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Freelance Engineers & Their Personal Racks

Exploration By Dan Daley
Published February 1997

It was once taken for granted that freelance engineers would use the standard outboard provided by the studio they were working in. But the explosion in the amount of gear available means that now they often have to assemble personal racks to be sure of getting access to their tools of choice. Dan Daley explores the phenomenon...

Once upon a time, the piano player was the only person who came to a recording session not carrying anything. Then the age of synthesizers arrived, and pianists became as encumbered as everyone else, weighed down with tons of gear. That left only the engineer hauling nothing heavier than a cup of coffee.

But times have changed once again. The rapid proliferation of outboard signal‑processing equipment has led to an expensive, but seemingly necessary, trend among engineers: a personal equipment rack that travels with them from session to session. With studios finding it impossible to purchase everything the market demands, with project and personal studios rarely having the funds to buy more than basic pieces of equipment, and with much of today's gear having a distinctly ephemeral quality as technological fads come and go, engineers are finding that they need to be able to say 'have rack, will travel'. Talking to a number of US‑based engineers on the subject, I soon discovered that not everyone is necessarily pleased with the new need to show up at sessions bearing what used to be the studios' responsibilities. However, other things also become clear: with a few exceptions, the notion of 'standard' gear has become quaint, to say the least. There is so much equipment around, in terms of signal processing, for example, that standardisation has become impossible — at least for more than a couple of months — as everyone rushes to acquire the flavour of the month. The flip side of that equation, though, is that you don't necessarily have to spend a small fortune on outboard — there's an increasing amount of gear available that sounds good and is inexpensive.

Personal Services

Jim Zumpano, an Atlanta‑based engineer who has been the primary tracking engineer for legendary R&B production team LA Reid and Babyface (who have since parted company), as well as for Eddie Murphy's Boomerang film soundtrack and for singer Toni Braxton's records, says that the personal rack has become very important for engineers as they move from one studio to another. "There's so much gear out there, you never know what you're going to find — or not find — in a particular situation. Having a personal rack brings with it a comfort factor that a lot of people like: my cables, my mic preamps, and so on. You're more familiar with the way your signal processors work and what to expect from them. As you start working in these smaller studios, you never know what to expect in terms of outboard gear. Your own rack gives you consistency."

Zumpano's basic rack is loaded with a Neve 1081 mic preamp/4‑band EQ and Neve 33609 and 32264 compressors. What's interesting, he says, is that as he makes the transition from almost exclusively MIDI‑based R&B and dance work to more rock recording, his rack is changing. "With R&B, most of the backing tracks are MIDI‑generated," he explains. "You're mainly recording vocals, so you're mainly concerned with mic preamps and compressors, and maybe EQs. I like the Amek/Rupert Neve 9098 mic preamp/EQ for that. But once you move into rock, the rack gets bigger. At that point, I'm also carrying around things like SSL mic preamps, which are great for snares and drum overheads. And Tube Tech DI units for guitars and basses."

Zumpano likes the idea of being able to bypass the mixing desk completely with his rack gear, which is relatively simple for vocal overdubs. He'll set up a signal chain, typically ending at the compressor, and go straight to tape. On overdub sessions, he simply goes from one track to the next by moving the patch cords on the studio patchbay. For track‑laying sessions and mixes, he'll use a custom snake. "The less wire the better, but for tracking and mixing you have to have a more complex interface between your rack and the console," he says. One cautionary note that Zumpano sounds is that, while pro audio gear operates at +4dB, many project studios and some pro studios are using equipment that operates at the semi‑pro ‑10dB level, necessitating level‑matching boxes. "For instance, if you play an [original model] ADAT back through the quarter‑inch outputs, it comes back ‑10," he explains. "If you send that to a +4 console, you'll have a level difference. You have to kick up the line trims and try to level‑match the signals. The times we've had ADATs interfaced with the SSL at La Coco Studios [which Zumpano manages] I didn't notice a tremendous amount of noise resulting from the level mismatch. But it can become a problem if you're doing this with a lot of connections on a single track." Zumpano uses an Aphex stereo level‑matching box in his rack, which also doubles as an interface for CD players when sampling.

