Technical Details on my Equipment

I think there might be some people out there who are interested in my Black Box Band software and equipment. The good news is, nobody will click on Technical unless they're curious about that sort of thing. Actually, some of this is about my own journey with the technical side as well, so here goes. Forgive me if I ramble. What's New?

I started my thought process with computer software. I am a computer guy, so that was only natural. A LONG time ago, I discovered Band in a Box. I was so impressed with what it could do, even way back then. Now, it's bordering on awesome. Then, they came out with Real Band, which has a lot of Band in a Box features but is a digital recording studio product . This is what I have now. Their software is moving more and more towards providing super realistic sound tracks for base, drums and other instruments which they call Real whatever, like RealDrums. I don't want to go on and on, but it was important for me to have as good sounding base and drums as I could get and this was very exciting for me. Of course, RealBand didn't come along until my keyboard was all built, but I'm sure glad PG Music keeps working to improve their products. I can only come out sounding better and better as a result. I looked around the web for a best price and the cheapest I could find was $408 for the Omnipak, which had everything including lots of tutorial material. PG Music in BC matched that price so I made my order. But, as I continue to upgrade, I have now spent a total of about $675 on the whole Band in a Box ensemble. I will probably upgrade to the new 2012 soon, so add another few hundred to that! To be fair, they are making a lot of improvements. The last time I listened to their samples, they had so much awesome guitar, I don't even know if I should bother with the guitar software I have. Time will tell.

Early on in my research, I discovered Gigastudio. After a lot of reading and some time to save my pennies, I coughed up $300 to buy it from an eBay store. The list was $600. This software was leading edge sound production in so many ways and I thought it would be great to produce my strings and particularly piano. They recommended a separate computer to make sure there were no limitations to the processing power so it soon became apparent that I would need a second computer. But, because this software product is no longer in production,  I have now bought Garritan Personal Orchestra 4 for $167 which looks like it might totally replace my Gigastudio. I think it is more like what I hoped GS would be and seems to be very easy to use. I want to create accurate orchestrations for some of my songs. Many singers use orchestras and I want those backgrounds to sound as good as the original songs. (If you look around, a lot of the successful singers went with orchestral backing in the 50s and 60s!)

Next were the keyboards themselves. They are strictly MIDI controllers. The difference between a midi controller and a music keyboard is that the midi keyboard has no electronics in it to create sound. MIDI is basically a computerized way to say what you are doing with your hands. eg. Key pressed, key released, knob turned, etc. It's an awesome system and is complicated only because there are so many things you can do with a keyboard, but the idea is very simple. Then, you send the MIDI events to a sound module or a keyboard that can actually create music or a computer running sound software. The keyboards are both made by CME. One's a UF5 which has 49 keys and the other is a UF6 with 61 keys. I took them apart and built them into a two level console like my old Hammond B3. The keyboards cost me about $760. They are already obsolete, but they work.

I knew that I would be getting at least one rack mount which would be my harmonizer. I wanted the best and I believe the TC Helicon Voiceworks was that. I paid $750 to get it home but I see they are considerably cheaper now. Anyway, I created a TC Helicon VoiceWorks Harmonizernook for two 1U rack mount items between the upper keyboard and the control area. I sloped it downward with the intention of plugging in from underneath and just having the front face visible. This unit has the capability of delivering realistic one to four part harmony using a variety of techniques. I will mostly use a MIDI track to say what notes I want for a harmony part. One MIDI track for each harmony track. By the way, it also does a second voice to "thicken" your main vocal. Just lately, I have bought another TC VoiceLive to use on my lead vocals. It will do voice thickening and has some voice sound enhancements which I use for doing ZZ Top or Ray Charles. Also, I am thinking of moving this unit along with my new TC Helicon Voicelive Rack to the Amp rack. I don't know yet what I will do with the empty rack space in my console.

Once I knew that I would have at least two computers, I had to think of a location for a monitor so I designed a track mount at the left rear. I took apart the base of the monitor and I shaped a piece of sheet metal to create something that mated to the monitor and would slide into a slot. (I needed to be able to remove the monitor when packing up the black box). I mounted the computers on the inside of the case legs. I already had two home computers which I enlisted for my music project. I did however have to buy two MIDI interface cards. The computer needs a way to talk to the outside music world and these interfaces have bundles of wires with MIDI plugs as well as audio-type plugs, some input and some output. Lots of cards use these ins and outs for their name, such as my M-Audio 1010LT which has 10 ins and 10 outs. For the Gigastudio computer, I bought an M-Audio Firewire 410, which has 4 ins and 10 outs but connects to the computer with a very fast firewire cable. These two interfaces cost me a total of about $560 but I bought the 1010 second hand.

