Read part I of How to Build a Personal Studio on Any Budgethere.
The $10,000 Studio
Alesis ADAT HD24 modular hard-disk recorder $2,495
Blue Baby Bottle microphone $649
Electro-Voice N/D468 microphone $278
HHB BurnIt Plus CD-R burner $649
Lexicon MPX 110 multi-effects processor $329
Oktava MC012 mics (matched pair) $659
PreSonus MP20 2-channel mic preamp $699
Samson Q5 headphone distribution amp $199
Sony MDR-7505 headphones $135
Tascam DM-24 digital mixer $2,999
Tascam IF-AD/DM ADAT card $249
Yorkville YSM1p powered monitors (2) $640
My needs are simple: I want the ability to record a small group of musicians while monitoring and mixing in stereo. Given my budget, the trick is to get more than you pay for. Fortunately for me, quality gear continues to drop in price, and for that reason, there has never been a better time to build a personal studio on a limited budget.
As I assembled this studio, I kept reminding myself that a studio is a work in progress: there are so many items I want but don't have the money for. A number of items ended up on my wish list for a time when my bank account is flush again. In the meantime, let's go shopping!
Mixer. My budget doesn't allow me to buy a full complement of the outboard processors I'd like, such as compressors, EQs, gates, and mic preamps, so I chose a digital mixer with onboard effects. The Tascam DM-24 is a 32-channel, 8-bus board that can handle 24-bit, 96 kHz audio right out of the box (although running the DM-24 at 96 kHz reduces the channel count to 16). It has the connections I need, too: 16 analog inputs, 6 aux sends, 4 sends and returns, 24 channels of TDIF I/O, 8 channels of ADAT Lightpipe I/O, and 2 channels of both AES/EBU and S/PDIF I/O.
I'm filling one of the open interface slots with an IF-AD/DM 8-channel ADAT Lightpipe I/O card so that I have digital interfacing that matches my multitrack hard-disk recorder (which I will discuss in a minute). I really want to buy two of these cards, but my budget doesn't allow it, so I will buy one now and save my money to buy another one later. Tascam also offers the MU-24 meter bridge; it would be useful, and I would like to buy it, but I can't afford that right now, either.
Each of the DM-24's analog input channels offers phantom-powered XLR mic inputs (switchable in groups of four), TRS line inputs, and inserts. In the digital realm, I can assign a compressor, a gate/expander, and a parametric EQ to each input. The onboard effects also include Antares mic and speaker modeling, TC Works reverb, and assorted effects from Tascam. Together, this complement of inputs and processing should cover most of my needs for the time being.
I can use the mixer's onboard automation to adjust fader levels, panning, muting, aux and bus master levels, and compression, EQ, and gate settings. The 17 motorized faders have a comfortable 100 mm range.
The mixer sends word clock, so the DM-24 can act as the master clock and make sure the digital words are synced between mixer and recorder. The DM-24 requires MTC for automation duties, so I'll choose a recorder that sends MTC. The DM-24 can send and receive MIDI and send MMC. Overall, it should give me a fair amount of flexibility.
Recorder. The heart of my studio will be the Alesis ADAT HD24, a 24-track hard-disk recording system that sounds excellent and is as intuitive to use as a tape machine. The recorder has 24 channels of balanced 1/4-inch analog I/O as well as 24 channels of Lightpipe digital I/O. The two combined give me plenty of options for interfacing with my DM-24 mixer.
The ADAT HD24's 24-bit converters run at 44.1 and 48 kHz, but the unit can also record and play back at 88.2 and 96 kHz using external A/D/A converters and the Lightpipe I/O; however, that reduces the track count to 12. Alesis is also developing the EC-2 optional 96 kHz I/O board. With the HD24 and DM-24, then, I'll be able to record at high resolution when I'm ready to, and in the meantime, I can record 24 channels simultaneously at 44.1 and 48 kHz, which is exactly what I want.
The ADAT HD24 has a word-clock input and MIDI In and Out and sends MTC, so I can sync to the DM-24 and use its automation. I'll place the HD24's LRC remote controller next to the mixer.
The recorder's storage configuration is another great feature: the ADAT HD24 includes two IDE drive bays with removable caddies that allow me to hot-swap hard drives during a session. A 20 GB drive comes with the recorder, and any IDE-compatible drive with a spindle speed of 5,400 rpm or greater can be used in either bay. (For a review of the Alesis ADAT HD24, see p. 138.)
Speakers. Whether or not my studio has a separate control room, I'm going to need close-field monitors. I'm choosing the Yorkville YSM1p, a biamped, active monitor that is an excellent value. The YSM1p is small and relatively light, and it offers a balanced frequency range, free of EQ hype. That's what I want from a pair of monitors intended for critical listening. The 6.5-inch woofer and 1-inch tweeter are both shielded and are driven by 115W and 30W power amps, respectively. A 2-inch port adds to the monitor's bass response.
The YSM1p includes filters to help tailor the monitor to its location in your control room. The low-frequency filter lets you boost or cut the response at 80 Hz by 2 dB. Other filtering variables include what Yorkville calls HF Reflection Optimization, with settings for a dampened room, a normal room, and a bright room. The filters are set using rear-panel DIP switches. The YSM1p also includes an input trim pot ranging from –6 to +9 dB, a limiter switch, and a Neutrik combo connector that offers XLR and 1/4-inch TRS input.
While I'm on the subject of transducers, I'll need headphones for my studio. Because most musicians already have headphones, I'm budgeting for only one pair: the tried and true Sony MDR-7505s. Although I can't buy them now, I also plan to save up for a pair of open-ear Grado Prestige Series SR125 headphones for critical listening. The SR125s are lightweight, sound great, and are comfortable to wear during long mixing or editing sessions.
For times when I have more than one musician recording simultaneously, I'll need a headphone distribution amp. The Samson Q5 is small and rugged and comes with five outputs, each with its own volume control. This is especially helpful when you're overdubbing string, brass, or wind instruments, because the players have different listening requirements based on the size and position of their instruments. Although five outputs may seem excessive at first, remember that you might want an extra set of cans for the conductor or producer - during a string-quartet overdub, for example.
Microphones. Choosing mics is always tough because there are so many good options. I want to be able to track anything that comes through the door - vocals, guitar, bass, keyboards, drums, and various acoustic instruments - so I need a handful of multipurpose mics that are quiet, can handle high sound-pressure levels (SPLs), and won't wipe me out financially. I'm choosing four mics that will also give me adequate coverage for a drum kit: a dynamic mic that can double on snare, a large-diaphragm condenser that will cover voice and bass drum duties, and a matched pair of small-diaphragm condensers for drum overheads and acoustic guitar.
I've chosen the diminutive, supercardioid Electro-Voice N/D468 as my dynamic mic. The nice high-end definition and beefy lower mids of the N/D468 give me an evenly balanced snare sound right away, and the adjustable, rotating capsule lets me aim the mic right where I want it. Because of its low profile, it also makes a great tom mic, so I'm planning to augment my mic cabinet with more of these in the future.
Next up is a large-diaphragm condenser, and that was an easy choice: Blue's latest release, the Baby Bottle, is possibly the best large-diaphragm condenser in its price range. This single-pattern (cardioid), solid-state wonder features a 1-inch capsule and a Class A, transformerless output circuit with self-noise that rates at an impressively low 5.5 dB. The Baby Bottle has no pad, no filter, and best of all, no EQ circuitry. What you get is a transparent, high-output transducer that's quiet but can handle high SPLs. It sounds great on voice, electric and acoustic guitar, and bass drum - exactly what I need. Eventually, I'll spring for the optional shockmount/pop filter accessory package in order to get the most out of the Baby Bottle. (For a full review, see the June 2002 issue of EM.)
