Gearlist: Overview of the signal chain, and other goodies

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AdamM

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Home Studio: Start to finish

Here's a walk through of the signal chain.  There's a million variations on these themes!

Microphones
Microphones are a giant topic.  Thousands of kinds, many different methods, prices from cheap to the ridiculous.

Dynamic
Dynamic mics are like a speaker driver.  A membrane with a coil of wire hung in a magnetic field.  Typically, they're robust, good with high sound pressure levels, and inexpensive.  Dynamic mics are often used for vocals and louder instruments like guitars and drums. 
The Shure SM58 is an industry standard live vocal mic, which you can find in practically any bar or stage for good reason: They sound pretty good, are nearly indestructible and cost about $100.
The Shure SM57 is another $100 'legend' and one that i'd suggest owning.  It's fantastic on guitar amps, acoustic guitars, drums, all sorts of things.  It's cheap, tough and you'll find them in every studio on earth. You can't go far wrong with a '57.  Some albums have been recorded completely with one! The Shure SM-7B is a great rock vocal mic. Many more out there.

Condenser
Condenser mics use film membranes and work essentially as a variable capacitors.  They need power to operate, either a battery or Phantom Power from your mixing board or Interface.  Typically they're very detailed and crisp sounding.  Many great vocal mics are condensers, as are drum overheads. Some get fantastically expensive.  They come in two basic categories: Small diaphragm and large diaphragm.  Small ones are usually instrument based - drum overheads, pianos, room sounds etc., while large ones are for vocals.
Here's some famous condensers:
Neumann U47  / U67 / U87  Used on many famous recordings. Expensive!
AKG C-12 - Equally famous. Expensive!
Sony C800G.  $6000-$7000 !  Oh, but how lovely it is.
AKG C1000 - Inexpensive all-rounder
AKG C414 - Mid price versatile mic.  Check the year, there's a few different 'flavors' with some better than others.

Ribbons
Ribbon mics work by holding a thing membrane, usually aluminum, between some magnets.  They're often a bit fragile and you can blow them up if you use Phantom Power incorrectly with them so be careful!  Typically ribbon mics are smooth and warm with a bit of high end rolloff. With the crispness (often harshness) of digital recording, ribbon mics help to warm things up. Some famous ribbons:
RCA-44 - used for decades as a vocal mic
Beyer M-160 - The amazing drum recording of Led Zepplin's 'When the Levee Breaks' is done with a M-160 hung above the drumkit in the front room of Headly Grange.
Royer and AEA are the two main 'high end' ribbon mic manufacturers
Nady, Alctron, Shiny Box and Apex all make decent inexpensive ones

PZM / Boundary
Some people use PZM or boundary mics, for decent room and ambient capture.  Radio Shack used to sell one a while back that was fantastic, and has a cult following to this day.  You don't see them too much, but they can be inexpensive and are very detailed in the right situations.

What mics should i get?
Tough question, budget is the big factor.  Interestingly, China has gotten on the bandwagon and has, uh, emulated a lot of famous microphones for a fraction of the cost.  I personally have three of these: Two 'Alctron' ribbons which are based on the RCA-44 ($250), and an 'Apex 460' which is a tube condenser based on the AKG C-12 ($250).  They're all really great mics.   The Apex 460 has a huge following with people modding them, and the results are very impressive indeed.   The last company i worked for bought a whole pile of them, after doing tests against $4000+ mics.  The summary was 'Yeah, it's no Neumann, but for $250, you get surprisingly close for a fraction of the price.'  Oktava and R0de are also good choices.

I'd suggest at least one dynamic, the Shure SM57 as it's very versatile. If you want to do decent vocals get a condenser and there's a lot to choose from. Depending on your requirements, you may want to do some room/ambiance or stereo recording, in which you can get a pair of little condensers or maybe even some ribbons.

