Archive for February, 2007

Well, Wrap My G-String!

Tuesday, February 27th, 2007

I remember when I first started seriously playing guitar. I was dedicated to learning how to set it up properly by myself. No sir, I wasn’t going to be relying on the clerk at Long & McQuade. So, when it came time to change ‘ol Misty’s strings for the first time, you can imagine how stupefied I felt when asked what kind of strings I wanted.

Umm… Acoustic?

What Brand?

Ahh.. D’Addario! Those look good!

What gauge and alloy?

Eh? What and what?

Yes, there are many different kinds of guitar strings out there. This article focusses primarily on the various types of acoustic strings and how they can play games with your sound.

So, what are an acoustic guitar’s strings made out of? When I was in high-school, all of the poor schmucks who thought they knew something about the guitar would shout out “Steel! Duh… They’re STEEL-string guitars, dummy!” I had the pleasure of smacking those ignorant people. By and large, the primary material used to make strings for acoustic guitars is a metal alloy called Brass (OFTEN falsely called Bronze).

Brass is made by combining the metal elements Copper and Zinc. Bronze is an alloy of Copper and Tin. So those ignorant teenagers back in high-school should have been calling their axes “Brass-string guitars”. Even then, not all Brass is made equal! So the alloy is made from Copper and Zinc, who cares? How much copper, to how much Zinc? When I was a young kidd-o, my dad put in a basketball hoop on the driveway. When it came time to cement the post into the ground, my little cousin was playing with the hose. The result was a concrete mix thinner than the material of a teen pop-star’s dress. How much of each metal goes into the alloy is a factor to consider. Let’s look at a couple of common alloys used for guitar strings.

80/20 Brass

80/20 Brass is easily the most common alloy used. 80/20 means that the alloy is made 80% of Copper and 20% of Zinc. 80/20 yields a rich, vibrant, and very bright tone. That ringing acoustic sound on most of your favorite folk albums (come on.. I live and die by James Taylor) is a characteristic of a fresh set of 80/20 strings. 80/20 does suffer from a major drawback though. After even an hour of playing, a fresh set is significantly duller. I changed strings a dozen times one particularly grueling day during a recording project as the result of a crowded, hot room and too much string-killing, acidic sweat.

Do you eat eggs for breakfast every morning? Has anyone called you a carnivore because of the ammount of meat you consume? You may be shortening the length of your guitar strings just by your eating habits. High protein diets usually result persperation with a noticable reduced pH. Yes, acid sweat, that eats away your strings. You can help to fight this by drinking lots of water and cleaning your strings with a dry cloth after every use.

Phosphor Bronze

Okay.. so there really is some truth when they say guitar strings are made of Bronze. Phosphor Bronze is the minority leader (by a MASSIVE margin) for acoustic string market-share. It’s a true Bronze alloy, made of three elements. Phosphor Bronze is almost entirely Copper, with Tin levels approaching 10%. In addition to the two core elements, Phosphor Bronze is generally about 1% Phosphorus. The Phosphorus is added to act as an anti-oxident, and significantly lengthens the life of a set of strings. Phosphor Bronze strings have their own tonal characteristics. They tend to be beefier and not as bell-like as 80/20 strings. Powerful guitar licks that drive the music are well suited to Phosphor Bronze strings.

In addition to the alloys available, you can get acoustic strings with special chemical coatings. These coating are designed to stop grease and sweat from oxidizing the metal of the strings. While it’s hard to deny that they significantly increase the longevity of a set of strings, it’s a common argument that chemical coatings kill the tone of the strings. This effect becomes especially pronounced as the string shape is worn from contact with the fingers and the frets. The shape-change is exaggerated by the presence of the chemical coating, and the string vibration is altered even more than with a standard 80/20 or Phosphor Bronze set.

Classical Strings

Okay, so they aren’t for “Steel-string guitars”, but classical guitar strings are certainly made for acoustic playing. They used to be made from cat’s guts, or horse’s hair. Today, classical guitar strings are made of nylon, and the three bass strings are usually a nylon core wrapped in a non-magnetic silver-containing alloy. Nylon strings lack the ringing an sustain of metal strings, but create a very exotic, short, middy note when plucked. When skillfully strummed, many beautiful flamenco styles evolve.

Okay.. So you know what alloy you’re after, but what was that other thing the clerk needed to know? Oh yea, what gauge do you need? Strings come in many different thicknesses. Acoustic guitar strings tend to be significantly fatter than electric guitar strings. With this increase in size (and a difference in material) comes a very large increase in string tension. It’s usually much harder to press the strings on an acoustic guitar than those of an electric. A larger string is capable of producing more volume (especially important for an acoustic guitar, where the fundamental volume of the string is amplified by the construction of the guitar) and also gives off a fuller representation of frequencies. As an analogy, think of two equal quality speakers, one 10″ and the other 12″. The 12″ speaker will more easily produce the rich lower frequencies that fill out the sound. While the principle at work in the case of a guitar’s strings isn’t quite the same as that at work for the speakers, you get a similar effect.

String gauges are usually labeled by the size of the first (high E) string. For example, most standard light gauges are referred to as “12s” because the first string is 0.012″ wide. This can be confusing though, when you take into account that not all manufacturers make all of the other strings in a set of 12s to match. Furthermore, there are “top-heavy” sets, where the four heaviest strings are even bigger than normal!

As if that weren’t enough, some sets have a wound G string (I hear you laughing already), while others leave it plain, like the two treble strings. A wound G usually helps with intonation, and can contribute to producing a balanced sound, though many prefer it plain.

“So, I was playing this show once and I broke my G-String right up there on stage! I didn’t have a spare axe, so between songs I had to unscrew my nut, lift my bridge, put a new G-String on, and tighten my nut back up again! Right there on stage!”

- Randy “The Randy” Haley

Make It Work For You

So whether you like them big or small, made of hardened bronze or soft nylon, wound or unwound, there’s a set of strings for you. They all have noticeably different characteristics, but luckily, strings are something that you can experiment with. Try the different sizes (you may need a new nut cut) and alloys and see what you like the best. All the while, don’t get too caught up in the pursuit of the holy grail of strings. If you’re a musician, focus on the music first and all the tone that you could possibly want will come dripping from your fingertips, regardless of what strings you use.

