A Tale of Two Computers

Photo of a recording studio control room during recording, viewing a trumpet part performance in the the studio room, for Witches' Heart of Stone album - http://www.witchesband.Image via WikipediaThe Set Up

When I was growing up in the 80's the thought of having your own recording studio was something that was beyond all but the people with the biggest pockets. This was back in the day when the project studio was just starting out and the most you could ask for was a simple set up and 8 tracks, if you were lucky. I remember getting my first four track recorder in the early 90's and having marveled at the fact that I could overdub more than one guitar track. Times have changed and it's not uncommon today for a musician to have a studio set up on their computer that exceeds the horsepower of a million dollar facility in the 80's. For a relatively small sum of money you can have almost unlimited tracks of audio and MIDI, not to mention a good assortment of effects processors and instruments, all living within your computer. Today the commercial studios now employ the best of the newest technology along with choice vintage gear to give modern recordings that old world warmth and depth. Every musician seems to have pieces of gear that they've picked up along the way that they cherish. Yet with all of the different pieces of gear and tastes there are a couple of studio set ups that most musicians seem to favor. Of course the tried and true is the cockpit version where the musicians position themselves behind a mixer or desk and have their computer monitors sitting a few feet in front of themselves. On either side of the computer monitors are their studio monitors and either on the desk or close to the right or left is their MIDI keyboard of instrument of choice. Usually any and all effects and outboard gear is kept close at hand usually on the desk or in a rack close to it.

This is usually a great solution for mixing but I found that for all of the things that I wanted to do in my studio, there were other alternatives that proved to be better in promoting creativity and getting things done.

Some Alternatives

When I first set up my studio this is the way that I had it set up and would pretty much do all of my music from the same general spot. Whether it was mixing, recording, or writing, the position was the same. Since I had my computer set up this way, it was pretty much my only choice if I wanted to get anything done on the computer. While this set up was great for mixing and mastering, it wasn't the best for other activities and I found myself spending more and more time away from the studio because it started to become tiresome sitting in the same spot day in, day out. If you do spend most of your time mixing, the set up is generally the same but you still may want to move around and get a different perspective on the mix. I find that most musicians use their studio for more than one thing and having different set ups for different situations may provide you with the best results. It may help you be more creative or at the very least it'll give you a different view once in a while. For a lot of musicians, most of the time you may be working on your own stuff and be involved in every thing from the initial writing to the final master. To help separate some of the processes and to help get the creative juices flowing, I would try doing some of the different things in different areas of the studio. For example, when I'm writing a song I usually find that I like to keep it relatively simple to begin with. I like to focus on the melody and lyrics and by eliminating all of the other distractions in the studio it's easier for me to keep focused on the task at hand. I used to sit in front of the small mixing deck I had and write songs on the computer. While this worked sometimes, once in a while I would find that either I would get stuck or end up tinkering with other things in the studio and not end up getting much writing done. Sometimes when writing with all of the toys right in front of you, it becomes too easy to end up doing too much editing and tweaking and not enough writing. I also found that staring at the computer screen for too long, I would start to go into 'edit' mode and get out of 'writing' mode. I wanted to focus on getting a great lyric or a great chord progression or a great melody and instead I would spend the time adjusting the drum sounds or eqing things.

So I decided that I wanted to try a different set up for writing. I also wanted to have a different set up for doing the business side of things and I wanted to have a different set up for other business activities.