A matched pair of mics can't be beat for those occasions when I want to record an instrument in stereo. The best value I found is the Russian-made Oktava MC012. Each mic comes with three interchangeable capsules (cardioid, hypercardioid, and omnidirectional) and an insertable 10 dB pad. Whether you use it individually or in a stereo pair, the MC012 is a bread-and-butter mic that sounds great on piano, acoustic guitar, percussion, and voice. Oktava microphones are available in the United States exclusively from the Sound Room (http://www.sound-room.com). Although you may be able to find these mics for less money elsewhere, it's worth getting a pair that's been professionally matched.
Mic preamp. This is another tough category for a studio on a tight budget. Although my mixer has 16 mic inputs, I want at least two channels of Class A preamplification for recording critical tracks. If I can get a direct-injection (DI) box or two in the deal, that's even better. This sounds like a job for the PreSonus MP20. The MP20 offers two discrete Class A mic preamps, each with phantom power, a 20 dB pad, an 80 Hz rolloff, phase reverse, and PreSonus's IDSS circuit, which can be used to add harmonic distortion for simulating so-called vintage warmth. In addition, each channel has a front-panel 1/4-inch, low-impedance input for use with electric guitars and basses. The rear panel has XLR I/O and individual 1/4-inch TRS send and return jacks for inserting a compressor, a limiter, or EQ.
I've used the MP20 in the studio and in the field, and it performed admirably in both settings. The unit is clean and rugged, and the musicians I've recorded have always liked their sound through this preamp. I can never have too many preamp choices, so when my budget allows, I'm going to spring for a Grace Design Model 101, an exceptionally clean single-channel preamp, and for the Summit Audio TD-100 Tube DI and instrument preamp for those times when I want a little more color.
Dynamics processors. High on my wish list is an outboard dynamics processor, one I can use for tracking drums, bass, and guitar and can put on the stereo bus during a mix. The FMR Audio Really Nice Compressor will give me the most crush for my cash when I can afford it. The RNC offers two modes: Normal and SuperNice. The latter gives you the effect of three compressors in series, yielding gentle, transparent compression. The RNC's Normal setting has all the punchiness needed to beef up guitars, drums, or an entire mix. For the price, the RNC can't be beat, which is one of the reasons it's so popular in both personal and pro studios.
Effects processors. Although the DM-24 offers most of the effects I'll need, I want a dedicated 2-channel outboard reverb. The budget-priced Lexicon MPX 110 is a 24-bit effects processor with 240 presets, including a stereo reverb, a flanger, a tremolo, a delay, and an echo, all of which are excellent. The high-quality sound is accompanied by a flexible routing scheme that lets you combine two independent effects with separate processing on the left and right channels. The unit has a coaxial S/PDIF output that can be used simultaneously with the analog outputs. The MPX 110 also has MIDI I/O, which is great for remote control and for editing hidden parameters.
Mixdown deck. I've been a loyal DAT user for longer than I care to admit, because the format is both ubiquitous and reliable. My loyalties changed, however, when I began using HHB's CDR830 BurnIt CD-R deck. The BurnIt is as easy to use as a tape deck and includes many features you wouldn't expect in this price range; for example, the device has front-panel level controls for the analog and digital inputs. The digital input offers ±20 dB of control, which is useful when archiving low-level digital recordings. In addition, the BurnIt automatically converts incoming digital signals at 32 or 48 kHz to 44.1 kHz. If you're going in and out from the analog domain, the converters sound great.
Other features make this item stand out: the BurnIt can create CD Text discs, and it can store text for three separate unfinalized CD-Rs. In Sync-Final mode, the BurnIt begins recording when the source deck begins playing, transfers all ID marks, and automatically finalizes the disc when finished. I've used this feature numerous times to back up digital source material, such as DATs and MiniDiscs.
The BurnIt has RCA jacks for analog I/O operating at –10 dBu, and optical and coaxial jacks for S/PDIF digital I/O. However, HHB has just released the BurnIt Plus, which adds pro-level I/O to match the professional interface. The BurnIt Plus adds balanced XLR analog inputs and outputs that operate at +4 dBu, balanced S/PDIF digital I/O (on XLR3 connectors), word-clock input, and a parallel-remote connector. I use the BurnIt on a daily basis already, so it's a no-brainer for the studio of my dreams. The added I/O closes the deal for me, so I'll splurge for the BurnIt Plus.
At this point, I can make a little extra scratch by offering remote stereo-recording services using a tidy setup culled from my list: a pair of MC012s going into the PreSonus MP20 preamp, with the HHB CDR830 BurnIt Plus as the recorder and the Sony MDR-7505 headphones for monitoring.
Future Expansion. I've already noted several items that I'll add later, when I have more money: a second Tascam IF-AD/DM 8-channel ADAT Lightpipe I/O card and a Tascam MU-24 meter bridge for the DM-24 mixer, Alesis's optional 96 kHz I/O board for the ADAT HD24, the optional shockmount/pop filter accessory package for the Baby Bottle mic, more Electro-Voice N/D468 mics, the Grace Design Model 101 and Summit Audio TD-100 preamps, and the Grado Prestige Series SR125 headphones. In addition, I'm saving up to buy a $55 pair of Kiwi mic cables from Blue, which will help me get the most out of my microphones; I came in $20 under budget, so I'm already almost halfway there.
Finally, an analog patch bay is an important ingredient in a studio, even if you have only a couple of outboard devices. Unfortunately, I am unable to afford one right now, but when my budget permits, I will buy the Ace Products APB48S, a 48-point audio patch bay with 1/4-inch TRS I/O. The APB48S has modular PCB cards that let you change the routing configuration of each vertical channel from half-normaled to denormaled (and vice versa) by simply turning the card around. This modularity allows me to configure my studio exactly the way I want to.
The Mac Hybrid Studio
By David Rubin
The $15,000 Macintosh
Apple Power Mac G4/dual 1 GHz CPU; 512 MB RAM; $3,249
80 GB ATA hard drives (2); SuperDrive; Nvidia GeForce4 MX
dual-display video card; Apple iMovie
BIAS Peak 3.0 audio-editing software $499
Canopus ADVC-100 video converter $299
Carillon UltraSampler 160; Pentium 4/1.7 GHz CPU; $5,140
512 MB RAM; 40 GB ATA hard drive;
80 GB ATA hard drive; CD-RW drive;
Windows XP. Bundled with Tascam GigaStudio
160 and Sonic Foundry Sound Forge XP; Frontier
Dakota audio card; Matrox G550 dual-output
video card; ViewSonic VE-170mb LCD monitors (2)
Chicken Systems Translator 2.5 sample-format $150
Coda Finale 2002 music-notation software $600
Dr. Bott MoniSwitch USB $139
Gefen Systems ADC-to-VGA video adapter $49
Kurzweil SP88 MIDI keyboard $995
MOTU 828 FireWire audio interface $795
MOTU Digital Performer 3.1 digital audio sequencer $795
MOTU MIDI Timepiece AV-USB interface/patch bay/synchronizer $595
NHT Pro A-10 audio monitor system $800
Røde NT3 condenser microphones (2) $398
Sony MDR-7506 headphones $125
VCR and 13" television $450
My main goal in designing this high-end Mac-based studio is to create a music-production system that is versatile enough to tackle almost any assignment, expandable enough to adapt to new situations, and powerful enough to deliver professional-level results. I want to be able to record mono or stereo live tracks, edit and process audio for CDs and sound designing, and create multitrack audio and MIDI sequences. Film scoring is a major consideration for my studio, so the system must also be capable of synchronizing to picture.
As many musicians will attest, the Mac makes an excellent front end for a desktop music system, and the new Macs are impressively powerful. On the other hand, Tascam's GigaStudio 160 software sampler is available only for Windows, and its intuitive user interface, its ability to handle gargantuan loop-free samples, and the huge variety of high-end sample libraries available for it make it a must-have for me. I'm not going to give up my Mac, though. Instead, I'm going to create a hybrid studio in which a Mac serves as the primary computer, and a PC functions as a dedicated sampler running GigaStudio.
