We all know what’s been happening to the studio economy lately. As labels squeeze their budgets and major studios struggle to make the lease, more and more producers and engineers are going solo and working out of their own facilities. Luckily, these days you don’t have to produce a multi-Platinum album — or win the lottery — to outfit a professional studio. As audio technology grows cheaper, faster and better-sounding all the time, hits are being produced on portable rigs, or even at home.
If there’s one thing that all music recording types have in common, it’s that we all crave new gear. While budget, taste and modus operandi may dramatically vary among recordists, all engineers should agree that nothing beats plugging or patching in a new microphone, component or plug-in with the bubbling anticipation of discovering a new auricular secret weapon. Now that we’re all salivating, let me ask you a question: Wanna go on a shopping spree? Good, that’s what I thought!
Per Mix‘s request, I have researched, shopped and compiled a comprehensive equipment list for three complete recording rigs, each based on three separate budgets of $25,000, $100,000 and $250,000. To pre-emptively answer your question, no, it’s not real money. But when I close my eyes, I can see the multitude of gear before me.
Preparing to spend a similarly hefty sum on gear, I talked to an assortment of recording industry and musical peers about the spree, detailed what I initially planned on purchasing and asked what they would do if they were behind the shopping cart. Not only did my equipment list evolve because of their input, but — because of the brainstorming — I better visualized the many various “ideal” recording setups that can exist. In other words, there are many possible paths to my own fantasy recording rig nirvana.
After reading this article, some of you will surely say, “Way to blow a quarter-million, bro,” and that’s fine. Hopefully, analyzing how you would personally spend the cash will better prepare you for future purchases and may even bring to mind past lapses in judgment, such as having under-employed or unnecessary components on your equipment list. The point of this exercise is to analyze equipment purchases practically, creatively and carefully.
Now for the guidelines: I will shop for equipment assuming that each fantasy recording rig has an awaiting, ideal environment. With more studios in major recording hubs empty and/or for sale, this isn’t an unrealistic scenario.
Also, I will shop for new gear. We all know of vintage microphones, processors and consoles that would be wonderful additions to our respective gear collections, but because price and condition of those can vary dramatically, I’ll stick to the new stuff.
So, without further ado, let the fantasy begin.
THE FANTASY PORTA-RIG
It’s a well-known fact that much music is being recorded today in previously inconceivable locations and scenarios, thanks to the greater affordability of high-end — capable recording equipment in smaller-than-ever packages. From the back of a tour bus, to a soundcheck, to a beach house, recording music on location has now become an increasingly feasible option for engineers and musicians. Besides, we all know how studio fever — a cousin illness to cabin fever — can set in, and that just doesn’t seem to happen when you’re recording ocean-front at Hilton Head. With that in mind, my $25k fantasy rig is mobile and easily loaded into the back of my massive and intimidating luxury SUV. (After all, this is a fantasy.)
My porta-rig is based on the Metric Halo Mobile I/O 2882+DSP ($2,195), a 1U, 7-pound, FireWire-based modular audio processing I/O unit. The 2882+DSP features 18 inputs and 20 outputs of simultaneous I/O, eight mic/line/instrument analog inputs, 24-bit/96kHz converters on all channels, front panel metering, and for the ultimate in mobility, it can run solely from a computer’s FireWire bus. Plenty of digital output options on the Mobile I/O will allow much flexibility regardless of where recorded tracks will eventually need to be transferred to. I’ll include three 2882+DSPs for 24 tracks of live recording and the 2882’s +DSP option offers assignable DSP signal processing even when tracking, thanks to the bundled plug-ins of MIOComp, MIOEQ-6, MIOEQ-12, MIOLimit, MIO Mid/Side Processor and MIOStrip. Having this available DSP processing also eliminates the need to lug heavy, multi-rack space outboard processors from location to location.
While the MOTU Digital Performer ($1,090, bundled with MOTU Unisyn) is my porta-rig DAW of choice, I can also use the MIO Console — part of Mobile I/O’s MIO operating system — for track acquisition; the MIO Console includes a hearty but no-frills recorder.
Simply stated, I selected Digital Performer based on flexibility, quality and price. With unlimited audio and MIDI tracks, support of a wide range of audio hardware and legendary editing capabilities, Digital Performer is an adaptable, aggressively priced DAW to have out in the field with one CPU. Besides, Digital Performer fully supports Pro Tools 24-bit audio files, and as previously mentioned, interoperability is incredibly important, especially considering that music recorded with my porta-rig may be later manipulated, mangled and added to my $100k and $250k fantasy studios.
