesign, and the only portable model was the Digidesign Mbox, which has some frustrating compromises (more on that in a moment.) However, in August 2004, Digidesign’s parent company acquired M-Audio, and as a result, 11 models in M-Audio’s versatile line of audio interfaces are now compatible with Pro Tools.

Note that, as of this writing, the M-Audio interfaces don’t include the Pro Tools software. Even if you already own Pro Tools LE, you have to buy M-Audio’s version, “M-Powered Pro Tools,” for around $300. However, an M-Audio FireWire Solo combined with M-Powered Pro Tools comes out to be about the same price as an Mbox (which does come with Pro Tools LE).

I own an Mbox and I hate to say this, but for portability, the M-Audio gear is the clear choice, hands down. The main reason is one word that you must come to terms with as a computer-based music producer: latency.

Latency is the annoying delay between the time you ask the computer to do something and the moment you actually hear the result. The latency problem most often arises when you’re trying to overdub a new part on top of tracks playing back from the computer. It simply takes some time for the computer to process incoming audio and spit it back out for you to hear. On faster computers with good audio-interface driver software, the latency will be on the order of a few milliseconds (thousandths of a second). That’s short enough that it isn’t objectionable—or sometimes even noticeable. An increasing number of audio interfaces include a feature called zero-latency monitoring, which routes the signal entering the interface—your overdubbed guitar solo, for example—directly to the interface’s headphone output, bypassing the computer.

The Mbox, unfortunately, has a major latency problem during recording. When you try to record and monitor yourself in the headphones, you will inevitably hear a delay in the signal you are recording. That makes playing in time almost impossible. On the Mbox, the only way I have found around this is to listen to your existing tracks playing back in the headphones but not listen to what you’re recording. In other words, you’ll need to mute the track that you are recording, which is a vibe killer for many. The Mbox does include a knob to balance your playback tracks with your record tracks, but take it from one who has tried and tried, it’s almost useless.

Unlike the Mbox, the M-Audio interfaces use FireWire, not USB, which is faster and more reliable. Though latency is not completely eradicated, it is 200 percent better with the M-Audio interfaces. It’s close enough where you can actually monitor yourself recording and still play in time.

Audio Interface-Off

I evaluated four of the new M-Audio interfaces for this article: the Ozonic, the FireWire Solo, the FireWire 410, and the FireWire 1814. I also retested the Mbox. For each device, I auditioned the mic preamps and measured latency. As a result of my testing, I strongly recommend all interfaces except the Digidesign Mbox. In addition to trumping the Mbox on latency, the M-Audio gear had better-sounding mic preamps. That’s surprising, considering that the Mbox’s preamps were designed by high-end manufacturer Focusrite, but it’s my honest opinion.

It’s also important to note that the Mbox only supports up to 48kHz recording whereas the Ozonic and Solo support 96k, and the Firewire 410 and 1814 support up to 192k. Another huge advantage of the M-Audio interfaces is that they are all also MIDI interfaces, unlike the Mbox. For the price, versatility, and functionality these interfaces provide, there is nothing that comes close. Anyone want to buy my Mbox?

Here are more details on my findings:

FireWire Solo M-Audio FireWire Solo (retail $350, street price $300)

Believe it or not, this mic preamp, to my ears, sounded the warmest. This amazing little box is perfect for songwriters or solo artists. It has one mic preamp, one instrument input, and one headphone output. It also features a stereo line input in the rear.

One of the most convenient features of the M-Audio FireWire interfaces (except the Ozonic) is the inclusion of two FireWire ports, which lets you daisy-chain other devices such as hard drives (Essential #4).

FireWire 410 M-Audio Firewire 410 (retail $500, street price $400)

This unit is called the 410 because it offers four inputs and ten outputs. You get two mic preamps that also function as instrument inputs, two line inputs, two headphone outputs, and the ability to record up to 192kHz. The 410 also features eight individual outputs—in case you want to separate your outputs or mix in surround sound—and an additional two channels of digital I/O via coaxial or optical S/PDIF.

This box is great for musicians who frequently work with other people and could benefit from the more versatile inputs, outputs, and dual headphone jacks.

Ozonic M-Audio Ozonic (retail price $600, street price $500)

If you’re mainly a keyboard player and want to combine your MIDI keyboard with your audio interface, the Ozonic is a perfect choice. The mic preamp won second place in our shoot-out (the one on the Solo won first); there are four discrete inputs and outputs; 40 assignable knobs and faders; and a 37-key, velocity- and aftertouch-sensitive keyboard. (With velocity sensitivity, the harder you play the keyboard, the louder the sound on the computer’s software synthesizer, mimicking the response of an acoustic piano. Aftertouch sends additional performance data when you press further on a key after it has reached the keybed.) The only drawback to this keyboard, for me, is its bulk. Though it certainly is portable, it won’t fit in your backpack like all of the other FireWire interfaces.

