Home Studios--Do It The Pro Way (Part II) (Dec. 1984)

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Since the first installment of this article in September 1983, there have again been major technological developments. Musical instrument manufacturers have found that only about a third of the money previously spent on musical instruments is still going into their pockets; the rest is going into--you guessed it--equipment for the home studio. Everyone and his grandmother is now making outboard gear, home multi-track units, and easy-to-operate synthesizers. As a result, great technological strides allow prices to drop on equipment that only yesterday was out of the range of most home studios' budgets.

For instance, Linndrums' legendary drum machine emerged only three years ago as the definitive "drummer replacement," but it carried a hefty price tag of over $3,000. Now Oberheim makes the DX, a very similar unit which offers many of the same options, for only about a third of that price.

Digital reverb machines were in the $5,000+ range when Lexicon first brought them out, and now Yamaha makes a cheaper version that sells for under $800. Granted, there are advantages to the higher priced spread-but for the home recordist, these less ex pensive versions offer the opportunity to make quantum leaps in the world of home demos without having to put the house up for a second mortgage. Now that Fostex has the X15 portable four-track cassette recorder on the market, a whole new crew of recordists has gotten the feel of multi-tracking without making the major move buying a ma chine of this nature used to entail.

Multi-Trackers: Present and Future

In the last episode of the continuing saga of home recording, the war between the manufacturers was just heating up. A company called Fostex was formed to meet the public demand for bigger and better home multi-track systems, and these folks began doing a good job of putting the rest of the field to shame. Their four-track cassette systems (including the X15, which sells for about half what any of the others cost), as well as quarter-inch eight-track recorders and half-inch 16-track systems, are all competitively priced. Yamaha got into the act with a four-track cassette unit, and its success has prompted the company to move further into home recording.

Chances are there will be more companies springing up with versions of the four-, eight- and 16-track formats, but whether they all will last is some thing else again.

The logical item for these companies to make--albeit an expensive one would be a home digital multi-track recorder. The problems of tape wear, narrow bandwidth, and S/N ratios could be minimized if the industry's emphasis were placed on home digital units. Since the home recording field seems to be expanding quickly and home digital stereo units are just get ting off the ground, the sooner these parallel lines become one the more everyone will benefit. With all the digitized instruments being created, it be comes even more imperative that the home recordist be able to capture all the sound that he is able to create.

More records which started as home demos are hitting the charts than ever before. New artists like The Eurythmics are able to come up with a Top Ten single ("Sweet Dreams") that was al most completely made in a home studio, and established hit-makers like Hall & Oates get a head start on studio work at home. As the thin line between a demo and a master tape all but disappears, fidelity becomes the crucial priority.

The result of all this increased flexibility at the home studio level is the emergence of a new breed of music enthusiast, the self-made producer. Where once a producer was only a geezer who came up with the money to pay for a session (whether or not he knew how to set up a microphone), one can groom oneself for the producer's chair at home. The first step is to get to know technology and what its limits are.

Digital Keyboards

Although most of these gadgets are still the primitive stages, the cost of digital instruments is becoming less prohibitive. The Fairlight and the Syn claVer were the original machines which digitally synthesized and/or sampled, but price tags of over $20,000 kept them out of the home studios (as well as many professional recording studios). However, the re cent prices on similar units are falling as the technology develops.

E-mu Systems has developed a key board called the Emulator which samples digitally and costs in the neighborhood of 5 or 6 grand. Before you hit the ceiling, realize that this little wonder can mimic virtually any sound that the user cares to either record himself or call up from a floppy disk. In other words, if you want to play the drums and sound just like John Bonham but you can't play and don't own a kit, you just pull out the John Bonham floppy disk (which assigns a different voice to each key on the keyboard) and press lightly on the keys. The frequency response on the unit isn't that great-it only records up to 10k (with a little tuning trickery, you can squeeze it up to 20k)-but the Emulator is a pretty exciting device. Yamaha's DX-7 digital synth, which has full frequency range but doesn't sample, runs under 2 grand and is selling like crazy.

All of this is more indicative of what's to come than what's here, as the proliferation of these devices will increase dramatically through the use of digital chips. It might be wise to wait a bit until the dust settles, as the MIDI interfaces and guitar adaptability are only now starting to appear as standard features. And remember, the more you spend on a synth, the greater the dollar depreciation. You can get units for under a grand today, the equivalent of which would have run about $4,000 only a year and a half ago.

