If you get involved with home music recording on your PC, there’s a word that will become increasingly important to you as progress in your endeavors: latency.
Latency is the lag time between when a note is played or sung and when the computer records it. To put it in layman’s terms, it’s a combination of the delay of the computer’s processing speed, and the circuitry of the soundcard. The lower the latency, the more powerful and more transparent the recording process is.
Why more powerful? Because if the latency is low enough, it’s possible to do real time monitoring while a voice or instrument is being recorded. If not, you have to wait until recording’s done to hear what something sounds like.
And if latency’s low, it’s possible to add real-time effects to the monitoring mix. So the singer can hear what she sounds like with a little echo or reverb on her voice. The guitarist can hear himself though a distortion plug-in.
Incidentally, we’re talking milliseconds here: a 20-millisecond delay is just enough to throw off a musician’s timing. Ideally, it should be under five milliseconds to make the recording process as transparent as possible.
The Soundblaster Experience
One of the most popular soundcards is Creative Labs’ Soundblaster series. They’re great for gamers, but not so great for those like to make music on their PCs.
As I found out the hard way.
I had my Soundblaster Audigy soundcard installed in a brand new, bitchin’ custom-built 2.8 GHz PC late last year, for the express purpose of recording music using my Sonar recording program. But for whatever reason, the latency of the card in the new system was abysmal. I had to constantly slide tracks around to line them up to get them in time. And forget real-time monitoring of performances. It also made my USB-based guitar synthesizer track poorly.
The Audigy card had Soundblaster’s LiveDrive front bay, which made recording, in some respects, fairly easy. You could plug a microphone in the front. Or amp modeling boxes like Roger Linn’s AdrenaLinn unit. But the LiveDrive bay only has a single quarter-inch jack. Needless to say, stereo recording was out of the question, as was real-time monitoring. Recording a vocal isn’t that difficult without real-time monitoring, although many vocalists are much more comfortable singing when they have reverb or echo on their voice. But an unprocessed instrument like electric guitar is much more problematic. The level of distortion impacts the timing of notes, particularly on lead parts. And it’s much more difficult to judge an effective take without being able to hear what the guitar sounds like with its amplifier tone.
Enter The Omni-Studio
M-Audio’s Omni Studio consists of two components: their Delta 66 PCI soundcard, and their Omni I/0 breakout box. Installing the two was a revelation: real-time monitoring? No sweat. Low latency? Under five milliseconds. Stereo inputs? Piece of cake. Other inputs? Check these out, from the M-Audio Website:
Neutrik connectors (XLR and 1/4″ TRS) mic/instrument preamps with 66dB gain 48V phantom power, individual gain controls, 20dB pad and signal/clip indicators line inputs 3 and 4 (1/4″ TRS) 4 direct outputs (1/4″ TRS) effects sends with level controls for each of the four D/A or direct monitor signals (1/4″ TS) stereo monitor outputs w/ level control (1/4″ TRS) stereo record outputs for mixdown deck (independent of monitor level) (1/4″ TRS) 2 stereo headphone outputs with individual level controls (1/4″ TRS) stereo effects return (1/4″ TS) direct monitoring with full level and panning control aux inputs 1 and 2 individually routable for monitoring or recording master output signal/clip LEDs S/PDIF digital I/O (coaxial) with 2-channel PCM SCMS copy protection control digital I/O supports surround-encoded AC-3 and DTS pass-through up to 24-bit/96kHz performance
Having the M-Audio card revitalized my Adrenalinn box by allowing proper stereo recording–and monitoring. It revitalized my guitar synth by allowing it to track much better than it did before.
What Does It Sound Like?
So what does it sound like? Well, a lot like this. That song was recorded over a few nights a couple of weeks ago and then mastered with Izotope’s Ozone software. The electric guitars were recorded in stereo via the AdrenaLinn (nifty sequencer patch on the rhythm guitar, huh?)
The Fender Rhodes keyboard on the song is actually a Reason patch played via the Roland Guitar synth. The bass on the song was via Cakewalk’s Project5 software synthesizer, which has a nice patch simulating a Steinberg headless electric bass.
The bass and lead vocal on the song were also processed via patches in Izotope Ozone. I had to slide these tracks backward about 15 to 20 microseconds because of the latency (see, there’s that word again!) of the processor-intensive Ozone plug-in. But at least they could initially be recorded in real-time, without any timing adjustments, via the M-Audio card.
An Ideal Soundcard For A Home Musician
With a $399 list price, M-Audio’s Omni Studio is a great choice for the solo musician who wants to record professional quality recordings. For more a group situation, another solution should probably be considered, since more inputs will be needed, particularly if a drum kit needs to be mic’ed up. And the breakout box needs its own power supply, which could be a consideration for some. But otherwise, the Omni Studio could be the ideal soundcard and breakout box a home musician needs to make extremely high-quality recordings without a minimum of fuss.