Category Archives: mic preamps

RECORDING: Trim the fat

What do I mean by this?

Stuff everyone knows, but what no one does: stop buying shit. Stop assuming the next piece of gear will make your recordings more professional and completely make your songwriting a thousand times better.

I think back to 2002-2004. I bought SO much shit.

I got a steal on a Novation Nova IIx synthesizer in late 2002. It was $999 from Sam Ash. Retailed at the time about $2500. I have no idea why it was so cheap… maybe a closeout or something. But I bought it. I loved it. I used it for a cool pad sound in the Beauty’s Confusion song “Blue Deluge”, in the chorus. And that’s all I used it for.

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A thousand dollars for a cool patch sound, and an arpeggiator that was extremely fun to fool around with. The patches were all insanely fun. It was a great analog-modeling synth.

Luckily, I was able to sell it for about $1250 after getting bored with it, a few months later.

I also remember, a few months before picking up the Nova IIx, I bought an E-Mu Proteus 2000 rackmount for $800 from Sam Ash. I even bought a $200 “super-realistic strings” chip upgrade, that allowed the rackmount to add a bunch of sounds to it. $1000 for sounds that ultimately sounded pretty damn dated, a few years later.

proteus_2000
The rackmount soon grew to be a pain in the butt, so I sold it at a loss, and instead, bought the E-Mu Proteus Keys, which was the “keyboard” version of the Proteus 2000:

This keyboard moved with me to the Philadelphia area, in 2004. I sold it about a year later, for around $300 (with the $200 string chip).

You want to hear the best part? Several years ago, E-Mu released the Proteux VX virtual instrument for free, with all the sounds from the Proteus 2000. A mere 65MB download. And it sounds exactly like the hardware.

facepalm

In late 2002, I also bought a used Fender Rhodes Mark I Stage 73 (had to drive three hours to pick it up). It cost only $450. I sold it about a year later for exactly the same price (someone drove two hours to pick it up). I loved that thing. They now sell for $1500 used. Should have hung onto that one. But I’ve found that cheap or free virtual rhodes instrument VSTs/plugins sound as good as the real thing.

I bought a Roland Juno-60 analog synthesizer five separate times in my life, and sold it five separate times. First one I got for only $300 (broken joystick/pitch bend). Sold for $400. The others, I bought for slightly more and sold for slightly more about 6 months to a year later. Last one I bought in 2011 cost me only $650 (locally through craigslist). Turned around and sold it for $900 five months later (also through craigslist). I’ve found the TAL U-No62 virtual synth, and its big brother, TAL U-NO-LX sound EXACTLY like the real thing. The first thing is free. The big brother’s only $40 or so. Get a cool midi keyboard that has assignable knobs, buttons and sliders, and you can control every parameter of the virtual version, and hot damn, it almost feels like and plays like the real thing.

I have a habit of doing this a lot. Oftentimes it’s just to make ends meet and pay bills. Sometimes it’s all about checking out gear and messing with it, and then parting ways with it with someone more excited and/or experienced.

Since I play everything, I’m prone to buying a wider variety of gear. But…

These days, my studio is so damn stripped-down, it’s ridiculous. I own a handful of gear, but only the shit I truly, truly need.

In the early 2000s, I collected synths, almost… Juno-60, Casio CZ-1000, Roland Juno-1 and Juno-2, Proteus Keys PK-6, Kawai K4, Roland D-50…. what the hell was the point? None of that shit was helping me finish songs.

I owned one microphone (one) from early 2003 to 2009. An AKG C2000B. I still use it. Past few years, I’ve bought more and more mics. They’re always useful.

Keyboard-wise? An M-Audio Oxygen 61, to control ALL of my virtual synths (most of which are freeware/great-sounding). The other keyboard I own is a Yamaha P-60 digital piano (weighted keys). I teach on it and love the feel of it. I’ve owned the same one since 2005.

Drums? I have a Pacific CX kit I play out with (white marine pearl). Got it on trade. I record all my acoustic drum stuff with a Sonor Safari bop kit. My cymbals are cheap, but awesome-sounding Paiste 404 crashes and a ride, and New Beat hi-hats by Zildjian. I own a second Sonor Safari, that I converted into an electronic/triggered kit on the cheap.

Guitars? Not many. A couple acoustics (Martin and Yamaha). I have an Agile Les Paul clone ($300 with custom Seymor Duncan pickups), and a Gibson SG Special. I used to own a Fender strat, which I miss. I have a Fender jazz bass for all my bass needs. I have a modest pedalboard with relatively cheap pedals. I have a Vox practice amp, and a Fender Deluxe Reverb ’68 reissue, for live use.

