DIY Record Production – Part 4: Equipment – by Ian Button, Oct 2009
This month I’m going to give you a run-down of the equipment I use, and possibly mention some that I wish I had. It’s probably taken a couple of years to collect everything – and I guess it should be pretty obvious that DIY recording doesn’t mean you don’t have to spend any cash! I use a mixture of budget and posh gear, as you will see………
I used to be PC through and through, but got a Mac when I started teaching. I made the transition pretty quickly. I got the most basic Mac Book, but with 2GB of RAM. It works fine. The only thing is there’s not a massive amount of hard disk space – and installing the whole of something like Logic would probably almost fill it right up. I use external hard drives, like the one above, for storing and transporting the recording projects around, and for the massive Logic library, most of which I don’t need. It doesn’t always work to open up the projects straight from the drive, so I usually copy the work in progress onto the actual Mac for the recording/overdubbing sessions.
I am currently using Logic 9 – I came to the software pretty late – Logic 8 was the first version I got in 2007, and already it had been made a lot more streamlined and user-friendly than older versions. The latest version has great new features for the live band recordist like me: an impressive amp/stomp box designer to rival the best 3rd party plugins, and a very intuitive system to edit and correct feel and timing in audio recordings e.g. drums.
I also have Cubase 5 installed, although I find I don’t use it much (after several years of working through different versions of Cubase on my PC) – that’s not to say it’s not just as good as Logic. The two packages seem to be ‘leapfrogging’ each other year by year in terms of new software and features, but essentially they do the same thing – the plugins and software instruments may vary, but for ‘live’ recording (using the software almost like tape) there’s really not a lot in it with the two current versions (perhaps Logic is a little ahead at the time of writing!)
Another package I use a lot is Reason
- not so much for programming or music creation, but for it’s great library of sounds (strings/keys etc) that I will use, via Logic & Rewire in production and mixing.
Hardware Interface etc
For this kind of multitrack recording I’ve got a Focusrite Saffire Pro 26I/O. It’s a firewire interface that gives you 8 channels of simultaneous recording (it actually has 26 ins and outs including digital etc, but in practice, for plugging mics in, you have 8 inputs). There are pre-amps on each channel so you can set levels easily, and there’s a useful software panel that comes up on screen to configure it all.
At home I’ve got simpler soundcards/interfaces which are useful for later overdubbing, and not so cumbersome/fiddly to set up.
The Edirol UA-25 was the first proper interface I got – it only records 2 channels at once, but is fine for individual overdubs.
I’ve also got an M-Audio Ozonic which is a combined 4 channel interface (only one mic input though) and a MIDI controller keyboard. Again quite useful for overdubbing and programming sessions after the initial live recording has been done.
My most recent, and most extravagant puchase of late is a Drawmer 1969 stereo compressor and preamp – I’d been reading a lot about recording through pre amps and channel strips etc, and I wanted to start to use that method myself. This unit seemed to be the one that suited my setup and needs the best. I wanted two channels rather than one, so that ruled out a lot of the channel strips although they all look pretty good.
I settled on the Drawmer and I’ve got it in a rack case with the Focusrite interface – when I am recording drums I can now run the overheads through one or both compressors, I can get a really good bass sound through the preamp and compress it on the way in, and for vocals too I can set up a nice compressed sound there and then and commit it to the recording early on – something I never used to do but am more confident about now.
I am also using the Drawmer at the mix/mastering stage, playing complete mixes back through it in stereo to add another bit of overall valve compression.
Speakers and headphones
For many years I used a pair of 1997 vintage Labtec computer speakers – I still have them and take them to sessions sometimes for monitoring. For a more professional approach, and at home, I have Yamaha HS-50M’s. They are self-powered and supposed to be modelled on the veteran NS-10. I think they sound nicer, and they have a few adjustment switches on the back to tailor their response for different rooms etc.
I have found them to be pretty accurate, transparent speakers for mixing etc….I seem to get consistent results and no nasty surprises when I play stuff elsewhere.
In terms of headphones, I have a couple of pairs of these Beyerdynamic DT 770 Pro’s. Good frequency response, closed design, comfy to wear…..
Let’s start with the cheapest: this is a set of Skytronic drum mics that came flight-cased, with cables, from eBay for less than two hundred quid. There’s a very respectable kick drum mic, four clip on dynamics, and two condensers for overheads.
You could spend a lot more on a set like this….or replace bits of it, as you will see I have done, but all in all this is pretty useable.
Next there’s some highly recommended all-purpose dynamic mics from Shure – the ones we’ve all seen and heard of everywhere we go, and really there’s no excuse for not having at least one of these.
The SM-58, SM-57, and the Beta 57 (a more directional version of the 57). I use the 57 in particular for snare drums, guitar amps…the other two for guitars, vocals, you name it really…..
It’s also worth mentioning here another dynamic mic I got recently – the Sennheiser E606.
It’s basically similar to a 57, but designed with miking guitar cabs in mind. It’s used a lot in live situations – you can even hang it down by its cable in front of the amp – something that’s not ideal for a conventional shaped mic like a 57 or 58.
