Welcome back to Reaping in the Dark. Today, we will be taking a look at some of the pieces of equipment you will most likely be using while you work in Reaper. We will take a closer look at each individual link of the signal chain in subsequent articles, but let’s look at the bigger picture first.
What Goes In …
As explained in the previous article, computers have no means by which they can interpret the sound waves we hear into sound. Therefore, this information must go through what is called a signal chain, or a series of interconnected devices, that converts this information into digital data, sends it through our computers and the music production software within, and returns it to us again converted into sound we can listen back to. The amount of time which it takes our signal to travel through all of these components and back to our ears is refered to as roundtrip latency, and is usually measured in milliseconds.
The bulk of the signal path which we can actually interact with (such as what we use to capture our sound and to listen back to it) is done by a set of devices called transducers. A transducer is simply a device that converts one form of information into another. Some of the easiest examples of this to understand are microphones, which convert changes in sound pressure into an electrical signal, and speakers or headphones which convert these electrical signals back into changes in pressure which we then perceive as sound. Even in these examples, are ears are also transducers, since they convert changes in sound pressure into the signals received by our brains which allow us to listen to these sounds.
There are a few links in this chain you may not know of, once you consider that computers cannot normally work with the raw electrical signal directly produced by microphones and other tools to capture or recreate sound, so let’s look at each individual link.
Capturing the Source
As mentioned above, the chain begins by a means with which we can capture the sound we wish to work with. This can be a microphone, instrument pickup, or direct outputs from an electronic instrument such as a synthesizer. All these methods of capturing sound put out an electrical signal which is carried on to the next link in our chain.
Preamps and A/D Converters
Sometimes, the signal output by our device is very weak. In this case, it must go through what is called a preamp (pronounced pre amp). A preamp takes this weak signal, and amplifies it to a level that will be easier to work with.
Once this is done, or if the signal we’re working with doesn’t need this increased power, our signal goes through an analog to digital converter, or A/D converter. This is a device that converts the raw electrical signal run through it into digital data which can then be manipulated by our computers.
Finally, an interface is the device which allows us to connect our converter to our computer. An interface typically contains multiple inputs, usually over a variety of different connection types. We will learn more about this in a future article, but for now understand that it excepts some of the many common connection types for musical equipment, and allows for connection to a computer via USB, Thunderbolt, FireWire, or other connection type that allows for rapid transfer rates of high quantities of digital data.
… Must Come out
Once our data goes through our computers and any applicable software to manipulate it, it must then come out and be converted into sound again to allow us to listen to what we work with. This is relatively easy to understand, since you will notice that it is just the reverse of what went in.
This is usually the same device used to get sound into the computer, and it allows for the sound to be output from the computer through one of the connection types mentioned above.
A digital to analog converter (D/A converter) is a device which converts digital data into an electrical signal, which can then be sent to speakers or headphones so we can listen back to what we are working with. These converters usually output a signal that is ready to use in the sense that there’s not usually a need for a dedicated device to enhance the sound like our preamps, since most interfaces can output signals appropriate to whatever you are using to listen back.
Monitors are devices which allow us to listen back to what we are working with. Typically, this term in the context of recording refers to specialized speakers which are designed to create the most accurate representation of the material we’re working with. When used in combination with an acoustically treated room, these speakers overcome the problem presented by most consumer grade speakers, which are designed to “enhance” sounds by boosting certain frequencies to make them more appealing. Working with these speakers in a properly treated environment essentially means that if you can get your work sounding great on these speakers, it will translate well to any consumer grade electronics.
However, not everyone has access to a treated room and these specialized speakers which can easily become very expensive, or impractical for those living in apartments or other settings where being quiet is necessary. That’s where special “monitoring” headphones come in. These headphones, like studio monitors, are designed to reproduce sound as accurately as possible, but this is a lot more difficult to do with headphones than it is with speakers. Still, with a bit of research and a chance to try some of these headphones out for yourself, you can find something which will work for you at most pricepoints, and knowing the response of your specific headphones can help you overcome any areas where they may fall short.
So What Do I actually Need?
We will take a closer look at each component in this chain in subsequent articles, and the information provided in these articles will arm you with what you need to know to find a setup right for you. Aside from million dollar studios, few people actually use specialized components for every single step in the signal path. Most interfaces have built-in preamps, A/d, and D/A converters, and many even have the flexibility of adding extra inputs from fancier external preamps, allowing you to upgrade your setup down the road without having to replace your entire interface. Or, your setup might be as simple as a USB mic and a set of headphones. In this case, your USB mic already has an onboard converter, and you are interfacing with your computer through it’s internal sound card, which allows you to plug your mic and headphones directly into the computer through their respective jacks.
You should now have an understanding of what goes into recording, pun intended. We will look at each component in the following chapters, and you will build an understanding of what you will need to work with Reaper to decide on what configuration is best for you. Until next time, happy Reaping!
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