I have your typical “must-haves” for any home studio in 2015/2016– a good USB audio interface, studio monitors, dual flat-panel widescreen  displays, mic stands, different mics, a harmonizer, cheap mic preamp, and a midi drum pad (Maschine MK2)… and that M-Audio Oxygen 61.

That’s it.

Anything else is just not necessary.

Trim the fat. Utilize negative space in your home studio. Basically everything you need to record good music can be found “in the box” (on your computer). All of my effects (reverb, delay, compression, etc)… all “in the box” (mostly the stock plugins included with Reaper 4 and Reaper 5). The less options, the better.

It took me like 15 years to realize I didn’t need most of the shit I bought. Don’t be stupid like me. Research, and buy only what you need. Even if you’re a multi-instrumentalist…. you don’t need much.

 

 

 

 

 

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RECORDING: Choosing a vocal mic

So, I’m never really fully satisfied with the way my vocals sound in the studio. I’ve tried various mics through the years:

2002-2010 – AKG C2000B condenser
2011 to present – MXL V67G (the green/gold condenser mic), MXL v63m (Mogami-wired or whatever), Shure SM7B (meh…), Shure SM57 (didn’t really work for me… works on some voices, though)

I have also gone through several mic pres, including the Golden Age Pre73 MKII ($350), Focusrite ISAOne ($500), and Great River ME-1NV ($1100). Never been impressed with the performance of any of these. Maybe the Golden Age Pre73 MKII the most… but it sounded weird when connected to the Line In of my main audio interface (M-Audio Delta 66 with OMNI I/O breakout box). It worked fine with the standard Delta breakout box, though. I don’t know… I just didn’t have the patience to fully troubleshoot.

When I connected the Great River the same way, it was absolutely fine. But for $1100? I sold it a few weeks later at a loss, for a few hundred less.

I do a lot of A/B comparisons when trying to mix my songs…. mainly, I’ll drop a song file from some established band into my arrangement… Go back and forth from soloing that track, to listening to my mix… setting markers in Reaper to jump to, where the singing is on my song, and where the singing is, on theirs.

I can never get my vocals to simply “sit right” in the mix. I feel I have a very bassy/warm voice… and even though the MXL mics provide a high boost (cheap Chinese mics do, to make themselves sound “better”), it’s still a bit too bassy and warm. I tweak the EQ to my liking, and it helps a bit. But I don’t know. Overall, I just hate the sound of my vocals. Guess I’m like John Lennon in that way…. never happy with the dry sound, so he always asked the engineer to effect it in some way (slapback delay, chorus, heavy reverb, overdrive, etc).

Dear readers, I am curious. What vocal mic do YOU use on your recordings? Are you male/female? High or low singer? Breathy voice or chesty voice? What have you used that you did not enjoy? Do you hate the way you sound?

RECORDING: Use what you have already!

So I’m sitting here on a Sunday night debating on what new gear I should buy…. should I pick up a Shure SM7B mic for studio use… should I re-buy the Golden Age Pre73 MKII that I sold several months ago….. should I get an EV N/D767a mic for using with my vocal harmonizer…. should I… should I….

The main thing is, no matter what new gear I purchase, it doesn’t change the fact that I:

1. haven’t finished a new song in three months

2. haven’t finished or fleshed out the 100+ song ideas from 2010-present

3. haven’t recorded myself at all for the past 6 months– only recorded other people

4. haven’t developed the several songs I co-wrote with my friend Ryan, almost a year ago (though we’re still excited about them)

 

New gear does not help you finish songs. I don’t think that awesome Shure SM7B is miraculously going to make me sound like a better singer than I already am. I sound like what I sound like… whether through a $100 Chinese-made condenser mic (which I normally use for recording), or through a friggin’ Neumann.

That amazing mic pre isn’t going to make my lead vocal POP out front, and sound warm and buttery. It’s just going to empty my wallet or up the balance on my credit card.

I have used an M-Audio Delta 44 since early 2003 when a bad ebay purchase fried my beloved Roland UA-100 USB audio interface….. and a couple years ago, I upgraded to the Delta 66 with an Omni I/O breakout box. The Omni I/O and Delta 66 only cost me $120 from ebay, and the friggin’ thing sounds better than most modern audio interfaces. I actually have three studio computers (one is a mirrored system in case the main one fries)… and all three of them have Omni I/Os installed…. I also put the same audio interface in the recording computer at my job, that I built for recording students.

