Everybody loves a shopping spree. And though the same can't be said in, say, real estate or fuel, in pro audio, your dollar currently stretches farther than ever. With that in mind, we once again supplied three writers with imaginary gear budgets and asked them to come up with their dream studios. For simplicity's sake, we assumed that our planners already have a room and a computer. Also, listed prices are approximate — do a little sleuthing and you're sure to find even better deals.
THE $25K MUSIC ROOM
If I suddenly had $25,000 in cash to build my dream personal studio, rest assured I would not sniff at such a sum. To the contrary, a chunk of change like that available for music production would mean that my electronic-based music — for commercials, TV, film placements and personal artistry — had gone to the next level.
So with this budget, I'm me, just a little more successful. That means I need to work comfortably and quickly by myself 90 percent of the time, but with the ability to get quality recordings with a vocalist, guitarist or horn player at a moment's notice. I'm starting with a maxed-out computer (a Windows PC) and a room that supposedly sounds at least decent. In all hardware and software purchase decisions, my primary criterion will be the same: No one item will be allowed to bust the budget. All prices are street.
DAW AND MORE
This is not going to be a commercial studio where other engineers' work habits are much of a concern, so I'm going to go with the DAW I know and love best, Cubase SX3 ($599.99). (Cubase 4 had just been released as this issue went to press.) To me, Cubase offers a scientifically approachable method of mixing, with tremendous flexibility once you get familiar with all the facts of its deep workflow. To get sound directly in and out of the machine, I'm selecting the RME Fireface 400 ($999.97), which offers a great deal for the money: 24-bit/192kHz FireWire, active jitter suppression, and fully independent routing and mixing. Its SteadyClock feature allows it to be the sync reference for the entire studio. Expansion via an RME ADI-8 DS ($1,799.97) will bring me up to a full 16 inputs and outputs (at 96 kHz), with all my AD/DA concerns covered.
The studio's emphasis will be on software, so I'll need a few key suites in addition to Cubase. With its unparalleled loop-based arrangement capabilities, Sony ACID Pro 6 ($379.97) is indispensable to my workflow, especially with its vastly improved audio and MIDI recording capabilities. Propellerhead's Reason 3 ($399.97) and ReCycle ($199.97) are also must-haves for creating grooves. I'll also get the full host of Spectrasonics virtual instruments, including Stylus RMX for drums ($279.97), Atmosphere synth ($369.97) and Trilogy for bass ($319.97). Although it's no longer manufactured, I'll scour the ends of eBay to get the insanely original-sounding Hartmann Neuron VS synth (now approximately $300).
Speaking of VST plug-ins, the Universal Audio UAD-1 Ultra PAK ($1,199.97) will find a happy home in one of my PCI slots, providing plenty of its own DSP power for highly faithful re-creations of the 1176, Fairchild 670 and Pultec EQ, plus great reverbs and more. The Waves Masters bundle ($675) will prepare me for the “mastering” phase. (Self-mastering is an oxymoron in my book.) I really like the look of the new Masterclick Tempo Timing Software for film and video composers ($79.95). Also indispensable are the Kjaerhus Audio Golden Audio Channel ($198), PSP Vintage Warmer ($149), KVR Tone2 FilterBank2 ($49) and a wide variety of freeware VST synths and plug-ins that I've tracked down on the Web.
OUTSIDE THE BOX
To interface with everything inside the box, I'll begin with the Novation ReMOTE SL 61 ($599.99). I love the weighted feel of Novation controllers, and its Automap templates for Cubase and Reason (among others) will save me a lot of time in those programs. The Roland HandSonic 15 ($899.97) is also a unique MIDI controller and sound source. I also demand the time-saving presence of the humble Creative Labs Prodikeys combination QWERTY/MIDI keyboard ($49.99). Ditto the 3M Ergonomic Mouse EM500 ($51.84), which allows your hand to mouse comfortably in a more neutral, “handshake” position. Instead of a large mixing surface, I'd opt for the USB PreSonus FaderPort ($199.97), which fits one long-throw motorized fader and several transport and master control functions into a small-footprint package.
