Wednesday, November 27, 2013

The New Basics: A Recording Equipment Guide for The Rest Of Us

I love talking about gear with people. My longtime friend Joel from Sister Sister recently called me up to pick my brain about an upcoming purchase, and in the process we got to bemoaning how we felt let down by Tape Op, Gearslutz, and other dens of groupthink, as their ability to actually advise those of us working under the $100,000 budget line has directly inversely correlated with the utter collapse of the recording industry. After I spent a while dropping some science (aka pontificating and bloviating), Joel concluded, “hey, you ought to really write all this crap you’re telling me up for your blog sometime - you know, do a primer for the rest of us.”

What follows is in no way complete or comprehensive, but it’s a good starting overview. It’s also full of straw men, false equivalencies, hyperbole, and other gags. But it is the result of the past ~15 years of obsessing, buying/selling/trading, apprenticing, and most importantly spending thousands and thousands of hours playing, experimenting, collaborating, and doing.
I love hardware for a million reasons, but the biggest one is honestly the physical process and experience of actually using the stuff - sitting in front of a big mixer and a loaded rack, reaching out and grabbing knobs, moving one fader while turning up the feedback on an analog delay and then leaning over and thwapping the side of a spring reverb box. You can’t do this with Ableton, my son.
The Sweet Spot Theory
Maybe your Dad taught you this; my old man was a sucker for a deal. I firmly believe in finding the sweet spot of price-to-performance for pretty much anything I buy - that magical price point where spending $100 to $300 more might double your quality, but beyond that just gets you diminishing returns and that ever-elusive 2% improvement in “quality.” You can spend as much as you want on one channel of EQ or two channels of compression chasing that dragon, but the point of this guide is to suggest the sweet spot in a bunch of common categories. It’s lower than you think.
On Groupthink and Audiophiles
Groupthink and herd mentality drives me nuts. Unfortunately, you run into a lot of it out there, especially on forums. The professional recording industry has completely imploded for a bunch of reasons that are more complicated and interdependent than filesharing, and established studios are closing left and right. People’s livelihoods are vanishing and there’s blood in the water. It sucks. But it also means that people with skin in the game are desperate to convince everyone else that their ultra-boutique stuff is really the thing that’s going to make your recordings/mixes “better.” The thing about “better” is that it’s elusive, and after you’ve already spent thousands and thousands on all of the logical things, you find yourself looking at “premium” cables, patchbays, speaker stands, etc. You don’t need it, I promise. Don’t get me wrong, that $7,000 compressor sounds amazing. But it doesn’t sound $6,000 better than a great $1,000 one.
Don’t forget, you’re never going to make this money back, so only buy this stuff if you're doing it out of love of the craft.
By the way, there is no magic box.
Everyone wants to buy a magic processor that makes their music sound more “analog,” more “like tape,” more “like a record,” more “warm,” more “real,” etc. 10 years ago, every single last piece of equipment had a tube stuck into/onto it, and that didn’t work. Then high-end “tape warmth simulators” appeared. Then analog “summing” together of digital mixes was the magic bullet. A few years after that, everyone decided en masse that transformers were the answer, with many debates about which metals and which designs created the best sound. It’ll be something new next year. The reality is, while all of these techniques impart character or vibe, there’s no one-stop magic box that you can just run everything to to suddenly sound like a classic record. Build in character at every step of the process.
Now, on to all the categories:
It’s become in vogue to buy a bunch of different pres, to even fill up a lunchbox with thousands of dollars of 500-series modules and to “prefer” different preamps for different sources (“I love API on vocals, but I’d never use a Great River on guitars!”). You’re welcome to do the same, but this is generally crazy talk - they all pretty much sound the same, and that extra $2,000 only buys you ineffable, audiophile-level “presence” and “detail” and other fun hogwash that won’t matter unless you’re recording a resurrected Roy Orbison in Capitol Records Studio A with an undead Joe Meek as your tape op. The entire idea of mixing and matching preamps for different instruments is itself a pretty recent fad - back in the day, entire albums would be tracked through the preamps built into the mixing desk installed at the studio and that was that.
Most modern recording interfaces and mixers have pres that are totally fine, honestly - there’s been a huge improvement in those over the past decade. But you’ll still notice a bump in quality if you pony up for some outboard. It’s easiest to think of preamps as being either “clean” (lots of gain without added noise) or “colored” (lots of character added to the signal in the form of distortion). It’s good to have both options around - a tube preamp can sound “vintage” on vocals or add some pleasing distortion (“warmth”) to direct signals like bass or synths, while a Class A solid state design can provide insane boost for gain-hungry mics on quiet sources without adding anything to the signal. Transformer-based preamps can also be pushed to saturate and “thicken” the sound in a different way than tubes do, and they’ve become so popular that there are even designs with switchable transformers made out of different metals and so on.