The main thing is…. just finish shit. These days, the song matters more than the production (especially if you’re an independent artist). Fuck the bullshit and fuck the hype. Save money, and finish shit. FINISH SONGS. WORK ON THEM. Lay down your vocals with your $100 mic. Just get it done.

Man, I’m glad I wrote this. I just prevented myself from spending $1200. After I press “publish”, I’m going to work on some song idea editing…. and make my night productive (and cost-effective).

 

 

RECORDING: Golden Age Project Pre 73 MKII Mic Preamp (review)

Ok, so, as you may or may not know, I kinda take mic preamp discussion with a grain of salt. By and large, I’ve gotten great results, vocally, from my audio interface’s built-in mic pres. Interfaces I’ve used over the years include an M-Audio Delta 44 paired with an oldschool Behringer MX2004A mixer (my first setup)… then, I used a Tascam FW-1082 firewire interface for a bit, then recently, I switched back to the M-Audio, and rocked a Delta 66 combined with an M-Audio OMNI I/O breakout box. I love the OMNI the best and achieve great results in my studio, especially vocally……. or so I thought…

Enter the GAP Pre 73 MKII. Golden Age Project is a Sweden-based company, who designed a mic preamp that is supposed to come really close to the classic Neve 1073 sound, a sound that has been a mainstay in pro recording studios for decades. If you’ve heard a classic rock or pop album from the 70s through the 90s, chances are you’ve heard the Neve 1073 in action, especially on vocals.

So, Golden Age designed this pre (and of course, at such a low price point, $350, the Chinese manufacture and distribute it)…. and I heard great things about it. I was debating buying it…. I was torn between that, or the Focusrite ISA One. I wound up going with the Focusrite a few months back.

The Focusrite was my first “legit” mic pre. It was $500. I used it for about a week and recorded a couple things (and did many A/B tests with it and my main config) before returning it. I found that my built-in mic pres sounded exactly the same, if not a bit quieter.

I swore off the mic preamp hype for months, and then the bug bit me again, so I picked up the GAP.

Tonight, I finally had some spare time to give it a go (I got it a month ago and never even plugged it in due to my insanely busy life).

edit: When I first recorded vocals with it, something was way off with my OMNI I/O’s line inputs. The vocals sounded harsh and thin… awful. After tweaking my interface and its software mixer, I finally got the GAP to sound like it should: warm, buttery, crisp enough where it doesn’t need much EQ, and just… full.

I tracked a vocal a few times… as similarly as I could (first with my built-in pre and main mic, and then with the GAP 73 MKII). The first vocal with the built-in mic pres (as always) was boomy/swampy, and lacked clarity and presence unless I put an EQ plug-in on the track.

The second vocal (through the GAP) was warmer, fuller. Not a big difference in sound from the built-in mic pres, but just had that extra “something” which is what good mid-range preamps do.

For years, I’ve been having to EQ my vocals a lot… rolling off the lows to get rid of the boominess and overall muddy sound (I guess that’s just my voice, or so I thought) and sometimes bumping up the highs… but with the GAP Pre 73 MKII, I didn’t have to EQ anything at all except maybe a tiny high frequency bump up. I even tested a quick mix by burning to CD and listening in my car, and without ANY EQ whatsover, I was like “yeah, man. This is it, right here.”

The term “professional-sounding” actually entered my mind. It really does sound that good, and full. And it “sounds” vintage… I mean, it’s designed to be very similar to a legendary vintage mic preamp. I think it does a good job.

The mic I use isn’t the greatest… it’s a Chinese-made MXL v67g. I like the sound of it, overall (using my built-ins)…. but through the GAP, it really sounds great. I also tested it with my AKG C2000b, which I normally hate the sound of (too mid-rangey)… but for some reason, the GAP evens it out and makes my voice sound better. I did some very basic harmonies just going “oooh” in the mic, and it sounded so buttery and warm… basically, NOT digital, as my built-ins do. That’s a huge plus to me.

Also, I miked my acoustic, too with the MXL V67g, and thought it had a great sound (even with strings that need replacing).

One thing I’ve heard but haven’t yet put into practice, is that a good mic pre will keep your tracks clear and non-muddy as you “stack” them (as in, record more than 10 tracks, including drums, vocals, guitars, bass, etc)…. I’ve heard that this mic pre does that exact thing as you build tracks. Can’t wait to try it.

If you’re looking for a solid pre that won’t break the bank and adds just the right amount of “color” and “vintage” sound to your vocals, look no further than the Golden Age Project Pre 73 MKII.

RECORDING: The great mic preamp debate. Are they REALLY necessary?