This setup offers the best of both worlds and provides unparalleled flexibility for future expansion. It also centers my studio on a sampler whose capabilities far exceed any hardware sampler on the market. Of course, including two complete computers within my budget means I'll have to sacrifice elsewhere, but I'm willing to make those sacrifices in exchange for a system that delivers top-notch audio quality while remaining fast and user-friendly.
Primary computer. In this studio, the Mac runs the show, so it must be as powerful as possible. The top-of-the-line Power Mac boasts a dual 1 GHz G4 processor with 512 MB of RAM and support for up to 1.5 GB. The standard configuration includes the new SuperDrive, which reads and writes to CD-R, CD-RW, and DVD-R - plenty of options for multimedia authoring, audio archiving, and CD mastering.
The Mac includes an 80 GB Ultra ATA hard drive, but I'm choosing the optional configuration with a second 80 GB drive. That lets me keep the system software and applications on one drive and reserves the other drive for recording. The Mac's four built-in USB and two FireWire ports are adequate for now, and adding more ports with a PCI card or a hub is a snap.
Secondary computer. The main purpose of the secondary computer is to serve as a super-duper sampler with multichannel digital outputs. This PC sampler provides me with most of my instrumental sounds. To deftly manage the significant processing load and avoid rapid obsolescence, I am selecting one of the high-end Pentium 4 CPUs.
Although there are plenty of fine PC manufacturers, such as Gateway and Dell, most general-purpose PCs come loaded with garbage I don't want and options I don't need. Carillon Audio Systems, on the other hand, offers several models of Windows-based computers that are specifically designed and configured for studio use. The Carillon computers are rackmountable and employ a special fan with a radial-fin heat sink, offering much quieter operation than the usual desktop PCs. That's an important consideration if you don't have a way to acoustically isolate the computer from the studio area. Moreover, the Carillon computers are streamlined and optimized for specific hardware and software combinations.
Carillon's UltraSampler 160 model (which includes Sonic Foundry Sound Forge XP as well as GigaStudio 160) is ideally suited to my studio. The standard system is based on a Pentium 4/1.7 GHz with 512 MB of 400 MHz of RDRAM. I'm upgrading the basic setup by choosing a 40 GB, 7,200 rpm ATA hard drive for the system software and applications and an 80 GB drive for storing my sample libraries. I'm using Windows XP for my operating system because, among other things, it allows me to address quite a bit more RAM for future expansion. (With the release of version 2.5, GigaStudio 160 supports Windows XP.)
The standard UltraSampler 160 includes an M-Audio Delta 1010 audio interface, which is a fine system with excellent specs and drivers. For this system, however, I'm substituting a Frontier Dakota card. It combines a 2-In/2-Out MIDI interface, stereo coaxial S/PDIF I/O, and dual ADAT Lightpipe I/O, which is especially important for this system. (I'll explain why shortly.)
Video monitors. As part of my upgrade of the Carillon UltraSampler 160 package, I'm replacing the single CRT display with a matched set of 17-inch ViewSonic VE-170mb LCD monitors, which I'm sharing with the Mac. Having a matched set of monitors is important so that your line of sight and the cursor path stay consistent as you move between displays. I'm also substituting the Matrox G550 dual-output video card for the standard ATI Rage card.
At this point in my setup, I have a Mac and a PC, both of which support dual-monitor displays. Most of the time, I'm viewing GigaStudio on the left and MOTU Digital Performer, my primary Mac application, on the right. With separate keyboards and mice, I can move quickly from one program to the other for maximum efficiency.
There will be times, however, when I won't need GigaStudio - for example, when recording live tracks or sequencing with MIDI sound modules. In those cases, it's great to be able to spread out across two monitors, especially because Digital Performer rapidly eats up onscreen real estate. I like to place the Mixer window, processing plug-ins, and smaller ancillary displays in the left monitor; that lets me open up the Track window, Sequence Editor, and Control Panel in the right monitor. So the right monitor remains dedicated to the Mac while the left monitor switches between the PC and Mac, depending on the task at hand. To switch the left monitor between the PC and Mac, I'm using a Dr. Bott MoniSwitch USB, a well-made switch box that includes high-quality cables.
The two video ports on the new Macs are not the same; one is a VGA (analog) port, and the other is Apple's proprietary ADC (digital) connection. The ViewSonic monitors have only VGA connections, so I need a Gefen Systems ADC-to-VGA adapter to convert the second Mac port to VGA. Some LCD monitors have DVI (digital) inputs that offer somewhat better image quality than VGA, and Apple's excellent Studio Display monitors can be made to work with PCs with the proper kind of converter, but those are typically more expensive solutions.
Why spend the extra money on LCD monitors? LCD flat-panel monitors offer several important advantages over CRT displays when used in a small studio. They weigh considerably less than CRT monitors, and because they have a much smaller footprint, they don't crowd the desktop. You can also put them right next to each other without causing image distortion, and they don't generate nearly as much heat as CRTs - their most important benefit, perhaps. Running two CRTs can quickly raise the temperature in a small room, especially during the summer.
Audio interface. The heart of my desktop music system is formed by the MIDI interface and the digital-audio interface. For hard-disk recording and playback, I'll be using MOTU's 828 digital-audio interface, which won a 2002 Editors' Choice award for being, among other things, the first multichannel FireWire audio interface. Like MIDI Timepiece AV (MTP AV), the easy-to-use 828 integrates especially well with Digital Performer, and it makes a fine partner for the Dakota card.
The 8-channel 828 offers several great features, such as CueMix Plus, which provides zero-latency monitoring. That comes in handy during multitrack recording sessions. It delivers 24-bit resolution and supports 44.1 and 48 kHz sampling rates, and it provides stereo S/PDIF I/O on RCA jacks. Its analog inputs and outputs employ balanced 1/4-inch jacks boasting a 105 dB dynamic range. Inputs 1 and 2 also accept XLR mic inputs, and the two high-quality mic inputs let me record audio tracks without having to invest in a mic preamp right away. The front panel provides a 48V phantom-power switch and input-gain controls.
The key to my hybrid Mac/PC system, however, lies in the 828's 8-channel ADAT Lightpipe I/O. Because the Frontier Dakota card supports ADAT Lightpipe (16 channels on two outputs), I can send as many as 8 channels of digital audio over a single optical cable to the 828. Not only is the optical cable immune to hum and RF interference, but I can separate the two audio devices by at least 16 feet if I have to. That's important because although the Carillon CPU can live peacefully in my rack, the Mac, with its noisy fan, has to stay isolated behind a closet door.
With this configuration, GigaStudio functions as a massive yet intuitive eight-output sampler with clean, high-quality audio. If eight audio channels prove too limiting, I can add a second 828 later, turning GigaStudio into a true 16-channel sampler.
MOTU offers several options for expanding your system. For example, if you need high-resolution audio and more mic inputs, you can add a MOTU 896 to your 828. That high-end FireWire system adds another eight channels of ADAT Optical I/O along with eight more mic inputs. You can also install one of MOTU's venerable 2408mkII systems, which supports 24 channels of ADAT optical in a single rackspace, although it doesn't provide mic inputs. I'm not going to do that for this system, though.
MIDI interface. For the MIDI interface, I'm choosing the USB version of MOTU's MTP AV. The MTP AV is one of the most versatile MIDI interfaces on the market, and it integrates extremely well with Digital Performer 3.1, the sequencer that I've chosen. The MTP AV provides eight pairs of MIDI Ins and Outs (128 channels), a front-panel LCD screen for standalone operation, and plenty of LED status indicators. It can even function as an 858 MIDI patch bay and merger. I'll connect MIDI Out 1 on the MTP AV to MIDI In 1 on the PC's Dakota card. Once I set up MOTU's FreeMIDI data-routing software, I can quickly select any of GigaStudio's MIDI channels from within Digital Performer.
The MTP AV's ability to handle a variety of hardware configurations is unsurpassed. It offers ADAT sync, video sync, word-clock output, Digidesign Pro Tools Superclock output, and support for MMC, and it can convert audio-click sources to MIDI. For film scoring, the MTP AV serves as a SMPTE time-code converter, generator, and reader with adjustable freewheeling. Because it's a USB device, it's easy to install or disconnect, and if your needs expand, you can add as many more MTP AVs as your system can handle.
