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Old February 16th, 2005, 01:03 PM   #1
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Need specifics on laptop-based recordings for future indie narrative productions

Anyone who is knowledgeable on laptop recordings in the field, or preferably anyone who is using this method now, any advice is appreciated..
--

I'm thinking about buying a cheap dell laptop on eBay and using it primarily for multi-channel audio recordings in the field. here's some questions i have:

1) how much RAM would I need, would I need to upgrade the sound card, and what other laptop upgrades should be considered?

2) what software is good? what software never crashes?

3) I think i'd need a patch bay right? -or- what i'm really asking is how do i get all the mic XLRs into my computer?

4) what kind of battery or power options are available to me (hopefully i don't have to rely on standard PC batteries which drain quick / unpredictably.)

5) should i still use a mixer with this setup? I ideally want each channel to have the strongest signal possible (while not clipping, obviously), so I can work with it in post with a minimum of noise. this means i wouldn't really be mixing during a shot, although i want to set all the levels before each shot to high enough levels. do this with a mixer or with the software?

6) finally, for anyone with experience in this, how reliable is this system and in general how well does it work compared to using a standard DAT recorder and mixer.

anything else i should be considering? i simply want to be well informed before spending my money on this. thanks!
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Old February 16th, 2005, 01:34 PM   #2
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Each of your questions points to the answer...
While certainly a lot of recording is done to laptops every day, it's not what I would choose for field recording during an indie narrative film.
Most of the laptop system's advantages aren't important to indie field work, while most of the problems associated with a laptop system are very much a hurdle to overcome during that type of production.
I would opt for either a solid-state or hard-drive recorder, and other support equipment that's specifically made for recording audio in the field. That will allow you to be an efficient part of the process rather than potentially being the biggest stumbling block.
You can still use your laptop as an important piece of support equipment to backup files and burn data CD copies of the daily work.
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Old February 16th, 2005, 01:43 PM   #3
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let me explain why i'm interested in this. i want to have the ability to wirelessly lav 5 actors (for example), and then independently adjust each actors levels in post in a precise environment, instead of doing rough estimations in the field and then having it recorded as a L-R mix.

i understand there may be difficulties but i'm young enough (ie. don't have enough of the industry's tradition instilled in me) to want to experiment away from the norm and also i'm very, very indie (NYU student doing his own movies) so I don't mind working out the kinks and the only one i'd have to answer to is myself anyway.

i think this path might ultimately be cheaper than HD or solid state, and allow me more control. makes sense?
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Old February 16th, 2005, 02:21 PM   #4
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I can see your reasons, and a laptop and appropriate mixer and/or interface would probably be the lowest cost solution, but I'll add a couple of other points.
Going beyond 2 wireless adds considerably to the complexity and expense. It may be a necessary evil depending on exactly how you want to shoot it, but it isn't nearly so simple as just adding more units and having tracks to record them separately. In addition, you'd really have to push this to 6 tracks in order to have a boom mic back-up/ambience track, which I'm certain would come into play.
Secondly, "adjusting" a large number of separate DIALOGUE tracks in post usually translates into "laboriously slicing them together with exacting precision". It is orders of magnitude more time consuming than regular audio editing. You can automate to some degree, but it isn't as perfect an end product as actually checkerboarding it together and it's still very time consuming.
I won't argue against the way you want to do something, I'd simply say that the very large additional expenditure of time, money and effort may not yield the quality benefits you're hoping for when all is said and done.
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Old February 16th, 2005, 09:05 PM   #5
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Apple's Garage Band, in the iLife '05 edition allows the simultaneous recording of 8 channels. It's a $79 piece of software that requires a hardware interface. Good production dialog also usually requires good preamps and limiters.

Sony or Panasonic used to make a 6 track MD recorder/mixer that I KNOW has been used on professional projects. Don't know if they are around anymore.

Your approach is unconventional. Go break some rules and let us know what happened.