For a mic pre, my mission was to get two channels of very high-quality inputs, EQ, and limiting and/or compression for less than $2,000. The Langevin Dual Vocal Combo ($1,800.97) by Manley Laboratories fits the bill, giving me a highly functional front end. Joining it will be the Daking FET II compressor ($1,995), which will also be on hand to cover the outbound signal from my analog summing box — an essential tool for serious “in-the-box” mixers — which will be the Dangerous Music 2-Bus ($2,649), still one of the best options for the money. The analog and digital Switchcraft 6425 ($699.97) patchbay will give me flexibility as I add gear.
When I'm recording live sounds and musicians, I don't like doing it straight into the computer. For that insanely critical task, I prefer the a stand-alone workstation, especially the Yamaha AW1600 ($999) personal digital studio, a portable unit that records 16 tracks at 24-bit resolution. A Quik-Lok QL-400 mixer stand ($129.99) will also be key.
Sound design will probably be on my menu, and for that I've found that the Line 6 PODxt Live ($399.99) delivers great, real-time, sound-twisting capabilities via the large, assignable pedal; plus, it's a great amp simulator for my guitarist friends. Assuming they love live looping as much as I do, the new Boss RC-50 Loop Station ($499.97) looks positively lustful.
Time for mics! With a Soundelux U195 ($1,080.97) and the venerable Shure SM57 ($99.97), I'm covered for 99 percent of the vocal and guitar recording situations, although this collection will continue to grow quickly.
Obviously, if I can't hear all this correctly, what's the point? The active JBL LSR4328P Pak ($1399.97/pair) comes bundled with a measurement mic that allows the units to calibrate to the room. Along with the powered JBL LSR4312SP subwoofer ($899.97), I'll get full range and a solid upgrade path to surround when I get that first 5.1 job.
Let's not leave out the ergo-friendly furniture. The Raxxess ACD-30-45M ($299.97) is angled and configurable for future add-ons. Anyone who hasn't tried a knee chair in the studio should: The Jobri Ergonomic Knee Chair ($199.99) could save your back and butt in the long haul.
Talking about saving your butt, I believe that business-class remote online storage of all my precious music data is a must. A search for “remote data storage” sites like www.ibackup.com revealed a year of automatic 100GB backup for about $1,000 — a bargain for true peace of mind.
The total to this point is $23,960.16, leaving me exactly enough headroom for $1,000 worth of cables and unexpected items, plus two boxes of smelling salts ($22.77 apiece) for reviving me when I walk into this beautiful room and find it waiting just for me.
— David Weiss
THE $75K MIX ROOM
When I first started this feature, I thought it would be hard to put together a “dream” mix system for just $75,000, but I was shocked at how much esoteric gear I could fit into a budget that was at one time what you'd pay for a single 24-track analog 2-inch machine. In my case, the “assumed” computer is a beefy Dual or Quad Core Mac G5 that supports a Pro Tools HD system and has plenty of RAM. However, to make my system sound as individual as possible, I'm leaning toward the boutique side of things with a lot of creative options outside the box.
I'll start with the basic Pro Tools HD3 Accel system ($13,995) and some I/O. I opted for a single 192 I/O interface ($3,995) and an Apogee DA-16X ($3,495). The Apogee unit not only gives me a different flavor of conversion to send to the outside world, but I get the Big Ben C777 clock as a bonus and save $500 toward a second 192 I/O. Besides, this is a mixing room and I don't need to pay for the additional inputs I'd get if I simply went for a second Digidesign I/O box. The 192 I/O gives me eight analog outs, plus eight channels of AES/EBU and a S/PDIF output, all separately addressable. If I want to expand later, I can buy an extra eight inputs or outputs for less than $1,000 with an optional card, in either digital or analog formats.
