A Complete Wireless DAW Remote Control

PLEASE NOTE: This article has been archived. It first appeared on ProRec.com in September 2003, contributed by then Editor-in-Chief Rip Rowan. We will not be making any updates to the article. Please visit the home page for our latest content. Thank you!

When I was building out the space for our new studio, one thing started to annoy me.

The studio was constructed as a production studio, with a separate control room and nice big tracking room. I loved the layout, but I spend a lot of time tracking… myself. In the old space, the DAW was in the primary tracking room – it was a working musician’s workshop – so I could, for example, set up the drums right at the computer, and run the rig from the drum kit.

But in this space, with its dedicated control and tracking rooms, I would be forced to trek back and forth from the recorder to the instrument whenever I was recording myself. What I needed was a remote.

Back in the day, we had remote controllers for our recorders. Whether this was a simple “record” button attached to the deck by a wire, or a complete remote unit on the ADATs, you could generally remote control the recorder from anywhere in the studio, if you had enough wire. But, now that the recorder is a computer, how is one supposed to handle this remote control issue?

I brought this up to several people. One expert gently suggested to me that the problem was that I had built a dedicated control room. He suggested that the future was in having a multi-purpose room. I had to explain that this is what I used to have, and while it was great for just recording myself, when I had a six piece band in for a gig, it sure would have been nice to have them in their own room, and me (and my ears) in another room. While I can appreciate the benefits of a single large multipurpose tracking and mixing room, the simple fact is that control rooms are really a Good Thing when you are working with lots of musicians.

Another expert suggested that I get a really long KVM cable and a switch, and put the keyboard, mouse, and video on a crash cart. The cart could be wheeled anywhere in the studio. This wasn’t a half-bad suggestion. I’ve seen guys that work like this, and it’s OK, but lacked a certain elegance I was going for. I knew I could do better.

Yet another expert told me that my problem was that I was using a big rackmount computer as a recorder. If only I was recording on a notebook computer, then I wouldn’t have this problem. I could just carry the notebook whereever I wanted to record. Well, recording on a notebook is fine for light duty work, but the new studio is really a professional affair. I have a rack of mic preamps and mic cabling brought into a patchbay, and a 24 input soundcard to handle all of the I/O, all in a nice big dedicated desk. I didn’t want to sacrifice that I/O capability just to get my audio into a notebook computer. Thanks, but no thanks.

A fourth expert suggested a control surface. I could put the control surface whereever I wanted, and run the DAW from the surface. By selecting a controller that had a timecode display it would be just like working with ADATs. But this seemed to me like an expensive solution to my problem, and it would have to have a power cable and MIDI or firewire cable. Not all of the software I use is supported by control surfaces. And a good surface is not that portable!

Fortunately for me, a solution was readily at hand, and I even already owned everything I needed to make it work. My solution would be elegant – very elegant. I would have a completely wireless remote control. You could be walking around the studio, arm a track, and then hit record. My solution would give me all of the capabilities of my DAW at my fingertips. It would be just like running the software from my desk. I could use whatever software I preferred – the solution was application-agnostic. And my solution scores a perfect 10 on gee-whiz factor. It’s so cool it’s almost a shame to share it, and if you haven’t guessed the answer, you’ll slap yourself when you realize how easy it is.

The Solution

The answer is simple: a notebook computer on a wireless LAN running Windows XP Pro Remote Desktop Connection.

For those of you who are running XP Pro and haven’t had a chance to use RDC, you are in for a treat. RDC is one of the many wonderfully powerful applications built into XP. It is similar in concept to Timbuktu or PC Anywhere, except that it works a lot better, and is much more efficient and stable. Best of all, it’s already built into the OS you are already using. RDC is a Windows XP Pro update to the Terminal Services capability built into Windows 2000. Note that RDC is not built into Windows XP Home Edition, and is one of many reasons you ought to choose the Pro version if you have the chance.

What makes RDC so special is that where other applications are “screen scrapers” which simply project a bitmap image of the remote computer’s user interface, RDC works “underneath” the user interface. Instead of projecting “pictures” it is projecting just primitive information about the keyboard, mouse, and video. This makes it highly efficient. In fact you can easily use RDC over a modem, and it works great over a low-end 802.11B (11 Mb/s) wireless connection. For $50 you can get a wireless-B router and attach your DAW to the router (many other kinds of wireless solutions are available on the cheap to fit into any networking scheme you may already employ). Moreover, RDC uses very few resources on your main DAW. If you are running a modern Athlon or P4 based DAW, you will see only the most minimal drain on your CPU, making this solution feasible for all but the most demanding mixes with scads of plugins already running.

