We are living in a golden age of sound technology. The tools we have at our disposal today were only a dream just a decade ago. The industry has found the balance between the power and flexibility of digital and the character and nuance of analog. People generally focus on the end result, but for most musicians, producers and engineers, the process is the product and the tools are the enablers.
The following is an off-the-top-of-my-head gear list for this record, my favorite tools, created by the brilliant engineers who make what we do as recording artists possible.
I used a bunch of other things but these are the standouts, stuff I couldn’t do without. “Best” means “in my opinion this is the best I’ve used, personally” and “new” means “new to me, like I got it less than 18 months ago”. Feel free to ask questions about specific applications and I’ll do my best to answer. Would love to hear your favorites as well.
**DISCLAIMER: In this post I’m mentioning some high end (read: expensive) gear. But I want any of you who are just starting out to know that you should never think that expensive equipment is an answer to anything. All it does it add, incrementally, to your sound. A good engineer / producer should be able to produce quality recordings without the use of boutique or prohibitively expensive gear. I used inexpensive equipment for many, many years before saving up for and spending the time to understand higher level recording equipment. Of course, with the right tools a job can become easier, but it’s not impossible without them (but do invest in a good preamp before anything, that’s really the most important thing). That being said, after 18 years as a recording engineer and musician, these ended up being my go-to tools for this record.
Best New gear overall
Kemper Profiling Amp
Best New FX Unit overall: Strymon Blue Sky
Best New Synth: Korg Minilogue
Best New Old Synth: Moog New Minimoog Model D (can’t believe they actually did it. Just got it a week ago, somehow even better than my original 1972 Model D)
Dangerous 2-Bus+ (if you’re looking for analog summing, this is it)
Rupert Neve Designs Portico II Channel (the perfect balance of color and clarity, a modern classic)
Most used: Korg Minilogue
Late bloomer: Korg MS-20 (original)
Indispensable newcomer: Sequential Circuits Prophet 5
Staying power: Minimoog Model D (orignal 1972)
Deprecated: Access Virus C (we had a good run, but now I’m using the Kemper — same designer — so I feel we’re even)
Honorable mention: Korg Arp Odyssey
Rediscovered an old favorite: Universal Audio 6716
Sadly underutilized: Chandler LTD-1
Trident 80B 500 Series
Got a Gibson Les Paul after having an Epiphone Les Paul for years. Now I get why they’re so expensive.
New Favorites: Strymon Timeline and Blue Sky
Stalwart: Ursa Major SST-282
Best new output conversion: Dangerous Convert-8
Best new input conversion: Lynx Aurora 16
Best adapter: Lynx AES16e
Best mixer: Neve 542
Underappreciated: Empirical Labs Distressor EL8-X
Native Instruments Monark (as close as you’re ever going to get to a Mini in the digital domain)
Arturia Jupiter 8V (stunning clarity, always cuts through the mix)
XILS 3 (warmth)
Valhalla Shimmer / Vintageverb, U-He Presswerk, Plugin Alliance VSM-3, Arturia Jupiter 8V, , Waves H-EQ, Waves RS56, Waves Scheps 73, Eventide Black Hole, SoundToys Native Bundle, Acustica Amethyst, Empirical Labs Arousor, Sonnox Envolution, SSL Duende Drumstrip, Kush Omega N&A
Controller: Dangerous D-Box
Monitors: Genelec 8330A
Headphones: DT770 Pro 80ohm (great translation to/from speakers)
Happy to announce that just in time for the holidays we’ve brought back the ISO50 Studio Editions.
It’s been a big project.
With Scott so busy with touring, the moving of the design studio to Dijital Fix, and the launch of the new album, there has been a lot of knowledge to pass on and very little opportunity to do so. We’ve finally restored things to their proper order and worked out the kinks in production and we’re now shipping 9 different studio editions in up to 3 sizes, signed and numbered by Scott. These are the highest-grade, limited edition prints of Scott’s artwork that can be obtained.
To kick things off, we’ve decided to offer them at 25% off along with all of the other prints on the site until Tuesday, December 2nd, 2014 at midnight, which also just happens to be my birthday.