Outboard gear
You don't need any outboard gear to record something.  Technically, you can plug right into your sound card or your Mac, if you have the right adapter.. but the quality won't be overly impressive and you're kind of hosed for options. You'll find in about 3 minutes that there's no way you can actually work this way, so next up is your Interface.  The most important piece of hardware you'll buy is your Interface... ok and Monitors :)

Interface
Interfaces are they hub of your studio.  They convert analog to digital, digital to analog, they often have microphone preamps, internal mixers, routing options, a pile of inputs, level displays - they do a lot!   Since your Interface is capturing your analog signals and converting them to digital, they are responsible for a big chunk of the sound quality.  Compare a $150 Interface with a $2000 and you can very clearly hear the difference.  However, if you do electronic music and generate all the sounds in your DAW, this isn't as much an issue.   One thing i wouldn't skimp out on is the interface.  It will probably have your mic preamps in it plus do all the A/D/A conversions, and both of those are pretty key to your sound. 
They attach to your computer through Firewire, USB or PCI slot on your motherboard. Here's a brief and non exhaustive list of Interface manufacturers:
M-Audio, Presonus, MOTU, Lexicon, Mackie, Apogee, Digidesign, Metric Halo, RME....

Microphone Preamp
Some people like external preamps.  There's some very good ones out there, and they can get expensive.  Typically they fall into two categories 'Colored' and 'Transparent'.  Like amps and speakers, mics and preamps have magic combinations. Avalon, Neve, Ward Beck, Hamptone (DIY!), all make great mic pres.  There's many more. If your Interface has mic pres, you need to ask yourself: Do i need more?  Do i need higher quality?

Mixers
It doesn't hurt to have a small mixer around, as they can provide you with all sorts of options.  If you're an analog guy and use a lot of midi driven keyboards, a mixer might be just the right thing to handle them all.  They can work well to mix a bunch of mics for a live session, run a talkback mic to the Live Room, who knows what you'll be doing!  Handy. Mackie and Behringer make lots of different sizes.

Effects
Outboard effects have diminished a fair amount.  There's some great stuff out there, but so much of it can be done well, inside your software.  That doesn't mean that some outboard FX gear is obsolete, but that the stuff on your computer is easier to use.  Film analogy: Outboard FX is like shooting film - there's some great looks possible and you can do some stuff that's hard to do digitally, but for convenience digital wins hands down.

Some types of Effects are still very popular as outboard hardware, and that's typically dynamics based ones like compressors / limiters.  Many feel that software hasn't yet got the sound of certain ones like the Teletronix / UA  LA-2A compressor. Unless you have $3k for just your compressor, don't worry about it :)

Control surfaces
Many cool midi/usb/firewire control surfaces about, which give you a keyboard and control over sliders, knobs, buttons etc., in your software.  They're great for improving the human->computer interface. Without a remote keyboard/control surface, it's pretty hard to do 'play' anything on your computer!

DAW Digital Audio Workstation  (your 'puter)
MAC or PC?  MAC or PC? Nikon or Canon?  Tubes or Solid State? Ford or Chevy?
This is nearly a religious debate.  Truth is, both MAC and PC work great for audio.  MAC has been doing it better, for longer, but PCs are a very capable system also.  There's hardware and software that just works on the MAC, there's software that just works on a PC, you can argue it until you're blue in the face.  If you ask me, i prefer MACs for audio, because they're stable and easy to use and you don't fart around with drivers and viruses as much (or at all) They just WORK.  A good friend of mine has a PC studio and it works great for him. 

Some software and hardware is MAC only, as well as PC only software. Be warned!

Your computers CPU power will dictate how many simultaneous tracks and effects you can run, while you hard drive speed will dictate (to some degree) how many tracks you can playback.  Any CPU over 2Ghz should be fine.  If you work in 24 bit record mode (and you should) then expect to gobble up a fair amount of hard drive space. I'd set aside at least 50Gb to get started, and you may need more than that if you record like a banshee.

