AMBIENT RESOURCES


I love spending time in the studio with other artists and sharing knowledge. I've therefore decide to put together this page of 'ambient resources' to help others find the tools to express themselves. This guide is largely aimed at new artists who have read a little about music production and are thinking about putting together their first home music studio to produce sonic art or experimental music. I tend to gravitate to open source and affordable tools, so much of this short guide centres on software and hardware of this nature.

If you come across a term in this guide that you have not encountered before, this is a handy glossary of audio recording terms.


COMPUTER

If you are starting from scratch, I highly recommend choosing a desktop PC over a Mac. PC's are more configurable, have greater backwards compatibility and are easier to repair and find parts for in the future. On the PC platform you are far less likely to have to upgrade your operating system, this passes on significant savings on both software and hardware (such as sound card obsolescence).

If you do side with a PC, purchase the computer from an audio computer specialist rather than trying to self build or find a bargain (both are sure fire ways of making a costly mistake!). In the UK Scan and Carillon can both be trusted to build good machines. I currently use a Carillon audio computer with a Intel i5 750 @ 2.67GHz processor and 8GB RAM. I run Windows 7 64 bit as my OS. The computer was purchased in 2009 and is still going strong. I anticipate running the same machine for another three or four years.

If you prefer to use a Mac computer, an iMac with Logic software is a good choice (feel free to skip on my recommendation of using Reaper as your DAW). If you intend to purchase additional audio plugins from third party vendors for the Mac platform, have a careful to look at the creators upgrade policy for OS updates. Company policies do vary; for instance MeldaProduction will provide you with free upgrades for life, whilst Waves updates will require the purchase of the Waves Upgrade Plan.

If you prefer to work on a laptop rather than a desktop go for a MacBook rather than a PC laptop.


SOUND CARD & MIDI KEYBOARD

If you're on a tight budget Native Instruments Komplete Audio 6, Steinberg UR22 or one of the smaller Focusrite Scarlett cards are perfectly fine. If you have a little more money RME and MOTU both make excellent products (the RME HDSP9632 is a good affordable choice for a desktop PC).

Pretty much any MIDI keyboard that feels robust and has a few faders and rotary pots will do. Little can go wrong with MIDI keyboards, so they are best purchased second hand.


CREATIVE SOUND PROCESSING / COMPOSITIONAL PLATFORMS


DAW SOFTWARE

There's a lot of affordable professional quality music production software out there. The big software choice is your digital analogue work station. I use and recommend Reaper, which at the time of writing costs 60USD (about 40 GBP). It is very stable, fast and configurable.

It's wise to stick to a few carefully selected plugin effects and instruments. Having a selection of a few simple tools will encourage you to learn them fully, experiment and develop your personal sound. It is very easy to lose your way once you start collecting and using powerful software.

ToneBoosters, Stillwell Audio, MeldaProduction, DDMF and LiquidSonics are third party developers who make excellent plugin effects at low price points.


VST EFFECTS

Reaper comes with a great selection of plugins. You can supplement them with additional effects. The following affordable and free plugins come highly recommended:


  • EQ
  • ReaEQ - Reaper's internal EQ.
  • Classic EQ  (IK Multimedia) - Free analogue modelling EQ, with mid / side options.
  • Vibe EQ (Stillwell Audio) - A 'character' EQ (25 USD).
  • LP10 (DDMF) - A linear phase equalizer. This EQ is useful for processing harmonically complex material. A reduced feature version of this product is available free on the cover disc of Computer Music magazine.
  • TDR-Nova (Tokyo Dawn Records) - A parallel dynamic equalizer (this one is great for getting out of sticky situations).


  • Compression
  • ReaComp - Reaper's internal compressor. ReaComp is a good tool and used by lots of recording engineers and artists, however it is a little fiddly. Give it a whirl and see how you get on. If you don't gel try the TB Compressor below.
  • TB Compressor (ToneBoosters) - I recommend purchasing the Track Essentials for 19.95 EUR.
  • If you find yourself struggling with compressor settings, try the Klanghelm DC1A. If you find you get on better with the DC1A consider demoing, then waiting for a sale to pick up either the IK Multimedia White 2-A compressor, Waves CLA-2 or Softube Summit Audio TLA-100A.

 

  • Transient Processing
  • BitterSweet v3 (Flux)
  • Dominion (Digital Fishphones) - Extensive control of the signal's attack and sustain phase (32 bit),


  • Reverb
  • Reverbate LE (LiquidSonics) - An excellent free convolution reverb. The following IR packs are worth investigating SignalToNoise (I particularly like the Eventide H3000 and SPX990 impulse packs ) Fokke van Saan's generous offerings (which include some interesting speaker emulations and a nice small church) and Voxengo's wide selection of IR files.
  • Classic Studio Reverb (IK Multimedia) - This older software has a very coloured sound that I find interesting, if you are patient the Hall Module (my favourite) can be picked up for about 30 EUR in a sale.


