Archive for October, 2009

Upgrades to “My Dream Home Studio”

Saturday, October 10th, 2009

I have written 3 blog entries regarding how I went about planning, purchasing and installing my dream home studio. Since the original installation in 2006/07, I have since made several upgrades with both hardware and software. The purpose of this article is to explain these upgrades.

All the upgrades I have made to my dream home studio have been the result of seeking to get the most professional sound possible within the confines of the space and budget I have. I wanted to get some of “those” sounds I grew up listening to. Rich, deep, expansive reverb. Amazingly smooth stereo bus compression. Gorgeous synth pads with sound design capabilities that would go far beyond my talent for designing them. Additionally, my upgrades had to meet the expanding needs in my song writing, arranging, and mixing. New additions were primarily driven by the need to add new instruments, new processing, and new analog mixing capabilities. Below I will provide a brief description of each.

NEW INSTRUMENTS

When I had completed my original dream studio installation, I had many instruments at my disposal. Guitars, soft synths, one analog synth, space designer, and numerous midi instruments that came as part of Logic. Although I enjoyed a wealth of instruments at my disposal, I was missing a bit more control and variety in two principal areas: soft synths and drums.

In the area of soft synths, I was looking for a relatively easy to use, versatile, great sounding instrument. I am not a keyboard player and as a result did not want to invest in a high end synth such as Roland V-Synth GT, or the Nord Stage EX7, or the Access Virus. All more hardware than I felt worthy of. And yet, I wanted more variety of sound, and versatility. I also wanted a pattern sequencer, arpegiator, and flexible groove management.

I found all I was looking for and more in Reason4. I won’t go into product detail here, but it had it all, and it’s usage is sequencer based, something I am very familiar with.  With Reason4 I got an entire soft synth studio and it fit the bill perfectly in all areas including drums. However, I tend to write and record hard rock, progressive rock and metal. I needed some drum beats and kits that were specific to this genre and they had to be of the highest quality.

I researched several  drum sample and arrangement software packages including; Toontrack, Addictive Drums, Sonic Reality Ocean, and FXpansion BFD. Ocean and BFD had the highest quality samples in my opinion. While the other products offered excellent kit and beat management, the quality of their samples felt good as solid click tracks, but not as the stand alone drum tracks for entire songs.

I ended up going with BFD2, a wonderful product with more than 50Gb of kits. Additionally, it has it’s own powerful individual track mixer with high quality plug-in processing. I can also export individual tracks into Logic and work with them there. Comprehensive midi mapping is another great feature of BFD2, that makes altering exiting grooves or creating new ones, all available within the same program. BFD2 together with Battery3 provide me with a wealth of high end drum samples, kits, beat variety and processing. With time and practice, I was able to create high quality, real drum tracks for my compositions.

NEW PROCESSING

After I had rounded out my instrument inventory, I wanted to build up my processing arsenal. I researched numerous processing options. I looked at digital signal processors such as Yamaha’s SPX2000, TC Electronic Powercore, Lexicon, SSL, UAD, and Waves bundles.

Processing with any of the high-end software such as Waves Mercury can bring even a robust computer to a screaching hault. I wanted the best quality I could find that seemlessly integrated with my DAW without compromising the stability of my system. After reading about all the major units and hearing them as well, I landed on the UAD-1 system for great EQs, and classic compressors, Solid State Logic’s Duende for their renowned stereo bus compressor, and Lexicon’s PCM96 for reverb and delay.

The UAD-1 PCIe digital signal processing accelerator card came with a wealth of high end authentic hardware emulations. More than I could afford to buy individually. And even money were no option, space is, and mine is limited. The UAD system integrates beautifully with Logic and can now be further upgraded with new UAD-2 cards that offer many times more the processing power and speed of the original UAD-1 system cards. I tend to use the UAD-1 hardware emulations sparingly, and as such I have do not experience system slow downs or crashes.

The Solid State Logic Duende is based on SSL’s C series digital console technology. The unit comes with two plug-ins. The C200 series channel strip which has 4 band EQ, variable  hi and low pass filters, switchable EQ characteristics between E and G series EQ, soft ration compression, and dynamic side-chain processing. The second plug-in and the main reason I purchased the Duende is for the classic 1980’s G series stereo bus compressor. Although a pretty simple unit, it’s power and presence is amazing. It really brings a mix together, holding and delivering it with consistency, power, and smooth presence.

The Lexicon PCM96 is the culmination of all I ever wanted in a reverb/delay processor. With more than 28 different reverbs and delays, this unit also comes with new Hall and Room algorithms that are stellar. In addition to being able to be used as a stand alone digital signal processor, it can also function as a control-only insert or FireWire streaming audio plug-in inside my Mac. Now that’s cool. The best of both worlds with two channels XLR analog I/O, four channels of streaming FireWire, automation via FireWire or Ethernet, and sample rates up to 96kHz.

These three units took my sound to a whole other level of professional quality. Depth, smoothness, clean, and warm, these three units added processing beyond the borders of Logic and some of the other digital tools I used such as Guitar Rig 2, and the Line6 POD XT.

