Making of City Dreams Part 2: The Gear List

July 8th, 2010 at 8:00 am (Making of City Dreams Series)

Part 2 in an ongoing series about the making of City Dreams.

This entry is primarily for you a/v nerds out there, or those thinking about buying equipment for a home studio.  Admittedly, I’m always interested in what equipment was used in the making of particular records, especially if made in a home or “project” studio.  Please be sure to read the introduction in the previous post, especially before spending any money on audio gear.  Descriptions here are kept pretty simple, so feel free to ask me questions for clarification or about my experience with different pieces.  Click on titles for more info:

MacBook Pro: The center of the studio.  Never regretted this purchase for a second.  They’re expensive but worth it.  4 gig of RAM, and for audio stuff, you really want as much as possible.

Logic Studio: Apple’s own digital-audio-workstation (DAW) software upon which the simplified, less-powerful Garage Band is modeled.  All sequencing, tracking, and mixing was done with Logic Pro, and I used a number of software instruments, plug-ins, synths, and other tools that came with Logic Studio as well.  Logic Studio is really a great, powerful package (particularly for the price!).

Dynaudio BM5A (2): My nearfield monitors.  The Dynaudios were a great purchase; I was lucky that an outspoken audio enthusiast who happened to be hanging out at Guitar Center steered me toward them before I nearly bought a pair of heavily advertised, overhyped Mackies.

M-Audio Project Mix I/O: This seemed like a great purchase for a home setup, and in theory it was.  It’s a firewire interface for getting audio in and out of your computer, with 8 simultaneous inputs (so: you can record to your hard drive eight tracks at once, and they’re recorded separately and lined up as separate tracks in Logic), 8 outputs, and eight faders and loads of programmable buttons to bring that “tactile” experience to computer mixing.  Problem was — and I don’t like complaining about products, but — it was a terrible piece of equipment.  It broke several times in the first year, while still under warranty, and calls to tech support almost always involved an hour or two on hold.  I could go on at length, but I’ll just say the last straw occurred when I had shipped it to M-Audio for repairs for the second or third time, having reported that the connection with the computer was intermittent and the second channel was not working.  After 5 weeks, I got it back, to discover that they had fixed the broken channel, but hadn’t fixed the intermittent connection (which was the more critical problem, as it rendered the thing useless).  I was finished.  I’ve since learned M-Audio has a pretty bad reputation for the quality of its stuff.  Craig took the Projectmix to see if it worked better with his PC, and I stand ready to dispose of it if it doesn’t.

Apogee Ensemble: This was my replacement solution after getting rid of the ProjectMix.  I spent a lot of time researching interfaces, and bought the Ensemble both because the Apogee A/D converters are so highly regarded, and because it runs natively (and exclusively) with Apple (so: no driver problems, and I had had plenty with the ProjectMix).  I also learned it was better to get something that excelled as a quality interface, rather than a mediocre all-in-one solution (i.e., interface, control surface, eight mix preamps).  Have not been disappointed.  Some of City Dreams was recorded with the ProjectMix, and some with the Apogee, and I’ll point out what along the way.  Everything was mixed using the Apogee, however (i.e., the D/A conversion for monitoring while mixing).

Audio Technica 4033: Large diaphragm condenser microphone I used to record some of the vocals.  A good mic for the price.

Audio Technica 4060: An upgrade mic (also a large diaphragm condenser), which I researched and bought after I was dissatisfied with the quality I was getting recording vocals of singer-songwriter Joslyn Sarshad as a side-project with the 4033.  Some of City Dreams recordings used this mic, and I’ll point out which along the way.  I selected this mic after doing a blind “taste test” of about 40 mics using a CD that provided audio samples of each mic.  I know that’s not a perfect way to evaluate microphones, but it’s interesting to see what mics your ears like, and what mics they don’t — some famous, expensive mics didn’t rank.  The 4060 ranked for me, was in my price range, and I’ve long been a fan of Audio Technica mics.

7 panels of acoustic treatment from RealTraps (specifically, the “small room kit”), used to reduce the impact of the acoustic qualities of the room, both during recording and in mixing.  This is very important, and one of my best purchases.  The acoustics of the room in which you’re mixing can really affect what you’re hearing — and not hearing — and thus adversely affect your mix decisions.  Acoustic treatment goes a long way toward solving that problem, and RealTraps is a great small company and its owner, Ethan Winer, is very knowledgeable and passionate about acoustics.  I’ll refer you to Ethan Winer for everything you want and need to know about room acoustics.