Software
Lots of options here too.  I'll list the main ones:
Nuendo - Very highly regarded complete package. Good sounding mixers
Logic - Full package, probably the best for MIDI control. Great effects and synths included
Pro Tools - The industry standard!
Reason - Good for trance and electronica
Audio Mulch - Weird but popular little program
Cakewalk - Been around a long time, popular
Garage Band - FREE!  Not a ton of options, but what it does, it does very well

Monitors / amps
Many studio monitors are now self powered.  Generally, you're looking for something with a flat response and nothing too fatiguing. It's also not bad idea to have an 'Auratone sound cube' around, which emulates the typical listening environment of a boom box or bad car stereo. Your mixes have to work everywhere!  If the monitors are too small, you'll need a sub too.  Mackie, Genelec, Yamaha, Adam, all make good monitors.
« Last Edit: 10 Sep 2007, 07:23 am by AdamM »

Daygloworange

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Re: Gearlist: Overview of the signal chain, and other goodies
« Reply #1 on: 10 Sep 2007, 07:00 pm »
I bought an Apex 460 LD condenser mic a couple of years ago, after hearing and reading all the hype. It really does sound good despite it's pricetag. It's a great multipattern LD tube mic.

Here is an interesting article on how it compares to the Telefunken M 16.

http://www.studioreviews.com/m16-460.htm

Cheers

AdamM

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Re: Gearlist: Overview of the signal chain, and other goodies
« Reply #2 on: 10 Sep 2007, 09:57 pm »
Quote
Here is an interesting article on how it compares to the Telefunken M 16.

Isn't that crazy? It's essentially the same mic.

DGO, have you done any mods to it yet?   I've only done a few, but like the improvement.  The easy 'round 1' mods to do are:
  • Remove the inner screens, leaving just the heavy outer shield.  It helps open it up a bit, but you have to definitely use a pop screen for vocals now
  • Add some dampening to the floor of the capsule area.  I put some thin acoustic foam against the 'ground' in the capsule area.  Apparently it helps tame a reflection
  • Replace all signal path caps with better ones, and remove some of the other caps from the signal path

It seems a bit smoother and more open now with those electrolytics out of the way. I feel like i use less EQ on it...  but i didn't actually do back-to-back comparisons and listen.  Others have and say similar things.

Here's a little list of what to do:
1,c2 100uf 250v
c3= remove
c4 = .01
c6= 100uf 50v
c7= .1uf 63v
c8= 1uf .01 bypass
c9= remove? no jumper
c10=remove, no jumper
r2= 100k 1w
r7= 2.29k .5w
r10= 100m


/A

Daygloworange

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Re: Gearlist: Overview of the signal chain, and other goodies
« Reply #3 on: 10 Sep 2007, 10:47 pm »
No I haven't tweaked mine yet Adam. I'm waiting for there to be more of a consensus on what are the best mods from guys I know and trust.

It's got a hot top end for sure. It can sizzle a little too much for some stuff, and you gotta watch the bass because of the large diaphram size. I wish the noise floor was a little lower as well.

I'll get around to tweaking it one of these days.

Thanks for the advice on the mods.  :thumb:

Have you done any tube rolling in it?

Cheers

AdamM

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Re: Gearlist: Overview of the signal chain, and other goodies
« Reply #4 on: 10 Sep 2007, 10:53 pm »
That list of mods was an amalgamation from a variety of sources.

If you get some different mod details, please share, i'd love to experiment.

For the noise floor, try a 12AT7, or a 5751 tube in it.  That circuit isn't actually designed for a 12AX7, but i guess because of availability and cheap tubes, that's what they stuck in there.

I've even tried a 12AU7  - MUCH lower output, but different with very usable sound for sure.

The high noise floor has a lot to do with the 12AX7...  Yank that puppy out.  Should have mentioned it in the mod list!

/A

Daygloworange

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Re: Gearlist: Overview of the signal chain, and other goodies
« Reply #5 on: 14 Sep 2007, 01:18 am »
Adam,

Thanks for the tips man.  :thumb:

I've got a really cool article in an engineering magazine that I picked up at an airport newspaper stand flying back to T.O. a while ago.

The article dealt with input impedance compatibilty issues between mics and mic pre's in mixing consoles.

They even have a schematic and a plans to build a variable thigamajig to vary the impedance the mic sees from the preamp.