From one extreme to the other, next week we’re going to take a look at the component that most touches the sound of an electric guitar after the pickups. That’s right, get a party bowl ready because we’re going to get deep into potentiometers. (Those little knobby things)

Have anything you’d like to add? This article is open for discussion at the Studio-Central Forums:

Discussion

My Dream Studio: Part III

Sunday, February 25th, 2007

By the end of my last entry (Part II of this three part series), I had chosen my sequencer (Logic Pro 7.2), computer platform (Apple G5 Quad with two 20″ Cinema Display monitors), control surfaces (Mackie Universal Control, 3 Extenders and C4 Controller), audio interface (RME Fireface 800), MIDI interfaces (MOTU Timepiece AV and MOTU MIDI Express XT), guitar processors (Line6 Guitar Pod Pro XT and Bass Pod Pro XT) and studio monitors (pair of Mackie HR824).

I now had the core of what was sizing up to be my dream studio. And in fact, Tweak’s Guide talks about a similar Mac-based system and also refers to it as the “Dream Home Mixerless” studio. But there were still several other things to be done. Principally, I had to get the room I was going to use ready for installation, and I had to decide how to integrate other gear I wanted to use including hard disk storage.

GETTING THE SPACE READY

The space I was using was formerly a bedroom with a walk-in closet and private bathroom. I would really come to appreciate the private bathroom being so close during those late night sessions. No need to wake anyone else up when nature called. The room measures 8 1/2 feet by 11 1/2 feet, not including the walk in closet or the bathroom. Not a lot of space. I needed to maximize the use of this space.

This space in located in Buenos Aires, Argentina where the power system is based on 220, not 110 like the US. All of my equipment would be coming from the US and would be set up for using 110. So I installed a 7,500 watt transformer together with an electrical current stabalizer, and created special parallel 110 circuits that would run along side the 220 circuits. On one wall where I was going to put the control desk, I installed twenty four 110 outlets and twenty four 220 outlets. Now I had the electrical power that I would need, secure, stable and in the exact place I would need it. Oh yeah, and with plenty of room to grow in the future.

I additionally purchased two ETA rack mountable power distributors (one for left rack and one for right rack) to make the plugging in of equipment more efficient.

In Argentina, manual labor is less expensive than in the US. So I took advantage of this and hired a capenter to custom build my control room desk so that it would fit the wall space precisely. I designed the desk to fit on top of two fully contained racks with lockable glass front doors (I have small children so I wanted to keep them away from the gear). Pictures of the set up are available on the Forum if you are interested, or visit www.albertvinasco.com and click on the “Studio” button.

I put all of my guitars directly behind me so that I would have easy access to them as I recorded. I placed my drum machine (Boss DR-770) on the control desk top, and put my analog synthesizer (microKorg) which doubles as my MIDI controller for keyboards on a small pull out shelf just above the control surfaces and just underneath the two 20″ Cinema Display monitors.

OTHER GEAR

I also purchased a PreSonus Central Station as my studio-monitoring interface. The Central Station has 3 sets of stereo analog inputs to switch between input sources such as: DAW, mixer, CD/DAT/Tape player, or keyboards/samplers. Two stereo analog inputs feature TRS balanced and the 3rd stereo input features RCA inputs with trim control for level matching of input signals. I use this piece of gear constantly to hear playback between my Mackie HR824s, my KRK RP5s and my iPod set up. I am also converting the walk-in closet to a vocal booth, and will then use the talk-back features as well.

I also wanted a high quality hard disk recorder that I could use for post production and the burning of high resolution CDs. I chose the Alesis MasterLink for bouncing down my final mixes and masters to CDs. The Alesis MasterLink is a great piece of equipment for managing the post production process. With 40GB of self contained hard drive space as well as a great onboard computer for managing song lists, etc. I can arrange songs into playlists with precise control of fades and track start points. I can then record to CD using inexpensive CD-Rs, creating standard 16-bit Red Book CDs, or record as AIFF-compatible high-resolution discs up to 24-bit, 96kHz. I really love my MasterLink and use it a lot.

Additionally, I wanted to have lots of external hard drive storage space for programs, plug-ins, loops, song and project files etc. Previously with 250GB of storage, I found myself maxing out much quicker than I thought.

Glyphy storage systems seemed the way to go. With a Glyph GT 103, I had a rackmount 3-bay chassis that allowed me to hotswap firewire hard drives. I use 3 Glyph 250GB hard drives in the chassis. This brought my total studio storage to 1,040 GB. That’s just over one Terabyte of storage that allows me to back up, store, and organize my software, loops, samples, song and project files nicely. Oh yeah, and with room for growth into the future.

As previously mentioned, I also use a microKorg Analog Modeled Synthesizer. I love this unit. It’s small, compact, well made, and is extremely versatile. I use it all the time. The microKORG has the same dual-oscillator DSP synthesis engine found in Korg’s MS2000 and offers a wider selection of waveforms than almost any other modeled synth in its category. With 64 exclusive DWGS waveforms from Korg’s classic DW-8000 I can reproduce a broad collection of imitative sounds like bells, electric pianos, guitars, basses and more that are traditionally difficult reproduce on an analog synthesizer. The microKORG also includes an 8-band vocoder with many advanced features. I can capture and “freeze” the formants of a voice, and then play it across the keyboard, or shift the formant frequency to make the voice sound change. Plus it serves as my MIDI keyboard controller to control all the great instruments in Logic.

I use a Boss DR-770 drum machine to lay down simple rhythms and as one more percussion tool in my aresenal. In my experience drums are hard to program. So I use a combination of tools including my DR-770, Roland SPD-6 percussion pads, and drum software including Logic’s Ultrabeat and Drums From Hell Superior.

So that brings me to the end of my gear choices. Now a few words about the experience of purchasing, shipping and installation.

INSTALLATION

After months of research, I had drawn my conclusions and made my choices. It was now time to pull the trigger on what would be a very big investment for me. I was nervous, but felt quite sure about my choices. I had prepared the room for installation. I mapped out an installation plan regarding what I would install first, second etc. I felt ready to go.

I wanted to buy everything from on place. Since I live in Argentina, I needed to have one place put together the entire order and prepare it for pick up by freight forwarders for shipment to Buenos Aires. After speaking to several of the large online dealers, I selected my purchase point based on their availability, willingness to work with me on shipping preparation, customer service, and helpfulness throughout my final purchasing process.

