Shocking problem with audio channels

A couple of months ago, I bought myself a condenser microphone to improve the quality of my recordings in my Minecraft videos. However, such microphones require a XLR connection sending phantom power. An audio interface or mixer is required to power such microphones and get captured audio out of them. My first setup was a bit convoluted and required two cables going from my computer desk to the table on which I installed my music production gears:

  1. My microphone is on my computer desk and linked to my mixer with a cable running on the floor.
  2. My mixer is sending phantom power and getting the microphone’s audio. It gets a mono signal and spreads it to its two output channels. From the mixer, it is possible to adjust the microphone’s volume as well as its position in the stereo image.
  3. My mixer is sending output, including microphone and other sound devices, to my Novation’s Ultranova.
  4. My Ultranova is linked to my computer through a USB cable which also has to run on the floor.
  5. The audio interface built into my Ultranova is used to turn analog sound coming from my mixer into digital audio.

After some changes in my home office, I had to move the table with music gears further from my computer desk, which prevented me from using this setup until I get longer cables. I may instead end up with a second computer dedicated to music production, which will make controlling Ableton’s Live easier than having to go back and forth between my music table and computer desk. I then needed a new solution for my microphone setup.

Luckily, I have a M-Audio FastTrack Pro interface I decided to give a new shot. The interface had issues with Ableton’s Live, making the software crash and misbehave intermittently. The issue can come from the interface itself, the ASIO driver, Windows 10, Ableton’s Live or something else. There is no way to track it down, this is why I switched to using my Ultranova as the audio interface. But maybe, I thought, the M-Audio FastTrack Pro would just work for that simpler application.

I thus put it on my computer desk, plugged it through USB, plugged my microphone in the first input and turned it on. I made sure the first input was configured in Instrument mode, turned on phantom power and then performed a test. I had a voice over to record at the end of an in-progress Minecraft video. For this, I usually use Corel’s VideoStudio X8.

However, when I listened at the recording, sound was correct, but it was coming from the left channel only. It didn’t take me long to realize Corel’s VideoStudio was accessing my audio interface as a stereo device. The interface was then simply and predictably providing stereo information: the left channel coming from the first input, right channel coming from the second input. Nothing is plugged in the second input? No problem, the interface just provided silence. This is simple, logical, but today’s software expect more chaotic behavior: VideoStudio was assuming the interface would magically duplicate the two inputs! Apparently, some low-end USB microphone just do that! I also realized that my recording software would react the same way; my voice would play just on the left side.

Searches on Google only gave me unacceptably complicated solutions.

  • Post-process audio in another software tool like CoolEdit Pro, Audacity, Sound Forge, to turn the stereo file into a mono one. That would have forced me to figure out the name VideoStudio gave to my voice over, maybe even exporting the clip manually from VideoStudio to a WAVE file, find the file in the audio editor of my choice, search forever to figure out how to make the file mono, save the file back somewhere, return to VideoStudio, find the file there, import. If I had to do this one time, I would do it and that’s it. But I would have to repeat all that for any voice over I make with that new setup!
  • Encode the video with mono audio. Besides requiring a lot of tedious manipulations in VideoStudio (click there, find that option, click there, there, there, there, etc.), this is unacceptable as my game sound is stereo and I want to keep this.
  • Insert a Y splitter cable linking my microphone to both inputs of my audio interface. That could work in a RCA or jack world, but I’m not sure at all about the results with XLR plugs delivering phantom power! Of course, nobody will have accurate information about that. According to my very far memory of electricity I learned in physics, both XLR inputs would deliver a 48V signal, resulting into a circuit with two parallel paths delivering 48V, so the output of the Y would get 48V, not 96V, but maybe I was wrong, and that would just blow up my microphone. I would also have to order this Y splitter cable on eBay or Addison Électronique and wait for it several days, or go at Addison store, which involves a never-ending bus trip for me.
  • Some forum posts were suggesting that the software tool is responsible for correctly configuring the audio interface. If it doesn’t, I have to switch to something else. That would mean I would have to use one tool to capture video, a second tool to capture audio and manage to sync up the tools in some way or another. That means having the two tools side by side and rapidly clicking on the record buttons, hoping they start simultaneously. That’s stupid, crazy, inefficient, and I really hate that people propose, adopt and accept such solutions, because that’s not so bad for them. This is bad, because computer is all about automation, and should not force human beings to repeat stupid and brain-killing tasks!
  • According to my research, some USB microphones will deliver a stereo signal to Windows, which will just avoid this issue. I could thus switch to such a microphone, forgetting about my actual device. I really disliked that, because I didn’t want to replace an already-working microphone with a potentially inferior one. And what would happen with my actual microphone? Well, maybe my brother would make a use of it in his jamming room. Quite little consolation…
  • Maybe another audio interface would provide a better treatment of this issue. I could for example try with the FastTrack Solo interface which has a single input, so no obvious reason to deliver stereo data. However, I  had no certainty about if and how that would work, I would have had to try my luck. Maybe my brother could help me out if he has the Solo M-Audio interface, maybe not, I didn’t remember which one he had.
  • My friend suggested me to use my mixer as before. That would require me to unplug all wires from my mixer, moving it on my computer desk for recording stuff, then moving and plugging my mixer back on my music table to play some music. Quite annoying.
  • My friend suggested me to use the inserts on the M-Audio interface. This quickly appeared to be an hard task, as making use of this requires custom cables designed for inserts. In particular, I would need a Y splitter starting from a TRS balanced jack into two separate mono jacks! Most jack Y splitters just duplicate a stereo signal. The only TRS Y splitters I could find were on eBay.