This was pretty much it for my initial thoughts on a music machine. As I built, I could then see what things were missing. The details were very time-consuming and also cost money. Although they were smaller items, it continued to add up. I originally was thinking in terms of $2500 because I just totaled up the basic big item prices but pretty soon, it was over $4000. I shopped around for everything and took advantage of free or used items whenever I could. All the wood for my case was donated except for two sheets of oak plywood. I didn't count anything for the computers and I bought some items used. When I started figuring out where the MIDI had to go, there were cables to buy and also some signals that needed to be merged. I bought two MIDI merge modules, one new and one used. Then, there were pedals and a bench, plus I needed a KVM unit which allows sharing a monitor and a mouse among several computers. And, the project went ON and ON!

From the beginning, I gathered songs that I could practice. This was the single biggest item that kept me excited and involved. It wasn't that the whole process was difficult, I enjoyed every minute because it was so exciting to be moving steadily towards my dream. However, the songs themselves made everything more of a reality. I mostly practiced in the car on my way to and from work. That way, I could let loose without worrying about what anybody might be thinking of my voice. Thank God I wasn't taking the bus! Let me say right out, I'm not Elvis. Heck, I don't know who I will sound like when you hear me. What I DO know is this! My voice has been getting better and better as I use it. I sing at least one hour a day during my commute and I usually sing with my IPod while I work around my property. Lately, I have been working on a huge renovation project, so that adds up to a lot of hours. Then, of course, I sing in the hot tub. (I don't think any of my neighbours can hear me)

I remember finally getting some sound out of my keyboard. Then, it was all about MIDI channels, what events were working and why the sound was coming through on only one keyboard. I have since worked out all those bugs and almost all of them were due to my lack of understanding. The great news was that my chopped and reassembled keyboard creation worked. After sitting in pieces for months, it all worked!!

Once I was at the point where I was getting sound, then I had to work on the songs themselves within the hardware and software. What a learning curve! Band in a Box and now RealBand will import a song and give you all its chords. I remember the old days when we would sit around as a group and do our best to get the words and chords to a song. Now, I simply go online and search "lyrics" and the song title. Once the song is in RealBand, I start creating the tracks that I don't play live. My base and drums are always recorded beforehand. Sometimes, I will have piano, guitar or other instruments in there as well. It just depends on how much I can physically play myself. Everything else has to be in there as recorded tracks. Sometimes, I can get the software to generate the track for me but usually I do it myself. I will call up a drum sound library and then physically press keyboard keys for particular drum sounds until I get everything the way I want. Then I do the same for the base. RealBand will also generate tracks and sometimes, they are perfect as they are.

Live sounds that I can create almost always include piano (Gigastudio, Personal Orchestra 4 or Sonivox Muse at $595 list), organ (Native Instruments B4II for $109) and guitar. I'll bet you're surprised to read that I am including guitar. I have software called, of course, RealGuitar at $200 by MusicLab. They also make RealStrat at $250 named after the famous Stratocaster guitar. RealGuitar can do an awesome strumming guitar sound from your left-handed chording position. So, with my left hand, I can be playing a Hammond B3 organ sound and RealGuitar will also be filling in a nice strumming sound. My keyboard can send to two midi channels at once! So, technically, both are created live. You gotta love technology. My right hand will be producing either piano or organ or a synth sound of some kind. During lead instrument parts though, my right hand can play a lead guitar using RealStrat, a great saxophone using my Yamaha BC3 breath controller plugged into a Yamaha VL70-m sound module Yamaha VL70-m with Patchman custom chipor even bagpipes using BagPipes at $200 by Soundbytes. The VL70-m also does realistic strings when used with a breath controller. All these things, except the VL70-m of course, are virtual instruments (VSTi) and are called "plugins". That is, they work inside of another product like Cubase by Steinberg. VST stands for Virtual Studio Technology and belongs to Steinberg, a mover and a shaker in the music world. And, of course, the little i stands for instrument. Everything is software except for the VL70 which produces sounds directly from hardware. Sometimes hardware is better, even in this virtual instrument world because, if it requires a lot of processing to create a sound, hardware is usually faster. It's really a dedicated computer designed to do that one job, with no operating system wasting valuable processing power. Saxophones, done properly, are one of those almost impossible-to-create sounds. A real sax sound is very complicated.  

