Hardware Audio Gear And Deals With The Devil

Brandon Drury —  July 22, 2010

My world is changing a bit. I’m starting to get drawn by the powers of hardware into a world that costs a whole bunch of cash and time. I’m in a bit of a dilemma as to what to do about it.

With my big plans of building my “superstudio”, I’ve found myself gearing up to provide a whole new level of service to my future clients. The idea of a big fancy analog console is something I can’t get out of my head, even though I’m well aware of the number of hits mixed in the box. I find myself being drawn more to analog this and hardware that.

With that said, in this blog I’m thinking twice before I spend the kids college fund to get me a “real studio” from 1995. I’m seeing the “painful truth” of the old ways and I thought this would be a great place for us to duke it out.

This Whole Superstudio Thing

I’ve had plans of getting a real facility since the day I learned why a small room sucks to record in. It looks like the dream of great sounding rooms isn’t too far away. As I move into that mindset, I keep thinking that I need to tap into a market that I’ve totally ignored. In my hometown there are the “affluent” who gladly take the 4-hour drive to Nashville to make their recordings on a regular basis because there are no big dog studios here. We are talking studios that cost as much as $100 per hour. My home studio is what it is, but these customers demand a REAL environment (regardless of the results we want get in my current not-so-ideal facility. I don’t blame them. I’ve wanted a REAL environment for a long time.

So what is this “real” thing? The short answer: It’s the kind of thing that makes your band choose Studio A over Studio B even though Studio A costs more assuming that both studios are cranking out excellent sounding work.

The Big Analog Console

Since I’ve taken this “real” approach to planning my studio, I find myself coming up with some mega functional ideas and some turbo-ridiculous ideas just for the sake of being “real” (but also to shake up my current view of the recording world to see if there is a better way.) The first one that comes to mind is a big analog console. I’ve said many times that almost no one needs a mixer for home recording. I still stand by that claim. For all practical purposes, few pro studios really NEED a mixer for pro recording. With fancy analog gear used on the way in and summing used on the way out, the needs for an old school console get dramatically reduced. (We’ve all already debated the impact of fancy pres and summing as well.)

My motivations for getting a console were to cover all my preamp and analog EQ needs on the way in, offer summing on the way out, and look cool. As much as I’m hoping for the usual 1% benefit for spending huge dollars, I want a console because it looks cool. Yeah, you heard me. I’m the world’s least interested in aesthetics, but in my old age of 30 I’ve come to the conclusion that me and the other guy who feel this way are a bit outnumbered. As my brand new old saying goes, “If you can’t beat ‘em, exploit ‘em.”

The greatest benefit of the console is it immediately allows me to increase rates. I could buy 3 API 3124s and no one would pay a dime extra to record at my place. The 12 preamps and 3 rack spaces don’t add direct value that they can SEE to the client. The console does. For the record, I’m not talking about Mackie boards here. I’m thinking something like a Amek or Trident console.

The Dark Side Of The Analog Console

Another aspect of girls I’ve graduated high school with becoming “cougars” is I’m start to think a hair more like my grandpa (Not my parents!). You know that kind of advice you get where you say, “Sure old man! Whatever!”? Now I realize that after I don’t listen, I end up giving the same advice to the younger dudes after learning my lesson the hard way.

In short, I’m hearing countless warnings about the upkeep and massive time and headaches spent maintaining an analog console. I’m hearing it enough to believe that I’m pretty much making a deal with the devil if I buy a not-so-great console. It appears the same logic that goes into buying an 8 year old American car goes into buying a console. For those of you who maintained your American pride after ‘Nam and ‘Nam 2.0, this analogy basically means you can expect to spend the price of the console keeping the damn thing going.

This may be a hair on the pessimist side…..or it may even be a hair optimist.

The Ass Pain Factor Of The Devil’s Hardware

When I decide to use analog EQ or compression from my rack in a mix, it’s not as simple as firing up a plugin and compressing away. I have to create an external effect bus in Cubase, patch the gadget in, cuss because I goofed something up for usually 10 seconds, and then start tweaking.

–Sometimes when plugins can’t get a job done, the hardware can
–Sometimes I spend 30 minutes playing (because knobs are more fun) and I never really get anything done.
–Sometimes I listen and don’t hear the superiority that was so obvious to me on another session and another situation.
–Whenever I bother to use the analog gear, I have to re-record it into Cubase 5 so I can actually maintain the ability to instantly recall (which is absolutely huge to me). So I always need to spend an extra 5 minutes on a mix for each track I want to run through analog stuff. This time can add up.

What Set This Off?

So why am I suddenly questioning all this hardware stuff when I’ve been drooling over the idea of my Superstudio for so long?

