Question from an Audio Masterclass visitor: Is it possible to make a quality song using nothing but Pro Tools on a lap top?
David Mellor replies…
The answer to this is of course no – you need quality songwriting ability and a quality singer too. Odd how these are so often forgotten in the endless quest for more and better equipment.
But if you have these, then yes you don't need much more than Pro Tools and a laptop.
Specifically what you will need is this:
A large-diaphragm microphone with an 'expensive' sound. You might choose an antique tube microphone like the AKG C12 or Neumann U67, or you might not because they not only sound expensive, they are damned expensive on the collectors' market. And they have awkward and bulky external power supply units.
On the other hand you could choose something like the SE Electronics Z3300A, which does have a large diaphragm, doesn't have a tube, but does certainly sounds a lot more expensive than it is to buy. A lot more.
A large-diaphragm mic for vocals is a must. You can plug it directly into the Digidesign Mbox 2 audio interface that comes with Pro Tools LE software.
Some people might try to convince you that you need an external microphone preamplifier and that the preamps of the Mbox are not good enough.
Bollocks! (If you'll pardon my UK English – “Bollocks” means “I disagree”, “The dog's bollocks” however means something that is very good indeed!).
The differences between microphones are huge. The differences between preamps are tiny. Spend your time, energy and cash on a great microphone. There isn't a preamp on the market that does anything to prevent you making a recording of fully pro standard. (Bet I'll get some flames from that!)
Of course you will need some instrumental sounds too. Maybe they'll be acoustic, in which case you'll need more mics and a mixing console to record a drum set. But if you use electronic sounds, you will find that the more expensive sample libraries really are better – you'll find the sounds just easier to use in the context of real music. For a keyboard, save yourself a lot of trouble and get a Korg Triton. If you can't produce a great backing track with this then you won't be able to do it with anything.
You might consider software instruments, which are undoubtedly very popular. However, they tend to be very fiddly to use in comparison with hardware instruments. Listen to the backing tracks of songs you admire – the instrumental sounds really are not all that important as long as the vocal and groove are right. I'll make an exception for software samplers since hardware samplers are just as bothersome. Kontakt has an unnecessarily complex interface, but it's par for the course these days.
Where Pro Tools LE will let you down a little bit is in the standard plug-ins. I firmly believe that the standard EQ and dynamics plug-ins are no barrier to a professional sound. Their sound quality is fine and there are no technical problems nor lack of control.
However, when using Pro Tools LE I really miss the Lexiverb 2 plug-in that I use on my Pro Tools TDM system (which cost a hell of a lot more of course). I like the Altiverb very much too, and the D-Verb plug-in that comes with Pro Tools LE is simply not the same. Having said that, many a great track has been made with an inferior reverb unit, so I don't see this as a barrier. It's just nicer to have a great reverb.
Fortunately, as standard Pro Tools LE supplied with Mbox 2 has no mastering plug-in. There is a god!
In conclusion, if you have Pro Tools LE and use it with a laptop computer and additional equipment as outlined above, then there is no reason why you should not produce a great recording, fully up to professional standards. More equipment, and more sophisticated equipment, will give you a wider range of options, but the important things to consider first of all are the song and the singer. Pro Tools LE and your developing production skills will do the rest.