"Let life enchant you again." - Fernando Gros
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Blog // Sounds
November 21, 2012

The Soul Of A Studio

Last year I laid out my thoughts on building a new music studio (in Anchoring A Recording Studio). In summary, my struggle was whether or not it made sense for a project studio to build itself around a console, in the digital age. When most people imagine a recording studio, they expect to see a […]

Last year I laid out my thoughts on building a new music studio (in Anchoring A Recording Studio). In summary, my struggle was whether or not it made sense for a project studio to build itself around a console, in the digital age.

When most people imagine a recording studio, they expect to see a big console, with lots of faders and knobs. The best recording consoles are a triumph of technology and ergonomics; they allowed studios to not only record more instruments with higher quality, but also to easily adapt from one recording project to another.

And, while fewer and fewer big recoding studios are being built around the world, the console remains a favourite amongst many producers and engineers. So, why don’t I want one?

My Experience

For the past 8 years, I’ve been mixing exclusively in the box, which means inside the computer, with Logic Pro. While I believe you can produce amazing music in the box, for me this way of working has presented two big problems.

First, working inside the box encourages you to tinker endlessly. The digital tools are so flexible you can easily spend all your time tweaking details. You can become so technically oriented in your production, especially when working on your own material, that you lose perspective and any sense of the bigger musical picture.

Second, while you can create amazing sounds in the digital realm, many of the sounds I want, are best achieved by working with analogue tools. When I listen back to my work over the past 8 years, it often feels like something is missing. To fill that gap, I’m increasingly relying on plugins that emulate analogue devices, which of course begs the question – why not just use more analogue gear?

I also want more of the analogue workflow – which is really about commitment. I miss the pressure we used to experience in the old days of tape, when it as hard to edit mistakes and you had to make more choices before trying to record..

The Inflexible Studio

In fact, I’m not looking for flexibility. A commercial studio makes its money from catering to a variety of clients, which means being able to adapt to larger and smaller projects and different producers and engineers who will seek to produce a variety of sonic signatures. A private project studio, which is what I’m building, works around one producer, with one workflow and a distinctive sound.

And, I’m not looking to record large track counts. Honestly, I cannot imagine, in my current space, running more than 2-3 microphones at any one time. I could record a small band or combo. But, if I did, it would be very stripped back. For a larger project, I would rather book a big facility, then bring the project back to my space for mixing.

So, instead of an anchor or a console, I’m wondering about the brain, heart, ears and soul of this new studio. Let me explain.

The Brain

In a digital studio, the most crucial process is conversion; taking the analog signal (microphones, voices and instruments) into the digital realm and back out (to monitors and headphones). For a long time I’ve been an Apogee user and I was all but sold on the Symphony system, until Universal Audio launched the Apollo.

I recently reviewed the Apollo Quad, which is the new brain in my studio. This is the brain of my studio, since it controls the interaction between the analogue and digital realms, which to me is like the interface of the physical and the realm of ideas, in normal human activity.

The Heart

One advantage of a good console is it lets you sum (or mix-down) your project in analogue. This is quite a controversial and disputed question: does summing outside the box sound better than digital summing “inside the box” (in your computer)? Traditionalist argue in favour of the first, those of a more scientific bent argue for the second.

My own view, is that “better” is the wrong word. A mix summed inside the box can sound great, but summing outside the box sounds different because, well, you are running it through another “box.” That difference, is something I like, something I call the heart of a studio’s sound.

In fact, I like it so much I’ve bought a Rupert Neve Designs 5059, which is built from the summing bridge of the 5088 console. I deeply admire Rupert Neve, both for his classic designs and the products he has released in recent years under his company. The 5059, like the 5088, doesn’t sound like Neve’s earlier products. It’s a new sound, which can be beautifully transparent, or harmonically rich and overdriven when you need it do be.

The Soul

Over this time I’ve also been thinking a lot about my favourite albums and the things that made those records unique. So many times, great music has been made in less than perfect rooms, and with eclectic (or even downright unfashionable) equipment.

