Tech Tip:Portable Recording: Rock That Laptop

Yes, You Can Take It With You—Your Recording Studio, That Is
Reprinted from with the permission of the author and publisher Craig Anderton


If you go through withdrawal when you're away from your studio, there's hope: Laptop computers have evolved into serious music-making tools. Not only can they operate as studios unto themselves, they make perfect "satellites" for your main studio. Best of all, today's laptops offer enough power for most types of remote recording, editing, and composing projects.





Although hardcore partisans would likely disagree, I think it really doesn't matter. Many applications are cross-platform, and for those that aren't, roughly equivalent programs exist on both platforms. Mac PowerBooks are great for audio and video; a decent G4 will let you record/play back plenty of tracks, and ReWire connects multiple devices. While PowerBooks used to be much more expensive than Windows equivalents, the price differential continues to narrow.


Windows notebooks are now available in more media-savvy versions, and some companies (such as Alienware and Digital Audio Wave) make laptops designed specifically for audio. But even a standard laptop designed for business will usually do a decent job with multimedia.


Among others, Alienware makes media/music-friendly laptops.





A thornier issue is copy-protected software. If you're miles from home and need to insert a CD periodically for authorization . . . oops. Most software license agreements prohibit running programs on multiple machines; applications that tie protection into running on a specific hardware configuration are especially problematic, because you can't easily uninstall/reinstall every time you want to move from desktop to laptop.


There are a few workarounds. Morally, I have no problem with installing a program on both my desktop and laptop if it's possible. After all, I use only one machine at a time, so I don't feel that violates the spirit of the "only one machine" license. Sometimes you can call the software company, explain your situation, and get another install as long as you're a legit user. Companies don't want to upset paying customers; they just want to discourage the ones who aren't.


Dongles (hardware protection devices that usually plug into a spare USB port) may or may not be a good solution. Those who use only programs with iLok copy protection can stick all their authorizations on one dongle, bring their distribution media with them, and install wherever they like—desktop, laptop, or even when guesting at another studio. Multiple dongles are harder to manage; adding a USB hub reduces portability. In any event, for USB dongles buy a USB extension cord so the dongle doesn't plug directly into your machine.


It's way too easy for a dongle to break off when you're on the road.





The hard drives inside most laptops spin slower than the ones in desktops, making it harder to run a zillion tracks. If you're into serious multitracking, make sure there are at least USB 2.0 or FireWire ports so you can add a fast external drive.


To boost drive performance, create separate partitions for program files and audio, and defragment often. Also note that USB memory sticks look like disk drives to the computer, so you can use them as your temporary or even main drive for audio files. However, this technique works best with USB 2.0 devices because of the higher speed compared to USB 1.1 devices. It's important to back up the contents to hard disk; also note that even solid-state memory requires periodic defragmentation.


For non-critical applications, onboard audio may be acceptable, particularly with laptops designed for music. But don't get your hopes up. You're much better adding a USB audio interface or something like the Echo Indigo, which inserts in the computer's card slot.





Buy a really rugged case and a quality CD wallet with heavy outside padding, as you'll likely be carrying valuable distribution and data disks. Throw an extension cord in your luggage, as outlets may not always be where you want them. Get the kind that accepts grounded plugs; not all extension cords do.


And don't forget cool software accessories - check out some of the downloads at Extras. You'll find QWERTY-to-keyboard applets so you can use the typewriter keys to trigger notes, programs that assign joystick motion to controllers, and so on.


Florian Bömers' Mouse Keyboard (Windows only) lets you trigger chords as well as notes, and includes virtual mod and pitch bend wheels you can control with a mouse's scroll wheel. It's a very useful accessory when you don't have a MIDI keyboard for note entry.

So go ahead and rock that laptop—they're not just for PowerPoint presentations and spreadsheets anymore.