I first came across ISO50 and Scott’s work when Jakub came into Dijital Fix in Brooklyn about 5-6 years ago. He showed me the studio editions, and since then we’ve worked together in one form or another, first offering the prints for sale in our Brooklyn store (R.I.P.). When we opened our location in San Francisco, we joined forces to bring ISO50 it’s own storefront and fulfillment away from Merchline’s far-removed warehouse and operate it in-house at Dijital Fix. It’s been amazing to help with the launch of Awake, produce new shirt designs, and be involved in the production of new Lithograph editions (I have a piece I’m writing about this to post soon), and now, finally, bringing back the Studio Editions inside their new home in the ISO50 Studio at Dijital Fix, it seems like a full-circle since my introduction to ISO50 so many years ago.
Me on the Oberheim Four Voice
Zac Brown on electric guitar
Alex Cornell lending some acoustic takes
Zac Brown in the studio
I’ve sort of had my head down for the past couple months really digging into the recording of my next album so I thought I’d post up some shots from various sessions. Recently, guitarist Zac Brown (of Dusty Brown and DoomBird) has been coming in and contributing parts to some songs. It’s one of the first times I’ve collaborated with another musician and it’s been a great experience. It’s also been fun to wrap my head around recording guitar amps, something I had limited experience with before as most of my songs are written and recorded on my acoustic guitar with the keyboard and drum parts added later. It’s always exciting to find a new sonic texture to work with and it’s definitely an inspiring process to see your vision for a song expanded on by someone else.
If you’ve been following along with the album’s progress, you might have noticed the somewhat protracted nature of the whole thing. It’s been a test to say the least trying to keep on track with music while staying on top of the ISO50 side of things. There was definitely a long period where all I wanted to do was write new songs but not finish them, which is the hardest part for me. The good news is that because of this I now have a few albums of solid material, but the bad news is that it delayed the process of this one getting out. But that’s all behind me now and the past couple months have been the most productive of my musical life. The only problem is that I now have this self-imposed feeling that I’m behind and when I’m feeling that way I can sometimes forget to relax and enjoy the process of creating. It’s funny how much design and music differ in this way for me. While I see the processes of creating both as very similar, I don’t feel I can really sit down and just get music done in the same way as my visual work. It’s easy to say I’m going to devote three nights to a poster and be pretty confident it will get done and I’ll be happy with it. With music it’s always a much longer and drawn out process with more intangible milestones along the way.
The beauty of this entire process and the time devoted to it is that I’ve been allowed the luxury of perspective, something that’s very hard for me when I have to be neck-deep in a project from beginning to end with no breaks. The time has allowed me to continually reevaluate what the work is supposed to be and how best to do the material justice. Most of my songs start out as very small sketches, usually a guitar part and a keyboard part recorded quickly. I then set it aside and move on to something else. When I finally come back to an idea to develop it into a full composition my biggest fear is that I will somehow lose the meaning or the soul of it in the process. The problem is that as I’m adding new parts I start to go on tangents and the song can become something completely different. Sometimes this can be a good thing, but in other cases it takes time to be able to look back and realize that the original idea has been muddled in some way by the initial excitement of discovery. Problems like this tend to disappear when I allow myself to revisit work over time.
Overall, I feel close to wrapping up the production/arrangement phase but then comes mixing and mastering which can be time consuming. My goal is to have things sewn up by, at the very latest, end of summer. But putting time-lines on things doesn’t exactly serve the artistic process, at least not mine anyways, so I’m trying my best to pretend that goal doesn’t exist.
I’ll try to post some more pics / videos as things progress. And on a related note, Yourstru.ly has been filming a piece on the making of the album so there should be some interesting stuff by the time that’s done.
