003_angle

The Digidesign Digi 003 is a strong value if you need this much mixing and I/O facility. But is it overkill for our reader Lynn?

Gear isn’t everything — but getting geared up is the one hurdle that can hold up beginners. In the Ask CDM series, we’ll be answering at random some of the questions we regularly get in our inbox. First up, Lynn Morgan, who’s ready to make the jump to digital. Lynn writes:

My questions will quickly [make it] apparent that I’m from the old “tape” school of recording. But nonetheless, I do understand sound recording to some degree, having recorded 5 long-play projects in “Guitar City”.

I want to set up a home studio where I can record my own tunes. I’ll use guitar, guitar synth, bass and some keyboards and, of course, my vocals. I want the sound to be totally professional and I want the ability to interface with other users of Pro Tools, for possibly background vocals or drums, etc.

My question is this, What do I really need for equipment? The 003 Digidesign looks impressive but what would I need beyond that?

It turns out Lynn isn’t currently a Pro Tools user, but she added this when pressed:

I want to set up a recording system that will not be outdated in 6 months and sound quality to equal the best out there. The transition from “tape” to digital they say has its advantages and disadvantages. I’m just not sure what I need in the “digital” world to make it all happen.

Good questions — and ones I expect will spur some reader comment, too. But let’s divide this up into some smaller questions and look at it that way. I did intend to answer just this sort of question with my book Real World Digital Audio, but there are some specifics I didn’t get into there, so we’ll look at the specific questions.

This wound up being a huge answer, but I know it’s a very Frequently Asked Question.

What do you need?

I think the best way to begin is to think through what you need to do and work backwards from there. With audio hardware, you’ll want to think literally to inputs and outputs and how much you’ll be recording at a time.

So, for Lynn, that’s:

  • Guitar, bass: you’ll be either recording directly into the interface via a guitar input on the computer audio hardware, or using a mic like a Shure SM57 to mic the amp
  • Guitar synth, keyboards: these all require line-level inputs. If they’re newer models, they may have USB connections so they can be plugged into a computer directly. If they’re older, they may require a MIDI interface
  • Vocals: you’ll need a mic. I’m really pleased with my Beta 87C for vocals (pictured), but there are plenty of options here — you’ll want to try singing into mics you’re considering

That translates as wanting the following gear, at the very least:

  • Computer audio interface with ample ins and outs and MIDI for these recording situations
  • Computer software
  • A control surface for providing some physical control (knobs, faders, transport buttons) over the recording
  • Good studio-quality monitors (known to the rest of the world as “speakers”), plus headphones
  • A vocal mic, and maybe a second mic for recording an amp
  • You might also consider software effects, and particularly a guitar effects / amp simulator package

As it happens, the Digidesign 003 does cover the first three of these: it’s an audio interface, it includes computer software (Pro Tools LE), and it’s a control surface. But it’s just one option, and you want to make sure to budget for the other items if you don’t own them, which brings us to the next questions.

Beta87c

Don’t forget the mic! I really love my Beta 87C from Shure — it’s warm but precise, and has a pickup pattern that works well for a typical home studio setup. You can also take it on the road and use it live if you like. There are some cheaper alternatives to the Beta 87C; the easy advice is to try vocalizing into the mics and see which you like.

Should you use Pro Tools?

First, let’s clear up the myth: you don’t have to use Pro Tools — do it because you want to. Plenty of “professional” music is made on other systems, such as Apple Logic Pro (Mac), MOTU Digital Performer (Mac), Ableton Live (Mac/PC), Steinberg Cubase (Mac/PC), and Cakewalk SONAR (PC). There’s even free/open source software with similar capabilities (Ardour for Mac and Linux). I spent most of my time this year in SONAR, Live, and Logic Studio — but that’s a personal choice.

In this case, you’ll choose either Pro Tools or one of these alternatives based on several factors.

First, do you need Pro Tools to exchange files? It’s not strictly necessary for collaborators to use the same host as you — and you’ll still need to account for whether your collaborator has the same plug-ins you do. (If not, they’ll “bounce” the audio with the plug-ins they’re using so you’ll just get sound files on your machine.) That said, collaborating with other people who use the tool you do can be more convenient.