So, for years I’ve recorded my own songs without using any dedicated mic preamp… just whatever was in my mixer. All mixers and audio interfaces these days have built-in mic pre’s, and if they didn’t, the microphone basically wouldn’t generate any signal when you sang into one. Built-in mic pre’s are usually sufficient, and these days, with digital, compressed music (MP3 and iTunes/AAC/m4a), it’s very hard to distinguish a song tracked with a dedicated mic preamp or built-in mic pre’s.

Since 2001, I’ve used a Behringer MX2004A mixing board. A few cheap condenser mics (MXL, CAD, and an AKG C2000B) and that mixer (into an M-Audio Delta 44) was my vocal chain.

Last week, I finally sprung for a dedicated mic preamp, the Focusrite ISA One. It’s a $500 mic pre, with a good amount of settings and also has a direct input for bass guitar or any line-level signal.

I’ve spent a lot of time over the last week doing A/B tests… singing exactly the same (as close as I can) using the mic preamp, and using that same microphone and the Behringer mixer’s mic pre. I’ve dabbled with EQ settings and tried to get them to match up exactly. And I set markers in my recording software so I can just hit a key and then hit another key and play the different takes seamlessly… and really… REALLY listen to see if I can hear a difference, on monitors, and two different pairs of headphones.

I want to say that I couldn’t really hear a difference at all, between the $500 Focusrite mic pre going directly into the M-Audio Delta 44, and just the mic & mixer’s pre (without the Focusrite). I really want to say I couldn’t hear a difference at all. But I could!

It’s slight, but it’s there.

The dedicated mic pre does make my microphone sound better, fuller… warmer, AND, there’s less hiss (about 6db using the Focusrite). I get 6db more hiss/noise when using the microphone directly into the mixer, at the same gain/level. So, there’s definitely a quality difference.

But to most ears, you probably won’t hear a difference at all.

Take for instance, my Smiths cover of “The Headmaster Ritual” that I did last summer. There is no mic pre used in this video. It is that MXL going directly into the Behringer mixer, and then right into the Delta 44. I added some EQ, reverb, slight delay, and compression in the recording program. I think it sounds fine. A little high-endy when coming through laptop speakers, but that’s to be expected.

Last night, I did this tiny clip of Rogue Wave’s “Eyes”, using my dedicated mic pre. I recorded the acoustic guitar with the same mic I did the vocals with (MXL V67g)… and both were run through the $500 Focusrite. I do believe there’s a warmth/fullness/cleaner sound with the dedicated pre. It’s pretty evident. Then again, I did track the vocals basically right up on the mic (for the Rogue Wave clip), so there’s a proximity effect going on (adding more fullness).

Rogue Wave – Eyes clip

So, to the age-old question of “Are mic preamps REALLY necessary?”….. The jury is still out. I honestly don’t know. But I do think it will improve my recording quality overall. And if it doesn’t, I’ll sell it. I really don’t have a lot of experience with dedicated mic pres yet (just a few days)… but so far, I like what I hear.

update (2/24/2012): After extensive tests, comparing my mixer’s built-in pre’s against the Focusrite ISA One’s… I decided to return it and stick with my built-ins (with a slight upgrade, mentioned below). I just got more hiss from the Focusrite, no matter what I had my gain set at. Sure, I could get more volume without the mic clipping or whatever… thus, “fuller sound”, but ultimately I didn’t think it made much of a difference. I probably would need to spend a great deal more time with it (and more extensive tests, which I didn’t think could be possible after the testing I did)… just to see if it was worth the investment. Instead of going back to my main setup (mic > Behringer mixer’s pre’s > interface) I decided to get rid of the Behringer mixer entirely and add an M-Audio Omni I/O to my Delta 44 (the I/O provides mic pre’s, more inputs and routing, plus 2 headphone outs). You can only get the Omni I/O from ebay as it’s been off the market for years. Now my signal path is mic > Omni I/O. Done. I get basically the same quality without the dedicated pre… many audiophiles and studio engineer snobs would argue that it was a horrible decision, but really… the song matters most, then the mic, then the performance through it. From there, it’s all tweaking this and that and mixing the track. If the song isn’t interesting/melodic and better than most of the shit out there, then no one is going to give a shit about your studio upgrades or high-end mic pre. That being said… I’m still on the hunt for a dedicated pre, haha! Maybe this time around, the Golden Age PRE 73 MKII (it’s $150 less than the Focusrite). We’ll see…. I know, I know… back and forth, with my decision. Enough of the blabbing about mic pre’s and studio upgrades. Let’s just write and record some damn songs! 🙂