I was in need of a hardware reverb strictly for zero latency vocal headphone mixes. I decided to take my advice from How To Waste $10,000 On Recording Gear You Don’t Like and go all out and get a piece of gear I’ve always wanted. I bought an Eventide H3000 – D/SE – Harmonizer. The idea was I would have its reverb for use in the headphones and then when I mixed, I’d have an awesome little effects processor. I remember coming back from Nashville after hearing it in use and not being able to scrape up anything as half as good with my plugins.

Well, today it came in. The unit is a dud. The Ebay seller won’t take returns although I’m going to try anyway. The unit hangs constantly after “Loading Program….”. When I do get it to work, the pitch shift and reverb presets have more noise than your average Big Muff guitar sound. Currently, it’s entirely unusable. Just getting the manual for the thing is $35 and I have no idea if there is some magic button I can press that can fix it or not. It may be some kind of electronic issue that I don’t have the ability to solve.

So right now I have a $1,000 doorstop. I’m not a big enough prick (but I am growing!) to sell this thing on Ebay like this asshole did before me. I can pay to have it fixed for a minimum of $350, but it may end up being dramatically more. The word on the street is these things NEED maintenance every 4 years. Ouch! I didn’t plan on paying $100 per year on this thing. That totally shoots down the whole idea of using it for free until I eventually sell it.

How Do I Fix It?
When a plugin doesn’t load, I can usually cuss for 10 minutes and figure out what went wrong. Even if the computer is totally dead, I can swap out a power supply in 3 minutes. Even if the computer is fried by lightening I can spend $300 on Newegg, have a 4x faster computer and be good to go in a matter of days. I feel totally confident about my ability to solve computer problems (at least most of the time). At worst, getting money back for software can be easier (not always) because there is rarely a tangible exchange.

I now own my Eventide H3000 whether it works or not. I physically “have” it. Yuck! I have no idea how to fix it. I had no plans of NEEDING to fix it when I bought it. I’m used to my setup working day in and day out. Hell, I was aggressive about ditching my Presonus Firestudio and I’ve got a feeling that it’s 100x more reliable than a console or an Eventide product. This is a HUGE point and something I need to think about.


Maybe a big, fancy studio with an analog console does give an aura of magic that pulls in the doctors, lawyers, and wallets. However, it also may be the equivalent of pulling out my intestines. I’m a busy dude and if the thing ain’t working, I’m not working! To quote Bill Murray in Scrooged, “If I can’t work late, I……CAN’T……..WORK……LATE!!!!!”. That’s bad! Really bad.

Even if I do get this Eventide H3000 to start functioning for an additional $350, I still have all the analog ass pains to go through and my workflow will suffer, although I’m still positive from a “vocal sound” standpoint, I’m about to gain a quantum leap. How does it compare to the Eventide plugins now available? I’m guessing there’s a difference, but there ain’t THAT big of difference.

As Mixerman, author of this stupid thing (which looks AWESOME btw) pointed out to me in an email, the mic preamps in the Trident 80b console are nothing to scream about, but they aren’t going to get in the way of a great record. I like this “get in the way” concept. I’m sure the UAD version of the Eventide plugins wouldn’t get in the way of me doing my thing. My Eventide H3000 sure is getting in my way right now!!

So right now I need to balance the mojo of the old days with the knowledge that when my grandpa wanted to talk to somebody across the globe, he had to use a pen, paper, and stamps. Yuck! There may be something to this modern appreciation for old stuff that is little more than a trap. It’s hard to say. It appears I’m gonna have to drink someone’s kool aid. I just can’t decide on the flavor.

Brandon Drury

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Brandon Drury quit counting at 1,200 recorded songs in his busy home recording studio. He is the creator of and is the author of the Killer Home Recording series.

15 responses to Hardware Audio Gear And Deals With The Devil

  1. Cecil English July 22, 2010 at 9:29 am

    I ran a big old analogue studio for around 20 years 1980-2002. 2 x MCI JH24 2″ machines and a Harrison 32c console.

    The sound of the gear was pretty good, but the maintenance was BRUTAL!! I really don’t miss that 2 hrs on my knees in front of the 2″ decks doing tape alignments. I really don’t miss the anguish of being totally exhausted at the end of a night with a mix up on the console that I know I’ll have to tear apart for the next session in the morning.

    I love the total recall aspect of working entirely within a DAW, I’ve come back to mixes years after they were completed and just tweaked a few details for the next pressing. Now that is true peace of mind!

    I’m a 55 year old punk rocker so I’m one of those grampas that you are talking about. The real truth is that the gear you use to record and mix on is far less important than the abilities of the engineers/mixers/producers to create an exciting and entertaining product.

