We help install the equipment won by one of the lucky winners of the SOS and Digital Village Sounds Expo prize draw.
When Chris Chapman saw that his ticket had been drawn for the Dream Logic Pro Studio system, sponsored by a huge number of manufacturers and distributors and presented by Sound On Sound and Digital Village at the Sounds Expo show earlier this year, he says he called everyone he knew on his way back home, to let them know of his good fortune. A few months later, when we went to help him with the final installation in his studio, he was still grinning from ear to ear!
Along with his friend Ade, Chris runs his studio from converted farm outbuildings in Essex where the duo have set up their own business, Threecircles Audio, and do commercial work as well as their own projects, including live sound work. They'd used Logic in college but had opted to use a Windows PC system in their home setups, and they were delighted to be presented not only with Logic, but also with a cutting-edge Mac Pro and a 16-channel Apogee Symphony/Rosetta interface system, along with six channels of Apogee mic preamps. The prize also included a long list of other very desirable items, including Genelec monitors, an SSL Duende DSP-powered plug-in rack, an SSL Alpha mic preamp and a Roland V-Drum kit. The Novation Zero SL controller and Line 6 KB37 that came with the system seemed ideal for mobile applications, and will also get used in the programming suite they plan to set up when they get around to converting a bit more of the available space.
Despite all the potential space offered by the buildings, the studio has a relatively small control room (a little over nine feet square), with a keyboard bench along the far wall under which were some rackmounted synths. Two walls have windows, one looking into a similarly sized vocal/isolation booth, and the other into the main studio.
Both Chris and Ade like working with an analogue mixer, and in their case this is a 32-channel Mackie 8-bus console, which they decided to keep as the control centre of their system. Part of the prize was a Mackie Control Universal, which would be used to control Logic's internal mixer and transport and which we would help install. They'd already bought a lot of Auralex acoustic foam and treated the control room, the live room and the vocal/drum booth pretty effectively, so there was little for us to do there, although there were some isolation issues connected with the double doors separating the live room and control room, essentially because of poor sealing.
The layout of the control room was largely dictated by the Mackie console, which we moved slightly to the left, so the Mackie Control could be set up alongside it with the keyboard and mouse. Pretty much everything was unplugged, and we also stripped out a lot of the outboard gear from the racks either side, so that we could replace everything in a more logical and ergonomically satisfactory way. I felt that the Apogee Rosetta 800 converters should go where they could be seen, as the front-panel status LEDs provide useful information, especially if something isn't working as it should.
They'd built their own rack units at the left of the mixing position, one of which was partially obscured by the surface of the desk, so we decided to empty that one and stand the computer in it. Not only would this help to further reduce the already low fan-noise (while leaving plenty of ventilation space around the computer), it would also bring the computer within easy reach of its cables and allow us to put the converters in the adjacent rack, where they would be clearly visible. The two Rosetta 800 units were separated by a 1U ventilation panel, with another above and one more below, while the Mackie console PSU was placed right at the bottom of the rack, with a rackmount storage drawer taking up the intermediate space. The Rosettas don't get that warm, but we thought it better to ensure good circulation, given that we had the space available anyway. The long cable joining the Rosettas to the Symphony card in the Mac wasn't a problem, but the Mac monitor cable only just reached, so they may need to buy an extension to provide a bit of slack. The 23-inch widescreen monitor that was supplied with the prize was great, but they were also considering a second matching monitor, as Logic is so much nicer to drive with two screens.
A further rack held a lot of analogue outboard and synth modules, as well as a DAT recorder, which we connected up via one of the AES/EBU digital in/out pairs on the first Rosetta 800. A link cable connected the two Apogee Rosetta units, and a word clock cable synchronised them. Fortunately, as Digital Village had provided all the necessary cabling to go with the prize, this was pretty painless. Wiring up the analogue inputs and outputs of the Apogee kit was equally simple and it worked without fuss. We fed the 16 analogue outputs to 16 line-input channels on the mixer. The recording inputs were taken from the Mackie desk's direct outputs — an arrangement that the guys had been using before and enjoyed, largely because of the convenience of using the Mackie and outboard preamps while also being able to derive headphone mixes from these input channels very quickly and easily.
Chris said of their prize studio: "The Mac Pro forms the cornerstone of the rig, providing a rock-solid base for the Apogee Symphony system and Logic Pro. Its presence is felt but not heard, as it runs surprisingly quietly, but it provides so much power. The Apogee Rosetta converters are amazing: both Ade and I were taken aback when we compared them with our previous setup. The sound is much crisper and better-defined, and comes across really well on the Genelec 8040a monitors, which I love.
"Of the microphones, the SE Gemini has become our go-to mic for vocals. It gives such a great sound, which is warm at the lower end but with brightness too. Our Auralex-treated vocal room already gives us a well-controlled sound, but using the SE Reflexion Filter has tightened up recordings even further. The Rode NT2 is another very useful addition — I like the fact that you can adjust the pattern not only from omni, to cardioid, to figure-of-eight, but also varying degrees between them.
"Our SSL Duende is the cherry on the top of what is already an awesome core setup. Inserting the bus compressor instantly makes everything sound better, and the channel strip is really versatile. I'd seen units like the Edirol R09 portable recorder and thought them to be glorified Dictaphones, but our tests prove that the R09 is most definitely not: we've tried recording a number of sources, including the Ashton guitar, and have been very impressed. It is also a really handy tool for location recording!