I will monitor through the new M&K 1611P near-field monitors ($1,399 each); they offer a lot of bottom end and the image carries the typical razor-sharp M&K signature. To feed the M&Ks and give me control, I'll use the new Dangerous Music ST monitor controller ($1,899). It offers analog stepped-attenuator volume control, four input sources and three speaker outputs, should I decide to expand to mid-fields, programmable input gain offsets and assignable subwoofer outputs.
INSIDE AND OUTSIDE JOB(S)
I am in DAW land, so I'll need some plug-ins. A lot of free stuff comes with my Pro Tools HD3 purchase (see the list at www.mixonline.com); I'm also going to pack my system with some other great options. For starters, so I'm not taxing the system, I'm going to purchase a Waves APA44-M audio processing accelerator ($2,400). This will keep my system running smoothly and give me lots of DSP headroom. This box only runs Waves plug-ins, so I'll buy the Waves Diamond Bundle ($7,000) to give me a great list of options. I'll also get the Massenburg Design Works 5-band EQ plug-in ($795) and the SoundToys TDM effects bundle ($1,195), which includes nine plug-ins (EchoBoy, SoundBlender, FilterFreak, PhaseMistress, PurePitch, Speed, PitchDoctor, Tremolator and Crystallizer). I'll add Antares' Auto-Tune 4 ($399) and Celemony's Melodyne Studio ($699), and throw in the versatile Drumagog drum-replacement plug-in ($249). For reverb, I'll get the Altiverb RTAS Convolution Reverb ($595), plus the Princeton Digital 2016 Reverb ($2,245) hooked up through the S/PDIF I/O of my 192 I/O.
For fader control, the CM Labs MotorMix 2 ($1,849) will give me the ability to grab some real faders during the mix. To keep everything quiet in the room, I'm going to put the computer and other noisy gear inside the Noren AcoustiLock vCAB 16-rackspace unit noise-reduction enclosure ($2,787).
Clean power lowers your noise floor and makes it easier to hear fine detail. I'm using two Shunyata Hydra Model-8 power conditioners ($1,995 each), offering a total of 16 analog and 16 digital AC power taps for my system. I've thrown in 16 Shunyata Venom Power Chords ($99 each). The Hydra provides 2,400 watts at 20 amps of clean power, plus 60,000 amps of surge protection.
I'll also need to sum back to the analog domain and do some processing, so I've chosen an SPL Mixdream summing box ($3,795), which offers 16×2 summing through Lundahl LL1539 transformers and some additional dynamics processing. I'll also add a Tube-Tech SMC-2B multiband compressor ($4,995) to put one last tube touch on the signal. The Tube-Tech splits the signal into low, mid and high bands, giving me the ability to compress each to taste and then mix the three outputs.
For that last mastering touch, a GML 8200 4-band parametric EQ ($5,000) is pulling triple-duty. If I don't use it across the final 2-mix as a mastering EQ, I can use it to beef up the kick and snare drum across an insert on the SPL Mixdream, or use it inside the box by employing Waves Q-Clone ($1,000). This lets me use a convolution-based version of this studio classic as much as I want. For some extra punch across the kick and snare, I've got two Empirical Labs EL8 Distressors ($1,500 each).
To store the mix, the Benchmark ADC-1 192kHz/24-bit stereo A/D converter ($1,775) gives me an excellent way to get into the Tascam DV-RA1000 DSD master recorder ($1,499). The Tascam records directly to DVD+RW and CD-R/RW media; offers a USB 2 connection to a PC for use as a DVD data drive; has balanced AES/EBU I/O; balanced XLR and unbalanced RCA I/O; word sync I/O (Big Ben, here we come!); RS-232C serial control; and SDIF-3 DSD I/O for external conversion and processing of DSD audio. To get back to my monitor section, I'm using a Benchmark DAC-1 192/24 stereo D/A converter ($995). This can be sent back to Pro Tools via the AES/EBU inputs on the 192 I/O for archival possibilities or remix options. Sometimes that extra dB of vocal is easiest to get by taking your 2-mix back into the box and just adding a bit more on another channel, after first lining it up with sample accuracy.
