Creating Your Very Own Recording Studio – Part I

Learning from My Expensive Mistakes

Many years ago I acquired a Yamaha MT120 MKII Cassette 4-Track Recorder. I tried to make use of it at the time, but I could not get a decent-sounding multi-track recording out of it. I realized that my understanding as an “engineer” was woefully lacking and that the specially biased and equalized metal tapes were not only kind of pricey, but they also tended to not allow me an infinite number of “redo’s”; I noticed a quality of degradation after I had recorded over them a bajillion times. I relegated the 4-track to being a really expensive scratch pad recorder of riffs.

Then the 2,000’s came around. Y2K was a bust and I had my first in a series of home PC’s. I had been playing in original, cover and church bands for a number of years and the writing and recording bug awoke from its long, hibernative slumber. Around 2006, I gave it another try with a combined effects and recording rig, the Digitech GNX4; not finding it to my liking, it too was relegated to being a riff recorder. It was, at least to me, essentially a digital version of my Yamaha 4 track, just “New and Improved…Now with Effects”.

So as I researched, I was looking for something that still offered something similar, but with the recorder and the effects split up. About 2010-2011 I came across the Avid 11Rack (aka 11R) that was bundled with the Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) known as Pro Tools LE (essentially PT v 8.0). Pro Tools (PT) was supposed to be the industry standard. I was looking ahead to collaborating with other musicians and possibly having access to mix and mastering services at some point, so I decided to go with this bundle. The 11R could also be used as a preamp and all-in-one effects unit in a live setting with a MIDI foot controller.

I purchased a reasonably powerful PC based laptop computer to install PT on, a 1 TB external hard drive and a case that would hold the 11R, the external drive and the laptop all cabled and ready to go. I purchased a modest set of studio monitors from Alesis for home use and I thought that I was good to go.

About two years later the laptop’s hard drive started to die. I had learned from various hiccups and lock ups that I really needed to add another 4GB of RAM to the laptop and that I would be better served with a solid state hard drive replacement for the laptop. Basically the computer I thought was adequate was not. I was looking to purchase a tactile controller that I could use with PT for tracking and mixing and a second monitor to be able to have the edit window on one and the mix window on the other. I also realized at this point that the two inputs on the 11R, one for an instrument and one with a mic preamp were not nearly enough, especially as I’ve yet to learn how to use them concurrently. It seems I can use one or the other, but not both at the same time.

So I added all that up and decided to ditch the laptop, rebuild an older, unused tower that my son was no longer using and beefed it up considerably as the quad-core processor in it already was plenty fast. I bought the second monitor (the tower I appropriated had an unused monitor) and a Zoom R24. The R24 was the only good thing to come out of this experience and everything else I did going forward was built around its presence.

The Zoom is a portable recorder all on its own with the ability to capture, mix and master to a finished CD quality, a set of song files within its sweet self. It can process up to 24 tracks and record up to eight at a time. If one needs more than 24 tracks, the old-school track bouncing technique is available as needed. It has 8 combined mic preamps/quarter inch inputs, built in effects, e.g., delays, reverbs, chorus, Eq, etc., various tools including a tuner, a multi-voice metronome, and a pretty good drum machine with samples from some world class drummer that I’m not real familiar enough with to know much about other than his world class status.

Now the drum machine is taking the sampled waveforms and constructing a set of patterns that are many and user choose-able. It’s not just playing them back like a looped, four beats per measure recording. I reckon that drum patterns can be programmed into the machine too as there are a set of labeled pads on the top front of the device. I've been happy with the preprogrammed patterns as they're adequate to get the creativity going, but I don't use them past the rough idea stage in my writing...anyway, I digress...

The R24 records to an SD Card and it has a USB in and out port in addition to the mic preamps. The operating controls for recording, playback, FF, RW, etc. are like the old-school cassette transport controls. One can set start and stop points and punch in and out. I don’t know for a fact, but it would not surprise me if the USB port would allow for some sort of remote, foot-activated start and stop for punching in and out.

It has a pair of external microphones right on the case for catching a riff idea or singing a melody idea, quick and dirty like. It offers phantom power and has a hi-z input (channel 1 of the combined inputs) for plugging in a guitar or bass, although there is enough gain on the input trim for each channel, that a passive, hi-z instrument can record into any of the other inputs and I haven't really noticed any signal degradation from the impedance mismatch. It also can run on 6 AA batteries if one does not want to or cannot plug into the mains with the included wall wart.

The R24 utilizes the Mackie Control Surface emulation protocol and can be utilized as a control surface for many of the DAWs also. The faders are not motorized like the fancier units, but for $500 and all the other stuff it can do, that wasn’t an issue for me. The mic preamps are not bad. They aren’t the best out there but they are far better than the ones in a few of the other units I've played with and they really do an adequate job. I use it for capturing music away from my project studio and then import the .wav files into my DAW for mixing and mastering or I capture my drum kit when I'm running all eight mic inputs from my old school drum kit.

Now, why don't I just mix and master everything within the R24 environment, if the R24 is indeed a one-stop, in-a-box, solution? Because a DAW offers so much more power. Don’t worry, we’ll get to that in next week’s article when I show you what I’ve learned from my expensive mistakes listed in this article to give you solid recommendations to help you get your home studio started!!

-Kirk Bolas - MU Columnist
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