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Bring in the Noise
by Thad Brown
THE STUDIO PRO 98 REPORT
How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love My Little Studio
Pretend for a moment, you are in a place where Pro Tools 24 is "midrange" and real men only mix on SSL and Neve boards. In this alternate universe studio owners talk about not being able to have the right board in their second room, so they have to settle for one that only costs a quarter of a million. I was there, in that place, for a full day, and boy was it wierd. When I heard about Mix magazine sponsored Studio Pro 98, I asked for a press pass largely on a lark, figuring that nobody would really bother with a "reporter" of my (nonexistent) stature, but they said yes, I assume because it was their first year of doing the show, and anything would help. So picture your faithful reporter, Palm Pilot in hand, dressed in the international musicians uniform of black jeans, black boots, and a black T-Shirt, standing around the lobby with the suits and high pressure sales and marketing guys from SSL, Lexicon, Yamaha, Alesis and a ton of others. Everybody has name tags with famous studio and manufacturer names on them, and mine says "www.xlr8yourmac.com" which not a single soul seemed to have heard of. I was most out of place, but kept my mouth shut and learned a lot. It was a lot of fun, and I recommend these type of conventions to anyone interested in getting serious about audio
DOES ANYONE HERE OWN A COMPUTER?
Save a panel dedicated specifically to file format interchange, the whole day I was there, hard disk recording was mentioned about 5 times, and in every case was referring to Sonic Solutions of Pro Tools systems. I know these people have computers, but they seem to use them mostly for billing. The digital formats used in this rarefied world are high end multitracks, but they also deal with ADATS, DA-88 and DA-38 machines. I have never liked ADAT machines that much, and neither do they. We all record on them all the time for cost reasons, but I was surprised to hear how much they are used in the high end world. None of the big shots like them very much, but they deal with them because so many projects start on them or are recorded completely on them.
Hard disk recording (with the exception of Pro Tools and Sonic), however, didn't appear on the radar of anyone I met. I guess if I write and record "Thad's-super-bitchin'-number-one-hit" on my mac with Cubase and I want to mix it high end I'm out of luck. If I do it on ADATs the tracks can be transfered reasonably easily to the large format digital multitracks. I guess this is one of the reasons why ADAT compatible interfaces are showing up standard or as options on so may PCI audio cards.
WHO IS WINNING THE QUALITY BATTLE, ANALOG OR DIGITAL?
Also interesting is the growing consensus that high end digital is still chasing high end analog when it comes to sheer audio performance. For anyone who has heard truly professional analog gear, this is like a growing consenus that the world is round, but it is interesting to see nonetheless. We luddite guitar players have been acting like lunatics about tubes and analog circuits for years, but it's good to see other people coming along for the ride. Try running the same signals through a $10,000 digital board with wonderful specs and a high end Neve or SSL, it's obvious, the analog sounds better.
That said, digital is getting better an better, and cheaper and cheaper. Digital consoles with built in DSP and effects are getting down in the $5000 range, and they sound REALLY good. Maybe not as good as a million dollar (no joke) analog board, but damn good. In fact, if I were starting a small commercial studio right now, I would get a Yamaha O2R, two ADATS, and two DA38s for a 24 track setup. But wait, you say, that would be 32 tracks, four eight track machines. Ah, but remember one will always be in the shop . . .
THE MUSIC GUYS AND THE VIDEO GUYS
There was an interesting difference of attitude in the music production and video/film production camps. The music folks are much less impressed with digital recorders, consoles, and digital in general. Making records is still mostly a 48 track endeavor, and nothing much matters other than how it sounds. Audio for video can sometimes involve hundreds and hundres of tracks at a time. The video folks need the automation, scene memories and extremely flexible patching that you can only get with all digital or mostly digital stuff. The music production types, though, still live in a largely analog world, except for the actual recording machines, which are usually digital.
STANDARDS? WE DON'T HAVE NO STINKING STANDARDS.
One of the funniest moments of the whole show was when a panelist was asked a very good question about whether the new 24bit/96k audio standard would change small format digital consoles much. The panelist immediately and sincerely said "what standard?" We all laughed and went on, but it raises a good point. DVD sales are far behind where they had been projected, and DVD is gaining popularity almost exclusively in home theater setups. The DVD Audio standard is bogged down in political and technical problems, and now there are hot rod CD formats that are going to compete as well. The fact is, most consumers are just not all that dissatisfied with CDs.
So what is the home computer recordist to do? The advice around Studio Pro seemed to be get all the bits you can, and worry about the sample rate later. On truly fantastic systems in really good rooms, 96k makes a real audible difference. On your walkman on a noisy street, 24 bits makes a real audible difference if those extra bits are properly squashed into the 16 bit audio format. In addition, 96k immediately doubles your file size and processing bandwidth. Keep in mind that a digital console or computer doing audio and DSP is just a big calculator, if you send twice as many numbers in (by doubling how often you sample the waveform), you need twice the power to crunch them, and twice the disk space to store them. For all this extra cost and storage space you get a marginal improvement that some people can hear some of the time. If you increase the word length, you will increase files size and processing bandwidth, but to a lesser degree and with results that anyone can hear immediately. Some day, there will be a long word, very high sample rate consumer audio format, but exactly which one is still an issue of great debate. When that standard finally comes around, your 24 bit 48k audio will still play on it just fine. The attitude at Studio Pro seemed to be, "why put your money down when you don't know what you will eventually need." Good advice.
THE GREAT JAMES TAYLOR STORY
The moment that made my love my little studio, though, was during the small format digital console panel. The rep from Yamaha (a pioneer in that field) showed a videotape of Frank Fillepeti speaking from a podium at what looked like a conference somewhat like Studio Pro. He was telling the story of how he and James Taylor made made a record. They tracked an entire album in a rented house on Martha's Vineyard with nothing buy an 02R and some Tascam 8 track MDMs (modular digital multitracks). James Taylor has never really been my big bowl of iced java, but he can work however he wants, and wherever he wants, and he choose to work in that environment with that gear. They mixed back in NYC on one of those million dollar jobs, but the cut tracks on gear not totally unlike what thousands of people like me have. My recordings don't sound as good as those because I don't do my job as well as Frank and James, and I can live with that. I don't mind having to work to become a better craftsman, it's just nice to know that I can get some phat tools.
Working like crazy on reviews for the Koblo and SonicWORX. The early line is that they are both something else. Really, amazing stuff folks. But the SonicWORX review will wait until I get my new machine, and the Koblo is taking some time to finish. Check this out, the Koblo synth is called a "Vibra 9000." How bad could something be with a name that cool? I'll try to have the review ready for next week. In the mean time, check out my Studio Pro 98 report below, and give me any specifics on what you want in your reviews. I'm trying to set up a system that weights different aspects of software fairly, and that will apply to an editor, synth, or multitrack app. Any help would be appreciated.
Looks like I will be at Mac World next Wednesday, so anyone who will be about should let me know. It's too bad I have to be Mike's eyes and ears, but I'll do my best anyway. We'll miss Mr. Maximum Impact, but soldier on nonetheless. Big time shouts out to anyone who helped with the Powerbook, doing the right thing is never easy ...
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