The personal rack has become very important for engineers as they move from one studio to another.

Chuck Ainlay, who has engineered for Mark Knopfler, Wynonna Judd and George Strait, among others, has been a personal rack user for nearly a decade. "Basically, it started out as a need for reliable equipment," he explains. "Ten years ago in Nashville you never knew what you were going to get in terms of outboard gear at a studio." Ainlay's racks — he has several — are based around vintage Neve and other mic preamps, EQs and compressors. Secondary racks contain digital effects, including the Lexicon PCM70 and 300, and a rack full of samplers. He chooses a rack based on application: he'll bring the Neve racks for track‑laying and overdubs, the sampling and effects racks for mixing. He also carries his own speakers — Dynaudio PPM3s.

Barry Sanders, former owner of Nashville's The Sanctuary Studios and now head of that city's Dreamhire rental outlet (where he has no shortage of outboard toys to contemplate), remembers that there was a significant increase in both the number and size of racks coming into his studio during his last few years there. "Even for demo sessions, I noticed that engineers were bringing in pretty extensive racks." Sanders mentions one Nashville engineer who used to pride himself on being able to make a session sound good with what was at hand, eschewing a personal rack. Even he's coming to sessions these days with a rack of gear, Sanders says: "It's a pretty rare day when the engineer doesn't walk in with something under his arm."

Marketing Ploy?

Sanders, however, brings up another point. "I sometimes wonder how much of the gear is really necessary and how much of it is a marketing attempt on the part of engineers to increase their rates." In response, Ainlay agrees that this is part of it. "Nowadays people sort of expect it," he admits. "It impresses the client. You get the feeling that if you don't walk in with a huge rack, people think you aren't doing all that well. And it's a security blanket for the engineer too." Ainlay does charge for the use of the rack — $100 per day, which he says is a bargain for the client, considering what it would cost to rent that amount and level of outboard gear. Clients also pay for the rack's transportation to and from sessions.

But rental houses are increasingly the beneficiaries of this trend towards more elaborate engineers' racks, notes Sanders. The hot items continue to be the classic ones, which may say something about the state of current digital signal processing. Sanders says demand never lags for items such as the blackface Urei 1176, LA‑2A and vintage Tubetech compressors, as well as vintage microphones such as U87s and U47s. The one new piece of gear that seems to be in consistent demand is the TC Electronic Finalizer [reviewed in SOS December 1996], a digital multi‑function processor which Sanders says engineers are referring to as a 'mastering studio in a box'.

"It's especially popular with project studios because it gives them so many functions at once, and all in the digital domain," he says. "Other than that, I don't see any one new piece of gear dominating the market. The theory seems to be that the vintage stuff costs a lot of money but that there's always demand for it, so the rental houses will always carry it, decreasing the need for engineers to go out and buy it. On the other hand, the prices of the newer digital processors tend to be so low that it's not a problem for people to simply go out and buy them in order to check them out. If they don't care for them, or if their clients' demand for them diminishes, they're not out a lot of money and they can go and buy the next happening piece of gear that comes along. What people seem to want really does tend to shift from week to week."

Going With The Flow

Some engineers have managed to avoid feeling compelled to acquire a personal rack at all — until recently, anyway. "I'm just getting ready to take the dive," said Jay Healy several months ago. Healy, a freelance engineer in New York who has worked with Mariah Carey, John Mellencamp, Billy Joel and REM, adds, "I had been able to resist it up to this point. When I was assisting, I noticed that the time it took to hook up an engineer's rack sometimes was as long as it took to bring in rental gear and hook that up. So I never saw a speed advantage in a personal rack. But it became more apparent that you need one. So instead of accumulating one over the course of time, I'd been making a shopping list, bought everything all at once and did it right." That shopping list included a GML compressor, a Lexicon PCM80, Avalon 4‑band parametric equalisers and a Yamaha SPX990. However, Healy says that he remains aware of another pitfall of the personal rack syndrome: "There's a tendency to use the same stuff and the same settings over and over on different projects and on every song. Things can start to sound a little similar to each other. Sometimes I like the idea of going into a new project and not knowing exactly what I'm going to use. It helps keep things fresh."