I put in my final order, paid the bill and they prepared the order for shipping. One week later, my freight forwarder picked up a large crate with all my gear (software, computer equipment, monitors, interfaces, processors, etc.) included within. Four weeks later, it all arrived via Sea Shipment to the port in Buenos Aires. But before I could get my hands on all that gear, I had to deal with customs officials. They love to see all that fancy gear as it says “taxes and payoffs” to them. So I negotiated taxes on the equipment and got it down to quite a low sum considering the amount of equipment.

The equipment was delivered to my door 24 hours later. It’s hard to describe that day. It was like the biggest, best Christmas ever. I was in heaven. I went to work unpacking all of the gear and following my installation plan. Aside from a few driver issues, it all came together quite easily. Within 2 days and about 18 hours of work, the installation was complete. I learned a ton during the installation, as I had never installed so much gear in my life. It was a bit complex. Lots of gear to plug in, lots of Ins and Outs, signal flow, software set up, control surfaces, clocks etc. But after 2 days it was complete, up and running.

EPILOGUE

That was almost one year ago, and today, I can say that I enjoy my home studio immensely. I have and continue to grow into my gear nicely and love using Logic. I continue to learn new things all the time. If I had it to do all over again, there is not one thing I would do differently. That’s probably because I just don’t know any better. So my ignorance is bliss and I accept that until I know differently.

I have produced quite of bit of music over the past year for both of my main music production projects (Albert Vinasco at www.albertvinasco.com and The Sand Men at www.dasandmen.com). Although I have a ton to learn, my mixes and final outputs sound much better than any of my previous work. I am also learning much more about nuances of the recording and mixing process as a result of the equipment I use.

I started a new collaborative project with a vocalist in Sydney, Australia. The name of this project is The Sand Men. It is electronic dance music and is quite different from the guitar-based instrumental rock/metal I produce under the name of Albert Vinasco. My studio has proven to be a wonderful tool for expanding into other genres and working collaboratively with others. I hope in future entries to talk more about this Internet-based collaborative process.

What’s next? I would love to someday acquire an Eventide Harmonizer and some great pre-amps. Maybe something like the Focusrite Liquid Channel. But both items are quite expensive, and neither are an urgent need at this time, but much more of a “like to have”.

So this brings me to the end of this 3 part series regarding the process I went through to research, design and implement My Dream Studio. I hope you have found something of interest and value within this series and I look forward to writing future entries regarding different aspects of my home studio experience (composing, recording and mixing) as well as my music and inspirations.

Until then, see you on the Forum!

My Dream Studio: Part II

Saturday, February 24th, 2007

In my last entry, I had completed choosing my sequencer (Logic Pro 7.2), my computer platform (Apple G5 Quad), and control surfaces (Mackie). Up to this point, much of investigation and choices were being driven by my initial choice to go with Logic Pro. The above mentioned items are all made to work together, and provide for a smooth operating environment with almost endless flexibility.

Now it was time to select my audio interface, midi interfaces, guitar amp emulators and processors, and studio monitors.

In this entry, I will talk a bit about what choices I made and my reasoning behind them. I do this not so much with the intention of telling someone else what to choose, but instead to illustrate the specific factors that played into my decision making process, in the hopes that you find something of value or similarity that may serve you in a similar process.

AUDIO INTERFACE

As I had mentioned previously when discussing what I was looking for in a control surface, I specifically did not want an all-in-one package as was offered by M-Audio with their I/O Project Mix. Nothing wrong with that piece of equipment from what I have read, and in fact it has gotten very strong reviews. However, I wanted to choose my interface and preamps separately.

With this in mind, I was looking for at least 8 Ins and 8 Outs, as that covered my basic instrument input configuration. I put guitars on inputs 1 & 2, bass guitars on inputs 3 & 4, drums on inputs 5 & 6, and synthesizers on inputs 7 & 8. I could use more inputs in the future, but this was perfect for my current needs. Keep in mind, I don’t really do much with vocals.

My investigation brought me to the following top 3 list:

- Mark of the Unicorn (MOTU) 828MKII 24/96 Audio Interface

- Apogee Ensemble

- RME Fireface 800 Firewire Audio Interface

According to the literature out there, reviews, manuals, etc., all three are fine pieces of gear. I was originally drawn to the Apogee Ensemble as it was made specifically to go with Macs. The Ensemble features 36 channels of simultaneous audio, including 8 channels of Apogee’s legendary A/D and D/A conversion, 4 transparent, digitally controlled 75db mic preamps, 8 channels of ADAT I/O, 2 channels of S/PDIF coax and optical I/O, and FireWire connectivity to and from the computer (yes I took some of this from their description). But when I was ready to buy one, I couldn’t find one anywhere. They had been launched at Namm a few months before, but they weren’t readily available at the time. I took that as a sign and decided to move on.

I also really liked the MOTU unit. It provides 20 inputs and 22 outputs, including 10 channels of 96kHz analog recording and playback, combined with 8 channels of ADAT digital I/O and stereo S/PDIF. And it’s easy to expand by connecting additional interfaces. I liked that about it.

But as I looked into the RME Fireface 800, everyone I spoke with and every review I could get my hands on said it was the highest sound quality, and most reliable construction. The RME had a few features that really sold me. I love the DSP-based Total Mix mixer, known from the Hammerfall DSP series, all inputs and outputs can be freely mixed, distributed and routed. Up to 14 completely independent stereo submixes are possible. Each of the mixer’s output channels can be recorded directly without the need of external cable loops. and the Total Mix can be MIDI controlled with any Mackie controller! More compatability with my previous choices up to this point.

Additionally, the FireFace 800’s Hi-Z instrument input offers what RME calls “unprecedented” fidelity and flexibility specifically for use with guitars and basses. It also has a soft-limiter that has been tuned especially for musical instruments and prevents overloads of the A/D converter. That was great for me who was primarily doing guitar-based instrumentals. So in the end, I chose the RME Fireface 800 even though it cost more than the MOTU.

With my audio up and running into the box, I now needed MIDI interfaces to manage my controllers, drum machines and keyboards.

