Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Microphone or Preamp? Which to Budget More For

So you are looking to beef up your home studio by adding a new microphone and preamp combination.   Now let's say you have a budget of $4,000 to put towards the pair.  You begin to search all the websites and catalogs, but you keep coming back to the same question: Which should I spend more on? The mic or the preamp?  In this post we will explore the pros and cons of each scenario that should provide some good direction when purchasing.  So let's begin.

Like always the results depend on what you are trying to accomplish with the new equipment.  So in our hypothetical example let's say we want an all-around studio mic that can produce crisp, clear sounds.  We also want a preamp that can provide a good signal to noise ratio and does dirty the signal.  So what's the answer?  Well in short, you want to spend more on the preamp than on the microphone.  There are exceptions to this, so let's dive a little deeper into the reasoning behind these answers.

The microphone comes first in the signal chain, and is the first thing that captures the source.  So it is important to have a good quality microphone that properly captures the source content and its nuances.  However, plugging a $2,000 microphone into a $200 preamp will degrade the quality of the signal.  A cheap preamp is more likely to add noise to your signal and even shave off some of the harmonic content through signal loss.  It may also yield a flat, dull sound.  So what's the point of having such a great microphone if the signal is getting destroyed by a cheap preamp?  If you haven't figured it out yet, the goal is to find a nice balance between the two costs that fits your own needs. This doesn't necessarily mean to split your budget and spend half on the mic and half on the preamp; although it could be a good place to start. 

When researching microphone and preamp options carefully read reviews and look at popular combinations that people are already using.  If you are looking to pair a microphone with an interface with multiple mic preamps, then read the specifications to check the quality of those preamps.  There are many great microphones that fall into the affordable range.  Purchasing one of those will leave you with enough to buy a decent preamp to pair it with.  This will give you a killer combo to capture some great sounds. Just remember that the preamp is more important, but don't let the cost gap between the too get too big.  A great preamp won't make a crappy mic worse, but it won't necessarily make it better either.  I bad preamp will almost always make a good mic worse.   Do your research, read the reviews, and compare various combinations until you find a good balance of cost to quality.  

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Wireless Media Technology: An Introduction To The Tech of Today

     By now you have the words "Apple TV" and "Chromecast" thrown around on the Internet and in everyday conversation.  These technologies are great solutions for the residential environment, but what about the professional one?  Wireless presentation has been a sought after goal for some time, and recently there have been some products released that offer some great capabilities.  These professional level products offer things that consumer products don't, and they each have their own niche.  This post is going to describe the technology and highlight some of the main contenders.

     Professional wireless presentation technology allows users to walk into a room and present from their laptop, tablet, or smartphone without the use of cables.  There are many different flavors of wireless presentation.  Some are catered towards presentation, while others are more for collaboration.  These professional versions of wireless tech is secured and dedicated so the content shared is protected.  This is something that the consume level devices cannot do.  It is for this reason that consultants hate putting consumer level presentation devices in large-scale professional environments.  Let's take a look at some examples.

Crestron Air Media:

First up is Air Media by Crestron.  This device is very similar to the Apple TV.  The device connects to the display and allows the user to wirelessly stream content.  The difference is that the Air Media device uses your company's wireless network access points, so it is very easy to integrate.  The device is also more secure.

AMX Enzo:

Next is Enzo by AMX.  This device is focused around collaboration.  It works in a similar way to Air Media, but allows you to access various cloud clients from the device itself.  So you can pull up your Dropbox account and share the presentation.  Enzo also allows the presenter to share the presentation with those in attendance.  No longer does the presenter have to gather emails and send the presentation at a later time.  Instead, a QR code appears on the screen and each person can scan the code to get a copy of the content.

Crestron and AMX are the top two contenders in the professional wireless presentation arena with new ones popping up.  This market has been a need for a long time in the professional realm and it is great to see manufacturers taking it seriously.  It's also great that each manufacturer offers their own flavor so there are multiple options depending on the type of project.  User needs have always been the driving factor in designing systems, and seeing these manufacturers coming out with unique products is definitely a breath of fresh air.

