Friday, May 19, 2006

Audio Options

I don't have money to put into studio gear at the moment, but that doesn't stop me from going through the Sweetwater catalog like it was the 1918 Sears Wish Book.

I've determined that the crackling coming from the Snowball microphone does not seem to be in the mic; it is not present when I record using Audacity on my PC. I need to test it again on my PowerBook at home -- it is possible there was some kind of transient power problem, but I suspect the reason is that my PowerBook's USB ports have become flakey. This is very frustrating considering I just bought editing software to use for working on podcasts on my Mac, and it is the quietest solution I've got for recording. That machine must inevitably be replaced, but I am trying to keep it limping along a little bit longer.

Assuming that I will one day soon be able to put a little money into the home studio setup, the question becomes "what kind of setup?" Here are some ideas I'm considering, from small expense to large:

- A Plantronics USB headset microphone for recording podcasts. Untested, but should eliminate more background noise; audio quality unknown, but I'd settle for a little less accuracy in favor of less hum and rumble. If it made it so I could make a decent voice recording in a room with a noisy PC, or with other people in it, I'd be ecstatic.

- A Keil dynamic broadcast microphone with stand, shockmount, etc. This would require a preamp and A/D solution. Which leads me to:

- Some kind of A/D solution. I'm pretty much going to rule out USB interfaces at this point; they seem to be targeted at the (audio quality) low end. That leaves FireWire.

I'm considering an Edirol FA-66, a Focusrite Saffire, and other options.

What I really want is a consumer-grade RCA line in, for digitizing data _cleanly_ from a casette deck, two to four mic preamps that don't just sound OK, but excellent, a couple of balanced TRS inputs, a couple of unbalanced TS inputs, and two to four electric instrument DI inputs that again sound not just OK, but excellent.

This does not have to be a single-box solution. It would be nice if it could grow incrementally. One solution I'd seriously consider is to get a Mackie Onyx 1640 mixer with the FireWire option. To start with I could use the built-in mic preamps, but maybe later I could bypass them with separate rack items with separate rack-mount channel strips, and use a similar approach for DI inputs. I am scrutinizing the Mackie manual to determine whether this might be feasible.

I like the Mackie boards in general; they are rugged and flexible, but using the mic preamps as electric instrument inputs never sounded good, at least not on the previous models that I tested, and the preamps were adequate but not spectacular.

Pretty much any of these approaches is going to require a new computer, ultimately, but with some good planning maybe I can get my existing box to limp along a little bit longer, and not regret any particular hardware purchase along the way!

FOLLOWUP: While the reviews indicate that the Onyx mic preamps sound a bit better than the previous Mackie "XDR" preamps, it seems that the FireWire routing options for the Onyx mixers are rather limited: pre-fade, pre-effects only, and a single stereo return. That makes the FireWire card seem like a true after-thought instead of an integrated part of the design.

In addition, while their documents used to crow about how their gear was made in the U.S.A., I can no longer find information on where Mackie products are manufactured. Maybe I will go to Guitar Center in Canton this weekend and see if the Onyx mixers now say "Made in China." Also, some of the reviews I saw of the Onyx gear comments on loose screws, pots with inconsistent and non-linear behavior, and indifferent sheet-metal build quality. The Mackie mixers I owned previously were quite well-built and one even survived the collapse of a huge bookshelf directly on to the mixer itself resulting in only cosmetic damage. If they've become crap, I will have to reluctantly say "never again!"

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