MIDI INTERFACES

My research showed that when running multiple Mackie control surfaces, it was best to have a MIDI interface dedicated just to the Mackies. Other people’s experience shows that it is not wise to make the Mackies share their interface with other instruments and MIDI controllers. With this in mind, I knew I was going to be getting two MIDI interfaces. One for the Mackie control surfaces, and one for all other devices.

As I looked around, many of the MIDI Interfaces on the market also served as Audio interfaces such as the Digidesign MBox 2 Pro FireWire Audio/MIDI Interface or the Yamaha GO46 FireWire Audio/MIDI Interface. But I was looking for dedicated MIDI interfacing in rack format. That pointed me in the direction of MOTU.

MOTU offers 6 different MIDI only interfaces. I ended up choosing the MOTU MIDI Express XT 8X8 USB Interface for managing my Mackie control surfaces, and chose the MOTU Timepiece AV (also 8X8 USB) for managing all other MIDI devices.

I liked the Timepiece AV because of its advanced synchronization capabilities including video genlock, ADAT sync, and word clock sync. I hope to someday expand into video as well and the Timepiece will help take me there. Slave ADATs, or word-clock compatible devices to SMTPE and video. I would be able to drive my Alesis Masterlink from my sequencer as well as control everything from Mackies. That was cool. 

GUITAR PROCESSING

Now I had my Audio and MIdI under control (pun intended), and it was time to put in the guitars. Yeah, I love this part, and yet as a guitar junky, I didn’t do as much research when choosing my amp emulators and processors as you might think. Why? I had purchased a Line6 Pod when they first came out and I loved it. I’m not saying it was the best emulator with effects out there, but it worked great for me and I was also very used to its operations and features. It was a solid foundation for me. So I chose a Line6 Pod Pro XT and a Bass Pod Pro XT. Both 2U rack units.

I have found several people online that can’t believe I do not use actual amps and even think its a sin. I love live amps. I used to have lots of them and Marshalls are my favorite. But, I needed space, and ease of use. Plus with Logic plug-ins, working with EQ and software compressors, I am able to do a lot with the sound. I am very happy with both of these Line6 units.

By this time, my rig was coming along nicely. At least on paper. But even on paper, I still couldn’t hear anything. I needed just the right studio monitors.

STUDIO MONITORS 

I had a pair of KRK RP5 Rokit powered 2-way active monitors that I was going to use, but knew that they would provide a type of playback, but not the cleanest available. I always like to listen to my playbacks on various speakers, so having the KRKs around was fine. Additionally, I set things up so I could listen to all of my mixes back through an iPod as that is somewhat of an unofficial standard for listening to music these days. Kind of like the transistor radio was 40 years ago. Everyone uses an iPod these days. So I like to hear my mixes back over them and their little earphones as well.

But even with both of these playback capabilities, I didn’t have a really stellar sound picture. As I began to look around, the options were staggering. Yamaha, Behringer, Alesis, EMU, Genelec, Dynaudio etc., etc.

Here our friends at Tweak’s Guide and the Studio Central Forum, consistently rated Mackie’s HR824s as tops. Since my KRK RP5s were already 6″, I went with the 8″ Mackies which are the HR824s.

As I have been careful to point out on numerous occassions, I consider myself a noob for life, and really don’t have a lot of experience with equipment other than mine. And even less experience in the studio monitor department. After years of playing live, and much less time recording and mixing, my ears were essentially abused for the first 25 years of my playing history, and only recently in the past 5 years have I been working to develop them further, and to appreciate much more nuance. As a result, I didn’t know what I didn’t know and decided to trust reviews, Tweak’s guide, and people on the Forum. As far as I can tell, I did not make a mistake. My Mackie HR824s are made extremely well, and sound amazing to me. Light years ahead of my KRK RP5s for example. I can hear things I never knew was there before. Plus their Mackies, which I was a manufacturer I was growing to respect and appreciate for their very high quality of design and technology as well as their sturdy construction.

By now, I was really excited. I had been doing my homework and it appeared to all be coming together. But there was still much left to do. I needed to prepare the electrical wiring of the room I was going to use. I needed to consider how I would plug all of this gear in. It won’t just go into a simple wall outlet. And there were other pieces of gear that I had and wanted to have that needed to be integrated into my rig, such as drum machines, an analog synthesizer, and Mastering deck. I’ll cover these items and a few last details on how it all got set up in my next and final installment in this series coming up soon.

Until then, see you on the Forum!

 

My Dream Studio: Part I

Friday, February 23rd, 2007

I believe the story of my current home studio set up may be a bit unique. Why? Through most of my contact with other enthusiasts, I have noticed that most people have built up their home studios over time. They carefully chose equipment and made purchases along the way as their knowledge of the craft progressed. This was also true for me sometime ago.

I had been recording at home for about 5 years, also acquiring new pieces of gear along the way, advancing to new and more powerful sequencers etc. But as I mentioned in my last entry, my family and I made a decision to relocate from San Francisco, California to  Buenos Aires, Argentina. This provided me with an opportunity to completely design from scratch, purchase and install an entirely new home studio. I have seen this type of ¨from scratch¨ implementation before, but with more with large professional studios, not so much with smaller home studios.

Thus the story of my current studio set up unfolded in a very compressed period of time. Literally over about 6 months. Within that time frame I went from starting over with practically nothing, to researching, buying, shipping, and installing my current set up. (If interested, please see my equipment list and pics on the Forum).

DEFINING DESIGN REQUIREMENTS:

As I began the process of designing my dream home set up, I first set clear design requirements. As mentioned in my previous entry, I am primarily a guitar player. I also play bass, some keyboards, and drums. I write guitar-based instrumental rock and also write electronic dance music. That of course influenced the type of set up I wanted to create.

I essentially wanted to create a great high end control room. I did not need to acoustically treat different rooms, record bands, multiple people playing at once, etc. No need for lots of mics. Instead, I wanted power, excellence in quality of technology (both software and hardware), as direct a signal chain as possible, great processors and plug-ins, and a holistic set up that was easy of use and with an ability to expand in the future as I wanted.

With this in mind, my studio equipment needs divided into the following categories:

- Sequencer

- Computer Platform

- Control Surfaces

- Audio Interface

- Midi Interface

- Guitar Amp Emulators and Processors

- Monitors

- Midi Controller

- Drum and Percussion Programming

- Power Distribution

- Other Miscelaneous Items (this is no small category)

Now a few words on the decisions and choices I made in each of these categories.