I think the article centered around the SM-57, and how impedance mis-matches really wreaked havoc on this mic. I own 8 SM-57's. Some really old ones, some more recent ones. None of them sound the same. Even with consecutive serial numbers, mic's rarely sound the same.

I've always had them labelled, as there's one I prefer to mic guitar cabs with, one to use on snares, even one to do certain vocal tracks with. (Yes, I said vocals!, more on that at another time).

Apparently there is an ideal impedance this mic wants to see, and if it's not, it ain't gonna sound nearly as good as it could.

I'm going to start shopping for an outboard pre, and look for one with user adjustable impedance settings.

Do you know of any that I should look at?

It's a great article. I'll try and find it.

Cheers

AdamM

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Re: Gearlist: Overview of the signal chain, and other goodies
« Reply #6 on: 14 Sep 2007, 03:18 am »
DGO,

The article sounds great!  Would love to see it.  As you know, i ran into a similar issue with speakers and amps: http://www.audiocircle.com/index.php?topic=45016.0 which was pretty surprising / revealing / enlightening.   It would be really interesting to find out the characteristics of that issue between mics and preamps.

8 sm57's!  Wow.  I love that mic.  And yeah, i believe you on the vocal thing, and please share!

Consistency between mics is interesting.  I've taken some back to get a 'replacement' because i couldn't get a matched pair...  I guess it's like cars, no two drive the same.  All part of the character and mystique.

As for outboard mic pre's, i've only used a few over the years.  Here's my quick synopsis, i'm sure you've run into the same ones.

Avalon M5 and VT-737  Very nice.  Not my gear, just doing some work in another studio.  Everyone seems to have an Avalon something, and for good reason: They're nice! The M5 seemed to be a tiny bit colorful, like a Neve say, but not quite as much

Hamptone  I love Hamptone mic pre's!!  They have a tube one and a J-Fet one.  Both are great.  You can get some crazy stuff out of them if you crank the knobs.  Very clean, versatile, wonderful. Amazing value.  If you DIY it, it's very cheap indeed.  The J-Fet can go nicely crunchy if you push it, and the tube one can be  r e a l l y  bloomy if you push it.  Handy sometimes, for bass and edgy vocals it's fun in 'cranked' mode

Apogee Ensemble This is what i'm using right now at home.  4 x 75db wonderful mic pres. Surprisingly good actually.  Very transparent, quiet, crystalline.   Probably not something you're interested in since it's an interface too, but for the price ($2k) having 4 crystal mic pre's (plus fantastic A/D/A!) is a winner. I love it.  I've had people comment on the 'air' of a few recordings, that Apogee is just really clean and invisible.

Hey, would you mind starting a thread about what you do and your studio?  Just a brief overview.  I'm really curious and am sure others are too ;) :)

Cheers,
/A

Daygloworange

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Re: Gearlist: Overview of the signal chain, and other goodies
« Reply #7 on: 14 Sep 2007, 03:31 am »
Thanks Adam.  :thumb:

Did you know that Apogee belongs to Bob Katz's wife?

I read that in an interview with him years ago.

I'm running a DAW right now (that can do WAV, and has optical in's and out's ), just for the record, although I still have my reel to reel recorder that I do love to run drums and guitars through and then fly in to the DAW.

I have some pics of my studio somewhere. Can find them right now....

Here's one though, and of one of my first foray's into speaker experimenting:



I wrote a little bitty about my experiments here:

http://www.audiocircle.com/index.php?topic=40343.msg364571#msg364571

Cheers
« Last Edit: 14 Sep 2007, 03:44 am by Daygloworange »

AdamM

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Re: Gearlist: Overview of the signal chain, and other goodies
« Reply #8 on: 19 Sep 2007, 11:35 am »
Cool stuff!
Your writeup about those speakers with the different enclosures/ damping was very fascinating.    When i built my HT8's, i was pretty obsessive about it too:  Vinyl floor mats, then some dynamat butyl rubber/foil, then auralex foam, then long fiber natural wool stuffing.  Those boxes are HEAVY and SILENT.  It makes a very real and measurable difference.


