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Overview

System Design
  • No one likes to create documentation but, if you have more than just a few boxes, you'll need it.
  • Patch bays are great, but even simple  ones have 3 modes and 24 channels with no place to label the connects!
  • If you use a DAW, then start your design with the ADC/DAC I/O box and work outwards from there.
  • Once your system is wired and running, you'll tend to forget how it is connected.
  • The two equipment racks require a large number of cables between them.
  • Without good docs, re-wiring after a move would be really difficult.

Rack-Mount vs Stand-Alone Boxes
  • Sometimes that choice must be set aside in favor of having some specific piece of gear. However, the Newport Studio was assembled mostly rack-mount. Even the StudioProjects VTS-1 mic preamp stand-alone boxes were re-mounted as a pair using a rack-mount adapter.
Hum
  • Hum can be a real killer but there are a few tricks:
    • Trick 1
      • Ground everything to a SINGLE point (a "star-grounding" configuration). In this studio, all gear is powered from five AC switch boxes which use the same 20A outlet. If you need more AC line power, then keep those AC grounds short and well connected together. You don't want "ground-loops" -- EVER!
    • Trick 2
      • Gear often has a chassis ground AND signal grounds where signal grounds are often floating. Using balanced signal lines helps, but tracking down and fixing hum is still a headache.
    • Trick 3
      • Metal racks for mounting gear can work but it can also be very painful to debug grounding issues. The theory is that everything is directly grounded to the rack. However, racks are not necessarily well grounded for hum and gear can have floating-grounds; or not.  Instead, I built two racks from Oak for isolation and individually mount the gear; electrically separate from each other. The ONLY connections therefore are through the signal line grounds. This really helped.
    • Trick 4
      • Multi-channel isolation boxes can really help for "external" signals like from remote units, your PC audio and separate stand-alone boxes. However, even though isolation boxes are useful, they are constructed with audio transformers so pay attention to the types of signals in the path and use them early on in the signal chain.
Cables
  • Don't buy cheap -- but not because of the wild claims about impedance, inductance, signal loss, etc. -- but because of MECHANICAL construction. Mogami cables really are nice, but you don't need to pay 3x the price just for the name. Cheap 'knock-off' cables can be "acceptable", sometimes, but be selective when you buy. Monster cables are sold with a lot of hype and a little higher cost but they are very durable and nicely flexible so are one of the better choices. Buy good cables; just don't buy the hype.
Patch Bays
  • Patch bays are passive units that make changing connections easier and keep your system more flexible.
  • They have 3 modes but the most common is "half-normal".
  • Rules
    • Inputs always use the rear, top (A) connect.
    • Outputs always use the rear, bottom (B) connect
    • Half-Normal is the easiest and most flexible mode
      • (A-rear) routed to (B-rear) by default
      • Patching into (A-front) taps into (A-rear) but (A-rear) still connects to (B-rear)
      • Patching into (B-front) injects into (B-rear) and disconnects (A-rear) from (B-rear)
    • Draw a diagram -- there is zero space to write on the front of the patch box
  • Patch-bay cable choices depend a lot on the distance.
    • The colorful small-wire (1-ft cables by the bunch) are great for immediate connects above or below
    • Use 3-ft (1-meter) 'monster' cables for most rear connects between patch and gear.
    • Close-connects for the rear work well with 0.5-meter 'monster' types
  • For longer connections, 2-meter cables are usually long enough.
Speakers
  • The choice of studio monitors is staggering and there are more than enough good choices -- but here's a few suggestions to help weed through the hype
  • Don't buy "home stereo speakers" - they are not designed for mixing or critical listening
  • Do buy "near-field monitors" - they are designed for monitoring and have superior phase and frequency response
  • Near-field monitors are VERY directional and need to be positioned carefully for best performance
    • Place them opposite the listening position, surrounded by absorption
    • Add wall absorption when possible to any 'first-reflection' points between the monitors and the listening position
    • Diffusion behind the listening position is helpful to increased spatial resolution from the monitors
    • Acoustically isolate them from walls and supports so the sound only comes from the monitor; not the wall
    • Sealed monitors with good bass response are great though generally very expensive
    • Ported monitors are generally much more affordable but may have poorer phase response
  • Mount near-field monitors symmetrically either side of the listening position -- at a 60-deg angle
  • Mount the monitors vertical, tweeters above and woofer below, centered at ear level
  • Don't flip the monitors on their sides -- but, if you must, put the woofers close-in, tweeters to the outside
  • For mixing, invest in both near-field monitors and a set of sealed 'single-cone-mid-range-cube' speakers
    • Near-field monitors give you all the details and sound great
    • Sealed cubes sound bad, but are needed to balance vocals, mid-bass and verify the mix sounds great everywhere
    • Sealed-cubes are a necessary check when mixing because they have very uniform phase response (over frequency) -- ported monitors sound great but can lie to you about mix levels
    • Most sealed-cube speakers are powered so an additional power amp is not required
    • Two sealed-cubes give the option of stereo or monaural sound when checking the mix
    • The Aratone cubes were the standard but are no longer available. The Avantone, a 60W per channel powered MixCube is a very good replacement.
