This is the final helping in this series of articles about essential studio equipment. Not owning the equipment covered here will not render your studio inoperable; however, this gear is quite instrumental in most studios. You may well consider this gear essential to your studio as well.
A control surface gives you knobs
If recording in the computer age leaves you just itching to turn actual knobs like in the studios of yesteryear, fear not. Salvation comes in the form of a control surface. A control surface links to your computer and provides knobs, faders and lights to tantalize your audio engineering sensibilities. Working in concert with your chosen DAW, a control surface can be configured to give you tactile control of volume, pan, mute and a whole host of other parameters living inside your audio software. The great thing about a control surface is that it can also be configured to control effects plugins, virtual instruments and nearly any other variable you may find in your studio’s digital domain.
The size and configuration of a control surface can range from just a few buttons to something closely resembling a large analog mixing console. If your studio is a small home setup, there are control surfaces that will fit your desktop as well as those behemoths that live in larger commercial studios. Let’s look at a few control surfaces that range from moderate to micro:
- The AVID ARTIST MIX is a fairly compact control surface that offers eight motorized faders that move themselves with your mix automation. While self-moving faders do not elicit the same kind of wonder and awe that they used to, the more practical uses are now the main attraction. Both the faders and rotary encoders are touch sensitive. In practice, touch sensitive faders tell the DAW that you would like control of a parameter on a specific track. Without touch sensitive faders, you will need to press a button or grab a fader and force it to do what you want instead of the moves its motors are enacting at the time. Keep in mind that these fader moves would be changes programmed in by you in the first place. It’s easy to see that touch sensitive controls really come in handy when making small edits to the automation in your mix among other things. The Artist Mix is full of other features such as OLED displays for visual feedback, quick control of your DAW’s plug-ins and compatibility with MAC and PC. Connect to your computer via an Ethernet cable and enjoy significantly more speed than a MIDI connected control surface.
- The NOVATION LAUNCH CONTROL USB MIDI controller is geared more towards providing hands-on control of virtual instruments, samples and loops. Although this controller is frequently found in live electronic music setups, plenty of studio owners are including the Launch Control as a compact, inexpensive way to add a micro control surface to their studio. Sixteen rotary pots and eight back-lit pads pair with the function and bank buttons to allow control of 488 items. Since the Launch Control is mappable, controls can be assigned to nearly anything in your DAW. Compared to the small space it takes on your desk and the relatively small amount of cash outlay, this micro control surface will definitely compliment your studio well and give you the tactile control you are looking for.
- As the number of small, high quality home studios grows, so grows the need for compact controls that will fit in a moderate work space. The PRESONUS FADERPORT is a smart little box that gives you transport controls plus one motorized fader. Use this one fader to write automation to any of your tracks or buses. Other typical channel controls are included to put pan, mute, solo and more right at your fingertips. This compact control surface includes a foot switch jack on the back to allow punching in and out completely hands free.
- The AVID ARTIST TRANSPORT control surface is a compact transport and editing station that provides precise shuttle and jog control. The data wheel is weighted for a solid, palpable feel while the shuttle ring is spring loaded to snap back when released. The wheel and ring combo can be assigned to a whole lot more than just transport. Zooming, trimming, cross fading and nearly anything else that strikes your fancy can be handled via this central knob. A number pad is included for precise data entry. There is also a set of seven soft keys that can be assigned to different items you would like to control. The Artist Transport connects to your computer using an Ethernet cable and is ready to control most major DAWs as well as other applications such as Photoshop and iTunes.
While all of the above examples of control surfaces are quite moderately sized and priced, larger models are easy to come by if you have the cash and love spending it. If the aim of your studio is to attract clients in a higher tax bracket, then a large control surface costing in the tens of thousands may be a reasonable expenditure. If your budget does not yet allow such pricey items, be assured that most of the moderately sized control surfaces will allow for quite a bit of control so long as you are willing to dig into the particulars of configuring them. The payoff for rolling up your sleeves and digging a bit deeper is quite large, even with a small control surface.
D.I. boxes: good things come in small packages
In the audio world, D.I. stands for Direct Input. The most basic kind of D.I. box is a simple tool for sending an unbalanced signal directly to a mixer or audio interface. In passive direct boxes, this is accomplished using a transformer. Active direct boxes often use op-amps to do the same job. Both active and passive D.I. boxes have their strengths and weaknesses.