Since the recording application is actually running on your real DAW computer, this means that the notebook computer you use to connect doesn’t need to be very powerful. I have great results with my old, tired 466 MHz Celeron notebook. Many similar computers are readily available for under $500 on eBay. I think mine would resell for about $250. You’ll also need a wireless card for the notebook. That will probably cost as much as the router, say $70.

The end result is that your $300 notebook computer now serves as a wireless remote control of your DAW – a complete solution that gives you all of the capabilities you would get by sitting right at the computer on your desk – usable from anywhere in your studio. Launch apps, open / change song files, add new tracks, arm for record, play back, patch effects – anything you can do in your software at your desk can now be done from anywhere in your studio.

And what a gee-whiz factor. The first group that came over to use the studio is no set of newbies. This was a gang from LA who have worked with the likes of Bob Clearmountain and other big-name engineers. Everybody agreed that the wireless remote-control DAW was about the coolest thing anyone had ever seen. During this session I was sitting in on drums, so I had the remote computer set up on an extra snare stand. We were ripping through tracks, and I could easily start and stop the recorder, save takes, and play back, usually with only one hand on the touchpad. The convenience was wonderful. The soundcard on the main DAW has a special pair of outputs that drive monitors in the tracking room. From the remote, I could record a take, then patch Sonar’s output to the tracking room and play back our tracks right into the control room… without getting up from the drum kit. How cool is that?

Since then I have used the remote in other recording situations, and I have found it to be a completely stable, robust way of running your DAW from any location in the studio. I cannot recommend it more highly for any musician who serves double-duty as an engineer – or for engineers who serve double-duty as musicians. If you could use this convenience, then my friend, this is simply a must-have.

Setup

Setting up RDC is easy. All you need is to have Windows XP installed on both your primary DAW as well as the notebook you intend to use as a remote control. The DAW must be running Windows XP Pro, but the notebook can be running Windows XP Home Edition.

To set up the DAW to be remotely-controlled,

  • Right-Click the My Computer Icon and select Properties
  • Click the Remote tab
  • Check the box that says “Allow users to connect remotely to this computer”
  • Windows will warn you that accounts with blank passwords cannot be used to connect to the computer. Click OK, and you are configured.

If you are like most people, you have Windows XP set up in “single-user” mode with a blank Administrator password, so that it does not prompt for a password. In that case, you may not be able to connect to the computer because by default, RDC will not accept connections to the computer for accounts with a blank password. Fortunately, as is usually the case, Microsoft has provided a way around this security feature. As long as you are behind a firewall (as you should be) this procedure is a safe one to use.

  • Navigate to Administrative Tools – Local Security Policy
  • Navigate to Security Settings – Local Policies – Security Options
  • Find the option “Accounts – Limit local account use of blank passwords to console logon only”
  • Change this to “Disabled”

Now you are ready to log into the DAW from the notebook computer.

  • From the notebook, navigate to Accessories – Communications – Remote Desktop Connection
  • Select the Options button. There is something here you will want to change.
  • Under the “Local Resources” tab, change the “Remote Computer Sound” option to “Leave at remote computer”
  • Under the “Experience” tab, change the Connection Speed setting to LAN
  • Click the Connect button
  • If necessary, log onto the DAW
  • You are now running your DAW from the notebook. Enjoy!

A Soapbox Moment

For years I have extolled the virtues of DAW based recording. Well, here is a wonderful example of why. Thanks to the friendly folks at Microsoft, who built this kind of functionality in order to let techies troubleshoot end-user PCs and remotely configure servers located miles away in server farms, we have a capability which would likely never emerge in a dedicated standalone package. There are serious shortcomings to running a production DAW on a general-purpose OS like Windows: the hassle of messing with drivers, getting viruses, keeping the thing maintained. On that we can all agree. But there are benefits, too, often from the least likely of places. Being able to cheaply and easily remote-control your audio recorder is only one of many fine examples of “unintented benefits” we get from running our recorders on standard, generalized platforms like Windows.

Conclusion

If you need the ability to remotely control your recorder, grab yourself a $300 notebook and a couple of wireless-B (or G) interfaces, and do it… now! Thank me later!

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