Mics
  • I'll make no attempt to argue detailed mic selection; something which is so extreme in variety and price. However, IF your room has been tuned sufficiently with traps, then consider some of these points. If your room has NOT received acoustic treatment (and I'm assuming it needs it like most all rooms) then do that first - then consider mic selection.
  • Room Measurement. The Behringer ECM8000 is a very cost effective choice. About $50.
  • Dynamic mics. Rugged for on-stage but less preferred for recording. HOWEVER, the Shure SM7B is a good example of a dynamic mic designed to smoothly enhance the bass response of the human voice. Be aware that the signal output from dynamic mics is very low and often requires 80+dB of gain. Since DAW I/O preamps generally wioll not have enough gain to keep the channel noise low, consider inserting an in-line preamp -- positioned near the dynamic mic. A good example is the CloudLifter CL-1 with 20dB of extremely low noise gain.
  • SCM. Small Condencer Mics -- like the Shure SM-137s. Great for acoustic instruments. There are many to choose from and you need not spend a fortune. Buy them as a pair so they are a matched type and can be used together as with acoustic instruments in an X-Y configuration.
  • LCM. Large Condencer Mics. Great for both acoustic instruments and voice; with the Neumann u87s being the best recognized for smooth, uncluttered response. Remember, LCMs are very sensitive to high frequencies, relative to dynamic mics, which is good or bad depending on the audio source.
  • A mic like Studio Projects C1 is relatively inexpensive for the quality and includes a shock mount. Again, consider buying a pair. It's limitation is that it is cardioid only.
  • The Neumann u87s are typically over $3k each. However, it is possible to build a very high quality 'clone' of a classic u87 from components for about 20% of that price. A pair of such clones can provide a 'match-type' pair of pattern mics which can record acoustic instruments in a Blumlein configuration using their 'figure-8' mode. The Blumlein configuration has the reputation of providing very wide stereo separation -- as long as the room acoustics have been properly corrected.
  • The WindTech PopGuard-2000 is a clever pop filter with elastic bands to hold it to an LCM. It works well with the C1 and is much simpler mounting. Larger, separate-mount pop filters are likely still the best, but they have their own mechanical mounting difficulties.
  • Foam wind-guards are inexpensive and have the advantage of keeping dust out of the capsule ( ... as opposed to leaving the uncovered LCM in the open in the studio for years on end. Probably their only drawback is adding a bit of distance between a singer and the mic for those who want, or need, to get maximum benefit from a mic's proximity effect. For the studio, this should not be an issue.
  • Spider-Mounts for LCMs have the advantage of being more mechanically balanced. LCMs weight about 500 g (typically over 1 lb) which required counter-weight for the mic boom to keep things stable. "Hanging" a Studio Projects C-1 down from the boom with their original "spider" design made the mechanics awkward. Fortunately SP later added an inexpensive center-mount spider; the model SPSK.
DAW
  • Even the choice of Digital Audio Workstation is a mix of technical and subjective and there is no single right answer. However, there are always lessons to be learned -- all unique, of course.
  • I started with CuBase as I was focused on MIDI. I found that interface difficult to make functional.
  • As my gear expanded and software improved, I added Samlitude but had hardware issues.
  • I then upgraded CuBase but found the user interface still incompatible with my style of use.
  • Finally, I switched to PreSonus StudioOne-2-Pro -- because:
    • I'd purchased the PreSonus FireStudio Projects ADC/DAC hardware interface
    • It has it's technical roots (and developers) in CuBase -- which seemed like a plus
    • I liked the description of the user interface style
    • It clearly had a practical orientation toward the musician
    • ProTools is a lot more expensive and is M-Audio-centric which didn't fit my hardware selection
  • After running into limited inputs, I simplified the system by adding a second Presonus FireStudio Project. These are 'daisy-chained' via FireWire and thus perform like a 20-input-wide interface (although since CH 1/2 are designed for mic/instrument inputs, I only use the two interfaces as a 16-wide input interface with 16-wide outputs.
