Category Archives: Classic Sound

Traditional studio production techniques, classic music, etc.

The Archetypes at OnLine Audio

I don’t have much from my old studio days. We had a few photos, but Robert (Graves, studio owner) and I can’t seem to find them. The equipment, of course, is long gone… I especially miss the Neumann U87 and KM84 that we had. About all I have to prove I was there is a small number of test cassettes and a portfolio of graphic designs. (This includes one OnLine Audio “Don’t Worry, We’ll Fix It In The Mix” T-shirt… my best design.)

Up until the last year or two of the studio’s operation, I held two jobs… I’d work at the studio from about 10AM-2pm, then drive across the bridge to do the news at Channel 2. So for many years, I would do daytime sessions, and Robert would do the nighttime. (though for the last year or two, I had resigned from the station and worked at the studio full time… Robert was getting really tired of being there every night during our busy periods.) Most of the serious musicians wanted to schedule at night. And since he was the owner, Robert got first right of refusal on sessions. That meant I did a LOT of rap music and people who had never been in the studio, so many of the projects I did were… well… not so notable.

But some were. I believe that my very favorite project where I did the majority of the album was the Archetypes. I can’t remember how it came to pass that I got this one and not Robert, but if I remember correctly, I did most of the tracking and mixing on this album. Perhaps not all of it… I think Robert might have done some work on it as well.

The Archetypes, circa 1989

Since nearly all of our artists were self-financed, we did all the basic tracks… guitar, bass, drums, and usually vocals… on the same pass, since setting up and tuning a drum kit could take a couple of hours. We’d cut eight songs in a single day. The bass was recorded direct, drums in the drum room, rest of the group in the main studio. (Though we learned later to put the guitar amp in the drum booth, then record the drums in the main room, which was big and “live…” maybe 18×25 or so, with high  ceilings and hardwood floors…) OnLine Audio was in a business incubator at 701 East Bay St., in the shadow of the old bridge to Mt. Pleasant. The place has gone condo now.

Once the basic tracks were laid, we’d do overdubs and punch-ins. Our Otari MX80 was great at this, and is another machine I wish I could afford.

An Otari MX80, 24 track version… a sweet machine.

While this method keeps the studio time affordable, it also tends to make mixdown a little harder, since you have the same basic sound to work with, and I remember having to struggle a bit in order to get the songs on the album to sound “good but different.”

Two of the songs  from this album have been posted on ReverbNation, and you can listen to them here. If you like the songs, buy the album (and tell them I sent you!)

ArchetypesSample

Hurricane Hugo in 1989 put an end to the studio. While we were mostly able to repair the water damage and held on until 1990, the drop in business volume and rising monthly costs forced us to throw in the towel. I went off to grad school, and Robert went into real estate and renovation, where he was very successful until the market crashed. Unfortunately, tinnitus has severely limited his recording activities, but he made some really good records at OnLine Audio.

The Archetypes in 2010

Read an article about the Archetypes from 2003 in the Charleston Post & Courier here, another from the Charleston City Paper here.

POSTSCRIPT: If you recorded at OnLine Audio, please drop me a line… I’d especially like to get a copy of any photos or music that you might have. Thanks!

Record Store Day

I always manage to hear about this after the fact, but this year I got lucky. You can too… Saturday, April 21 2012 is Record Store Day, celebrating independent music stores everywhere. They’re becoming harder and harder to find. The record store day website has a handy participating store finder that helps locate a vinyl store near you, but it isn’t perfect… my local favorite in Chattanooga, Chad’s Records on Vine Street, isn’t included. It also doesn’t show up on my handy vinyl finder app, The Vinyl District, which locates vinyl stores based on your location.

Image

The Sony LX300USB, available online for $88

Don’t let the lack of a turntable stop you, either. Sony has a LX300USB turntable for $88 available online, and if you’re really strapped for cash, Ion has one (the QuickPlay)for $30. And you can always try to find a deal on eBay, but competition for a good turntable is usually pretty stiff, and they are fragile… easily damaged in shipping unless the seller is extra careful with their packing job.