Now, for that sweet spot: I’m a big fan of the Focusrite ISA One. It’s a solid state pre built around a transformer that sounds incredible - any signal that goes through it just sounds like the best, brightest, sparkliest, most “3D” (etc.) version of itself without being obviously altered - just like someone’s gone over the whole thing with windex. It also has switchable impedance for the mic input (beyond the scope of this article, but it lets you dial in different vibes due to how the mic electrically mates with the preamp), can function as a direct box in parallel to the preamp, and has a bunch of other great little “swiss army knife” features.
For a dirtier transformer-based option, the Golden Age Project Pre 73 - a clone of the classic 1970’s Neve 1073 preamp - sounds amazing at a tiny fraction of the price of the original and only ⅕ the price of some of the fancier modern boutique clones. It’s funky, edgy, and it dirties up nicely in that “transformer” way that imparts a ton of character.
On the tube tip, the Electro-Harmonix 12AY7 preamp, Bellari MP105, and the ART Pro Channel and Pro MPA are all phenomenal at their price points, especially if you want to start going down the rabbit hole of swapping out different tubes to see what happens to the sound (see you never!). Universal Audio’s tube preamps sound amazing and are amazingly well-built, but be prepared to spend $1,000 or more - I consider them the next step up if you're tube-crazy or if you have the money and want something luxurious that feels like it just fell out of the sixties.
Direct Boxes and Reamping
It amazes me how much confusion there is out there about DI’s. They’re super simple: a direct box drops the signal coming into it down to “microphone” level, at which point that signal can be sent into a mic pre and boosted back up to the desired level. In the process, the signal gets balanced and impedance-matched, which essentially means that the normal things stuff can go wrong when you blindly plug stuff into other stuff - like hum, buzz, added noise, weird tonal changes, etc. - just gets sorted out. Even signals that don’t necessarily need this treatment, like synths or drum machines, can sound better when dropped down and then boosted back up through a nice mic preamp than they would if they were just plugged directly into an interface or a mixer.
I’m a big fan of Radial’s products due to their build quality, features, and even just the way they look. I keep a pair of their JDI’s around, but I don’t really hear any “improvement” over their regular (non-Jensen transformer) DI box. The whole point of a direct box is that you shouldn’t hear it, anyway.
Reamping is a bit like using a direct box in reverse - reamping devices take line level (recorded tracks in your computer or on tape) signals and drop them down to “guitar level” and impedance so that guitar pedals and amps “see”/”hear” the type of signal that they expect to and work properly on the signals. Don’t forget that once your signal is “down there,” it then needs to go right back into a DI to get back into your mixer or recording interface. This is the most insane and interesting moment for guitar pedals in history, especially in the boutique world, and having the ability to stick a Rainbow Machine on vocals or a Bit Commander on a snare drum can quickly take you to amazing places that nobody else has discovered yet. Also, if you're like me, you have a tupperware box somewhere full of old D.O.D. and Digitech pedals from the nineties - your new secret mix weapon might be some piece of junk you've had since your Siamese Dream worship period.
For reamping, I rep for the Pigtronix Keymaster. I’m not crazy about the “pedal” format that leaves cables spraying out in all directions, but it’s a great all-in-one reamp-and-then-bring-it-all-back box with some thoughtful features like the ability to have parallel A/B effects loops that are crossfadable.
A Side Note on 24-Bit Recording and Gain Staging
Recording at 24 bits means you can record way lower than we used to be able to and still stay way above the noise floor. Don’t worry about “using all the bits,” don’t worry about “getting as close to 0 as possible without going over” or anything like that. “Zero” in the analog world is only equal to -18 (give or take) in the digital world. You can drive yourself nuts reading all about this, but just remember it - when recording, make sure your average signal hovers around -18, with peaks never going above -6 or so, max. If you’re using a preamp with a VU meter, you’ll find that “zero” on that meter results in about -18 in your digital software. Don’t freak out.
