If you’ve been reading this blog this week you’ll know why I’m about to dive into how Second Life virtual concert performances work from a technical aspect today. If you’re just now joining me, take a minute and read back a couple of postings to get the context.
Like many musicians around the world I’ve fallen prey to the marketing spells of software and hardware manufacturers and equipped myself with a home recording studio that is more sophisticated in ability and quality than anything the Beatles could have imagined, but of course without the benefit of their talent.
I am loaded for bear here in my home studio. We do live drums here, vocals, guitar amp miking, the lot. I own pretty much every DAW application known to the Mac world of recording, in part thanks to the kindness of the software publishers who send their news to my AppleProAudio.com news website, an RSS site I put together to keep up with the hardware and software for Mac users who record, work and play on the OS X platform.
I'm geeked out hard with a 30" Apple Cinema Display LCD, a trusty 24-fader control surface (the out-of-production Tascam US2400), some aging outboard gear rarely used in this plugin world, and two different sets of monitors, the newer Mackie HR824s and the KRK Rocket 6s in limited-edition, bright canary yellow. Nothing says LOUD like canary yellow monitor cabinets.
If you haven't guessed by now, I have a Mac-based setup, a Quad 2.66GHz Mac Pro running OS X Leopard, with a Digidesign Pro Tools 002R system with all 18 inputs available to me using an Octopre LE to open the eight ADAT inputs and a stereo mic pre with a S/PDIF input the lets me open the other two channels. With this rig I routinely produce my recordings, work on and/or review audio/video components for books I’ve published, plus produce other media projects. Jumping into the word of online concert performing was pretty easy, I already had everything I needed, that is, except the software to webcast the audio stream.
Obviously, the required elements for a concert are your sound source input devices, ie microphones and instruments plugged into an audio device of some type that is connected to your computer. People use Windows, Mac or Linux for this process, though I suspect most are using either Mac or Windows. I don't know many audio guys in the Linux scene, but there are bleeding edge lovers who do use it.
The audio device converts your analog sound signal into digital sound signal and if you want saves it into files. In my case, I am running into channels one and two of the Digidesign 002, which I have put a small 8-channel Yamaha mixer in front of to make it easy to sum more than two microphones into the stereo signal I’ll be web-casting live during the concert.
You can use the direct inputs of any audio device, but I strongly recommend that you don’t try to plug directly into a consumer audio device or built-in sound card, unless you’re just testing the whole concept out. Part of what will make or break you really quickly in the world of online concert performances is the sound quality. Use a good audio device so you'll have good analog to digital converters. There are worlds of affordable ones available these days without dropping $1500 on a 003 or something. In fact, if you were going to be getting an audio device for this project, I’d recommend something with a stand-alone software mixer, something the Pro Tools system doesn’t have, which is why I use a hardware mixer on the front end of my setup.
Condenser microphones are strongly recommended, rather than dynamic microphones like the trusty Shure SM-58 used for live concerts in person. You are going to get you a lot better sound for live concerts online if you use a condenser microphone. What you’re really doing here is streaming out live a recording set-up, just like a live radio station does in broadcast. The performance part is what's the same as an in-person concert, but the equipment is what you'd use in a recording studio setup or radio station setup. So while you can use a dynamic microphone if that is what you own, you’ll get better results with a large diaphragm condenser microphone on your vocals and even acoustic guitar.
I absolutely would advise against using the pickup in your acoustic guitar, unless you are using it as an additional signal combined with a microphone, blending them together. Using it directly is not likely going to produce excellent sounding results, and you definitely want professional sounding excellence when doing these kind of shows. You can tell who is plugging in direct or using dynamic microphones compared to who has the right kind of microphones when you go hear another performer in Second Life. The difference is night and day. Use what you have, but if you don't have condenser microphones, plan to get some.
I use a pair of mid-high-end Violet Microphones, one being a Violet Globe and the other a Violet Amethyst Vintage, which are just astoundingly good microphones hand-made in Latvia. I love these things! These street price in the $1,000-1500.00 range and they sound like it, too. In this modern age of amazing import microphones in the sub-$200 range, some even sub$100, there is no excuse not to use a large diaphragm condenser microphone, and with a few tweaks, most any of them will sound really good for what you paid for it.
The Yamaha mixer provides the 48v phantom power needed for operation of the Violet microphones I am using. I do use one dynamic microphone though, a Shure SM57, on an Epiphone Valve Jr. I plug my acoustic guitars into through a pedal board from my electric rig, letting me tap some tonal variety for my miked channel, which then mixes with the miked acoustic sound. The three microphones run into the Yamaha mixer, which then goes to a Focusrite Platinum Penta compressor, which emulates a tube sound and keeps me from possibly clipping, or overloading the signal during my show. I use the Globe mike on my vocals, the Amethyst Vintage mike about five or six inches from the neck at the 8th fret of my acoustic guitar (which is either my Epiphone EF500RA or my Gibson SJ200). I blend the three sounds and that's what I send to the stereo signal I'm going to webcast.
So stop, let's revisit this for a second. What do you need to get started? You need:
- A Second Life account
- A PayPal account
- A computer fast enough to handle Second Life
- A high-speed Internet connection (DSL or Cable)
- A firewire or USB audio recording device with at least two inputs, and possibly a small hardware mixer to run into it if you want to run more than two things simultaneously into the audio signal
- At least one, but preferably two large diaphragm condenser microphones, or one large diaphragm and one small diaphragm condenser mike, with the large used on vocals, and the small used on your guitar/banjo/mandolin, etc.
- If you're a keyboard player, etc., you might want make sure you have either enough inputs on your audio device (and the ability to sum their output to a stereo signal for the webcast), or have the small mixer mentioned above so you can pre-mix your sound and send the stereo output to the audio device you'll use to record/stream your show.
If you own all of those things, you're fully equipped to get started in live concert performances in Second Life and soon on your way to making a nice side career as a musician in the virtual world. All that's left is the software you'll need to take that audio signal and redistribute it to the listening world.
On the Mac, the software of choice for streaming audio either from a device or an application, is called Nicecast, by Rogue Amoeba. It cost $39.95 for the license, and it has paid for itself hundreds of times over now after a year of concerts. The software allows you to configure it with the URL and Port Number of the streaming server you’ll be accessing through it to allow for the webcast to happen.
On a Windows machine, ShoutCast is the plug-in of choice for webcasting, and it is a free add-on to the media player called Win-Amp. Both applications configure in a similar fashion, requiring the user to input the IP address or URL of the ShoutCast Audio Server that the performance will be webcast over, along with the Port ID number for that URL, and the password required to use it to webcast.
Each application will also ask you to tell it the source to be webcast, which could be an audio application like iTunes if you wanted to play DJ online and create an Internet radio station, or the name of your audio device if you’re planning on webcasting the live sounds input through your mikes and instruments plugged into the device.
If you’ve read this far, you’re interested enough to come back tomorrow, where I’ll explain a little bit more about ShoutCast, webcasting, recording your live performance, and the process of online concert performances.