Recording: Setting Up the USB Audio Interface, Problem Solving

As I discussed in my initial Recording column, I’ve upgraded my home studio from the Akai DPS-16 standalone 16-channel hard disk recorder I had been using for more than a decade. I’m now using Pro Tools 12 on a Windows PC running Windows 7, 64 bit.

Pro Tools 12And admittedly, while I’m fairly experienced with home recording, I’m totally new to Pro Tools, so my ongoing journey -- which I’ll report via this column -- will include some roadblocks I run into, and hopefully, the troubleshooting and resolution of any issues.

I do scan a lot of recording forums and often find advice and troubleshooting answers there, but often it is clear that most forum participants are very experienced Pro Tools or DAW users, and sometimes their threads and posts completely overlook some of the really basic setup info newbies like myself might need to find.

And I wouldn’t be stuck searching through forums if the manufacturer owner’s manuals and websites weren’t so sorely lacking in clear, detailed, step-by-step information, but unfortunately they are. I’ll give them this: There are so many different possible computer situations they couldn’t possibly write an owner’s manual that covered everyone.

So to the forums we go. And when using forums to figure out complex techie things like home recording, a lot of times I don’t find the exact answer to my specific question, though that would be nice.

Instead, I eventually discover some cryptic post someone made that at least gives me an idea of where to start poking around in the menus on my own system, and then I have to figure out the rest through trial and error.

So I’m hoping that this column will cover some of those often overlooked issues, and will encourage you to get your own studio up and running -- using Pro Tools or some other DAW. Hopefully I will be able to provide some answers, guidance, and motivation for you along the way.

Really, at the end of the day, I just want to lay down some cool guitar tracks, and that’s probably what you want to do too.

Setting Up the USB Audio Interface

So after getting my computer set up, my iLok set up, and Pro Tools up and running -- click HERE to read about that -- my next step was to get set up to record audio, as in guitars, basses, and microphones. And I’ll be doing this via a USB audio interface, the likes of which I never had to use before with my Akai.

Focusrite Scarlett 2i4So I shopped around a bunch, learned a lot about USB interfaces, and found a few options in my price range of about $200. I ended up going with the Focusrite Scarlett 2i4, which I ordered from Sweetwater. It arrived the next day, and they had even included a little bag of candy -- Smarties, Bit o’ Honey, and Laffy Taffy. How thoughtful of them. Now I’ve got another several hundred empty calories flirting with me on my desktop.

Anyway, the Scarlett 2i4 features two inputs -- two each of ¼ inch cable or XLR -- so I can plug in two guitars at once, or a guitar and vocal mic, or I can put two mics on my amp. I wanted that bit of versatility over the prospect of getting an interface that only accepted one guitar or one mic at a time.

The Scarlett 2i4 is sending to my computer via a USB 2.0 cable, which it came with. Also, I’ve plugged my monitor speakers -- an older but awesome pair of M-Audio BX5 powered speakers that I’ve had for years -- into the back of the Scarlett. There are MIDI ports as well on the Scarlett, and while I’m not using them now, I will be plugging a keyboard into them at some point in the not-too-distant future.

So as I work with Pro Tools, the sound is actually coming back out of the computer via the USB, into the Scarlett, and then from there into my monitor speakers. And the sound is kickin’ butt too.

Problems: Beeps, Echoes, And Other Weird Noises

EZDrummer 2But the sound didn’t kick butt right from the start. In fact, before I even got the Scarlett, I had already been playing around with some drum tracks in Pro Tools. I’m using Toontrack’s EZdrummer 2 for all my drum parts, and I highly recommend it.

Basically, I’m capable of playing all my guitar parts, all my bass parts, and handling any lead or background vocals I might want to record. And I’ve got my 15-year-old son Austin to lay down any keyboards I might need, he’s pretty much a keyboard whiz, though I’ll probably have to spread some cash around to actually get any tracks out of him. You know how they are these days. So really, between the two of us, the only thing we couldn’t do was drums.

And that’s where EZDrummer comes in. I’ve worked with drum loops for years and years, but recorded drum loops in the old days were whatever they were. You couldn’t alter them in any way. And believe me, you never could have enough of them, because whatever song I just wrote always seemed to need a little bit different drum track than any of the loops I already had.

With EZDrummer, just like all the drum loop CDs I had used in the past, you get drum loops that were recorded by pro players in pro studios, and mixed to perfection by world-class recording engineers.

But you can actually change any of the loops!

EZDrummer 2It’s amazing. So let’s say you love a certain loop, but wish the drummer had played it on the ride cymbal instead of the hi-hat. No prob. You can change that. Or let’s say you wish the drummer had been more active on the snare. No prob. You can add more snare hits with the twist of a virtual dial.

