Technology

The Well-Accessorized DAW

50 COOL ADD-ONS THAT TAKE YOUR WORKSTATION TO THE NEXT STEP 8/01/2009 8:00 AM Eastern

M-Audio's AxiomPro 25 USB/MIDI controller

Once upon a time, every studio had a distinct character — with different recorders, consoles and outboard toys that set each facility apart from the rest. But with the rise of the DAW-based studio, nearly every rig has access to the same DSP plug-ins and unlimited track capability, making for a lot of “me, too”-equipped rooms. So far, you've upgraded your CPU, maxed out your RAM, added a RAID array and/or network, installed the latest OS and are running that new rev of your DAW software. With your high-performance converters/front end, tons of effects plug-ins and virtual instruments and a console/controller, you're close to creating that no-compromise system that's capable of nearly anything. However, a bit of accessorizing — some final, relatively inexpensive touches — can take your DAW to the next step.

TAKING CONTROL

Using the same symbols and color-coding system built into Digidesign control surfaces while retaining all the conventional alphanumeric labels of standard computer keyboards, Digidesign's (www.digidesign.com) Pro Tools Custom Keyboard ($119 in Mac or PC versions) has simple USB connectivity and is an ideal replacement for that old, coffee-stained keyboard you're using.

Novation's (www.novationmusic.com) Nocturn ($199) is a 9.4×5.4-inch unit offering fast fingertip control of your plug-ins. Compatible with any DAW, it features eight touch-sensitive rotary encoders, eight assignable buttons, Novation Speed Dial and Automap Universal 3.1 mapping technology.

TranzPort ($249) from Frontier Design (www.frontierdesign.com) offers wireless control of any DAW software for arming tracks, transport control, setting markers, control pans, punch-in/out, start loops, etc. As a bidirectional controller, TranzPort also provides feedback on signal levels, timecode position, track names and more.

Pok ($599) from X-Tempo (www.xtempozone.com) is a wireless surface with eight footswitches that are easily customizable to control any Mac/PC DAW/plug-in/virtual instrument function. It includes simple switch-editor software and a receiver that links to your DAW via USB.

Version 2 of the Lemur ($1,769) multitouch controller from Jazzmutant (www.jazzmutant.com) introduces new controller objects to the graphic interface, including Gesture, an emulated trackpad with gesture recognition, and Breakpoint, a multi-segment envelope editor. You can also use Lemur as your mouse and QWERTY keyboard for your computer.

JLCooper's (www.jlcooper.com) MCS-Panner ($1,299) is a three — axis joystick mechanism with five rotary encoders and 10 switches for controlling surround panning for digital consoles and DAWs such as Pro Tools, Digital Performer and Nuendo. It can be joined to other MCS Series products or used stand-alone with an optional MIDI adapter.

There are bigger USB DAW controllers, but PreSonus' (www.presonus.com) FaderPort ($229) packs a wallop. Compatible with Mac and PC DAWs, this mini-powerhouse can write single-channel and group fader automation, and features full transport control; a long-throw motorized fader; footswitch punch-in/out jack; pan control knob; and buttons for mute, solo, record-enable and selecting edit, mix and transport windows.

THE LISTENING POST

ARC (Advanced Room Correction) software from IK Multimedia (www.ikmultimedia.com) measures and calculates the acoustics in your room and applies correction via an advanced EQ plug-in. Retail is $599, including a calibrated measurement mic.

KRK's (www.krksys.com) Ergo combines A/B control room speaker-switching, headphone output, monitor volume control and room-correction DSP — all within a desktop box ($799 retail, with measurement mic; includes Mac or PC setup software).

Level Pilot ($119) from TC Electronic (www.tcelectronic.com) offers passive volume control direct to your active speakers (or power amp) from your DAW outputs with stereo XLR I/Os. It's a simple, elegant solution providing smooth control with full-fidelity, straight-wire performance.

Taking the passive approach to monitor control even further, the M3ph Mk II ($1,025) from Coleman Audio (www.colemanaudio.com) mates four switchable inputs and three outputs (all balanced XLR) with mute and phase-reverse controls, and a four-gang stepped attenuator. It has ±0.05dB precision, and one output can be switched to a fixed level for feeding an outboard meter.

