My first recordings were extremely lo-fi. I started with two tape decks, some Casios, and a Radio Shack 4-channel mixer. I loved working with that old setup at the time, and I’m also glad I started where I did. The economy of just a few pieces of cheap equipment taught me how to be efficient and how to work well with what I had. Over time, of course, I could afford better equipment. With this series, I discuss the equipment, workflow, and practices I use in the studio and have honed over time.
A little background
From 1993 to 1999, I shared equipment and studios with my friends. We used the workhorse mixer of the industry during those times, the Mackie CR-1604. The Mackie was a huge leap forward in terms of quality and price-effectiveness in those times. The mixer had 16 channels, extremely good build quality, and sounded great. And the price wasn’t bad, either; I think it hit the streets for about $900 at the time.
In the late 1990s, my housemate and collaborator Peter bought an amazing 32-channel Allen and Heath board that really opened all our eyes to what a good mixing desk could do for us. It had parametric EQs, fantastic sound, and enough inputs to normal just about everything in the studio to a channel. We were no longer bound by only 16 channels and only the lone stereo buss.
I eventually moved out of the house we shared at Studio 6250, and unfortunately that meant I no longer had access to the awesome A&H board. I had to find my own mixer and workflow. Unfortunately, money was tight at the time. So was space, so I simply couldn’t afford the nice, large-format mixer I was used to. I wound up buying two Tascam TM-D1000 digital mixers and chaining them together for my studio solution. It wasn’t great, but I could finally start multitracking to my computer and mix down up to 24 channels digitally with 8 additional channels of analog. It was the poor man’s 32-channel Allen and Heath.
I recorded my first album and lots of other music using this configuration, but it had severe limits. The Tascams had only 4 sends, and the 4 busses were actually shared with the aux sends. There were only two aux returns per board, and I consumed one of them with the stereo mix of my second submixer. To make matters worse, the user interface on the TM-D1000 was counter-intuitive and slow.
Modernizing the mixing and routing matrix
The dual cheap digital mixer configuration stuck with me for about 8 years, until 2008. Over time, I had been collating a set of requirements for the studio mixer upgrade. I wanted a digital mixer capable of total recall with at least 16 analog inputs. I also wanted at least 8-buss architecture and lots of sends and returns. Digital mixers frequently have onboard dynamics processing, and since my old Tascams had this capability, I thought it would be nice to include it. Basically, I was looking for a board that had all the features I got used to on Peter’s old Allen and Heath as well as those I had on my cheap Tascams.
Tascam released a new digital mixer after the little TM-D1000s called the DM-24, which was close to what I wanted. It was fully digital and had onboard dynamics on each channel. I toyed with the idea of buying one of these used, but then they released the DM-3200, a substantial upgrade. The biggest reason I decided to wait until I could afford the 3200 was that Tascam produced a Firewire card for it that gave the mixer 32 channels of inputs and outputs over Firewire. This would be a huge step forward in terms of workflow and reducing complexity for me. Instead of having to manage a separate audio interface and routing that to analog or digital I/O on the mixer, I could plug one cable into the mixer and have full workstation support without additional hardware. Plus, 32 channels of simultaneous audio at 24bit depth and up to 96kHz sampling rate far exceeded what I could do before.
Today’s configuration and workflow
So, the 3200 came home with me one day, and it is now the control center of the studio. One of the great things about the Tascam is that the routing matrix is completely programmable. There are 16 analog input channels with trim, 8 additional analog inputs from an expansion board, four assignable analog returns, and 32 possible channels of inputs coming from the computer. It also has ADAT lightpipe inputs, which I use as digital inputs from my sampler. There are 16 busses and 8 effect sends, which can be configured as stereo pairs with pan. And finally, it also has AES/EBU digital inputs and outputs, which I use for two effect processing chains.
Its EQs are great, with four bands that are completely configurable from low shelf, parametric, and high shelf types. And the dynamics processing is extremely powerful, with each channel having its own gate/compressor with sidechaining.
This sounds like a lot of parameters, and that is no lie. The board has memory, and I have set up some templates to keep things sane. One of the great workflow features I take advantage of is being able to quickly switch each input channel from an analog source to its digital source from the computer. For example, I compose with a few synthesizers and drum machines on the analog inputs. When I’m ready to commit to these parts, I record them into the computer over firewire and then toggle the channel inputs for those channels. At that point, the parts are played back from the computer instead, which frees the synths or drum machines for other work. I can also bounce the channels down to a submix and reuse the analog inputs if I want as well.
Once the mixer was the digital nexus of the studio, I also set up normalized routes to it from the important pieces of gear in the studio. I have more than enough effect sends now, and I keep all my processors fixed on the same routing pretty much. Two processors for delay and room effects are on the first two stereo sends, and the rest of the processors are either on busses or their own sends. Everything comes back to a channel on the mixer, and I typically use slots 33-48 for the effect returns. Almost all the synthesizers come into the mixer on their own analog channels, and sometimes I wind up submixing drums initially until I am ready to multitrack them.
The mechanical nexus of my studio is a bank of patchbays, like most other studios utilize. I also keep a modular synthesizer near the patchbays in case I want to run a part through more filtering or processing. It would be great if the 3200 had enough inputs and outputs to route everything in the studio without compromise, but that just isn’t the case. Plus, sometimes it’s easier to physically route signals using cables than it is to program a routing digitally. Something I learned from studying human-computer interaction is that when there is too much information to keep in one’s head, embedding that information into the world or the interface one is using helps. To that end, I keep a color-coded printout of the signals in the patchbays taped to the bays themselves.
While I’m composing, recording, or mixing, I also usually have a virtual desktop open on the computer that shows me all the vital signs of the studio. On this desktop I can see the overall performance of the DSP engine, my master spreadsheet of routings, and a view of the 3200’s meter bridge in one pane. It’s great to see all this information at once and just switch over to another virtual desktop with my audio workstation when I’m composing or arranging.
A nice touch on the 3200 is its transport and automation section. Starting with the million-dollar super analog SSL desks of the 1980s, high-end consoles began to have their own computers installed to control mix automation. The 3200 has this as well. Even though I don’t use the automation much, it’s great to have when I do need it. The mixer responds to and sends MIDI over USB, which means that almost everything can be recorded and sequenced in the computer. There are a few exceptions, though, and that’s where mix automation comes into play. Usually I record alone, so that means I have only two hands to adjust parameters during mixdown. Being able to record just about anything I would do on the mixer for recall later is perfect for the few times I need it. Pans, EQ, sends, and of course fader movements can all be recorded by the onboard computer in the 3200.
In the next installment of this series, I’ll explain the digital audio workstation I use and how that has evolved. The mixer and computer are tightly integrated now, and since I almost always worked with a computer for composition, this combination works really well for me.Posted: September 23rd, 2010 | Tags: gear, recording, studio | No Comments »