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An Engineers’ Survey

As the annual Winter NAMM Show drew near, Pro Sound News asked a few professional engineers to share their personal list of “studio essentials.”

Engineer Geoff Sanoff (left) with Dan Backhaus of producer management firm, Just ManagingAs the annual Winter NAMM Show drew near, Pro Sound News asked a few professional engineers to share their personal list of “studio essentials.” In this sampling, a wide range of equipment is considered indispensable. For these professionals, a combination of old and new, hard- and software comprises an arsenal that enables them to successfully serve today’s diverse client needs, production environments and budgets.

At the front end, Los Angeles-based musician/producer CJ Vanston considers the Shure KSM 44 “the desert-island mic, period. I can use it on anything: acoustic guitar, it’s great on vocals, great for electric guitar, great for just about everything I do in my studio.”

“There’s a developing market in modified microphones, where people buy a cheap Chinese mic,” explains Geoff Sanoff, who works at New York’s Stratosphere Studios as well as his personal studio. “I’ve got a modified Apex 460, a really cheap tube mic that I’ve been using quite a bit. It doesn’t sound anything like a C12 or a 251, but it’s that idea, except it’s brittler and not nearly as forgiving-sounding. But the modded ones sound more like a nicesounding tube mic.”

In his Manhattan-based home studio, engineer/producer Tim Hatfield likes his Focusrite ISA 220 Session Pack. “It has a mic pre, compressor and EQ, and it’s compact and relatively inexpensive,” he says. “I leave a microphone cable there so I can use whatever microphone I want—I have a couple of Earthworks [mics] here, and a Groove Tubes GT55, for vocals and stuff, when I’m doing things at home.

Joel Hamilton“I have the digital output card,” Hatfield adds, “so the conversion is done in the Focusrite and I go into my Digi 003 digitally. Then I have an instrument input on the front panel, and leave a mic cable on the back. It makes everything very quick.”

“I can’t say enough good things about my Universal Audio 6176 [Channel Strip],” says Vanston. “Ninety percent of what I record goes through that mic pre. I constantly get artists calling me saying, ‘How did you get the vocal sound?’ ‘How did you get this?’ It’s the KSM 44 and a Universal Audio 6176. It doesn’t change settings too much; I don’t use a lot of EQ on it. It’s just got a sweet spot with that mic that is amazing.”

An Apple Logic partisan, Vanston also considers his Mackie Control indispensable. “That thing is such a time-saver, because I don’t use any external console. I’m an in-the-box guy: all my synths and plugins are in the box. The only thing that’s out of the box is just getting into the box. I have my Apogee [converters], and after that it’s in the box, so the Mackie Control is just awesome.”

For that matter, he adds, “Logic is such a superior program for a music creator, as opposed to an engineer. The key is Logic went 64-bit—that’s enabled me to use all my RAM. I just couldn’t live without it. It runs on my laptop, runs on my big computer, [and] I use it for all my live performances now. And Logic is owned by Apple, which makes it seamless. I never fret when I do an update or worry that it’s not going to run with this.”

Beau Raymond recently relocated from Los Angeles to Portland, Oregon, where he opened his studio, Family Farm. The recent acquisition of an Antelope Audio 10m Rubidium atomic clock with OCX-V controller, he says, has done wonders.

“It’s one of those sonic things,” he explains. “It’s amazing what it does to the fidelity, how it cleans up the top end. Even the imaging—it wraps itself around your head. There’s really an impressive difference. I wasn’t a believer, and didn’t want to go out and spend the thousands of dollars you need to buy this one box, [but] I did a listening test and was instantly sold.”

Another new tool at Family Farm is a CLASP system from Endless Analog. Now, says Raymond, “I’m running my [Ampex] ATR 124 with CLASP, another fantastic, essential thing. Now I get an analog front end with all the functions of Pro Tools, which makes my life a lot easier. This changes everything: I don’t need a budget to do it. I can use one reel of tape for a whole record. It’s dumping it right in Pro Tools seamlessly.”

For the last couple years, Sanoff has recorded to tape when possible. “It’s been making life easier on almost every project,” he reports. “I find that recording to tape gives me a little bit more ‘room for error’ down the line. It smoothes out a lot of the things that I don’t like about recording digitally, and then you’re also a little bit freer with the sample rate. I’m a lot more comfortable recording at 44 or 48 if I know I’m going to be tracking the drums and bass to tape.”

For engineer/producer Joel Hamilton, BAE 1084 rackmount mic pre/EQ modules have been essential for his numerous recording projects in Bogotá. “The infrastructure is incredibly lacking in Columbia,” Hamilton reports, “so I fly in with a bunch of good front-end stuff, and then mix back in Brooklyn. I don’t want to pull modules out of my console, fly to South America and then have them get destroyed, so it’s awesome to have something currently made but with lineage to classic modules.” A reproduction of the classic Neve 1084 module, the BAE 1084, says Hamilton, “is the real deal.”

“I had the choice between vintage 1084s or the Brent Averills [BAE],” Raymond adds. “I went with the Brent Averills, and they sound fantastic. I’m a superbig fan.”

Hatfield, also a partner at Brooklyn studio Cowboy Technical Services, favors the Burl Audio B2 Bomber for analog-to-digital conversion. “My gear hasn’t changed much in years,” he says, “and there’s a reason for that. The only thing that’s really changed is the way I do the conversion, which is using the B2.”

“I absolutely love that,” Hamilton adds of the B2 Bomber. “It’s the first thing that works with Pro Tools, that works with a computer, that actually feels like a piece of audio gear. It’s like a real piece of gear that happens to interface with my Pro Tools rig. That changed everything for me with digital, it really did. I’m looking forward to the Burl Audio Mothership, the company’s new multichannel box.”