Yamaha CP300 — The keyboard I use for practicing and gigging, and was used as a midi controller for sequencing in Logic.

Plugins (i.e., software instruments and processors used in Logic):

Logic Studio: As mentioned, I used many of the processors provided, as well as many of the drum kits, synths, and string patches.

Vienna Symphonic Library: Along the way, I realized the string patches in Logic (as good as they are) weren’t going to cut it sonically for the big orchestral sound I was going for.  I bought the “Special Edition Strings” package, which contains samples of violin, viola, cello, bass, with different quantities of players and different articulations.

Vienna Bosendorfer Piano: Sampled from a Bosendorfer.

Garritan Steinway: The only piano sample library authorized by Steinway.  I bought this fairly late in the project because I thought the demos sounded great (its creation was a labor of love), and to get a warmer, darker piano sound than the Bosendorfer offered for certain places on the album.

Scarbee Electric Piano: An amazing sampling of a fender rhodes.  Also bought the dedicated processor plugin for this instrument.  Bought this before all Scarbee products were sold by Native Instruments.  Used mainly on “Silent Hour.”

Sonic Specialists Urban Fire: Some R&B drum samples to add to the Logic Studio library.

UAD Solo 2 Laptop: The external card for UAD software plugins.  Takes a load off the computer’s processor.  Bought this two months into the mixing process (everything had been sequenced and tracked) as I struggled with the mixes, and realized that not all processors and plugins are created equal, and some sound better, and function better, than others (mainly: that I could use more than the handful of excellent processor plugins that came with Logic Studio).

UAD Plugins (the specific plugins I purchased):

UAD 4k Buss Compressor: Magic for drum busses.

UAD Precision Enhancer kHz: I’m not a big fan of enhancers, but this is pretty good.  Came in handy on my own dull vocals.

UAD Precision De-Esser: Vocals recorded with the AT4060 had strong sibilance in particular.

UAD LA3A: A fantastic compressor for bass-guitar.

UAD Neve 88RS: Not sure I really needed this, but it’s a nice channel strip for string busses.

UAD Neve 1073: Famous EQ sound which I bought to try to solve some issues, but haven’t actually used much.  It does help make dull software-pianos sound better.

UAD 1176: A really famous, standard, cool compressor.  Used much for piano.

UAD DreamVerb: Really nice sounding digital reverb.  Still not totally sure how to program it.

UAD Cambridge: My favorite precision EQ (i.e., not modeled after a specific piece of hardware).  Lots of parameters, a graphic display, and it sounds great.

UAD RealVerb-Pro, Pultec EQ, CS-1 (all-purpose channel strip): These came with the UAD card, and were useful at times.

Waves Renaissance EQ: I went back and forth on Waves stuff — they’re truly used by the pros on a lot of famous records.  I demo’d several Renaissance processors (Joslyn’s vocals on “Calico” were compressed with the Renaissance Compressor), thought they sounded great, but not necessarily a must-have over other options.  I got the EQ just to have a quality EQ that ran off the computer’s processor for when I ran out of space on the UAD card.  Kind of wish I had gone for the Sonnox Oxford EQ instead, though.

Sonnox Oxford Compressor: A really great all-purpose compressor.  You get the precision control that software compressors offer, and don’t get with the vintage software models in the UAD plugs.  And you can dial in a “warmth” setting to get some analog character if you want it.

PSP Vintage Warmer: A compressor that adds that “vintage” analog sound.  Used especially on “Childhood.”

That’s what I had and used by the end of the 2.5 year project.  At the beginning though I just had my laptop, Logic Studio, the ProjectMix, and some headphones, and I only made additional purchases when I felt something was lacking sonically, and had researched a new tool I thought would help.  Interestingly, looking back at the TweakHeadz website, I’ve pretty much built what Rich calls the “Dream Mac Studio” without realizing it.  It’s a great set up, and worth remembering that I have tools, particularly software, that engineers in some of the top studios in the world 40 years ago would have killed for.

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Making of City Dreams Part 1: Introduction to the Equipment

July 7th, 2010 at 5:07 am (Making of City Dreams Series)

Part 1 in an ongoing series about the making of City Dreams.

To begin with, some words are necessary regarding equipment.  Recording is technical, so it requires equipment of some sort, whether that be one of the world’s renowned, pimped-out, multi-million dollar studios, or simply a tape recorder with a built in microphone (or anywhere on the wide spectrum between).  Plenty of lousy, forgettable records have been made with the former, and a number of very meaningful, very good musical ideas have been recorded with the latter.

