: Harmless Untruths (weblog)

Don’t let the bastards grind you down

May 23rd, 2010

I’ve been doing amateur home recording for a long time, let’s call it a decade plus, starting out with second-hand four-tracks and moving up to cheapo laptops and freeware synth programs. Being the overly-independent type, and the absurdly anti-establishment type, I have avoided the methodology of most of the world around me — the whole iMac/Garage Band thing. Instead I have mostly used a patchwork of random software on a succession of computers to get results that I am fairly happy with.

So here’s the weird thing — as the years go by, and computing power multiplies exponentially, it actually gets harder to do the things I used to do. My little tricks and maneuvers get antiquated quickly, and I am left banging my head against a (punk) rock as modern operating systems strip out functionality that I used to rely upon.

I sit and marvel at the fact that it was easier for me to do home recording in 2002 on a pathetically weak Dell laptop with a 10GB hard drive, Windows Me (!!), 256 (!!!) MB of RAM, no CD-burner, and only a slow and unreliable dial-up internet connection. I was able to plug a decent microphone directly into the machine, fire up Audacity, record guitar, use goofy freeware software to make other noises like drum beats. Given the ultra-lo-tech environment I actually made some excellent recordings that way.

The past couple weeks I have been trying to figure out a way to replicate that experience on a new Windows 7 laptop with basically infinite disk space and memory. I also have some audio devices that I’ve accumulated over the years to interface with it. It seems like it should be about a hundred times easier than those computing dark ages of 7 or 8 years ago.

But it turns out that the computer-manufacturing world has modified modern audio drivers to block the ability to record on one program the output from another. You don’t hear much about this, it was done awfully quietly. I spent hours going through settings to figure out why I couldn’t do this simple task — for example, play a drum loop on one stupid piece of freeware and record it in Audacity. Digging through various audio forums I eventually realized that this has been deliberately blocked by a lot of manufacturers. (Does anyone know if new Macs can still do this?) Concerns about internet piracy have made them block this whole function so that you can’t, say, play something on youtube or pandora and record it (because I’m sure that was a major method of stealing music. Geesh.)

I’m pretty annoyed and embittered about this — it only affects a pretty tiny subset of computer users, but it’s not like it has been in the news, or that I could have possibly anticipated that my new computer wouldn’t be able to do this. There are dubious workarounds listed in some of the forums, relating to re-configuring and replacing audio drivers, but they seemed awfully sketchy, and the consensus seems to be that this is just the way it goes. There are possibly hardware issues involved as well.

Anyway I am writing about all this not just to vent — though it ties into my growing ambivalence about technological progress, that the future of computers is one of a world of mindless consumers paying hundreds of dollars a month for subscriptions to various services that they interact with solely through their iPads or whatever. No, I am putting forward one crazy complicated workaround that I came up with that works. If this helps anyone doing a web search for something like “capture audio output” then I will be happy to do my part to combat the omnipresent Man.

So here is what I have done. It is not the least bit elegant, but it might help some folks figure out their own workaround. I was able to get around the blocked drivers by outputting the audio signal to a series of external devices, and then re-inputting it for recording. With trial and error I figured out a way that doesn’t seem to significantly degrade the signal quality. Probably no one else in the world will have the same equipment handy, but there are probably other comparable solutions.

First step is to export the audio signal from the PC. I have an M-Audio Audiophile USB device that is able to handle audio I/O and does the trick.

Second step is to send the signal to another device. I was able to export it from the Audiophile to an old 4-track via standard audio cables. Possibly even a stereo receiver would work.

Third step is to re-import the signal. (So ridiculous!) I was able to send it from the 4-track’s monitor mix back into the Audiophile USB device.

Then you have to capture the signal in Windows. It turns out that I had to use “Microsoft Sound Mapper” as my Windows recording device to actually get it to work.

So insane. It also means that if I want to do this it takes a huge amount of set-up, and I have to adjust the volume levels of like 3 different machines and 2 pieces of software. But it can be done! If you have another work-around please let me know — and if you have experience doing semi-pro-level audio work on a new Mac I would also love to know how that works. This issue with Windows machines seems to be pretty recent, like within the past year or so.


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