Friday, December 19, 2008

the best kind of dilemma

So, I hate to write two posts in a month's time on the subject of music gear, but I'm tackling a serious conundrum at the moment. As Tracy Morgan said on 30 Rock, "You've put me in quandary, Jack Donaghy... a quandary!" With great sadness, I learned that SE Electronics, the beneficiary of Communism's hatred toward patents and copyrights, discontinued their wonderful M1C Mini, the knockoff of the Neumann TLM103. I had tried the two of them side by side and had been surprised to discover that on my particular voice, the Mini actually sounded better. Considering that the TLM103 cost $1,100 and the Mini cost $169, it skyrocketed to the top of my google wish list.

Adding insult to injury, I found out that my Mom had ordered the Mini for me, only to discover after the fact that every site that sold it online was out of stock. Bollocks. The upside is that as a result of this misfortune, I get to select something(s) of relatively the same value to take its place. *Kid in a candy shop!*

My first window-shopping stop was FabFilter. I've been eyeballing their plugins for a long time, now and let's just say that there isn't one of their products that I wouldn't mind owning. They're gorgeous sounding and have a fantastic GUI. They have this amazing drag-and-drop modulation interface on most of their products that is cooler than all get out. In talking to my friend and mentor Aaron, I was made to realize that there are none of their products of which I don't already have at least a decent (and in many cases, stellar) equivalent. So, with one last saliva-swallowing look, I moved on.

What my rig has been missing, is a good channel-strip plugin. Yeah, I have Live's Saturator device, and I have some good compressors, not to mention a heavy-duty mastering plugin (Izotope Ozone), but I don't have a nice, all-in-one, warm channel strip. My first thought was of PSP Audio's Vintage Warmer. An exquisitely-crafted analog modeling compressor/limiter, that really is the king of analog/tube emulation. This has come highly recommended to me by friends and teachers. I've used a trial version of it before and love the fatness it added to drums and the overall thickness and warmth it added to mixes. One drawback however is that it's kind of niche plugin and would have very specified uses, perhaps limiting its frequency of use. Considering that I love vintage (I mean 1970s-style vintage) mix sounds, especially on drums, this would be an excellent addition to my rig.

The next contestant is Wave Arts' Track Plug. This has also come highly recommended to me, and on top of all of the praise I've heard heaped upon it, the thing that catches my eye most is its widely-celebrated CPU efficiency. It's system footprint so small, in fact, that it can be used on every track in a mix without much effort on the part of your computer. Now that is an important feature in a channel-strip plugin. Professional reviews have had minimal and insignifcant things to list in the "Cons" column, and heaps to say in the "Pros." Two compressors, a gate, EQ, "clean" and "warm" settings, sidechaining on all of the dynamics sections, and much, much more. Definitely a contender.

Then I got to thinking about my hardware. I had originally wanted that damn SE Mini, so I looked on eBay and found it there. Expecting to find it at some sort of terrible average between its original price and the price of the Neumann, I was pleasantly surprised to find it for $150. By this point, my head is swimming.

You know, I thought to myself, I am not a huge fan of the digital preamps built into my audio interface, and its phantom power is an enormous pain in the ass, so what about some kind of tube pre? I immediately began scouring the internet for tube pre's in my pricepoint. A well acclaimed audio hardware manufacturer, ART Electronics, makes a couple inexpensive ones. I found myself quite taken with their Tube MP Studio V3, and its two-channel equivalent. Having some nice, analog gear in the signal path between your performance and your mix is always a good thing. Especially considering that these both have output protection limiting and, of course, natural tube saturation. The only drawback for this is that I don't record audio as often as I mix, sequence and play with sound. It's just that when I do record, I'm always unsatisfied with the sound of my preamps. (I love my microphones. They are not the bottleneck here.)

So there you have my quandary.

Do I go with the Vintage Warmer, Track Plug, an ART tube preamp, or the microphone I originally asked for?

With this post, I introduce a new label: "your input please?" Anytime you see this, I'm requesting your advice, opinion and expertise. So.... give it to me.


  1. Go for the mics... the price is likely to shoot up as the last ones disappear off ebay.. .

    Also, 5 years from now, your old channel strip plugins will be worth about $20, but mics never really go down.

    I wouldn't really get the ART tube preamp... buy right or buy twice... I've never really heard a cheap tube pre I like...

    *looks over at his Presonus BlueTube

    Something else to consider... right now you can get a UAD-1 card for $300 with $650 worth of plugin vouchers... that's a lot of sweet plugin options; although the UAD1 card couldn't do very many instances, you could always transfer them to a UAD2 card.

    Lastly, check out Nebula... I'm dying to try their impulses for channel strips, but the Mac port is coming slowly...

  2. Lots of neat little toys to choose from.

    However, after looking at your picture of your setup, I am convinced that what you really need, and will always use on every single project that you do, is another LCD screen.

    I bought a 17" LCD from someone on Craigslist for $60 and I have to tell you that it has changed my life forever. Imagine a brand new 22". I'm telling you man, though it won't change the quality of your music, it will change the following things substantially:

    (in order by amount of change-ness)

    1. How cool you feel.

    2. The temptation the be constantly checking your email, watching YouTube, chatting, etc, while simultaneously working on a project.

    3. Your addiction to new desktop wallpapers and screensavers, knowing that you can now display two different ones at the same time, or if you're OCD like I am, the same one TWICE!!

    4. Your addiction to the simple yet insatiable joy of dragging windows ACROSS screens! It's so cool.

    5. Or, if you're disciplined, your work-flow. It's really nice to have the tracks on one screen and your piano roll/mixer/whatever on the other screen.