Second, what do you like using? It’s worth spending a few minutes giving the thing a test if you can, especially since you’re new. That should be first-hand testing with a friend nearby, not just a demo. I will say, I know a lot of people new to recording have been really happy with Pro Tools. I also know people who have been really happy with some of the alternatives.

Third, is Pro Tools the best value for you? I’ll talk a bit about that in the next section, but some people find that the choice of hardware that other software offers is a better deal. Others are perfectly happy with Pro Tools’ value proposition. So this comes back to some personal choice.

It’s also worth mentioning that other choices beyond Pro Tools open up greater hardware choice, and greater plug-in choice. The latter is really an objective difference, too, as Digidesign makes its plug-in developer tools harder to get at. That should mean that plug-ins for Pro Tools will have more quality control — weird free plug-ins for other systems can in fact cause your system to be unstable. But you have control over which plug-ins you install, so I think the main thing to consider here is that preference for usage style ultimately overrides everything else. Pro Tools users give up a little choice partly because they like the system so much.

The one thing not to do is to assume you need Pro Tools because other tools won’t “sound” as good, or are harder to use (that’s entirely dependent on taste), or aren’t “professional”, or that “no one uses them.” Truth is, any one of these tools will do the job, so this comes down to taste.

As far as the criteria of having the solution be future-proof and make good-quality sound, most of that is really a matter of tailoring your purchase to your musical needs and investing enough money and (more importantly) time working with the tools after you’ve got them.

It’s a big decision, so spend the time to make the right choice. At the same time, go ahead and make a choice — all of these tools work, and you’ll want to spend more of your time actually using them than just worrying about which one to use.

Apple Logic Studio — and many other tools — can do all the same basic tasks Pro Tools software can. The choice comes down to preference for working styles, what platform (Mac/PC) you’re using, and whether it’s important to you to be able to choose your own hardware and have greater plug-in choices.

Is the 003 overkill?

Now, to the core of this question: the 003 looks great in the ads and glossies, but what does Lynn really need?

Hardware + software: First, we have to back up into what “Pro Tools” means. Pro Tools is a different animal from its competitors in that it’s a combined hardware/software solution. Digidesign makes three classes of Pro Tools software, and it runs only in combination with hardware made by Digidesign to work with it:

  • Pro Tools M-Powered: supported M-Audio audio interfaces (and the most choices available) — the “M” stands for M-Audio
  • Pro Tools LE: 003, Mbox
  • Pro Tools HD: Pro Tools HD hardware

With M-Powered, you buy hardware and software separately. With LE and HD, you can’t buy the hardware without getting the software, and you can’t buy the software without getting the hardware. That tends to make your first purchase more economical, but future purchases a little pricier if you need to switch audio interfaces. (You can buy software upgrades separate from hardware; that’s the one exception.)

ProTools-7-mock-open

Pro Tools M-Powered is Pro Tools software sold separately, for use with any M-Audio hardware you want. It’s not quite as much choice as you get with other music software, which will work with any  pro-grade hardware, not just one brand. But it could be the best tradeoff if you want to use Pro Tools but maintain some hardware flexibility.

LE vs. M-Powered vs. HD: LE and M-Powered are almost identical in their feature sets. You’ll sometimes get a slightly different mix of plug-ins with LE, but the only really significant difference is that LE versus M-Powered adds some desktop post production features for people working with video, which in this case probably doesn’t apply.

HD is much, much more expensive (thousands of dollars), but in case you’re interested, here’s what the difference is. On the HD line, Digidesign uses hardware to assist in processing audio, rather than using your computer’s CPU. This used to be a very big deal, because older computers weren’t powerful enough to do all the audio processing you might like. That’s no longer such an issue, so the differentiation in HD now is higher-end audio gear, more inputs and outputs, and, to some extent, a platform for higher-end software audio processing. The software has features similar to LE and M-Powered, but with more advanced capabilities for multiple tracks and routing, surround sound, sync and automation, and other features. (In fact, while they don’t support the same specs as the HD systems, even the LE and M-Powered systems are capable of recording audio that would theoretically be considered High Definition — just to make things really confusing.)

Fortunately, you don’t need to worry about HD — this is a battle between LE, M-Powered, and, well, things that aren’t Pro Tools.