Compressors and Limiters
I should probably write a huge thing about compressors sometime; they’re kind of an obsession of mine. A good compressor is the closest thing you can get to an “audio synthesizer” in that you can completely transform a sound with different settings. I honestly think that a good compressor should be the first outboard purchase for somebody that wants to get into hardware; compression is such an art and so source-dependent that manipulating knobs with subtle finger movements is the best way to dial it in. You generally want an Optical or Opto-style compressor (slower-acting on the signal, more “natural” sounding like a hand expertly riding a fader on a mixer to keep everything at the same volume - LA-2A is the classic) and a FET or VCA-style compressor (faster acting, really “nails the signal in place,” usually colors the sound in an obvious and desirable way - 1176 is the classic).
I’m bonkers about my Distressor - though it was $1500, it’s such a “swiss army knife” in that it can do many types of compression well, from extremely fast and aggressive 1176-style grabbing and envelope reshaping (I swear this thing can turn a snare into a hi-hat or an acoustic guitar into a rhodes) to subtle, smooth optical-type behavior with a bunch of other territory in between. I’m glad I spent the dough on it years ago, but you don’t necessarily have to.
For the Sweet Spot, I recommend the Art Pro VLA for optical duties - it’s stupid-cheap, but it’s a great sounding, smooth machine and you can easily go nuts swapping out the stock tubes for different vibes. It’s not an LA-2A, but if you’re reading this, you also don’t have $3500 to drop on one. ART gear is always shockingly great for the price - it’s very cheap, but it’s also generally great sounding and well built. A good runner-up is the FMR RNLA (“really nice leveling amplifier”), but the Art wins out.
On the faster/character tip, the FMR Audio PBC-6A is capable of a lot of color and more interesting/effect compression with a lot of character. I also know a lot of people are crazy about the Overstayer Stereo FET compressor - especially for the price (only about half of a mono Distressor), it gets a lot of that 1176 vibe and has thoughtful features like built-in parallel compression. It seems to be hard to actually find where to buy one, though.
Converters have become the last victim of the audiophile mentality. Especially when dudes are dropping thousands of dollars on “better” ones just so they can hear that 1% improvement in “clarity and stuff,” there’s a lot of “I want to believe” mentality and confirmation bias out there. And don’t get me wrong, dropping thousands upon thousands of dollars on dedicated converters will probably sound 1% better than using the stock converters in your audio interface. Counterpoint: who cares, seriously? Get a life! Spent your money on literally anything else! When people start talking about “hitting the converter” to get a certain sound, you’ve hopelessly entered crazy talk territory.
Never spend more than about $100 on a mic. You can, but you don’t need to. Buy a decent cheap condenser (i like MXL, the V67G in particular), buy a few Shure SM-57’s and SM-58’s, maybe get real wild and get a Shure SM-7B ($350’ish), which is a very big mic that acts like a dynamic (rejects everything other than what’s right in front of it) but has more of the detail of a condenser. It was good enough for Michael Jackson. By the way, you don’t really need a ribbon mic unless you’re recording horns in a locker room or a cymbal-heavy drum kit in a super-nice room - they mostly just sound like a condenser with a towel thrown over it.
Monitors and acoustics
Much like anything else, you can go nuts here and spend as much as you want. It’s more important that you set them up right so that you’re getting the best representation of the actual recorded signal. It’s even more important that you get used to what they sound like playing back music, and what program material sounds like on them while you’re mixing. Remember the classic adage about the “industry standard” Yamaha NS-10’s - “they sounded so bad that if you got a mix sounding great on them, you knew it would sound good on anything.”
Lesson? You don’t need to spend a zillion bucks, but instead spend time learning how your monitors sound. I’ve honestly been happy with KRK’s for the past five years, but don’t tell anyone.
Acoustic treatment of your listening station is a whole other can of worms that I don’t claim to be an expert on. Research this and go nuts - you’ll get more out of properly setting up and treating your space than dropping money on converters or speakers.
OTB Summing
This was the big craze a few years back - the widespread idea that dedicated “analog summing boxes” were the one-stop cure for bad mixes. The concept: algorithmically mixing all of your signals in the computer using math didn’t sound “as good and stuff” as doing all of your mixing in the computer, but then sending the individual tracks out to a multi-thousand dollar box that would do nothing other than combine those signals together electrically. Don’t get me wrong, mixing “out of the box” definitely tends to sound better, but mainly when it’s part of a larger analog hardware process that involves sending the signals through actual mixer channels, analog EQ, real compressors, etc. etc. etc. and not just doing all of that stuff in the box and then combining the final signals together through a summing box at the very end. Spend your money on anything else.

Welp, that's my two cents. I'm sure you can find a bunch of people with counterpoints or other angles, but I hope to be a voice of sanity out there for newcomers that are overwhelmed with the whole crazy thing.