26 May 2012

Audio Technica 2050...and friends

I've been generally disappointed with the recording quality I've been able to get at gigs and jam sessions lately. I'm not a good enough musician to need pro gear but I was curious what I would need to get a decent sound without spending a fortune or building a sound studio. Another important consideration is the ability to back everything up into a bag or man-purse for quick relocation to kitchens or jam halls. The following is what I came up with.  Luckily I had most of the stuff needed for this setup already lying around the house.

Step 1: The Microphone

I had to buy this one. The microphones I had been using were terrible. In contrast the AT2050 is kind of a dream. I got a massive discount on it (I'll never tell how) but even at full price of about $230 it's worth every penny. I'm really not an audiophile but even I can tell how good it is, especially with voice. Balancing multiple instruments around it is tricky but that's nothing to do with the hardware. Bluegrass musicians have a lot of practice dancing around a single microphone to get a good sound. This is something I will have to learn.

What I like most about it is the versatility. It supports Cardioid, figure eight AND omni patterns (explanation) which means I can use it:

  1. With one instrument playing into it (Cardioid)
  2. With two instruments facing each other with the mic in the middle (figure eight)
  3. With a bunch of musicians in a circle and the mic in the centre (omni)

I'm not going to talk about specific response yet because I haven't really spent enough time with it to know the ins and outs but suffice it to say that compared to my crappy iRig microphone (what was I thinking?!?) and the sound I get from my phone camera.... well you can guess.

Step 2: The pre-amp

I'm using my Headway EDB-1 fiddle preamp, mostly because I already had it and the mic needs phantom power which is a slight drawback for someone who doesn't enjoy carrying a lot of stuff around. I thought about getting the USB version of the microphone but I want something I can plug into any system and the 2050 seemed like the most versatile.

The EDB-1 pre-amp is generally good although sometimes it seems to have a bit of noise. That may be a balancing thing though. There are lots of knobs and sometimes I get a bit lost in my options.

Step 3: The computer interface

I like to work as much as I can with tools I can easily carry. This means using my laptop or iPad as the source of the recording. After a little research I settled on the Apogee Jam. True to the reviews I notice a very clean signal when compared to an analog product like the iRig (overpriced. noisy, flimsy and way overrated IMHO).

The Apogee Jam has a really simple interface. A 1/4" TRS goes in one end and the USB comes out the other. There's a gain adjuster which you want as low as possible to avoid noise. Actually thanks to my pre-amp being so good I was able to set the jam's gain very low. The Apogee Jam comes with two cords: a USB cable for your PC to feed it into Audacity or GarageBand or whatever you use and a second cable with a 30 pin iPad connector.

Step 4: Software

Audacity is a great free option. GarageBand is a love-it-or-hate-it kind of thing but much more intuitive and definitely better for beginners like myself. After a bit of finicking I decided to use Audacity for the actual recording capture because I don't understand how GB sets its gain. There's some dark magic going on there and until I know exactly how it works it frightens me a little.

Once I have the track in lossless WAV format I pop it into GB and mix away.

Put it all together and......

Overall I'm very pleased with this arrangement. There's a lot of flexibility and it means I can rapidly prototype songs and get tracks recorded in minutes in almost any location. The laptop and the pre-amp both run on an internal battery so, while I could plug into the wall I don't really need to for a few hours of recording at a time.

Ready to record
All packed up and ready to go!

Next Time: the results.....

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