Thursday, December 19, 2019

Home audio recording studio (Digital Audio Workstation) for electric guitar

Old computers can be turned into an audio recording studio with relatively little effort and little cost.

If you play a musical instrument, sing, and want to practice or record yourself, you want a Digital Audio Workstation (DAW). This is computer software that allows recording, monitoring (listening), and editing of music. Some DAWs support plugins to modify the sound like guitar effects pedals or amplifiers, or reverb to make your singing sound more deep and 'warm'. Depending on your needs, DAWs can work on relatively modest computers, and an old computer might suffice.

This is my setup, at a glance:
2009 Thinkpad (Core 2 Duo, 8G RAM)
Solid State Disk
Behringer USB2 Audio Interface
Behringer microphone (Ultravoice Xm8500)
Windows 10
Tracktion 7

Most of this utilized spare components. It saves an old laptop from the landfill, and this setup provides decent audio with no dropouts.

Hardware: Set up the computer

Set up Windows from a fresh disk. Tracktion 7 will work on Windows 7 onwards, and either Windows 7 or a recent Windows 10 are stable enough. It is important to have the minimum possible software on the computer, because every additional service or 'utility' can interrupt your computer during the recording session, causing annoying clicks (called audio drop-outs). Preinstalled Windows software that comes with computers is notorious for using system resources, causing these drop-outs.

Tracktion runs on Macintosh and Linux as well, so if you are using a different operating system, consider cleaning out unused software. If your computer is relatively modern with a fast processor, it might manage with other software running on it.

If using an aging laptop, buy a decent USB keyboard or mouse. Tracktion has great keyboard support, and you will be using both keyboard and mouse while you have your guitar slung around you. USB keyboards and mice don't 'interfere' with USB audio input.

Update the computer, install Microsoft Security Essentials, or other virus protection software. Run the initial scan.

To reduce Audio drop-outs (clicks or other aberrations during recording), you need to streamline the computer as far as possible:

Turn off power throttling on a laptop, so the CPU is running at max performance all through. Turn off the screensaver, and power management. You'll suspend it manually.

Turn off wifi. Network drivers can be poorly written, and can interrupt audio processing. You don't want that. If possible, use a wired connection (ethernet). If you don't need the network, disable network entirely. Your computer is going to be used to record audio primarily, and turning off the network reduces the potential for other harm. If you need Ethernet to copy music from this machine, you can always use a USB stick, or connect it to the network just when copying music out.

Turn off bluetooth. If you aren't using any bluetooth peripherals, the same caveats apply. Bluetooth drivers can sometimes keep Windows from processing audio in time. If you only have a bluetooth keyboard/mouse, you'll want USB keyboards/mice instead.

If you have disabled the network: turn off the anti-virus, turn off the firewall, and pause System Updates. In order to keep the machine in working order, you will have to routinely get the machine online (wifi or ethernet), run updates and anti-virus scans manually. If the system started out updated and with no malware, it won't get any if it stays disconnected.

Your goal is to set up the computer as an appliance. The more isolated it is, the less you will have to maintain it. Copy files out of it using a USB stick and be careful when copying files in to this system.

Hardware: Set up the USB interface

Plug your guitar/mic/piano into the interface. Install ASIO drivers (for Windows), as they provide lower latency than conventional Windows drivers. 
Update the device drivers, if your operating system recommends it.

DAW: Tracktion 7

Download Tracktion 7. This is available for free, but still requires creating an account and registering. Once you do that, you get a license key for free. You don't need a credit card. Once you create an account, you enter that account in Tracktion 7, and that allows the full software to be used with no payment. Tracktion 7 runs on Windows, Mac and Linux.

Pedals, Amplifiers: Amplitube 4 Custom Shop

If you are a guitarist, you probably need additional amplifier simulators, pedals, etc. You can look for VST and VST3 plugins online as Tracktion 7 supports these. A decent starting point is Amplitube 4 Custom Shop which is also free. To download it, create an account with IK Multimedia, which gives you the option to get software, and also license keys for the free software. You will need to enter the license keys into Amplitube when you start out. Amplitube 4 is relatively light on CPU consumption, and the included cabinet and classic amplifier is sufficient for a beginner. Of course it isn't a perfect copy of a Marshall or a Fender Blues Junior, but works well enough till you know what you want and are ready to have a dedicated music setup.

Amplitube 4 has a basic tuner built into the amplifier, as the first effect, and you can use this to tune a guitar.

