Audio / Hands-on Review

The Ultrabook™-Based Portable Recording Studio


In the past 15 years, everything about the process of recording and distributing music has changed. The major labels have toppled from their pedestals, and with them have fallen their high temples—recording studios. 21st Century recordings take place in bedrooms, basements, rehearsal spaces, and out on the road. And for the first time, professional-level recording tools are affordable and available to everybody. So, whether you’re a passionate hobbyist writing your first song, or a trained musician cutting and mixing an album, you can capture all the glory of your musical genius in real time; there are just a few things you’ll need to make it happen.

Your Ultrabook will be the mainstay of your portable studio, the device that makes it all happen. When choosing one of these computers, remember that processor speed and memory capacity are major concerns when recording and mixing music. You’ll want either an Intel® Core™ i5 or i7 processor and at least 6GB of RAM. This will allow you to carry out the more intensive processes of audio production smoothly, such as multitrack recording, multitrack editing, and massive numbers of native plug-in instantiations. Simply stated, buy the best processor/memory combo that your budget will allow. You will not regret it, especially once your three-chord song has morphed into an epic production with a full band and a soft-synth orchestra.

If you plan to leave your house with your Ultrabook, a solid-state drive is a less volatile habitat for all your precious data. If you plan to record live shows on tour with your Ultrabook, it’s a necessity. While SSDs offer much faster read/write speeds than conventional hard drives, a greater value to traveling musicians and recording engineers is their hardiness. Even though your computer may end up in a cushy hotel room with you after the gig, it will inevitably get knocked around among the other gear along the journey.

The downside to SSDs is that they don’t currently offer as much storage space as hard disk drives do. With digital audio taking up at least 5.1 MB/minute per mono track (44.1k Hz/16-bit)—more like 16.5 MB/minute at professional-level resolutions—you might need more space than your internal SSD can provide. It is always recommended that you record to a drive that's separate from your boot disk. An external hard drive will handle the task of cataloging audio, while your internal drive helps provide resources to run the process. Be sure to choose an Ultrabook with multiple USB ports, ideally at least one USB 3.0 port, and a compatible external drive, such as the HGST 1TB Touro Mobile MX3.

Your next USB port will be used to connect an audio interface. While there are dozens of these devices available, the new Focusrite Scarlett 18i8 is exceptionally suited to Ultrabooks. It provides everything you’ll need on a single USB port. It features 4 Focusrite mic preamps on XLR/TRS combo jacks with selectable Phantom power, 2 of which can also be switched to Hi-Z instrument inputs. It also features 4 line inputs, stereo monitor outputs, 2 independent headphone mixes, MIDI in/out, SPDIF in/out, and an 8-channel ADAT Lightpipe input. The 18i8 can record at resolutions up to 96 kHz/24-bit and provides input monitoring at extremely low latency rates. Additionally, Focusrite includes a software bundle with Ableton Live Lite and a plug-in suite to get you started.

For those who want something more simple and straightforward, MOTU’s MicroBook II USB audio interface is an excellent choice. It offers one of every basic analog-input connection: an XLR microphone input with Phantom power, two1/4” TRS line inputs, a 1/4” Hi-Z electric guitar (or bass) input, and an 1/8” stereo mini line in. Additionally, it’s built to be tough and roadworthy— it looks more like a stage DI than an audio interface—and offers resolutions up to 96 kHz/24-bit. It’s USB bus powered, so no annoying power adapters are required. And it offers a convenient set of output options: dual 1/4” TRS main outputs, a 1/4” stereo headphone output, an 1/8” stereo mini line out, and an S/PDIF digital output. The included CueMix FX software allows you to add live, real-time compression and EQ to your sound, even if you’re just practicing!

The next thing to consider is your software platform, or Digital Audio Workstation (DAW.) Avid’s Pro Tools has long dominated this market in major studios… and if you plan to take your session files to and from a variety of recording studios, the latest version of Pro Tools is always a safe bet. However, the rise of DIY production, mixing, and mastering has led to the popularization of alternative DAWs. Programs like Cubase and Ableton Live have developed followings with users who have more specific needs and different specialties than just recording audio. A longtime favorite in the film scoring community, Digital Performer, recently released a compatible Windows 64-bit version. And for those who love to geek out on music synthesis and patch together virtual processors to create custom sounds, there’s Propellerhead Reason. Although the debate between users about which DAW platform is “the best” will never end, the trick is to find the DAW that best caters to your style, goals, and natural workflow.