I usually hesitate to do music production related posts as the focus of this blog is more centered in the visual world (On a side note, I always wonder how many of you produce music as well as design? | Comment). But I’ve really been shifting gears lately into album mode, getting the studio all dialed in so the final stretch is as trouble free as possible. To tell the truth, this past year has been one giant computer headache. Photoshop has been running like a champ on Windows 7 64-bit, but Sonar — the audio software platform I use to record / produce with — has been nothing but trouble. Over the years, I’ve slowly moved to where I do all of my sound generation and most of my processing outside the computer with analog gear but I still use the computer to record and arrange. Sonar is still the central element to the most complex stage of the production process. If it’s not behaving, the whole chain breaks down very quickly. To be fair though, it’s actually the supporting cast of digital hardware that’s been causing all the problems, not Sonar itself. My analog-to-digital digital conversion system was built around a MOTU 828MKII audio interface and a MOTU MIDI timepiece. They worked great in Windows XP but just weren’t making the cut in Windows 7 and Vista. MOTU’s driver support for Windows is pretty bad, they’re more of a Mac-centric company. So I finally ditched them and went with German manufacturer RME’s Fireface 800 as the core of the system. RME were originally a Windows only hardware maker and are very dedicated to stable performance across both platforms. They also make some of the best analog to digital converters in the business so it was nice to get that upgrade included in the deal. I also finally took the time to really tweak the computer and chase down all the little bugs and conflicts so everything is running smoother than ever now. Unfortunately I had to leave the ridiculously fast Windows 7 and go back to Vista Pro x64, but it’s only a minor step down in performance so it’s well worth the added stability. I am betting I’ll be able to move back up to Win7 within the next 6 months. And before anyone says “you should switch to Mac” I must add that most of my go-to plugins and music software are PC-only, I couldn’t really switch to Mac if I wanted to. And believe me, over this past year I have wanted to on several occasions. But I think all that is behind me, the new rig is rock solid and I’ve cloned the drive with Acronis True Image so it will always be fast and clean (I can just flash the drive back to the initial state any time things start to bog down).
So now with everything working properly, all at once, for what seems like the first time in ages, it’s time to get down to the business of producing this album. I have all the material in place, it’s just a matter of arrangement and production at this point. I do enjoy this phase, when I’m in the middle of it, but truthfully I don’t always look forward to it. I just remember all the late nights up at 7am driving back and forth from LA and Sacramento getting stuff mixed and mastered, then mixed and mastered again, and again…. and so on. Sometimes it seems like it never ends. The last song I finished — the forthcoming Coastal Brake 12″ — was one of those very trying experiences. It was just such a dense and complex mix, I hit the wall a few times and really had to reconsider things. Luckily I was able to keep my head and after about two months of pushing and pulling I finally got a version I was happy with.
So here I am coming off that experience with a whole album’s worth of tracks all lined up for the same treatment. I figured it was time to evaluate my work flow and determine what I could do to optimize things and make the process more fun than work. I started by rewiring and reconfiguring the entire studio, from top to bottom, three times. With each pass I took a week to work with things and noted all the little issues and roadblocks that I encountered with the setup. I then incorporated those into the next redesign. I spent years trying to just get things setup quickly so I could get to work, not realizing that if I really took the time to get it all set up and configured properly the first time, in the end I would save a ton of time and energy.
So now I’m sitting in the newly optimized studio and it really feels good. My head is clear and I feel like I have instant access to all the tools I need to get work done. I’ve already written a chunk of new material in the past few days and am starting the process of working back through the existing songs and getting them into their finished forms. One very cool perk of this whole experience was rediscovering something that I had all but forgotten about from my earlier days as a musician. When I first started out in music, my first real piece of gear was an Ensoniq ASR-X, a combination drum machine / synth which used drum pads instead of keys. I sold it years ago and always regretted it (Actually, I sold one, got a new one, then sold that, then got another, then finally sold that again…but that’s a very long story). Anyways, I’ve always missed the physical drum pads and ever since I moved to San Francisco I can’t play my real drum kit very late at night anymore. Over the weekend I was at Guitar Center picking up some cables and noticed Akai’s new little drum trigger pad, the MPD18 (pictured at the top). Only $99 for 18 genuine MPC pads, that’s an insane deal. My ASR-X was always like the poor man’s MPC so I always lusted after them whenever I saw one at a show or something. I was a bit skeptical about whether the $99 MPD18 could live up to the venerable MPC, but once I got it home I was amazed at how sensitive and tactile the pads are. Needless to say, I’ve been loading my drum machine up and triggering it with the MPD for the past two days straight. It’s not even work anymore, I forgot how fun these things are, and I honestly think the results are more fluid and realistic than programming drum patterns by mouse.
