sound with mac

Well, there were lots of things – one great bit of the teaching involved playing movements from Jonny Dyer‘s new nyckelharpa suite. I wanted to have a go at recording some of it – and as it’s a trio it needs multi-track overdubs again.

I had a first go yesterday using the setup with the Raspberry Pi I have described before. However there were definitely problems. First, I have still not mastered playing a second time along whilst listening on the headphones to the previous track, and trying to keep exactly in time; the precision was definitely poor! Secondly, I wondered about some clicking and popping in later tracks. I sent the result to Vicki who gave me some advice and analysis. Then I had an idea …

Last year Marwyn got a new laptop which meant that her old Mac Mini was retired. Apple have stopped supporting the Mac Mini anyway, I could no longer update the operating system. However it still works – and it has a fan that’s pretty quiet. I installed Audacity on it and decided to give it a go today.

Here’s the result:

I made a lot of takes of each part to give the Mac a lot of work – 7 for part 1, 4 for part 2 and 3 for part 3. Basically I kept going until I had a take with hardly any fluffs that I could use in its entirity.

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Last September the ceilidh band I play with (the Greenbank Buskers) were doing a gig in a hall which was filled with lots of noisy dancers (etc!). We have usually managed fine in the past but found that the fiddles were having difficulty hearing the accordions, and vice versa. We had amplification but only for the hall.

Having done other gigs where we had (gasp!) a sound tech and even (gasp again!) floor/stage monitor speakers, I knew there was a solution to our problem – but commercially at cost – and we are just a band that plays for charity. However, I remembered that I had an ancient guitar amp I made with a couple of really nice speakers in it …

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The setup for recording, using Audacity on the Raspberry Pi, is great. However Audacity is a bit limited in what it can do when mixing the tracks down (though it can do a lot). I don’t think that Ardour, a more complex DAW (digital audio workstation – hah!) will run on the Raspberry Pi, although there are other possibilities that might.

I recorded 11 tracks using the nyckelharpa, fiddle, and lever harp, all on Audacity. I then exported them as .wav files and imported them into an Ardour session so that I could use the programmable faders in Ardour. Here’s a screenshot:

Ardour screenshot

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Time to get an improved system to get the sound into the computer – a better usb interface. I bought a Focusrite Scarlett Solo (2nd edition) which is adequate for my needs – I just have the one decent microphone with no plans for others at present.

Focusrite Scarlett Solo

The build quality is excellent – a nice solid case, smooth controls, good large rubber feet to stop it slipping. It was easy to set up the latency in Audacity, and easy to adjust microphone input level and monitor headphones output level.

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I am gradually working up to having a better sound recording setup. One concern is the computer used to do the recording; computers usually have fans that sometimes fire up at unexpected moments, and for sound recording you need quiet.

The Raspberry Pi has given me a lot of fun already for amateur radio, and I wondered if the most powerful version I have – the Raspberry Pi 3 model B – would be sufficient to make overdub recordings. Online research suggested that at least some people had made the Raspberry Pi work for sound recording, and there are versions of Digital Audio Workstation software that can run on it, for example

I installed Audacity (as a simple recording system that I am familiar with) on the Raspberry Pi (simple, using the package installer) and it seems to work. I set up a quick and easy system (which I can test with until I get a proper usb sound interface), using a cheap mixer to provide phantom power to the microphone, and a cheap usb sound dongle to provide the audio interface to the Pi. It looks like this:

Hardware photo

For those not familiar with it, the Raspberry Pi computer is the small bare circuit board left centre. (I have ordered a box for it!) The sound dongle is plugged into the powered usb hub (as is the mouse) just below the monitor.

I recorded a click track, and overdubbed it onto itself to determine the latency correction needed; this is easy in Audacity (and well documented). I then recorded a track with the nyckelharpa, and overdubbed a second part with the fiddle. It was OK, in that I could monitor the first track on headphones whilst playing, but a proper usb interface will enable me to monitor both properly in the headphones. Watch this space!

The “Julottan Trio” test made me want to do some more recording, but I need a better recording setup. The first requirement is probably a decent microphone – so I set to some web research to find something. After quite a lot of reading I decided that the sE X1 series ought to be fine – so I ordered an X1 A from Gear for Music. It arrived at our local corner shop (very handy for collection) a day or two later.

SE X1A microphone

Very handily I had Malcolm around as guitarist and sound consultant, and we did a recording of John McCusker’s “The Shetland Molecule” as a first test. We had played a version of this a few years ago for the annual Yule session, and also to the folks in Canada on a Facebook video Christmas chat, but Malcolm did a new and rather more jazzy version this time which I really like.

Here it is on Soundcloud:

This was just recorded on Audacity using the laptop, with a cheap mixer to provide the phantom power for the microphone and set the levels for the laptop audio input. A bit crude but it worked. The microphone was positioned to pick up both the fiddle and guitar on a single track, so background noise is audible in places.

So – now ready for the next step – getting the gear to do overdubbing.

I have always played with sound recording, from when I had an ancient (and extremely heavy) reel-to-reel tape recorder as a teenager, which I used to record things like the Apollo Moon landings and Concorde’s first flight, from the TV. Later I had a neater Philips reel-to-reel machine; I think its biggest use was the creation and playing of “party tapes” – long compilations that could be left running for hours at a very slow tape speed at parties in the 1970s!

More recently, when I started going to fiddle classes and workshops, I bought a Zoom H1 portable recorder, which will record .wav or .mp3 to a memory card.

Zoom H1 recorder

It’s a great little device that produces excellent quality recordings; the only problem is that it has some design or component fault that means that it slowly discharges the AA battery even when it is switched off. It means that the date and time has to be reset if it has been turned off for any length of time with the battery out. I have had it in bits but can’t be sure where the problem is (it is allegedly a faulty capacitor). It can be powered by the usb cable instead of the battery, which is fine for home use.

I used this to make a test recording for Christmas 2017, using the lovely Swedish tune “Julottan” written by Mats Wallman. It’s played on nyckelharpa, fiddle, and lever harp (clarsach).

It was recorded one instrument at a time (actually in four takes, as I did the harp melody and chords separately) in a fairly primitive way; I copied the nyckelharpa line from the Zoom to an old laptop, which I then used to play it  back (in Audacity) into my headphones whilst I recorded the next instrument on the Zoom. The four tracks were then synchronised by tweaking their time positions in the Openshot video editor, where I also added the still photos. The synchronisation isn’t perfect, but the results have encouraged me to start getting a better setup for recording so I can do more multi instrument stuff.