Regards,

Ty Ford
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Old February 16th, 2005, 09:13 PM   #6
 
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If you are only looking to record multitrack, Adobe Audition is decent, ProTools is quite good, of course I'm the Vegas proponent. Mackie's Tracktion is very good for what it's supposed to be.
I've successfully recorded 16 live tracks with Vegas on a Sony VAIO laptop using Echo Audio cards, recording at 24 bit 96K.
Next week, I'll be testing 2 of their new 12 channel boxes for a total of 24 inputs at once. Works great on the Mackie system, and Echo created the Mackie tools, so it should be great as a stand alone.
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Old February 16th, 2005, 09:41 PM   #7
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Sounds like you want to keep the audio mobile and not use traditional boom mics.Really your looking at 2 areas. 1---- aquisition and 2----- post editing.It also sounds like aquisition will be vocals while on set.I think what Jay and Douglas have indicated are both true , however I have been doing some testing of digital mp3 recorders and I find them very good.Normally I wouldn't suggest this for your application but you may find it would work for you.Some may scoff but it might suit your situation if I read it correctly.I have been using iRivers for aquisition successfully .Easy to hide yet good results.To time it up just place them all and clapper.Then in post use a software such as the others suggest to mix.
I'll likely catch some flak over this but it might be worth a test for you.
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Old February 17th, 2005, 01:47 AM   #8
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The comments so far by Jay, Ty, DSE, and Jack all ring true. I'd pay careful heed to Jay's warning about complexity. Realizing that there may be specifics in your situation that may dictate how you're setting up, I'll add one more config to the fray.

Since you're recording 5 channels on separate tracks, if you have access to AC power (assuming the mixer/recorder will be stationary), you may want to use a hard-disk multitrack recorder, like the Yamaha AW16G or Boss BR1600 or any of the other 16-track (8 simultaneous recording) hard disk multi-trackers. I don't have experience with these models specifically, but when I've used multi-trackers, they've performed reliably while offering a good amount of post-production flexibility. I think the Yamaha is around $1K, so it's cheaper than outfitting a laptop with an outboard interface. Plus, that setup may (GREATLY depending on what you're looking to do) facilitate your post-production.

Many of the current HD multi-trackers allow you to pull the tracks into your computer later for use in your favorite sequencer.
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Old February 17th, 2005, 08:18 AM   #9
 
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I can't see a fixed size rig being much cheaper than a laptop.
8 channel interface-400.00
Laptop-1200.00 for a pretty fast CPU.
Done.

One of our guys is actually using a Sony 505 laptop to record quite a few acts, 16 channels in, and the audio interfaces together weigh nearly double the 505 because it's so small.
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Old February 17th, 2005, 01:11 PM   #10
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Allen,

It just occurred to me that no one (including myself) has really answered your questions directly. This might be because there are more variables to consider before being able to give you a solid recommendation and more options that really depend on your workflow, budget, and needs. Nevertheless, here's a go at it:

1) 512 MB on either PC's or PowerBook's should be fine for audio recording. Video editing/rendering... you can't get enough! ;-)

2) On PC's... I'm a Sonar fan myself (extremely stable), but I've heard positive comments on the stability of Cubase SX3 over SX2 from others. With Macs... Logic seems to be the 800 lb gorilla of choice, though as Ty pointed out, Garage Band does what you need for MUCH cheaper. There are PC equivalents of Garage Band capability-wise (from Cakewalk, Steinberg, et al), but none of its interface simplicity and elegance.

3&5) You'll need some sort of computer interface setup to get all your mics (line-level if you're going wireless) into your laptop. This can be via a CardBus (PCMCIA) slot -- Echo Audio and RME Audio make GREAT products for this -- or Firewire -- Presonus Firepod (has 8 mic pre's w/phantom) comes to mind. Edirol makes a USB 2.0 product, but it only has 4 mic pre's in case you need them. You mentioned needing 5 channels, but remember, you may not need 5 mic pre's since those are all line-out's from your wireless receivers. Most of these devices will allow you level control either on the hardware unit or via software control.

4) You're stuck with battery power from the laptop unless you're willing to carry around a heavy outboard battery with a power inverter... another reason to use/rent a multi-channel field recorder. Lots of rental places in the city for this. People at the Film Arts Foundation may be able to help you here also. The Foundation exists to support students and indie acts, such as you.

6) My personal take on reliability goes like this (from "extremely reliable" to "it depends"): DAT -> HD/flash memory field recorder -> HD multi-tracker -> laptop. I know of people in the field who record music acts that always record a 2-ch mix on DAT simultaneously for backup because they've been burnt before with their laptop hanging, crashing, or otherwise giving them (in mid-performance) BSOD. I personally don't practice safe recording like that since my laptop has proven very stable (knock on wood), but everytime I sit down, I've got a little voice in the back of my head saying, "I should bring a backup next time." In the end, it doesn't hurt and it may, in the future, save the day from catastrophe. My advice -- don't follow my example -- esp. when you've got a whole crew and talent relying on the equipment.