I was quite desperate and about to give up on recording or switch back to my H2N, which works but gives recording with a lot of background noise. My last hope was Virtual Audio Cable. Tailoring it to my needs required a bit of trickery, but that ended up working, so I purchased a license for it.

From stereo to mono with Virtual Audio Cable

First piece of this intricate puzzle can be found by right-clicking on the Windows mixer in the task bar and selecting recording devices.

Capture d'écran 2016-08-20 21.27.42Double-clicking on the M-Audio’s line device and accessing the last tab results into the following.

Capture d'écran 2016-08-20 21.27.47The default input setting is on two channels, thus stereo. Interesting. What if I switch this to mono? Wouldn’t this be enough to indicate both VideoStudio and Bandicam to record a mono track? If they simply use default settings, that could work, no? Well, no, because the M-Audio driver doesn’t accept other settings than 2 channels! I tried with both Windows builtin driver and the M-Audio one: same result. I probably need a better audio interface. But that is enough for DAWs such as Ableton’s Live, who are able to pick and choose which channels to record on.

I thus had to implement a patch using a virtual cable. For this, I accessed the second tab of the M-Audio line device which allows to listen to the captured audio. However, instead of feeding the captured audio to the default device as most people would do, I routed it to a virtual device provided by Virtual Audio Cable.

Capture d'écran 2016-08-20 21.32.55That Line 1 entry appears in both playback and recording devices. This is a virtual cable that can be used to transfer audio from one process to another. Based on this reasoning, I found the Line 1 entry in my recording devices and made it the default recording device. In my case, it is called Mic 1 because I messed in the control panel of Virtual Audio Cable, but that’s not necessary.

Capture d'écran 2016-08-20 21.33.13Hoping for a miracle, I double-clicked the virtual recording device, accessed the last tab and clicked on the drop-down menu for channel selection. I was then able to select a 1-channel input!

Capture d'écran 2016-08-20 21.33.19I then tested and that finally worked! Windows “plays” the captured audio into the virtual cable, which coerces it into mono, which can be “recorded” by software programs. After a lot of frustrating research with less and less hope for a solution, I ended up with stereo recording again. I had to purchase the full version of Virtual Audio Cable for this to work without the annoying “Trial” message in my recorded sound, but at least, I didn’t have to wait for a Y splitter cable ordered from eBay or try my luck with USB microphones or new audio interfaces, without being sure it would solve my issue.


Audio driver conflict causing slow startup

Since at least two months, Windows 8.1 startup is awfully slow. From UEFI boot to login screen, it takes a few seconds, which is perfectly reasonable and what I expect from a Core i7 computer equipped with a SSD. However, after I was typing my password to login, it was taking between 30 to 45 seconds before I could reach the desktop! This was almost wiping out the benefit of the SSD, making the total boot time as long as if I had a regular hard drive with an older CPU.

I was getting annoyed on every startup, but at least, the machine was correctly responding afterwards. But yesterday, that combined with another issue: each and every Metro application is now closing instantly and NOTHING suggested on forum posts can fix the issue; the only solution seems to completely reset my user account.

I thought the slow login time was also linked to my user account and was starting to feel ready for creating myself a clean account and starting from there. Most applications should survive this process, only some settings will be lost. My documents live on a second hard drive which wouldn’t be affected. However, I found out that the slow startup was also experienced for a new user account! This was thus a system issue, probably yet another program that installed malware without me noticing it.