The Grace (www.gracedesign.com) m902 reference headphone amplifier ($1,695) combines high-res D/A converters and audiophile analog components in the high-current transimpedance output amplifier. Stereo inputs include balanced XLRs, RCA jacks, AES-3 and S/PDIF co-ax/optical sources with sample rates from 44.1 to 192 kHz supported for direct-from-DAW listening.

The Aphex (www.aphex.com) HeadPod ($249) puts four independent stereo headphone amps with individual volume controls into a compact chassis. Convenient, yes, but its ultralow-distortion performance and high headroom are impressive.

Machine Room ($699) from Primacoustic (www.primacoustic.com) cuts down annoying drive and computer fan noise by enclosing your CPU inside a 30×16×24-inch (H×W×D) foam-lined isolation housing that's kept cool by a slick, low-noise, air-exhaust manifold driven by a three-speed fan.

Getting your computer out of the control room is a great idea, and Gefen Extenders (www.gefen.com) make it easy. The $899 CAT5•1500HD system uses Cat-5 cable to put up to 200 feet between your PC/Mac and DVI display and USB peripherals. The CAT5-5500HD does the same with two DVI displays for $1,399. Or if you really hate your computer, the fiber-optic DVI 3500HD ($2,679) pushes that degree of separation out to 6,660 feet.

DAW IN A POCKET

About the size of a USB Flash drive, Digidesign's Mbox 2 Micro ($279) lets Pro Tools users edit/sequence/mix sessions created on Pro Tools HD, Pro Tools LE and Pro Tools M-Powered, or compose loop-based or virtual instrument music on (included) Pro Tools LE software. No audio inputs, but a ⅛-inch stereo out can drive headphones or powered speakers for total mobility.

The truly portable energyXT 2.5 from XT Software (www.energy-xt.com) is a full-featured DAW application that lives on a USB thumb drive. Plug into any Mac/Linux/PC computer, and you'll be recording in minutes, with onboard effects, synths and drum sounds. Tracks can be easily exported to any other DAW. It comes in $99 standard and $149 Plus versions, the latter adding unlimited tracks and ReWire Energizer support.

PortaGig from Glyph (www.glyphtech.com) is a line of pocket-sized, 5,400- or 7,200 rpm hard drives with 160/250/320/500GB capacity. These lightweight, fanless aluminum-enclosure drives support sessions with high track counts and are powered by the FireWire 800 or USB 2 bus, or the included AC adapter.

Just shipping, Apogee Electronics' (www.apogeedigital.com) ONE is a pocket-sized, 44.148kHz USB interface/microphone that's designed to work with Apple's GarageBand, Logic, Final Cut Pro or any Core Audio-compliant app. Features include an internal condenser mic, XLR preamp input with phantom power, three-segment LED I/O metering and ⅛-inch output for headphones or line. Retail is $249.

UNIVERSAL TRANSLATORS

Now in Mac and PC versions, SSL's (www.solid-state-logic.com) Pro-Convert ($699 list) lets DAW users convert session project files from one format to another, including Pro Tools 7.x, Cubase, Nuendo, Logic, Final Cut Pro and Soundscape. Its new interface (coming to PC users later this year) streamlines the process.

Translator ($149) from Chicken Systems (www.chickensys.com) takes any pro sampler CD-ROM/disk (Giga3/GigaStudio, EXS24, Kontakt, Reason NN-XT, SFZ, SoundFont, SampleCell, Kurzweil, Ensoniq, Akai, E-mu, Roland and more) and converts one or any of its programs, instruments or samples — or the entire disk — into a format you can use with EXS24, Kontakt, Structure, Independence, HALion, Reason NN-XT, SampleTank, SFZ, Roland MV8000/Fantom, Alesis Fusion, Korg Triton and Battery 1.

A must for Logic users — or with any sampler that can import EXS-format instruments — the Compendium Bundle ($549) from Redmatica (www.redmatica.com) combines three tools — ExsManager Pro, Auto-Sampler and Keymap — for creating and managing multisampled instruments, removing the drudgery of resampling your hardware and software virtual instruments.

Snapper from Audio Ease (www.audioease.com) is a simple $79 Mac app that automatically appears whenever an audio file is selected in the finder and displays the waveform. From there, you can opt to play the file (more than 50 formats are supported, including 192kHz and 5.1 surround files) and upload it to your Pro Tools cursor or export it to MP4, AIFF, WAV, BWF, etc., or split stereo files into L/R mono (or vice-versa).

