How would /you/ outfit the studio?

There are hundreds of posts on the various recording studio mailing lists and bulletin boards asking people to indulge in the fantasy of deciding how to spend large $$ on gear. And the most frequent response given is “FOR WHAT PURPOSE?” followed closely by “You have to match the gear to the room. If you’re not going to spec the room, the question of gear is meaningless!” Most of these threads intentionally omit any consideration of the room because the people posting all have roughly the same situation: a basement or bedroom studio with 8′ ceilings, tons of prosumer gear they’re ready to upgrade, and enough money to buy some serious pro-quality equipment, but not enough money to build the space needed to really utilize the gear. And so these threads rarely lead to anything.

I’ve had the pleasure of talking with dozens of people with centuries of combined experience between them, and on the question of gear there seems to be only one central question: the digital guys ask “why are you thinking about installing a Duality?” and the analog guys ask “why are you thinking about installing an ICON?” The analog guys say it’s about the quality and feel of a real analog console and the digital guys say “anything can sound like anything today—it’s all about workflow”. And indeed, there does come a point when workflow matters: I love a good walk and even the occaisional boat ride, but I’m going to visit Tokyo, I’d much rather fly. Instant and perfect recall of session parameters does have its benefits. But so does the organic, authentic aesthetic of analog, which strongly encourages one to focus on the music, not the bits. What is best for tracking? What’s best for mixing? What’s best for what comes next?

So here’s a chance to answer an age-old question: what gear would you buy with a budget of $500K-$1M? This includes console (only one control room, so only one console), main monitors, surround monitors, DAW, outboard gear, microphones, backline equipment, etc. Answer in the context of this space (large tracking room, great control room), and answer in the context of why you would favor your choice over the obvious alternatives, describe what you most like to do and how you most like to work.

Have fun!

3 thoughts on “How would /you/ outfit the studio?”

  1. $500K-$1M?

    Well, I’d hope to have stuff that would get alot of hands-on use. First-
    Start with a Foosball table. I had one, and everybody used it…I actually had to drag people away from it to get them back to the recording projects, time and again.

    Vintage stompboxes…Mutron etc. A fairly complete Serge Modular synth. Tympani. A Faraday Cage Free Air space, large enough for a full drumkit. Plenty of percussion…a good waterphone, maybe a tunable Didgeridoo. A tech area for circut bending.
    Old tape machines of all types and formats, brought back to life…2″, 1″, right on down to cassette 8 track.

    Microphones….the usual for a room of this price range but also some really cheap ones in the collection.

    Outboard-anything considered as “must have”, and ready access to whoever can keep it all working.

    I lost track of where I am with the budget at this point. Are we talking about a budget more toward $500k, or more toward $1M? Might want a couple of rooms for tracking different aspects of the same project at the same time. And a producer’s station/console that can be switched so that they arent really effecting anything, but feels to them like they do! (people can take turns at it).

    A deck of Oblique Strategy cards. At least one of any musical instrument that really got my favorite artist’s attention when they were seven years old.

    For DAW….I would probably want them all. A bunch of several-hundred-dollar plugins, but also several hundred free ones.

    I have drifted away from the specifics of the original question. Frankly, I’ve never had that kind of cash to spend on gear. I suppose in my dreams I’ve topped out at $385k or so, trying to keep the room somewhat in the realm of what my clients and friends could relate to. And I like bang-for-the-buck.

    I saw a console once that ran the owner $1.4M, but I didn’t use it.
    From what I heard, it didn’t work when they first installed, hooked in, and fired it up. Software issues or something. It occured to me that any console that costs that much isn’t supposed to work the first time out.

    I do have the tunable Digeridoo though.

    At A World’s Fair in Vancouver years ago there were these two benches, facing each other from about 60′ apart. In the middle was the pedestrial causeway. My friend and I sat either bench and could hold a quiet conversation as if we were sitting together. I’d build one of those on the grounds somewhere, maybe.

    JM

  2. I agree about the Foosball table, those things get a lot of use.

    After putzing around the music biz for a while, doing a lot of reading and research on studio design, gear (I am a serious gear-FREAK) I have come to a startling conclusion:

    You really don’t need all that much.

    Huh?, you might be asking. Seriously, you really don’t need a whole of gear to make things happen in a studio. I’ll tell you why an din the process let you in on my studio design secret.

    First of all, technology has gotten to the point where everything I used to dream of and was nothing more than science fiction at the time is now a reality. It’s also extremely cheap, so outfitting a studio these days is a lot different than it used to be. Yes, I remember cutting a legato string section with heavy reverb with a razor blade on 2″ tape. Not a fun experience. Digital has it’s good side and it’s bad side, but all in all, digital is the only way to go.

    So let’s start at actually getting things into the computer.

    I have read specs on just about every mic pre-amp and converter out there. The DigiDesign converters are crap, too thin, brittle and weak sounding for me. The Apogee converters are great but costly, regardless of the fact that a $1M budget is virtually limitless, one has to spend wisely.

    So what’s my solution? PreSonus FP-10’s – 4 of them to be exact. With 4 FP-10’s I can get 32 tracks of awesomely crystal clear audio that has bottom end, sounds warm and cozy, doesn’t break the bank and is really easy to use. Usability is a major factor in a recording session. There is also the ability to add them to the PreSonus Studio Live 16.4.2 console for 48 tracks of audio. In all the recording I’ve done with bands over the years, I seriously have not had an instance of running of 24 channels, though I can see where it could happen depending on the situation.

