As technology gets smaller and more affordable, creating a portable studio is a reality – here are the key things you’ll need
Not too long ago, anything that described itself as a portable studio was a convenient, but generally very compromised, multi-track recording solution. Laptops were not powerful enough to run serious software packages, and tablets were still the stuff of Sci-Fi films…
These days, however, the world is your portable oyster. You can have a rig to rival a regular desktop centred studio, without breaking the bank. Here are the key things you’ll need…
The computer is the heart of all studio work these days, providing the ability to record scores of audio tracks, plus run powerful effects and virtual instruments – all within the computer itself.
There are plenty of Mac laptops available, and a mind-blowing number of PC laptops. I won’t get drawn into a Mac v PC battle here, but I’ll just say that whichever platform you choose, try to buy the fastest machine your budget will allow with the most RAM, as this will mean your machine will have the longest useable life possible. At the very least, make absolutely sure that it will be capable of running the software you intend to use. Otherwise, it’s just an expensive doorstop…
Recently, iPads have become a very versatile, and incredibly portable studio solution. Whilst currently, the software does not quite rival regular packages in terms of power, for many musical situations, it is a more than capable platform. Plus, many interface and controller manufacturers are now offering iOS support, providing exactly the same hardware ‘front-end’ as laptops.
2. Audio Interface
There are countless audio interfaces available for the portable studio. Of course, what you will require depends on what you intend to do musically. If your musical intentions are focused predominantly ‘inside the box’ (i.e. using software virtual instruments and effects), then a very compact interface will probably suffice. Something with 1 or 2 audio inputs, such as the Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 (2nd Gen), the M-Audio M-Track 2X2M C-Series Audio Interface or Roland Tri Capture, is a good choice.
If it seems likely that you may want to record multiple tracks simultaneously (perhaps you intend to record musicians performing together), then a bigger interface, with more inputs is required. The Roland Octa Capture is a great choice, providing eight analogue inputs, with eight mic preamps, in a unit a little over 1kg in weight.
Increasing the number of inputs from here means that the unit becomes significantly less portable. However, if you really need an interface like the Roland Studio Capture (which has 16 inputs) or the Focusrite Scarlett 18i20 (which has potentially 18), you will likely be carrying a lot of mics and other gear too, which will require a car for transport. In this regard, the two interfaces above remain pretty portable…
There are controllers of all kinds and all sizes available, but as the focus here is ‘portable’ we’ll just take a look at the most compact units. Once again, the kind you will need very much depends on the projects you intend for your mobile rig. A keyboard is pretty much essential for most situations, however. You could do far worse than the Novation Launchkey Mini.
This tiny controller has 25 velocity sensitive mini-keys and 16 velocity sensitive trigger pads along with eight assignable rotary controls. If you’re using Ableton, these backlit pads act as a mini Launchpad controller. But then there’s also the Launchpad Mini MK2 for that, too (and Launch Control).
The Akai LPK 25 is one of the smallest and most affordable keyboard controllers around. The options are endless- see our full range here.
The chosen software package is the ‘engine’ behind everything you will do in the studio. Again, your choice is dictated by what you intend to do musically (and by taste, too).
There are, however, some packages that naturally lend themselves to portable studio use. Ableton, due to its live performance credentials, is incredibly configurable, allowing even the computer keyboard to be used to trigger clips. As a result, it’s a great option for those train journeys, when all you have with you is your laptop…
Reason’s all-in-one design provides a huge number of tools in one package. It also has some very clever authentication built-in, with a USB key included, and internet verification possible. This means you can carry the key around for your portable studio rig, but verify via the Internet at home where you have a permanent Internet connection.
For most mobile studio situations, a pair of headphones is the most obvious monitoring solution. They provide a portable means of, well… hearing what you’re doing. Though a regular set of headphones may suit if you intend to compose whilst on the move, if you intend to record or mix, a good set of monitor headphones is essential.
There are many other things you could add to this template portable studio set-up (Focusrite’s VRM Box is a very handy tool, for example) but choose wisely from the above and you could have powerful rig that fits into a bag.
You can find a full range of computer music gear online here.
Joe is a contributor for the Dawsons Music blog. Specialising in product reviews and crafting content to help and inspire musicians of all musical backgrounds.