-Jon Owens, CTS

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Home Recording Equipment Basics

     So you want to build up a home studio but don’t know what to buy?  You have money to spend but no clue how to spend it?  Well thankfully, this post is dedicated to home studio budgeting basics.  In this blog post I will discuss useful ways to spend that money and some common misconceptions that can keep you from spending more than you have to.  

Basic Equipment:   

  First let’s talk about what you need to get started.  A computer is key for smaller project studios.  Most home studios run off some sort of DAW software inside a computer.  With that being said let’s talk about software.  There are many options when it comes to DAWs.  There is Pro Tools, Logic, Cubase, Nuendo, and Cakewalk.  Those are the top level DAWs that are recommended by professionals.  There isn’t much difference between them in terms of functionality.  The difference comes down to the user interface and what you feel comfortable with.  So download some demos and try them out.  A common misconception is that you need a separate piece of software for various tasks.  For example, Pro Tools for audio tracks and Reason for digital music.  This is incorrect.  All the professional level DAWs can record audio and produce digital music.  You really only need one DAW.  Then you can purchase third party plugins and virtual instruments to beef up the capabilities of that software. So pick a DAW, and purchase a simple interface.  Something with 2-8 channels is acceptable for a small home studio.  This interface will allow you to record audio into your DAW.  
     The next thing you need is a microphone.  Purchasing thing an external preamp is not necessary right out of the gate but I get a lot of people asking about this.  They want to know what to spend more money on; a mic or a preamp.  A good preamp can make a bad mic sound decent, but a cruddy preamp will make an awesome mic sound like trash.  So it is always better to invest in clean preamps.  You can purchase a good preamp and then get a mid-level microphone.  That’s a winning combination right there.  A great budget mic is the Rode NT1A or the Blue Bluebird.  I have been using both of those for years and love their sound.  

What about monitoring?

     The last piece of basic equipment you need is something to monitor with.  So get yourself some speakers or headphones.  When it comes to headphones you want as flat of a frequency response as possible.  This means NO BEATS HEADPHONES!!!  Beats headphones emphasize the lower frequencies and boost some highs, so this makes them terrible for mixing.  You want headphones or speakers that will give a good representation of the audio as it sits in the mix.  So shop around and make sure to look at the response curves in the specifications.

     So hopefully you now have some idea of the basic equipment you need to get your home studio up and running.  Some next steps may include buying plugins, virtual instruments, more microphones, or external gear.  As always, have fun with it.




Monday, September 9, 2013

Home Studio Acoustics: Part 2

     In the last post I discussed home studio acoustics and ways to improve the quality of your listening environment.  In this continuation I will talk about home studio sound isolation solutions to help keep sound from leaking into your neighbor’s place.  First, the basics of sound isolation.  Sound will ALWAYS find a way through openings.  Any opening, big or small, will let sound pass through.  Sound will also travel through the structure of the wall by vibrating the surface and passing those vibrations to the opposite side.  Three things happen when sound hits a surface.  Some of the energy is reflected, some is absorbed, and some is transferred.  We have already covered reflection and absorption, so onto transference.
    The most obvious place to start is at the door.  The quality of the door is going to make a huge difference in the isolation of the room.  Hollow core doors will let more sound through while solid core doors will absorb and reflect more.  So if you can, try to buy a nice solid door.  The next step is seal around the edges of the door.  You can buy standard seals from a hardware store and install it along the jamb of the door.  When the doors closes it will create a nice seal.  Next is to get a threshold seal for the bottom of the door.  Something along the lines of a standard bubble seal should suffice.  This will stop sound from escaping under the door.  