For the CPU, I’ve chosen a 17-inch Apple PowerBook 1.5GHz PowerPC G4 with 2GB SDRAM. The maxed-out laptop includes an 80GB hard drive, SuperDrive (DVD-R/CD-RW), FireWire 400 and 800 ports, and, so I can throw it over my shoulder easier, a custom backpack case (total: $4,178). Considering that recording, editing and mixing will all be happening on this ultracapable computer, a larger screen is a must.
The Mobile I/O rig will be enclosed in a custom ATA-approved road case ($430) built by MT Custom Cases, a frequent builder of cases for Metric Halo clients. The shock-mounted case will also include space for my external hard drive, the Tekserve FireWire 800, which offers 250 GB of storage space ($379). Considering that an hour’s worth of 24-bit, 48kHz recording clocks in around 12 GB used per 24 tracks, the 250GB hard drive should serve the porta-rig very well. Further, with the Tekserve utilizing the G4’s FireWire 800 port, the FireWire 400 port is available for the needed FireWire 400 hub, to which the three Mobile I/Os can be connected while running with Digital Performer.
According to Metric Halo, an OHCI-compliant FireWire hub is recommended to prevent damage to the computer’s motherboard in case of a power surge when connecting or disconnecting devices while using the Mobile I/O. For this purpose, I’ve chosen a six-port hub ($50) — extra ports are always nice. Also, an OHCI-compliant PCMCIA or PCI card FireWire adapter ($19) is suggested, which allows for better overall performance by separating the audio and data traffic onto separate buses.
To complete the workstation, I/O and data-storage aspects of my porta-rig, I’ve chosen a 20-foot, 24-channel custom snake, XLR female-to-XLR male/TRS ($350), which is available from connector and cable specialists Rapco. Twenty feet of snake should be plenty to separate the rig from the sound sources, while not being too long of a run that adds substantial noise to signal.
As planned, my porta-rig is nearly halfway to the $25k maximum, which allows lots of purchase possibilities for other necessary gear — specifically, microphones. Considering that the Mobile I/O rig has been configured to record 24 tracks simultaneously, having a substantial amount of quality transducers at the source of the analog signal chain will come in quite handy.
Every good microphone collection needs a high-quality, large-diaphragm condenser. For my porta-rig, a Neumann TLM 193 cardioid model ($1,550) is included and ready for versatile use. A RODE NT-4 stereo microphone ($899), two AKG C 414 B-XLS large-diaphragms ($999 each), six Shure SM57 dynamics ($149 each) and an Audio-Technica AT25 ($275) complete the porta-rig’s rather straightforward mic list. While many other models could be substituted into this list, nearly everyone knows what to expect from these well-known, well-built mics. To me, having these mics would help take some of the selection guesswork out of recording on location. With a litany of other factors sure to arise while recording on site, knowing that I have an extremely versatile — and not terribly expensive — mic collection at bay is a reassuring feeling. Because a DI will surely be needed, I’ll also include the high-quality Radial J48 ($199). For transport, the SKB 12-Space Mic Case ($189) will hold the SM57s and the condensers in their own individual cases and still have room for cables and sundry items.
For monitoring purposes, the Mackie Big Knob Studio Command System ($384) will serve as a combo level control, monitor switcher and talkback box. The ironically small Big Knob will fit well into the scenario as it only requires a small footprint. A pair of Tannoy System 800A two-way powered monitors ($1,895 per pair) are large enough to provide necessary fullness, yet are small enough to configure into tight spaces in which a porta-rig such as this may be utilized. The rack-mountable Model 406 6-channel headphone amplifier from ART ($159) is included for affordable, high-gain headphone monitoring, while five Sony MDR 7506 foldable headphones ($130 each) and one pair of AKG K271 Studio Closed Headphones ($249 each) will offer smooth response and maximum isolation for predictably high-volume tracking situations. The K271 offers a nifty extra feature: a built-in auto-mute switch that engages when not worn.
For transporting the total porta-rig package, I’ll use a Rock N Roller R2 Micro equipment cart ($119). It expands from 26 to 39 inches in length and holds up to 350 pounds — only one trip from the SUV will get my complete rig to where it needs to be.
I still have a bit over $2,500 remaining in my $25k budget, which I will spend on necessary cables, a collection of microphone stands and the lightweight Yamaha DS750 drum throne ($130). While the G4, Big Knob and monitors will most likely rest atop the ATA flight case, I’ll also need a place to sit!