In each case, I did a ton of reading. I read Tweak´s entire guide many times over until I could take the test and ace it. I read books. I read every magazine I could get my hands on. I read the manuals for every piece of gear in each category I will be discussing here. I then got my choices down to a ¨Top 3 pieces of gear¨list in each category. I then went deeper into studying the differences between those top 3 choices in each category and only then made my final decision in each category.

Since I didn´t have a lot of previous experience with lots of different equipment, I really needed to understand the technological capabilities of each as described in their manuals in order to make solid fact-based objective comparisons. I also then asked the opinions of many people to get a subjective feel for the value of each piece of gear in each category.

SEQUENCER:

I started the entire design process by choosing my sequencer. I knew that I wanted a highly visual experience with my music production as I had been using Cubase for the past several years. Additionally, I was usually only recording one person (me) at a time, so did not need a multi-track recorder. Instead I wanted to focus on being able to do state of the art editing, processing, and mixing, even if my capabilities lagged behind this state of the art. I would grow into it. So my sequencer choice became the corner stone around which I built my set up. Don´t know if that´s strange or not. Only know it´s the way I did it.

For me, sequencer options came down to Cubase, ProTools, Ableton Live, Nuendo, Sonar or Digital Performer. There are many more great sequencers out there (many more than I mention here), but I had to limit my search somehow. I chose these for their proven track record and reliability. It then became a question of which one of these best fit my music creation, recording and mixing needs.

Most of the options I looked into were PC based except for Logic and Digital Performer which are Mac based. So that would have an impact on what computer platform I would end up choosing. I can say, that it would be hard to make a mistake in this category. Any of them could be a solid platform on top of which to build a home studio. I chose Logic Pro 7.2. The list of reasons and features are far too many to state here. So I recommend visiting Logic´s site (http://www.apple.com/logicpro/) and reading and comparing for yourself. In my mind and for my needs, the choice was pretty easy.

Logic cost more ($999) than most (except maybe Nuendo), but comes with an amazing array of plug-ins and instruments. All very high quality and very well reviewed case after case. Logic is also one of those platforms that is more than just a sequencer, but actually impacts the music creation process. It´s flow and flexibility of set up and work parameters are second to none and was perfect for adapting to my way of composing, recording and mixing.

Logic Pro´s mixer is also amazing. With more than one way to view the mixer, Logic Pro also allows for super flexible signal routing from channels to busses, to aux sends etc. According to the literature out there, it´s mixer and signal routing capabilities are some of the best of any sequencer out there. I liked that a lot.

Additionally, because of Logic´s unique screen set templates and configuration, it is especially well suited for working in a dual screen environment. You can have many multiple windows open at once, all linked to one another, so that you see your arrange window, mixer, midi arrange, etc. all at the same time.

 And some say… ¨But all the big professional studios use ProTools!¨

Pretty much true, but a lot of professional studios also use Logic. And I can export my Logic work for easy use on any ProTools rig. So nothing lost there.

Logic has also been around quite a while and has evolved to fit Mackie and Macs like a glove. So once I had chosen my sequencer, that pretty much determined my computer platform. It would be Mac. But which one?

COMPUTER PLATFORM

Although there are several options when going with Apple, I wanted as much power and growth capability into the future as I could get. I reviewed all models at the time and went with a G5 Quad and put in 4GB of RAM to make sure it would handle OS X like butter, not have latency issues when I use a lot of processors etc. Note. My Mac is not Intel based. I decided to wait until the second generation Intel based Macs come around. But my G5 Quad runs great. Never crashes, never hangs, never freezes and no noticeable latency. It´s power to the max. I also got it with 250GB of hardrive. And because of Logic´s cool screen set templates, I went with two 20¨ Cinema Displays.

Now that I had chosen my sequencer and my computer platform, I was ready to move onto other gear. Because I had chosen to go mixerless, I didn´t need to buy a mixing board. I didn´t need to record live bands, or multiple musicians and channels at once. However, the ability to touch and feel all of the tracks as I mix was important to me. That meant, I need to consider a control surface.

CONTROL SURFACES

I looked back over my music from the past 5 years of home recording and noticed that I consistently produced songs that ranged from around 20 to 32 tracks. Of course, some were even more than 32 tracks, but that was not the norm. So I wanted to see how I could create the touch and feel of 32 tracks in front of me.

I looked into several control surfaces, and it came down to M-Audio´s I/O Project Mix or Mackie´s Control Universal. M-Audio´s surface came with built in pre-amps and a built in audio interface in addition to its controllers. But I wanted individual control over the quality of pre-amps, and audio interfaces. I didn´t want a ¨Combo¨ package.

The Mackie Control Universal is only a controller and one of the highest if not the highest quality controllers in the game. Super sturdy construction, motorized faders, and Mackie also offers extenders. Just what I needed to create a 32 channel control surface. Additionally, Mackie makes a product called the C4 Controller that works side by side with the other controllers and I use it exclusively to control all plug-ins.

It wasn´t the cheap option, and I could have bought a mixing board for the same price as buying the Mackie Universal Control unit, 3 Mackie Extenders (8 channels each) and the Mackie C4 Controller. But I didn´t need a mixer. Instead, I needed a great control surface to control the great and flexible mixer that comes with Logic Pro. Finally, Mackie´s control surfaces were built to go specifically with Logic. Although today, they work with any of the major sequencers, it is made to go with Logic and as Tweak says in the guide, ¨fits Logic like a glove¨. And that´s definately true in my experience. I can do it all with my controllers. There are still several things that can be done with it that I have yet to learn.

So by now, my home studio rig was starting to come together. It felt like my first choice of Logic Pro helped to drive my next choice of computer platform, and in turn helped to drive my choice of control surfaces. So far, my set up was Logic driven and I was liking it that way. But I still had so many more important pieces to choose. Those choices will take us to my next entry in this series.

And in my next entry in this series, I will describe the choices I made when it came to selecting my Audio Interface, my Midi Interfaces, Guitar Amp Emulators and Processors, and Studio Monitors.

Until then, see you on the Forum!