Racked Without Pain

A rack does not have to become attached at the hip, however. So says David Z, producer/engineer/mixer/arranger for a very eclectic assortment of artists, from early productions with Prince (for whom he produced early demos and singles such as 'Kiss' and engineered or mixed other records, including 'Purple Rain', in their shared hometown of Minneapolis), through Janet Jackson and Sheila E, Billy Idol and Fine Young Cannibals (whose 'She Drives Me Crazy' garnered Z the Grammy nomination for Best Producer in 1990), to, most recently, the master of eclectisicm himself, guitarist Leo Kotke.

"I carry a bunch of gear, but it really depends upon the project," says Z. "If the studio has what I think works for the record, that's fine. If not, I just add stuff of mine that I think I'll need. There's not a set formula as to what gets used. The thing to remember is that you're making a record of the artist, and you want to make it sound like them, not your rack."

Z's personal arsenal includes items such as vintage API 550 EQs, whose number he augments via rentals if he needs more for mixes; the same goes for Focusrite EQs. He also uses his vintage Emu SP1200 drum machine and his vast and growing collection of home‑made samples to customise records. The rack's pedigree drops precipitously from there, though; Z is an aficionado of cheaper gear, ranging from Yamaha SPX90s, which he likes to use as a chorus on low‑frequency instruments like kick drums and bass guitars, to the Musitronics Mutron and other pedal‑like devices that he throws in as needed. He also uses a Tech 21 Sansamp, as an added distortion device for guitars and basses.

"One of the key items, though, is a set of Keypex gates," he adds. "I have them wired for gate triggering through the key input. I often synchronise things to each other on tracks, especially on mixes, so the Keypex is critical. In fact, on Prince's song 'Kiss', the rhythm is coming mainly from a 12‑string guitar sync'ed via the Keypex to the record's hi‑hat track."

Sounds Individual

When asked if he plans to acquire a personal outboard rack, engineer Fernando Kral (Joe Jackson, Talking Heads and Jane's Addiction) responds "I decided to buy a house instead". He's aware of the emphasis being placed on personal racks, starting in the late 1980s, but after assisting producer/engineers Bob Clearmountain and Hugh Padgham, neither of whom used a personal rack back then, Kral decided that he'd rather invest in microphones. However, as his engineering career began to include more overseas work, including Europe, South America and Asia, Kral has come to feel the need to have gear he's familiar and comfortable with at hand. In a way he's relieved, he admits. "Until now, I've always had to be extra careful in booking studios I wasn't familiar with, and I was less likely to go somewhere I hadn't been before, simply because I wasn't sure of the outboard and how well it was maintained. But now that I'm going overseas more, it's harder to come by the esoteric signal processors, like Echoplexes and Boss choruses, that I've come to rely on. And as studios get pressured on rates and pare down, and as budgets eliminate some rentals, it's nice to know I'll have the tools I need for sessions."

But to this day Kral resists the notion of a formal rack. "I understand why people feel the need to have them," he says. "But I also see racks becoming the equivalent of marketing tools for engineers — 'I get this sound and this is the gear I get it with'. That sort of thing. That's OK too, but I find that these days I'm working on such a wide range of budgets for record projects that the idea of a rack simply doesn't give me the sense of security that you might think it would. I find that if I have to do a $30,000 or $40,000 record in a smaller studio that doesn't have the same level of outboard equipment as a larger, more expensive studio might, then that's alright, too; the studio's sound simply becomes the sound of the record. It's a lot more organic and in some way more sincere that way. The record isn't in the outboard rack. It's in the band and the walls of the studio."