Metronome/Effects: MFreeFXBundle from Melda Production

If you need a Metronome and a combination of core plugins, download MFreeFXBundle from Melda Production. It includes a compressor, a metronome, an auto-pan, auto-pitch, flanger, a cross-fader, a recorder, an equalizer, noise generator, frequency-shifter, loudness meter, reverb, and much more. Amplitube and Tracktion already have a reasonably good reverb, and you can record using Tracktion. But the free bundle provides all these in a single location, you can add plugins one after the other, and these are a starting-point for future experimentation. These plugins are relatively light on CPU usage.

Drums: MT Power Drum kit

If you need a drum kit, a relatively basic but powerful drum kit is available at MT Power Drum Kit. This is provided as a VST plugin. You can either create your own drum loops as MIDI segments that play through the drum kit, or you can use its own samples as MIDI drum segments. You can also schedule different samples so you have a combination of intros, verse, chorus, bridge, and outro. If you read through the Tracktion 7 documentation, you can also learn how to loop various segments, or modify the MIDI segments, or how to add plugins (effects) to the drums that you get from MT Power Drum kit. Again, it is available for free.

Learn how to use a DAW

DAWs are formidable software, combining mixing, effects/plugins, editing, exporting, monitoring. Since a DAW combines the features of a mixing board, amplifiers, pedal boards, keyboards/synthesizers, equalizers, you have a lot of terminology to catch up on. Tracktion has quite some documentation that can be read. Much of this documentation will help you learn the concepts, and these concepts transfer to other DAWs or audio systems.

A comprehensive set of video tutorials covering the basics.
Tracktion 7 quick start guide.
Bill Edstrom's Guide to Tracktion 7, a full book about the functionality. This is an exhaustive book on Tracktion7, with lots of screenshots of the UI and how to use it. The key-bindings for the shortcuts were incorrect for me, so do check if they are correct for you.

When I wrote this, all the above guides and tutorials were free.

Tracktion 7 is a full-featured DAW: supporting MIDI surfaces, automation, folder tracks. It also has a full programming language that allows you to write custom macros, and then assign them to a single keystroke. Some of these features are beyond what you can find in many more expensive DAWs. As you progress in your musical journey, you can purchase higher-quality plugins, and graduate to a more complicated setup. A good understanding of the basics and a knowledge of Tracktion's capabilities can be a valuable skill in the long run.

Scratchy audio!!

If your sound quality isn't clean, here are ways to isolate the issue.
  1. Is the microphone/guitar itself producing scratchy audio? Connect it to a known good amplifier/PA system and check if the problem persists.
  2. Is the cable connecting the guitar/mic frayed? Does that give clean audio connected to a different system?
  3. Is the speaker-out or headphone-out jack bad? When you play pre-recorded music from an album, do you still hear scratchy sound?
  4. Is the system under contention? You can run Task Manager (under Windows, or its equivalent tool on other systems) and see if the CPU usage spikes during audio recording. If something other than Tracktion or plugins is taking significant CPU, find out what the process is, and try to eliminate it. 
  5. Is there something keeping the CPU from processing audio with low latency. Install LatencyMon.  Close all programs, run LatencyMon and see what it says.
  6. Are your plugins too CPU intensive? Turn off plugins, or use Tracktion's system usage meter to find which plugins are taking the most CPU and see if removing those plugins reduces drop-outs. You can also reduce over-sampling in plugins, as a first step.
  7. Windows 10 has a lot of superfluous services that aren't required on an audio-only system. You can evaluate the system services and turn them off. Be careful when doing this unless you know what the service does, as you can end up with an unusable system.
  8. Ensure you are using ASIO drivers in Tracktion (Windows).
  9. Ensure you have a reasonable audio buffer size. 256 samples should give you a latency of 5.8ms with 44.1khz sampling, and that should be enough to handle the occasional Windows service running in the background.
  10. If the system is RAM constrained, the Task Monitor will show a high RAM utilization. This might lead to the system swapping memory to disk. If that is the case, buying some additional RAM might help.
  11. One approach that works for me is to log in, run updates virus checks etc, and confirm that the Task Manager shows no extra tasks running. After that, I start up Tracktion, Amplitube and the MT Drums kit. At this point if the Task Manager shows no large background activity, I start recording audio. This enables Windows' background services to settle down and the remaining audio session to proceed without interruptions.
  12. Tracktion allows the audio system to be complete unused when playback and recording is stopped. This setting is available in the Options menu, and as a keyboard shortcut. Options -> "Run audio engine when stopped" when checked means that the audio system is fully running even when the playback is stopped. In the keyboard shortcuts screen this is called: Turn playback-in-stop on/off, and is mapped by default to Shift-E. When playback-in-stop is turned off (Press Shift-E once), the audio system and all plugins are unused when the audio is stopped. So Tracktion will be running, the user interface will be functional, yet the system usage by Tracktion should reduce to near-zero. At this point, you can investigate if anything else in Tracktion or elsewhere is consuming system resources.