And while you’re at the record store, ask if they have a copy of Goldmine’s Record Album Price Guide. I have the 6th edition, which lists most records fro late ’50’s until 2009. The prices in the price guide may seem high at first glance (most average from $10-20), but these prices are for records in near mint condition. This condition is truly rare in most record stores. Near Mint means, basically, opened and played one time, then put away. No cut-out notches, scuffs or wear marks of any kind allowed Most of the records you’ll find are VG or VG+, and some will be lower. A VG grade record lists for 25% of the NM price. (More on grading here) But once you’re in the store, you’ll find that the popular bands sell for the most money, and the common stuff is in the dollar bin… with some exceptions. I’ve always managed to find some good music there.

Image

The Ion Quickplay, a budget turntable for $30

Some of my other favorite vinyl stores… Disk Exchange in Knoxville, and Grimey’s Records in Nashville. I’ve gotten some great stuff at each of those places, though Grimey’s and Chad’s has a much larger vinyl inventory. I haven’t managed to find a store in NYC that I could afford, though they did have some really hard-to-find titles.

UPDATE: I made a trip to Chad’s Records on the 21st and scored the following: Steeley Dan’s Cant Buy A Thrill for five bucks, Santana Abraxis for three bucks, Wings Venus and Mars for a buck, Kornog On Seven Winds for six bucks, and from the discount rack, Tannahill Weavers,, Third World, and The Call for a buck each. A whole lot of music for not much cash. It’s a little more work than the iTunes Store, but WAY more fun… and I can always resell them later if it turns out I don’t dig ’em… try THAT with a download!

Building a Studio- The Soundcraft 800

Work on my new studio space continues steadily. And while things aren’t necessarily moving as fast as I’d like, I’m getting things done one job at a time. Today was blowing insulation day, which was a messy, nasty, dusty affair. But it’s

My studio as of Jan 14th... there's a LOT of drywall mud to sand yet.

also probably the most effective low-cost solution for my roof space, as it pretty much fills all the gaps between the drywall ceiling and the underside of the roof deck (with a layer of QuietBrace screwed on for better isolation).

Old Busted or New Hotness? Depends on who you ask, but probably a little bit of both... my Soundcraft 800

And just as I was getting completely overwhelmed by the magnitude of remaining jobs I have to do, I gave myself a morale boost by taking delivery of the centerpiece of the studio, a Soundcraft 800 26-channel mixer. While it looks impressive (to me, at least… but some say I’m easily amused), it has some issues with the master section that will need to be addressed. The age of this mixer means that it will pretty much need a full rebuild.

I’ve already corresponded with the good folks at Creation Audio Labs in Nashville, they specialize in mixer rebuilds. (There was a great article by Rob Tavaglione about rebuilding a Soundcraft Ghost in a recent issue of Pro Audio Review.) I’ll be doing some of the upgrades myself, and I’m going to let them do some of the work. Part of the reason I wanted an older Soundcraft was the individual channel strips… this makes regular maintenance and repairs much easier than a newer mixer like the Ghost.

While this mixer isn't quite as nice as the Soundcraft TS12 that I formerly used, it didn't take four guys and a truck to move, either. While it's certainly a "midsize" mixer, these are a more practical choice for a smaller studio like mine... and they are a lot easier to resell when the time comes.

Fortunately, this mixer came complete with the original owners manual with schematics, a newly recapped power supply, and a bag of extra parts. The extra parts are a bit concerning… it means somebody has been poking around under the hood with a soldering iron, which can be a bad thing if the maintenance maverick isn’t particularly skilled. Since the electronics bench is a part of the studio, I won’t be able to start work on the mixer until the studio is complete. Fortunately, I’m not facing a particular deadline, so I can take the time to do things properly… but I’m sure anxious to start working on it.

The nameplate on the mixer gives a clue to its age. This one was built, I believe, around 1981. Note how the connectors are individually screwed to the chassis and not held in place by a common PC board... common in older gear. The downside is that connectors often need to be replaced... tedious because there are so many, but a fairly easy upgrade.

The DBX 900 Series

Way back in the stone age, we used some equipment in the studio that was really neat stuff… very high-quality circuitry, mostly discrete, handbuilt equipment that I used to record some pretty good records, even though you’ve never heard them. One of my favorite pieces of outboard gear that we had in our rack was a DBX 900 rack. This was a 19″ wide power supply with spaces for nine 5 1/4″ x 1 1/2″ modules. Two other companies made similar systems- Valley Audio (we had a Valley rack as well, and we liked it better than the DBX) and API. Of the three, only the API Lunchbox has survived, and now there are hundreds of modules manufactured that can fit API racks, and Radial Engineering has just released their own version of a rack cage and power supply for 500 modules. Very nice, but very pricey.