A history of my recording setup

Sunday, February 18th, 2007

Like I mentioned before, my quest for great sound started with the desire to get a good demo recording for our own band – I bet a lot of you guys were like myself. We tried to utilize anything we can get hold of with minimal investment – ghetto blaster, karaoke mic, boom mic for video cam, mini hifi as monitor…etc. The following are the setups that me and my band used in chronological order:

1. A tape cassette recorder (i.e. ghetto blaster)
2. A Sony video camcorder (for the sound only :D )
3. A PC with CoolEdit and Hercule Fortissimo sound card with couple of Audiotechnica mics, using a mini hi-fi as monitors – with Microsoft sound-recorder software
4. PC ‘upgraded’ with SoundBlaster Audigy with front panel and Cakewalk Music Creator
5. Alto S-8 mixer and a few more AT dynamic mics in attempt to capture drums better with seperate mic
6. Attempted to record one track at a time, using walkman ear-buds as headphone monitor (lol)
7. Studio Project B-1 for vocal (yay – finally, a purchase that is somewhat wise)
8. Roland MA-10D “monitor” (duh!)
9. Realization that I must put a lot of effort into learning this recording thing before any future purchase

Using Microsoft Sound Recorder was just funny as hell. If you ever used the software, you realize that you can only record 60 seconds of sound clip. In order to record an entire song, we found out from the web that the trick is to first record a 60 seconds clip, then keep pasting it back onto the Sound Recorder, then we were able to record an entire song.

I’m not even sure why I got the idea of ‘we must have a mixer for recording’ even though I don’t have an interface for multi-tracking; nor why I needed the Soundblaster ‘upgrade’ – other than the fact that it looks pretty cool. Although the Roland MA-10D was not a wise purchase, but it did get me to the realization at #9. After I learned that all the real studio guys use monitors, I bite the bullet and spent $150 instead of using my multi-media speakers for mixing. The MA-10D was the cheapest thing with “monitor” name associated with it that available in Mothermusic (local music store like GC). For the first time, I found that there was a significant improvement on my mix, using old tracks but with the MA-10D instead of the Cambridge 4.1 thingie. I mean, what can be worse than using those 2.1/4.1 computer speakers combo thing for monitoring?

slaveern is here (cont.)

Thursday, February 15th, 2007

Using the knowledge I gained from piano lessons, I followed the ~20 pages manual and taught myself the basics of chords and arrangement. It’s on and off, more of a toy than an instrument to me. One day, my brother fool around with my beloved SHS-10 while drinking a glass of water, and you know what happened next. However, I still kept my SHS-10 with the faint hope of resurrecting it. SHS-10 was no longer available, so I resolved to get a cheap Casio keyboard. Couple years later it broke and school was just too busy (senior high) that I didn’t bother to do anything with it. On the other hand, I felt that the Casio gave me more options but the inability to create my own ‘pattern’ was just not good enough. Few years later I saved up some money from summer job and got myself a PSR-500 which enabled me to actually arrange some music. I had a lot of fun with it but I’m still alone playing it myself. Then one day I the church that I went to have an outreach event. Through connections we invited a band for performance but somehow the church people decided to have our own singers. So me and another guy was chosen to be that. It was all fun and stuff during the event and later on we hanged around a bit more and I told them that since they had guitar, bass and drums, I can play keyboard too. They were open on this and asked me to bring ‘my stuff’ next time they practice. I was just BS-ing – I can fool around with my keyboard at home at my own pace, but in fact, I can hardly play anything off the bat, let alone accompanying a rock band. I knew that this was the chance that I’ll EVER get into a band.

I went home and got busy working out a few songs that I knew they’d play for next practice. I brought my PSR with me and they are fairly receptive and thought it made good accompaniment. As I realized they were still checking me out, I thought I needed to impress them.  I still couldn’t believed why I think SHS-10 is ‘cool’.  I get my SHS-10 to music shop and get it fixed.  So the second time I took the chance and used my PSR as sound module, and played with my SHS-10. As you can imagine, they laughed their arse off :) Eventually I bought myself the AX-7 controller, and a much better synth MU-80. You can still see those in my studio pictures including the SHS-10.

Our band was more lay back and never came across the idea of ‘making it’, so we only did community and fund-raising events. On the other hand we definitely enjoyed the time together. After a while we started writing our own music. And of course that led to us wanting to record them. And this is how it got me into recording in the first place.

slaveern is here

Wednesday, February 14th, 2007

This is slaveern. I’m here to write stuff about my continuing adventure in music creation. At a point in time, somehow, I bumped into the realm of studio recording and this is how it started.

I enjoy music, but on the other hand, I truly suck at music. I gave up on music many many times, but it is always there waiting for me to go back.  I started learning violin at the age of 9 but stopped at the age of 11 because of lack of interest. I simply can’t get much enjoyment out of the nightly practice of that squeaky tone. With routine practices and dull coaching, fun is totally out of the equation. At the age of 13, I realized that many friends of mine in school that had attained certain level of musical achievement. I’m amazed at the music that one can play with just two hands. I loved the music and I envy them. I told my parents that I want to pick up piano and they let me. But this wasn’t enough to motivate me to pass learning Fur Elise. Somehow me and classical music just didn’t seem to click. Then I found out that one of my friend is learning keyboard. I always followed him to music stores where he’d showed me what he learned lately. He also showed me one of his ‘toy’ – a silver SHS-10 keytar. I thought that was really cool. So I saved up my allowance for a few months to get myself a red one, in thinking that one day, maybe one day, I’ll be playing that SHS-10 along with my friend on stage. Now I think about it, how cheesy is that :)

Following My Passion

Monday, February 12th, 2007

Hi, my name is Albert Durig and among the many things I am, including husband, father, management consultant, and private business owner, I am a passionate musician and home studio enthusiast. In fact, all these things serve as a means to feed this passion of mine. A passion that requires inspiration and content fueled by emotions, perspective, philosophies, worldviews, rational thought, life experiences and of course, heart and soul.

In a nutshell, this is what you can expect from my blog.

Here you will read about my personal experiences and learnings regarding a variety of topics including; the nitty gritty of setting up my home studio, composing music, Internet collaboration for making music, managing the recording and mixing process, integrating inspiration, my personal music making endeavors (www.albertvinasco.com and www.dasandmen.com) and connecting to one’s soul so that the music is a reflection of something bigger than myself.

