15ips Archive: "Products"
About this time last year, I promised myself: No new equipment. I did fine, even with my compulsive window shopping habits, but I started to hit some frustrating limits with the equipment I’d chosen. Most of what I own is “good and cheap”, as cheap as used 1980s professional audio equipment can be, and while I have the basics covered pretty well I felt really limited in options during mixdown and especially while recording vocals. The only compressors I had were the dbx 166xl, which is a high quality, inexpensive compressor for percussive material but it’s absolutely terrible for vocals.
I have a very intimate understanding of my equipment (heh) and once I found out about the different types of compressors I realized what I needed. I set my sights high and I considered investing in “the lower high end” equipment but I just don’t have the money for it. So, I began a search for the missing link in my home studio, at a price that wouldn’t hurt my caboose.
I heard about the ART Pro VLA II maybe a couple of years ago and I initially dismissed it – I have an ART MPA Gold mic preamp that I’ve never been too happy with. I was a little shocked to read raving reviews in Tape Op last November, saying that it was a really good deal for the price. I decided I’d take a second look, and I’m really glad I did.
When researching modifications and upgrades (i.e. changing stuff) I started at this GearSlutz thread, which has a series of audio clips recorded through various configurations of stock and modified parts. It was pretty informative… I really liked the sound of the Mullard tubes. I decided to go all in, and I bought the ART from Musician’s Friend and bought a pair of Mullard ecc81/12AT7 tubes from eBay. The good thing about audio equipment is that if you don’t like something and can’t return it, you can always sell it to someone else…
I got the ART and the tubes on the same day. I tried the unit with its stock tubes (Ruby Tubes 12AT7) and I actually really liked the sound – it was smooth and accurate. It didn’t sound “cheap”, which is an instant win… in my opinion it beats a lot of products in this price range in regard to overall quality and the ‘musciality’ of its output. I quickly (carefully) opened the unit and installed the Mullard tubes, and tried it again. Wow!! This is not a silver bullet… but this is a fantastic combo, and the VLA is the right product for what I want. I feel an instant response when I twist the knobs, and it sounds really, really good when I really crank up the compression and add lots of post-compression gain through the Mullard tubes. So for… $360 total? This thing is an ace.
I realized that the Pro VLA II could also be used effectively as a low pass filter – with Mullard tubes it gently burns off high frequency detail over 16k. This can be compounded or affected in other ways by adding input and output transformers, just as the original poster in the GearSlutz thread did. The Cinemag transformers have a pretty severe HF roll-off beginning at 10k (!) (here’s the spec sheet) but it might be useful sometimes? I like the sound but I don’t want it all the time. I’m considering adding transformers and adding a toggle switch, to either use the transformers or bypass them, but I’ll leave good enough be for now. I just wanna make music, anyway…
San Francisco was delightfully damp, windy, and cold this weekend. Being a native Oregonian (born in Eugene, moved to Portland six years later) who set down roots in Northern California less than four short years ago, I find these brief respites from the Bay Area’s typically cool, room-temperature climate quite welcome as they remind me so much of my home land of the Northwest.
In typical Portlander fashion, I took advantage of the inclement weather by holing up in Studio Apartment Studio and working nearly ten hours in my pajamas. What a delight! With all of life’s demands – bills, friends, relationships, work obligations – it’s nice to detach from reality for one day and occupy the space I’ve created in my mind. I don’t think I could do it every day, as it tends to get somewhat lonely toward the end of the jag, but as an occasional retreat it’s quite sublime.
I’ve learned a lot about work flow, especially as it pertains to music production on an eight-track recorder. Many recording artists have their pieces developed and ready to go by the time they enter the studio, but some artists – myself included – use the studio as a compositional tool. Quite often, I have no idea what I want to try, or what I want to hear, and so I’ll do little demos and try out a few ideas. I used to record these straight to the multitrack recorder but I often found myself backed into a corner when I wanted to change something or expand on the idea. Instead, what I’ve found to work particularly well is to record these ideas / experiments onto half-track/stereo 1/4″ tape and then archive them. The benefits of this are many, the most important being that 1) I’m not tempted to “overdo” something, and I can call these demos “finished” until a later time, and 2) It’s really easy to dump these tracks onto the multitrack exactly where I want to.