Picking your tools: If you’re committed to going with Pro Tools, the 003 isn’t a bad option. It has loads of ins and outs, includes the software you’ll need in the box, and doubles as a motorized control surface.

But it is probably overkill. I’d suggest going instead with Pro Tools M-Powered and then mixing and matching the hardware you need. The $450 Fast Track Ultra plugs in via USB and gives you all the inputs and outputs you need. If you’re just recording your stuff solo, the $250 Fast Track Pro would be enough, because you don’t need to record simultaneously. Both of these have onboard MIDI connections for connecting older hardware. Yeah, you may be tempted to get Digidesign’s Mbox, which has Pro Tools LE already included. But I think spending a little extra to buy M-Powered and an audio interface separately will be worth it in flexibility.

We’re now at a fraction of the price of the 003, and unlike with the 003, you’ll be able to work on the road without lugging a giant piece of gear. (Pro Tools LE will refuse to run if it doesn’t spot approved Digidesign gear plugged into your audio interface — and in the case of the 003, that’s no small matter.) M-Powered will work with just a small USB key plugged in and an M-Audio interface. You have the choice of which M-Audio interface you buy, so while you still have to carry that to use Pro Tools, you have more options than you would even with an Mbox. (Of course, this is some of the appeal of other software systems, which let you use just an internal headphone jack on a laptop if you so desire.)

If you don’t care about being locked into one piece of hardware — that is, if you have a system that stays stationary or you don’t mind carrying around an Mbox — you might also consider the newly-introduced Pro Tools Music Creation Studio. It actually includes a good mic, decent monitors, a keyboard, and a big software bundle for the ridiculous price of US$895. But that’s only a good deal if you need that bundle, of course, so weigh that against what works best for you.

FastTrackUltra-3qtrLeft

The Fast Track Ultra pairs well with Pro Tools M-Powered. The first two jacks double as mic or instrument (read: guitar/bass in this case) inputs. And you’ll have a lot of I/O flexibility for a pretty low price. If you’re not using Pro Tools, of course, more hardware options come into play.

Control surface: The one thing you miss out on is the control surface, but for solo recording, you’re just going to want something that makes starting and stopping recordings and monitoring levels easy. I really like the Frontier Design AlphaTrack. It works perfectly with Pro Tools — and a lot of other software, as well.

alphatrack

For solo recording, I like something that’s compact — it’s rare in a mix session that you’re adjusting multiple mix faders simultaneously, anyway. The Frontier Design AlphaTrack is an easy impulse buy at the moment with a street around US$200, and it wins out by being compatible with just about everything. (The PreSonus FaderPort is another good option, but it’s not as compatible and lacks some of Frontier’s extras.)

Play the field: If you don’t entirely have your heart set on Pro Tools, though, I’d check out the options — for me, that’d be SONAR for Windows or Logic Studio for Mac, depending on which platform you’re on. For around $500 you get just as much software power as M-Powered, and you can use any audio interface you like.

But really, either way, we’re talking about $1500 (instead of $2000) in hardware and software. If you’ve got some money to spare, you can add a guitar amp simulation package like IK Multimedia’s AmpliTube or Native Instruments’ Guitar Rig and really have some fun with your guitar and bass.

Shopping List

Here’s what we’ve come up with, for the record:

Or, if you choose the non-Pro Tools route, for Mac users, something like:

..and for PC users, something like:

  • Cakewalk SONAR Power Studio 660, probably the best bargain here — under US$500, and you get both a high-quality FireWire audio interface and your software, plus a healthy selection of plug-ins; with the money you save, you could upgrade to additional software tools or budget for extra accessories down the road — see the Recording review

Total spent: about US$800-1000 for the first couple of options (less if you choose a simpler audio interface), under US$500 for the SONAR choice. And that leaves more money for the rest of your setup.

And the extras:

… which, total, runs you around another US$400-700. (Guitar Rig has the advantage of bundling a foot controller fairly cheaply, but AmpliTube is available as cheaply as US$80 for some basic presets in AmpliTube Live). Digidesign has their own guitar product, Eleven, but I haven’t gotten to spend much time with it yet and I have spent some quality time with the IK and NI offerings. And there are Waves and TC Electronic and Line6 offerings, as well. Long story short: software guitar users are spoiled for choice.