At times my blog will be mundane and tactical with what I hope will be useful information regarding issues that surround recording music at home. At other times, my blog will be philisophical, theoretical, and even spiritual in content.

As a result I hope you stay tuned, and let me know your thoughts.

I thought that a good place to start would be a bit of personal history as to how I got into music and home recording. And with that, let’s get started…

I began playing bass guitar at the age of 12 (1976) when my older brother (guitarist) needed an emergency stand-in for his new band called “The Endtables”. I’ll never forget that first moment when we were all standing in the garage (roll up door open), amps fired up, smoke in the air, a warm summer’s breeze, all members in place, and my brother began a simple guitar intro in 4/4. At the end of a simple 4 count introduction, the drumer did a bass drum kick and snare flange, and we were off. As I began to play that first note, and feel the bottom of my bass guitar together with the drums, and guitar rocking on top, I knew I was in heaven. It was one of those moments that makes you who you are. The feeling of the sound in my chest and crotch. The unison of instruments. The rhythm of 4/4, and a rocking crunch. It all made for a magical moment that has helped to define who I am today. It was a feeling that was beyond my mind. Beyond just me. It was downright spiritual.

That band went on to pretty good local tri-state sucess (Kentucky, Indiana and Ohio). In fact, our debut EP launched in 1979, was just sold on eBay for $1500 US dollars between two collectors. I was thrilled. We weren’t famous, but made our own little contribution to the world of music. More important than fame and fortune for me, was the ability to create original music. I swore to uphold that noble goal and to this day 32 years later, I continue to pursue composing original music.

 After “The Endtables” (we stayed together for 4 years), came a few other bands including “Melusian” and “The Uninvited” where I had now moved to playing rhythm guitar and then lead guitar. In the summer of 1984 I was finishing my Bachelors Degree in communications and my band, “The Uninvited” was offered a chance to tour on the west coast. At the same time, I was offered a scholarship for graduate school to pursue a Masters Degree. I knew that although I loved playing with the Uninvited and we had played with many great bands including The Cro-mags, Agnostic Front, The Decendents, Black Flag, The Circle Jerks, Soul Asylum, and Anthrax just to name a few, we were not good enough or disciplined enough to “make it” in the music business. Much to the chagrin of my band mates, I chose graduate school over “The Uninvited”. That too was a pivitol time for defining me as a person. I chose education and opportunity, over passion. Something I would struggle with throughout the years to come. I have since learned to heed the calling of my passions even when I cannot clearly see a financial payoff or the interest of others.

I then embarked on a career in Management Consulting that would take me to live in the Dominican Republic, Mexico, Brazil, Miami, and San Francisco. All the while I continued playing guitar and writing music, but only by myself. I would rarely speak of my musical past or passion to others. Too caught up in the roller coaster of ambition, managing impressions, and sometimes being something I wasn’t. The upside is that I met a lot of great people, travelled the world, and learned a great deal about business. Oh yeah, I also made some money along the way. That would come in handy when my passion came back into full view and the digital revolution made pursuing my music at home a real possibility.

As the new millenium rolled around, I was working a lot in the high tech sector. I enjoyed what computers were making capable. I often perused the Games section of my favorite software stores. One day, I saw Magix Studio Deluxe, a $60 dollar toy sequencer. I thought, wow, that looks pretty neat. Perhaps I could record a couple of tracks at one time. I bought it. Although a toy, I learned a great deal from using it. It introduced me in a slow and easy way to what a sequencer was all about.

As a result, I began visiting the music stores again. My whole world was opened to the developments in audio technology. But it all seemed way above my capabilities at the time. I was musician, a composer, not an engineer. It had been years since I hung out and talked shop with other musicians. And during those years, much had changed. And much of what had changed came in the form or 1 and 0’s. The world had become digital. I was overwhelmed by it all. I decided I would not leave Magix Studio Deluxe until I had exhausted all of its capabilities.

That day eventually came. I needed more. I had been able to produce simple arrangements, and was only beginning to appreciate the limits of my sound. I bought an EMU 1212 sound card and Cubase SE. I also bought a drum machine and began recording more elaborate arrangements on this set up. It was great for practicing, for evolving my music writing craft, and for learning about new aspects of the recording process. So much so, that I eventually moved up to Cubase SX and various plug-ins. It was at this stage that I began to really see the difference great equipment could make. It was here that I began to learn enough about recording, processing and mixing that I could begin to imagine more and more possibilities. I worked with this set up and additional hardware and software add-ons (acquired an analog synthesizer, new plug-ins, etc.) for quite some time. Then it happened.

After 20 years of working in the corporate world and as president of a large multinational consulting firm, I had had it. I was tired of the business. Tired of the travel. Tired of pressures. My wife and I decided to move our family from San Francisco to her home country, Argentina. So we moved to Buenos Aires, Argentina.

I knew that with this move, I would also be making a major upgrade to my home studio. I knew that my passion had been evolving over the years, and the business career although fun, with its financial purpose, and value, was not enough to be the center of my life. My life purpose was clear. All I wanted was to be the best Husband and Father possible, and to Rock like a “bleep’r”. That’s all that mattered to me after you stripped away all the material trimmings in my life. I wanted to love my family, and to express the music that stirred within me even if no one else would ever hear it. So with this clarity of purpose in mind, I began to design the upgrade of my home studio.

We bought a new home with a special room (formerly a bedroom with private bath and walk-in closet) that I would used solely for my home studio. I read everything I could get my hands on. I read about all the equipment in each category of gear that I needed i.e., converters, audio interfaces, midi interfaces, mixers, multi-track recorders, processors, etc. I read every review, every manual, every website I could get my hands on. And I joined Studio Central. Can’t say enough about the virtues of that site. Simply amazing.

I had a few imperatives in planning the design and function of my home studio. I record primarily by myself. I like to go direct from guitar to processor to interface to sequencer. I didn’t need lots of mics. I didn’t need lots of room or acoustic treatment. Instead, I wanted to create a great home version of a studio control room. I wanted great sound quality, and ease of use. So with that in mind, I began to focus on creating a mixerless studio built around Apple’s G5 Quad running Logic Pro 7.2. I had never used Macs before, but read about all the main sequencers. I found a few professionals online that had created a similar set up to mine and they also helped me make my decision. I fell in love, deeply in love with Logic and the mac platform.

