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Sound Advice

Affordable Gear, Big-Budget Sound by Simon King

There is no free lunch, especially in the music industry where paying one’s dues is a required rite of passage; however, there is one important exception. The most powerful piece of equipment in our profession is the human brain, and it is given to each of us at no cost; however, the brain needs to acquire useful and applicable information to function.

Audio books are the most cost-efficient tools any engineer can buy, and the information they contain will never go out of fashion. If you are temporarily short on funds, the local library is always a viable option. Check out these for your studio bookshelf:

  • Audio Cyclopedia by Howard Tremaine
  • Music, Physics, and Engineering by Harry Olson
  • Sound System Engineering by Don and Carolyn Davis
  • Principles of Digital Audio by Ken Pohlmann
  • Microphone Manual and Modern Recording Techniques by David Miles Huber
  • Mastering Audio by Bob Katz

The focus of this piece is using inexpensive gear that performs like pricier alternatives. A guitarist-songwriter buddy wanted to make an album, using affordable gear. We visited a few local music stores and picked up these “used” goodies:

  • Alesis ADAT XT-20
  • Two Mackie 1202 VLZ mixers
  • TC-Electronic M350 processor
  • Aphex Easyrider compressor
  • ART tube compressor pedal.

Our mics are an Audio-Technica 3035 and 2020, Apex 180 pair, Shure SM57 and SM58, and an E-V PL-9. We soon set to work with our newly-acquired gear. The Apex 180s omnis were set up in the L/R position, in front of and above the drums. The PL-9 was placed in the kick drum. The ART comp/DI box handled the bass guitar. The 2020 and SM57 were mounted on appropriate stands, and placed in front of a Traynor YCV-20 tube combo for all the guitar tracks.

All the vocals were cut with the 3035 and SM58, choosing whichever was applicable for the appropriate vibe. The compression duties were handled by the Easyrider via the mixer inserts. The M350 provided all the needed spatial effects. An Alesis RA-100 amp powered a pair Tannoy PBM-8s and Fostex headsets were pressed into service when necessary. It was a fun-filled session. Good vibes, great jokes, inspired performances.

Working with this minimal set-up reminded me of the old four-track days, when the TASCAM 3440 recorder, Model 3 mixer, MXR stompboxes, and Tapco units were the power tools. A young, talented Moe Berg (The Pursuit Of Happiness), Neo-A4 (Duke St. Records), and other local musicians cut their demos on that system in the early ’80s. Time sure flies when you are having so much fun.

Anyhow, after tracking, the “listening session” was moved to my current home studio, powered by a large automated Trident desk, Bryston power amps, and Quested and KEF monitors. In this more controlled environment, all the recorded tracks sounded terrific. They will be released just as they are – live, raw, and punchy.

Conclusions: The A-T 3035 and 2020 are good mics, though they won’t replace my AKGs, DPAs, or Schoeps anytime soon. The Shures are, of course, the perennial favourites, but the PL-9 was quite an ear opener. The Apex 180s won’t push my Earthworks aside yet, but they worked quite well on the drums. The TC-M350 is a very useful toolbox. This sibling of the TC-2290 delay and M-Series reverbs is just the perfect Swiss Army knife of studio effects. It even plays well as a computer interface for recording. The 4-channel Aphex Easyrider is a great plug-and-play compressor that shares the same DNA (Aphex 1001 VCA) as its bigger relatives: the Compellor and the Dominator.

The Mackie 1202 VLZ rocks. This pint-sized mixer has great mic pres and phantom power. Use it as a re-amp tool, a DI box, a patch bay, and a mic-splitter. Ultimately, you can always use it as a sub-mixer when you buy that big console.

Really, who says you can’t have fun with affordable gear?

Simon King is a producer/engineer based in Edmonton. He has recorded Moe Berg, Neo-A4, and other Alberta-based bands. He currently works as a composer in his private studio, Leo Project-Techworks.

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