Thursday, November 13th, 2008...6:36 pm

Welcome to the ‘Tracks 101′ Blog – tips, tricks & tutorials

Jump to Comments This being my first entry I thought I should not only introduce myself and the blog, but I should also introduce you to types of budget home studios. I'm L.A. Proper; you might have seen me around (or other less cool places). Not only am I a producer, I compose/I am a song writer, MC, DJ, engineer, do some promotion and own my own record label and publishing company. In this blog i plan to post tips, tricks, tutorials and real life experiences so that you may learn a few things, or for some just refine the talent you already have. So now that we are introduced, let’s get to the nitty-gritty.

First, you have to decide what type of artist you are (MC or Producer/Composer). Secondly, what your goals as an artist are (Do you want a Hit single, or do you just want to make music for fun?) and lastly your budget (for most this is around $0). Most people do not have a big budget when it comes to making tracks, so this article is to help those with a small budget have an amazing sound come out of there studio.

Figuring out what type of artist you are is easy, in fact you probably already know if you want to be an MC or a Producer.

  • If you are an MC (emcee), you will be looking to buy a good mic, headphones and maybe something to clean up or warm up your vocals.
  • If you are a Producer, you will be looking to buy a studio setup, including but not limited to; mics headphones, a recording software or hardware unit, instruments or music from a composer.

Second, what are your goals? If you are just trying to have fun, then I wouldn't suggest buying a $60,000 protools HD system, but I would suggest something similar to a pod casting system. The podcasting system may not be as fancy or fully featured as the protools rig, but it’s about $59,800 cheaper.

  • Fun: Are you doing this for fun and not expecting anything in return?
  • Work: Do you want to turn this into a career?
  • Release: Do you just want a hobby that might earn some cash on the side?
  • Fame: or lastly do you just want to rock a stadium and get the girl (or guys, depending on your case)?

Lastly is the budget, this isn't a cheap hobby/art form but it’s getting less expensive as technology improves.

  • $100 : you will be looking for a mic and/or a sound card that supports ASIO, and free software
  • $500 : Mic, Sound card, midi controller, software synths, and free/cheap recording software
  • $1000 : at this level, you have to decide if you want a entry level studio package or if you want to piece together your equipment from used parts and new parts.
  • $2500 : at this level, you have many choices but a protools based package deal will most likely be the best.
  • $5000 and up : There are many routes you can go, I would suggest at least: mbox 2, mpc 1000, a high end sound module or composer workstation keyboard, such as a fantom, triton, motif, or many many others out there.
  • Time: Time is money, and if you are trying to make a career out of this, be prepared to spend 60 hours a week working. If you aren't serious about this as a job, the other people will not take you seriously.

Next we will get into selecting your equipment; this guide is based on b

Things to look for when buying Basic / Inexpensive Microphones:

What type of interface/ connector does the mic have: is it USB, TRS or XLR?

USB will typically be the best for MCs or recording only vocals. You will only have to buy the microphone but not too much else. USB microphones usually include their own sound card or A/D converter.

If you buy, XLR or TRS, odds are you will need a mic pre-amp or phantom power injector. (if you don’t know what either of those are, that’s okay.) Most mixers have a microphone preamp and a phantom powered bus. However you will still need a sound card in your computer to record the sound signal.

What is the Frequency Response Range of the Microphone?

The Frequency Response of a microphone is the range of sound the microphone can hear. The human hearing range on average is only 20Hz to 20,000Hz. So I generally use the human range as a guide for the response range of the microphone. Now, this is a little bit overkill because the human vocal range is limited to roughly the range of 80 Hz to 1100 Hz, but I wouldn't recommend buying a microphone that is limited to that range.

What is the Sound Pressure Level of the Microphone?

The maximum input sound level or SPL (Sound Pressure Level) of a microphone determines how loud of a sound can your microphone can record before distortion of the sound occurs.

How much Distortion can you expect from the Microphone?

THD (Total Harmonic Distortion) is measurement of the distortion created by the use of your audio device and its ability to truly recreate the noise it has recorded/ is playing back. Any audio device that uses your signal will have THD to the final product. The lower the THD rating the better on average a THD rating of 1% or lower is good; anything around 0.01% is great!

