How Portable Audio Studios Work

Just a couple of decades ago, if a band wanted to record an album, it only had a few options. Some artists would rent time in a professional recording studio filled with expensive equipment. Others would invest in personal recording studios, either building new structures or converting existing ones into studio space. Building a personal studio can be very expensive, and the space has to be large enough to hold all the equipment needed to produce high quality recordings.
Today, computers and advanced technology make creating a personal recording studio more accessible and affordable. And unlike the large recording studios of the past, you can take these on the road with you. Some bands, like They Might Be Giants, record many of their live performances and make them available to purchase later. The recording studio has gone portable.

Not only can musicians and audio engineers carry around their own recording studios, they can more easily afford their own equipment. A professional recording studio might cost tens of thousands of dollars to construct and bring online. A portable studio can cost a fraction of that. Still, you get what you pay for. If a band chooses to skimp on certain equipment, it might find that the recordings it produces aren't of the best quality.

The components of a port­able studio are very similar to a traditional recording studio's equipment. But a portable studio tends to assign multiple production tasks to a single device so that only a few pieces of equipment handle the same duties as a studio full of gear. And just because a studio is portable doesn't mean you can pop it into your pocket. Depending on the components involved, a portable studio might require an audio engineer a few trips back to the van to carry it all inside.

What kind of equipment would you find in a portable studio? Keep reading to find out.

Portable Audio Studio Hardware
The most important piece of equipment in any portable studio is the digital audio workstation (DAW), also known as a computer. Depending on the software on the computer, a DAW could act as a recording device, mixer and sequencer. By handling so many tasks, a good DAW reduces the need for additional equipment.
Handling audio files requires a lot of computer horsepower, particularly if you're mixing lots of channels. For that reason, it's important to choose a computer with a fast microprocessor. For a while, it seemed like Mac computers would always reign supreme in the world of media computing. But some audio engineers say that the differences between Mac and PC performance are negligible. As long as the computer you pick has a powerful CPU and a large, fast hard drive, you're in good shape.
Another piece of the portable studio setup is the audio interface. While many computers have input and output ports and sound cards, they aren't always capable of recording or playing back professional-quality sound. For that reason, many engineers who set up portable studios rely on additional audio interface devices. These devices range in size from a handheld gadget to a machine the size of a hefty VCR.

Audio interface devices usually have multiple input and output ports. Many have both analog and digital ports, which covers all musical instruments and microphones. Some also act as analog-to-digital converters (ADCs). That means the device can accept an analog signal and then digitize it. It converts sound into information that a computer can manipulate.

Analog signals are continuous waves that vary in frequency and amplitude. An analog audio signal'sfrequency corresponds to the sound's pitch. The wave's amplitude represents the sound's volume. Digital signals aren't continuous. Instead, a digital signal is a series of snapshots called samples. The number of times a computer takes a snapshot of an analog signal per second is the sampling rate. Higher sampling rates translate into smoother, more natural sound.
Not all audio interfaces are also ADCs. Some audio engineers might prefer to use a dedicated ADC, then run the signal coming from the ADC through the audio interface and into the DAW. Either way, the audio interface carries the signal to the DAW. Audio engineers use the DAW to manipulate individual channels and mix the sound into a final track.
The DAW might be the most important hardware component in a portable studio, but it's useless without the right software. Keep reading to learn about the applications audio engineers use to produce music.

Portable Audio Studio Software
Even a powerful DAW is useless without the right software. There are several music studio software packages on the market. Some provide audio engineers with a full suite of functions ranging from mixing and recording to adding effects like echo and reverb. They also range in price -- some are several hundred dollars and others are available free of charge. Most of these software packages provide the same basic set of functions. These include equalizing, editing and mixing. Let's look at each of these in turn.
In audio production, equalizing refers to tweaking the frequency levels on an audio signal. A good software package should allow engineers to do this to individual input channels as well as the overall mix. The software includes an interface known as an equalizer. Equalizers divide frequencies into segments called bands and usually range from 20 hertz (Hz) to 20 kilohertz (kHz), the range of human hearing. By tweaking the intensity levels for the frequency range of an audio signal, an engineer can emphasize or deemphasize certain pitches.

Methods for editing and mixing tracks vary from one software package to another. In general, most packages let you manipulate sections of a track or mix together multiple recordings to create the best final edit. Many packages allow you to cut, copy and paste sections of a track into a new format. Think your chorus should come in a bit earlier? No problem. Use the software's interface to shift it up a few measures.

Editing and mixing can also give engineers other options, such as adjusting the volume of particular channels or sections of the track, fading sound in or out or shifting sound so that it pans from one set of speakers to another.

One important task audio engineering software handles is working with MIDI data. MIDI stands for Musical Instrument Digital Interface, and is the standard by which computers, electronic musical instruments and other digital devices share musical information. MIDI isn't a music file -- it's a series of digital instructions that tell digital devices how to create a specific sound. Most audio engineering software can edit and mix MIDI data with other recorded audio formats.