Does the equipment in the studio matter more…or is it the engineering talent that oversees it?
The machines are useless without the people that wield them, of course. But enter any competitive recording or mixing studio, and you’re bound to see at least a few select pieces of hardware that the founders believe gives them an edge.
For Arun Pandian, making exacting gear choices isn’t so much about sounding outstanding – which his recordings and mixes most certainly do – as it is about being distinctive. Visit his busy studio, Signal Corps Recording, in Brooklyn’s DUMBO neighborhood, and your eyes fill up with a console, outboard, and instruments that are off the beaten path.
“Coming up as a touring guitar player I realized the importance of having a unique sound and approach to playing my instrument,” Pandian says. “My advice to aspiring engineers and studio owners is to not be afraid to develop your own aesthetic. The music business in general has gone through some hard times in the last decade, but the side effect has been that all of us in the industry can now carve our own path. In fact we all have to, just in order to stand out.
“Great records of the past were imprinted with the sonic fingerprint of the studios and engineers that made them. Let’s bring that back!”
Pandian is putting his money where his mouth is with Signal Corps, which has been in operation in various locations since 2003 since settling down in the Saltlands complex in 2012.
Available mainly for tracking, mixing and production, the facility has hosted genres ranging from jazz to string quartets, indie rock, and hip hop. Pandian’s client list runs deep, a lineup that includes Lauryn Hill, Mumford and Sons, Norah Jones, John Legend, Gabriel Garcia Montano and Mtume.
One of the most arresting objects in the control room is a discrete Siemens WSW 36-channel desk, which required Pandian to fly in both techs and parts from Croatia to get fully refurbished. Once the console has been contemplated, however, attention naturally shifts to two industrial strength racks on the right, each holding a mother lode of most uncommon EQs, compressors and amps.
“The entire studio is outfitted with Siemens and WSW (Siemens Austria) gear from the 1950s’ and ‘60s,” Pandian explains. “When I started building my studio, my mentor Henry Hirsch told me to look out for anything made by those companies because it would sound great, be built like a tank, and was undervalued in the marketplace.
“These Siemens racks are a culmination of about 10 years of collecting,” he continues. “Most of the vintage Siemens gear was made to fit in a slightly larger rack standard than the normal 19-inch racks that we’re used to. So naturally, I started looking for vintage Siemens racks to put it all in. Once I found them, I enlisted the help of techs David Küblböck and Stephen Massuci.”
The technical director at the similarly luscious Casino Baumgarten in Austria (don’t miss the video tour here), Küblböck designed and manufactured the custom racks for Pandian’s UA gain amps, tube pres and the console’s Begrenzer compressors. Meanwhile, Massuci helped with the overall planning, design, and custom modifications of Pandian’s blue vintage Siemens racks.
In all, the two custom racks serve as the home for five happy families of amps and processors. Here’s how Pandian deploys them to form a cornerstone of Signal Corps’ signature sound.
4 x Siemens 601432 FX Compressors
“These silicon compressors were designed by Siemens as FX compressors and were meant to be installed in the mixing console frame or racked separately. I asked David to design a rack for them that incorporated pad, output gain, bypass and link functions to expand their versatility in the studio.
“One of my favorite uses for these compressors is on drum room microphones. They can be used in the same way as ADR Compex or Helios compressors to really manipulate the room sound of a source to stratospheric levels!”
8 x WSW UA 811403 Amps
“These silicon gain amps were designed to be used in multiple audio applications for radio, TV, and studio environments. Siemens/WSW make several modules like these that served various audio functions, and were designed to fit into a powered rack like the more modern API 500 series.
“Since I had one of these powered racks, I wanted to load it up with modules. I use the 2 IA modules on the outside as general gain amps in the studio and the 8 UA in the middle as microphone pres. I asked David to design a control panel that incorporated a pad, phase flip, low cut and DI for each channel that lined up with the UA gain amp directly above it. These gain amps also have the ability to switch between 3 different input impedances of 70, 200, and 600 ohms, so we incorporated this into the panel. The final touch to the design was to implement 2 BBC PPM peak meters for metering of all the channels.
These pres capture fast transients really well and provide a tight punchy sound to whatever source you put them on. These pres coupled with my tube pres, make nice complements to the WSW console pres. This mic-pre in combination with a U67 was what I used on all the vocals for Gabriel Garzon-Montano’s latest release Jardin.”
5 x WSW 811301 Tube Amps
“These mic-pres came out in the 50’s and as a result were designed with acoustic and orchestral music in mind. These are the same pres used in Casino Baumgarten and the Decaa WSW used to record George Soti’s the ‘Golden Ring’ in Vienna in 1964.
“These are multi-purpose amps that can also be used for other studio gain needs. They have softer transients than the other pres in the studio, which make them great for acoustic instruments like strings. These amps have the ability to switch between 2 different input impedances of 150 and 1.5k ohms.
“Despite the fact that they are tube, they sound very natural and transparent on a sound source – which is the way it should be!”
2 x Siemens Universal Equalizer ELA 75-15
“Like all Siemens gear, these EQs were built with the highest standards possible and are some of my favorite pieces in the studio. They are mono equalizers made by the Italian branch of Siemens Germany known originally as ITALTEL and there are said to have been very limited quantities made (approx. 20-30).
“Each one has four bands with the ability to bypass each band separately. The outer low/high bands gain/attenuate in 3dB steps (±21dB total) with a 6db/12db per octave slope. The inner mid bands gain/attenuate in 2dB steps (±14dB total) with a 12db slope. Frequencies that have no discrete push-button, are selectable by pushing both buttons simultaneously, located directly to the left and right of the etched inscription.