Big Wins: Audio Upgrades That Really Matter

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Eli Crews. Photo via Tape Op.

Eli Crews. Photo via Tape Op.

Eli Crews mentions that “there are a handful of pieces of gear that immediately starting making an imprint on the sound of my recordings — I believe for the better — the day I acquired them: Chandler Limited TG-1, original rackmount Sansamp, Eventide H3000, Lynx Auroras, UAD-2 plug-ins, RETRO Powerstrip, Coles 4038, Neumann M49, Royer SF-12, SoundToys software, etc.” But that’s not what he thinks of most.

“A few years ago I decided I mainly wanted to spend money on instruments, and have amassed a ’60s Ludwig drum set, an Estey folding pump organ from the 1920s, a Doepfer modular synth, a beat-down, barely working Optigan, and various old Moogs, ARPs, Rolands and Casios. Having these instruments available to bands significantly changed the sounds I was recording, and in the long run have had much more of an influence over ‘my sound’ than which mic or preamp I use.”

Another common answer revolved around studio monitors. Your speakers are your only meaningful link to the sounds you’re recording. As with microphones and instruments, there is tremendous variability among speakers. Although there are more good affordable models than ever before, this definitely remains a “get what you pay for” category, and an upgrade here is almost always money well spent.

#3 New Skills and Special Tools

Right alongside the environment and mission-critical gear like mics, speakers and instruments, are our own skills as listeners and manipulators of sound.

One of the most lasting parts of my own audio training was taking the time to learn to differentiate between frequency ranges, compressor settings, delay times, reverb types, audio codecs, mic placements, pitches, harmonies, and to continuously push the limits of my own hearing.

I’ve found that the best way to work these critical listening muscles is not just with studio work, but through deliberate practice and blind listening drills. I’d consider time spent on these exercises among the biggest wins of my entire career, second only to time spent listening to music and working with bands. A good critical listening program, whether it’s one you buy or one you design yourself, can be a lifelong “big win.”

Geoff Sanoff

Geoff Sanoff

Although you could spend a lifetime honing these fundamentals, there are always new application-specific skills to be learned as well, and they can open up tremendous new possibilities. For Geoff Sanoff, a producer/engineer and co-host of the InputOutput Podcast, sitting down to really master tuning programs was one of those game-changers. He recommends “learning how to use tuning plug-ins so you can’t tell you’re using a tuning plug-in.”

“It takes more time, but the result is simultaneously more natural and yet not gratingly out-of-tune. It also can save your ass when re-tracking isn’t an option. I’ve fixed guitars and pianos with Melodyne that would have been unusable, and I’ve used it to subtly correct singers whose vibe is not supposed to be perfect.”

Another purchase he’s never regretted is similarly specialized. Geoff gushes like Billy Mays when he offers that “iZotope RX2 is the best value function-wise for all manner of sonic restoration needs. Gets rid of guitar buzz, hum and unwanted pops as well as any other program under $5,000!” These are the kinds of tools that allow you to do jobs that might otherwise be impossible.

For Andrew Maury, figuring out digital gain-staging and saturation were huge skill adds that still pay off every day:

“Use simple gain plugins like crazy if you mix ITB. Everywhere. Let them do all the dirty work for your balancing and gain structure feeding plugins. Its an equivalent practice to how analog console mixers use the line trim knob at the top of the channel and they’re dirt cheap in CPU resources! 90% of your mix balance can come from well-placed, static gain adjustments in plugin chains. The result is that your output faders in the DAW become simple tweak handles, not heavy lifters.”

“As an engineer and mixer, also start thinking about “packing” your transients. There’s only so much room in the medium, and achieving “size” is no easy task. Especially in the context of rock music, you simply must introduce distortions and saturations to start shaving transients, which will buy you headroom to fit the whole thing up into the ceiling.”

“You don’t necessarily have to compromise the integrity of the audible signal to put a serious dent in a track’s technical dynamic range…Tasteful distortion can make something “louder” and meter lower. There are so many great analog modeling plugins (Slate VCC, UAD Studer, SoundToys, etc) that are out now which have blown open the door to make this process more and more believable ITB.”

Odds and Ends

Huge wins are just waiting to happen on the ergonomic end of the studio as well. Geoff Sanoff’s list includes “a patch bay for allowing me to incorporate analog gear and route things quickly and efficiently. Saving time means more brain power spent on music.” Other common answers include multi-channel headphone systems like those by Aviom and Hear, and the addition of a console or faderpack to an otherwise DAW-based studio.

There are some topics that engineers will quibble about until the early hours of the morning: analog summing, super-high sample rates, the relative importance of contemporary preamps and converters, this VCA compressor versus that one.

For every engineer on one side of these debates, there seems to be another crowing the opposite story. Some of these questions can potentially be settled with science, and some may forever live solely within the realm of preference and opinion.

Wherever they stand on those issues, it seems that almost every engineer can at least agree that the few indisputable essentials include rooms, mics, speakers, instruments and skills. Throw in a killer song, a good performance, and you have all the materials needed to make a great sounding recording.

When you focus first on upgrades in these few broad categories, you are deep in the realm of the big wins. And once you have these areas well-covered, you can go anywhere from there.

Agree? Disagree? Share some of your biggest wins in the comments section below, and tell us all about those essential upgrades you’d never second-guess.

Justin Colletti is a Brooklyn-based audio engineer, college professor, and journalist. He records and mixes all over NYC, masters at JLM, teaches at CUNY, is a regular contributor to SonicScoop, and edits the music blog Trust Me, I’m A Scientist.

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    ProAc’s were the biggest win for me this year. Instantly improved my mixes.

  • dzny

    RCA ribbon mics have changed what my ears think about sound.