     Next is to find other places where sound can get into the wall or outside of the room.  Such locations include power outlets.  By taking off the faceplate you will notice a gap between the back box and the drywall.  Placing some sealant in this gap will stop sound from escaping.  So where else can sound get out?
     If you have a drop ceiling then chances are sound is escaping from there.  Special acoustic ceiling can be purchased that will not only increase the isolation, but the absorption as well.  If you can’t afford ceiling tiles then placing some insulation above the ceiling will work too.  Now just keep looking for places where sound can escape and do your best to seal up those exits.  Many people have asked me how to improve their walls.  If you have think walls that are bad at isolating sound, then it is best to rebuild the wall to be more resilient.  Using dual layer drywall or mass loaded vinyl is an excellent way to improve the performance of your walls.  Gaps in the fiberglass insulation can let sound through so using sprayed insulation will drastically improve your performance.  It will also save you money on the heating bill!  If you live in an apartment and can’t open your walls to fix them, then there isn’t much you can do.  The best solution is to try and place absorption and diffusion on the wall to catch as much sound to keep it from transferring through the wall.  Keep in mind that more absorption will alter the acoustics inside the room so use with caution.
     This concludes the two-part segment on home studio acoustics.  Stay tuned for future posts that will revisit some things in more detail.  Please do some research on your own and familiarize yourself with basic small room acoustics.  It will really help you during the treatment process.  Thanks for reading!


Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Home Studio Acoustics: Part 1

     We already know that home studios are not going away.  It is best to embrace this shift in the recording industry and figure out a way to make it work.  Many professionals criticize homes studios because they are often run by amateurs, and they don’t necessarily use the best equipment or have the best acoustics.  Recording and mixing music is all about the acoustics.  If the acoustics of the space are decent then low grade equipment can still be useful.  However, bad acoustics can make even the best equipment completely useless.  This two-part blog post will overview some effective ways to strengthen your room’s acoustics and give you a better mixing environment as a result.  In this first post we will go over some ways to treat the inside of your room.
     Let’s assume that for this post that you live in a space where knocking down the walls and building from scratch is not an option.  This is probably the most realistic scenario.  So what do you do?  Well, you have to treat the room in such a way that you eliminate reflections and room resonances.  However, sound isolation is also very important if you live in an apartment building and have neighbors.  Sound isolation techniques will be covered in the second post so let’s focus on reflections and resonances for now.  Small rooms are very tricky to deal with because they produce room modes within the audible frequency spectrum.  A room mode is the natural resonance frequency of a room dimension.  The equation is the speed of sound/wavelength.  The wavelength in this case is the dimension of the room.  So if our dimension is 19ft, then our resonance frequency is 1130/19=60Hz.  This means that we will have issues within the 60Hz area and some multiples.  
     These resonant frequencies will alter your perception of the mix and this can result in unbalanced mixes.  Reflections are another key component to small room acoustics.  Since the dimensions are shorter the reflected sound arrives at the listening position with strong amounts of energy. This too can alter the perception of the mix and cause phase issues.  So let’s talk about some effective ways to treat these issues.

     After figuring out the frequencies that are giving you trouble you can begin to pick out some acoustic treatments.  Companies like Primacoustics and Auralex provide some affordable consumer grade acoustic treatments that can get the job done.  Don’t just slap foam all over the walls though.  Place some absorption directly on the wall behind the speakers and at early reflection points to eliminate sound reflecting off the walls towards your ears.  Next, it is wise to pick out some diffusion to place on the wall behind the listening position.  This will help scatter the sound around the room so it does not create a standing wave.  A cost effective way to create diffusion is to use furniture elements like a book shelf filled with books.  The various depths and densities of each book create a great diffusion element with some absorption as well.  
     Everything I have discussed so far is great for mid to high frequencies, but we know that low frequencies are what’s giving us the most trouble.  Low frequencies like to hangout in corners so placing high density objects there can help absorb some low end.  The companies mentioned before also sell some corner bass traps to help with this problem, but it is not necessary to spend a lot of money.  You just have to understand basic acoustics and absorption properties.  Many people will say to place egg cartons on the wall for diffusion and absorption.  This is not a good technique.  Egg cartons do provide some absorption, but it is only in the high frequencies.  We know that small room suffer most from low frequency issues, so egg cartons aren’t the best solution.  
     This ends this installment of home studio acoustic basics.  Next post I will discuss sound isolation methods for your home space.  Future posts will revisit the acoustic treatment topic so stay tuned. 