Speakers. I need a good pair of magnetically shielded near-field audio monitors. If I had a bit more money in my budget, I would choose the award-winning NHT Pro A-20 powered monitors. They're amazingly clean and accurate with a frequency response that reaches down to around 48 Hz without a subwoofer. But at $1,800 a pair, the A-20s would put me over budget, so I'll compromise and choose the less expensive A-10s. Their specs aren't quite as good as those of the A-20, but they share many interesting features, including a two-way acoustic-suspension design with inward-angled front baffles for improved spatial imaging.
The A-10 powered monitors also employ a dedicated, rackmountable, dual-mono, 150W (RMS) amplifier that attaches to the speakers with a set of proprietary cables. That modular approach offers a centralized connection point for audio cables and removes the heat source from the speaker cabinets. It also provides several front-panel controls for optimizing the speaker output for different room configurations and input levels.
I also need headphones for overdubbing acoustic instruments and vocals. I'm opting for the clean-sounding and comfortable Sony MDR-7506.
Microphones. I need at least two mics so I can record tracks in mono or stereo. I'd like a pair of mics that are well suited to recording acoustic instruments, which are the sources I'll most likely encounter. Personal preferences have a lot to do with selecting mics, and several budget-level mics are worth considering. For this studio, I'm choosing the attractively priced Røde NT3. It's a medium-diaphragm hypercardioid condenser that is well suited to my needs, and its price tag is hard to beat. The NT3's older sibling, the Røde NTK, won an Editors' Choice award this year and would make an excellent upgrade to my studio when my budget expands in the future.
Digital audio sequencer. In the final analysis, any computer-based studio is only as good as the software that drives the heavy machinery. As I mentioned earlier, in my studio, the ringleader is MOTU's Digital Performer 3.1. This powerhouse audio sequencer has won multiple Editors' Choice awards and continues to impress me with its sophisticated interface design, intuitive architecture, and sheer depth of features.
Digital Performer is optimized for dual-processor Mac G4s; offers versatile 5.1-surround mixing; supports 24-bit, 96 kHz recording; imports and exports Pro Tools projects; and includes excellent tools for working with picture. What's more, Digital Performer comes packed with more than 40 audio plug-in effects, so you can get started processing your tracks right away. The combination of the 828, the MTP AV, and Digital Performer makes for a highly integrated and powerful workstation.
Audio editor. Digital Performer includes an audio-editing window, but a full-service desktop studio should also have a separate high-end audio-editing program. For the Mac, the choice is clear: BIAS Peak 3.0 is the best available stereo-editing, recording, and processing application. With Peak you can record and edit MP3 files, convert audio file formats, import and edit audio-CD tracks, prepare loops, create playlists, and sync to QuickTime movies. Moreover, Peak comes with dozens of plug-ins and digital signal processing effects, in addition to offering extensive recording and editing features. Furthermore, Peak comes bundled with Vbox SE, which lets you combine VST plug-ins in various configurations.
Notation software. Although I now do most of my composing with MIDI samplers and sound modules, I still occasionally work with live musicians. I therefore need to create professional-looking scores and parts for a variety of musical styles with specific requirements.
There are several excellent high-end notation programs, including the intuitive and innovative Sibelius 2.0. For this system, however, I'll use the ever-popular Coda Finale 2002. The award-winning Finale just keeps getting more and more amazing as Coda adds exotic features and refines its user interface. Finale 2002's layout capabilities and printed output are excellent, and the program includes the handwritten-style Jazz font in addition to the engraver-quality Maestro font.
Best of all, Finale 2002 comes with 12 algorithmic composition plug-in tools (developed at IRCAM) for generating rhythms, morphing chords and melodies, and performing additional musical tricks. A new Band-in-a-Box Auto Harmonizer from PG Music even generates multipart block harmonies in a variety of styles. With all its extra tools, Finale 2002 has become much more than a program for notating music; you can now use it as a primary tool for creating music, as well.
File translation. For the PC, most of my basic software needs are covered: as I mentioned earlier, the UltraSampler 160 system comes with GigaStudio 160 2.5 and Sound Forge XP preinstalled. However, one other piece of software is a must: Chicken Systems' Translator 2.5. Translator lets you convert a wide assortment of hardware and software sampler formats into Giga format, which offers access to a potentially huge pool of instrument samples, loops, and sound effects.
VCR and TV monitor. One of the most important goals in setting up this studio is to create an effective environment for producing film and TV scores. That means I'll need a few extra pieces of video-related gear. For starters, I'll add a VHS recorder and a 13-inch television for video playback and monitoring.
Film composers used to work exclusively with 3/4-inch video work prints. However, in recent years, 1/2-inch stereo VHS work prints have become increasingly popular (particularly with low-budget productions). SMPTE time code is recorded on one track, and production sound, dialog, and other reference sounds are recorded on the other.
You could invest in an expensive commercial-grade video deck and a high-quality video monitor, but you can probably get through most projects just fine with a decent consumer-grade VCR and TV. Be sure to choose a hi-fi stereo VCR with RCA output jacks and select a TV with RCA inputs (mono audio is fine). Connect the audio cable carrying the time code to the audio input on the MTP AV; connect the cables carrying the reference audio and the video output to the TV. Digital Performer can then lock to the time code as a slave device and record or play in sync with the picture.
Working directly with a VCR is handy if you just want to slap in a tape and watch something, especially if you don't have to do much shuttling. But fiddling around with videotape is not the most elegant or efficient way to compose to picture. Now that FireWire and digital video are all the rage, why not take advantage of the latest technology? Digital Performer and Peak can import QuickTime movies and synchronize to them with subframe accuracy.
A/D video converter. In Digital Performer, you can record your multitrack score, scrub forward and backward, drag soundbites, and cut and paste audio, all while locked to video. For example, you can move the cursor to a cymbal crash and view the exact frame where it will occur. Alternatively, you can drag a harp-gliss soundbite to the first frame of a visual transition. First, however, you must convert your VHS work print into a QuickTime movie.
For that you need an analog-to-digital video converter, such as the Canopus ADVC-100. The ADVC-100 takes the output from the VCR, converts it into digital format, and sends it to the computer through a FireWire cable. The new Mac G4s come bundled with Apple's easy-to-use iMovie software, which records the video as a QuickTime movie on your hard drive. Several companies, including Formac, Sony, and Miglia, offer affordable converters, and like the Canopus box, the converters work in both directions (A/D or D/A). You can also use most digital video camcorders as a converter, but that's a much less convenient solution, and it may not offer the best results.
With my work print digitized as a QuickTime movie, I can view Digital Performer's Movie window on the left monitor, which leaves the right monitor available for the recording and editing displays. However, a new feature in version 3.1 of Digital Performer offers an even better plan. In the Movie window mini-menu, under Video Output, you can choose FireWire as an option. That streams the QuickTime movie back out to the Canopus box, which converts it to analog in real time and sends it to the TV. I can then use the TV to monitor the QuickTime movie while displaying GigaStudio on the left monitor and Digital Performer on the right. That really makes the most of my three-monitor setup and minimizes the competition for screen space.
Keep in mind that streaming video from the hard drive consumes a fair amount of processing power, so if you are piling up so many audio tracks and plug-ins that it affects the video playback, you may have to revert to using the VCR for playback. With careful planning, though, you should be able to avoid problems, especially with a high-end G4 Mac.
MIDI keyboard. At this point, my desktop system is nearly complete; I just have to fill in a few missing pieces. To begin with, I need a MIDI keyboard controller to enter music. Several manufacturers offer excellent keyboards, but for this system, I must have an 88-note keyboard with pitch and modulation controls, because GigaStudio often uses key switches and controller routings in its patches.