Monitoring is the next concern in creating a portable studio setup. You’ll want a good pair of over-ear, closed-back headphones. This particular type of headphone design is well suited for recording because it won’t bleed sound out into your recording environment. Anyone who’s ever ended up with a metronome click in the background of their best acoustic guitar or vocal take because of open-back headphones will tell you how frustrating a mistake this can be. A solid, entry-level choice would be the Audio-Technica ATH-M50 headphones, which feature neodymium drivers, swivel ear cups, and a gold-plated connector. If you’ll be spending hours on end with headphones on, the Beyerdynamic DT 770 Pro will provide excellent reference with superior comfort.

Although active studio monitors aren’t really “portable,” you’ll want them at your studio’s home base if you plan on having anybody else listen to your tracks. While Genelec tends to be the gold standard for professional recording studios, Dynaudio’s DBM50 monitors are a revolutionary desktop solution for those mixing at home. Rising to fame in recent years, the M-Audio BX5 speakers provide an entry-level, yet dependable option for those just beginning to craft mixes.

Finally, we arrive at microphones! This topic could go on for pages, but allow me to suggest that every basic recording setup should have at least 1 large-diaphragm condenser, 1 small-diaphragm condenser, and 1 all-purpose dynamic microphone. Focusing on the idea that these microphones will have to withstand the rigors of mobility, the Shure SM27 is a rugged and versatile large-diaphragm condenser. It features a cardioid polar pattern, a 3-position selectable low cut filter, a switchable 15 dB pad, and handles SPLs up to 137 dB. The SM27 will get the job done well on just about any source instrument, including vocals. The Miktek C5 small-diaphragm condenser is another very versatile and durable microphone for all instrumental sources. Lastly, the dynamic, Shure’s SM57 is certainly the world’s most popular choice—used on everything from guitar amps to the President’s podium at the White House. That being said, the Electro-Voice RE-320 is a standout dynamic microphone with an even broader range of applications.

Congratulations, you now have all the elements of an Ultrabook-based portable recording studio! Now we just need to select a computer. While many models will do the job, my desert island recording Ultrabook would be the Sony VAIO T15 SVT15117CXS 15.5” Ultrabook. The dual-core Ivy Bridge 2.0 GHz Intel Core i7-3537U processor and 8GB of 1600 MHz DDR3 RAM will create a dependable platform for tracking as well as mixing applications. Its 1TB, 5400 rpm hard drive provides plenty of storage for all your media files while the 32GB solid-state drive cache allows for fast data recall. The 15.5” screen with Full HD 1920 x 1080 native resolution is indispensible for audio editing, especially for lengthy vocal or multitrack drum comping.

The display is also a capacitive touchscreen so you’ll be able to take advantage of multi-touch gestures in Windows 8 if you so choose. This Ultrabook has a powered USB 3.0 port for connecting your external drive as well as dual USB 2.0 ports for your audio interface. Additionally, the onboard 10/100/1000 Mbps Gigabit Ethernet port will allow you to plug directly into a LAN network for those large and important WAV as well as session file uploads. It even has an HDMI port, so you’ll be able to connect to a larger display when you require more space. And of course, it also has 802.11b/g/n Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 4.0 and comes loaded with Windows 8.

For less intensive recording, a good entry-level option would be the Toshiba Satellite U945-S4390 14" Ultrabook, which features a dual-core Ivy Bridge 1.7 GHz Intel Core i5-3317U processor, 6GB of DDR3 RAM, and a 500GB, 5400 rpm hard drive with a 32GB solid-state drive cache. The Satellite has both USB 2.0 and 3.0 ports as well as 10/100Mbps Fast Ethernet, 802.11 b/g/n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 4.0, and comes loaded with Windows 8 (64-bit). It has a 14” HD Widescreen LED-backlit display with 1366 x 768 native resolution, and an HDMI port for connecting additional monitors.

Now that music is so largely in the hands of musicians, empower yourself! By creating an Ultrabook-based portable studio, you can indulge your talents at composition, songwriting, recording, mixing, and remixing while still having the convenience of mobility. Whether you take it along to record your set at an open mic or hunker down in a local band’s rehearsal space to record their album, you can rest assured that your hardware will meet the challenge at every step.

For more information on Ultrabook-based portable recording solutions, stop by the B&H SuperStore in New York, speak with a sales professional on the telephone at 1-800-606-6969 or contact us online via Live Chat.