Friday, June 03, 2005

Macintosh Audio Recording: Ric Ford's review of the Edirol R-1 and OS X sound editing software

Macintosh Audio Recording (Part 7)

Ric Ford [MacInTouch]

In addition to what I wrote before (jf: about the Edirol R-1), here are some more observations after recording several concerts live:

* The levels display is a different mode in recording than in record-pause; you have to hit the Display button several times to get it. (Levels show only in these two modes.) Initially, with live music, I had the levels at about half. This proved to be way too low. I guess they're peak meters, rather than RMS or average meters, so you need to get them up pretty high for music with a large dynamic range. I did well keeping them at about 75% "full". (This is even more critical at 16 bits than at 24.)

* Sensitivity seems to be less than that of an Mbox. I had the input level all the way up for some low-volume stuff in a small hall, and the levels were pretty low. I was glad I had 24 bits when it came time to mix.

* As I'd hoped, the Audio-Technica AT-822 stereo mic is a great match for the R-1. Hook 'em up, get good mic placement and levels, and you should have a recording you can use for a high-quality CD with minimal minimal effort and processing. I like the AT-822 better than the built-in omnidirectional mics, at least in a hall with echo. The omnis got a little muddy with a big band and needed some help later with EQ.

* I've successfully used Lexar 80x WA 2GB CompactFlash card and a SanDisk Ultra II *4*GB CompactFlash card; once I finally figured out that the SanDisk card had a secret little switch to choose between two 2GB banks or the whole 4GB memory! Edirol warns that some Lexar cards can use too much power, which is why I bought the SanDisk, although I didn't notice a problem using the Lexar card.

* Here's a big warning: It's easy to confuse the similar power switch and "hold" switch. If you do, then change batteries with the power on, you can lose your recording! I did this once, and it was embarrassing to say the least. Now, I tend to hit "stop, record-pause, record" between songs to write the data to the card. Interestingly, I only lost the *middle* session out of several when I made the power-switch "cockpit error".

* I avoided the special effects processing during recording, trying for a cleaner recording and also to avoid their extra drain on battery life. I was afraid of running out of battery power at the wrong time, so I did the switch before it was necessary. I'm guessing battery life is about what Edirol estimates - some 2.5 hours on a set for recording. An AC adapter is included, too.

* With a good-sized CompactFlash card, the R-1 could also make a pretty nice music player. I bought some Apple in-ear headphones to get isolation and monitoring in a small package. They're not bad for monitoring, although I don't care much for the sound for critical listening (where's the midrange?). For that, my favorite headphones are the Audio-Technica ATH-40fs, which a MacInTouch reader and sound engineer told me about. They have wonderfully flat response, but only a 1/4" plug and a long straight cord. (Radio Shack sells 1/4" to 1/8" adapter/extension cables.)

* I'm still trying to figure out what effects the built-in limiter (switchable) has on the sound. At first I thought the limiter was hurting the high-end but I think the problems I'm hearing might be from levels that were too *low*, in combination with 16-bit recording that I used at the first concert to conserve space on the card.

Later, I pushed the levels all the way up in a rehearsal with the limiter turned off, trying to get digital clipping, and it was pretty hard to hear, although I could see a little bit with an analyzer. For wide dynamic levels, I strongly recommend 24-bit (WAVE) format and trying to get the levels high enough. The jury is still out on the limiter.

After the live recording sessions, I spent a lot of time working with the audio, trying to clean up some issues with limiting, levels and EQ - none of which you'd have if the recording was done right. I was doing it on the fly in live concerts with all the attendant issues.

I continue to find the $30 Amadeus II application to be an incredibly useful, reliable and effective tool. It's a stunning value with support for all kinds of filters. Free "Carbon-MDA" VST filters include some great stuff, including dynamics (with expansion, as well as compression) and stereo image plug-ins, along with many more. (I kept tripping over "Combo", though, which sounds like something other than it is - a big guitar-amp distortion model.)

A very complementary application is Rogue Amoeba's $32 "Audio HiJack Pro", which can do almost anything, including *real-time* plug-in effects, a wonderful feature I've yet to find on any other reasonably-priced application. (Actually, DSP-Quattro has it for $150, but I didn't care for its plug-in user interface with its microscopic type.) I spent some time with BIAS Peak 4 - a 10-day trial version - finding it pretty fast and efficient, with support for 5 real-time plug-ins, but I think it should be priced at about half the $500 level it carries. I mean, you can buy an Mbox with ProTools for that....

When my hands got tired mousing around with silly graphical controls on plug-ins, I ended up trying and buying three plug-ins from Elemental Audio (Neodynium, Equium and Firium), which just stunned me with the quality and innovation of their user interface and functionality. I have no idea who's behind these (couldn't find any names), but they represent the best of the best in computer software and interface design, in my opinion. The company's *free* "Inspector" plug-in is invaluable, too, with RTAS, VST and Audio Unit versions. Even the customer experience (researching, trying and buying) was also flawless, and pricing seems quite reasonable for what you get. Check 'em out.

As for USB 1.1, I assume it works but is much slower. The other option is to simply take out the CompactFlash card and put it into a FireWire or other reader. Just don't make the mistake we did, where a friend ejected another card without dragging it to the trash first, and the Finder showed a completely foreign directory structure overlaid on my card when I inserted it. That was pretty scary, once I realized what had happened, but I quickly ejected the card, and I don't *think* that's what trashed my middle recording. Just be careful about this, and note that it can't happen if you connect the R-1 via a USB cable. (Edirol warns that certain USB cables may be problematic - those with built-in resistors - so be careful about that, too.)

All in all, I think this is an outstanding compact recording system, well matched with the battery-powered AT-822 mic or quite usable with its built-in mics. The Mbox may give you a little better signal-to-noise ratio with excellent balanced mics and its outstanding preamps, but you can do very professional live work with the R-1 and have a lot more mobility, while avoiding all the complexity and pitfalls of a Mac-based system.

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