Recording Demos and Songs, without pulling my hair out?
February 19, 2010 9:17 AM   Subscribe

Can I construct a good, reliable, working setup for recording demos for under $500? My MacBook Pro and Presonus Firebox are failing hard.

So, I like to record demos, because multitracking and arranging feel pretty good to me. I did this the summer before last on a Thinkpad's internal mic (terrible) and a MacBook's internal mic (mediocre), and now am trying to eek some better quality out of my current MacBook Pro, but it's a rough road. I have a good mic (a Rode NT-2), and a firewire interface (Presonus Firebox), but it has been plagued with problems and I'm not sure if these will be 'fixed' just by upgrading to the firewire interface of my dreams (a Apogee Duet).

So far I've been dealing with
  • 'Disk too slow' problems from my MBP, which might be related to power supply (although this has also happened when it's plugged in)
  • Awful, horrible Firewire implementation on the MacBook. So far, I've gotten about four kernel panics while the interface is plugged in and one time, while plugging in the interface, my machine shut down hard and started up with the system clock reset. WTF?
  • The Presonus box has some kind of sync problem which means that often it'll stop working and won't start working again until re-plugged-in. The 'red light' problem they call it.
  • Somehow my MacBook is just not fast enough to really track audio. This is somewhat minor, but I get 'disk too slow' or 'not enough buffer' errors when trying to remix songs I've recorded elsewhere, which have 6-20 tracks simultaneously.
Note that the rest of my setup is Snow Leopard & GarageBand '09. All updates installed, nothing crazy going on in my system which would affect Firewire.

So, I'm not sure what to do - will Firewire always suck this much? Should I get a USB-based interface and sacrifice some quality for a more stable interface? Should I use a standalone unit like a TASCAM deal, even though that seems like 90s tech to me, and I'm not sure if it'll import into GarageBand / Logic / REAPER / whatever I'm using at the time?
posted by tmcw to Media & Arts (10 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I've been using a USB-based interface for quite a while now, and it performs better than a PCI-e card on the same system. The one I use is the M-Audio Mobile Pre USB. It can easily do simultaneous playback / record, and it has phantom power for my mic. The box is powered by the USB bus, no wall wart needed. I've used it on notebook systems (dual core with 4GB RAM and "normal" hard drives, nothing special) and it works well.

The last firewire box I used was a Digidesign unit, and it was problematic...and from what I understand, it was less problematic than most. I reluctantly switched to USB, but I won't go back. I did get a decent PCIe soundcard for my desktop box (a windows system) and it is awful compared to the M-Audio box...tons of noise, latency issues, and bizarre popping sounds in multi-track recordings.

Might be worth checking out. Guitar Center had it listed in their latest catalog for $129 or so.
posted by blixco at 9:27 AM on February 19, 2010

An MBox with Pro Tools will run you less than $500, it runs on FireWire very reliably, and will work brilliantly for what you want to do. I run my Pro Tools system on a Mac that is much older and crappier than what you're running, and it's super amazing and sounds great.

The current MacBook Pro is more than capable of doing everything you want to do and more. A collaborator of mine runs a portable Pro Tools HD system on his and records not only demos on it, but hit records. Now, an HD system is very, very expensive. But the MacBook Pro is the center of it, and it's capable.

A Logic system with a decent interface will run you less than $500, as well, and will run reliably and do a good job.

For whatever it's worth, neither I nor any of the professional Pro Tools users I know have had any significant problems with FireWire with the Digidesign gear. I have never had any problems with it.
posted by The World Famous at 9:38 AM on February 19, 2010

FWIW, I have a MOTU 828mkII that I paid about $125 for, it's plugged into my MBP via Firewire, and I use it every single day (I'm using it now), all the time, and it has never kernel panicked. My computer has never kernel panicked at all, and I have had it since early '08. I'm running Logic 9 on it.

I used to occasionally get disk-to-slow errors when recording more than I'd say 8 tracks, or sometimes playing back a lot of tracks, generally higher than that. I replaced the internal disk with the fastest one I could find that would fit (it was like 80 bucks) and I got a big USB 1.5TB fast external. No more disk speed errors, but I don't really slam the disks recording 20 tracks at a time or anything.