Although these new processing additions didn’t come cheap, their acquisition was cheaper than acquiring all of their hardware counterparts. Imagine having to buy a Pultec Pro EQ, a Neve 88RS channel strip, a UAD 1176 classic limiting amplifier, a Fairchild 670 compressor, stereo bus compression from SSL ’s G series board, and SSL’s C200 console channel strip, to name a few. I use all of these regularly and am pleased with their sound and flexibility. I can call up the right unit for the right sound in the right genre. It’s access to more equipment than I ever dreamed I would have.

I would surely love to have the hardware unit of all of these great pieces of gear, but that’s not going to happen any time soon due to a few limiting factors i.e., space, cost, and location. I live in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and getting all that gear into the country would not be easy or cheap. But with my UAD-1 PCI-e card, my SSL Duende, and my Lexicon PCM96, I could upgrade my sound, the versatility of my equipment offering, and the flexibility of its use, without changing my DAW.

ANALOG SUMMING MIXER

This was no easy decision. First, let me visit why I was even considering an analog summing mixer. I had developed a pretty great digital recording rig. My mixerless studio was built around a great Mac-based DAW running Logic and I was quite pleased with the results I was able to get. I spent years studying and practicing my mixing capabilities so as to maximize the equipment I had. I had always read that a great engineer could do a lot with a little, and could do more than a mediocre engineer with a ton of great equipment. Well I clearly fall in the latter category, but as I developed my skills and learned how to use the equipment I had, the one thing I didn’t have much of, was any analog electronics and circuitry within my signal chain.

I had been partnering with a guitarist and recording engineer in NY who worked in a wholly analog studio. He was now working through integrating a DAW into his studio, and was loving the experience of discovering all the digital world had to offer his work in terms of access and flexibility. He turned to me for advice and I spent months working with him to research and add just the right DAW, interface, and soft tools for his needs. All the while, I was blown away by the amazing warmth and sound his analog rig would deliver. I was coming from the other end of the spectrum and wanted to learn more about the analog world I grew up in, but had skipped over when it came to developing my dream home studio.

I began researching how I could add that analog sound and warmth to my rig. I could purchase a great analog console, but didn’t have the room. That was a big limiting factor. I then came upon summing mixers which provided the analog circuitry I craved, but left out the EQ and compression, leaving a tight rack space box I could more easily incorporate into my dream home studio. But which one? There were many on the market and they weren’t cheap. I looked at the API 8200, the Dangerous 2-Bus, the SPL Mixdream, the Tonelux V, and the Neve 8816 as well as many others.

This research required more than just reading specs, as words could not tell me how they sounded. Luckily there are a few great shoot outs available on line complete with sound clips of each of these units and clips for their use in different genres of music as well. Additionally, I read what professional engineers had to say about using these different units for different genres.

When all was said and done, I chose to go with the Neve 8816 analog summing mixer and have now incorporated this unit into my rig. I run all instruments into the summing mixer on their way to the DAW and can also channel signal back to it on the way out and mix down directly. I can use the Neve 8816 unit to either mix prior to the box, or to directly mix down finals, or for overdubs, or for any variation therein. The Neve 8816 unit also has great recall features with sixteen input channels including +15dB gain, level, pan, cut/solo and cue controls. The mix buss includes a unique “Stereo Width” (a professional mastering tool) feature, a post-insert mix function that can be used for mixing in a separate stem or blending the mix with a special effect, four monitor sources, two sets of speakers, independent monitor level control, talkback mic, cue send and headphone outs. All this in one tight 2u rack space helped to upgrade my DAW to a more professional mixing facility with that classic Neve analog sound.

SUMMARY

After installing and working with my dream “mixerless” mac/logic-based studio, I was ready to add software and hardware components that would take my rig to a more professional sounding level. Don’t get me wrong. My dream studio sounded great as it was, but as I practiced my mixing skills further, and listened to more equipment, developed my ear, and spoke with other enthusiasts, I began to notice the subtle, but important differences between good processing equipment and great processing equipment. Although I did not have the space to acquire and install all the analog hardware I would love to own, I was able to find a middle ground with the industry’s high end software versions of the classics combined with digital signal processing accelerators and the incorporation of a great analog summing mixer.

Today, I have an integrated analog/digital rig that delivers the best tools for each job and suited for my level of capability. I needed time to develop my skills before I could appreciate these new tools, and know how to use them. But as that time arrived, I was ready for the challenge of choosing just what to purchase out of an ocean of offerings. I have told you a bit more about my story and my choices. I hope you enjoy your journey and choices as much as I am enjoying mine.

If you would like to hear this equipment in action, please visit the following sites where you can hear some of my work:

Albert Vinasco Official Website

www.albertvinasco.com

Albert Vinasco on Facebook

http://www.facebook.com/pages/Albert-Vinasco/111169211476?ref=mf

Gabriel

http://www.facebook.com/pages/Gabriel/114233064345

DNA

http://www.facebook.com/pages/DNA/102702390641?ref=mf