Passive D.I. boxes:
- Do not require a power source to operate
- Typically have more headroom than active versions
- May offer coloration of the instrument’s tone when pushed to their upper limits
- Typically offer less controls and tone shaping features
Active D.I. boxes:
- Require that you use a power source such as a battery, phantom power or a wall wart
- Have less headroom than passive versions and will distort if pushed to their limits
- May provide a cleaner, stronger signal from its output
There are specialized boxes that often get grouped under the label of a D.I. box. These super cool pieces of equipment are usually a one trick pony, catering to just one instrument. This could be handling the impedance of an acoustic guitar’s pickup or processing the particular frequency range and nuances of a bass guitar. While these compact gizmos may seem like a toy, they often hold a place in the studio as an indispensable tool. Let’s look at a few examples of standard D.I. boxes as well as boxes tailored to specific instruments:
- The WHIRLWIND IMP2 is a no frills passive D.I. that provides a line or instrument TS input, balanced XLR output, ground lift switch and a parallel TS output. Keep in mind that a good direct box should always include a ground lift switch. The need for a ground lift switch arises quite often. Without getting too far into technical details, ground loops create buzzing noises in your audio chain. When a direct box is involved, one of the first measures to try is flipping the ground switch to possibly break a grounding loop. If the errant buzz goes away, you have just solved the problem.
- For an active box, try the BSS AUDIO AR133 active direct input box. This box comes from a trusted name in high quality audio. If phantom power is unavailable, the AR133 automatically switches to battery power. There is an important point to be made when talking about phantom power for D.I. boxes. If you need to flip the ground lift switch to solve ground loop problems, phantom power will no longer be available. This is because the ground wire is a part of the phantom power loop. There are some active boxes that run off of phantom power alone. This is a mistake when you consider that using the ground lift robs the box of its power supply. Having the option to run off of a battery adds a possible buzz fighting solution to your arsenal. What do you do if you are using a box that runs off of phantom power alone and you have a ground loop problem? The answer is to “break” the loop at a different location that is downstream of the D.I. box. The included pad switch can be set to 0, -20 and -40 DB. This gives you a nice wide range for accommodating instruments with strong or weak signals.
- If you record bass guitar in the studio, be sure to have a TECH 21 SANSAMP BASS DRIVER up your sleeve. As I have traveled to different parts of the world to record bands, this box has gone with me and saved the day many times. The wide range of solid tones you can get out of this go-to box makes it extremely useful when recording bass in the studio. Controls available on the top of the box include: level, blend, treble, bass, presence and drive. These six knobs allow you to dial in anything from charged up distortion to a smooth, funk-o-licious tone. A small tweak to each knob goes a long way. Route the output signal from the XLR out, TS out or both. One handy feature that I find myself using often is the parallel output. I have the bass player patch from his bass to the Bass Driver and then I route from the parallel output to his usual bass amp. The bass player is then free to play with his amplifier just as always. I run the XLR output to the recorder and often mic the bass player’s amplifier as well. Blending these two signals can produce a warm, fat tone that the bass player still recognizes as his own sound. When blending two bass signals like this, be sure to check for phase alignment between the two signals. Besides checking for inverted phase between signals, you may want to zoom into the waveforms on your DAW and slide the D.I. signal back in time just a bit to match the lagging signal that comes from the microphone in front of the bass amp. The Bass Driver can be powered with phantom power, wall wart or a nine volt battery.
- A great alternative to the Tech 21 Bass Driver is the MXR M80 BASS D.I.+. Although the basic concept is similar to the Tech 21 offering, MXR does include a gate to help keep processed signals quiet. Controls for shaping your tone include: bass, mid, treble, clean volume, distortion volume, gain, blend and a trigger adjustment for the included gate. This box is powered by phantom power, nine volt battery or wall wart. Patching capabilities include XLR , line level, and parallel outputs. All of these outputs can be used at the same time.