Along with using tape, Sanoff also praises tape-emulating plug-ins such as McDSP’s Analog Channel and Avid’s Reel Tape. “They do different things,” he notes, “and they don’t sound exactly like tape, but they sound pretty close. For certain kinds of problems, like trying to reel in harshness, or if you’re trying to do something on the bottom end and kind of tighten it up but also focus it, sometimes those plug-ins do a really good job.”

With a few exceptions, even die-hard analog devotees regularly employ software plug-ins. “I’ve been reaching for [plug-ins] more,” says Raymond. “Brainworx is making really neat stuff. I’ve become quite a fan of the Digital V2. Their EQs in general are pretty clean and nice. They’re mastering- level plug-ins, but I’ve been using them in mixing, for more surgical-type EQ’ing, and am pretty impressed.”

“The thing that is my most important,” says Sanoff, “is [Universal Audio’s] UAD Quad card. I can’t really work without their stuff. If I’m not in a nice studio, I’m superdependent on their software. I use their Neve compressor, their Little Labs Phase [Alignment Tool], and their dbx 160 a lot. And their Manley [Massive Passive] too— that thing is very processor-intensive but sounds amazing.

“I’ve been using Softube’s reverb and some other things,” Sanoff adds. “Their Valley People [Dyna-mite] is totally rad.”

Vanston is also a fan of UAD-2 plugins. “Their EMT plate is ridiculous! It’s such quality stuff, and they just went 64-bit also. And Spectrasonics—they’re the Apple of plug-in instruments. The Omnisphere has been a huge boon, and Stylus RMX. Omnisphere is a pretty RAM-intensive instrument, but again, since Logic went 64-bit and as Spectrasonics was the first company that I know to have 64-bit plugins, I’m not limited since I’ve got 20 GB of RAM in my computer. I’m running 20 Omnispheres in sessions, it’s awesome.”

At $50, the Valhalla DSP Shimmer is not only a bargain but “my favorite thing now, effects-wise,” says Hamilton. “It is almost a cross between granular synthesis and reverb. It’s massive, and absolutely beautiful—super-crazy washing ‘verbs that work, somehow. They sit really well. It will do an incredibly beautiful, kind of Lexicon- 480, super-long hall, but pitch-shifted up an octave, so it develops into a different sound. A guitar turns into this amazing Eno-esque wash that normally I would have to use an Eventide, a plate and a couple filters or something to get the same kind of effect. It’s $50, and I’ve been using it on every mix.”

Amplifier simulators, says Sanoff, are one of the more exciting product categories in professional audio. “Softube makes some really good ones,” he offers. “The Digidesign Eleven is really good, and Native Instruments Guitar Rig 4 is good. It’s getting to the point where you can do a hell of a lot in your house and not have to leave, and it’s convincing-sounding. If you know what you’re looking for tonally, you can get it to sound pretty damn close to a real guitar amp. And the computer speeds are fast enough that they can really model these things in a way that is accurate. To me, that is the future.”

Engineer Tim Hatfield (left) with artist Rob ArthurOf an engineer’s all-important monitors, familiarity is a key component, says Sanoff, who uses Genelec 1030s in his home studio and 1031s and 1037s at Stratosphere. “The only thing that experience really gets you,” he asserts, “is you learn how to recognize very quickly what you like and what you don’t like. But a lot of times, understanding the character of something just takes time, monitors being the best example of that. If you’re working in a room you’ve never worked in, it takes time for your ears to adjust. You can bring a reference CD, but it doesn’t mean that you immediately can run the algorithm in your brain and all of a sudden can compensate for all the anomalies you’re hearing. The thing about the Genelecs is they sort of supplanted the [Yamaha] NS-10 as the studio speaker that you always see.”

Raymond recently adopted Barefoot MicroMain27s. “They’re probably the most accurate monitoring I’ve ever experienced,” he enthuses. “This was another piece of gear I was skeptical about. I had always used nearfields that were twoways; it was a simple, effective design. But five speakers on each cabinet? The subwoofers opposing each other?

“I spent about a month and a half with them and was totally sold. I’d take a mix out of a room, and it sounded dead-on to what I left the room with. I know exactly what I’m going to hear anywhere I take it. More importantly, it’s great for a home environment, because I can crank those things. If I’ve got a guitar player who wants to do overdubs, I can turn them up and they have the power of a main speaker, but they sound way better.”

Vanston cannot do without his JBL LSR 6328 monitors. “People always say, ‘Your speakers sound great,’ and ask me what I’m using. There’s very low ear fatigue, and a very beefy sound without any overflattering fizzy kind of things that some of these ‘Gucci’ monitors have, to me. They still make me work a little bit, the way an NS-10 would. It’s just a pleasing sound, a great sound that’s translating very well to mastering. I’m mixing most of my stuff now, and getting great comments from mastering engineers, saying they’re not touching my stuff too much.”

Producer/engineer David Cole concludes, “Now, more than ever, I think the most important component to bring to the studio is an attitude of adaptability. Our workflows are taking us into widely varying situations to do our work. Being able to work on a variety of workstations and consoles is a big plus. So many projects are being done in a mix of locations: garages, warehouses, bedrooms and ‘real studios.’ You need to have a solid skill set and be able to adapt. If you are set in working only in your comfort zone, your days are numbered.

“That said, the No. 1 component in my gig bag is my headphones. The listening environments can vary widely and having a reliable reference is crucial. The Audio- Technica M50s are my current favorites.”