Once I had decided what my DAW platform would be, it was time to design the rest. That meant having tons of questions and making lots of choices. What hardware would I need? What interface? Firewire or USB? What processors? Hardware or software? What other software? What about storage? What about energy usage? And much, much more. All the while, were were under construction with our new home and the architect and electrician were waiting for my direction. I wouldn’t let their pressure make me move before I was ready. I made them wait. Not long, but until I was finished with my research and choices.

So what were those choices? Well, that’s for my next entry. For now, I thank you for having read my first entry, and look forward to seeing from you on the forum!

January ‘07…

Thursday, February 8th, 2007

What a cool way way to start the New Year — New Year’s Day: fire up the brand new video DAW (2.66gHz Mac Pro with quad Xeon processors!) and start installation of Final Cut Pro… in typical Mac fashion, installation went without a hitch. This thing is FAST… an hour-long video project on my other DAW was a 17-hour rendering job… the Mac chewed through it in 28 minutes. I kid you not. So I hit the ground running at a turtle’s pace as I get used Final Cut Pro… nothing like jumping-into-the-fire with a client’s video editing project (multi-camera angles, plus needing to create an interesting intro segment)… I spent a couple of days reading the manuals and tutorials to get me going and got a good chunk of the project done in the process…. its amazing how much increase in productivity there is by simply adding a 2nd DAW to the control room… as the month progressed I had about 8 other video projects of varying sizes that I worked on in tandem with other audio editing projects at the same time. All kinds of media was being churned out at a previously unheard of rate! (Before the Mac, video was a chore: edit the project – say 9hrs average… then a 10-17hr render…then send first cut to client for proof… make requested changes – an hour or so… then a 10-17hr render again… then send back out to client… in the meantime, the client forgot to tell me additional changes, so it’s another edit… another render… you get the idea… a simple video project could take over a week of processing/rendering cycles… now, it’s down to minutes instead of hours or days!)

Anyways, that was my video DAW excitement…. there was lots more happening than just video in January…. I had quite a few bands in for Live-Off-The-Floor sessions.

Those are always interesting – they’re about as close as I want to get to doing Live sound. For those that don’t know, LOTF sessions are short (3 hr) spots where the band sets up in the studio, much like they would for a rehearsal, and they get mic’d-up much like they might during a live show (although I mitigate bleed and try to maintain a certain level of isolation – much more than one would have on-stage.)

We go through a soundcheck and then set-up a console mix that the band is happy with (after soundcheck, the band plays while I set the mix up and record a test cut, then I bring the band in to hear it.) Once the console mix is done, I route the mix digitally to the 2-track (either the Masterlink or my audio DAW) and roll tape for about an hour or so… the band runs through their demo set (several times if the guitarist screws-up the solos) and then tear-down while I prep a disc for them.

These sessions more than anything, really show the differences the band itself makes to the overall sound. Same rooms, same gear, very similar configurations, but the final sound all rests on the band’s overall talent and performance. I get bands in that can sound almost like a polished multitrack production, and yet others that sound like a gang of 14-year-olds in a garage right after Christmas with their first new instruments! Thankfully, I didn’t have to endure that kind of torture – the bands that came in all did quite well and turned out respectable-sounding demos.

Mixing was also part of the game in January – a client I’d worked with in the past had finished recording more tracks for his upcoming album, so he uploaded the tracks for half his songs to my FTP server, and I dug-in. My basic mixing process – particularly if it’s an album’s worth of songs – is something like this:

- receive the client tracks (FTP, or via data CD / DVD)

- load them into the audio DAW (into Cubase) (organizing them into appropriate folders, etc…)

- open up each song and listen to what I’ve got (making mental notes of what’s fighting and what’s working, tonal issues, and getting a feel for the overall arrangement and structure.)

- I then go through each track of the song and see what I’ve got to work with (basically a track quality check)

- make any adjustments to the track in terms of cut-outs or mutes (removing excess noise or “junk” from the track)

- decide on things like how much track shaping is needed (drum track enhancement or even replacement with samples, fattening-up DI’d bass tracks, enhancing the depth / richness of vocals, sweetening acoustic gtrs, etc…) This isn’t EQ’ing as such – it’s a “shaping” process in which I enhance what’s there to make it “bigger” – fundamental EQ’ing comes later. This whole process is really about a series of “little things” adding up to an overall “big thing” by the end of the process. If a track needs serious “rescuing” – this is the point in the process where I handle that too.

- when the QA on the tracks is done, I then turn my attention to the arrangement / structure… while the artist created the song the way they did, they don’t have objective ears, and they may lose their focus in being subjective about their song… you generally want to build a song up in dynamics – much like telling a story, expanding on the track elements as the song progresses – many DIY artists don’t think of their arrangements in those terms. So I’ll re-examine the song structure and determine if I can do anything to improve – sometimes the changes can be significant – more often, they’re minor adjustments (maybe a few additional mutes). For large changes, I’ll consult with the artist present my proposed changes; and they’ll either agree or disagree. If I firmly believe the change is a significant improvement, I’ll certainly argue my case (strenuously if I feel they’re making a mistake!), but in the end, the artist is paying the bill, so it’s their decision. I find clients really do appreciate the honesty and value the objective view I can give them – after all, I’m trying to present their vision in its best light, so clients are generally receptive to my ideas. The clients that don’t want changes are usually the ones who’ve written material that doesn’t need structural changes – everything’s already well-structured!

- so after this, the tracks are ready to be moved over to my multitrack unit – I abhor mixing in the box – everything I do with respect to music gets mixed through my Sony console, which, even though everything is digital, still seems to do a much better job of summing than in-the-box ever can – at least to my ears!

- I create the track sheets, mark-up the console (not literally – the console lets you name each track on its display!) and prepare to mix…..

To be continued…

The Blue Bear Sound Journals…

Tuesday, February 6th, 2007

Welcome to my first blog….. for those that don’t know me, I own and operate Blue Bear Sound (http://www.bluebearsound.com) – a comfortable and well-equipped commercial studio in Canada’s capital city of Ottawa, ON.
Things have been extremely busy at the studio for quite a while now, so I thought that there may be some interest in a periodic accounting of what goes on in a commercial facility. While it won’t be a daily – my intent is document the different sessions, projects, activities and issues that come up by posting every few days or so….

So with the introductions over……. stay tuned!