Category Archives for "Hardware"

New Music Gear Monday: Slate Control Monitor Controller

Slate ControlOne of the most important components of a home or desktop studio is the monitor controller, and while there are more and more such devices on the market these days, not all are a good fit for many studios. For instance, the needs of someone working with a laptop mixing on headphones are completely different from someone who’s actually recording people in the room or needs the highest quality monitor signal path possible. The new Slate Control fits into the latter category, with features usually found on a full-blown recording console but that are often needed in today’s in-the-box world.

First of all, the Slate Control head can be used as either an independent table top module, integrated directly into the RAVEN MTX Mk2 or RAVEN Z3 armrest, or even integrated into an older analog console, since it’s only 7 inches deep. If a retrofit is in your stars, Slate Control adds 7 stereo monitor path inputs but also connects to the solo buss signal and logic inputs of your existing console for seamless control.

Regardless of the environment it’s being used, the controller has a wide array of pro features, including 3 speaker selections, each with an LFE Enable switch, and speaker B and C have trim controls for matching levels with speaker A. Speaking of LFE, the LFE Output has multiple modes with a 12dB per octave low pass filter that can be set at 80 or 120Hz, or a Direct Output Mode, along with Polarity and Level Trim. A CAL Mode also allows you to preset a reference level for the speakers, disabling the main control room volume control. The speaker section of the controller also features cut, mono compatibility and left speaker polarity functions as well.

Slate Control also has multiple cue outputs and headphone outputs with some very useful talkback functions. The Talkback System has both a built-in mic and external mic input, which allows both reverse talkback for instant communication with the artist, and a feature called Selectable Auto Talkback that engages the talkback automatically when the music stops.

All inputs and outputs are balanced and diode protected against accidental phantom power (48V) connections, with DB25 connections for inputs and outputs, and DB9 connections for Aux and Talkback Aux remote functions. There’s also an on-board USB Hub for iLok and phone charging, as well as an 1/8th inch input for playback from an mobile phone. Best of all, the audio signal path was designed by famed audio developer Paul Wolf so the audio quality if top-notch.

The Slate Control isn’t inexpensive at $2,499, but neither are the other high-end controllers on the market that offer similar features and quality. Check out the dedicated page here for more information.

Can A New Process Improve Record Pressing?

Injection moulding pressingMaking a vinyl record is a messy, time consuming business. It involves toxic chemical baths, huge mechanical presses, stampers that wear out easily, and maybe worst of all, the final product is made from a petroleum product. Record pressing has shown small improvements over the years, but for the most part, it’s still done the way it was 40+ years ago.

But that could change soon. A new injection moulding process invented by the Dutch company Symcon, promises not only to cut production costs, but to improve sound quality, and reduce the environment impact of conventional record pressing as well.

In a conventional record press, a PVC puck is heated with steam until it’s soft, then placed between the two stampers that press the puck for about 8 seconds. Another 16 seconds is then required for the record to cool off before the process can begin again.

In the new process, the plastic mixture is heated in advance, injected between the two stampers, then pressed for a few seconds and cooled for another 20 seconds to make sure the mixture reaches the outer edges of the stampers.

There are several big advantages with injection moulding. First of all, the amount of energy used is cut by up to 65%. There’s no excess vinyl around the record that needs to be cut off, and the stampers last much longer before they degrade. Currently, a stamper only lasts for around 2,000 records before it must be replaced. Yet another happy byproduct is that the noise is reduced by up to 10dB over conventionally pressed records.

This seems like a slam dunk, but there are still a few challenges to overcome though. So far, injection moulded records are less durable, as they show signs of wear after 35 plays compared to 50 times for a vinyl record. The price is also about 25% higher, although that should come down over time. It also takes more time to actually press the record, which is a serious disadvantage.

So this new system holds a lot of promise, but it’s too early to tell whether it’s revolutionary or not. Here’s a video that explains more, as well as a bit of an interview with one of the engineers.