Drum Computers

Given the advanced degree of logic involved in the current crop of automatic percussion units, we tend to call them drum computers. These digitized drummers are amazingly versatile, sound remarkably like a real kit, and have become so integrated into to day's music that, whether you know it or not, at least 30% of all records made in 1984 use them. Most home studios are built in places which aren't particularly suited to recording a full kit. With out the benefit of proper soundproofing, miking techniques or a drummer, any session can have a professional drum sound, combining years of apparent experience of playing and re cording drums, a metronomic sense of rhythm, and the flexibility of instant tuning. All this is packaged in a box that runs anywhere between $900 and $2,500. The ramifications are of great importance to the home recordist and make most drummers want to run out and sell their kits.

The first guys on the market were the boys at Linn, whose digital machines run on the high end, price-wise, but deliver quiet a bit for the money. Although frequency response does not come close to the harmonic range of a real kit, with some decent outboard equipment (particularly a reverb) the Linn drum machine can become an ad equate substitute for a real drummer. It does have a flaw, in that the initial chips supplied with the unit have three snares of different volumes when three completely different snares would have been of much greater value. But the chips are replaceable, and Linn has already come up with a library of sounds that allows you to simulate Simmons drums (electronic percussion), Latin sounds, or even record your own sounds. (Linn will even burn the chips for you for a modest sum as long as you let them add the chips to their library if they so choose.) Oberheim's DX and DMX machines are more reasonably priced and take a slightly different approach: Their sounds are more produced and, in some cases, a little better thought-out.

Instead of having fixed tuning on claps, bass drum and cabasa, all of the voices are tunable. Both companies have their eye on the replaceable sound department, but Oberheim allows you to purchase all the sounds for a particular kit at once via cards (rather than Linn's chip-by-chip method). The common way of programming is by establishing patterns for each section of a song and then linking them together in the order one chooses. Both have the ability to edit, much in the way a writer edits text on a word processor.

Oberheim's less expensive DX is an incredible machine for the money, but until quite recently it did not sync to tape like the more expensive DMX and Linn. The sync-to-tape feature allows the recordist to record just a sync tone and a mono mix when initiating the track and then use the "live" machine sounds when mixing. Alternatively, the recordist can change the entire drum track at any point in the recording pro cess with a minimum of effort. These two features can be crucial in the effort to get the best-sounding final product, and the flexibility of the drum track is increased so much by having this sync-to-tape feature--especially when one has an eight-track machine--that this item alone is almost indispensable in any drum computer.

Roland used to dominate this genre with their Dr. Rhythm, Drumatix and Rhythm Composer, but they have yet to come up with a digital drum ma chine. The updated version of their 808, the 909, features mostly analog signals which have a greater frequency response. All too often however, it sounds more like white noise than drums. Surely this company will eventually heed the call, but they've been outdistanced by their progeny.

Sequential Circuits, best known for the Prophet Synthesizer, has recently come out with a digital drum machine called Drumtracks. Sad to say, it is a bit of a disappointment for a variety of reasons. It's more difficult to program than the competition and is virtually incomplete without its own six-channel mixer. Yet even with a good six-track mixer, stereo panning isn't easily achieved because of the arrangement of the outputs on the back. In addition, the volume control unit per drum is quite limited, and tuning isn't that easily accessible (occurring in increments rather than being fully adjustable). This machine also tends to heat up dramatically and rather quickly: we sensed that using it for hours might end as a scary project.

It must be said that this digital age is not without its share of headaches. Most of these machines are easily capable of pulling tantrums, such that when you start to fill their memories up to the brim you are rewarded with freak-outs where all your information is lost.

From talking to several owners of these machines, we get the feeling that who ever is in the business of repairing the digital drum computers is keeping busy. So make sure whichever ma chine you purchase carries a substantial warranty because you may well have to use it.

There's obviously a lot more to this story than can be told in a few magazine pages, not to mention the tendency of equipment manufacturers to continually come up with new products, making any primer obsolete. Things are changing so quickly at the home studio level that professional studio owners literally have to stay on top of the semi-pro market just to make sure they really are sufficiently equipped for their clients' needs. In fact, it could be said that greater progress is being made now to upgrade semi-pro equipment than to improve the high-tech studios which too often charge $100 per hour and more for their time.

Just remember: Regardless of how great a major studio can make your music sound, it also produces as great a percentage of commercial duds as the average hole-in-the-wall. Every year some band makes a Top Ten re cord with just a couple of microphones and a four-figure (or smaller) budget, but with a whole lot of music on its side. No matter how highfalutin the technology gets, someone will always be able to make their dream come alive by creating something in a home studio that brings a little magic into everyone's life. More than all the toys that money can buy, this fact is what keeps the home recordist striving to make his studio special.

(Adapted from: Audio magazine, Dec. 1984)

Also see:

Home Studios--Do It The Pro Way (Part I) (Sept. 1983)

Studio In The Home (or: home in a studio) (Apr. 1973)

Build A Microphone Preamp (Feb. 1979)

Have DAT ... will Travel (Sept. 1991)

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