- Let’s include something for acoustic instruments in this list. The BBE ACOUSTIMAX acoustic instrument preamplifier falls into the same ultra useful category as the previous two items. This is a preamp and tone shaping tool that also functions as a D.I. box. Sound sculpting elements include a three band EQ, notch filter, gain control, master volume and Sonic Maximizer. I will give you a great big word of caution concerning the Sonic Maximiser. This is a warning that you REALLY need to heed. The Sonic Maximizer is an amazing tool that brings clarity and low contour to your sounds. I keep one in the studio. This tool, like any other studio tool, is VERY easy to overuse. As an example of what it’s like to overuse a Sonic Maximizer, I want you to go to a doughnut shop and buy three dozen thickly glazed doughnuts. Bring these doughnuts home and begin eating. Don’t stop until you have finished every last bite of sugar-glazed gluttony. While one doughnut is delightful, eating the whole pile becomes a grueling marathon that may induce a sugar coma or projectile vomiting at the least. Use a Sonic Maximizer sparingly. Do not set out to repair muddy sounds with a Sonic Maximizer. You DO have my permission to use one as a touch of icing on your proverbial cake. BBE included a well thought out set of outputs, including balanced XLR, line, tuner and effects loop connections. Power is supplied to the Acoustimax via a 12 volt wall wart.
MIDI controllers for the control freak in all of us
Since virtual instruments have become such a key element in a composer’s studio, the equipment used to trigger and control all of those yummy sounds is fairly important as well. One of the biggest considerations for most studio owners when it comes to MIDI controllers is how much real estate the controller will consume in the studio. MIDI controllers come in all shapes and sizes. When I say all sizes, I am talking about little controllers that will fit in your coat pocket up to full size concert keyboards. Besides the typical piano-like controller, there are configurations with pads, knobs and buttons for controlling everything from drum sounds to filter effects on the fly.
There are two main ways to connect a MIDI controller to your DAW: a standard MIDI cable or a USB cable. Plenty of the smaller controllers only allow USB connection while the larger ones often feature both standard MIDI and USB at the same time.
Ranging from the minute to the grandeur, here are a few choices when considering MIDI controllers for your studio:
- While the NOVATION LAUNCHKEY MINI MIDI controller isn’t quite pocket size, it is definitely ultra compact and portable. Plop this compact unit on your desk and use the two octave keyboard for composing music. The 16 pads provide tangible access to drums, samples, loops or any other item you may want to assign to them. Assign filters or effects to the eight rotary knobs and you then have a powerful composition tool right at your fingertips. Novation tailored the Launchkey Mini to work seamlessly with Ableton live, but that’s not to say that you are limited in your choice of DAWs. The Mini can be used with all major DAWs. For a fast fire-up to take you from out of the box to creating your first groove, Novation includes Ableton Live Lite, Novation Bass Station, V Station virtual instruments and one gigabyte of Loopmasters samples. Conveniently enough, the Mini is powered through its USB port. This makes connections simple and fast.
- If you would like to sit down and “tickle the ivory” on a larger keyboard, use the NOVATION LAUNCHKEY 61-KEY MIDI controller. The jump up from the Mini to the 61-key version incorporates much more than just a more expansive keyboard. While you still get the 16 velocity sensitive pads as well as eight rotary knobs, an additional nine faders can be used to control tracks in your DAW. There are two expression wheels that are used to control variables like pitch and modulation. Transport controls such as play, stop, record and more round out the control features of this super functional studio controller. You may be surprised to find that even this larger Launchkey offering can be powered through its USB connection. A DC jack is also available for simple powering from a wall wart.
- For an experience that is a step closer to playing a full size piano, try the M-AUDIO KEYSTATION 88ES keyboard controller. This controller is tailored to composers who want to feel like they are sitting down to a concert piano. Spread out and let your fingers gallivant across the 88 semi-weighted, velocity sensitive keys. Both pitch bend and modulation wheels are included for expressive performances as well as connections for sustain and volume pedals. The 88ES can be connected via USB or MIDI outputs. Powering up is a snap as well, considering that it can be powered through the USB port or a DC jack on the back. M-audio joins the other controllers on this list in offering a copy of Ableton Live Lite.
I am not going to tell you that you are required to have a monitor control station to operate your studio, but the ease of control and improved workflow sure makes life all the sweeter while mixing and tracking. Simply put, a control station for your monitors will centralize and streamline alternate monitor selection, mono listening, master studio volume control and a few other features that may be thrown in to boot.