November 8, 2016

The Story Behind Bruce Springsteen’s Iconic Hybrid Telecaster

Bruce Springsteen TelecasterThere are some guitars that are forever linked to certain musicians. Eric Clapton’s “Blackie” and “Brownie” Strats, Brian May’s home-built one-off, Neil Young’s “Old Black” Les Paul, and B.B. King’s “Lucille” ES355 are just a few that come to mind. But there is another that fits nicely into this category and deserves equal attention because of its backstory, and that’s Bruce Springsteen’s very unique Telecaster.

Like “Blackie,” Bruce’s Telecaster is a hybrid of parts collected from at least 2 other guitars. It’s a 50’s Telecaster body with what looks to be a 57 Esquire neck originally purchased from Phil Petillo’s Neptune NJ guitar shop for $185. That’s only part of the story though.

The Telecaster body was originally jury-rigged with four pickups wired into extra output jacks so that each could plug into a separate channel of a recording console. The thought behind this wasn’t so much for the sound, but so that the session player original owner could collect four times union scale for playing four slightly different versions of the same guitar part. As a result of the modification, a lot of the body underneath the pickguard was routed out for the extra electronics.

Petillo removed the extra pickups and returned the guitar to original Telecaster shape before he sold it Springsteen, but a huge side effect of the routing was that the Tele was now really light, giving it a sound a feel unlike any other (see the picture on the left).

Bruce wasn’t one to sit still with one version of the instrument however, and over the years had it significantly modified, all personally done by Petillo. He added his patented triangular Precision Frets, a six saddle titanium bridge, and custom hot-wound waterproofed pickups and electronics so they could better survive a sweat-soaked 4 hour show.

Bruce played the guitar in virtually every live show until around 2005, when the wear and tear of the road finally took it’s toll and the guitar was retired. He now plays clones of his original Tele on tour, but still uses his favorite when he records.

Now for really cool part. It’s been estimated that the guitar is worth anywhere between $1 million and $5 million, depending upon the collector that could manage to get his hands on it. For now, that’s not going to happen, since the Tele has been Bruce Springsteen’s partner for more than 40 years now, and that partnership shows no sign of ending.

Direct Box Basics

Radial JDI direct boxDirect boxes are something that we use every day in recording, yet take for granted because of their simplicity. Here’s an excerpt from my Recording Engineer’s Handbook that looks at the ins and outs of this useful recording tool.

“Direct Injection (DI or “going direct”) of a signal means that a microphone is bypassed, and the instrument (always electric or electrified) is plugged directly into the console or recording device. This was originally done to cut down on the number of mics (and therefore the leakage) used in a tracking session with a lot of instruments playing simultaneously. However, a DI is now used because it either makes the instrument sound better (like in the case of electric keyboards) or is just easier and faster.

Why can’t you just plug your guitar or keyboard directly into the mic preamp without the direct box? Most preamps now have a separate input dedicated for instruments, but there was a time when that wasn’t the case and plugging an electric guitar (for instance) into an XLR mic input would cause an impedance mismatch that would change the frequency response of the instrument (although it wouldn’t hurt anything), usually causing the high frequencies to drop off and therefore make the instrument sound dull.

Advantages of Direct Injection
There are a number of reasons to use direct injection when recording:

  • Direct Box transformers provide ground isolation and allow long cable runs from high impedance sources like guitars and keyboards without excessive bandwidth loss.
  • The extremely high impedance of the DI insures a perfect match with almost every kind of pickup to provide a warmer, more natural sound.
  • The length of cable can be extended up to 50 feet without signal degradation.

Direct Box Types
There are two basic types of direct boxes; active (which can provide gain to the audio signal and therefore needs electronics requiring either battery or AC power), or passive (which provides no gain and doesn’t require power). Which is better? Once again, there are good and poor examples of each. Generally speaking, the more you pay the higher quality they are.

An active DI sometimes has enough gain to be able to actually replace the mic amp and connect directly to your DAW.

An excellent passive DI can be built around the fine Jensen transformer specially designed for the task (www.jensen-transformers.com for do-it-yourself instructions) but you can buy basically the same thing from Radial Engineering in their JDI direct box (see the figure on the left). Also, most modern mic pres now come with a separate DI input on a 1/4” guitar jack.

Direct Box Setup
Not much setup is required to use a direct box. For the most part, you just plug the instrument in and play. About the only thing that you might have to set is the gain on an active box (which is usually only a switch that provides a 10 dB boost or so) or the ground switch. Most DI’s have a ground switch to reduce hum in the event of a ground loop between the instrument and the DI. Set it to the quietest position.”