What kind of stuff do you record?  Logic? Pro Tools?   DGO, If i could be so bold, could i get you to share your experience and opinions on:

Top 3 things to consider when setting up a project studio:

Top 3 tricks! (mic placement, mixing, anything!):

Thanks!
/A


Daygloworange

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Re: Gearlist: Overview of the signal chain, and other goodies
« Reply #9 on: 22 Sep 2007, 03:56 am »
My main recorders are a Fostex A series 8 track 1/4" reel to reel, and for digital I use a Roland VS-2000 DAW.

My top 3 picks for setting up a studio would be.

1- A good variety of microphones. LD, MD, SD condensers, (pairs), as well as a variety of dynamics, both large diaphram and small diaphram.

2- a good clean mixer (or really good clean mic pre) You need to be able to print a good clean signal.

3- Really good monitors. You cannot be sure if you are capturing good sounds if your monitoring is off.


Top 3 tips?

1- Experiment with microphones. Get to know them really well. Try multi-miking various instruments and print them. Then go back and take notes on how they work at capturing the sounds of various instruments. Learn what their sonic signature is.

2- Experiment with mic placement. Some of the best sounds are created with some of the most unorthodox mic placements. Don't reach for another mic, till you've tried every position, proximity, and angle of mic placement for a given source.

3- Be neat and organized. Nothing kills a session like when you have chaos. That means be neat when you run cables, when you set up you mixer, how you assign things on your mixer, how you assign tracks on your recorder. LABEL EVERYTHING! Keep track of everything with session sheets. Be consistent from session to session. Layout in an ergonomic fashion.

4- Get a REAL COMFY CHAIR!

Cheers  :D



AdamM

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Re: Gearlist: Overview of the signal chain, and other goodies
« Reply #10 on: 22 Sep 2007, 04:52 am »
Awesome! Thanks DGO! Great tips

srlaudio

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Re: Gearlist: Overview of the signal chain, and other goodies
« Reply #11 on: 24 Oct 2007, 02:43 am »
I have and recommend the Groove Tubes ViPre.  It has the real deal in variable input impedance and other controls which will absolutely wring the sound out of all your dynamic microphones.  It can take an SM57 and get all sorts of tonal variation using NO equalisation.  Every great engineer knows this is the best way to get a sound.  Use physics instead of eq!

AdamM

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Re: Gearlist: Overview of the signal chain, and other goodies
« Reply #12 on: 24 Oct 2007, 08:43 am »
Interesting device that GT ViPre.  Seems like such a good idea.

Another neat GT product - their tube amp book.  If you're into guitar amps, this is a fantastic reference of wiring diagrams, explanations of all things guitar amp related. 

http://www.groovetubes.com/The_Tube_Amp_Book_-_Deluxe__P2065C151.cfm


JohnR

Re: Gearlist: Overview of the signal chain, and other goodies
« Reply #13 on: 24 Oct 2007, 12:19 pm »
I have and recommend the Groove Tubes ViPre.

I'm going to guess that you sell that as well.

Perhaps you could please review the Industry Participants Policy:

http://www.audiocircle.com/index.php?topic=41871.0

Thanks :)

srlaudio

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Re: Gearlist: Overview of the signal chain, and other goodies
« Reply #14 on: 24 Oct 2007, 04:10 pm »
I used to be a dealer for Groove Tubes Professional. That does not change the fact that when I went through the unit with Aspen Pittman, the owner of Groove Tubes, he used a Shure SM58 and clearly explained the features and benefits of the ViPre.  I bought TWO of them on the spot with my own money, and have grown to love them as a piece of audio technology that will never go out of style. As Aspen said, "How would you like to have an audio product with no potentiometers, no electrolytic coupling caps, no integrated circuits, massive input and output transformers, fully balanced from input to output, and lots of point to point wiring (over three thousand solder connections.)  I bought the service manual, and have gone over many of the connections internally with wonder solder.  Do you still feel that my motivation to tell about this falls into crass commercialism?  All I was doing was trying to share information about a one of a kind professional audio product that I personally own and recommend.