So, I guess what I'm saying is I don't think the firewire+MBP is fundamentally flawed in the general case, but I don't know what to point to in your system as the problem.

I would say though that if I had a $500 budget I wouldn't buy an Apogee Duet unless...I don't know, it just seems like a lot of dough out of a small budget.

Somehow my MacBook is just not fast enough to really track audio. This is somewhat minor, but I get 'disk too slow' or 'not enough buffer' errors when trying to remix songs I've recorded elsewhere, which have 6-20 tracks simultaneously.

Your MBP has got to be fast enough to handle this, there must be some other problem. Until fairly recently, I used a Sawtooth G4 running Logic to record demos in my prax studio. I had I believe 12 channels of audio IO on that computer, and I was using one generic disk (separate from the system/software disk, just for audio, internal). I regularly recorded on 8 or 10 inputs perfectly fine. I mean, the computer was slow, but I ran it for hours and hours recording, and it was extremely rare that it glitched on straightline recording. It would glitch at other random times, like if you had a lot of tracks, and hit play, and hit the keys of a MIDI controller hooked up to a software instrument you hadn't played in a while, it would say "Core Audio Overload". Sometimes I would get core audio overload on mixing, but I would routinely make mixes with 20+ tracks, plugins, hardware IOs, etc. This is all at 16/44.

So, yeah, any computer made since Apple started calling them Macbook Pros is fast enough to record and mix 6-20 tracks. Something else must be effed up: software, slow disks, drivers, IO hardware...but the MBP is fast enough for this.
posted by jeb at 10:01 AM on February 19, 2010

It's hard to know what your exact requirements/end goals are from your post, but if you are truly doing "demos" in the sense that you don't need a perfectly recorded end product, maybe consider a standalone digital multitrack recorder.

There are many decent ones available for under $500, and the best thing is that they get you away from the freaking computer during the recording process (less futzing, fewer distractions, no hardware compatibility issues, no noise from that big old CRT or what have you). You can always dump tracks back to the computer for mixing.
posted by quarterframer at 10:16 AM on February 19, 2010

Oops - the MBox is a USB device, with FireWire used for the external drive needed for tracking to work right. At least with Pro Tools, if you try to use just the internal hard drive, you'll have all kinds of horrible problems, so maybe that's your problem.

- Jeb is right about pretty much everything, particularly that you likely have some issue going on that is undiagnosed and has nothing to do with the fact that you're using a MacBook Pro. In fact, the MacBook Pro is just about the best computer you could be using for what you want to do. I aspire one day to have a MacBook Pro instead of my 3-year-old Mac Mini that works more than adequately for working on Pro Tools sessions with 30-40 tracks and multiple plug-ins.
posted by The World Famous at 10:17 AM on February 19, 2010

For clarification, yeah, I have been using my internal drive for everything. I have several USB 2.0 externals but haven't tried recording to them seriously. Is anyone else using a Firebox with consistent success or could that be part of the fatal flaw?
posted by tmcw at 10:22 AM on February 19, 2010

I had similar troubles recording on a PC with a firewire interface. I got skips and sync errors in all my tracks. I eventually traced it to the hard drive - most default built-in drives run at 5400 rpm, which is apparently too slow for recording. If you can replace your drive with one of the faster 7200 rpm devices you might have better luck.
posted by echo target at 10:34 AM on February 19, 2010

For clarification, yeah, I have been using my internal drive for everything

Record your audio to an external drive. Your MBP is plenty powerful for this, but just about any stock laptop hard drive is not ideal for recording multitrack stuff without problems.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 11:12 AM on February 19, 2010

Have you tried bumping up your buffers? That could cause all of the problems described. It's free to try.
posted by jeb at 10:49 AM on February 20, 2010

As a follow-up, I've switched to a Konnekt 6 audio interface and started using an external hard drive (and, now, only one great mike, a Rode NT1A), and it's been a blissful recording experience in comparison to what I was putting up with before.
posted by tmcw at 8:15 AM on May 17, 2010

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