My DBX900 rack, almost identical to the one we had at my studio 30 years ago. It's taken several years to put this together.

In contrast, a DBX 900 rack can be found used as low as $150 on eBay (though I’ve seen some crazy prices lately) and individual modules go for around $100-200 each. One other company besides DBX made modules for the 900 series, and that’s Aphex. These folks make some GREAT compressors, but as far as I know, only the  9721 Dominator and 9651 Expressor is available for the 900 rack, though there may have been others. Because of size constraints, the Dominator doesn’t have all the controls of the 19″ rackmount version, but it’s a very sweet compressor.

The DBX 904 noise gate module for the 900 series rack

Don’t overlook modules that need repairs, either. I was lucky enough to find some 900 units on eBay that were being sold as non-working, parts-or-repair-only. I took a gamble and got these for about $30 each. One was a 905 parametric EQ. This one turned out to be an easy fix… a disc capacitor had blown itself in two.  Thanks to DBX’s unselfish policy of publishing their schematics, I was able to figure out the value and replace it, and it works! Sometimes a blown part is a symptom of other problems, but so far, nothing else has smoked.

Next up was a DBX 903 compressor limiter. This one exhibited some general wierdness in terms of the signal, and the LED meter on the front was out. The 900 series all use the same meter driver board, which helps. I traced the signal at the meter board’s input, and confirmed that it was getting a signal, so I pulled the board and swapped it with another from a working unit… problem fixed. Now we know the problem is somewhere on the meter board. Examining with a microscope showed a resistor with a tiny burn mark around the middle. Replaced the resistor, and presto! The meter board works.

The business end of the 904. The board on top is the meter driver.

The last problem piece is a 904 noise gate, the donor for the working meter board used to correct the compressor. This one was a bit tougher to fix. Reinstalling the now-repaired meter board shows that the unit is detecting properly and gating a signal according to the settings, but there’s no output.  I poked around with a meter, and got about a .4v signal at the input. I started working my way back from the output, and found a non-polarized electrolytic capacitor that wasn’t passing any AC. So to test my theory, I removed C3– a 4.7uF non-polarized electrolytic cap– and replaced it with a pair of 10uF capacitors wired back-to-back, i.e., negative tied together, positive side out… and it works, passing a clean, gated signal!

After a proper 4.7uF NPO cap arrived from Digi-Key, it was soldered in and tested… that fixed it. While I was at it, I ordered enough Nichicon capacitors to re-cap the entire board… fortunately, DBX designed their circuit boards to accommodate either radial or axial-leaded caps, so either type will fit.

The problem cap. Replacing this fixed the unit. Fortunately, the problem wasn't under the big square metal case... that's a DBX discrete voltage-controlled amp (VCA), which is mostly transistors packed very tightly onto another circuit board. Repairing one of these would be really difficult, and replacement would be impossible.

That’s the other big advantage of this old stuff… it’s possible to fix it when it breaks. When parts fail on new gear… likely built overseas, by robots, using surface-mounted components… you’re pretty much done and replacing the entire board is the only option. Sometimes sourcing parts for vintage gear is difficult or sometimes impossible… germanium transistors and diodes come to mind. But vintage gear can almost always be rebuilt, and if the quality is there to begin with, it’s worth the effort.

The 904 fully recapped. The job wasn't that difficult or expensive, but you do need to be careful and take your time.

Using The EMT 140 Plate Reverb… Sort Of…

I love working with classic audio gear, and I’m lucky enough to be “of a certain age” that I’ve been able to get my hands on some really nice knobs. These knobs almost always belonged to someone else… either recording studio, television station or pressing plant. And once you’ve had a taste of really top-quality gear and enjoyed the benefits, it’s really hard to go back.

But in our brave new economic world, creative jobs with access to nice hardware have seriously dwindled, and the handful of folks who have those jobs generally stay put. So, like most of us, I’ve got to bankroll my own hardware addiction, which means that there are some pieces of gear that are just plain off limits… no matter how nice they sound.