As well as some dynamic mics, I’d also recommend adding a decent condenser mic to your setup as soon as you can. The first one I got was this Rode NT2000 – not too expensive, and does the job on vocals, acoustic guitars etc. I don’t usually take it out for live sessions, but mainly use it at home for overdubs.
I also decided I needed to get a good matched stereo pair of condenser mics, mainly to replace the Skytronic ones for drum overheads etc. I’d always heard that Oktava was a good make, and I got a pair of MK-012′s, again from eBay. They come in a case with 3 interchangable capsules (different polar patterns), and I have ended up using them for vocals, guitars, violin, piano, dulcimer etc as well as drums.
Don’t forget if you are using condensers to record vocals close-up, you will need a pop-shield.
Finally, a couple of luxury items: first is a vintage Grampian GR2/L ribbon mic – another eBay find, and packaged in a great jewellery box type case. I’ve really only used this as a single, mono drum overhead so far, but it works fine…it almost sounds compressed already (you have to be careful how you place these mics – they are fragile and DO NOT like phantom power!!).
Next there is the Electro-Voice RE20: this is the single most expensive mic I own, and my current favourite for versatility and quality combined. It’s a dynamic mic, but has a frequency response close to the best condensers (it’s used a lot in broadcasting). It’s also robust, doesn’t need a pop shield and can withstand very high sound pressure levels. So you can use it for pretty much anything – vocals, guitars & other instruments, and you can put it inside a kick drum!
Extras: Third Party Software
In addition to the basic music creation software, here’s what I use, and would recommend, in terms of third party plugins etc..
Native Instruments Guitar Rig: purists may scowl, but this (and it’s cousin Amplitube from IK Multimedia, not to mention Logic 9′s own brand amp & FX pedal simulator) is brilliant. Build your own custom amp, stack, pedals and effects. I use this from the outset in recording projects. To be able to tweak and modify guitar sounds as you go from recording to mixing is a godsend in my book. Use whatever amp simulators you can lay your hands on.
Apulsoft Aptrigga: one of the reasons I do not agonise over drum sounds at the initil recording stage, is that I know I will be triggering/replacing drum sounds later on. There have been various methods of doing this: a free plugin called KT Drum Trigger will create a MIDI note from peaks in a piece of audio, and you then assign an instrument to that MIDI track.
Recently I’ve been using Aptrigga, which fires off a sample (or layered samples) that you can blend in with your original drum sound. I will pretty much do this as a matter of course with kick and snare on everything I do, to some degree, to add more punch and clarity, or for more obvious effects. I’ve got a big library of drum sounds I can add in, from software instruments like BFD, to vintage drum machines, to acoustic kits, to hip-hop producers’ sounds.
It warmed the cockles of my heart to see that Logic 9 now has drum replacement/triggering built in as a one-click (almost) function – it works by converting audio to MIDI, and you get velocity information too which makes for very realistic triggered sound.
Izotope Ozone 4: this is a mastering plugin suite that I use a lot – inserted over my main outputs, often from an early stage in the recorings to gel the track together and get an impression of how I want it to sound in the end. I basically use the ‘Rock Master’ preset with a little tweak or two, and judge the amount of ‘squash’ by using the input level so it’s not too extreme. Ozone also has presets for drums, vocals etc, which I’ve tried, but I tend to only use it on the overall mix these days.
So there you have it – I’m not saying you need to have all of this stuff by any means – hopefully it’s clear what is essential, what’s desirable, and what’s optional. Which reminds me, I said I’d say what was on my wish list.
Well, I guess…….an SSL channel strip maybe…or perhaps some kind of vintage Neumann mic – although I’d be too nervous to take it anywhere…….and some proper vintage AKGs for real Beatles drum miking – a D-12 and a D-19 please…..
****August 2010 UPDATE****
I thought I should update this as I have a few new bits now…and a couple of wish list items can now be ticked off.
I now have an API Lunchbox – a small rack unit that you can load with up to six luxury preamps, compressors, EQs etc. It was developed for the API 500 series of modules but there are loads of companies that make units for it. I have gone API purist and bought 2 x 512C preamps, 2 x 550A EQs and 2 x 525 compressors, so in effect I have 2 complete channels of an API desk, which is quite a desirable thing! I use it for the live recording stage (perhaps for overheads or bass) and loads for overdubs – vocals, guitars, everything pretty much goes through it. It’s also going to be great for running mixes through as a stereo mastering unit, although I haven’t tried that properly yet.
I’ve also got my SSL wish in the form of a Duende Mini. This is an external DSP unit that connects by Firewire to the computer, and handles the processing for the SSL plugins. I have the channel strip and the bus compressor – again both classic, sought-after units that are now available in software. I’ve been using these recently instead of Ozone 4 for mastering. It’s a lot simpler, and subtler too – just overall EQ and compression basically, no fancy exciters, multiband or stereo imaging to worry about!!
On a more budget note, I discovered Gauge Microphones from the US, who make a very nice condenser mic, the ECM-87 for a very reasonable price. I bought a pair and have used them a lot for drum overheads and vocals. They have a nice crisp, bright top end that compares to much more expensive mics – check out the website for comparisons.
I’ll keep updating this as and when any interesting new gear comes my way…………..!