Starting Out: Your Guide to PC Audio HW and SW

Just the Basics, Ma'am

By Steve Pitzel

I'm an animator, and have been one for over seven years now. If you're an animator too, you already know how important audio is to your work. In fact, if you're an animator, the chances are very good that you're a musician as well. If you happen to work in the Los Angeles area, you may be a professional session player, vocalist, composer, arranger, sound engineer…the list goes on. That's not unusual. The bond between animation and music is very strong, and they both require a sense of rhythm and "color."

In my case, I've been a professional session vocalist nearly a decade longer than I've been an animator. That's why I'm especially happy to kick off this monthly series of articles, editorials, and tutorials on audio for the PC. Every month we'll have something special, new articles on recording and mixing methods, mastering, EQ, Dolby 5.1 surround, all written by pro composers, engineers, and audio developers.

This month, I want to get things started by getting you started. If you're already creating music on the PC, even scoring games, that's fine too. You may pick up a new trick or two. Music on the PC has made huge advancements lately. Changes and paradigm shifts are happening almost daily - taking advantage of all the raw speed and power of today's chip technology. The field is new. Forums and groups like the Game Audio Networks Guild, composed of many of the biggest names in game music and sound effects, have come together to promote game audio as the art form it is, and push the technology even further.

Biggest shift? I'd say going from outboard to inboard. What do I mean by that? Years ago, when I first began using a computer to record audio, the best music software was simply an interface for the racks of effects units, tape machines, and hardware synthesizers I had in my studio. The software was difficult to configure, extremely temperamental, didn't really talk that well to all those instruments (which were just beginning to speak MIDI themselves), and was almost more a novelty item than a practical way to create and record music. At first, I wasn't even recording on the computer itself – I was recording on tape. I spent most of my time getting my tape machines to synch up with everything else.

Now, practically everything I really need to "synch up" with – even the "tape" is located inside the computer itself. I think I can safely say where the trend is going. It won't be long before virtually everything is…well…virtual. I can't help believing that very soon everything will be inside the PC, or "inboard."

Oh, I still have racks of equipment. I even turn all of it on sometimes so the lights glow and it won't end up disappearing altogether into the Bermuda Triangle of my wife's garage sales.

But I have to believe their days are numbered. Luckily, and I honestly don't know how long this particular paradigm will last, the software "virtual" replacements for all those outboard effects units and synthesizers – look just like my "real" ones. Propellerheads Software, creators of the incredible Rewire* technology for "inboard" computing, have even gone so far as to show you all the "spaghetti" ; (patch cords) on the back of those units – I'm not kidding (see fig 1). Propellerheads recognizes the musician's need for "gadgets."

Figure 1

Figure 1. Gadgets! Software developers like Propellerheads keep musicians in their comfort zone by creating software synths that look just like the hardware ones – even down to the wiring and warning labels on the back!

So let's begin with what you need to get started. Keep in mind that tastes are tastes, some things are more important to some composers than others, and that future articles appearing on this website will go into much more detail with all aspects of recording, mixing, hardware, software, EQ, etc., than I will here. I'll also give links for some great articles, tutorials, etc.

Basics:

Hardware (see specifics below):

  • Fast and powerful CPU with lots of Memory
  • Fast Hard Disk Drives with plenty of space
  • Full Duplex audio hardware & MIDI interface
  • MIDI Keyboard
  • At Least One Quality Microphone
  • Quality shielded Cables MIDI/Microphone/Instrument
  • Optional: spdif/optical/RCA
  • Quality Headphones
  • Quality Speakers (five in surround config. if necessary)
  • Broadband Internet Connection


Software:

  • Multi-Track recording & MIDI sequencing software
  • Audio Editing Software
  • Collection of software synths & effects
  • Loop-generating/editing software


Hardware

A fast and powerful CPU

What I mean by "a fast and powerful CPU" here is at least a Pentium® 4 processor running at 2.2 GHz or better, and "loaded up with lots of memory" means having at least 512MB or more.

Why do I need fast and powerful? – It's all about commitment. I think most would agree that musicians don't like it. We'd rather not commit to anything – especially the final "sound" of our mix, until we're absolutely ready. The faster and more powerful the CPU, and the more memory it's able to access, the more tracks and the more effects you can work with (and hear) at once. You can work with less, but you'll find yourself working in bits and pieces, making choices without an overall picture of your work.

Fast disks with plenty of space

I go for 7200 rpm or better, although some amazing composers I know swear speeds closer to 5000 rpm are fine. Space is an easy one: get as many gigabytes as you can get. The piece I'm working on for this article takes up over 800MB, and I'm not finished yet. It's also nice to have one drive associated with your software, another for your storage. I like having a separate partition on the "software" drive for my OS and its swapfiles.

Full Duplex (record plus playback) audio hardware & MIDI interface

No matter how "digital" we are, we still live in an analog world full of organic life forms that eat, breathe, and make sounds we might want to record. Not everything has been digitized – yet. So you still may want some way of getting those analog sounds, whether they are vocals, guitars, reed instruments, or whatever, into your PC.