Feel free to disagree

This being an open forum, I’m sure our readers will have some opinions of their own. So fire away.

Keep those “ask CDM” questions coming; we’ll pick the most pertinent questions and let our editors and readers weigh in.

Updated: The fact that the 003 is able to bundle in good audio I/O, control surface, and software led Lynn — and a few others — to opt for the 003 after all:

  • Adrian Anders

    It's funny… I believe the gradual move of mainstream studios from tape to computer recording has been good for both non-pros who favor computer recording and those non-pros who are still partial to hardware recording (ADAT and disk-based).

    Take a look at Musiciansfriend, zzounds, or any other major online music equipment retailer. There are some serious bargins going on with what remains of hardware recording… and on ebay or most pawn shops you can find a pretty decent ADAT for next to nothing these days.

    Couple that with the low-cost of alternative software sequncers (Reaper, FL Studio, XO Wave for example) and it's a pretty great time to be into audio recording (at least at the low to mid-range end).

    ATA

  • http://knblog.blogspot.com Karl Winegardner

    Thanks for going the extra mile to cover this with a bit of depth. I really appreciated your perspective on considering not using ProTools.

    Makes Logic and an Apogee interface look all the more tantalizing.

    …Someday…

  • dead_red_eyes

    Don't forget about Digital Performer!

    :)

  • dead_red_eyes

    Great article tho Peter. Nice and thorough.

  • Chris Conover

    Hey Peter,

    Great article, but I am confused on your comment about Pro Tools M-Powered. You mention that you can work with your built in headphone jack as long as you have the dongle plugged in. To my knowledge you must have M-Audio hardware also plugged in for the app to even launch. Is this a new version?

  • spinner

    Cheers mate Been recommending tweakheadz for my students but this is a better. Short & to the point!

  • http://www.createdigitalmusic.com Peter Kirn

    No, Chris, you're correct… I've clarified that section. So with Pro Tools M-Powered or LE, you're lugging some gear around. At least with M-Audio, that gear could be really cheap, and you have more choices. Digidesign has the very tiny Mbox 2 Micro, but that's still $279 — great deal for new users, not for anyone who has to buy another interface.

    I think I mentioned DP at the top. Logic's just one example, then… in fact, looking up the prices of stuff, I'm reminded how similar value propositions are there with the non-Pro Tools DAW options. Even with the Pro Tools bundles, I think you get a little more software in the box in the other DAWs, plus you can bring your own hardware. So it really comes down to this question of whether you want to use Pro Tools or something else.

  • Justin

    It may also be worth mentioning that in terms of sound quality (preamp + conversion), the duet will run rings around any non HD pro tools hardware.

    It's preamps are about on par with the FMR RNP, and the converters are somewhere between the mini-me and the rosetta (same converters as ensemble).

    This may offer cheaper scalability over something like the digi003r, as you can find a used portico preamp or something for +/- $1200 on ebay, and bam – two killer signal paths that will sit nicely alongside anything you do at a $60/hr+ studio.

  • http://andrew.hicox.com plurgid

    The 003 really DOES look nice, but it's what, something like three grand, and you STILL need a good computer to use it with. That's seriously expensive in my book.

    I'll tell you, if you want a pretty nice low-end shopping list, this is what I've got, and it works pretty good:

    1) Mac Mini =~ $700

    2) Logic Express = $250

    3) Line 6 TonePort = $150

    4) M-Audio iControl (for garageBand but works with logic as well) =~ $100

    Granted, it IS low-end and you're not going to multi track a whole band at once with it, but it's amazing how professional your mixes can sound with just that cheap setup … and the computer is included in the price list.

  • kobe

    peter, you recommended the alphatrack and the presonus faderport.