Now that I have these “perfect” tracks archived, I’ve gotten more used to punching in and overdubbing them on the eight-track. This has been incredibly liberating, as I feel I have infinitely more control over my work. I used to be averse to overdubbing for some reason, perhaps because it felt “unnatural” to manipulate time and sound this way, but I’ve taken advantage of it in a way that feels “good” and “right” to me, and I’m not looking back.
On another note, my first reel of 1/2″ ATR Magnetics tape arrived last week and it’s been put to heavy duty use here. My official report: At a +6 operating level on my Tascam 48-OB, dbx noise reduction is almost redundant and unnecessary for most tracks, although it still has its place on others. The sound quality is unmatched: I felt RMGI SM911 was dark and muddy for the kind of ‘instrumentation’ I’m using, and ATR tape is by far a better medium for what I’m doing. I’d still use RMGI SM911 and my old BASF PEM 468 tapes for rock bands and other, less ‘delicate’ program material, so I’m not avoiding it entirely. I was debating whether to modify my deck for +9 operation but I think it sounds just fine at +6 with ATR tape.
I’ve got some articles in development, and in the next few days I’d like to post content on the following subjects:
- Using tape echo, including basic and more advanced techniques
- How to get up and running with an analog home studio using minimal equipment
- A history of tape music, focusing on artists such as Pauline Oliveros, Alvin Lucier, Pierre Schaeffer, and others
- I’d like to write an interview with someone, and we’ll see how that goes … ?
Until then, take care and enjoy the last days of Fall…
I’m doing a massive purge here at Studio Apartment Studio and up on the chopping block are many reels of tape.
1. Twelve used reels of 1/4″ RMGI SM911 on 7″ plastic reels w/ boxes.
These are all one-pass. Ten have no splices, one has two splices, one has three splices. And, I am an expert splicer, so no sweat here about the “silence” of these splices.
2. Two new reels of 1/4″ RMGI SM911 on 7″ plastic reels w/ boxes.
These have never been recorded on, and are still in the poly vinyl bag.
3. Nine reels of 1/4″ BASF PEM 526 on 10.5″ plastic reels w/ boxes.
New old stock, never recorded on, no splices, originally bought on pancakes. This is a +6 tape like Quantegy 456 and RMGI SM911. Despite this tape being on the sticky-shed watch list these reels are guaranteed to be free of shedding. Slightly thicker tape than 456 and SM911 but it won’t put additional strain on your deck.
I’m keen to get these off my shelf and onto other peoples’ machines, so please contact me at email@example.com to make an offer or inquire about pricing.
A couple of pictures:
I recently had my Otari MX5050 MKIII-2 set up for +9 operation with ATR Magnetics tape and… Holy Lord, it’s amazing! ATR tape is my new favorite. The sound is unmatched and the product itself is very well designed: It runs silently through my machines’ transports and packs a nice, even wind. It’s a particularly durable tape, too, which I think makes it perfect for loops.
I want to improve the performance of my multitrack deck – a Tascam 48-OB – and I’ve been looking into setting it up / modifying the electronics for +9 operation. I thought that +9 operation was the best route for ATR tape but it turns out that a vast percentage of ATR tape customers use it at +6. To test this myself, I put a 1/4″ reel of ATR tape on my Tascam 34B and I was amazed by its sound… much better for my style of music than RMGI SM911. The result is astonishingly quiet by comparison. I was very impressed by how quiet / less noticeable the tape noise was without noise reduction, and with dbx noise reduction on quieter tracks my recordings sound absolutely incredible. Here are four samples to demonstrate. My digital interface is pretty lousy – so this certainly shouldn’t serve as a reference – but you can at least compare these four samples against each other. The signal chain is Guitar -> ART MPA Gold Preamp -> Tascam DX-4D noise reduction unit (both engaged and disengaged) -> Tascam 34b -> Alesis io26.
I ordered a 1/2″ reel of ATR tape and I’m going to try it at both +6 and +9, just to satisfy my curiosity. Judging by how great it sounds at +6 with dbx NR (and since the Tascam 48′s electronics are better than the 34B), I may just stick with +6. But the idea of not using noise reduction at all – thereby getting an even greater dynamic range from my recordings with zero hiss to boot – sounds rather appealing, so I’m still going to try it at +9.