Searching on forums, it seems I would now have to hunt for and install many different anti-virus and anti-spyware programs and regularly create hard drive images. I didn’t have to run into this trouble while I was using Windows 7? What changed in Windows 8.1? Is the system now so unstable that I would need to regularly restore from an hard disk image? This is a real non-sense!

Deeper analysis of the slow startup seemed to link this to CPU! There was little hard disk activity during the long login time and CPU fan seemed to increase speed. I was quite shocked at this. I have a Core i7 CPU that works very well for Ubuntu. Why would Windows 8.1, suddenly, require something more? It was working six months ago, starting quickly. My Nuance ultrabook, which also has a Core i7, starts at normal speed. My personal ultrabook, equipped with a Core i5, starts in a reasonable time as well. Both machines are equipped with Windows 8.1 and newer than this 2012 Core i7, but they are NOT significantly more powerful! Do I really have to face the fact there is a time bomb in Windows, that will trigger after some time and start marking some CPU/motherboard combinations as arbitrarily obsolete? This makes little sense, but I was slowly but surely drifting to that conclusion. I was awfully disappointing because it takes me weeks to shop for new computer parts, check for compatibility with Linux, make sure I won’t get into a dead end with the motherboard, assemble the thing, test, solve issues, etc. I didn’t want to reenter into this just because Microsoft decided I would have to do so!

I didn’t want to perform a clean install, because it is taking too much time. It would break my GRUB configuration while Ubuntu provides no simple way to restore it (each time I need to search more than fifteen minutes, and apply a manual procedure), would require installing multiple drivers each rebooting the machine, and I wasn’t sure Ableton Live would correctly reauthorize. But I was starting to feel ready to try this reformat during the Christmas holidays, because this was becoming too annoying.

I thought about purchasing another system and moving the Windows 8.1 part of my current configuration on it, leaving only Ubuntu on the original machine. That would remove the issue with Windows breaking the GRUB setup at the cost of more money and space.

I also got issue with my audio system. Yesterday, I started Ableton Live and opened up a Live set I got from my friend. I got an error message, because my Ultranova synthesizer was set as the ASIO audio interface but it wasn’t powered up. Instead of turning it on, I switched to the M-Audio ASIO driver, so sound played through my main Fast Track Pro interface.

Things went well… until I closed Live. After that, for the third time, sound stopped working. The M-Audio driver is getting corrupted and stops working. Restarting the machine does nothing; I really had to reinstall the driver.

But after I removed this damned M-Audio driver and restarted the computer, I found out the startup speed was restored to normal! I reinstalled my M-Audio driver, because I need it for ASIO integration, and startup speed remained normal!

I thought about finding an audio interface more suitable for Windows 8, but I found out it makes no sense to replace a working product just because Windows misbehaves with it while it USED to work! I thought about downgrading to Windows 7, but I HATE its low contrast between selected and unselected items and lack of any solution to fix this without disabling Aero. I considered the possibility of installing Live on a dedicated Windows 7 laptop (tired of assembling computers and when purchasing preassembled PCs, you usually get to choice between cheap desktops, reasonable laptops or high-end desktops with too stylish gamer-centric cases). But the new machine would have low storage so I would need some kind of NAS for my systems to access a common storage. That was starting to be endless stacks of problems! I thought about using my Ultranova as sound card for Windows and M-Audio on Linux (because the Focusrite-based audio chip in the Ultranova does not work under Ubuntu) but that was resulting in need for endless reconfiguration (when switching between the two OS).

But today, things are still working. It seems I just must not use the Ultranova ASIO integration in Live and things will continue working. As a workaround for this uncommon issue, I connected the S/PDIF output of my synth to the S/PDIF input of my audio interface using a plain basic RCA cable (nothing fancy), turned on S/PDIF output on my Ultranova and was able to get the digital audio from the S/PDIF input of my audio interface. This has the added benefit of allowing Live to record BOTH from S/PDIF and the main input jacks of the audio interface. Using this new configuration, I was able to record four tracks at a time: the two one from my synth through S/PDIF, and the two outputs of my Korg’s EMX. S/PDIF input has low volume for I don’t know why, but at least this can be worked around in Live.

I hoped that would solve my Metro issue but no, the problem persists. I tried a lot of stuff to solve this without success. I will thus need to reset my user account if I really need these kind of useless Metro apps. At least startup is now normal so I won’t have to format to get this fixed!