Recently my drum teacher and I thought we’d spend some time making some synthesized music together. I’ll keep you apprised of that project as it goes but for now I had an immediate problem to deal with; While I use a Mac on my desktop and one in my studio I have no portable Apple computers (besides iOS devices). The soft synthesizers I use are all Mac based but I was careful to choose products that were also PC compatible where possible.
I’ve always been a PC guy but I switched to a Mac in 2008. Since then I’ve really enjoyed the machine for music but I still say that if you have work to do, fire up a PC. Anyway, let’s not go there, that’s not the point of this post.
I wanted to play synth-boys with John but don’t really want to spend a lot of cash to do it. In fact, I don’t want to spend any. Macs, especially portables, cost a fortune.
Want to hear what I did? It’s really cool!
I had an old Hewlett Packard HP Mini 210 sub-notebook lying around doing nothing. It runs Windows 7 Home version and while I wouldn’t call it fast I’d call it adequate. I made sure everything was up to date and then removed every program that wasn’t tied to the music-making I had planned for it.
Next I loaded it up with the same programs I had on the Mac. These included;
- Reaper by Cockos
- Komplete 8 Players (Kontakt, Guitar Rig, Reaktor) by Native Instruments
- Elements, Retro Machines & Studio Drummer by Native Instruments
- Synth1 by Daichi
There are a few more toys but I thought this was a good start. So now I’ve got the box loaded and the headphone jack plugged into my Mackie Onyx 1220i mixing board (this was done with a 1/8″ to dual 1/4″ cable). I use the Mackie’s dual channel inputs for this (9/10) allowing me to use a single strip to control a stereo signal. A bit less fuss than using 2 strips.
Next comes the input. I have an M-Audio Oxygen 49 keyboard connected to my control room Mac. This is what I use for touch-ups when I’m doing mix downs or just farting around. It’s perfect for dragging around. I plugged this into the USB port of the HP and there you go; Instant synth!
While this is nothing particularly special the fact that it works well in this configuration is significant. You can easily turn a lower powered machine into a useful musical box with little effort. The Oxygen provides its own MIDI interface through USB and software synths do the rest. With Synth1 and Retro Machines I get some awesome progressive rock sounds going on.
One other major bonus was again being on the PC platform. There are a ton of VSTs available for the PC that just aren’t out there for the Mac. Mac guys say “yeah well they’re all written like crap” but that’s mostly to help them sleep at night. Many are pretty awesome. I picked up a Taurus Pedal plug-in which is incredible! Totally not available for the Mac. Oh, and Mac guys….It’s written very well so you might not sleep well over it! Hey wait…I resemble that remark.
But wait…. there’s more!
Like for instance?
Ok. First I downloaded an application called rtpMIDI which provides a MIDI over network interface similar to the Audio/MIDI application for the Mac. In fact it’s designed with the same user interface. Then, I set up an ad-hoc wireless network on the HP. I connected my iPad to the HP on this network. Then I fired up Little MIDI Machine. This is a FANTASTIC app that is free (at this writing). I fired up Reaper on the HP and set up a track with the Taurus Pedal VSTi. I fired up Little MIDI Machine and arpegiated (?) the coolest bass track over my wireless network.
It gets better!
Next I downloaded an application on the HP called ShairPort for Windows. It turns a Windows PC into an Apple AirPort receiver. Very Handy! So now I have my Little MIDI Machine triggering one channel on Reaper with a synthesizer effect and a second channel taking audio out of a second synth running on the iPad (in this case, Sunrizer). All this while tinkling away on the keyboard through an NI synth on a third channel.
So Rich you’re saying it was smooth sailing all the way?
Pretty much but…
There are a couple of things that cropped up during all this. First off, do yourself a favour and get a portable wireless mouse. Using the trackpad sucks when you have a ton of mousing to do. It will slow you down. Get a wireless mouse and use the machine in comfort. I happened to have one with the HP. It’s the HP portable mouse.
Next, disable or better yet remove your anti-virus software. If you must surf porn then use a protected machine but leave the notebook free of applications that will steal away clock cycles.
Latency turned out to be an issue on the PC where it didn’t exist on the Mac. Before you jump all over the speed of the HP I should mention I experienced a similar latency issue with the same configuration on a very fast PC. When I played the Oxygen 49 through the Kontakt instruments outside of Reaper there was no noticeable latency. Inside Reaper the latency was very noticeable and made playing in real-time impossible. To solve this issue I reduced the number of buffers from 8 to 2 in Reaper’s Preferences-> Audio-> Device setting. Now it works fine.
Finally, make sure the computer’s Power configuration goes flat out and doesn’t slow down when the computer decides you don’t need the power. Screw the computer, you’re in charge! Use AC power when possible as well. This will help keep the pedal to the metal.
The next step, which will cost a few bucks, is for an interface / sound card for improved connectivity and output quality.
So now I have some pretty cool capabilities built with a pile of stuff I had lying around! I’ve tried running 4 tracks with lots of action and the system performs really well. I wouldn’t use it as a mix down station but for what I’m doing I think it will be great! I can’t wait to try it in kombat.
Keep you posted…
Oh, one last note… I can also patch my iPhone into the ad hoc network and run a fourth track from it but I was using it to take the pictures.