My Set Up

What I ended up doing might not be the perfect situation for most but it may give you some ideas about how you may want to try different set ups when it comes to your studio. I really wanted to have a couple of different set ups; one for mixing and recording, one for writing and one for business and internet. I really didn't relish the thought of doing all of my surfing on the same computer that I was doing all of my intensive and very important studio work. I actually wouldn't recommend it to anyone. Generally, the less you install on your computer, the more stable it'll be. I've had a lot of computer troubles and crashes over the years and I find that the more I keep the one computer focused on audio only, the better and more reliable it is. So I ended up getting a laptop and designated the laptop as my writing and business tools and kept the desktop as my main studio computer. This kept the things on my studio computer down to the minimum because I didn't have anything on there that wasn't directly related to recording and/or mixing. I use the laptop for all of my business and internet needs and use it as a portable studio for writing and recording. It also allows me to take my studio 'on the road' in case I need to do some writing in another area or with another writer. I try to keep the stuff on the laptop to the minimum also, using a few choice tools to do all of my work. Not only does this keep down on the maintenance of the computer, it makes it easy to backup and keep updated. I have a whole system of things that I use for business that keeps things organized and running smoothly. I also have a basic recording set up on the same computer. It's nothing major since it's used mostly for writing and anything over the top would take away from its main purpose anyway.

The basic set up is this: I bought a small but well built external firewire audio unit for my laptop recording. Not only is it very small but it sounds great and is rock solid. It has 4 inputs, 6 outputs and MIDI in and out. I installed the basic software that came with the unit that covers all of my needs and more. It also integrates well with my studio set up since it comes from the same company. It's missing some features since it's the 'LE' version but nothing that I really miss. It also comes with a ton of plug-ins and instruments so I'm covered there as well. I didn't want to install too many extras as far as instruments and plug-ins because I wanted to keep the system streamlined so I could focus on writing and basic recording. I also use the hard drive on the laptop since I'm only recording one or two tracks at a time and rarely have many tracks to deal with. The software also came with a simple serial number so there are no dongles or anything hanging off of my laptop to worry about. Best of all, it really makes me focus on the most important parts of the songwriting process, right when I need to be focusing on that. It allows me to stay in 'writing' mode and keeps me out of 'editing' or 'mixing' mode. Generally I find that I do a lot of mixing along the way when I'm working on my own stuff but this keeps that to a minimum while I finish the writing. I do find too that when I'm staring at the computer screen I tend to 'hear with my eyes' and when working on a smaller laptop, I focus more on the sound and less on the computer screen.

The other things that I have on the laptop all have to do with business and keeping organized and in touch. Since I have a minimal recording set up and this is a secondary computer, I don't mind using it for all of my online activities. This frees up my main computer to do audio only and it also allows me to keep all of my business and networking separate and portable. I can do my surfing, emailing and correspondence from anywhere and I don't have to be nailed to the same spot in the studio all day. It allows me to leave the studio every once in a while and get a different perspective. I don't get tired of being in the same place all day and it keeps the studio a creative space. If I'm waiting for an important email and I have to do some studio work, I can have the laptop sitting beside me while I safely work on the studio computer.

If You Can...

For most people, having an expensive computer devoted to one task might be a bit beyond their budget but if you're serious about keeping your music safe and on a reliable system, the two computer system is the way to go. If you can't afford to get a laptop, you might want to look into getting a cheap desktop to use for your internet and business needs. There is an absolute need to be online and have a big online presence. It's simply part of the program for anyone who's serious about getting their music out there. Most computers today can handle all of your business and internet needs short of doing any intensive video editing so there's no need to go out and spend a ton of money on this. If you don't want to spend any money see if there are any people that you know who have an old computer that they don't use anymore and take it off their hands. One note of caution here though. Don't get an old computer and then start putting a lot of money into upgrades and extra computer parts. Unless you know what you're really doing, most of the time this is a costly and unproductive way to go.

One more note: I know some guys who have gone in the opposite direction and are happy with the results. That is, they use their laptop for their music and their desktop for their online stuff. Some musicians like the portability of the laptop and use it for gigs and DJing. Sometimes you may have no choice to connect the audio computer to the internet. I'm just suggesting that you keep it to a minimum to keep the viruses away. Without being constantly online, there is no reason to be running a lot of programs on your computer like firewalls, virus scanners and all things internet related.

Some musicians have successfully integrated both on the same computer but this always comes at a price and can result in crashes and a lot of lost work. It also makes it a lot harder to keep everything backed up and running smoothly. Most of all, if you're like me you'll find yourself getting more done and being more productive overall. I don't know about you but I think that the extra investment in time and money is well worth it.

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