To keep costs down, I'm choosing Kurzweil's affordable SP88, with its semiweighted action. Although it's not without its shortcomings, the SP88 is lightweight (only 30 pounds) and compact, and its low profile helps it fit comfortably on the desktop in front of the monitors without covering their controls. The SP88 uses short ribbon controllers for pitch bend and modulation; they're a bit awkward to use, but they get the job done. As an added bonus, the SP88 provides 32 onboard patches (mostly pianos, strings, and organs).
Future Expansion. That completes my high-end Macintosh desktop studio, and amazingly, I managed to stay reasonably close to my budget limit. If I had a bit more cash to work with, I'd certainly consider adding more goodies to boost productivity. Home studios are universal in their insatiable need to grow, and this setup is no exception.
A good place to start expanding my studio might be the addition of a MIDI control surface to provide a hardware interface for mixing. The Radikal Technologies SAC-2K would make an excellent choice; it integrates especially well with Digital Performer, providing transport controls, knobs, and motorized faders. If my sound sources start to proliferate, I might also consider adding a small digital or analog mixer to serve as a submixer.
Speaking of sound sources, among my first additions would be one or two MIDI sound modules to expand my palette of sounds. Although it has been around for a while, E-mu's Proteus 2000 is still a great choice, delivering 128-note polyphony and more than 1,500 patches.
With the Translator software, I can convert many of my old sample libraries into Giga format, but as soon as possible, I'll want to build my library of sampled instruments. At the top of my wish list is the Garritan Orchestral Strings collection, with its lush string sections and extensive assortment of performance techniques. For wind instruments, I'll turn to the Dan Dean Solo Woodwinds and Dan Dean Solo Brass libraries. However, those are only a few of several excellent choices. The Giga format is acquiring new libraries at a surprising rate, and of course, the samples that interest you will depend on the styles of music that you compose.
You can also expand your musical palette by adding software synths and samplers such as Unity DS-1 and Retro AS-1 from BitHeadz and Reason from Propellerhead Software. Adding a sequencer (such as Steinberg Cubase VST) to the PC can also open new possibilities for sequencing and audio production, and as a supplement to GigaStudio 160, Steinberg's Halion software sampler can greatly expand your options. Because the Carillon PC has a dual-monitor video card, you could even work with the PC alone and spread out across both monitors. You could then create complete sequences on the PC and record them on the Mac or vice versa.
Finally, all desktop studios should have an uninterruptible power supply (UPS), such as the APC Back-UPS Pro 650. A UPS provides several minutes of emergency power so that you can save your work and shut down your system in the event of a power failure. It can save you much grief, and you're tempting fate if you don't have one.
The Windows PC Studio
By Dennis Miller
The $15,000 Windows Studio
Crown CM-700 microphones (2) $598
Echo Layla24 audio/MIDI interface $995
(bundled with Steinberg Cubasis)
Kurzweil SP76 keyboard controller $800
Mackie HR824s active monitors (2) $1,598
MOTU Micro Express MIDI interface $295
PC with Intel Pentium 4/2.4 GHz CPU, $4,500
1 GB RDRAM, 40 GB and 80 GB drives,
19-inch LCD monitor, Nvidia GeForce4 Ti 4600
display adapter, Pioneer DVR-A04 DVD-R drive,
Windows 2000 and Windows 98 (dual-boot)
Peavey PC 16005 MIDI fader box $399
Sonic Foundry Acid Pro 3.0 loop sequencer $499
Sony MDR-7506 headphones $125
Spin Audio VST-DX Wrapper free
Lite DirectX shell for VST plug-ins
Steinberg Cubase VST 5.1 (upgrade from $225
Cubasis) digital audio sequencer
Steinberg GRM Tools, vols. 1 and 2, effects plug-ins $398
Steinberg WaveLab 4.0 audio editor $599
Symbolic Sound Kyma System sound-design $3,570
workstation with FireWire interface
Waves Native Power Pack 3 effects plug-ins $500
Ah, what a pleasure it is to spend EM editor in chief Steve O's play money! With a $15,000 budget, I can buy top-of-the-line components and outfit my studio for a wide range of tasks. I'm well equipped to create music for games or any type of film or video production, and some little-known features in my sequencer let me explore algorithmic composition in distinctive ways. More traditional tasks, such as songwriting and building dance tracks, are also possible, and I am ready to tackle the challenge of DVD authoring. Live recording is also no problem, assuming I can keep the studio environment free of sonic interruptions.
As with my $5,000 PC-based studio, I'm starting with the computer and then moving through the different types of hardware and software I'll want to have on hand.
Computer. I'm sparing no expense in my high-end system. My music machine has a 2.4 GHz Intel Pentium 4 processor and 1 GB of RDRAM, a 40 GB system drive, and an 80 GB drive dedicated to audio (or video, as the case may be). I'm also springing for a 19-inch LCD monitor. For burning CDs and DVDs, I'm buying a Pioneer DVR-A04 DVD-R drive, (a recent replacement for the popular A03), which includes enough bundled software to get me going in the DVD-authoring business.
The computer has an Ethernet card and an Iomega Zip 250 drive, and it runs Windows 2000 and Windows 98 in a dual-boot configuration. (Windows 98 is required for the Kyma System, which I'll discuss shortly.) I'm asking my vendor for an Nvidia GeForce4 Ti 4600 display adapter, which is one of the hottest new video cards on the market. I made a few calls and received quotes for this system ranging from $4,000 to $4,500. I'm budgeting $4,500 just to be on the safe side.
Audio and MIDI interfaces. My audio will be pumping through Echo Audio's Layla24 interface, which has drivers for just about every Windows version and audio protocol you can imagine. Its eight balanced analog ins and outs, ADAT I/O, headphone out, word clock, and MIDI I/O provide an all-in-one solution, which is just what I need. Furthermore, it includes a free copy of Steinberg's Cubasis, which will save me a bunch of money when I purchase my sequencer (more on that later). Although the Layla24 provides me with a MIDI interface, I'm also grabbing a MOTU Micro Express for patching MIDI around the room.
Speakers. On the receiving end are a pair of Mackie HR824s (can you say flat?), which provide rich detail through a thumping 8-inch woofer and 1-inch tweeter. The Mackies conveniently accept XLR and balanced TRS cables and are powered, so I don't need a separate power amp. For headphones I'll go with the ever-popular Sony MDR-7506s.
Microphones. I have a modest budget, so I'm going for a pair of Crown CM-700 small-diaphragm cardioid condensers for stereo miking. The CM-700s give me live-recording options and plenty of flexibility when I take them into the field for sampling. (Of course, I can't take this desktop PC-based system into the field with me, so a portable DAT or hard-disk recorder is on my wish list for future purchases.)
Sound-design workstation. Having the right tool for the job means having lots of tools. But one component I'm buying is so versatile that it saves me from purchasing dozens of different programs. That's the Kyma System from Symbolic Sound, and no high-end desktop studio should be without it. Kyma combines a box full of Motorola digital signal processors that can be reconfigured to serve nearly any audio purpose imaginable. Do you need an FM synth, a granulating sample player, or an audio-to-MIDI converter? It's in there. Do you want to pull out every odd partial in a vocal sample and morph it with the even partials of a violin? No problem - that's a preset, in fact.
For processing live audio, controlling the playback rate of a disk file with your voice, or building complex, polymetric step sequencers, the Kyma is just right. All that power doesn't come cheap, but the $3,570 for a base system and high-speed FireWire interface are well spent.
Digital audio sequencer. Of course, there will be times when I'll need more basic audio tools, and as always, I need a good digital audio sequencer to serve as the backbone of my studio. In this rig, I'm choosing Steinberg's Cubase VST 5.1, which has continued to evolve during the past few years, including ever more software synths and high-quality effects and offering a streamlined and refined user interface. The program's enormous range of MIDI-processing features (for example, the Interactive Phrase Synthesizer) is able to produce hours of variations on even the most basic MIDI phrase. I am very much looking forward to the release of Cubase SX, which should be out by the time you read this.