You can read more from The Recording Engineer’s Handbook and my other books on the excerpt section of bobbyowsinski.com.

New Music Gear Monday: A-Designs Mix Factory Summing Amp

A-Designs Mix FactoryMixers either swear by outboard analog summing amps or don’t see the need for them at all, but the ones that do are very passionate about them. We’re now into the second generation of summing amps, and the latest ones are incorporating a lot of features that the the first gen didn’t have. That’s one of the reasons why the new A-Designs Mix Factory is so cool; it has a lot of great features. But the other reason is more important – its concept was actually developed by a mixer.

The brainchild of producer/engineer/mixer Tony Shepperd (you can hear him talk about it on my Inner Circle Podcast #116) and electronically designed by famed engineer Paul Wolff, Mix Factory is a 16 channel outboard summing mixer with a lot of features. Each channel has a gain control, a pan pot with center detent, and a mute switch that also acts as a level indicator. What’s interesting is that the 16 channels are divided into two groups of 8, each with its own insert and master volume control. There’s also a master insert for all 16 channels that has it’s own insert as well, and each insert has it’s own mute button.

But mixers not only want control, they want sound, and Mix Factory delivers by providing either a clean signal path, or a colored one with Cinemag transformers that can be accessed from a front-panel button.

The 16 audio channels are rear panel accessed via two D-Sub input connectors, with XLRs for the main outputs (both pre and post master fader) and inserts. If you need more inputs, the Mix Factory is also linkable up to 64 channels. It also has an external switchable power supply that allows the unit to be used for both US and foreign markets.

The A-Designs Mix Factory goes for $2,990 street, which isn’t all that much considering what you get. You can find out more here.

Choosing the Right Microphone For The Job

Choosing the right microphoneWhile it’s safe to say that most engineers rely on experience when choosing which microphone to use in a given situation, these are some things to consciously consider when selecting a microphone. Here’s a list of items to think about from the latest edition of my Recording Engineer’s Handbook.

  • There’s no one mic that works well on everything. Just because you have what could be considered a “great” mic doesn’t necessarily mean that it will be the best choice in all situations. There are times when the characteristics of that mic just don’t match up with the instrument you’re recording, and another mic will work better. In fact, sometimes even an inexpensive mic can work better than an expensive one.
  • Select a microphone that complements the instrument you’ll be recording. For instance, if you have an instrument that has a very edgy top end, you normally wouldn’t want to choose a mic that also has that quality, since those frequencies will be emphasized. Instead, you might want to choose a mic that’s a bit mellower, such as a ribbon. This is one of the reasons that a ribbon mic is often preferred on brass, for instance.
  • Is the mic designed to be used in the free field or in the diffuse field? Free-field means the sound that comes directly from the source dominates what the mic hears. Diffuse-field means that the room reflections play a large role in what the mic hears. Mics designed for free-field use tend to have a flat frequency response in the high frequencies, and as a result can sound dull when placed farther away in room from the sound source. Diffuse-field mics have a boost in the upper frequencies that make them sound flat when placed farther away. A good example of a diffuse-field mic is the esteemed Neumann M 50, which was meant to be placed somewhat away from an orchestra, so it has a high-frequency boost to compensate for the distance.
  • Select a mic that won’t be overloaded by the source. Some mics are sensitive enough that you must be aware of how they’re used. You wouldn’t want to put certain ribbon or condenser mics on a snare drum with a heavy-hitting drummer, for instance. Even some dynamic mics have little tolerance for high sound-pressure levels, so always take that into account.
  • Choose the right polar pattern for the job. If leakage is a consideration, then choose a mic with the proper directional capabilities for the job. If a mic is flat on-axis (at the front), it probably will roll off some of the highs when it’s 90 degrees off-axis (on the side). If it’s flat 90 degrees off-axis, it may have a rising high end when it’s on-axis.
  • Is proximity effect an issue? If you intended to place the mic within 6 inches or closer from the source, will the bass buildup from the proximity effect be too much? If you think that may be the case, consider an omni pattern instead.
  • A large-diaphragm condenser mic is not necessarily better than small-diaphragm condenser. Believe it or not, small diaphragm condenser microphones can sometimes capture the lower frequencies better, are generally less colored off-axis than large-diaphragm mics, and have a smoother frequency response. Large-diaphragm mics are a little less noisy, though.

