In this post I share my experiences in choosing my first external soundcard / audio interface and explain why I also bought a Pre Amp.
Whilst I found the whole process of learning about soundcards and preamps very interesting and exciting, I also found it a little daunting, so I really hope the below post helps you if you are in a similar position.
Choosing the Lexicon Alpha
As a new beatmaker, I needed something that was cheap and easy to set up and run. With just my microphone to use at the moment, I only needed a basic model. What drew my attention to the Lexicon Alpha was the many positive customer reviews on websites such as Amazon. These reviews seemed to be written by people like me, who had been dabbling in music production for a short while. They rated the Alpha for being ideal for beginners - inexpensive and simple to install and use. On further research, I found that the Lexicon range has been praised as a basic, wallet friendly audio interface for years. For a Sound on Sound review of the Lexicon Lamda and Alpha click here. This youtube clip by PGTMan reinforced my decision.
I noticed that, while there were a handful of less than favourable reviews, a lot of these seemed to be geared towards how frustrating it was trying to register the Cubase LE5 software which, at the time of writing, comes with the Alpha. The software/drivers for the Alpha itself took a little while to load but I am sure that was due to just how old and beaten up my PC is, so there are no complaints from me there. The Cubase LE5 software registration, however, seemed to take an age! Registration is done through the setting up of an "eLicenser" key and the importing and exporting of various serial numbers and validation codes back and forth over several screens via the Steinberg website. This was tedious and confusing, but I persevered and got it registered in the end.
The AT2020 mic requires 48v phantom power, which the Alpha does not provide. To find out the best way to get power into the mic, I rang the guys at one of my favourite suppliers of audio equipment, Digital Village. I was toying with the idea of buying a Behringer PS400 Microphone Phantom Power Supply, but they persuaded me to buy the ART Tube MP preamp instead. They explained that, in addition to providing phantom power, the Tube MP would make my vocals a bit warmer and fatter sounding - great stuff.
Check out Tone Taster's before/after recordings testing the Tube MP below. Note that the Tube MP is intended primarily for use on vocals. Here he uses it on drums and guitar, but I think you'll get the gist.
A few months ago I resisted the temptation to buy the Tube MP as it was out of my price range on most web sites, so I was very pleased to buy it at Digital Village at a cheaper price. On the topic of pricing, a word of warning: I bought this for around £35. Make sure you are not overcharged as one unlucky youtuber was, paying roughly four times the RRP as he hadn't shopped around and didn't know any better, the poor guy.
Setting up the Alpha, Tube MP and AT2020 mic together was straightforward enough. I already had a basic understanding of how the set up would work from reading the excellent book Home Recording for Beginners by Geoffrey Francis. In addition, both the Alpha and Tube MP came with easy to follow instructions. The only thing which confused me for a moment was recording the vocals into REAPER. However, this was due to my own inexperience and five minutes spent consulting the REAPER manual cleared this up. I will be doing a more detailed post on this in the near future.
As yet I have only had an hour or so to test the set up, but on first impressions everything seems to work pretty well together. I first tested the Alpha using the Akai LPD8 and immediately noticed far less latency and more audible sensitivity to touch/velocity, which is great. I then listened to pre-recorded music on Soundcloud which, as you would expect, sounded better than it had on my Windows soundcard.
Using the Tube MP and AT2020, I was able to record vocals soon enough and the onus is now on me to learn to record them well. On my first recorded vocals, I did notice what I would describe as a bit of electrical noise on playback. One or two people had complained of this in online reviews. To be fair though I think this may, at least in my case, be caused by how close I have everything on my studio desk, so I wouldn't like to jump to any conclusions.
I will be adding to this review in the near future when I've spent more time using the equipment.