THE FANTASY MIX ROOM
An increasingly large number of music projects are now being mixed completely within the digital domain. Simultaneously, prices of ultrahigh-resolution digital recording systems have dropped dramatically while a bevy of new sleek digital desks have hit the market. Because of this — and because a large-format console is personally preferable for mixing — I have chosen to outfit my $100k studio as a fully digital surround mix room centered on a Soundtracs DS-00 digital console and a Steinberg Nuendo digital audio workstation.
Conceived to be the centerpiece of a total recording, mixing and editing system, the ultra-adaptable Soundtracs DS-00 ($68,072) offers 64 channels of full processing, 40 buses and surround mixing capability in formats up to 7.1 — perfect for my all-digital mix room. The DS-00 is also equipped with eight analog inputs, 16 analog outputs, 24 AES I/O with sample rate conversion for each XLR connection and eight I/O optical connections.
Because this is solely a mix room and all processing will take place within the mix room’s DAW, spending such a large part of my $100k budget on the DS-00 is doable. The base DS-00 includes 16 channel faders, which will be fine for my purposes. Considering the EX-00 eight-fader expanders are $14,433 each, I’d rather spend nearly $15k elsewhere.
Perfectly suited for surround mixing, the Nuendo Version 2.0 digital audio workstation ($1,499) has multichannel architecture throughout the entire signal path. It features up to 12 discrete channels for every input, audio track, effect, group and output. Nuendo 2.0 also offers a massive amount of effects, ranging from standard dynamics and filters to ultra-detail — capable modulators or quality restoration processors. It also supports VST or DirectX plug-ins available from a variety of third-party manufacturers — which can be used both off- and online — so I can build an impressive plug-in collection as my budget and the power of my CPU allows.
To be best prepared for the future — and for 192 kHz — I have selected extra I/O via Apogee AD-16X D/A and DA-16 A/D converters ($3,495 each). The units feature the C777 clocking technology found in Apogee’s Big Ben in addition to SoftLimit, an analog peak limiter that allows the capture of an additional 6 dB without going into an “over” condition. Combined with the DS-00’s own great I/O offering, these Apogee units allow my mix room to be well covered in the realm of ins and outs.
For my host CPU, I have chosen Dell’s top-of-the-line Dimension XPS PC ($1,699), which feature a Pentium 4 540 processor, 512 dual-channel DDR2 SDRAM, an 80GB hard drive and a CD-R/DVD-R drive. The Dimension PC is coupled with a 23-inch Dell W2300 LCD monitor ($1,399), which will be more than sufficient for my needs.
For data storage, I’ve opted for the Glyph GT-103 ($907), a 1U, three-bay FireWire storage frame. Three Glyph GT-Key 80GB hot-swappable, 7,200 rpm hard drives ($435 each) will be utilized with the GT-103. This configuration will allow easy transfer of session data to and from the mix system.
Being a mix room, my $100k studio rig is especially dependent on having a great monitoring system. Because this is a surround-ready mix room, I’ve decided to purchase a JBL LSR 6328P/5.1 monitoring system ($7,775) from the variety of wonderful surround monitor packages currently available. The THX-approved system featuring five bi-amplified LSR6328P monitors and one 250W LSR6312SP subwoofer offers Linear Spatial Reference, RMC Room Mode Correction and boundary-compensation technologies to tackle most any acoustics issues. Most unique is JBL’s RMC, which combats low-frequency standing waves. Once a circuit included in the subwoofer is calibrated, low-end accuracy dramatically improves at the mix position.
After selecting a pair of Herman Miller Aeron chairs with lumbar support ($1,000 each), I have completed the fantasy mix room’s main purchase list — once again, under budget! As I’m under by about $8k, I’ve opted to spend the rest on plug-ins and appropriate cabling. TC Electronic’s PowerCore system ($645) will be a great addition to this mix room. It can run up to 12 TC MegaReverbs or other TC PowerCore plug-ins simultaneously and features some truly great plug-in performers. Definite inclusions in the budget are VSTs such as Antares AutoTune 4 pitch correction ($399) and Steinberg’s Surround Edition ($499), featuring a bundle of ultracool 8-channel effects.
THE FANTASY TRACKING ROOM
After budgeting for two studio rigs of very different purposes, my final ideal rig will be configured as a tracking studio centered on a high-quality, yet reasonably priced, analog desk: a 48-input Trident Audio Series 80 5.1 console ($100,000). I carefully chose a comparatively low-cost console because for my tracking setup, I would rather have more available budget to spend on analog outboard processors and high-quality microphones. There’s nothing like sitting near a wall of glowing tubed gear awaiting signals from a band passionately flailing away at full blast. That’s recording excitement!