    -i bought a CME Bitstream 3x some time ago. i bought a LOT of stuff. i'm a beginner so honestly i don't understand it all.

    will my bitstream work for what you'd use the faderport & alphatrack for? i know it's got transport control but was curious about it's functionality, especially the 'resolution' of the midi faders. -a friend asked me 'what are you using for a mixing board?' & i was like, 'uh, well, let's see i got my apogee ensemble going into my macbook pro which is runninglogic pro and logic pro has knobs & faders for each track. and uh, well i got this bitstream thing which is a box full of knobs & faders… but… i'm not sure how it all integrates…'

    yes, i'm a noob. you'd faint if you saw all the top gear i have in my room that's not getting used due to my ignorance.

  • http://www.createdigitalmusic.com Peter Kirn

    There's no reason you can't mix with MIDI faders on a Bitstream. It's just less convenient, mainly — the advantage of these other boards is that they're better integrated with software, more precise, and motorized. But it's possible to use your Bitstream for this. If it's working for you, then you're fine. If you want something else, then you might investigate these other options.

    And Plurgid, good point … again, my assumption here is that we're comparing to the Digidesign options directly and that, for various reasons, Pro Tools might in fact be what this person prefers. (she hasn't used PT, though, so the justification there until she tries it would be file exchange convenience … and it's still worth trying PT first!)

  • http://www.boxoftextures.com/ Seth

    A good and not too expensive solution would be Ableton Live, a MOTU Ultralite audio/MIDI interface and an M-Audio Trigger Finger. Live starts at US$500, the Ultralite is $550, the Trigger Finger is $150. Total is $1200.

    The Trigger Finger has four faders, 10 knobs and 16 drum pads. The faders may not be motorized, but hey, it'll save you a couple of grand (a grand = $1000 dollars for those not in the US). In fact, it also comes with a version of Live Lite. You can upgrade that copy to the full Live for $350, so now your total is down to $1050. If you're just starting out you can skip the upgrade for a while and now you're under $1000. You'll probably want to do the upgrade though as Live Lite is limited to only four audio and four MIDI tracks.

    There are several advantages to Live over Pro Tools. One is that you're not locked in to specific hardware. Another is that you don't have to lug around a gigantic dongle (i.e., your hardware interface) when all you want to do is run your software. I can record a pile of clips in Live and than later with just my laptop and headphones arrange and edit to my heart's content.

    Lastly, for the lowest amount of money up front you can just get the Ultralite by itself as it comes with AudioDesk recording software. AudioDesk is sort of a lite version of Digital Performer except that it doesn't do MIDI, only audio. You can upgrade from AudioDesk to the full Digital Performer for $400.

    The most bang for the buck, in my opinion, may be the Trigger Finger, Ultralite and Lite-to-Live upgrade combination. You get faders, interface and software for just over $1,000 and you won't really need anything else for a good long time (except for maybe a microphone and monitors).

  • http://www.protoolerblog.com stiff

    With all due respect, I disagree with some opinions posted here on alternative solutions. Something like Toneport + iControl or Fasttrack Ultra + Alphatrack is no way near the same thing as an 003 IMO. In these cases, you pretty much get what you pay for. The 003 has decent preamps (I'm not sure about the others mentioned as I haven't tried them), a good monitoring system and, lots of connection possibilities, and perhaps most importantly, an excellent control surface for the money. The control surface is not to be underestimated. It's things like that, that keeps my arms healthy enough for doing this as a living.

    Of course, in this case, the buyer must ask himself if he's going to do a lot of mixing. If not, the control surface isn't of much value.

    If the buyer has the need for a control surface AND wants to stay in Pro Tools WITHOUT buying the 003, I would actually suggest holding off from the Command 8 a bit, unless he gets it cheap second hand. It seems to me like their should be a replacement soon (with jog wheel and typical Digidesign mushroom knobs). While something like the Mackie controllers, or any other HUI compatible device can control Pro Tools, it won't do it nearly as good as a Digidesign surface.

    As for "equal the best". I think most will agree that you can do that with any software. I've gone through most of them, and have many of them still. If I make a crappy song I won't blame it on the software. Logic Studio is of amazing value. I like it very much, but it's buggy as hell. You'd still need an interface, and depending on how you want to work a control surface. To "equal the best" in terms of sound, I'm of the opinion that one should spend a little money on the channels in. Of course this is where personal scenarios comes into play again. Are you only recording yourself? The two channels will be enough. You want to record your friend as well? Then we're talking perhaps three or four channels.