Sunday, July 28, 2013

Control Systems - The Future Is Here

     The last post touched on the ability to monitor and control devices through a network.  This post will begin to explain some of the control systems that exist and what they are capable of.  Understanding these systems can give you a better idea of where technology is going and how it can be used.  
     Let me start with an example that people have probably heard of.  It is called Phillips hue.  Hue is a set of light bulbs that can be control with a mobile device.  The bulbs connect to a bridge that then gets connected to a wireless router via network cabling.  With the bulbs now connected to the network, you can control them via a smart phone app.  The app can dim and brighten, turn on and off, and even set scenes.  You can set up a scene for watching movies where your kitchen lights are dim, and living room lights are off.  Just press the scene and the lights will automatically adjust.  
     I started with Hue because it is the most consumer friendly example.  While the consumer market is just getting to know control systems, the truth is they have been around for years in the commercial market.  The leaders are Crestron and AMX.  These companies create complex control systems for nearly every aspect of your space.  You can control lighting, shades, computers, displays, and audio systems.  Manufacturers are making their equipment controllable so any of these items can be controlled over one of these complex systems.  
     A control system allows a user to control their entire space from a thin control panel.  These control panels can be button or touchscreen and can be located in a surface or set on a table.  Control systems are very popular in offices and boardrooms.  A user can sit at the conference table and lower the shades, dim the lights, turn on the display, and select their input source for presentation.  Control systems are used in many other applications as well.  The hotel industry uses them in their rooms to control various functions.  Some institutions use control systems for simple uses like lighting or shade control.  No matter the application, control systems provide a classy and convenient way to control lighting, shading, and devices.  While Crestron and AMX provide systems for home use, more consumer-grade products are beginning to surface.  Soon households will have control systems running every aspect of their homes.  Some already do, but more will certainly follow.  


Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Audio Networking: AV Meets IT

     The world of analog audio has been on its way out for some time, and digital audio has been moving in.  Now there is a new culprit entering the scene, and that's networking.  The integration of digital audio means audio networks can now gain massive territory.  To illustrate, I will paint scenario.  
     The old way of designing an audio system was through analog means.  There would be a mixing board with physical inputs, analog cabling routing to processors, and then an output to speakers.  This is one of the simplest forms of an audio system.  In the analog domain an audio network gets messy as it grows in size.  This is due to the cabling, power, and space requirements. 
        Today’s technology has taken the world of network routing, and applied it to audio system applications.  Think of how your Internet and corresponding devices are set up.  You have your router that grabs the Internet from your provider to supply to your household.  Then every device you want on the network connects to that router somehow; whether it is physically or wirelessly.  All of those connected devices can now talk to each other and the Internet.  So, now you can print wirelessly, connect to the Internet, and share files remotely with other computers in your household.  These are the basics of networking and now you can do it with audio systems.  
     Audio is starting to use the same blue Ethernet cable that is used for Internet networks.  Ethernet has the capability to carry more audio signals than an analog cable that can only carry one.  So already there is an advantage.  Manufacturers are also developing digital audio devices that have the capability to talk to one another intelligently.  Addresses are assigned to each device that is attached to the network and with little manipulation from the user; these devices can talk to each other.  This is called Audio over Ethernet (AoE).  More commonly you will see it described as a Cobranet or Dante system.  These are two common systems that allow audio over Ethernet at great speeds.  Another advantage of having audio devices on a network is the ability to control and monitor them remotely.  There are some brands that allow the end user to monitor and control a device from anywhere in the world through the Internet.  The manufacturer sets up a web portal that allows the user to log in to his/her device(s) and control or monitor.  This is huge because I have witnessed first-hand, times when the crew needed access to a piece of gear but didn’t have the authorization, and the only guy that did was not there.  Having network capabilities eliminates that problem from occurring, or at least greatly reduces it. 

     So hopefully you can start to see how much of an advantage it is to have audio systems set up in a network configuration.  It allows for more complex systems, reduction in cabling, and expansion of use.  However, these systems are far more complex to design and install.  This sums up my introduction to the world of networked audio.  There will be future posts delving deeper into the equipment and techniques used to design and operate these systems.