Not one to quit while I was ahead, I have added items to my console. One little piece which you might notice in my picture is a Korg Nanopad which cost me only $90. It has an XY pad on it allowing weird and wonderful sound creations as well as being able to send MIDI info to the computers. Do a search on YouTube and watch what kind of sound can come out of this thing! I recently acquired the VL70-m synthesis module and a little while after that, I bought the custom chip from Patchman Music. I needed time to save my pennies! It truly satisfies my need to have a really fantastic sax sound during the solos in many of the songs that I do. There are many songs that have important sax sounds in them. I played around with a Tenor sax when I was younger and now I have an Alto. I like practicing along with Fats Domino records because he had a wonderful sax player. The Yamaha VL70-m was not a cheap piece. I decided to buy it from my local music dealer for $840! Then, the chip from Patchman is $340 US. Finally, there is a piece of software which does a super job of coordinating the VL70-m with your computer(s) called MIDIQuest Editor/Librarian at $400 by Sound Quest which I bought. So, it never ends. Anyway, the VL70-m is now neatly squeezed into a space next to the Firewire 410. The Yamaha breath controller is required to give the VL70m truly realistic instrument sounds and cost me $75. 

Finally, I decided that, to play a proper piano song, I need 88 weighted keys. Therefore, I have added a Yamaha KX8 to my kit which cost me only $375. The list is about $700! Of course, that means another bench, another piano pedal, another microphone and another monitor. I currently have two microphones in front of me, one plugged into the TC Helicon and the other into the Firewire 410. I have a third computer inside of my custom KX8 case. There are a lot of great effects for voices available for a computer and so, on computer 3, I have Cubase 4 with a bunch of sound effects and older synthesizer plugins. I bought a new M-Audio 2496 Audiophile interface card for this machine for $100 with 4 in and 4 out. The KX8 was designed specifically to work with Cubase. I put audio through Cubase in the monitor mode so it will handle the sounds for my lead vocal mic with almost no latency. Latency is the time it takes software to handle a sound. It should be almost instant. You can't be hearing your own voice a half-second later. Confusing or what?! I bought a Sennheiser e835 and a Shure SM57 which are both very highly-rated mics but not overly pricey. The new mic that I have bought to go on the KX8 is another Sennheiser e835. Both the Sennheisers now plug into the Firewire 410 which has two mic inputs. A line then runs from the 410 back into computer 3. When I have to switch over to the piano, I hit the off button on mic 1 and the on button on mic 2 and I switch over the monitor. Unfortunately, that means I won't have my harmonizer mic at the piano or access to a lot of my equipment in and around my console. That's probably ok because if I'm playing piano, I'll be pretty busy already. Instrumentals like Bumble Boogie and all the Jerry Lee Lewis songs will be played on the Yamaha.

I have added a Yamaha AW4416 Digital Audio Workstation to the increasingly large pile of equipment I have accumulated. It's an awesome, if Yamaha Digital Audio Workstationnot somewhat overwhelming piece of gear. I have integrated it into my live performances where it can record specific songs of my choosing. I want to constantly maintain a good demo library on this website and this thing is able to create and master a complete CD. It originally listed at almost $4000 but I got it for $470. It's older technology but I think it's fantastic. I don't need anything particularly high tech or new, as long as it does the job. Lately, I have been looking at getting a newer version of this. It's called the Presonus StudioLive 16-4-2. Very cool stuff.