Computer
  • There are lots of choices here; Macs are popular, but PCs are much cheaper and more power per $
  • Don't scrimp on horsepower and memory -- DAWs need as much of both as you can get
  • Hint: Plan on locating the computer box (the main unit if it's not one of the Mac computer/screen combos) in a closet to remote the fan noise. Cable extensions will be necessary but they are cheap.
FireWire (1394a)
  • This relates specifically to using the Presonus FireStudio Project FireWire 1394a interface -- though these comments may also apply to other configurations as well.
  • The 1394a interface has been implemented using chip-sets from various manufacturers but Presonus I/O has only been approved for TI and VIA chip-sets. I use a Star Tech PCI1394a_3 card in a Dell E520 system.
  • Note that there are two 1394 interface types: 1394a (S400 - 400 MBPS speed, 6-pin connect) and 1394b (S800 - 800 MBPS speed, 9-pin connect)
  • Note that the Presonus FireStudio boxes use a 6-pin 1394a connect at S400 speeds and while there are 4-pin to 6-pin FireWire adaptors, they do not work because they do not translate the ground and power lines. Use ONLY 6-pin/wire 1394a interfaces and cables.
  • 1394a is only specified for cable lengths up to 4.5m (16 ft) but Presonus FireStudio boxes are designed for a max cable length of just 6-ft which is a problem in this studio (and could easily be an issue in most studios because of wanting to get the computer fan noise away from the studio recording space.
  • The cable length solution is to insert a 1394 repeater -- a UniBrain FireRepeater 400 which can drive up to 33 feet of 1394 cable
  • The status of the 1394a computer interface can be tested using the 'OHCI Tool' utility which can be downloaded for free from the Web. Also note that you should check to see that the interface driver setting (in the registry file in Window OS) is set to S400, not s800, because the FireStudio runs at S400, not s800. (1394 interface cards which are capable of S800 speeds (but still use 6-pin connectors) are generally ok -- just set the speed at S400.
DAW Selection
  • Here's a few guidelines when thinking about your own choice of DAW. Again, there is NO one "right" answer for DAW and, in fact, some prefer buying physical mixing boards and digital storage. I prefer, and can only afford, a DAW, a fast computer and plenty of disk space.
    • 1: Choose a DAW that will be compatible with your hardware -- especially the central ADC/DAC box (the box which converts audio to digital for saving to your hard drive and converts saved digital audio files back to analog signals for listening using your power amp and monitor speakers.
    • 2: Make sure your computer has sufficient horsepower, disk drive space and RAM to handle the DAW software you choose. Expect to turn off services like wireless which hog I/O and the CPU.
    • 3: Choose DAW software which you strongly believe you will be able to learn. If the user interface is just not compatible with your style, you will, at the very least, be completely frustrated with it.
    • 4: Don't buy a host of features you know you will never use. And the corollary to that is don't buy the cheapest tools unless you can, and will, buy the upgrades as you need them.
Studio List
  • Mics
    • Custom modified Studio Projects C-1 LCMs, Shure SM137 SCM's, ECM-8000
    • Studio Projects VTB-1 FET/Tube Preamps
    • Behringer MIC2200 2-ch FET/Tube Preamp with parametric EQ
    • NA-87 pair (clones of Neumann u87Ai with Peluso P-K87i capsules) [under construction]
  • Instruments
    • Martin 6-string HD-28 2015 w/Fishman Matrix pickup
    • Martin 6-string OMJM 2010 w/Fishman Thinline pickup
    • Martin 12-string D12-20 1970 w/Fishman pickup
    • Fishman Aura16 Spectrum acoustic pickup processor
    • Fender Strat w/EMG pickups, 1994 and Rocktron Rack Preamp
    • Alesis QS8 Keyboard/Synth
    • Fiddle, Wood flutes, Recorder, Whistles, Bongos, etc.
  • Monitor
    • MEQ-230 1/3-Oct EQs, RA-100 Power Amps and Monitor One's Mk-II
    • Avantone powered 60W MixCubes
    • AKG K-240's, Shure SRH-840's, Senshizer
  • Signal Path
    • Presonus HP60 6-ch headphone mixer/amp, 4-ch rack splitter, 24-Ch patchbay
    • MIDI Reverb, 2-Ch studio effects, 2-Ch limiter, 2-Ch Compressor
    • Display/Processor, CD rack player, Korg rack tuner, custom mute-switch, etc.
  • DAW
    • Dell Dimension E520, 3GHz, 4GB Mem, Win7
    • 2 Chained Presonus FireStudio Project 10-ch Digital I/O
    • Studio One 2 DAW
    • Presonus Fader-Port