You can read more from The Recording Engineer’s Handbook and my other books on the excerpt section of bobbyowsinski.com.

New Music Gear Monday: Drawmer MC3.1 Monitor Controller

Drawmer MC3.1One almost essential accessory for any computer-based DAW is the monitor controller, and there are a lot of them to choose from these days in just about all price ranges. Most of them in the sub-$1,000 range, while quite capable, are usually without some feature or features that you wish it would have. That’s what makes the new Drawmer MC3.1 so compelling. It’s one of the few monitor controllers at that price point that has all the most wished-for features covered.

The Drawmer MC3.1 monitor controller (not to be confused with a computer interface with monitor control capabilities) first and foremost allows you to adjust the level of the control room monitors, but it also incorporates a number of features usually found in controllers costing many times more. For instance, it has 3 sets of speaker outputs plus a mono sub output that can be switched individually and simultaneously, making A/B comparisons a snap. Each output also has a level trim to provide precise channel matching.

As far as inputs, there are a total of 5 – 1 digital AES/SPDIF, 2 balanced analog inputs, a stereo RCA analog input on the rear panel, and a 3.5mm front panel AUX input with it’s own level control. The digital and balanced analog inputs utilize Neutrik XLR/1/4″ COMBI jacks. These inputs can be selected to feed two separate signal paths; one for the main speaker output, and a second for the Cue buss to either an external output or to the internal headphone amps. Speaking of which, there are actually two separate headphone amplifiers with individual level controls and input switching so the artist can listen to a different mix than the engineer. There’s also a built-in talkback circuit complete with level control, external mic input, and a footswitch control, which is a very cool and overlooked feature even on high-end controllers.

But the main function of a monitor controller is to control the level of your speakers and here the MC3.1 also has a few extra tricks as well. First of all, the level can be set either with the large variable volume control knob, or by a button that switches to a preset level, which many mixing for TV or films will love. There are also comprehensive mix checking facilities as well, including dim, mono and phase reversal switches, plus mute switches for left, right and both speakers. The MC3.1 also has the unusual feature of Band Solo, which allows the user to listen to just the low, mid or high frequency bands to hear how they’re being reproduced by the speakers. Finally, the unit has timed relay protection on all speaker outputs to prevent power up/down bangs.

The Drawmer MC3.1 monitor controller is packaged in a desktop wedge form factor in a rugged steel box with a stylish brushed aluminum cover. The retail price is $999 and you can find more details on this dedicated page from Transaudio, the U.S. importer for Drawmer.

 

New Music Gear Monday: Audio-Technica ATM350a Instrument Microphone

audio-technica atm350aWe all have our favorite mics for recording specific instruments in the studio, but when it comes to miking them live, everything is out the window. Mostly that’s because mounting many mics can be a pain. While you can afford to spend time getting the placement just right in the studio, when it’s live everything is fast, fast and faster, so that becomes the primary consideration, although it still has to sound good. Thankfully, Audio-Technica has taken all this into consideration with introduction of its new ATM350a instrument microphone.

The ATM350a is a small diaphragm cardioid condenser microphone that’s able to take high SPL levels (up to 159dB SPL!), which is essential for a mic that’s tightly placed on an instrument, and is basically an upgrade of the previous ATM350. Where the new version shines though, is the fact that it comes with an array of mounts that makes it able to easily fit on almost any instrument, from string bass to drums to piano to horns and almost anything else you can think of.

Each version of the mic comes with a specialized mount for a particular instrument, although there are also multiple mounts provided in each kit.  The ATM350U kit with Universal Clip-on Mounting System, for instance, includes the ATM350a Microphone, an AT8543 Power Module, an AT8491U Universal Clip-on Mount, an AT8490 5″ Gooseneck, an AT8468 Violin Mount (hook-and-loop fastener), and a protective carrying case. Other kits include one with a 9 inch gooseneck and a magnetic mount intended specifically for piano miking, one for drum miking with a very cool universal mount, one for woodwind miking, and one that includes a wireless transmitter. The mounting hardware is also available separately.