As if there wasn’t enough technically charged details to wrap your mind around in the studio, let’s discuss an interesting distinction between a digital master volume and analog studio volume control. If you have developed good working habits while mixing in the studio, you’ll already know that it’s a good idea to monitor at moderate levels and also to never leave your listening volume the same for more than five minutes. These two smart techniques can keep your ears from over compensating for out of whack frequencies in your mix. Your frequent monitoring volume changes will be a lot easier if there is a convenient knob within close reach. Along with those constant volume tweaks, you may already know that it can be quite useful to dial the listening volume down to where it is almost inaudible. This quickly informs your ears on what the most prominent item in your mix is. If you were to turn this master volume down using the digital fader on your DAW, you may be inadvertently tossing most of the available bit depth and making it hard to hear critical details at these lower volumes. At these low volume levels, a lack of available bit depth can make it hard to hear subtle, three dimensional information in your mix such as spatial cues like reverb and delay. When you employ an analog master volume knob in your listening environment, regardless of if it is digitally controlled, you still get the benefit of all the original bit depth but at lower volumes. This makes a big difference in mixing subtleties in your audio.
Let’s take a look at a couple of options for monitor control in the studio:
- On the pleasantly simple and cost effective side is the TC ELECTRONIC LEVEL-PILOT passive volume control. This is a simple knob that a chimpanzee could operate. Then again, a chimp has flown a rocket into space while I have not. You get the idea. Use the XLR connections to exit your studio D/A converter and then continue to your studio monitors. Place the nicely weighted knob within reach at your mix position and twist away like any self respecting audiophile would. The Level Pilot is a great addition to the studio, but here is one minor complaint to note. When you dial the volume level down to just about “off”, the sound disappears from the left speaker just a nanosecond before the right side. While I wish this wasn’t the case, it’s not too bothersome.
- For a more feature rich solution that you will have to shell out a few more dollars for, look into the PRESONUS CENTRAL STATION. This monitor control system includes a nice helping of input/output options such as four balanced line inputs, two unbalanced RCA inputs, two digital SPDIF inputs, one balanced talk-back mic input, six balanced monitor outputs, four balanced outputs for cue and main mixes and two stereo headphone jacks with independent level controls. Hands free control of your talk-back mic can be handy when you hook up a foot switch to the switch input on the back panel. Keep in mind that you don’t need to use an external talk-back mic if you prefer to use the mic built into the face of the Central Station. Switching between any of three studio monitor sets is easily done with the front panel switches as well as mute, dim and mono. A pair of 30 segment LED meters gives detailed level feedback at a glance. These meters can be calibrated to your DAW’s main meter for consistency. The only thing better than the comprehensive control available on the face of this unit is the Central Station Remote that connects via a DB9 jack and places vital controls such as main volume, monitor select and more at your fingertips.
Handling power for the studio
If there is one subject that is often ignored in smaller studios, it’s the incredibly boring subject of power conditioning. A great deal of small studios get by without any thought or planning going into the quality of the power that feeds all of that equipment. Then again, if I had a jelly bean for every time small studios struggle with noise and malfunctions caused by dirty, noisy, brown or otherwise unacceptable power, I’d have the body of a grey whale.
For most applications, the quality of our electrical supply is just fine, but the equipment we use in the studio can be particularly sensitive to less than desirable power anomalies. In addition to a dirty power supply, noisy artifacts can be introduced from equipment inside the studio. The worst offenders are refrigerators for keeping loads of beer cold, air conditioners and vacuum cleaners or carpet shampooers being run somewhere in the building to clean up spilled beer from the fridge.
Besides all of the filth that finds its way into our power, sometimes the supply experiences a “brown out”. This is where the actual voltage available is quite a bit lower than it is supposed to be. This can shorten the lifespan of equipment and make it under perform. On the other end of the spectrum, power spikes can send unwanted jolts of higher voltage to equipment and turn expensive things like computers into large doorstops.
When you look at all of the impressive specs that manufacturers tout concerning noise floors, total harmonic distortion and a host of other geekishly entertaining data, keep in mind that the stellar performance of that posh equipment was measured in the manufacturer’s lab. Trust me when I tell you that in the lab, studio equipment is tested with perfectly filtered and regulated power being fed to it. If you would like that same equipment to perform like the specs say it should, consider solutions to provide your studio with reasonably clean, healthy power.
Power conditioning is a term generously applied to a number of different filters, regulators and protectors. When shopping for a power conditioner, you will need to be sure of what the manufacturer means when the term “conditioner” is used. In some cases, the item is simply a surge protector. Other manufacturers more accurately mean that their product cleans up and regulates incoming power. Be sure of what it is that you are buying.