That’s the soul of a studio.

All too often, studios have no soul, either because they are too characterless in their design, however expensive they may be. Or, they are too pedestrian, full of middle-brow, forum-approved gear and a less than stellar sound (just because it looks like a studio doesn’t mean it sounds good).

I’m blessed right now with a really interesting sounding room and some great guitars, amps, microphones and effects.

To supplement that, I am expanding into 500 series modules, both to give me more preamp flavours and also to make it easier to Re-Amp my digital tracks through guitar amps, effects and other old units.

And, I’m ordering two very special bits of kit, which will add even flavour and polish to the final mix. These are mastering-quality units that I am confident will round out the new studio very nicely. I’ll give you more detail on those when they arrive.

So, there you have it – brain, heart and soul. Now, I just need a name…

Toni 12 years ago

There is a certain irony to say that you lost me at the brain. When it comes to recording I want to be able to plug my guitar is, capture the sound I think I hear with my ears, mix that with whatever backing track s being used and then output that in a format that still sounds good.

Guess we can dream, eh?

Fernando Gros 12 years ago

Toni – I really believed, a few years ago, in the dream of a computer and a little box that let the guitar talk to the computer. Perhaps, I still believe in that as a dream. But, the reality is the dream doesn’t actually deliver right now – either in terms of sound or the simple pleasure of focussing on the music.

It may be the ultimate irony, but I’m finding that what looks like a more complicated solution on paper, actually frees me from a lot of technical thinking.

Toni 12 years ago

Now that IS interesting, considering your ability, expertise and the quality of recordings you have produced.

A significant number of people apparently make decent recordings just by plugging in through their USB enabled whatever (iRig, Yamaha THR, floor board – curiously enough NOT often any line 6 products) into some kind of computer, very often Apple sourced. It’s got to the point where I’ve decided to look again at Garageband (for example) just to see if it would work for me. Running through a Zoom bass pedal in bipass mode as a USB audio interface I actually got some of the best recorded guitar tones that I’ve ever managed, and it’s convinced me enough that I’ve ordered some additional kit to work as a preamp for more focussed tone shaping.

It will be interesting to see how things go. The 2 biggest flies in the ointment are the very poor/non-standard nature of USB connectors on my Macbook (connection is flaky and always has been with many otherwise perfectly good cables) and that I don’t know Gb. That and the fact that I don’t play much now, so my ability is through the floor.

A number of guys on Harmony central are using Kempler units to recreate amplifiers in what seems to be a better way that the more traditional modellers, and I wonder if that may be the way things will go eventually. At some stage I’ll also need to think about getting vocals down, and that will be another challenge. I can see there may be a lot of ‘swapping’ files around so that audio created in one application can be modified in another with a different set of limitations.

Fernando Gros 12 years ago

Toni – I see two sides to this. One, are the digital tools good enough and useful? Two, do they give me exactly what I want? Those really are two very different questions. On the first, my answer is certainly yes. For quite a while I used an Apogee Duet, which can give you a killer DI bass sound, really decent DI guitar sounds. Couple those with smart plugin choices and you can get great sounds. And, there’s no doubt the Duet can give you a good recorded sound using a Mic. Moreover, I don’t think it’s just an Apogee thing, there are other decent smaller interfaces out there.

But, as good as the direct Mic sounds are, I always prefer adding a preamp in there. And, as good as the plugin sounds are, I’m always fighting the urge the add more effects and distortion than I would other wise use. So, while the sounds are good, for the sound in my head, my idea of how I want my guitar to sound, I keep going back to a good mic and a good preamp. So, while the plugins are good, amazing in fact, they are not quite there for me.

And, to be honest, there is also an element here that I just want to get away from being so computer bound.

The Kempler modelling amp is a great concept. I would love to try one out. I certainly believe that is the future for playing live. And, I can really see the value for a commercial studio, where you want to offer a wide variety of sounds. But, in my situation, the amp sounds I want are really just the sounds of 2-3 amps that I have. If I can capture those, in a vivid and dynamic way, that’s it for me.

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