    For the computer, a Mac Pro outfitted with 32 gigs of RAM and 4 TB worth of storage. Everything recorded during the sessions can be stored on the network somewhere for ease of retrieval.

    What recording software would I use? The general consensus is ProTools. Not I. I don’t like the interface (it’s cluttery and I don’t like visual overload), besides which I don’t like the way it sounds. I can usually spot a record recorded with ProTools. It sounds tinny, weak, thin and usually has the balls of an elderly church mouse. The second choice of most people is Apple’s Logic Studio 8. While Logic is easy to use, logically laid out and very fast to work, it does not do drum sounds the way I hear them done in my head. It does guitar sounds remarkably well. Electronic instruments are easy no matter what software you use.

    My preference? PreSonus’ Studio One. It’s easy, fast and does drum sounds incredibly well. It has a nice warm tone to it. It, seriously, is a pleasure to mix in. It’s also pretty cheap to.

    I have been really partial to the M-Audio BX5a monitors. They just sound right to me. Here it must be remembered that people will argue in favor of specially tuned monitors and acoustical treatment of the control room and all that happy jazz. The fact of the matter remains: when you boil it all down, you can get used to anything. You can have the most perfect monitors and still sound like crap if you can’t translate what you hear from the monitors to the mix. It requires skill and training to do that, not monitors. Yes, great monitors help a lot. As long as I have some time to work with the monitors and get used to them, I really don’t care what they are. My preference is for BX5’s.

    So far, other than the Mac Pro, we haven’t even cracked $10,000.

    You will notice that I haven’t mentioned a console. You would be correct in that observation. Why? Because, since going digital, I haven’t really seen the need for one. Yep, you heard that right. I don’t need it. I like to send signal straight to the mic-pre’s and into the computer. I get a much more natural and convincing sound that way. I do do some tweaking in the box but not much. I more about capturing that “live feel” of the band that’s in the studio. Console’s just get in the way. Besides, if the musician’s are bringing the best gear they can with them (or it’s available to them in the studio) then I really don’t want to get in the way of their sound at all. Consoles get in the way. Yep, they look cool as hell when the clients walk into the studio. Those same clients will gasp loudly when they don’t see a console at all, they will be skeptical, until the drummer hears the drum sounds for the first time.

    That brings us to the next thing:

    Microphones

    I am a microphone freakazoid like no other. Put a pile of mics on the floor and I’ll happily roll around in them for hours. So what would I want for a mic locker? In the locker I would like to see:

    Shure SM-57 (10)
    Shure SM-58 (5)
    MXL 990 (4)
    Sennheiser 421 (8)
    Sennheiser 441 (4)
    AKG D40 (2)
    AKG D112
    Audix D6
    Sennhheiser e906 (4 or 5)
    Samson c02 (2 stereo pairs)
    Neumann U67 (4, for that Ken Scott sound)
    Coles 4038 (2 pairs)
    AKG Perception 220

    There are a myriad of reasons for the above list and I won’t go into much detail. You will notice that there is a mix of “professional” and “not-so-professional” mics in the list. I do not subscribe to the school that says a microphone has to cost over $1K to sound good. I have gotten some of the best sounds out of the cheapest mics I own. It’s all in how you use them. Again, you can spend a million dollars and still sound like crap.

    As to instruments and stuff laying around:

    Drums: house kit – Tama Star Classic Bubinga Birch. This set is LOUD and has a great sound to it. It lends itself very well to just about every style of music out there. Once you learn it’s little quircks, the Bubinga Birch set is a great kit to work with.

    Snare – Tama Warlord Masai. Without question this is one of the finest snare I have ever had the pleasure of working with. The band I work with the most uses this snare almost exclusively. It has a serious bark. I would also like to see a Tama Warlord Praetorian as well for a deeper throatier sound.

    Guitar cabinets – Line 6 Spyder III 15 watt practice amp. This little amp kicks MEGA butt. I have gotten the best guitar sounds ever out of this little thing. On a recording it can sound bigger than several thousand watts worth of Marshall’s. That being said a few Marshall amps laying around is always a good idea, as well as the Epiphone Valve Junior, which is a serious little tube amp. A Fender Twin Deluxe is a great addition to any studio and would like to have one available.

    I would definitely like to see a Hammond B3 floating around and available to clients.

    For bass the Hartke LH500 (???) is incredible. They are very inexpensive at $450 yet have a great tone and sound and they can be placed in a rack unit near the production area.

    For outboard gear I would purchase a Radial JD7 Injector Reamp Box. It allows for control of 7 amp heads and 7 cabinets from a single guitar. No wimpy guitar sounds in my studio, that’s for sure!!!! A few PreSonus ADL 600 compressors, a Lexicon 250 reverb unit and maybe a few other pieces but not positive.

    The control room should be large and open. The larger the better. Comfortable seating and a cozy, relaxed atmosphere is paramount. There must be enough room to have the entire band, minus the drummer, in the control room.

    When I’m in the studio tracking with bands, I don’t have time to turn knobs and fiddle with gear. The less gear the better, it just gets in the way. Here’s the secret: I don’t play gear, I play the musicians. Yep, that’s the whole of my philosophy. I play the musician’s themselves. I get better takes from the musician’s when they are all congregated in the control room and close to me, so I can maintain as much contact with the band as possible and they maintain contact with each other. Separating them only gets a sterile lack-luster performance from the musician’s. It’s all about getting the workflow streamlined and maintaining the creative flow with the musician’s.

    The mix room, however, would be a totally different ball game altogether and it would look very similar to what you have going on for the control room as it stands.

    Well, I’ve rattled on enough.

    Much love

    Tom

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