I will be posting some pics of the new studio just as soon as I borrow my brother’s wide angle lens. For now, here is some gratuitous gear smut, the original MPC60 (Akai + Roger Linn) in all it’s glory:
This past month has sort of flown by, I’ve had my head down working on some new posters (one of which you saw a preview of recently) and trying to sort things out around the house. If you’ve been following along you’ll know that I recently got the Epson 9900 large format printer and have since spent a lot of my spare time trying to make a home for it upstairs. I’ve also spent a fair amount of time (as has Alex) bringing together the various supporting elements needed to produce, cut, package, and ship the prints. You’d be surprised how much space all that stuff takes up, the result is that I lost my dining room and now eat at the coffee table in front of the TV. I’ve been kidding myself that I’d eventually move the whole printing operation downstairs into the main studio but today I finally put that delusion to rest and went to Ikea to get some shelves and make it official. Unfortunately I got started a little late so the mess you see above will have to wait until tomorrow. If you look carefully you can catch a couple unreleased prints that will be showing up here very soon.
On the music front I’ve been trying to make some headway with the album, which has been slowed a bit by the printer project. As for shows, I’m heading up to Salem later this week for the Emerge-N-See Festival. I’ll be doing a live Tycho set out in the woods (along with Flying Lotus, Daedalus, Plastician and many others: info) where I hope to make good use of this fiberglass ATA flight case (below) I scored at a garage sale this weekend for $30! I was just walking to get coffee and my neighbor had this thing just sitting on the sidewalk; she also threw in a poster case for $10. On the way back I bought a kitchen scale that looks like a prop from a 70’s episode of Price Is Right for $1. The guy I bought it from tried to trade it for the case which he said would “fit his Moog perfect”. Unfortunately for him it will fit mine better.
A reader wrote in today asking why I haven’t posted on process or the day-to-day stuff much recently and after reading his email I realized he was right, I haven’t really been on top of that over the past couple months. This is partly due to the fact that most of the stuff I’ve been working on won’t be made public for a while and partly due to things being a bit overwhelming lately. As much as I enjoy it, running this blog has been a challenge for me at times, trying to balance getting work done and also talking about it. But even when I’m in the thick of it, it’s always nice to pop my head up and write an update and perhaps provide a little insight into the daily grind over here at the studio. So from now on I’ll make a better effort to post more often on the stuff that’s going on around here. So here’s the first installment, the studio update for June 2009.
The picture above is of Alex (the one and only ISO50 intern) in the upstairs work area which we use for printing, photography, and any other random tasks that don’t fit into the dungeon below which houses the music studio and main design systems. Alex has been prepping things for the new Epson 9900 which is finally all put together (pictured to the left). It’s scheduled to be commissioned today when the team from Meridian comes out to get it online. Once that’s up and running we’ll be able to do large format stuff so be on the lookout for some very big prints soon. Alex is also working on a very detailed article on color calibration which we’ve been sorting out for a while now and which just seems to keep growing in scope. But it will be worth the wait when it’s done, I promise!
As for new work, I’ve been locked downstairs working on the new Tycho album along with a few new posters which you will start to see coming out over the next couple months. It’s sort of been a rough few months transitioning into getting-shit-done mode. Putting together the Coastal Brake 12″ (due out in August) sort of wiped me out and then a long stretch of poorly timed traveling really put me in a bad spot as far as motivation is concerned. But after some time off I was able to get back into it over the past few weeks and the new work has been flowing pretty well. It’s nice to step away from things for a bit (even if not by choice), when I get back to it I always find myself seeing things from a different perspective and appreciating the process a little more.