    Is the 003 overkill? I dunno… Hopefully what I've written above has made you ask yourself a few more questions and got a little closer to what you want.

    If you want to use Pro Tools, you'll need M-Audio or Digidesign hardware, and many solutions will be cheap. Especially with Digidesign since Pro Tools LE is included. The cheapest way in at the moment is Mbox Mini (not counting Micro) which includes Pro Tools LE. From there on, there's a lot of options that costs more…

  • Ben

    I'm currently running a Cubase SX / Live 7 rig, and I've got a lot of top end (read: expensive) plugins. As far as composition I've found this to be a way more lethal combination than ProTools. However at JMC Academy, where I'm studying my Bachelors Degree of Sound Engineering, the whole place it fitted with ProTools rigs (LE & HD), and ever since I've been going there I've become of the belief that nothing seems to do a better job when recording, mixing and editing AUDIO (not MIDI), and is way more reliable than anything else I've tried (Cubase, Live, Logic, Sonar, Orion). However I do stress that when it comes to composition, Cubase & Live kill ProTools any day, but in the end there is nothing like using 'Tools for audio, especially if you get to have those gorgeous touch sensitive faders under your fingers :)

    Just my two cents :)

  • http://www.andivax.com andi vax

    cubase 4 studio + echo audiofire 4 = 800$

  • http://www.musictechmag.co.uk Mike

    A really well reasoned answer Peter, I have to agree with you pretty much completely.

    The 003 is a magnificent beast, I have one and I do really love it. The preamps are in a different league to the Mbox and M-Audio stuff and the control surface is like heaven after trying to use MIDI faders with my old Cubase SX3 setup.

    But for most people, especially those just starting out or only really recording solo stuff, it's total overkill.

  • http://stretta.blogspot.com Matthew Davidson

    All these tools are awesome. My first multitrack was a Fostex X15 four-track cassette, and this wasn't that long ago. It sounded, in a word, terrible, but the worlds it opened…

    What a wonderful time to be a musician. So many amazing tools available, plus the means to reach a worldwide audience.

  • http://www.createdigitalmusic.com Peter Kirn

    @stiff: I don't think we're disagreeing, actually — the point is, this is someone's first system. And I think the ability to deal with a smaller interface, a smaller control surface you can move around while you're recording solo, means that in certain situations that setup could actually be better. (I neglected to ask Lynn whether she has a laptop, which would make that even more important.)

    And I think the reason we come up with so many alternatives here is just that there are in fact a lot of good choices.

  • Lynn

    Wow!! Thanks fellow musicians. This has been very educational. For what it cost to record in a Nashville studio today any of these options seems reasonable cash wise. The time to learn the gear is much more challenging than coming up with the dollars to pay for it. Also, selling even a thousand CD,s will cover all the cost very quickly. So it sounds like the 003 plus some good monitors and a couple great mics may be the best way to go and also give me the option to have a couple extra musicians in my studio at the same time. Thanks so much for your help.

  • http://www.machinepop.com Lindon

    If you're thinking of the 003 you might wanna check these guys out if you want "best out there.." sound

    http://www.blacklionaudio.com/digi003_mod.html

  • http://www.machinepop.com Lindon

    Whilst I'm thinking about it…I think the best general option is to spend as much as you can on decent hardware and as little as you can effectivly get away with on s/w. To that end I'd recommend Mackie's Tracktion as a complete (and cheap nad very user-friendly) piece of software, then buy second hand hardware restricting yourself to only those items on the mod-able list at Black Lion Audio (see my previous post for the URL).

  • Pingback: Slippery slope of gear lust. « And it burns,burns,burns….

  • http://www.podcomplex.com projectmix

    A far cheaper alternative to the 003 is M-Audio's Projectmix IO, which has a very similar range of features at about half the price. Obviously it isn't of any use if you want to do some recording on the road, but for a home studio it might be worth a look. I wrote a review of it here:

    http://www.podcomplex.com/blog/index.php/2008/02/

  • Lynn

    What does one need for a computer to adequately run the 003 Digidesign.Is Firewire recommended?

    How much memory, etc.? Again, thank you for your input and help!!! Lynn

  • Lynn

    What does one need for a computer to run the 003 Digidesign?