  • Delay
  • ReaDelay - Reaper's complex internal delay. It looks a little intimidating and ugly, however it is very powerful. If it scares you at first, stick with it and experiment, this might be the only delay that you ever need.
  • JS Delay (Floaty) - a second internal Reaper delay written in the JS language.
  • Delay Trio (soundHack) - A curious selection of experimental delays.


  • Limiter
  • TB Barricade  (ToneBoosters) - A reduced feature version of this product is available free on the cover disc of Computer Music magazine. The full version is only 19.95 EUR.


  • Distortion, tape and vinyl emulation
  • Saturation Knob (SoftTube) - Free saturation / distortion (warning 432 MB download - if you need to preserve space, simply delete all of the other effects appart from the Saturation Knob from your VST plugins folder after installation).
  • SDRR (Klanghelm) - A useful saturation / distortion plugin (22 EUR)
  • TBFerox - (ToneBoosters).
  • Vinyl - (iZotope).
  • Head Crusher Free (Audio Assault).
  • MBitFun (Melda Production) - From the MFreeEffectsBundle.




  • Various SFX
  • Amplitube Custom Shop (IK Multimedia) - Free guitar amplifier emulation.
  • Nebula3 Free Bundle - a powerful (and CPU hungry) multi-effect plugin.
  • TB TimeMachine - (ToneBoosters) - From the Track Essentials bundle.
  • TB Module - (ToneBoosters) - From the Track Essentials bundle.
  • MAutopan (Melda Production) - From the MFreeEffectsBundle.
  • MFlanger (Melda Production) - From the MFreeEffectsBundle.
  • MFreqShifter (Melda Production) - From the MFreeEffectsBundle.
  • MRingModulator (Melda Production) - From the MFreeEffectsBundle.
  • MVibrato (Melda Production) - From the MFreeEffectsBundle.
  • ADT (Vacuume Sound) - Use to double voice parts or make a mono sample sound stereo.
  • GGrain (GVST) - Granular resynthesis.


  • Imaging and analysis
  • Basslane (Tone Projects) - Control the stereo field of lower frequencies
  • PhaseBug (BetaBugs Audio).
  • bx_solo (Brainworks).
  • MSED (Voxengo).
  • SPAN (Voxengo).
  • MAnalyser (MeldaProduction) - From the MFreeEffectsBundle.


VST INSTRUMENTS

Instruments are a much more personal choice than effects, so I'll just point you towards a few good ones to get you started:

  • Free VST synthesizers
  • Obxd (Datsounds) - Oberheim OB-X emulation.
  • Dexed (Digital Suburban) - FM Synthesizer based on the Yamaha FM7.
  • SQ8L (Siegfried Kullmann) - A brilliant emulation of the Ensoniq SQ80 (32 bit).
  • WaveSimD (Hermann Seibs) - An emulation of the PPG Wave.


  • Free Samplers
  • ReaSamplOmatic5000 - Reaper's internal sampler.
  • Grace (One Small Clue), TX16Wx (CWITEC Music Software) or Independence Free (Magix) - All are powerful free samplers. You can build your own pallet of sounds by sampling sound sources and creating your own instruments.


STUDIO MONITORS, HEADPHONES & THIRD REFERENCE SPEAKER

Unfortunately it's impossible to buy useful monitors for under £700, therefore it is best to work on headphones until you can afford to buy a useful set of speakers. Working on good headphones means that the acoustics in your room will not adversely influence your mix. Perfectly acceptable mixes can be crafted by working on headphones alone. A useful guide to mixing on headphones can be found here. I recommend open backed Sennheiser HD650 headphones for mixing and the closed back Beyerdynamic DT 770 Pro headphones for recording instruments. If you can't afford monitor speakers, it's best to make your music on a combination of headphones and hi-fi speakers and then mix on Sennheiser HD650 headphones.

The following monitors are recommended and can be purchased for under £1000 - APS Coax, Unity Audio The Pebble (there is no need for Bam Bam in a small studio) and Quested S6R MKiii all of these speakers are sealed box designs, with very fast transient response and good mid range detailing (check out Mike Senior's Mix Secrets For The Small Studio and read this excellent paper by designer Phil Ward to learn more about the benefits of sealed box monitor designs).

It's wise to built a few bass traps and a ceiling cloud to get the best out of your monitors. You can learn more about room acoustics at the John Sayers acoustic forum.