The Audio-Technica ATM350a retails for  between $299 to $349, depending upon the package. There’s more detailed info on the company’s website, and on the video below.

Tips For Choosing A Set Of Monitors

choosing monitorsIt’s surprising that so many monitors (speakers that is) are purchased just from a review or word of mouth, since they’re such a personal item. Here’s an excerpt from my Studio Builder’s Handbook (written with Dennis Moody) that covers some things to think about before you purchase your next set of speakers.

“1) Don’t choose a monitor because someone else is using them. Just because your favorite mixer uses a set of Tannoy Precision 8D’s, it doesn’t mean that they’ll be right for you too. Everyone hears differently and has a different hearing experience. Plus, the match with your room might not be ideal, they might not be a good match with the type of music you work on, and if they’re unpowered, you may not have the same amp to drive them with as the reviewer, so they’ll sound different from what someone else hears.

2) Make sure you listen to the monitors before you buy them. The pros take their time and listen to them under a wide range of conditions before they commit to a purchase, so why shouldn’t you? It’s true that you might not live near a big media center with lots of pro audio dealers, and even if you do, you may not have a relationship with one that gets you a personal demo in your own studio. That shouldn’t stop you from listening though. Take the trip to your local pro audio or music store and spend some time listening.

Here’s what you should listen for when you evaluate a monitor:

  • Listen for An Even Frequency Balance – Check to see if any frequencies are exaggerated or attenuated while listening to a piece of music that you’re very familiar with. Listen especially to the mid-range cross-over area (usually about 1.5 to 2.5kHz), then to cymbals on the high end, vocals and guitars in the midrange, and bass and kick drum on the low end.
  • Listen to the Frequency Balance At Different Levels – The speakers should have the same frequency balance at any level, from quiet to loud.
  • Make Sure The Speakers Are Loud Enough Without Distortion – Be sure that there’s enough clean level for your needs. Many powered monitors have built-in limiters that stop the speaker or amplifier from distorting, but this also keeps the system from getting as loud as you need it to be. Be sure to listen to them at various volume levels to determine if they’ll be loud enough for your needs, if they will distort, or if their sound characteristics change dramatically at different volumes.

3) Listen with source material that you know very well. The only way to judge a monitor is to listen to material that you’re very familiar with and have heard in a lot of different environments. This will give you the necessary reference point that you need to adequately judge what you’re listening to. You can use something that you recorded yourself that you know inside and out, or a favorite CD that you feel is well-recorded. Just stay away any critical listening with MP3’s; the higher the quality of your playback source, the better. A high quality 24 bit source like from a personal digital recorder is great because it gives you a better idea of the frequency response of the system.

If the monitors that you’re auditioning aren’t powered, you might want to bring your own amplifier to the audition because the amp/speaker combination is a delicate one. A speaker has a much greater interdependence on the power source than most of us realize, and many engineers search for the perfect amplifier almost as long as for the perfect monitor. Thankfully, that’s not as much of a problem these days since most high quality monitors have built-in amplifiers perfectly matched to its speaker drivers by the manufacturer.

That being said, you can easily get used to just about any speaker if you use it enough and learn it’s strengths and weaknesses in your room. It also helps to have a reference point that you’re sure of to compare the sound with, like your car or a particular boombox, then adjust your mixes so they work when you play them there.”

You can read more from The Studio Builder’s Handbook and my other books on the excerpt section of bobbyowsinski.com.

New Gear Overview From AES 2016

aesThe AES Conference was in Los Angeles at the end of last week, and there was new gear everywhere. Unfortunately, there wasn’t much that you’d call “revolutionary” (which is the norm at gear shows these days), but there were a few things that caught my eyes and ears that I thought I’d share.

The Show

This was a pretty upbeat show in general that was fairly well attended. There was a feeling of optimism in the air and people were spending money, even on large hardware purchases like recording consoles. That said, a number of hardware manufactures didn’t show. Universal Audio, Trans Audio Group (importers for the likes of Drawmer and ATC), Audient, and and other hardware manufacturers, and a host of software companies that you normally see at NAMM didn’t exhibit.