I've priced this system out at full retail, so I've used this cushion to pay for interconnects such as XLRs, RCAs, etc. With all the boutique options I've built into my dream room, I guarantee it will sound sweet.
— Kevin Becka
$150K TRACKING STUDIO
Like Becka's fantasy mix room, there will be no console in my fantasy tracking studio. I'll center it on outboard recording chains — classic mic preamps, EQs and compressors that define the recorded sound.
MODERN CONTROL ROOM
The principal modern touches here are a DAW, storage and UPS. I'd start with Pro Tools HD3 Accel PCIe ($14,000) running on a 3GHz Mac Pro with two Dual-Core Intel Xeon “Woodcrest” microprocessors, 6 GB of RAM, a 30-inch Cinema HD monitor, two extra Maxtor 500GB internal archive drives and Digidesign Custom Qwerty keyboard with color-coded Pro Tools shortcut keys.
Because I'm not doing final mixes, I'm only interested in a couple of pieces of extra software beyond the suite that comes with Pro Tools. To be a full-service tracking room, the ability to supply universal audio and session files to outside studios is key. I'll do this with the Digidesign DigiTranslator 2 ($495). DigiTranslator 2 delivers reliable, accurate conversion and exchange of OMF, AAF and MXF audio files, video files and sequences directly from Pro Tools. Another useful piece of software is Digidesign's new X-Form ($495) AudioSuite™ plug-in for time stretching and formant-correct pitch shifting.
For power line integrity, the Furman SB1000 UPS/Line Regulator provides up to 1,000VA or 600W of stabilized power — even during brownout or serious over/under-voltage condition — and provides three minutes of backup time. This will be the best $630 you'll ever spend if it keeps your session “alive” just one time during a major outage.
I want to record at least 24 tracks simultaneously, so I'd get three Mytek 8X192 AD/DA I/O boxes ($3,945 each and Pro Tools interface cards at $795 each). The Mytek uses 64x oversampling (128x at 44.1/48 kHz) for 24-bit PCM audio out to a 192kHz sampling rate. the newest low-jitter chip technology used by Mytek precludes buying an external clock. The 8-channel units have an integrated master clock with six outputs, and 16x2 analog summing stereo bus built in with a master-quality 1dB per-step attenuator.
Tracking sessions consume vast amounts of hard drive space, and running out of room is unacceptable. For storage, I'd go with Studio Network Solutions' 2,000GB globalSAN™ X-4 2TB RAID 5 storage system with Gigabit Ethernet ($7,000). At 1 Gigabit/second, the X-4 offers more bandwidth than the fastest USB or FireWire systems available.
A rock band coming into the control room from the studio after spending hours tracking on loud headphones are going to want to hear playback at concert level. Let's rock at any volume level with the ADAM S2.5 powered monitors ($4,250/pair) and a Sub 12 subwoofer ($1,749). For stands, I'll use the Sound Anchors Adjustables ($450/pair).
For tracking, I monitor off the stereo bus in Pro Tools — I derive all my headphone mixes there and, of course, each new song's mix and particular headphone balance is stored in the session file. I like monitoring Pro Tools in the control room using a Crane Song Avocet Class-A monitoring controller ($2,800). The Avocet has switching for three different monitor speakers, three +4dBm analog inputs and three digital inputs. With its own mastering quality, up-sampled 192kHz D/A converter, all incoming digital audio sources (Pro Tools mix bus, CDs, DATs, Internet audio) can be precisely compared in terms of apparent loudness, spectral balance and dynamic processing.
DAWs, computers and OS software may come and go, but the timeless constant you'll always find in any worthwhile recording studio control room is a collection of great analog outboard gear. My fantasy analog processing is divided into two outboard racks: American and English.