Loop sequencer. What will I do in all of my spare time? Play with Sonic Foundry's Acid Pro 3.0, for one thing. Acid Pro is a great way to create music with loops and now includes support for MIDI and a single video track. The 18 DirectX plug-ins that ship on the distribution CD-ROM can be used with Cubase or any other DirectX host software, and Acid's internal CD-burning feature complements the other capabilities of my system.
Audio editor. Although I have lots of ways to work with digital audio, a standalone multitrack program is always handy. I think highly of Magix's Samplitude Producer Pro, and version 6.0 is the most intuitive and powerful version of the program yet. Nevertheless, I'm buying Steinberg's WaveLab 4.0, which I consider to be the fastest and most intuitive program on the market. I only wish it had a true multitrack mixer so that I could manipulate the volume of many tracks at once.
Plug-ins. What about special effects? My audio can't leave home without them. Though the Kyma System allows me to create a vast range of audio-processing functions, it never hurts to have other options available directly from within my audio software. For that reason, I'm adding the first two volumes of Steinberg GRM Tools VST plug-ins to my list, and I'm using Spin Audio's free VST-DX Wrapper Lite to ensure that the GRM Tools show up in Acid and any other DirectX host I end up with. I'll also pick up a copy of Waves' Native Power Pack 3, which not only has a beautiful reverb and excellent EQs but also offers the one tool that I've used on nearly every piece of music I've ever created on a computer: the L1 Ultramaximizer.
MIDI fader box. I'm buying a Peavey 16005 MIDI fader box so I don't have to mix audio using my mouse. The 16005 provides 16 faders and 16 buttons - each of which can be separately programmed to send any MIDI message, including System Exclusive strings - so I can use it to edit MIDI devices as well as to control my sequencer. A pair of control-voltage (CV) inputs enables me to use CV footpedals to control anything MIDI. To top it off, I can save complete setups as Scenes.
MIDI keyboard. A Kurzweil SP76 keyboard will serve nicely as my MIDI keyboard, with its 2 ribbon controllers, 32 internal patches, and 32-note polyphony. The SP76 can transmit on two channels at once, which will be handy when I use it with some of the more complex Kyma sounds I'm exploring.
With my $15,000 studio, I can look forward to many years of productivity.
The Studio without Computer
By Brian Knave
The $30,000 Studio
Ace Products APB48S $150
A.R.T. ProVLA 2-channel tube compressor $649
Audix OM2 small-diaphragm $298
dynamic microphones (2)
Behringer Powerplay Pro HA4400 $95
4-channel headphone distribution amp
Beyerdynamic Opus 65 large-diaphragm $349
Blue Baby Bottle large-diaphragm condenser microphone $649
Crown CM-700 small-diaphragm condenser microphone $299
Demeter VTDB-2b Tube Direct box $599
Earthworks QTC1 omnidirectional $1,000
Electro-Voice N/D 868 large-diaphragm $310
FMR RNC1773 2-channel solid-state compressors (2) $398
HHB CDR830 BurnIt Plus CD-R burner $649
IZ Technology RADAR DVD-RAM backup option $695
IZ TechnologyRADAR 24 Project 24-track digital recorder $5,995
JBL LSR28P powered reference monitors $2,242
Langevin Dual Vocal Combo 2-channel voice processor $2,000
Lexicon MPX 100 2-channel multi-effects processor $299
Lexicon MPX 500 2-channel multi-effects processor $599
Lucid AD9624 2-channel A/D converter $899
Neumann TLM 103 large-diaphragm condenser microphone $995
Oktava MC012 small-diaphragm condenser microphones (2) $659
PreSonus ACP88 8-channel Compressor/Limiter/Gate $1,199
Royer Labs R-121 ribbon microphone $1,195
Sennheiser MD421 large-diaphragm dynamic microphone $485
Shure SM57 small-diaphragm dynamic microphone $146
Sony MDR-7506 headphones (4) $500
Soundcraft Ghost LE 24-channel recording console $5,495
TC Electronic M300 Dual Engine processor $299
TC Electronic M-One effects processor $699
ViewSonic E50 15" CRT monitor $151
Thirty grand may sound steep for a studio these days, especially considering the powerful computer-based rigs Miller and Rubin put together for half that amount. By my calculations, though, $30,000 is roughly the minimum required to outfit a traditional-style studio with enough decent gear to record and mix bands.
Taking recording and mixing bands as my cue, I have put together a high-quality but straightforward recording studio, complete with a slamming mic cabinet, a rack full of outboard gear, mixer buses directing the flow of electrons rather than bits, and even some big knobs to turn. If you're the type who prefers the simplicity, immediacy, and more visceral, hands-on approach afforded by a traditional studio environment, then you've come to the right place.
Three overriding concerns guided my gear selections: pristine signal capture and flow, maximum system versatility, and component reliability. Furthermore, I designed with an eye toward growth: this setup readily accommodates expansion.
In short, this system is built to rock. It's also built like a rock, simple and solid, and therefore should provide consistent, trouble-free operation for years to come. You may even find - dare I suggest it? - that this studio offers a level of sound quality not quite within reach of the other systems profiled in this article. The truth is, were I actually given $30,000 in real money for the purpose of putting together a studio from scratch, this is precisely how I would spend those dollars.
The core. Though I could easily have enlarged my system by economizing on core components (mixer, recorder, and reference monitors), I decided that was not the place to cut corners. The wiser course is to invest foremost in the core stuff, which I am doing to the tune of nearly half my budget. Fortunately, that approach enables a marriage of two units I consider to be the best sounding and most reliable available in their respective price ranges: the Soundcraft Ghost LE analog mixer and the iZ Technology RADAR 24 Project digital recorder. Both are open to expansion, upgrades, and repair, and both companies have excellent track records in terms of customer service and support.
Mixer. Naturally, I would have preferred the full-blown, 32-channel standard Ghost, which features onboard machine control, MIDI support, mute grouping, and even mute automation (when connected to a sequencer). However, it would simply eat up too much of my budget. So I settled for the pared-down, 24-channel Ghost LE, which has the same audio components but does away with the transport control and MIDI facilities.
At this point, given the obvious control and feature advantages of digital mixers (automation, onboard effects and dynamics processing, and so on), you're probably wondering why I'm choosing an analog console. One reason is user-friendliness; you know what's going on at a glance with the Ghost, which cannot be said of most digital boards. Another reason is ease of servicing: the Ghost's vertical circuit boards allow the unit to continue functioning even if an individual channel is removed for repair, whereas if something goes wrong with a digital mixer, you normally have to return the whole unit. I also considered overall system integrity: analog mixers are simply more mature as a technology than their digital counterparts.
The main reason, however, is sound quality. In my opinion, the Ghost is the best-sounding, best-featured, and most versatile midlevel analog mixer available off the shelf today, and it sounds better overall - warmer and more musical - than comparably priced, full-featured digital mixers. Admittedly, the sonic differences may be subtle, but once you start working with the EQ and mic preamps, the Ghost kicks butt on digital mixers. In particular, having 24 high-quality mic preamps simultaneously available - potentially a necessity when recording bands - saves me a bundle on outboard preamps. The smooth, musical quality of the Ghost's 4-band EQ (two bands are fully parametric) is also a big selling point. I could go on to elucidate many other, professional features the Ghost has that comparable digital (and other analog) mixers don't - individually switchable phantom power and phase reverse on each channel, for example - but you get the idea.
Recorder. I have already expressed my opinion that RADARs are the best-sounding and the most reliable digital recorders currently available in their price ranges. But of course, I'm hardly alone in that opinion. Since the first RADAR came out in 1993, countless users have praised it for its analog-tape-like sound, ease of use, bulletproof ruggedness, and crashproof resilience. Not surprisingly, the majority of users have been pro engineers working in major studios - which, until recently, was the only place that you were likely to encounter a RADAR.