There you have it. Lots to consider, but given technology these days, you can be thankful you've got lots of options. Another avenue to get better understanding of this is to talk to your local gigging musicians. Next time you're out listening to a live act, you could chat them up during a break. Musicians often are really helpful if you explain to them what you're doing and won't mind giving you a few minutes of their time to share their experience.
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Old February 17th, 2005, 11:28 PM   #11
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As to firewire audio units, a lot of them are pretty nice.
Among them units I'd recommend Firewire 410, or Edirol FA66. Both of those have 2 XLR inputs (universal, 1/4" + XLR combined) and mic preamps. There're a lot alternatives out there but they're more for studio work. I really like Echo Gina: very clean ins and outs, outstanding quality, and only $350, but it's a PCI card+a breakout box, and I'm afraid with Apple's new PowerMac G6 which will be significantly smaller than G5 there will be no PCI slots..

Oh, and I guess I'm one of these musicians, haha. :).
* Beware - a nice looking M-Audio Firewire Solo with a single XLR input doesn't have a preamp.
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Old February 23rd, 2005, 10:40 PM   #12
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Allen, one thing I didn't discern from your questions is: are you going to take on the tasks of sound recording AND video acquisition? This is a pretty ambitious undertaking for even an experienced sound man. I am less concerned about the reliability of today's laptops and more about the complexity of the session. I would go along with Spot and Ty and the guys. Garageband is priced right and pretty user-friendly, not as spiffy as the "Cadillac" products": Logic, etc.

If you are comparing this to using a DAT, think of this: a DAT is 2-channel, not multitrack. A stereo recorder is relatively simple, if that's what you want to do. Hey, this with a nice mixing board and an experienced sound man could be just the thing. If I am doing a field mix outside the camera, my DAT equivalent is an HHB CD recorder, relatively lightweight, 2 rack spaces. It does of course require mains power, no battery operation possible. There is, however, an option which I haven't tried for this specific setup. That is, to use an inverter fed by a 12-volt battery (a car battery, as in from Auto Zone, Pep Boys, etc.) It has worked well for me once in a while for portable PA/DJ applications, and that would cure your battery longevity concerns. The only thing is, as I said I haven't tested it for recording, so I would suggest testing it and checking carefully for any power supply ripple leaking into the audio tracks which might be tolerable for live sound but unacceptable for recording.

Having said all that, I am contemplating just switching over to using Garageband for my next live recording. The computer is only 5.5 pounds, fits in my briefcase, plus I always bring it along anyway since it is my portable office, graphic design studio and video edit bay, etc.

Just my 2 worth.
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Old February 23rd, 2005, 10:53 PM   #13
 
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Only caveat there, is CHECK YOUR SOUND CARD. I've had three Powerbooks, all three have crappy converters. Same with other friends, they can't deal with it. I use the Echo Indigo I/0 card, it gives me 24/96 with 2 channels of input/2 output, plus 8 virtual buses if my software supports it. (Like FCP)
HUGE difference in sound.
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Old February 24th, 2005, 10:18 AM   #14
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Spot, that has been on my mind. I recently sold my 667 Titanium because the headphone jack went toes up, and Apple wanted me to spring for a new mother board (Yeah, right!) I had been using a Griffin iMic thru USB, but only for live sound/DJ applications.

I seem to recall maybe Ty mentioning a PowerBook that had a decent audio I/O, if it was the 1.5 GHz Aluminum I am in luck cuz that's what I have now. Gonna give it a go anyway, plugging my Mackie mixer into the line input. At least that will alleviate concerns about mic preamp quietness.
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Old March 2nd, 2005, 03:02 PM   #15
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Mike, to answer you I produce/direct my films but like learning all the fine details and owning my own equipment, for my own piece of mind (with DV i can own instead of renting). I'll probably be DP'ing and/or directing on my film, and hand off my sound system to a friend i trust can work the equipment.

i don't use macs, i'll be using a Dell Inspiron 2100 and either a presonus firepod or MOTU traveler, using either Vegas or Adobe Audition. my one big concern is that the laptop will be able to handle multi-track recordings, and hopefully with zero latency. anyone have an opinion on this? here are the computer's specs:

Windows XP pro (newest SP)
700MHz Pentium 3
256MB DDR RAM (i think DDR?)
20GB HD (5400RPM i think)

not sure because i bought it off eBay. is this sufficient though?
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