The Trident Audio Series 80 5.1 is an updated replica of the original Trident Audio Developments Series 80, a legendary British console that has been a part of some truly incredible records. Per channel, the Series 80 5.1 features a reproduction of the original desk’s mic preamp and EQ; the EQ offers two swept mids and switchable high-shelving and low-shelving mids. Updates on the original Series 80 design include 5.1 mix capability, eight aux sends and eight aux returns. In the center section, the Series 80 5.1 offers the 2-channel Oram Hi-Def EQ and SoniComp dual-circuit compressor/limiter. Fully automated, the Series 80 5.1 also includes a remote palladium contact patchbay.
As previously mentioned, conversing with gear-savvy peers helped me solidify my gear lists. In regards to the Series 80 5.1, most agreed that an analog desk in such a tracking room was preferable, but in today’s recording scene, consoles aren’t viewed in the same way as they used to be. These days, when an increasing amount of album projects — even some major ones — are recorded and mixed without the use of a traditional console, spending the largest portion of my budget on one just didn’t seem like a good move. I felt that I should include a well-respected analog console with lots of character, but with a comparatively small price tag. Of all the console candidates I considered, the Trident Series 80 5.1 best fit the bill.
This tracking room will include a Digidesign Pro Tools|HD3 Accel system ($14,000) and five Digidesign 192 I/O units ($3,995 each) to allow for the recording of 40 simultaneous tracks. The 192 I/O 16-channel 24-bit/192kHz-capable audio interface offers eight channels of analog, eight channels of AES/EBU, eight channels of TDIF, 16 channels of Lightpipe and two additional channels of Lightpipe or S/PDIF digital I/O, which should cover input and output quite nicely.
A dual-processor Apple 2GB PowerPC G5 ($2,949) will serve as the system’s CPU. The superfast G5 processor, FireWire 400 and 800 ports and seemingly infinite expansion possibilities makes this computer an obvious choice, especially when the budget allows for it! For viewing Pro Tools tracks, Apple’s new 20-inch cinema display ($1,299) will be used. For storage, my tracking room’s DAW will incorporate three Glyph GT-Key 80GB hard drives ($435 each) — just like the $100k mix room. The Glyphs will allow me to freely move project files from my tracking room to my mix room via the GT-Key hot-swappable drives.
Understanding how most musicians prefer to listen back to tracks in a studio environment, I have chosen to install a couple of large main monitors for — if nothing else — wow factor. Offering the needed wow will be a pair of Dynaudio M3A three-way active main monitors ($8,945 per pair), which feature dual 300mm polypropylene bass drivers, dual 150mm piston midrange drivers and a 28mm ESOTAR soft-dome tweeter with an aluminum voice coil. The M3A’s transparent acoustic characteristics, even while monitoring at high levels, will certainly deliver any desired high-volume “wow” requested by those hanging out in the control room. For near-field speakers, two options will be nice to have: Two Genelec 8040A bi-amplified near-field monitors ($2,500 per pair) and a pair of ADAM S3A three-way, tri-amplified monitors ($4,850 per pair) should offer a wide range of monitoring choices. Most engineers are highly impressed with M3A, 8040A and S3A monitors, so these selections should surely serve as a well-rounded monitor collection.
The studio will also need a headphone monitoring setup. By selecting an Aviom Personal Monitor Mixing System, performing musicians will have up to 16 channels of audio at their fingertips to mix any way they desire. The system features the 1U AN-16/I Input Module ($899), which converts analog inputs from the console and transmits them through the Aviom A-Net protocol, traveling via Cat-5 cable. Receiving digital signal from the Cat-5 will be six A-16/II Personal Mixers ($499 each) that allow up to 16 custom mixes to be saved as snapshots. As included in my fantasy mobile rig, six AKG K271 studio headphones ($249 each) will deliver all audio to the musicians’ ears.
Here is where the fun starts. With around $89k remaining in the budget, I still have a clutch of cash to spend on great analog outboard gear and microphones. To start, I will purchase eight channels of Wunder Audio’s PEQR1, a rack-mounted version of the stellar PEQ1 1970s-style mic preamp/equalizer. When purchasing at least eight units, Wunder gives a multiple unit discount ($2,000 each for eight). Compared to the classic Neve 1073 that the PEQ1 was modeled upon, the Wunder Audio unit offers more equalizing ability with fully developed lows, more presence in the mids and clearer highs. It’s truly a great front end for any tracking session and is sure to be used constantly in my tracking room scenario.