FireWire 1814 M-Audio FireWire 1814 (retail $750, street price $600)

Again, the name 1814 translates to mean 18 inputs and 14 outputs. For artists and bands who need more connectivity, this model is the choice. It features two mic/instrument inputs that record at up to 192kHz and four additional inputs that record at up to 96k. There are four analog outputs that also support 192k and eight channels of digital I/O an ADAT optical port.

In order to save space on the box, M-Audio uses a 15-pin port for additional connections. Attach the included adapter cable, and you get MIDI, Word Clock, and S/PDIF I/O. Combine the 1814 with M-Audio’s Octane or PreSonus’s DigiMax eight-channel preamps and you would have ten mic preamps, six line inputs, and the two additional digital ins and outs, which makes this box great for anyone wanting to record many tracks at once, such as drums or a full band.

FireWire 1814 Cable The FireWire 1814 breakout cable; word clock is used to synchronize digital audio streams.

Essential #4: External FireWire Hard Drive

A common question I get from new users is, “The computer already has a hard drive, so why would I need another one?” The answer is that it’s best to dedicate your computer’s hard drive to the programs you’ll be using and the external hard drive to the audio files. In other words, the computer is the tape machine and the external hard drive is the reel of tape. A PowerBook internal hard drive is too slow to record audio reliably. A drive’s speed must be a minimum of 7,200 RPM to work with Pro Tools. The PowerBook’s, unfortunately, is 5,400 RPM. Separating the audio and the operating system also makes it easier to back up your work, expand your system, and share your files with other studios.

If portability is of the utmost importance to you, I’ve found there is nothing that matches the quality and reliability of the La Cie Mobile Drive. You can get twice the disk space for much less money, but what you save in dollars you spend in inconvenience. Other external FireWire drives are hot, noisy, and require a power outlet with a bulky “wall wart” transformer. The La Cie Mobile Drive is tiny, beautifully designed, quiet, and requires no extra power. You simply connect it to the FireWire port of your laptop and you’re up and running.

There are quite a few portable drives being released by companies like Kano Technologies and G Technology, but so far, their highest speed is 5,400 RPM. Again, make sure the drive you record to is at least 7,200 RPM.

An ideal approach would be to buy a La Cie Mobile Drive and a cheaper external FireWire drive as a back-up to keep at home. La Cie makes a 160GB external drive for $140. If you’re serious about your music, then you simply cannot skimp on backing up your work.

Essential #5: Speakers

I am a recovering portable-speaker addict. I have been on a quest to find the perfect portable speakers for years. (Portable, to me, means speakers that don’t require a power outlet.) I’ve tried speakers by Sony, Creative Labs, Cambridge Audio, and more. I had about six different sets when I saw the Altec Lansing inMotion Speakers.

Every time I had tried to use other speakers with Pro Tools, soloing a bass or adding a low pad sound would cause a vibration that made the speakers unusable. So when I bought the inMotion speakers, I was skeptical. But after I tried them, I gave away every other pair of portable speakers I had.

Altec Lansing has many different models. I have the iM3s and they are truly amazing. Yes, these speakers are made specifically for the iPod, but on the back is an 1/8-inch mini-phone input that I connect with a Radio Shack Y-cable to my Pro Tools interface. They sound incredible for the size, they fold up into a small box, and I have found nothing portable that sounds anywhere near as good as these. Altec Lansing’s latest model is the iM7, which is a bit funky-looking for my taste, but I’ve read some great reviews on them.

Other speakers that deserve an honorable mention are the JBL On Tours, which I have heard and tested. They win the award for the biggest sound for the smallest size and price. I have not yet tried the Bose Sound Dock or the Virgin Electronics Boomtube EX, but I hear great things about both.

JBL OnTour Speakers The JBL OnTour powered speakers pump out big sound for well under $100.

Essential #6: MIDI Keyboard and Virtual Instruments

If you’re a keyboard player, take a close look at the M-Audio Keystation 49e, the big brother to M-Audio’s two-octave Oxygen 8. The 49e is four octaves and actually cheaper: $100 at the Apple site. As a player, I much prefer the KeyStation 49e. It’s not as portable, but it gives you enough keys to play piano parts. The Oxygen 8 is geared more towards drum programming and bass lines. It’s okay for small chord progressions as well, but the two octaves are limiting for me. The advantage of the Oxygen 8 is the knobs and sliders. If you’re doing techno and you want to do filter sweeps and use these sliders to control MIDI events, (which most musicians don’t really do), then you may want to get this or its much older brother, the Radium 61.

The Ultimate Studio: Average Prices

Computer

17-inch, 1.67GHz G4 PowerBook
100GB hard drive
AirPort Card

$2,700

512MB additional RAM

$150

AppleCare Warranty

$350
Audio Interface

M-Audio FireWire 410

$400
Pro Tools

M-Powered Pro Tools

$300
FireWire Hard Drive

La Cie 60 GB Mobile Drive (7200rpm)

$250
MIDI Keyboard

M-Audio Keystation 49e

$100

Yamaha Sustain Pedal

$25
Portable Speakers

Altec Lansing InMotion Speakers

$180
Microphone

AKG Project Pack (2 Mics)

$400
Headphones

Sony 7506

$100
TOTAL (not including cables, tax, etc.) $4,955

I have not tried the Edirol or Novation keyboards, but some colleagues say they feel sturdier and play better for the money. [Ed. Note: For more tips on choosing MIDI controller keyboards, see “Maximizing Mini MIDI Keyboards” and “Look Ma—Hands! Choosing and Using MIDI Controllers.”]