But that's changing fast. The price of the RADAR came down substantially a few years ago, from over $25,000 to around $10,000 for a 24-track system. The amazing price breakthrough, however, came just recently (in March 2002) with the announcement of the RADAR 24 Project system. Like the pricier RADAR 24 Classic ($9,995), the Project offers 24 channels of analog I/O on six rear-panel DB25 connectors, and it records at sampling rates up to 48 kHz. The sound quality of the two models is identical. One difference between models is that the Project comes with a scaled-down controller (the KC-24, a simple keyboard remote rather than the sturdier, full-featured Session Controller) and without the meter bridge, which attaches to the Session Controller. The other difference is that the Project records to an internal 40 GB IDE hard drive rather than to a removable 36 GB SCSI hard drive, the standard on the three higher-end RADAR models.
It's worth noting that the primary criticisms the EM reviewer leveled against the RADAR only a year ago (see the July 2001 issue) - editing capabilities that were cumbersome and average and no way to exchange file and session data except in real time - have been rectified. Editing capabilities are much improved on the latest RADAR systems, and now you can export WAV and time-stamped Broadcast Wave files.
The 24 Project system offers backup using external SCSI and Ethernet. But I am choosing to outfit my system with the optional DVD-RAM backup, a seamless and ultimately more cost-effective solution. Note, too, that I'm selecting a CRT monitor, the 15-inch ViewSonic E50. The monitor plugs directly in to the back of the RADAR 24 Project to provide audio metering.
Thankfully, the 24 Project is compatible with all other RADAR I/O cards and accessories and is fully upgradeable to the highest-level system (RADAR 24 S-Nyquist). That means I can start out at the affordable Project level and move up the ladder as my budget permits. But no matter what rung I'm on, I feel pretty grand with the RADAR.
Speakers. Choosing reference monitors is easy. I and many others I know (including some famous mixers I sort of know) have fallen in love with the JBL LSR28P active biamplified monitors. From all reports, the LSR28Ps are simply the most sonically accurate reference monitors available in their price range. One name mixer conducted his own extensive shoot-out of more than 20 celebrated monitors. He ended up choosing the JBLs and has since mixed on them exclusively. Though I've used them only as a guest in someone else's studio, I was soon hooked, too.
Of course, monitoring isn't restricted to reference speakers. My studio is all about recording bands, so I also need four pairs of headphones - at once the fewest I can get away with and the most I can afford - and a headphone distribution amp. My pick for phones is the Sony MDR-7506. They're comfortable, sufficiently isolated, quite accurate, and - very important - loud and bright enough for rock 'n' roll. They're also fairly rugged. Of the five pairs that have seen regular use (and abuse) in my studio for the past 11 years, only one has bitten the dust.
I am also adding the spiffy new Behringer Powerplay Pro HA4400 distribution amp. This unit is remarkably well featured, especially given its rock-bottom price. In addition to the requisite stereo amp, jack, and level pot, each channel provides 2-band EQ, output-level metering, left and right mute switches, a mono switch, and - get this - a stereo aux input with balance control. The specs are impressive, too, and the back panel sports servo-balanced, gold-plated XLR and TRS I/O.
Microphones. I'll allot my next big chunk of dough - nearly six grand - to mics. Rather than pick two or three superexpensive models, I am going for a generous and varied selection of high-quality, though mostly bargain-priced, units. That gives me a wide palette of colors and responses to work with, increases my chances for optimum capture of different sound sources, and allows for the mic-intensive application of recording a band with everyone playing at once, including a drummer behind a five-piece kit.
To accommodate a range of vocalists, I first need two excellent but quite different-sounding large-diaphragm condensers: the esteemed Neumann TLM 103, which has the characteristic Neumann presence boost and a big low end, and the Blue Baby Bottle, which more emphasizes a warm, full midrange. Both mics are also good on a wide range of other instruments. For those seeking to add a tube mic to the equation, I recommend swapping out the TLM 103 for the lovely sounding Røde NTK - a similarly bright condenser at about the same price but with a silky touch of tube flair.
To further extend the sonic palette of my mic cabinet, I am including two distinctive microphones that have come to be all but indispensable to my productions: the Earthworks QTC1 single-point omnidirectional condenser and the Royer Labs R-121 ribbon mic. I love Earthworks mics for their incredible realism and nearly flat response (from 4 Hz to 40 kHz for the QTC1), versatility (they work great on pretty much any source for which you want accuracy of sound capture), and ease of positioning. The omni models are especially useful because there is no bass boost from the proximity effect. You can, for example, shove a QTC1 right up to the sound hole of an acoustic guitar and capture a stunningly lifelike sound with no unwanted low-end buildup.
The R-121 ribbon, on the other hand, is all about smoothly attenuated highs and warmly emphasized low mids, making it an excellent choice for guitar amps, bowed strings, harmonica, certain woodwinds and percussion, and lots of other stuff.
Except for one mic, the rest of my cabinet is chosen specifically to accommodate miking a five-piece drum kit. But even here, I am purposely including models, some of which are classics, that are prized in other applications, as well. For overheads I can't find a better value in the small-diaphragm-condenser department than a matched pair of Oktava MC012s. Originally designed to record symphony orchestras, this modular, Russian-made mic comes with a set of three interchangeable capsules (cardioid, hypercardioid, and omnidirectional) and an insertable 10 dB pad, so versatility is a given.
The other small-diaphragm condenser in my cabinet, earmarked for hi-hat, is the Crown CM-700. This accurate yet relatively warm-sounding electret features two built-in highpass filters - handy for dialing out unwanted low resonance from some hi-hat cymbals.
My favorite kick-drum mic, at least among dynamics, is the Electro-Voice N/D868, which captures a beautifully round and fat thump. I know I can't go wrong with the Shure SM57 on snare drum, and it's a good pick for guitar amps, as well. For rack toms, I'll go with my all-around favorite low-cost handheld dynamic, the Audix OM2. This mic has exceptionally good transient response and a warm, natural sound. (Insider's secret: the OM2 employs the same capsule as the more expensive Audix D-2 "tom mic.")
Had there been no budget constraints, I would probably have chosen the Sennheiser MD421 II for all of my tom duties. But at least I can get one 421 into the mix - for miking floor tom. This is a useful, classic large-diaphragm dynamic mic. In addition to sounding great on toms, it also shines on kick drum, guitar amps, and even certain vocalists.
Last but not least, I am adding another large-diaphragm dynamic, the beyerdynamic Opus 65 (formerly known as the TG-X 50). This mic's superior transient response and unhyped tonality makes it the most natural-sounding large-diaphragm dynamic I've used on bass drum. It makes a great choice for miking compact, open-tuned, double-headed jazz kicks. Here, though, I'm including the Opus 65 for recording bass amps, an application at which it truly excels. (Whenever possible, I record bass guitar on two tracks, with one signal from a DI box and the other from the miked amp.)
Mic preamp and DI. As I said earlier, I'm happy with the sound of the Ghost's ProMic preamps, and I'm confident they will suffice to keep people at a pro level in their recording endeavors. Still, an assortment of top-shelf outboard mic preamps - some tube, some solid state; some with transformers, others without - would help push this studio to greater sonic heights and diversity.
Though my price ceiling prohibits the luxury of an assortment, I think it essential to include at least one high-end mic pre. Most attractive are the multifunctional voice-processor units with onboard EQ and compression for those times when I need to shape the sound going to the recorder. My pick is the lovely Langevin Dual Vocal Combo, a 2-channel, Class A discrete, Manley-made unit that not only adds a touch of class to the studio but also extends its capabilities considerably. In addition to impeccable sonics, each DVC channel provides a front-panel DI input, very musical high and low shelving EQ, and a wonderfully smooth electro-optical compressor that I can turn around and use on the stereo-mix bus after I've finished tracking. Truly, this box is an awesome and versatile performer.
Bass matters tremendously in a mix. To ensure fat, ultraclean bass signals, I also specify a premium tube DI, the Demeter VTDB-2b Tube Direct. This unit delivers a mouthwatering balance of deep, focused bottom and clear, overtone-rich highs - the perfect complement to that unruly miked bass-amp signal. Of course, the VTDB-2b also sounds great on guitar, synth, and most any other instrument coming in at line level.