Like I said, it’s amazing. I highly recommend EZDrummer 2 or their Superior Drummer product, But don’t just take my word for it: both Waddy Wachtel and Def Leppard guitarist Phil Collen both recently told me they use EZDrummer 2 or Superior Drummer for their drum tracks.

Yeah, so what’s the problem then?

When I played a drum track, I was getting all kinds of weird beeps and echoes. Every hit of the snare or bass drum had a huge beeping sound over the top of it. And then there were echoes after the initial hit.

The Resolution

So between a combination of posts and threads in the EZDrummer forums, and various recording forums, I discovered that I needed to make some settings changes in Pro Tools and in my computer. No single forum entry actually told me exactly what to do, so I had to play around with different settings on my own. It took a few tries, but I eventually eliminated the beeps and echoes, and everything sounds kick ass now.

Pro Tools Playback EngineThe problem was in the Pro Tools “Playback Engine.” If you go to Setup>Playback Engine you’re given a variety of parameters to adjust. Before I even plugged in the Focusrite Scarlett, I was able to eliminate most of the beeps and echoes by changing the H/W Buffer Size from 256 Samples (the default setting), to its maximum of 1024 Samples.

Changing that setting made a noticeable difference in the beep, but didn’t completely eliminate the echoes and “artifacts” (essentially random bits of unwanted noise) that followed the beep sound on the initial drum hit.

After I installed the Focusrite Scarlett and made it my chosen Playback Engine -- before I plugged it in and installed its drivers, Windows Audio Device was the only choice -- I was able to eliminate all the rest of the echoes and artifacts.

Even that took some doing though. When I plugged in the Focusrite Scarlett, there was a driver install to take care of, which was simple enough. But then I immediately got an error message that said Pro Tools would not “initialize” Scarlett, error code AAE-6001.

So I Googled that and found an entry in the Focusrite “Answerbase” that said Pro Tools 11 and later might need an updated “Beta” Scarlett Driver. Click HERE for the link to that entry, and the link to download that driver.

If you follow the link on that page there are a whole bunch of different Beta drivers to choose from. The one that worked for me was titled Focusrite USB2 Drivers 3.2.1. The other Beta drivers listed there are for other Focusrite products, or older Beta drivers, with the newest listed at the top.

When Does It Stop?

So nothing in life is easy, right? At least nothing worthwhile. Why couldn’t I just plug the damn thing in and have everything work just perfect so I could pick up my guitar and start recording? Because that’s not the way life is in the 21st Century. Get used to it.

So once I installed that Beta driver, did the required computer restart,  and re-launched Pro Tools, I got a new error message, saying  “The current playback engine does not support a sample rate of 48 kHz.”

Computer speaker choiceSo of course I Googled that error message, which lead me to another forum (click HERE), and after scanning through the posts there, I sort of figured out I had to go back into the computer to undo something I had been advised to do by some other forum along the way. Remember I said there was a bunch of trial and error involved in my journey.

Somewhere I had found something that led me to go to Start>Control Panel>Hardware and Sound>Sound>Manage Audio Devices, and make the Scarlett the default audio device of the computer.

But in the end I needed to make the Windows Realtek audio device the default again in my computer, and after closing Pro Tools, then opening again (allowing it to reset, I guess), the Scarlett began working, and powering my BX5 monitors.

And the sound is clean -- no beeps, no echoes, no noises, nothing but good clean sound.

So basically the computer is pointed at the default internal Realtek speakers, but Pro Tools is pointed at the Scarlett. And now I’m getting clean playback of my drum tracks, and it’s rockin’.

So Am I Recording Yet?

Hey, I’m not making this stuff up. I don’t mean for it to be complicated -- and in the long run it wasn’t really complicated. It just takes a bunch of trial and error, and changing a few settings here and there, and then it’s working.

So that you don't have to do all the forum searching and trial and error settings changes I had to go through, and so that you can do all this within minutes where it took me a couple hours, here is a recap of the steps I had to take: 

1) Plug in my USB audio interface and install its drivers

2) Overcome Pro Tools error message by installing updated "Beta" drivers for the USB Audio Interface

3) In Pro Tools Setup>Playback Engine, make my USB Audio Interface the default Playback Engine and increase H/W Buffer Size to it's maximum setting

After accomplishing all of the above I created some new “sessions,” laid down some drum tracks, even plugged my bass guitar into the Scarlett and laid down some bass lines while I played along with the drum tracks.

Be patient. The initial setup of all of this stuff may take a couple hours, maybe less. And once you’ve got it, you’re off and running!

Find Out More:

Pro Tools Website 
Toontracks EZDrummer 2 Website 
Focusrite Scarlett 2i4 Website

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