For me, API is the epitome of the “American” solid-state sound. I like the punchy sound of API's Class-A/B amplifier blocks, especially for drums and bass. Starting with the API 500VPR 10-slot rack with power supply ($949), there would be room for four 512C microphone preamps ($795 each), two 560 Graphic EQs ($795 each) — which are best for kicks and snare drums — two 550B 4-band EQs ($1,195 each) and two 550A 3-band classic EQs ($1,695 each), both great for everything else.
Big-sounding and all-American, Manley Laboratories' Mic/EQ 500 combo single-channel mic preamp and passive high/low-EQ unit ($2,900) was conceived for recording vocals, acoustic and electric guitars, and even orchestral primary mics. I like them for vocals, drum overheads or any orchestral instrument.
GT Electronics' Vipre ($3,499) is a variable-impedance all-tube mic preamp that sounds huge on everything — especially vocals, guitars and drums — and is the ticket for impedance-sensitive ribbon mics. I will buy a pair of these.
For smooth overall tube equalization for vocals or keyboards, I'd spec two Mercury Recording Equipment EQ-H1s ($1,795 each). The EQ-H1 is based on the famed American Pultec EQ and has a transformer-balanced I/O, with a single-ended gain makeup amplifier. No tracking studio would be complete without a pair of good compressors. I'll start with two Universal Audio 1176LNs ($1,995 each) — the classic FET peak limiter. Representing the British are the reissued AMS Neve 1073 modules ($3,750; I'll buy four units) — classic Class-A units. To match the American rack, there should be four channels that are great for anything, but especially electric guitars, vocals and drums.
I couldn't get by without a Trident S80 Producer Box with two channels of Trident Series 80 modules ($3,933 for two channels). I love them for their hard, “in-your-face” sound. The Brit rack continues with four channels of Helios 1r Twin-Type 69 Mic Pre/EQ in a “lunchbox” ($6,950). They're great for hyped-sounding vocals and guitars.
Lastly, the EMI Studios sound is represented by Chandler Limited's TG Channel MKII Abbey Road Special Edition unit ($2,350). These Class-A/B amplifiers with EQ were used for The Beatles' Abbey Road album, Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon and others. For English compression, I'd like to have a pair of vintage Neve 2264E compressors ($3,500 each). These are the coolest-sounding units on drums and guitars — a little squashy and just full of vibe.
Finally, a pair of Tube-Tech CL1B compressors ($2,500 each) will sound very clean under huge reductions — it's my fave tube unit for vocals, bass guitar, and electrical and acoustical guitars.
OUT IN THE STUDIO
In the recording area, the headphone system has to be loud, clean and mix-flexible. Mytek Technologies' all-analog Private Q 12-channel headphone distribution system comprises a distribution/power supply rack ($995), five satellite mixing stations ($695 each) and snap-on DL-DL cables. The mixing stations mount easily on a mic or music stand, and deliver 2x 30W Class-A sound. Lastly, I'll take five sets of AKG K 271 headphones ($284 each).
For starting my mic collection, I've picked a few great units that deliver consistently excellent results: a Sennheiser e901 boundary mic ($389) and e902 dynamic ($359); two Shure SM57s ($316 each); three Sennheiser MD421 II dynamic mics ($1,530 each); a Neumann KM 185 hypercardioid ($949); a DPA 3532-T stereo microphone kit ($8,000); two Soundelux E250s ($6,000 each); two Royer R-121 ribbon mics ($1,898 each); and a Scheops CCM4 L ST100 stereo pair ($3,416).
I still have a bit of money left, so I'm allotting $4,000 for my patchbay, racks and wiring (granted, there's lot of D.I.Y. here), and $1,174 for miscellaneous accessories: cables, mic stands, DI boxes, and, of course, lava lamps and incense.
— Barry Rudolphn