Patch bay. I also need a patch bay to allow direct-to-RADAR recording from the preamp or DI. That way I can keep the Ghost preamps permanently routed to the RADAR and insert outboard units at will. I'm selecting the Ace Products APB48S, a 48-point patch bay with 1/4-inch TRS I/O and silver-plated brass contacts. The APB48S also features modular PCB cards that let you change the routing configuration of each vertical channel from half normaled to denormaled (or vice versa) simply by turning the card around.
Dynamics processors. Digital mixers certainly offer advantages, with dynamics processors on every input and output and even on aux buses. For me, however, the really cool thing about using outboard analog compressor/limiters is that each model has its own response characteristics and "sound." This lets the engineer further shape and color the mix by assigning different compressors to different instruments - for example, a VCA-based solid-state compressor to a bass track, an opto tube compressor to a vocal track, and so forth - depending on the mood of the song. Even with sophisticated modeling, that's something you don't quite get with digital. Of course, such luxuries come at a price.
For this studio setup, I can't afford to have a dynamics processor on every channel - at least not with the units I want - nor can I purchase exorbitantly priced boutique compressors. I can, however, nicely cover 16 of my 24 channels (including using the Dual Vocal Combo) with compression or limiting, and I can cover eight of those channels with gates, as well. A single box, the smartly designed 8-channel PreSonus ACP88 Compressor/Limiter/Gate, is doing most of the work, including all of the gating. This straightforward, VCA-based unit is a fine performer with a transparent sound. I am also including two 2-channel FMR RNC1773s, which really are Really Nice Compressors.
I am greatly disappointed to learn that one of my favorite inexpensive compressors, the Joemeek C2, a half-rack stereo unit with optical control, has been discontinued. This puts a hurt on my studio's mix capabilities, as I know of no other unit in the same price range (under $400) that can do what the rad little C2 could. Then again, I'm saving some dollars by not being able to include it.
My other favorite expensive-sounding inexpensive compressor, the 2-channel A.R.T. ProVLA, is fortunately still available. This soft-knee-style leveling amplifier uses hybrid tube/solid-state circuitry and optical control to produce smooth, warm compression reminiscent of vintage units but with a flavor all its own. I typically use the ProVLA on vocals but have also received great results on harmonica, pedal steel, synth pads, and bass tracks.
Effects processors. Elsewhere in my studio, I wish to increase sonic diversity by selecting items from a range of manufacturers - each company does things differently, after all, which leads to different sounds. But when it comes time to choose digital effects processors, I proceed directly to two names I have come to trust: Lexicon and TC Electronic. (An Eventide processor would be a great choice, too, but would derail my budget.)
I had a tough time determining whether to go with three or four effects units. Sure, I know it's possible to turn out slamming mixes using only one effects processor - or even none at all if you have killer tracking rooms. But then I remembered the most recent album I mixed and how often I had to compensate for this or that problem (usually caused by the sonically screwed-up spaces the tracks were recorded in) and how, even though the music was simple, five or six effects were often run, albeit subtly. Given that the big-name manufacturers have come to market with low-priced, 24-bit gems, four was the right minimum.
From Lexicon I am adding the MPX 100 and the MPX 500, each of which offers 240 great-sounding presets, including some dual programs. The 100, which I love as much for its simplicity as for its palette, is the perfect box for quickly dialing in, say, some ambience behind a row of tracks. The 500 is just as easy to use in its way, thanks to a superintuitive interface, but it gives you far more tweaking power than the 100 - important when working with featured tracks.
I have gotten my hands on a TC Electronic M-One just once, but boy, did I love what I heard. This box has "only" 100 presets, mostly reverbs - but of course, it's the handful of algorithms behind those presets that makes the unit so desirable. Until the M-One came along, those coveted TC sounds had never appeared in a unit costing under a grand. Now with the release of the new M300 Dual Engine Processor, TC has opened its doors to the masses. To be honest, I haven't even heard the M300 yet; but based on how it looks and what I know to be inside, I don't hesitate to add one to my studio.
Mixdown. I still mix to a primitive DAT recorder in my studio - I know, I know - but for this setup, I'm ready to get with the times and burn right to disc (rather than disk). Problem is, I haven't used any of the standalone CD-R burners out there, so I defer to Robair in my selection of the new HHB CDR830 BurnIt Plus standalone CD-R burner. Based on features and specs, the BurnIt Plus appears to be the best deal going, and Robair loves his.
Still, after all the signal care I've taken thus far, I'm reluctant to entrust my final mixes to the stock converters on an inexpensive CD burner. That's why I'm also choosing a Lucid AD9624 stereo A/D converter. This is a box I've used extensively, so I can vouch for its excellent sound and build quality. The AD9624 supports multiple sampling rates - 96, 88.2, 48, 44.1, and 32 kHz - at true 24-bit conversion. And yes, you really can hear the difference, even when playing back at 16 bit (which the unit also allows, thankfully). Analog input (fed from the Ghost console) is on XLR connectors, and the digital bitstream is output simultaneously through both AES/EBU and S/PDIF coaxial and optical Toslink connectors. I'm going with the AES/EBU connection, thank you, which the BurnIt Plus accommodates.
Future Expansion. I realize I'm taking some risks running this studio with no power conditioning, and I'd hate to lose a magic take because of a power problem, so among the first things I'll add in the future (aside from patch bays) are a couple of APC Back-UPS Pro 650AVs.
One whole category I ended up losing, regrettably, was equalizers. The box of choice - or at least, the best one I thought I could afford - was the Nightpro EQ3D, a sweet-as-honey broadband EQ I intended to put just before my A/D converter and secret mix weapon (more on that in a moment). Another unit I had hoped to install near the end of the signal path was a BBE 882 Sonic Maximizer, a box that does a little delay trick I have always liked.
Mics I was forced to leave out include the Lawson L47MP, a versatile and distinctive-sounding large-diaphragm tube condenser; the illustrious Blue Kiwi; and the Shure 520DX "Green Bullet," which I sometimes use as an effect mic on drums, vocals, or what have you.
Other preamps I tried to keep in the mix include the mono Grace Design Model 101, the 2-channel PreSonus MP20, the 4-channel Sytek MPX-4Aii, and the Peavey VMP-2, which remains the best deal in a 2-channel, all-tube preamp/DI that I know of.
As for dynamics processors, I hated losing the Drawmer MX30 and the Drawmer 4-channel MX40 Punch Gate, which is a gem for drum processing. But I really hated not being able to include at least one Empirical Labs ELP8 Distressor - one of the best-sounding compressors I've ever used and certainly the most multifaceted.
I already alluded to one of the other multi-effects processors I wanted: the vast and versatile Eventide Eclipse Harmonizer. Another that I was keen on, though I could hardly justify the thing because it's pretty much a one-trick pony, was the Demeter Real Reverb.
Speaking of analog, and in particular the sound of analog tape, I'll conclude by singing the praises of the "secret weapon" I alluded to a moment ago, a 2-channel mix accoutrement I wanted desperately to install just after the broadband EQ that I also couldn't afford. That box is the Empirical Labs FATSO, also known as the Full Analog Tape Saturation Optimizer. Beyond that acronymic mouthful, it would be impossible to describe in a few words all this unique box can do. All I know for certain is that I mixed a record through one recently, and ever since I've been at a loss to figure out what I'm going to do without one.
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Apple Computer tel. (800) 538-9696 or (408) 996-1010;
Electro-Voice tel. (952) 884-4051; Web www.electrovoice.com
IZ Technology tel. (604) 430-5818; Web www.izcorp.com
Korg USA tel. (516) 333-9100; Web www.korg.com
NHT tel. (707) 748-3024; Web www.nhtpro.com
Sony Corp. of America tel. (800) 686-SONY or (201) 930-1000;
Read part I of How to Build a Personal Studio on Any Budgethere.