When I started on City Dreams, I knew very little about recording or about what equipment to use.  I approached buying and learning equipment with the philosophy that the creative aspects of the music were far more important than the gear, and I was really only interested in getting the simplest and least amount of equipment necessary to get the job done.  Rich the TweakMeister, who has written a website full of great beginner’s recording instruction (http://www.tweakheadz.com/ — if you’re new to home recording, you absolutely must read everything on this site), articulates this philosophy well: “Great music recorded on a crappy cassette deck will win more hearts than a turd polished at 24/192.  Your talent is more important than anything else, and you can’t buy that.”

So sorry for the lecture.  Which brings me to the flip side: So long as we never forget (and I have to remind myself often) that of first and foremost importance is the songwriting, the creative production ideas, and the performances, then — finally — equipment does matter, provided we have the skills to use it.  Good equipment, when combined with good recording technique and skill, is necessary to create a high quality product, and if we have worked hard to produce good creative material, then we want it presented in as high quality as possible, and audiences will find it most accessible in high quality (but audio quality is only a means of getting the audience to the emotional content of the song!).

Referring back to my recent post about the Alanis Morrisette record that was made in a home studio and was so successful.  Sure, it was made with producer Glen Ballard’s home equipment, but it was still good equipment.  Ballard says the album was made in a “professional situation” but not “a commercial studio.”  Which, to me, reads: he had a limited rig at home comprised of workhorse equipment, and he really knew how to use it to capture that raw, emotional quality we associate with those famous Jagged Pill tracks.  It didn’t take a commercial studio to put Morrisette’s writing and performances in 15 million CD players, but it did take some decent equipment in the hands of a master producer.  But given an ADAT multi-track and some good mics, the most important elements in that project’s creation were the musical material and the skills of Morrisette and Ballard.

Fortunately, computers have made high-quality, lowish-budget home recording realistic.  With that massive caveat, I had intended to provide a gear list, but I fear this post will get way too long, so the list will wait till the next edition in the series.  Those contemplating putting together a home studio, please keep this grand caveat in mind and don’t fall victim to (and we’re all tempted from time to time), what a gearslutz.com contributer labeled, “gear acquisition syndrome.”  Skill and experience always take precedent.

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An Introduction

July 1st, 2010 at 11:47 pm (Making of City Dreams Series)

Starting a blog might seem strange for a kid who still gets a newspaper delivered everyday and has no television connection.  Strange, too, for someone who gripes ad-nauseum about the self-absored internet culture of blogging and social networking.  No matter.  We’re a decade and 6 months into the new millennium, and maybe it’s time to give in a little.  Might be fun.  Ali Harrold is wondering what the heck happened to me.

This blog came out of discussions about how to promote and grow the presence of my recent CD release City Dreams.  In that spirit, and to ease my entry into blogging, I’m going to use this blog at first to present a series of entries discussing the creation of City Dreams.  I’ll strive for at least one entry in the series a week, but maybe more if I’m up for it.  I plan on including audio-clips of early versions of songs, alternate mixes, extra material and stuff like that.

Hopefully such details will find an interested audience.  City Dreams was a 2.5 year-in-the-making home “project studio” project — “project studio” pretty much meaning I did most all the grunt-work myself with limited gear I personally own and have set up at home.  Experienced, attentive listeners might be able to hear that, but I’m flattered when I get questions like: “So did you go to a studio to do the recording and mixing?”; “So did you hire a bunch of studio musicians for this?”; “Trying to decide if all the string parts were by real musicians — I think they are, right?”  The answer to all these questions is no.  I did all of it myself.  Which is hard, and time consuming, and has some drawbacks, and ultimately just isn’t quite as good as great musicians working in a 3-million-dollar studio.  The advantage, of course, is greater freedom and less expense.  I reckon there’s a story there, and that’s what this series is about.  Bon voyage.

If you haven’t…

Read a general description of City Dreams, go here: http://www.citydreamsthealbum.com/City_Dreams/About_the_Album.html

If you don’t have a copy of City Dreams

Buy a CD copy here: http://www.cdbaby.com/cd/DanielGraeber

Buy it digitally on iTunes here: http://itunes.apple.com/us/album/city-dreams/id368302416

Or stream it for free from MySpace here: www.myspace.com/citydreamsthealbum

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