Virtual instruments. What will you control with your new controller keyboard? The days of needing rackmounted sound modules and vintage keyboards are possibly over. Virtual instruments are upon us. Just picture your favorite keyboard instrument—a Wurlitzer, Fender Rhodes, Hammond B3 organ, or Prophet-5. Now picture one of those keyboards on your screen, and when you play the MIDI keyboard, you hear that instrument. It’s truly that simple. Many of these plug-in software instruments sincerely sound as good as the real thing, and believe me, it’s much easier loading a B3 on your screen than onto a truck.

Now included with all Pro Tools LE systems are Propellerhead Reason Adapted; Ableton Live Digidesign Edition; and IK Multimedia SampleTank SE, AmpliTube LE, and T-RackS EQ. Reason is a collection of synths, samplers, and drum machines. Live is a program made for performing live by triggering and shaping loops via MIDI. SampleTank is a software sampler capable of playing any sound you load into it. Each but the last two requires a MIDI keyboard to use fully.

Samplers are an especially interesting case where software has surpassed hardware for music production. In the old days, if you wanted a digital sampler, you had to buy a 50-pound hardware beast for thousands of dollars: the Akai S1000, E-mu Emulator, Kurzweil K2000, etc. I’ve owned or worked with them all at some point in my career. But now, there are unbelievably cool software samplers that plug in to Pro Tools or any digital audio workstation (DAW) software. And they take advantage of your computer’s RAM and hard drive to load and manage samples, overcoming the pinched sound of the old floppy disk-size sample sets.

My personal favorite software sampler is MachFive by Mark of the Unicorn. It costs $370 but it is definitely worth it. Mach Five has an elegant, simple user interface and comes with some great sounds. Native Instrument’s Kontakt is also a good choice but not quite as user-friendly.

I tell new users to try SampleTank until they understand the concept of a software sampler, and then make a decision about what to buy. In fact, most of the third-party plug-ins that come with Pro Tools are limited versions designed primarily to wet your whistle and frustrate you into buying the complete software package. For example, to upgrade Sample Tank SE to the full version costs $350.

Essentials #7 and 8: Headphones and Microphones

Both of these items are so subjective. The Sony 7506 headphones are probably the most common headphones used in studios today. Another studio standard is the Sennheiser HD25 at $170. Some say the Sonys are too bright, but I like them and find them to be a good choice for the money. They also fold up for travel, which many professional headphones don’t.

Sony 7506 Headphones Sony’s fold-up 7506 headphones are a longtime favorite for quality portable sound.

The debate over microphones could go on for pages. In the end, it will all depend on two things: your budget and what you’ll be recording. Many microphone manufacturers and music stores are putting together microphone bundles. One of the best values is the AKG Project Pack, which gives you two mics—an all-purpose C1000S condenser and a C3000B large-diaphragm condenser. The larger diaphragm sounds great on vocals and the small condenser is perfect for acoustic guitars. For $400 in a hardshell case, it’s a great deal.

AKG Project Pack The handy AKG Project Pack contains two condenser mics, carrying case, and mounting hardware.

With microphones, you really should try before you buy. Make an appointment at a professional music store to spend an hour recording with different microphones. Don’t take the word of one salesman; talk to the people who are using the gear, not just the people selling it. In the end, consider what you learned from everyone else, but choose what sounds good to you. Trust your own ears. In fact, that’s good advice for any musical equipment purchase.

Gina Fant-Saez and eSession Gina Fant-Saez with the eSession online collaboration system.

Music Example: Laptop Production

As an example of what’s possible with a laptop music system, here’s a song I just finished. It’s from a project called Room to Breathe. Not only did portable music studios play a huge part in the production, the musicians weren’t even in the same place, thanks to the new eSession system. The bass is by Tony Levin, recording in his studio in Kingston, New York, using a PowerBook G4 and Logic 7. The live drums were recorded in Pat Mastelotto’s studio in Dripping Springs, Texas, on a G5 and Pro Tools|HD. The guitars are by Teddy Kumpel in New York City using a PowerBook and Pro Tools Mix. The drum programming is by Oliver Adolph in Hamburg, Germany, on a G4 and Logic 7. I recorded the horns on my Powerbook G4 with M-Powered Pro Tools and laid down the vocals on a G5 with Pro Tools|HD. Kevin Killen then mixed the song here at Blue World Music.

I hope you enjoyed this first installment. Next week we’ll cover the seven recommended extras and reveal how to use your new studio well.


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