- One reasonable offering from Furman is the P1800PFR 15 amp power conditioner and surge suppressor. It handles multiple power issues with surge suppression, advanced noise filtering, monitoring for dangerously low or high voltages and the ability to provide 45 amps momentarily when power hungry equipment demands it. There is a handy voltage readout on the face and if studio customers should run the batteries down on their smartphones while taking excessive amounts of selfies instead of recording, a USB charge port is provided as a thoughtful bonus. The P1800PFR will shut down automatically when the power reaches levels that are harmful to equipment.
- If you would not only like filtering and protection for your studio, but a chance to save sessions and data in the event of a power outage, the FURMAN F1500-UPS will handle all of the filtering and protection tasks of the above mentioned P1800PFR with the added perk of an internal battery to keep your equipment on when the power supply takes a hit. More battery packs can be connected to the F1500 to extend the available power reserve if needed. Using the included RS232 connection, a computer can be connected for custom programming of power management features. Another innovative feature is the infrared blasters that can be programmed to send infrared shutdown commands to other equipment in the event of a power outage and transition to battery backup. Add in connectivity that enables users to log into, manage and monitor the F1500 from any internet connection in the world and this solution is definitely a smart investment.
- While on the subject of power management, it’s worth noting that attempting to reach every power switch on the front or back of every piece of equipment can be hazardous to the health of your studio. Blindly fumbling around the back of monitors and preamps for the elusive power switch can result in damaged equipment from climbing around your studio like an expensive Jungle Gym. A simple solution to this problem is to install a switch box like the AMERICAN DJ PC-100A eight channel power controller. These rack mount switch boxes are pretty simple. Eight plugs are provided with each one controlled by an illuminating switch on the front. With one or two PC-100As in your rack, the entire studio can be powered down in the correct sequence so as to prevent damaging pops from blasting the monitors.
Please record music in tune
Whether you are a solo composer or offer your studio for rental to bands, it’s a very good idea to have one HIGH QUALITY electronic tuner available in your studio. This suggestion sounds like an odd stab at the obvious, but you would be surprised at how many bands roll up to the studio and start recording their music with instruments that are painfully out of tune. Sometimes this is due to the fact that each band member brings their own cheap tuner, none of which agree on what is actually in tune. At other times, bands just don’t want to be bothered with the concept. Perhaps they confuse being out of tune with having a vintage sound. Whatever the malfunction, your clients will be much happier with the results of their hard work in the studio if you are equipped with a top quality tuner and tactfully suggest that they use it if they don’t want to sound like a drunk bagpipe quartet.
A good option for this all important anti-suck device is the ROCKTRON VERSATUNE chromatic rack tuner. This tuner comes with hundreds of tunings like alternate guitar, banjo, violin, mandolin and too many others to list. Two inputs are located on the front. Multiple inputs and outputs are provided on the back as well as a footswitch jack for muting the output while tuning. There are two different resolution modes: standard and precision. Press the precision button to toggle into a high sensitivity mode when fine tuning an instrument. Musicians who like tuning with a strobe will be pleased to discover that there is a strobe tuning mode.
Although every instrument needs to be carefully tuned for a band to sound their best, special attention to tuning and intonating the bass guitar is never a waste of time. If I have a good rapport with the band I am recording, I often gracefully suggest that the bass player check the intonation of the basses to be used in the studio. Poor calibration of a bass guitar will make the entire band sound “not quite right” no matter how much the entire band carefully tunes their instruments. A precise tuner is a godsend for intonating instruments.
For heaven’s sake, do something
In reaching the end of this article, you have furrowed your way through a solid discourse on essential studio equipment. I would like to tell you that you have all you need to run a quality studio, but that wouldn’t be the truth. If you began reading this article while considering what equipment you should purchase to complete your own studio, it’s time to put the gear together and begin making music. All these piles of gear can do some pretty neat things. There are knobs, switches and flashing lights to entertain the most basal part of your brain, but remember that this is about what we create. It’s not about flashing lights and tech specs galore. Do things your own way. Glean groovy tricks everywhere you can but don’t spend too much time debating with the couch commandos. Go concoct something beautiful, exciting, aggressive or moody and share it with the world.