This could mean a sound card, audio circuits integrated into the motherboard of your PC, a USB or FireWire* device or combinations of all the above. Don't be too set on what someone may have told you two years ago about recording audio and MIDI information. You actually have quite a few options here, with more options coming all the time. See figure 2.

Figure 2

Figure 2. This USB controller from Tascam lets you record analog and MIDI instruments and automate mixdown on your PC – all without a traditional sound card.

The best way to plan your purchases is to start with the sequencing/multi-tracking software you think you'd like to use, and then go to the vendor's website, or call them, and listen very carefully to what the makers of that software recommend. Software drivers that work well with the audio software you like are key. Once you've established the driver technology that works well with your software, find the hardware that implements that technology well. It doesn't necessarily mean spending a lot of money. Without getting into the specifics of how they differ, two popular driver technologies are WDM (Windows Driver Model) and ASIO (can you spell this one out?). I learned that Cakewalk's* Sonar XL*, which is the software I used to create a project for this article, works very well with WDM driver technology. Steinberg's* Cubasis* works well with ASIO. Both technologies work very well, but they don't always mix well – yet. I am seeing a gradual convergence of technologies. The creators of some of these systems are beginning to learn that it's nice to play together. At some point, we'll all just get along. For now, I'd spend some time deciding which way you want to go. I generally base my software choice on the workflow that software offers. I then base my hardware choice on that software's needs, and on the final form of my projects. By "final form" I mean – is it strictly stereo or Dolby* 5.1 Surround*? What bit depth and sampling frequency am I likely to need now and in the future? CDs only use a sampling rate of 44,000 and a bit depth of 16. But games are beginning to push the limits (what sampling rate? What bit depth?).

At least one solid, good-quality microphone

There are a lot from which to choose. The only way to pick one with which you'll be comfortable is to head down to your local instrument store and try several. I have an old AKG* 414* I've used forever and it works well for me. Remember that you'll need a separate power source if you choose a condenser microphone.

MIDI Keyboard

Although sequencing software usually has some sort of capability for creating melodies "note by note" with a mouse click, or by dragging notes of various duration from staffline to staffline, you'll no doubt get tired of that very quickly . And although it is amazingly easy to build songs with pre-recorded instrumental "loops," at some point you're going to want to play your way into the PC. If you're fluent on guitar or another instrument, you're still likely to want something as "MIDI friendly" as a keyboard nearby eventually, and, once again, you don't need to spend a lot of money. Get away from that old paradigm that the keyboard has to have a lot of imbedded "sounds." To work with a PC–based system (and we're talking laptops too) it only needs to be MIDI capable (make sure it's not too old or cheap to know about aftertouch and velocity sensitivity). The "sounds" it will use can be generated entirely inside the PC. There are many advantages to this. For one thing, you don't have to worry at all about getting the sounds "out" of your keyboard and into the PC since they're already there. The MIDI keyboard is just telling them where and when they should sound, based on velocity, aftertouch, sustain, etc. A good friend of mine who travels with his entire studio tucked away in a backpack, turned me on to a great little USB MIDI keyboard by Midiman that does everything I need and more. It even has 8 control knobs I've used to program functions of my sequencing software. It cost less than $150.00! I find myself using that much more than my expensive keyboards these days. Yes, I do still turn the expensive ones on for my wife's sake…

Figure 3

Figure 3. Studio Shrinkage – Midiman's* Oxygen 8*, a fully functional MIDI keyboard (octave shifts happen instantly with the touch of a button) is a great example of how expenses and necessary studio real estate are shrinking. The Oxygen board can fit into a backpack and even sits nicely on airliner lunch trays…

Broadband Internet Connection

The more you get into building music on the PC, the more resources you're going to find on the Internet. You can find the latest drivers, instrumental "loops," plug-in effects for Audio Signal Processing, software synthesizers, and sound fonts. Sound fonts, when combined with sound-font capable software synths, add an awesome sense of realism to your MIDI tracks. Some great resources are absolutely FREE!!! Others cost very little. Some are relatively expensive compared to others, but still far less pricey than their hardware counterparts.


Software

Multitrack/Sequencing

There is quite a bit out there. Steinberg's Cubasis* and Cakewalk's Sonar XL* are affordable multitracking solutions packed with great features. Digidesign, long a major force in professional digital audio with its ProTools* hardware and software hybrid, has also begun offering much more affordably priced solutions with its mBox* hardware interface and ProToolsLE* software. I'm not going to argue which is better. It's largely a matter of workflow, and having had to stand between animators ready to come to blows over the relative merits of their favorite 3D packages, I've no intention of starting similar battles on the audio side of the world.