Monitor stands will significantly improve the performance of your speakers. The brand Ultimate Support built good stands at a fair price. Choose a product that is solid (not height adjustable) and can be sand filled (use children's kiln dried play sand). The MS-36B2 Studio Monitor Stand can often be picked up cheaply second hand. The MS90/45R is the newer version of this product.

It's also handy to have a smaller reference speaker. This should be a small, sealed box, single driver speaker. Sensible choices include the Avanatone Mixcube (active or passive) and Triple P Designs Pyramid (passive). Alternatively you can build you own Thomas Barefoot designed Killatone (passive). Only buy or build one speaker and listen in mono. I find a single Avantone Mixcube to be invaluable for helping to balance the midrange of my music.

An SM Pro M Patch V2 is a useful, affordable device to switch between your speaker sets, stereo/mono and controlling your listening volume. If you are looking for something more durable with a better feature set the Drawmer MC2.1 is an excellent choice.


MICROPHONES

You will need to buy a microphone or two. I use two CAD M179 microphones for recording instruments such as piano and one for recording vocals. Recording real sound sources is essential for the soul of your music!


HARDWARE SYNTHESIZERS

During the creation of Echoes From One To Another, the hardware side of my studio consisted of a Yamaha QY700, Roland HS-60, Oberheim Matrix 1000, Yamaha TX802, Roland JV-1080, and an Emu e6400 Ultra sampler. Equipment that was deeply unfashionable at the time and therefore extremely affordable on the second hand market (the synthesizers were picked up for between 80 GBP and 120 GBP each). Nobody in 2006 wanted hardware sequencers or rack mounted synthesizers that required button pushing programming. Equally the HS-60 was seen as ugly and undesirable next to the almost identical Roland Juno 106. There are far more sophisticated, affordable software and hardware options in in 2015 that can be purchased new and second hand; however spend some time playing with the free VST instruments above before thinking about making an expensive purchase.


Sound on Sound's Readers Ads is perhaps the best place to purchase used equipment in the UK. Gumtree and eBay can also be useful, however please collect all of your purchases in person (ideally with a friend to back you up) and thoroughly test all items before handing over your cash.

My current hardware synthesizer are a Korg Delta, Roland Integra-7, Yamaha DX7iiFD and Roland D550.


PRODUCTIVITY

  • Freedom (80PCt Solutions) - Internet blocking software with countdown timer.
  • Try timetabling creativity (eg. 2 hours composition every morning) - thank you to Richard Moult for this tip.
  • Try using sand timers to accomplish a given task. Danger Mouse uses this technique. This is great way of getting through boring editing tasks.
  • Oblique Statergies (Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt).
  • Apply for a Sound and Music, ArtQuest or AN deadline and get busy.

My daily composition routine (for personal work) is to compose for two hours every morning using Freedom as my count down timer. I start at 7am and finish at 9am. Doing so, I find that I can comfortably create seven to ten minutes of release quality music a week. The rest of my day is spent on commissions, sound design and other business interests.

Mason Currey's book Daily Rituals: How Artists Work may give you ideas for how to structure your creative time.


READING - If you are short on time, read in the listed order:

  • Audio Culture: Readings in Modern Music (Christoph Cox)
  • Haunted Weather: Music, Silence, and Memory (David Toop)
  • Mix Secrets For The Small Studio (Mike Senior)
  • Recording Secrets For The Small Studio (Mike Senior)
  • Ocean of Sound: Aether Talk, Ambient Sound and Imaginary Worlds (David Toop)
  • Noise Water Meat (Douglas Kahn)
  • The Rest Is Noise (Alex Ross)
  • Silence: Lectures and Writings (John Cage)
  • Stockhausen on Music (Karlheinz Stockhausen)
  • Mastering Audio: The Art and the Science (Bob Katz)


LISTENING:

  • Karl Heinz Stockhausen - Stimmung (1968)
  • Jean-Claude Eloy - Gaku-No-Michi (1978)
  • Trevor Wishart - Red Bird: A Political Prisoner's Dream (1978)
  • more to come....


WHEN THE GOING GETS TOUGH

A Young Person’s Guide To Hustling In Music and The Arts (Lawrence English) - check out the amazing ROOM40 and learn more about Lawrence English - he knows how to hang tough!


FIELD RECORDING by Aino Tytti

I am not heavily into field recording, therefore I have asked my more knowledgeable friend, the sound artist Aino Tytti to pen this section.

In 2013 Tytti made a study of the Hellissandur Mast in Iceland for the UK label Touch. His sparse and inspiring twitter feed can be followed here. His live set from William Basinski's UK Arcadia residency can be found on Soundcloud.