DSP HORSEPOWER

The $3,495 TC Electronic PowerCore 6000 offers System 6000 algorithms for a fraction of the original's price. The unit's eight DSP engines are the same DSPs used in System 6000, and its SRAM memory design lets users run the 6000's many included reverb and effects programs with popular DAWs, as well as with any other VST- or Audio Units-compatible host.

Ideal for small studios or laptop-based DAWs, Duende Mini from SSL provides more DSP punch for driving up to 16 mono channels — upgradeable to 32 — of plug-ins at up to 96 kHz within your DAW. The compact $699 unit interfaces via FireWire, and includes SSL EQ and dynamics.

Now shipping, Universal Audio's (www.uaudio.com) UAD-2 SOLO/Laptop ($499 MAP) ExpressCard-based DSP accelerator brings the power of UA's Powered Plug-Ins to your mobile rig, freeing your laptop's brain for mixing duties. It comes with the 1176SE compressor, Pultec EQP-1A EQ, Realverb Pro, CS-1 channel strip and a $50 voucher for other UA goodies. This Mac/Windows system has VST, Audio Units and RTAS support, and it includes Mellowmuse ATA Auto-Delay Compensation for Pro Tools LE.

STUDIO ESSENTIALS

Perhaps a bit more than an “accessory,” Korg's (www.korg.com) MR-2000S ($2,499) is a 1-bit, ultrahigh-res recorder that records/plays in superlative 1-bit formats (1-bit/2.8MHz or 5.6MHz), as well as various PCM resolutions (16-bit/44.1 up to 24-bit/192kHz).

If you're tracking guitars or vintage synths, staying in tune is a must. Peterson's StroboSoft Deluxe Suite (www.strobosoft.com, $149) tuning software offers 0.1-cent accuracy and works in stand-alone mode or as an insert or bus in your VST- or Audio Units-capable DAW.

The CLASP (Closed Loop Analog Signal Processor) from Endless Analog (www.endlessanalog.com) turns your 2-inch analog deck into a tape-flavored “plug-in” for your DAW. The system comprises a hardware interface, VST plug-in (one for every channel) and a sync cable. Just run the session from your DAW as usual and CLASP performs real-time, synched transfers from the repro head of your deck.

FlexiBooth ($399) from Primacoustic is a collapsible, 24×48-inch wall-mount vocal booth that opens up when needed, folds out of the way when unused and doubles as a wall acoustic treatment.

A short USB extension cable can keep your iLok from sticking straight out of your PC or laptop, where it's susceptible to damage or being snapped off. Available nearly everywhere for about $2, this is cheap insurance for all those pricey plug-in authorizations.

Another low-cost add-on is a USB gooseneck light like the Middle Atlantic Products (www.middleatlantic.com) LT-GN (about $15), which can put a bit of much-needed illumination over your QWERTY or music keyboard or DAW controller, especially in those dim control rooms.

Admittedly, there are some slow periods during studio sessions, so you might check out the Hauppauge (www.hauppauge.com) WinTV-HVR-950Q ($129) digital TV tuner on a USB stick, which lets Mac or PC users watch/record high-def TV on their desktop or laptop.

MUSIC FUN

If you do drum parts, this is the best investment you'll ever make. Korg's nanoPAD ($72) combines 12 responsive pads with an X/Y controller — with roll and flam modes — and the ease of USB powering. A function for entering chords from a single pad puts this way over the top — cool!

The Novation 25 SL MkII ($499) is a 25-key desktop USB/MIDI controller with Automap 3 PRO for DAW interfacing. Features include eight faders and 16 knobs (all touch-sensitive), eight rotary encoders with LED rings, a 144-character status display, 32 backlit buttons (including transport keys), speed dial, Xpression pad and eight soft-feel drumpads.

M-Audio's (www.m-audio.com) Axiom Pro 25 ($499) USB/MIDI controller features a 25-note keyboard, HyperControl MIDI/host mapping, eight velocity-sensitive trigger pads, eight rotary encoders, six reassignable DAW transport buttons, 50 memory locations and toggle switching between instrument and mixer control modes.

Akai Professional (www.akaipro.com) teamed up with Ableton to create the APC40 ($599) stage or studio hardware control surface. Designed specifically for Ableton Live, the unit communicates bi-directionally with Live, displaying data from the software on its clip matrix of 40 triggers and LED rings surrounding each knob.

