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Studio Details

People occasionally ask me how gear X is connected to gear Y.

Basically:

The Mac Pro is the center of the system, serving as both DAW and mixer. Its MOTU MIDI and audio interfaces talk to everything else in the studio. A pair of Mackie control surfaces provide the physical mixing interface.

The G4 hosts an OASYS PCI card, which connects to the Mac Pro via MIDI and ADAT lightpipe.

The Quadra 700 hosts two Lexicon NuVerbs - each providing the guts of a 300 on a computer card. Both connect to the Mac Pro's MOTU audio system via AES/EBU.

A set of Focusrite mic pres and channel strips (an ISA 428, two ISA 430 mkII and three Green 5) provide mic and DI inputs, excellent analog EQ and compression, and ten channels of high-performance A/D. The 428 connects via ADAT lightpipe; the 430 mkII connects via AES/EBU.

The main outs of the Mac Pro's audio system are connected to a Mackie Big Knob, which provides monitor level control, speaker switching, headphone amps, and talkback.

Gallery of long-gone equipment

Some of the gear which is no longer here. Some great, some mediocre at best; some remembered fondly, some hardly at all.

Synths: NED Synclavier II (16-voice FM); Roland Jupiter-6, S-760, SH-2, JX-8P, and JX-3P; Yamaha TX-7; Emu Drumulator; Ensoniq EPS and EPS-16+

Effects and processing: Sony DPS-R7 (x2), Lexicon LXP-1 (x2), Roland E-660 digital EQ, Manley VoxBox, Alesis Quadraverb (x2) and Microverb, dbx 266 (x2), dbx 163, Behringer Composer and Intelligate

Mixers and automation: Mackie 1604 (x2) and Mixer Mixer; Mackie 3208; Niche ACM (x2), CM Automation 16-channel MIDI VCA, JL Cooper Mixmaster (x2)

 

Random Gear Meanderings 

I used to have a much bigger system, with piles of outboard dynamics and EQ, banks of patchbays, a big analog mixer, and more synths. In June of 2003, I reconfigured the studio to use the computer as the main mixing and patching environment, replacing my much-beloved Mackie 3208. I also cut out a whole bunch of other stuff, along with about half of the cabling.

The philosopy was to concentrate on fewer but higher-quality pieces of gear, in an entirely automated system, so that I could focus on music instead of troubleshooting and maintenance. So far, it does seem to be a remarkably pleasant and stable setup. I must admit, though, that now and again I feel a little pianist-envy when I look at studios with walls full of synths and racks of esoteric music-making and signal-processing devices.

I just need to keep reminding myself that gear lust is based on an illusion, confusing the tools of creation with the creation itself. "If I only had that one new cool toy, then I'd really be able to make great music..."


In 1999, after a similar re-working of the studio, I wrote: "I have recently taken the mildly futuristic step of going fully non-linear for recording, divesting myself of all tape-based multitracks. The next century is coming, and I can taste it." Isn't the past quaint?

Sound vs. cosmetics

The late, lamented, and oft-maligned Green series deserves special notice. The Green mic pres used a Class A transformerless design (new for Focusrite at the time, and very different from the ISA line), but the compressor and EQ sections are essentially the same as those of the legendary ISA series. Predictably, in my opinion (and those of various reviewers, including Sound On Sound) they sound fantastic.

They were about half the price of their big brothers, the Red series. This was still fairly expensive; adjusted for inflation to 2009 dollars, the channel strip's MSRP would be over $2k. Even so, they were somewhat disruptive in their affordability, causing people to question whether they were truly "professional." As someone who works for an audio manufacturer, I thought it was clear that the savings came from the absence of transformers, use of more modern and economical manufacturing techniques such as surface-mount components, and less bling-oriented cosmetics (the Red line features gorgeous metalwork, which I would guess adds substantially to the cost).

Perhaps because of the Red's metalwork, the Green series was also designed to be attention-grabbing. This succeeded, but probably not in the way that the company had intended. Some say that they look like miniature golf courses; I've always thought that they look like the fake rocks from old movie sets.

Cosmetics don't pass audio, and you can't hear a faceplate on a finished song. So, none of this should matter to a professional engineer. However, research has shown that people can be quite poor at distinguishing the subjective judgements of their various senses. Brandy in a nicer-looking bottle is described as "tasting" better. Similarly, I think that good-looking gear may be perceived as "sounding" better, if you're looking at it in the studio.

I first encountered the Green series in a channel strip and mic-pre shootout. I had bought a very expensive high-end channel strip, but was unhappy with it; a very experienced engineer friend had confirmed that it just didn't seem to sound that great, at least on my voice. So, my brother and I did a shootout between that high-end piece, his Green 5, and one of his vintage Neves. At first, even knowing what we did about the confusion of the senses described above, it was impossible to consider the Green 5 as the equal to the others; it just looked like a cheap toy in comparison. So, we recorded the results and judged them blind from the playback.

We only tested lead vocals through my favorite vocal mic, the Manley Reference Cardioid. For the preamps alone, the Neve came in first, but the Green 5 was only slightly behind - and the high-end piece came in last. The Green 5's compressor really blew us away, though; it was stunningly transparent. So, I sold the high-end piece, bought two Green 5s, and had plenty of cash left over.

Whenever I read someone on a forum dissing the Green series, I think of this and sigh. At least it means that they're very affordable now!