If there was a theme to the show, it was immersive audio, and there were exhibits and demos everywhere, although this was helped by the fact that the Audio For Virtual Reality sub-conference was also held at the same time upstairs. All in all, it’s an exciting time for this side of the business, although in many ways its still the wild west, with new tools and techniques being made up as we go along. Sort of reminds me of the early days of surround sound around about 2001 or so.

The Gear

As usual, the gear that caught my eye might not be what was most popularized at the show. Something jumps out if it’s unusual in any way or I can see an immediate use in my workflow, which might not be anything like yours. With that in mind, let’s get started.

little-labs-monitor

Little Labs Monitor – High quality headphone amplifiers are big this year, and other manufacturers have jumped in the game, but I saw these little boxes everywhere at the show. What makes Monitor unique is the ability to swap input channels, listen to one side only, go to mono or invert the phase at the flip of a switch. It’s expensive at $540, but it sure does sound good.

 

dynaco-st-70xHafler-Dynaco ST-70x – For those of you who go way back in the business, you’ll appreciate the fact that Radial Engineering, who purchased both the Hafler and Dynaco brands, is reintroducing a new version of the the famed Dynaco ST-70. This was and still is a revered tube amplifier in many hi-fi circles, and it’s back once again. No idea of the price though.

 

primeacoustic isolation productsPrimAcoustic TriPad, HeadRest and CrashGuard – Speaking of Radial, the company seems to come up with something new and useful every month. Here we find three new products from its Primacoustic division that you’ll find you’ll be able to use every day in the studio. The TriPad is a mic stand isolator, HeadRest is a mic stand headphone holder, and CrashGuard is a drum mic shield to protect your precious snare drum mic from getting wacked.

manley-nu-muManley Nu Mu – Manley showed a new compressor called the Nu Mu (along with ELOP+) which takes the tube vari-mu backbone and marries it with solid state electronics. It’s around $2,500.

 

unfairchildUTA Un-Fairchild – Speaking of vari-mu, UTA’s new UnFairchild is basically a reproduction of the hard-to-find Fairchild 670 but with a lot of extra parameter control that goes way beyond a typical 670. How much? Less than $10k.

 

 

electronaut-m97Electronaut M97 – Speaking of the 670, Electronaut showed its M77 which is like a 670 on steroids (complete with NOS tubes if you want) that incorporates a Dorrough peak meter instead of VUs. Looks pretty cool at $7,777.

 

jbl-lsr705iJBL LSR705i – I’ve never heard a small speaker with a 5 woofer sound as big as the LSR705i. The low end that comes out of these little boxes defies the laws of physics somehow and the demo that I heard by Peter Chaikin and Frank Filipetti was truly outstanding. AT $687 each, they seem like a bargain until you realize that they’re passive and require an amp and DSP processor as well. That said, they’re truly impressive..

 

 

oceanway-ribbon-micsOcean Way RM1 ribbon mic – Ocean Way Audio showed off their monitors, which always sound great, but also introduced the new RM1 ribbon mic, which incorporates a newly designed pop shield so you don’t have to worry about popping the ribbon when working with a vocalist. $2,250.

 

sennheiser-ambeoSennheiser Ambeo surround mic – If you want to record immersively, B-format is the way to do it, and Sennheiser showed it’s new Ambeo mic that’s very much like a Soundfield, but a lot cheaper at $1,650.

 

 

visisonics 5/64VisiSonics 5/64 – Speaking of immersive recording, the VisiSonics 5/64 features 5 cameras and 64 microphones. What’s amazing is that it outputs 64 48/24 PCM channels over a USB connection, along with the video. A lot of money at $64k though.

 

 

 

 

rackfxRackFX – One of the most interesting things I saw at the show was a service by RackFX. In a nutshell, if you want to have your tracks processed through some analog gear that you don’t own, the service will find a studio with the gear, download your file and play it through the device, then send you the processed file back. It even has a set of robot knob twirlers that allow you to dial in the settings yourself if you want. It’s pretty out-of-the-box thinking, but we need more of that in this industry.

That’s it for hardware, tomorrow I’ll get into some of the software from the AES show.