MOTU (www.motu.com) Volta ($249) Mac Audio Units plug-in lets users with a TRS-output MOTU audio interface play vintage (or modern) synths/gear with Control Voltage interfacing using MIDI notes and controller data — including automating effects parameters. Sweet!

Realistic conga and percussion parts require a hands-on approach. Roland's (www.rolandus.com) HandSonic 10 ($799) features 10 individual pressure-sensitive pads, 400 onboard sounds, multi-effects and a D-Beam controller for real-time sound and pitch control. Best of all, it's fun!

Tanager Audio Works' (www.tanageraudioworks.com) Chirp is a $29 Mac/PC app that turns your computer or laptop keyboard into a virtual MIDI keyboard controller with 18 piano keys and 10 drum triggers to drive any music software or soft synth. This low-latency controller accommodates playing up to seven simultaneous notes in real time, allowing for even complex 9/11/13 chord-entry over two octaves.

INTERFACING

Whether for digital DJ'ing or archive transfers, the USBPhonoPlus V. 2 ($129) from ART (www.artproaudio.com) packs an RIAA preamp, line-level inputs, TosLink optical I/O, S/PDIF input, USB output and headphone monitoring into a versatile do-all box. It can be powered from the USB bus or an external supply.

Soundflower (freeware) from Cycling '74 (www.cycling74.com) is an interapplication audio routing utility for Mac OS X that presents itself as a simple audio device, allowing any audio application to send and receive audio with no other support needed. It's available as 2- and 16-channel devices.

MXL's (www.mxlmics.com) Mic Mate ($99) turns any dynamic or condenser microphone into a USB mic for grabbing a quick sound effect or those record-it-now laptop sketchpad sessions. No drivers required, and it can supply 48VDC phantom, as well.

Creating custom studio cabling has never been easier, thanks to the Modular Snake ($17 to $120) system from Planet Waves (www.planetwaves.com). Users select from 5/10/25/50-foot “core” oxygen-free copper cables with DB-25 connectors and mix/match various breakouts to suit any application. Available terminations include digital (AES, with four male/four female XLRs) and analog (with eight channels of XLR male, XLR female, TT, TRS or raw ends for custom connectors).

METERING, METERING, METERING

The Waves (www.waves.com) Dorrough Meter Collection brings precision models of these industry-standard meters to your DAW screen, with average and peak levels, “overs” count and phase correlation at a glance with a choice of horizontal, vertical and arc shapes — in three sizes. It's native Mac/Win, and lists for $500 (stereo) or $800 (5.1).

Still a classic, Metric Halo's (www.mhlabs.com) Spectrafoo Standard ($400) is a stand-alone Mac app offering versatile signal metering, high-speed/high-res spectral analysis, the unique Phase Torch, correlation metering, triggerable waveform display and more. A deluxe Complete edition adds even more features and flexibility.

The LM5 Loudness Radar Meter plug-in for Pro Tools HD from TC Electronic derives statistical information from the ITU-R BS.1770 standard to visualize instant loudness and loudness history. The $1,245 software helps engineers monitor the dynamic range at their disposal during production and the dynamic range restrictions needed for distribution to various platforms.

AND THERE'S STILL MORE

The Analysis Pack ($299) from Blue Cat Audio (www.bluecataudio.com) has six new audio analysis plug-ins for Mac and PC, offering an audio level meter, spectrum and stereo-field analyzers, multitrack oscilloscope and more, including some slick sidechaining tricks. The DirectX and Mac/PC VST versions are also updated with numerous improvements.

The Sonalksis (www.sonalksis.com) FreeG (free) provides mono or stereo master channel control in the insert chain of the Mac/PC VST/RTAS/Audio Units host program, offering high-res metering, master fader, pan, trim, phase reverse, mute, bypass and more. You can't beat the price of freeware.

Last, but far from least, your hearing is priceless and the $44.99 Radio Shack (www.radioshack.com) analog SPL meter is a cheap, simple way of monitoring listening levels. Or go the deluxe route and kick in the extra $5 for the newer version with digital display. Someday, your ears will thank you.


George Petersen is the executive editor of Mix and runs a small record label at www.jenpet.com.

Have suggestions for other DAW studio essentials? E-mail your ideas to mixeditorial@mixonline.com and let us know!