Setting Up an Audio Monitoring System
Obviously, you have to have some way to hear the audio that you play back from your DAW. The sound devices we just discussed are an important piece of that puzzle, but after the audio leaves the audio interface, you have to send it somewhere. There are a couple of different approaches you can take in setting up your audio monitoring system. In this section, we’ll be talking specifically about monitoring through a stereo setup. If you’re running some sort of surround-sound or other multiple-channel setup, the techniques will be essentially the same—you’ll just have more outputs, cables, speakers, and so on to connect.
Routing Through a Hardware Audio Mixing Console
One way to get the audio signal from your sound device to your speakers is to run through a mixing console (mixer). A mixer makes it possible to control the volume and equalization of several separate audio input devices (your audio interface, a CD player, and so on) and send that signal to the same set of speakers or other device.
In a setup with a hardware mixer, the audio comes out of two output jacks on your sound device (one for the left audio signal and one for the right) and into two channels on your mixer. The audio then routes through to the mixer’s outputs and from there to an amplifier. The amplifier sends an amplified signal to your speakers. The amplifier might be a separate piece of gear, or it might be built into each speaker you’re using. Speakers that provide their own amplification are referred to as self-powered speakers.
Doing Without the Mixer
If space is an issue, or you just don’t want another piece of hardware to worry about, you can do without the mixer. And, as I mentioned, if you have self-powered speakers, you can eliminate a separate amplifier, too.
This setup significantly reduces the amount of desk space you need to control your audio. In essence, your audio interface substitutes for the mixer, while the speaker’s built-in amplifiers substitute for an external amplifier.
This is the way I prefer to have my studio set up because I need the extra space that the mixer takes up. If you’re contemplating this type of setup, I suggest looking into an audio interface that has a few extra features that provide the control you’ll be passing up by eliminating the mixer.
Choose an audio interface that has a control on its front with which you can adjust the volume of the device’s main outputs. Since you don’t have a mixer, you’ll find this hardware control on your audio interface very valuable for easily changing the volume of the audio playback.
Since you don’t have a mixer to control your audio input sources, you’ll need to send those sources (like your electronic keyboard, your microphone, and so on) directly into the inputs of the audio interface. Since you’ll probably be changing the devices you plug into the audio interface, it’s unbelievably inconvenient to have your inputs on the back of your audio interface where you have to be a contortionist to get to them.
You’ll also want to make sure that the inputs on the front of the device are universal connections that can accept either a quarter-inch plug that accepts line-level signal (from your electronic keyboard, for example) or an XLR plug that accepts a mic-level signal directly from your microphone.
It’s also helpful to have at least one instrument-level jack on the front of your audio interface that can accept the signal directly from your guitar. This is especially crucial if you’ll be using amplifier emulation software to achieve the sounds you want on your guitars (as opposed to playing through an actual guitar amp and recording with a microphone).
You’ll really appreciate an audio interface that features trim controls on the front for each input channel. A trim control (usually in the form of a knob that you turn) enables you to adjust the volume level of the input source. We’ll talk more about input level in Chapter 5, “Creating Your Guide Tracks,” but suffice it to say for now that it’s critical to set your input levels properly to achieve the best sound quality while you’re recording.
You’ll want a device that supplies phantom power through the XLR inputs to your microphone and an easily accessible switch to turn phantom power on and off. In a nutshell, some microphones require power to operate. The power can be supplied by a battery that you insert into the microphone, or often by the gear into which you plug the microphone (in this case, the audio interface) through phantom power.
You’ll want a device that enables you to monitor the incoming audio signal. Again, we’ll talk more about input monitoring when it comes time to record in Chapter 5, but basically this capability enables you to hear what you’re sending into the audio interface. For instance, it enables you to hear yourself singing while you record your vocals. A way to control the mix between input monitoring volume and computer playback volume is a nice touch, too.
It’s convenient to have a headphone jack and headphone volume control on the front of the device. In fact, this can be critical to successfully doing the type of recording we’re talking about in this book—that is, the type of recording that happens at 12:30 a.m. when the neighbors, kids, or roommates are asleep.