A short discourse on… what was I talking about?

I hang onto this idea for a week or two in early October. Since I seem to be buying a new computer, this fires up my semi dormant case of GAS, or gear acquisition syndrome. Every year around this time I start thinking about what I might add to the studio because business investments can be subtracted from your income and lower your taxes. Now, GilderSound is very well equipped, but I always have a running list of items that will make the place that much better. This year I have two big items on the list, not counting the computer/Pro Tools situation which has pushed itself to the front of the line. Item #1 is a Bricasti M7, which is arguably the finest hardware reverb on the planet. By “hardware” I mean a physical piece of gear, not software. The other item on my short list is a Rascal Audio Tonebuss summing box. Unless you are a gear geek like me, you are no doubt asking “what the heck is a summing box?”. Well, until 16 months or so ago I was asking the same question.

Let me explain. Before Pro Tools and other DAW’s came along, we used mixers and tape machines to record, manipulate, and eventually mix all of the sound together. This equipment added tonal color to the music, like filters and lenses affect the color of photos and film. In the 80’s and 90’s sound engineers often characterized digital recording as “cold” and analog as “warm”. Much of this had to do with digital to analog conversion not quite capturing all of the details of sound, but some of what was missing was tonal shaping provided by analog electronics and tape. Around the beginning of the 2000’s conversion got much better, and digital became a pretty transparent medium to record in. Combine that with low cost and great editing capability and pretty soon everyone was using computers for some or all of their recording process. Still we crave our analog warmth. I love stuff with tubes in it- guitar amps, mic preamps, compressors, etc. because they add some of the “secret sauce” to recordings. But all of us recording folks were still looking for more depth and dimension in our final mixes. Some of the high end mixing engineers were still using large analog mixers and argued that the trip through the mixer combined the tracks in a more pleasing way than staying inside the computer. There was no way a mid level guy like myself could afford a nice mixer, since that would be an investment 10’s or even 100’s of thousands of dollars.

The companies who make products for people like me got going and created some solutions. They built some smaller, high quality mixers and came up with a category of product called summing boxes. Part of me wonders if this is like the drug companies coming up with solutions for conditions I never knew existed, but obviously lots of people have them since they advertise on television. Anyway, with a summing box you send stems, or groups, of your tracks out of the computer into the warm analog world where they happily combine into a stereo track you record back into the DAW. I must admit I was skeptical, since I was already sending some tracks out to external hardware during mixing. Still, I wanted to check it out, so in November 2009 I bought Dangerous D-Box, and among other functions, it has 8 channels of summing. It was actually several months before I was able try mixing “out of the box” however. I bought a patchbay to route signals around and it turned out to have some gremlins, but the company eventually sent me a new one that worked. So, on a Tuesday evening in May, the previously mentioned Andy LaCasse and I did a mixing shootout. We took one of our Kilter songs and mixed in and out of box versions. We were somewhat surprised, but both of us agreed that we liked out of the box better.

So this revelation pushed me in a whole new mixing direction. The D-Box is kind of limited in the summing area and I soon decided bigger and better one was in order. But that’s another chapter. Thanks for sticking with me during my longish foray into the history of digital audio.

Is that an expansion chassis in your pocket or….

One of my best friends is Andy LaCasse. Multi instrumentalist, songwriter, bandmate and co-conspiritor. Most Tuesday evenings we get together to work on a slow moving train of a recording for our band Kilter. Some guys play poker, we do this. We do get some work done, but spend a fair amount of time discussing whatever is going on with our lives. So of course on the last Tuesday in September we talk a bunch about my recent computer adventures. Andy said something that really sticks with me. I’m paraphrasing, but what he said was I had been given fair warning that it was time to start moving toward a new computer.

This is a more complex problem than you might think. My studio computer is loaded with Pro Tools HD Accel, which besides software includes three very expensive PCI cards mounted into the slots in the G5. In the middle of 2006, Apple introduced the Mac Pro tower computers and changed the architecture of the slots to something called PCIe, which they have used ever since. PCI cards won’t work in PCIe slots, so my $14,000 worth of cards can’t be installed in a new Mac. Another problem is the Apple operating system. Snow Leopard, the newest OSX, does not support the G5 and earlier, non Intel Apple computers. So Apple is gradually sailing away from me. My frankenstein G5 is working great so far, but since it is just as old as the box it replaced I am aware it could go belly up any day. I head to Gearslutz, the online forum for recording geeks, to do some research. I learn that my PCI cards will fit into some new Windows computers. Sorry, but I’m a Mac guy, so that’s not the solution for me. I find a thread where a couple of pro engineers are discussing using new Macs and putting PCI cards into an expansion chassis. The expansion chassis is a box that holds the cards and connects to the computer through a cable hooked to a PCIe card. Great, I can keep using my cards! A company called Magma makes a chassis that works perfectly with Pro Tools, but it costs $2199. Yikes, that’s close to the cost of the new Mac Pro quad core I plan on getting, but this seems like the way to go.