    I'm telling you man, though a whatever-plugin is always fun, this you will never regret. And you can easily sell it.

    That's my opinion. Stop texting me.

  3. I highly agree with what Stephen said actually... especially using expose on MacOS across dual 24" screens!


  4. If you're going to follow Stephen's advice, OWC has their Dell 24" (2409WFP) going for $279 (regularly like $800). I'll second/third the implied advice of buying whatever you'll use most - save the specialty items for 'as needed' purchases. Also, I agree with Justin about [quality] hardware retaining value over time. If you started with mic-lust and now can satisfy it - why not?

  5. just be a good kid and ask for a new sweater like I did. no need to be greedy with all these fancy e-lec-tron-icks

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  7. My rule of thumb is: any time you are faced with a choice between software or real, physical audio gear, go for the latter. It will always have value, whereas anything computer related won't be worth squat in 10 years.

  8. Welcome to the big recording money pit. The funny thing is that you always feel like: "If I just had [fill in the blank], my recordings/mixing/workflow would be so much better." A week after the purchase you catch yourself saying the same thing again about something else.

    The problem with your dilemma is that the options are too big. Narrow down your options--and this is how I recommend you do it. Figure out your SINGLE biggest weakness in your set-up. Is it workflow or Audio Quality?

    If it is workflow, identify why and go from there (usually an easier thing to identify).

    If you think it is Audio Quality, then it is a bit more complicated, but this is what I would do next.

    First I'll state the obvious, figure out where the bottle neck is in your sound quality. Now this is a lot more difficult then it sounds. But here is my opinion on upgrading priority (in order):

    1. The source of the recording. Are you trying to record a crappy sounding guitar to begin with? Are you recording somebody who plays the instrument with a good sound? Are you using good Loops/samples/sound effects in your project? As it is overstated in our industry, "You can't polish a turd."--Actually, you can and I end up doing this a lot, but I am convinced that it is 80% of getting a good sound. When you record a studio musician, your gear, mix, equipment will sound 5 times the cost it really is.

    2. Treat your room. This is both for recording and mixing. Make sure your monitoring environment is accurate. When I finally got to mix some stuff at some high end studios, I was floored by how easy it was to have the same mix translate well in everything else. A great engineer will sound like an amateur behind inaccurate monitors. You can't mix what you can't hear. I have recently stepped up my monitoring environment by putting my monitors on stands (I have Event ASP8's) and all of a sudden I could hear that really deep bass and everything was clear and the low-mid muddiness was gone. Double and triple check this step and make sure you have done everything you can to have the best monitoring environment possible.

    As far as recording instruments in a good room, this is also extremely critical. If your vocals/instruments have cruddy sounding rooms recorded in it, then no $1000000 plug-in can fix that. It may not seem to be a big deal at first until you add your processing.

    3. Now think about gear/software in the signal chain. There is sure a ton of hype about these sort of things that come and go with trends in the industry. Here are two things I highly recommend with this.

    A. Think down the road and buy bigger then your current needs. Do you want to spend money in a great preamp? Or do you want to spend your money on a crappy preamp and a a great preamp? My best purchases have come from saving a little longer to get the best instead of buying something just good now. One of my biggest regrets was buying a Presonus Blue Tube Dual Path microphone preamp. I bought it quick 'cause it was cheap and filled my need for a "tube preamp." After I got it, I realized I was better without it and with my stock preamps from my DM-3200. Later I bought an ADL 600 which is tons better and is used all of the time. So I ended up spending $2200 instead of $2000 because I jumped on an buy now instinct.

    B. Buy things that have proven the test of time. So many new things are always coming out. I have found that when I jump on the cutting edge of "new stuff", it usually isn't that cool a year later. This is because of Marketing Hype. It is much better to buy an award winning preamp that has been around for 4 or so years then it is to buy a brand new "creates every sound you will ever need in the most amazing awesomeness of all preamps 2009 Preamp." It is even better if you consider something that has been around much longer such as a U-87, AKG C414, Neve 1073, SSL etc.

    When it comes to software. Jumping on the latest upgrade of something is very risky. There are always bugs with brand new releases. Give it a few months and let everybody else figure it out. Then purchase after reviewing the manufacturers forums and people seem to be up and running fine with it.

    Last Comment. It isn't true that software loses value any more than gear does. Many of Waves plug-ins have been the same for 10 or so years. The licenses for them are the same price. People are selling used licenses on some plug-ins for almost the same as buying it new (cause sometimes there is no difference from buying new or used). Cruddy, trendy gear can be worth nothing in a few months when everyone figures out there is something else that is the latest and greatest.

    Sorry for the novel with no easy answers. But my 2 cents would be to save the money and use it on something that will have lasting value and be with you for a long time.

  9. Great comments Dave.

    In my experience the "value trajectory" of *most* computer related things has always been downward. Plug-in's could definitely be an exception. Maybe I need to change my paradigm a little.

    Regardless, I think the point we're both making is: buy things of lasting value.

    Also: great comments on source critical and so often overlooked. At the risk of being irrelevant to Jake's post, I would also add: decent songs and arrangements. I'd take a well-written tune with a great arrangement, recorded with only an SM57 and zero effects, over a so-so song recorded with all the grooviest mics and coolest plug-ins - any day.

    Maybe that's just me.


  10. OU? Now I'm curious as to who this is.
    As an update, I decided to go with the microphone for two main reasons:
    1. There are a limited number of them left and they will only go up in price.
    2. As previously state, good mics retain value.