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The Path to Audio Nirvana

Developing a gear acquisition strategy By Frank Moldstad
Whether you're on an unlimited budget or one that forces you to decide between paying the rent and buying a microphone, you can achieve audio nirvana if you're willing to work at it. The secret is knowing exactly what your needs are, what your recording goals are and how to get the most from your equipment.

The biggest mistake that people make is rushing to judgement about a new piece of gear you've just heard about and have got to have now. After all, you probably didn't need it yesterday, so why should you need it today? They're not going to stop making them by next month! Even if the description you've heard or the magazine ads you've read portray this device as the missing link, you owe it to yourself to seek it out for a tactile, firsthand evaluation. Ask the dealer if you can take it home and test it out--many dealers permit this (just be careful--most likely if you break it, you buy it). Figure out not only how it works, but what it brings to your arsenal. Buying things spontaneously on emotion will leave you with a bunch of stuff to sell on EBay later, but that's probably not your goal. If it is, stop reading now--I really wouldn't want to interfere with a goal like that.

Always keep in mind the purpose of your output and work backwards (or is it forwards?) from there.

If you want to record your own songs for yourself, a decent PC or Mac, a quality sound card and an inexpensive audio software package should be fine for recording, editing and burning to CD. You can mix everything in the computer, edit waveforms, and use the software's built in effects and dynamics processors, and route external processors, vocals and instruments through a small mixing board like the Mackie 1202 or similar offerings from Spirit, Allen & Heath and others. Or a variety of self-contained digital audio workstations are now available from Yamaha, Tascam, Roland, and other companies.

The next level involves a professional mixing boards, converters, microphones, preamps, monitors, external processors, effects, wiring, etc. This is often the demarcation point between a home studio and a project studio. A project studio is just that--one that takes on projects from outside clients, or one where the owner has professional aspirations or outlets for his or her projects. It's a business, even if it's a money-losing one. And the expenditures can become serious.

What do you get from better gear? Plenty, if you buy the right stuff and learn how to use it. But it's not hard to make premium equipment sound just plain awful. And depending on your needs, the price of some gear just can't be justified even if you do use it properly. For example, do you need an automated mixing board? Automation saves time and gives you predictable, accurate results. Maybe you do, maybe you don't. People certainly mixed without automation for years.

But "affordable" digital mixing boards with automation are growing in popularity, with prices ranging from $3,000 to $30,000. (This is not to put down a whole range of beloved analog mixers, many of which are available used for quite reasonable prices!) Tascam's new automated DM24 digital mixer, listing for about $3,000, is one of the newest models aimed at this niche. Other popular choices are the Mackie d8B ($10,000 list), the Sony DMX R100 (about $20,000 list) or the brand new Yamaha DM2000 (about $30,000 list).

A whole new range of equipment comes into play with the project studio, some of which is made by the same companies offering low-end products for "consumer" home studio use, such as JBL, Lexicon and dbx. The recorder can still be a computer, but it might have a variety of high-end software and plug-ins, for recording, editing and processing. Software such as Steinberg's Nuendo, Cakewalk's Sonar, SAWStudio, or Digital Performer might be supplemented by processing software from Waves. One of the newest wrinkles for this niche of the recording industry is the standalone hard disk recording system, such as the Tascam MX-2424, the Mackie HDR 2496 or the IZ Radar. The latter come with professional digital-to-analog converters, and dedicated waveform editing software. And of course, the market share leader is Digidesign's ProTools, a system with dedicated hardware and software, and a range of options and plug-ins for every purpose from basic tracking and editing to elaborate post production.

Then there's the high-end, the world class recording studio. Here you'll find elite brands like SSL, Neve, Amek, Apogee, Neumann, Manley, Massenberg, and quality high-end gear from companies that cast a wide market niche, such as Tascam, Sony and Yamaha. Many of the big studios have ProTools, and a variety of other solutions depending on what the clients and engineers feel comfortable with -- perhaps Sadie, Sonic, or Euphonix gear. Analog is still strong at the high end. But digital is becoming dominant, because the quality is now acceptable to the most golden-eared engineers and the advantages of automation and quick editing are too compelling.

Advancements in digital technology at the high end are creating a bonanza for the project studio and home recordist. A 24-bit/96k setup, with audio specs that exceed the CD standard of 16-bit 44.1k audio, is within reach of many people's budgets. What you can't buy, of course, is talent and experience, and that is what will always separate the good recordings from the bad recordings. Esteemed engineers such as Bruce Swieden, George Massenberg, Bob Clearmountain, or Roger Nichols (apologies to thousands of others) know every nuance of the sound spectrum. They understand the subtleties of EQing and panning a track so that it's perfectly audible in the mix, but not too far forward. They know how to build drama and create a cohesive soundscape. It's artistry, and just like any other art, some people have the talent for it and some don't. And they know how to get the most from their equipment.

But, if you're not a renowned and talented recording engineer (or if you're still in training), better equipment won't give you better recordings. You need a vision for what you're doing both technically and artistically. To get there, it's best to reach the limitations of your equipment before stepping up. For example, cut your teeth on an inexpensive outboard EQ. The fidelity might not be so hot, but work it until you know before moving the sliders what the effect will be on individual instruments or an overall mix. Later, when you move up to Avalon and Massenberg EQs, the principles remain the same, while the resulting improvements in quality and detail will take a quantum leap forward.

And do yourself a favor: The next time you hear about the latest must-have digital davitz, take a step back, and assess: a) why you need it; and b) if you've gotten all you can get out of your existing tools. It'll save you money, and it could make you a better engineer in the long run, provided you've got the talent and the drive.

Frank Moldstad is DMN's editorial director and runs Most Studios, where his latest project is the EP "Set Sail" by the Los Angeles band The Downtown Kicks.

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