How to Put Together a Rockin’ Mobile Windows Studio
Low latency, small size, high power, reasonable cost. Cool!
by Craig Anderton
Windows has always had potential as a mobile music-making studio, although there was a major stumbling block: Windows’ native audio drivers. You simply couldn’t obtain stable, low-latency performance with the internal sound card. You could use the ASIO4ALL pseudo-ASIO driver (which while clever, often caused more problems than it solved), or cart around an interface/preamp—which diminished the mobility factor considerably. Neither solution was optimal.
The limitation became even more unfortunate when slick portable computers like the Surface Pro appeared—they had portability and power, but still had the audio bottleneck…until now.
Windows 10 has made several improvements to their Core Audio technology (not to be confused with Apple’s Core Audio technology), which involves WASAPI (Windows Audio Session Application Programming Interface). These changes make Windows 10 viable for low-latency recording and playback using a computer’s internal sound capabilities. What’s more, in addition to the WASAPI Exclusive mode for lowest latency (typically well under 10 ms), there’s a Shared driver mode so you can run multiple audio applications at the same time, with latency not that much more than Exclusive mode. So for example, you can have your DAW open while watching a lesson on YouTube.
Not all programs support these improvements yet, but the benefits are obvious and with Windows 10 becoming ubiquitous, it’s only a matter of time before the two modes become common.
The only downside is that an external audio interface will almost always offer higher audio quality than an internal sound chip—but we have ways around that, too.
PUTTING TOGETHER A MOBILE STUDIO
The main limitation with using an internal sound chip is at the input, due to inexpensive preamps and converters, as well as a “dirty” electrical environment inside the computer. The output may not be that great either, but quality is less of a concern there—we want to capture the best possible signal. If we record a signal that doesn’t sound good, it’s very difficult, if not impossible, to fix it.
The key to fixing these issues is feeding a digital signal into the computer, thus bypassing the sketchy analog electronics at the input. We have several ways to do that.
Guitar. Surely you need an interface to record a guitar, right? Actually, no. Ubisoft makes the Rocksmith Real Tone USB guitar cable (around $35) which can operate at 44.1 or 48 kHz (as well as lower sampling rates, but we don't want that). While designed to let your guitar interface with the Rocksmith program on the PS3 and XBOX 360, because it converts the guitar signal into a digital signal you can plug it into any USB port, and have it appear as an input to your recording software. The sound quality is surprisingly good (preamps don’t have to work as hard with guitars as they do with mics); but CEntrance has a high-quality option, the AxePort Pro ($180).
Microphone. Speaking of CEntrance, if you have a favorite non-USB mic, the CEntrance MicPort Pro converts an XLR input to USB. It’s about $200, but the quality is excellent. However, don't make the mistake of dismissing USB mics based on past performance. Today’s USB mics, which allow plugging directly into a USB port, have grown up compared to the first ones that hit the market. They used be low-cost, low-grade consumer items designed to hit a low price point, but with the rise of podcasting, high-quality USB mics have entered the market with preamps and converters that are equivalent to (and sometimes better than) what you find in audio interfaces. These newer USB mics are more expensive, but you can hear the difference the first time you plug one in. Serious USB mics are available from Audio-Technica, Blue, MXL, and others, but my current favorite is the Neat Microphones Beecaster. Although it’s $350, it has a four-capsule design that provides four different polar patterns—mono, stereo, wide stereo (Blumlein response, for the tech heads out there), and “focused” stereo (mid/side response). This makes it suitable for narration, recording acoustic instruments, doing interviews, and recording ambience (and to inject a note of practicality, it’s also great for conference calls).
Keyboards. Thanks to virtual instruments, you no longer need the instrument itself—just a controller. Cakewalk SONAR has an on-screen keyboard for touch screen-friendly machines, although you can also use the QWERTY keyboard to play notes. Other programs that let you trigger virtual instruments with a QWERTY keyboard include Ableton Live, Steinberg Cubase, Cockos Reaper, and PreSonus Studio One.
Better audio output. As mentioned, output isn’t as much of a concern because you’ve already preserved your audio quality by inputting that audio as digital files. However if you want a better listening experience, USB-to-audio converters are available at a variety of price points, from a few dollars to hundreds of dollars. The higher-end ones often including a headphone amp. However it’s another piece of gear and another expense, so you might want to just deal with your computer’s audio quality until you get home.
Headphones. Again, you have a zillion choices. I use KRK’s KNS-8400 headphones because they’re voiced like studio monitors, and I use KRK monitors so it’s easy to move back and forth between home and mobile. However, they’re standard headphone size. When space is at a premium, I use the Monster Turbine Pro (Copper) ear buds but they’ve since been discontinued. I’ve heard good things about the Focal Sphear and Shure SE215-K but haven’t had a chance to evaluate them.
Speakers. The words “portable” and “speakers” are seldom used in the same sentence, but there are some exceptions. IK Multimedia’s Micro Monitors ($300/pair) are astonishingly good despite their tiny size. For more conventional speaker in the same price range, there’s KRK Rokit 4 speakers although they’ll take up more space in your suitcase or carry-on.
Software. Cakewalk’s SONAR family of products (SONAR Home Studio, SONAR Artist, SONAR Professional, and SONAR Platinum) as well as Acoustica Mixcraft currently support WASAPI Exclusive and Shared modes with Windows 10; others may as well, although I’m not aware of them. In any event those that don’t support it now will likely support this improved audio protocol in the future.
ARE WE THERE YET?
Actually…we are. I’ve been using a setup based around a circa-2012 HP EliteBook, Neat Beecaster, SONAR Platinum, Rocksmith cable, and KRK KNS-8400 headphones. The Beecaster is the least compact of the various accessories, so if I’m really tight for space, I bring a Samson Meteor USB mic. It has only a cardioid pattern, but that’s enough for quick narration or capturing vocal ideas.
I used a Mac laptop for many years when going mobile, but the trend toward an ever-decreasing number of ports, high cost, and difficulty of replacement (you can find Windows laptops anywhere) caused me to switch to Windows several years ago—even though I was chained to carrying an ASIO audio interface with me. But no more! Hmm…I think I’ll check what a Surface Pro 4 is going for these days.
Craig Anderton is Editorial Director of Harmony Central. He has played on, mixed, or produced over 20 major label releases (as well as mastered over a hundred tracks for various musicians), and written over a thousand articles for magazines like Guitar Player, Keyboard, Sound on Sound (UK), and Sound + Recording (Germany). He has also lectured on technology and the arts in 38 states, 10 countries, and three languages.