It is broke, so fix it!

Getting back to the G5 and Sept. 21, I knew I had to get it to First Tech in Minneapolis right away. As far as I know First Tech is the best place to get a Mac fixed in the Twin Cities area, and they had done a good and quick job of repairing the same computer back in 2006. So I zoomed down there, brought my Mac in, and explained my predicament to the woman at the counter. She told me that one of the techs would take a look at my G5 the next day, Wednesday and would call and tell what it would take to fix it. I paid the estimate fee and headed back to Forest Lake, where a full day of giving musical instrument lessons awaited.

So what was my predicament? Well, in September I was working, as usual, on several projects but two sessions were especially important to get in that week. One was mixing a three song demo for a couple of local Christian songwriters. They were meeting on Saturday with an artist who was interested in hearing their work, so we had a real deadline there. The other session was to overdub some horns on a project by Bob Zander, a San Francisco, CA area musician. Bob’s stuff is an interesting jazz/world music blend which I have had the pleasure of recording over the past dozen years. Bob’s main gig is teaching at an elementary school, but he plays drums and an African instrument called the kalimba, which he has many compositions for and has released a few recordings of. He lived in Minneapolis for a number of years and has close ties with several musicians here. Over the years Bob has made quite a few summer trips back here to work on recordings. Since 2003, we have been working on a CD length project. It’s mostly done except for some overdubs to finish out the arrangements. Friday September 24 I had a session scheduled with horn player Greg Lewis and Scott Fultz. Greg had arranged some horn parts for a couple of Bob Zander songs, but it had been difficult to coordinate the schedules of Greg, Scott, and myself, so I was worried that if we didn’t get the session in on Friday, it might take a long while to reschedule.

I didn’t get a call from First Tech on Wednesday, so late in the afternoon I called them. The report was they hadn’t gotten to it yet, but someone would call Thursday morning. Sigh. I have a portable Pro Tools rig with a Apple Macbook and rack which I use to do remote recordings of church groups, choirs, live concerts of various types. Wednesday evening I got together with Perry, one of the Christian songwriters, and tried to do some mixing on the laptop. The problem is the laptop is not set up for mixing, so it was like having one arm tied behind my back. I gave up after a while and asked Perry to give me a day or two.

Thursday morning I got a call from Ed at First Tech. The verdict on the G5: the logic board had failed, it would take a week and close to $1000 to fix it. My heart sank, but Ed and I kept talking. Another solution occurred to him. The retail side of First Tech had a couple of used G5’s of similar vintage. Ed checked the candidates out, and I bought the one he liked better for $400. It amazed me that such a workhorse computer was worth so little, but I was grateful. Ed took the hard drive, memory, and the very expensive Pro Tools TDM cards out of my old G5 and put it all into the new used computer. By late afternoon it was finished and my daughter Carrie picked up the “frankenstein” and the carcass of my old friend and brought it all up to Forest Lake that evening. The great thing was since my old hard drive was in the new computer, all of the programs were in and ready to go. I fired it up, and for the most part the old brain didn’t even realize it was in a new body! I got to work testing things and all was fine, so I mixed Perry’s songs. A few times I was prompted to enter a password, but that was it. I will be forever thankful that Ed came up with a creative solution to my big breakdown. Best of all, the total, including new used G5, came in at under $700.

Friday morning, a few minutes before 10 a.m., I am feeling confident and ready to record the horns. I notice there is a message on my mobile phone. It’s Greg calling to say Scott is sick and they need to reschedule! Oh man…. God has a sense of humor. Two weeks later, we record the horns and it goes well.

It all started the day my computer broke.

It all started the day my computer broke. Tuesday, September 21, 2010. That morning, the computer in the control room at GilderSound, my recording studio in Forest Lake, MN, just wouldn’t boot up. Without the help of my trusty Mac G5 I couldn’t record, edit, mix, or master much of anything. Kind of my version of “the day the music died”. Well, that’s a bit dramatic. Get it repaired and get back to work, right? That’s what I thought too, but the G5 breakdown set in motion a series of events which are now well underway but at the same time, still developing. GilderSound is undergoing what I am calling a “studio makeover” involving some major changes in the gear and in the physical space. A week or so ago it occurred to me that I could start a blog to chronicle the changes. This will help me organize my thoughts, contain a photo diary of what’s happening here, and just maybe be of use to others with studios. I have spent much time at recording studio forums poring over photo diaries of studio construction projects, which I have found inspiring, amusing, and sometimes caused me a bit of head scratching. I invite you to follow along and leave comments and ask questions. We’ll see where this goes…