Now that my MIDI equipment is all in place and I have all the computers and software I need to turn the MIDI into audio, I have to channel all that into speakers in some kind of organized way. I chose to do this using speakers to represent band members. One speaker for the base, one for the drums, one for my keyboard and other sounds produced by my keyboard, a fourth for horns and strings and a fifth for guitar sounds. Finally, there are two speakers for the two vocal parts, lead and harmony. The two vocal parts will be mixed into a third base speaker. However, because many of these sounds come from multiple places, they have to be mixed down into one signal for each speaker. When I say speaker, there could actually be two, but they will act as one. For example, the drums will use a base speaker and a higher frequency speaker together to get the very best sound. To accomplish this mixing of audio sounds, I have built my own mixer box with 8 separate mixers inside. Each one has three inputs with individual volume controls and one output with a master volume control. The two vocal mixers will have two outputs, the extra one going to be remixed for the base speaker. This Custom Mixer Box will receive all the audio sounds from all the computers, from the VL70m and from the TC Helicon Voicemaster. From there, all the outputs of the 8-Mixer box will go into an SM Pro Audio DI-8 line mixer. It has 8 inputs and eight outputs and cost $155. This box performs two functions. It can mix all 8 channels into one stereo output with volume and pan controls for this purpose and it does a conversion of each signal from mono to what is called a balanced signal. (Check Google to learn more about a balanced vs unbalanced signals). From there, all the balanced outputs go to either an amp or a powered speaker. The base, drums, keyboards and horns/strings go to two Cerwin-Vega 1800 amps which power two Wharfedale Pro EVP-X215 speakers for keyboards and sax/strings and two Wharfedale Pro EVP-X18B speakers for the guitar and base sounds. The guitar and base speakers send the signal back to a Cerwin-Vega 900 amp which powers two Wharfedale Pro VS-12X speakers mounted on On Stage SSP7950 stands. My drum sounds go to a self-powered combo of a Wharfedale Titan Sub A15 and a Wharfedale Titan 12D on a pole stand. My lead vocals from the TC VoiceLive and the harmony vocals from the TC Helicon each go to self-powered Wharfedale Pro SVP-15P speakers, also on SSP7950 stands. These two vocal signals both come out of Harmonizer boxes and from there go to Rolls RP221 crossover boxes. The higher frequencies go to the aforementioned speakers and the lower frequencies are mixed into one signal which then goes to its own channel on the DI-8. Then, that combined vocal signal goes to a self-powered Wharfedale Pro SVP 15P base speaker. This enhances the base of all vocals. All my speakers are from Wharfedale which seems like a very good product and I got a really good deal because I bought all the amps and speakers from the same vendor. Sorry, all this speaker info is a bit much. Only for die-hard musician types. 

Lights today are incredible. Forget about spotlights, now there are LEDs everywhere and they are programmable and able to create all kinds of patterns. Also, many of them are sound sensitive, able to pulsate with the beat of the music. I currently have a very simple setup composed of the Chauvet 4Bar lights for the front of the stage and two Chauvet LED Rain56 lights, one on each side of me on stands. The 4Bar with stand was $525 and the pair of Rain56s cost $380 without stands. To make the lights follow a song, I have an Enttec Open DMX USB Interface box which cost only $60 and free software called DMXControl. The software controls the lights which can now be geared to each individual song.

Chauvet 4BarThe 4Bar is relatively simple, with four huge LED lights with built-in automated programs and sound activated programs. Each light has 108 LEDs and comes with a 9' stand and has footswitch control of automated programs and/or sound activation. Or, you can control these lights with DMX programming. I need something very easy to use. While I am playing, I am extremely busy, not only putting everything I have into my vocal performance, but usually playing two or three instruments with my hands and sometimes, also using my breath controller. I did some reading on techniques for orchestral lighting and, because of that article, decided I also wanted side lighting.

For that, I bought 2 Rain 56 par cans, one for each side of the stage. Chauvet LED Rain56The PAR stands for Parabolic Reflector and they function just like an older spot light but are cooler and use a LOT less power, important when you take into account all my equipment that needs electricity. Lots! These lights need to mount high on stands. They are also DMX controlled but have internal programs to work automatically by listening to the sound of the music. To do DMX, you need software and a DMX controller that translates signals from the computer software to the lights. The simplest basic box I have found is the Enttec Open DMX USB Interface. My DMX software package is called DMXControl. I don't want anything fancy right now. Hey, I have six lights to manipulate with a few fades and some colour changes. Maybe later, I will do something more sophisticated. Another aspect of my lighting, which I haven't bought yet, will be what is called EL Wire, or electroluminescent wire. It looks like neon and I write about it a bit in my Future page.

At the left is my stage equipment 1/10 scale layout. Most of the time, I will be seated at my MIDI console. For piano songs, like one by Jerry Lee Lewis, I will change over to the KX88 which has its own mic and computer monitor but no access to my rack mounted equipment. Behind me is the AW4416 for recording songs live. The green pieces are lights which are all up on stands. All the other items are speakers and some of them are up on stands as well. You may notice a small note on some of them that says On Stand. Turns out I need a stage area about 12' deep x 18' wide to be comfortable. Lately, I put my keyboards parallel to each other so the audience can see me better.

My learning is far from over. I look forward to increasing my keyboard skills as well as the effort it will take to continually get the most out of my software. I believe it will be a neverending journey. I know that I will enjoy every opportunity to please people with my performances. I also look forward to the chances I may have to earn a little money for various charities in my area. I have "put it out there" that the right opportunities will come to me. I hope you have enjoyed reading about my efforts to realize my dream and I hope it will encourage you to believe in your own dreams. If I can do it, YOU can do it! :)

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Best regards
Brian Dee
Black Box Band
My Blog