Some good USB microphones:

$80 on average - Samson C01U - USB Studio Condenser Microphone

$120 on average- Audio Technica - AT2020 USB USB Cardioid Condenser Microphone

Some Good XLR Microphones:

$99 on average -AT2020 Cardioid Condenser Microphone

$99 on average - MXL 992 Cardioid Condenser Microphone

Things to look for when buying Basic / Inexpensive Headphones:

Just as with selecting a microphone, you will want to know the Frequency Response range and try for at least a 20 Hz - 20 kHz range. Mega boost/Bass Boost will flood the low end of your sound and make your mix sound bass heavy or muddled. Inner Ear headphones or Ear buds are damaging to your ears, I don't recommend buying them. Also, Wireless is not recommended as the wireless signal will create a hum, and the audio will be delayed from the output to the headphones. Speaking of wireless, cable length is very important, most headphones come with 6-10 feet of cable, the few pairs that I have at home all have 20-25ft cables. Some other things to look out for are power-handling (can it handle 150mW or 1000mW? the average is 100mW), Distortion or as we have previously referred to it as THD (again 1% or lower is better here), and lastly long-term wear comfort. So really a lot of things are to be considered when buying headphones, you don’t have to buy the $300 pair, because there are a few $20 pairs out there that are amazing. Hell I have a 10 year old pair of Aiwa Headphones that only cost me $11 from best buy.

So again here are some quick tips for buying a pair of headphones:

  • 20hz-20Khz or better
  • 100mW or greater power-handling
  • 1% or lower THD
  • No Bass boost or Mega boost type of options, or turn them off.
  • no ear buds
  • no wireless headphones
  • Is the cable long enough?
  • Are you comfortable, will you be comfortable after 8 hours of use?
  • remember don’t spend $100s because you can, there are decent pairs of headphones for $20

Things to look for when buying basic and Inexpensive Keyboards / Keyboard Midi Controllers:

When buying a keyboard, make sure that it supports at least midi in/out or midi via USB. If you only have midi in/out, you will need a device to convert the midi signal to your computer. You can find an USB to midi converter for around $40, although a lot of high end sound cards have a midi in/out interface.

Generally, a 25 key controller is too small for any decent playing; however it works well for a laptop/mobile setup. If you are more stationary, aka not moving your studio around, then I would aim for a 49, 61 or 88 keyed controller. This is so that you have enough room to play with two hands, and so that you constantly don't have to change the octave you are playing in.

Another thing to look out for is the type of keys the controller has. Generally there are three types of action to a keyboard, these types are: weighted keys, semi-weighted keys, and touch-sensitive keys.

Touch sensitive keys are those you find on basic midi controllers and cheaper keyboards mostly. They are light weight and tend to be sensitive.

Semi-weighted keys are those that you find on synths and sampling keyboards. They are still plastic, but they do not feel light weight, or for that matter like they will break. I personally like the semi-weighted feel; it’s a strong sturdy feel that also gives your good response to your playing.

Lastly weighted keys, weighted keys are the kind you find on a traditional piano. They are solid keys with a hammer action feel to them. Usually they are wood and lacquer but in more modern equipment you will find some plastic. Pianists prefer this feel, because it feels like a real piano.

Now that you know what type of playing action you are looking for, let’s discuss the different routes you can go for a basic keyboard controller.

  • a cheap keyboard with midi in/out and a USB to midi interface

Pros: you get the low latency sound bank of the keyboard, and a good price for a midi controller, and a midi time clock.

Cons: you have to buy a keyboard and a midi interface, and if you want to record the output of the keyboard, you need audio cables, keyboards in this range usually only support one sound at a time, and stereo output jacks.

  • a Keyboard Midi Controller

Pros: a controller will have semi-weighted keys and usually a built in midi to USB interface. Sometimes you will get programmable faders and control knobs, and it’s cheaper than a keyboard workstation.

Cons: usually there are no sound banks included with a midi controller, and the price is a little more than a basic keyboard.

  • Old/Used Synth or Keyboard based workstation

Pros: most of these machines provide multiple outs, so you can have multiple instruments triggered by midi and then routed separately to effects or a mixer or even a sound card. older equipment is cheaper to upgrade, depending on the rarity of the machine. you usually get semi-weighted keys, which are better than any cheap keyboard.

Cons: the sounds tend to be older, and 80-90s sounding. you are limited in sampling space, how many instruments you can have playing at the same time (polyphony), the bit rate of the samples taken (quality), and usually older equipment is not easy to use. Also you need a multiple input sound card or mixer in order to use one of these machines in all its glory. oh and unless the device has a USB interface, odds are you will need to buy a USB to midi interface to use one of these.

My personal favorite so far has been using an old synth with an USB to midi interface, but I also don’t mind tweaking around on my instruments.

