Since I have a bit of space available I decided to not only set up my drums but also to include room for our Yamaha DGX-500 keyboard, an area for the bass guitar and amp and maybe a bit of room for some guitar players who may happen to stop by to set up. With all this happening I figured I’d go the extra mile and set up a recording system as well. With a wide range of options for Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) software out there to chose from I would build up a system from what I had already, adding pieces as I go.
I set an iMac up and connected the headphone-out to an old Sony stereo receiver. The receiver is connected to a pair of JBL speakers on the A channel and a set of Realistic bookshelf speakers on the B. If you remember Radio Shack’s Realistic line then you know how old they are and how bad they sound. I use the A channel pointing at my drums and the Bs as monitors for the keyboard. Through this all I’ve been pumping my iTunes playlists for practicing. A while ago, though, I fired up Garageband, Apple’s entry level DAW application.
Garageband was a very cool intro into basic DAW functions. All that means is that it simulates an analog mixing board with patches into all kinds of effects that would cost thousands of dollars to purchase in hardware form. Advanced routing and effects can be applied with DAW software enabling you to do in your basement something that would have one time required booking an expensive engineer in an even more expensive studio. Programs like Garageband go one step further allowing you to create music with canned “loops”. This is also pretty cool although the music you can create is often more suited for dance clubs. Sorry but I’m old-school. I like my solos to come from a guitar, my rhythms from real drums.
Next I had to start at square one; the interface. While it’s true many sound cards have a microphone jack and some even have a line-in jack, if you don’t get some type of serious interface you’ll find your options extremely limited and your sound quality lacking.
I’m not going to review every system I looked at in great detail. There are plenty of reviews already available on line which I found very helpful and you can find yourself with Google. Instead I’m going to explain a few fundamental reasons I made the choice I did. To save you the incredible suspense of wondering which interface I chose I will tell you now that it is the Mackie Onyx 1220i 12 channel FireWire mixer.
First – admit you need a flexible input system. No matter how creative you get with your sound card options just forget it. Take it off the table. Now your choices are Analog-Only Mixer, Analog Mixer w/Digital Interface (USB/FireWire) or Digital Interface. There, that’s easier. So here’s how I broke my choice down;
The Analog Mixer is a great option to get started and keep your costs down. You can find these babies for sale online everywhere at very reasonable costs. Check out your local pawnshops and music store used-gear sections. Trouble is that you have to get everything back to the computer via an analog port. That means a line-in. While this isn’t tragic I wanted tighter integration with the DAW software. Analog only gives you control over a single overall channel (the one outputting from the mixer to the PC’s in) from the PCs end . The lack of flexibility was the main reason I quickly discounted this option.
Next was the Digital Interface. In a nutshell these are boxes that plug into a single USB or FireWire port and provide ports into which you can plug guitars, microphones, keyboards, MIDI devices, etc…. They act as a bridge for the music between the physical world of your instrument and the TRON world of the computer. This was a tough one as there were many options to choose from. I checked out MBox, Presonus, Tascam and Zoom. All the products were cool but expensive and sort of limited. I was very disappointed to hear consistently that Tascam, once a huge leader in recording hardware, had started using crap components and consequently didn’t sound comparatively good. I guess that’s how they got their prices down.
Anyway, I also discounted these devices for one main reason. They required a computer to work. Now, in case you didn’t know, with a computer it’s “WHEN” not “IF”. A computer will always fail. Always. When? When you need it most. When the band is all plugged in and ready to record. When you’ve got inspiration and have to blast it out immediately. When its failing will make you look and feel like ass. I wanted something that didn’t rely on my computer.
The reason I settled on the the Analog Mixer with Digital Interface was to get the best of both worlds. Right out of the box I could plug my mics, bass and keyboard into it. With some 1/4″ to RCA cables I can route the output to my stereo until I can get some proper powered monitors. Within minutes I had it working and was playing with the very cool features of the 1220i.
Then I grabbed the FireWire cable that so conveniently came with the unit. I went to the back of the Mac and noticed that although the cable they supplied was FireWire 800, this Mac only had a FireWire 400 port. I just had to laugh. I tracked down the cable I needed (400 to 800) on Amazon and for $9.00 it was on its way. Then I sat down with the mixer and played with it for several hours, something I wouldn’t have been able to do with an “Interface Only” solution.
I’ve since received the cable and even before that I plugged the 1220i into another Mac I have which has a FireWire 800 port. Damn it’s even more cool now! Each channel on the 1220i is an individual channel on the Mac (or PC). This means that you can map them individually to your DAW software and apply effects to them on your PC. The 1220i also has 2 inputs on the FireWire which map to Strip 11-12. You can optionally choose to have the strip receive FireWire or line-in then process it through the board. The FireWire sends have a PRE or POST EQ option as well.
One of the main reasons I went with the 1220i was the FireWire options were very flexible. Some USB based units I checked out only could receive a single channel as output and didn’t send anything back. Make sure the unit you choose is flexible enough for your requirements. Mackie’s Onyx 1640i is a 16 channel mixer with even cooler FireWire integration but I just couldn’t justify spending the extra cash right now.
I think what got me thinking about mixers in general was the desire to wear headphones while practicing to recorded music. Let me explain. As a drummer I must crank the shit out of whatever music I’m playing along to in order to hear it over myself. Fair enough but at some point it becomes self defeating (and deafening). I’ve played with headphones on but then I can’t hear my own drums. Sure I can hear the bass drum and thwack of the snare but the gentle ting-t’-ting ghost notes on the ride cymbal are lost. I knew that the only way I could play with headphones was if I mic’d the kit and mixed it in with the background music. Short of finding a band to play with, that solution seemed best.
Which will bring us back to Doe. The mixer. With 12 inputs I get a bit more flexibility than I would with just some 4 port interface box. I can set up a block of mics for the drums and still have a port or 4 left for guitar mics, vocals and keyboards. I can route the mains to my my stereo and then ultimately and amp while cranking out my own headphone channel which is loud enough to hear but not to bleed my ears. Not bad for under $600.
Incidentally, although I played with Garageband and it supports the Mackie (the Mac OS handling of devices is truly awesome compared to marginal Windows drivers) I am switching over to a DAW called Reaper for primary mixing functions. It is very powerful offering many sophisticated functions of more expensive packages all for $60. Pretty reasonable for the entry level home recording guy. Plus, for loops and all the cool Garageband stuff I’ll keep using Garageband. I think building a toolbox is critical to flexibility.
So there you have it, my reason for choosing the Mackie Onyx 1220i analog mixer with FireWire interface as the hub of my first home recording studio project.