Aino Tytt's interesting thoughts:

Recorder

Broadly there are 3 levels when it comes to recorders. ‘Entry level’ recorders at below £300, ‘pro-sumer’ level recorders at below £800 and then a fairly hefty step up in price to high-end gear from the likes of Sound Devices (I use an SD 744), Sonosax and Nagra. For this guide, we’ll consider the more affordable end of the market and leave the high-end gear for another time.

Central to a good recorder is the quality of the pre-amps and this should be the primary consideration when deciding on a device. This is in addition of course to decent build quality; you’re likely to be taking your gear into some reasonably hostile environments (if you’re lucky) so it’s important the thing holds together.

Firstly, I’d strongly advise anyone at any level to avoid Zoom recorders as they have noisy preamps and the build quality is by-and-large poor.

The best preamps on more entry level products can be found in Tascam, Sony and Olympus models. However, the reality is that the cheaper units primarily  save money on the all important pre-amps and, if field recording is a serious consideration in your work, it is well worth saving a bit more and considering a pro-sumer recorder which will be significantly quieter and allow you to capture more subtle source material.

At the sub-£300 level, the Tascam 44WL and the Olympus LS-100 are both proficient two channel recorders with XLR combo jacks, therefore offering good flexibility in the future when considering which mics and devices will be connected to it. The internal mics on the Olympus are better than the Tascam (not that you should be using them - see next section), while the Tascam has better preamps and as a result is the better unit for the money.

At the next level up, the Tascam DR-680MKII offers improved preamps, very solid build quality and the opportunity to experiment with multichannel and surround sound recording. Alternatively, the Fostex FR-2LE is worth consideration, with an updated version expected to be released imminently.

If you want to build your set-up over time, it’s worth considering the 44WL or LS-100 to begin with, and then adding a Sound Devices MixPre-D later. While a little cumbersome, this approach will allow you to use your recorder as a simple 'storage unit' and use the high end pre-amp in the MixPre-D, which is one of the best in the business.

Microphones

The internal mics on hand held recorders should be avoided. There is a huge difference not only in sound capture quality from using external mics but in the flexibility and creative work flow that operating this way affords. However, if they must be relied upon, the internal mics on models by Olympus and Sony usually come out on top in terms of transparency of sound.

I would always advise investing in a good pair of omni directional mics first of all. This is very much the staple of my field recording set up and probably constitutes 70% of what i record. At the high-end, a pair of DPA 4060 mics cannot be faulted, they are not cheap but they are undoubtedly the best for all round field recording. At the mid-range, Rode make a good and very widely used  Lavalier Mic and at the budget end www.microphonemadness.com offer their own BSM9 mics.  I relied extensively on a pair of BSM9 mics for quite some time and got excellent results, so don’t be too put off by their comparatively cheap price tag. They also come with the added bonus that should you drop them into a rock pool you won’t have to go and see your bank manager in order to replace them.

All of these microphones will work well with the recorders mentioned in the previous section. The DPAs and Rodes terminate with XLRs, while the BSM9s use plug-in power and will need a splitter to convert from minijack, which is also available from microphonemadness.com. The DPAs require 48v Phantom Power, which again is available on the recorders noted.

Most location sound recordists for film, TV and radio will say that you need a shotgun mic for directional detail and the classic mic for this type of work is the  Sennheiser MKH 416. Like many in the 'non-broadcast' field recording community, I have moved away from using shotgun mics in recent years though and sold my MKH 416 some time ago. If more detail is needed, you can often get very good results just by moving the omni mics closer to the source and/or being creative with mic positioning. I find this gives a much more open, natural and ‘realistic’ sound than a shotgun.

If directional recording is important to you, for isolating a sound subject in a noisy environment or recording things at an inaccessible distance, a parabolic reflector is what you need. Parabolic reflectors work well with omni directional mics, so investing here kills too birds with one stone.

30% of what I record is through contact mics and hydrophones, which offer some fantastic opportunities for capturing textures, patterns and harmonics which are inaudible to the human ear. For both of these, I highly recommend the JRF series mics  both in terms of sound and build quality and again will work well with the recorders noted above.

Wind Protection

For your omni directional mics, you will need to put them in something to protect them from wind and handling noise. The Rode Blimp  is excellent and offers the best value for money, allowing you to easily  attach the mics to the internal structure. If you have plenty of money to spend, a Rycote enclosure will certainly offer better quality, albeit for a disproportionately large amount more money. 

If you’re on a very tight budget you can make one yourself reasonably easily and quite a lot of field recordists start out with a homemade rig, which comprises of attaching the two mics to an upside down wire coat-hanger and putting small fluffy windjammers onto each mic.

Thank you Aino Tytti!


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