Software Instruments / VSTs, DXIs, Sound fonts and more

So now you have a mic, a midi controller or keyboard and a decent pair of headphones, this is a good start but you still need instruments to play. A lot of beginners use loops; I personally feel that you are not learning anything as a musician when you use loops and that you should stick to creating your own music. Other people feel differently. What it comes down to is the final product, that’s really all the consumer (listener) cares about anyways. Does it sound good?

So that being said here are some free software based instruments to get you going, I have handpicked most of them because I liked the way they sounded, however there are hundreds if not thousands of software instruments out there so just go Google for some more if you want them.

  • Pianos, E-Pianos, Harpsichords and other keyed instruments

DSK RhodeZ

AkoustiK KeyZ

Elektrik Keys

bX3 Organ

mDa piano

EVM grand piano

GTG MicroOrgan MK III

  • Basses, synth and analog

Tal - Bassline

Bassline v1.3



  • Strings, Brass and Orch


DSK Strings

DSK Brass

DSK Virtuoso


  • Synths

NovaFlash Synths


SuperWave p8

Analog Matrix



Syncoder 32-2

  • Ethnic and Other


Indian DreamZ

Asian DreamZ



  • Non-Free, But I love them

Hypersonic 2 XXL VST - I love this as a general purpose sound module. Awesome sounds all the way around.

Trilogy Bass Module VST - The Best Bass Module hands down, synths, acoustic and electric.

Albino - Awesome Additive Synth, Like a Nord or TI Virus

Blue - Awesome synth, love the pads and efx

Software Based Recording Packages and ASIO

Now there are tons of free software recording packages out on the internet. However most are either hard to use, buggy or require some hacking ability.

Here is a list of free and relatively stable/easy to use software.

Audacity - This is a well known audio editor that is freeware, it is limited but powerful and is usually a great place to start. MCS this is going to be the best software for you to record vocals over a track.

Wavosaur - This is a new audio editor on the block, and it boasts a lot of great features. This program is buggy still but it looks promising.

Ardour - Protools Alternative/clone, kind of buggy, but a great tool. Linux and Macs (also on live boot cds)

Ubuntu Studio - A Full Linux Distribution with everything you need to record. This is not for beginners, but more for hobbyists that like to tinker.

  • DAWs I haven’t tried but are free

Traverso DAW - to be honest I haven’t tried this DAW, but I have many good things about this piece of software.

Kristal DAW - I personally do not like the 16 track limitation, but it’s a good start.

Sony Acid XPress - This is a Free Version of Sony Acid, it is limited but more powerful than most of the open source software above, I strongly recommend this for anyone who wants a free /easy/ and well documented basic system.

Also Good List of software DAWs is located on the Wikipedia.

  • Non-Free DAWs and Similar tools

Nuendo - This is the pro version of Cubase. While Cubase is powerful it is only meant for audio, Nuendo lets you also sync audio to video. Another neat difference between Nuendo and Cubase is the ability to cluster computers in a local network AKA uses the entire computer group together as one big processing machine.

Cubase - Cubase is most likely second place in the professional world, after protools. This is one of the most fully featured DAW software packages out there. There is steep learning curve, but it’s well worth it. This is a very powerful tool.

FL Studio - I love FL STUDIO, it is my favorite DAW, and other then its limitations with midi input, its cheesy default sounds, and its semi-non-intuitive user interface, this is hands down the best bang for your buck. Plus I made two FREE expansion packs for it. So that that default sounds issue is not really an issue.

Reason - Reason is not a DAW, you cannot record audio in this program. However it is the best sounding (out of the box) synthesis / music creation tool on a computer to date. Most people cannot tell the difference between reason and a real piece of music hardware. With Rewire, you can use this program as a VST, which is my personal choice.

Protools - The Industry Standard in Audio Editing. If you haven't heard of it, you must be new here. This very expensive system is the most complete system you will find. You now can get a protools m-powered rig for around $300. While this software is some of the best, it doesn’t support features like VSTs without third party software (add-on software).

There are tons of other software DAWs out there, don’t be afraid to Google, the above are just some really popular ones, that are well documented.

Anyways, I think 2700 words are more than enough for now. If you are still awake and reading, I want to say thank you for visiting DopeTracks and the new Tracks 101 Blog. I will be trying to update weekly with new tips and tricks. I doubt all of my future posts will be this beefy, however they will have some good content, so stay tuned!

-L.A. Proper

If you have any questions or comments, please post them below or contact me via my profile is located @ Quick Poll [poll id="2"]

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