The Manley SLAM! Stereo Limiter and Mic Pre ($6,600) will also find its way into my outboard racks. The SLAM! is outfitted with two tube mic preamps and a FET-based limiter, making it a great rock ‘n’ roll tracking machine. Two Empirical Labs Distressor EL 8-SX compressors with a pre-installed British Mode option ($4,599 each) will also be on the list. The EL 8-SX’s British Mode concept, based on an unusual setting on classic UREI LN1176 limiters, offers aggressive, over-the-top compression abilities. For further compression and DI needs, the equipment list will include an API L200 12-slot rack ($675) holding 10 API 255L compressors ($695 each) and two API 205L instrument direct boxes ($595 each). In the realm of guitar recording, a Little Labs PCP Instrument Distro ($1,050) will come in handy. The PCP is a 1-in, 3-out guitar splitter featuring transformer-isolated guitar level outs with phase reversal, ground lift and level adjustments on every output.
For effects, I’ve chosen the Lexicon 960LS Stereo Multi-Channel Digital Effects System ($16,649), which is similar to the 960L without the multichannel processing and AES/EBU digital I/O. The savvy effects system supports eight 24-bit/96kHz balanced XLR I/O, offers flexible I/O mixing capabilities and has a seemingly infinite collection of great reverbs and other effects. Because the 960LS will be used in my stereo-based tracking studio, I feel that it’s no big deal to do without the multichannel capabilities. Besides, in this fantasy scenario, I’ll do all of my mixing in the surround studio!
The tracking rig’s microphone list has been compiled to offer a well-rounded selection of transducers for most acoustic instrument — or amplified instrument — based sessions. Starting with the largest and priciest selection, I have chosen the Soundelux E47 tube microphone ($3,950), which is based on the classic Neumann U47. From incredibly capturing great vocal performances to room microphone applications such as distance drum miking and acoustic, gather-’round-the-mic situations, the E47 should find lots of use at the studio.
The rest of the mic list includes something for everyone and enough to sufficiently record a full band or ensemble. A Neumann U87-AI ($3,149), two AKG C 414 B-XLSs ($999 each), 10 Shure SM57s ($149 each), an AKG D112 ($299), an Audix D6 ($349) and four Sennheiser MD-421 IIs ($485 each) act as mic locker staples. For stereo-miking needs, dual DPA 4011 cardioid condensers ($1,850 each) and two Sony C48 tri-pattern mics ($1,675 each) are stellar transducer choices to have. For further miking options, a Neumann KM84-styled SKM184 small-diaphragm stereo mic pair ($1,949), the unique BLUE Dragonfly cardioid ($1,095) and the ultraflat Earthworks SR77 directional condenser ($995) round out the list. Finally, two Royer R-121s (1,195 per pair) serve as multipurpose, nearly bulletproof choices when only a ribbon microphone pair will do.
While not exactly in the microphone category, the Yamaha SKRM-100 Subkick low-frequency capture device ($499) has been added to the list for its ability to get great bass drum sounds to a recorded medium. The unit is essentially a 6.5-inch speaker loaded in a 10×5-inch Yamaha birch/mahogany drum shell. When placed in front of a kick drum, the low-frequency transducer can be combined with an internal kick drum microphone for a bass-bolstering thump. When used with the AKG D112, the SKRM-100 is a really neat and simple tool for getting great bass drum sounds.
Because long-running overdub sessions are a given, two Herman Miller Aeron chairs with lumbar support ($1,000) will sit before the fantasy room’s Trident desk. With around $2,500 left in the budget — which will be spent on cables, microphone stands and the like — I have again come in under budget. With that, it’s time to record!
CHOICES, CHOICES, CHOICES
Looking back at the many pages of gear and prices listed here, I have determined that outfitting a fantasy studio is a worthwhile exercise, regardless of whether you have an available budget or not. It’s simply a great way to understand the choices available in outfitting an appealing, realistic and flexible recording rig at a variety of price and purpose points. Doing so also reveals the incredible amount of manufacturers that create interchangeable, yet ultimately different, recording products.
Now, onto my next big fantasy challenge: Where are all of my clients?
Strother Bullins is a North Carolina-based freelance writer specializing in the professional audio and entertainment industries.