"Also included in the prize are what I like to call 'the toys', though they all have serious recording applications! Roland V-drums, for example, provide a whole world of fun. I'd never played drums but had always fancied giving it a go. They're brilliant — and they don't annoy your business partner (that much!) when you plug your headphones in. They are also great for recording, as you can trigger any drum sounds you like over MIDI. The Ashton guitar and amp sound really nice too. The jewel in the crown for Ade, though, has been the Roland Fantom X8 keyboard workstation, which has already been used both for gigging and in the studio.
"The Novation Zero XL turned out to be a neat MIDI controller. The LCD panels are so helpful to let you quickly see which controller is assigned to what, and this not only speeds up the creative process when producing but also gives you far more hands-on control. The list of presets you can load covers most of the main soft synths we have installed and assigning controls is very easy too. We haven't done much with the Line 6 KB37 Toneport yet, but we can see that it will be useful, particularly when we set up our programming room, as it combines the roles of interface, mic preamps, MIDI keyboard controller and POD XT-quality guitar amp modeller in one compact unit, and it is also small enough for portable applications.
"This prize comprises such an awesome amount of kit that I can't walk in the studio now without cracking a smile. I feel very privileged to have been so lucky on that day at Sounds Expo, and would like to thank everyone who has contributed to this giveaway — the manufacturers, Digital Village, all the guys at Sounds Expo and to the Sound On Sound team. I would like also to personally thank Paul and Hugh for spending a day with us getting everything set up. I hope your fingers recover from all that patching and that the skin grows back where the lacing bars attacked you! Both myself and Ade are so very grateful for your time, and it was a pleasure to have you in the studio."
+44 (0)1799 523432.
Thanks to Digital Village for organising the prizes for this competition.
The next part of the job caused Hugh and I a bit of head scratching, as Chris wanted to be able to access any of the mixer's 16 remaining mic and line inputs via a balanced jack patchbay, and he also wanted to bring up the outputs from a number of studio and booth wall-boxes. Add to this the outputs from his SSL Alpha preamp, an exisiting TL Audio preamp and the six channels of Apogee preamp, the mic inputs to all of these and the six aux sends from the mixer, a stereo hardware reverb and a headphone distribution amp...! We could see we had our work cut out, so we sat down with a mountain of chocolate Hob Nobs and coffee to design a patchbay layout that would work, where the patchbays, mic preamps and headphone amp would be housed in the same rack. I came up with a first draft, and after Hugh made some refinements we put the design into practice, patching in the cables to make it all work. We ended up normalising some of the wall-boxes to Mackie desk inputs, but everything could be easily patched to provide complete freedom in deciding what was to be connected to what. Luckily, Chris and Ade already had plenty of patch cables! By the time we'd done plugging everything in, the back of the rack looked a bit like that scene in the film Dog Soldiers, where Sean Pertwee has just had his stomach ripped open by a werewolf and his comrades are trying to push his guts back in, before patching him up with Superglue! Surprisingly, though, it all looked very tidy once the rack was rolled back against the wall — and it worked, too!
As the Genelec monitors were also part of the new system, we did some listening tests in the control room, as the bass end can be problematic in almost-square rooms like this one, even where corner bass trapping has been fitted, as in this case. The new Genelec 8040As were set up on Kwik Lok stands that poked through holes in the desktop and seemed set up at about the right height. As the speakers have built-in resilient mounts, we didn't need to do anything else to the mountings, other than adjust the angles slightly. However, the bass end seemed a little overblown when we tried Hugh's old BBC test CD, so we reset the bass roll-off DIP switches to their gentlest setting and repeated the test. This tightened up the bass to a noticeable extent, and providing the engineer avoids the exact centre of the room when making mix decisions it should be perfectly workable (as is so often the case with small, square rooms, the bass seemed to drop off as you approached the centre of the room). The situation is worse in a room of typical height, as when you are seated your head is also likely to be close to halfway between the floor and ceiling.
Chris and Ade had already checked out a number of the other prizes, and Chris was busy learning to play drums on the Roland TD3KW V-Drum kit, which he'd set up at one end of the live room. He'd also done some guitar and amp recording using his Rode NT2 mic, which he said worked out extremely well, and for vocals he seemed totally infatuated with his SE Gemini mic. Though neither of them play guitar, some of their clients do, so the Ashton acoustic guitar and electric guitar combo were also set up in the studio, along with the Sennheiser HD280 headphones, which they used mainly for performer foldback. As far as Ade was concerned, the Roland Fantom X8 keyboard was clearly the star of the show — he's a gigging keyboard player and had already started using the Fantom for live performance. He seemed particularly impressed with the playable piano-type sounds, but praised the overall quality of the sound set.
With the control room rearranged, we made space for the Fantom X8 on the work surface to the left of the mixer, and also found time to go through a few of Logic's less obvious functions before finishing. We also suggested that, when programming drum parts from the Roland drum kit, they feed a headphone mix back into the stereo aux input of the drum brain, as this allows the direct (latency-free) sound of the V-Drums to be mixed with the backing track coming in via the aux jack. At this point we could tell they were both dying to get started with their new system, so we set the Satnav for home and left them to it — but not before checking that all the Hob Nobs had gone!