I began worki ng with the Mark of the Unicorn* (MOTU) Performer*, then Digital Performer*, when those packages first arrived. At this point, I'm working primarily with Cakewalk's* Sonar XL*. I like the way Sonar XL hooks into Microsoft* DirectX* with DXI. Since many plug-ins, synthesizers, and effects also plug into DirectX, all of that software is available through Sonar, giving it quite a bit of added firepower. Visit the DirectX Files website at http://www.directxfiles.com/* for DirectX audio effects plug-ins.

Steinberg's Cubasis VST 3.0* offers the same plug-in compatibility with VST. There are also free software "wrappers" that allow VST and DXI plug-ins to be used interchangeably – yes, soon we really will all just get along.

Loops

One of the most amazing phenomena to come out of rap and hip-hop is the idea that it's okay to just yank a piece you like out of someone else's composition and then build your own song out of it. After the initial lawsuits, it became an accepted approach for sampling. More than that, Sonic Foundry even found a way to turn it into an industry by recording instrumental "riffs" and then "Acidizing" them. Acidizing refers to the Sonic Foundry* Acid Loops* product family. Acid Loops features looping technology that allows digitized riffs to be stretched and repeated over many measures, with tempos and actual pitch changing as needed. What does this mean? You don't need to be a traditionally trained musician to create music – you just need an ear and a little time to get the hang of it. Look up "loops" on your favorite search engine or visit www.loops.net* to get an idea just how popular loops have become.

Acid loops can be brought into sequencing software like Sonar to make it even more powerful. And Sonic Foundry's Acid isn't the only loop software out there. Fruity Loops, Propellerhead, and Magix all offer great looping software and gigabytes of loops. Just remember that not all loops are "royalty free." Be very careful of pulling loops off the Internet and using them in a professional recording. Know where they originated and deal with them accordingly.

Audio Editing Software

Once you record audio (and that also means converting your MIDI tracks to wav files before mixdown – which you'll normally want to do), you're bound to need to take out breaths, punch-in pops, sibilance, and any number of aural oddities that happen during normal recording. You may just want to enhance the sound or smooth it out. Sonic Foundry's Sound Forge* (version 6 has just begun shipping), is one of the truly great wav editors. It's also compatible with DirectX, so upon installation it will also come up inside Sonar XL and other DirectX-based applications. In fact, any DirectX based plug-ins, filters and effects you may have pulled from the web will also come up neatly inside Sound Forge. Yes, it's a wonderful world.

Tuning Software

Okay, I admit it. I use Antares* Auto-Tune* pitch-tuning software (see figure 4). It may not be the only pitch-tuning software, but it sure is easy to use and works very well without leaving a lot of artifacts (unless you are waaaaaaayy off, in which case you really ought to re-record that particular phrase anyway). I'll often use Auto-tune to check myself when I've been listening through headphones too long, which happens way too often. If I get what the Auto-Tune manual refers to as the dreaded "Cher" effect (listen to Cher's "I Believe" to get a sense of it…) I know it's time to re-record. Pitch-tuning software is a huge time-saver, especially for background vocals.


Conclusion

Get Started

Now it's time to go out and get started, and don't forget to check back here every month for articles and "How-Tos" on PC/Game Audio.





Figure 4

Figure 4. DirectX synergy at work.

I select a vocal wav file in Sonar XL, pull Sonic Foundry's Sound Forge from the Tools menu, and then pull up Antares Auto-Tune from the Sound Forge DirectX Tools menu. Integration through DirectX allows many packages to work seamlessly as one.


About the Author

Steve Pitzel Steve Pitzel is a professional animator and technical marketing engineer for Intel Corporation and has been a computer graphics instructor and animator for six years. He began his graphic arts career in college as an editorial cartoonist and courtroom sketch artist. After converting from pencil to mouse, he went on to convert others, teaching 3D applications such as Softimage*, PowerAnimator*, and Maya* to traditional cell animators and computer graphic artists for Disney Feature Animation, Sony Pictures Imageworks, VIFX/Rhythm & Hues and UCLA. He was a lead animator for the CBS feature, The Nuttiest Nutcracker*, and a senior artist for Mattel.

When Steve isn't animating, he's usually writing. St. Martin's Press published his first novel, Wizrd, in 1994 under his pen name, Steve Zell. Steve is currently working on his second novel. You may contact Steve at steve.pitzel@intel.com.


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Comments

's picture

in my pc there is no sount card software

's picture

Where is the software/utilities for audio on the later generation D875PBZ motherboards that have built in audio. Intel's links are "dead"?

's picture

Good Day Sr.

I have this notebook i bought my PC in China 3 years ago, it's original program it's windows Xp 2003 but in chinesse lenguage, so last thursday i deleted everything just to install another windows Xp that i bought in china too, but after the installation i realize that i don't have sound, it's like another program was having the sound driver and doesn't allow this other windows to do his job in the audio, and so i saw and article that this sound problem in some how it's related to the intel processor, so i come to you and ask you what else can i do to correct this huge problem that i have here?

thank you for your time in first hand.

Regards

Sincerely

Paul Granados O.