The EMT 140 plate reverb frame. The control electronics were in a separate rack unit in the studio. The plate was often located in a quiet location away from the studio.

For example, let’s consider the EMT 140 plate reverb. One can be bought for about $1500, which isn’t too bad, really. But plate ‘verbs are large, heavy pieces of gear that require a quiet, vibration-free location.  Usually found only in large studios, they were generally installed and left alone. So what’s a starving self-funded engineer/producer to do?

Enter Universal Audio. These folks make plugins that model classic gear, and they are very well done. I’ve had a UAD2 Solo/Laptop co-processor for quite a while now, but haven’t had the chance to use it much. But while mixing a recent location recording for Claire Lynch, her lovely vocals were begging for a second reverb. (The Solo comes with RealVerb Pro, and I was using this for the instruments.) I tried some free/shareware plugins, and although they sounded pretty good, I didn’t like the interfaces… I felt like I was writing Fortran code back in college rather than mixing, and never could get a very musical result. (like I said, I’m “of a certain age.”) I still had a credit with UAD from when I bought the Solo, so I sprung for a software version of the EMT 140 plate reverb.

Universal Audio's EMT 140 plate reverb plugin interface looks similar to the original, it's intuitive and easy to use.

I’m happy to report it works like a charm. They are the perfect complement to Claire’s vocals. UAD’s graphic interface mimics the original very closely, and the original control panel is easy to figure out. I can make adjustments simply and get great results without having to “hunt around” for a particular parameter. (if you’d rather enter adjustments numerically, though, that option is available through keyboard shortcuts).

I don’t buy many plugins, since they’re only going to last as long as your current computer. When I can afford it, I prefer to buy the hardware version of the gear that I need. But in this case, I’ve gotta admit that the plugin has some significant advantages over the real thing. It’s far cheaper, infinitely more portable, fun to use, and most importantly, makes Claire’s voice sound like a million bucks.

Vinyl Transfer Station

I’m in the process of moving my office downstairs, and now that I’ll have a little more space, I’m able to set up a small dedicated workspace for dubs and vinyl transfers. Right now, t consists of a Audio Technica turntable with an AT-400 cartridge, Sony MXP-29 mixer, and a new M-Audio Fast Track Pro interface. Not shown is the new LaCie 320GB triple interface hard drive that I’ll need to store all this data that I’m generating.

While I’m not a huge fan of the MP3 standard, there’s no denying it’s become pretty universal. And it is handy to have just about every record I’ve ever liked on a single ipod. Since I can leave this stuff hooked up, it’s much easier to do a vinyl to MP3 transfer now, though it’s still a fairly time-consuming process.

My dedicated vinyl transfer, dubbing, and encoding station.

Here’s a photo. The MXP-29 has a dedicated pair of inputs with phono preamps, so I’m able to go directly into the mixer. The Sony preamps are pretty accurate, if not a little sterile, but I think they sound a hair better than the small block-type preamp that I had been using. I monitor through a pair of AKG271 headphones, though I’ll occasionally listen to my Sony 7806 headphones. The AKGs are much more accurate overall, but the 7806s are more comfortable to wear and have a bass boost that sometimes makes a nice change. The turntable is a fairly nice Audio Technica that was donated by my brother-in-law. Fortunately the stylus and cartridge are still good… I’ve seen prices of $36 for a stylus. Last time I bought one, it was $2.59.

The records are recorded straight into Adobe Soundbooth with minimal processing. (See my previous post on Adobe Soundbooth.) While I can edit out all the crackles and thumps between songs, I usually leave them in for nostalgia’s sake. Occasionally a record will have a loud pop in a track… Soundbooth lets you highlight just the fraction of a second where the pop occurs, and then treat that section only, leaving the rest of the program untouched… A nice feature. While there are extensive EQ possibilities, I generally leave them alone unless I really want to play around.

Some of my newly acquired vinyl titles include Dark Side Of The Moon, and a near-mint pressing of Introducing The Beatles. Also picked up some Joni Mitchell, English Beat, and Candy-O by the Cars. My 14-yr old son wants to get some Queen as well… I force him to listen to some of these records as part of his mandatory cultural education.