  2. Make your analog gear justify its existence. Go digital for as much as you possibly can, and only resort to the analog gear when it is clearly better. Better can mean that it sounds better, or that the additional revenue it brings in is far greater than the cost to obtain and maintain it.

    It’s funny to think that clients won’t pay more for the API preamps, but they will to use a console that you say might not sound as good as the API preamps. Maybe you should invest the money in dramatic studio lighting and decorations instead?

  3. Michael Jones July 22, 2010 at 8:36 am

    Ahhhh, analog. All those silky distored highs and muddy low end. But it does have it’s “real” benefits, though argued hotly IMHO.

    1st off is that a lot of folks are paying to have their ProTools mixes run through analog boards like the Neve. Funny, for years we always thought that “color” was a bad thing. Apparently, now it costs money.

    2nd, can we change the saying to be “It’s the sound stupid”. Because at the end of the day that’s what we’re after, and whatever argument Digidesign makes for doing everything in the box, or Megas makes for their $1M board, in the end it’s just gotta sound right. If you need ultra clean doing it in the box is probably best. Something rustic, anyone got a 4-track?

    I think the more tools in you have to “color” your sound the more chances you’ll have what you need to get the end result you desire. That at some point probably includes a “phat” console.

    But one last note, here in LA I’ve seen studio after studio fire sale their old gear on eBay after they couldn’t get enough work to justify it’s cost. The entre industry has changed, and home recording is king for the little guys. However, just because the mid-level studio is dying doesn’t mean there isn’t room for analog gear in one. And it might just give you enough of an “edge” to charge an extra $5 or that $100K console. Hmmmm…. let’s see. $100,000 divided by $5/hr = how many hours to recoup the cost?

    OK Grampa, you were right.

  4. What Nathan said!!!

  5. UAD has Eventide plug-ins? I must have dozed off.

    With the “World” closing what once were major studios and production branches of major corporations, (you noticed Disney closed it’s Nashville doors) I question the idea that an upgrade in that direction is worthwhile. You’re right in “Somebody has to fix it”. Pots and Pres aren’t bullet proof and parts and labor and down time add up.

    I’d rather invest in a more isolated recording space. With a lounge. And a bar..and a snooker table…

  6. Dude, you should get an old sony mpx 3000 or something of the like that frequents craigslist. I’ve been working on this console for a while now and though it was designed as a broadcast console you can really take advantage of it’s functionality in creative ways if you aren’t locked into a “this is the broadcast switch and this is the only use this knob is allowed to have” mindset. It would lend the look to charge the big bucks without putting you out 100 grand that trident would. i know you don’t want to take advantage of mr. lawyerdude or anything … no, no that’s exactly the plan. {insert cynical smiley}

  7. Brandon, I don’t know if you’re a Pro Tool user, but what about a C24 or an Icon? those would look impressive, provide you with digital I/O and lots of routing options, and then you could go with your existing passive summing.

  8. Any thought to a big digital console like the Neve 88D – gives something visual that those kind of client look for but may suit your work method better?

  9. Someone asked me many years ago if I had ever noticed that after a bout of particularly strenuous training, the white belts were all standing trying to look as though it was no effort at all, whilst the black belts were happy to gasp on the floor. The Funny old thing about funny old things is that when you see the ads for Fullsail or SAE they are full of pretty, bright, young things cumming all over large format consoles. When you see pictures of the folks who have grammys and platinum discs on the walls the consoles are nearly always in the background and they are happy to talk about the plugins they use.

  10. I couldn’t pick a side on this debate, I agree with both sides. I think it’s just a matter of how much headache and $$ you want to deal with to get the analog equipment.
    One thing I think you should consider is concentrating on the sound of the rooms and don’t forget to make it look like a party place where everybody wants to bring their friends. I have done some interning at a Playback Recording in Santa Barbara which is $100 per hour, and artists from LA will show up with their writers/producers and spend a couple weeks there writing and recording a song just because he built it to be a fun place to be. And, on top of that they show up with a semi-truck with their computers and everything else just in case we don’t have the compressor (or whatever)they prefer.
    Would you rather record in a place that reminds you of your dentists office or one that remids you of you favorite nightclub or divebar?

  11. Maybe what you need is to hire an assistant (possibly in the form of an intern) to go with all that new hardware. Preferably someone with some skill in electrical engineering and who can fix things when they break.

  12. yea to Andi’s comments – agree 100%
    Was at an industry seminar and here in Oz last year was part of a master class with George Massenburg. So okay he invested parametic EQ and a range of plugs (especially for Pro Tools that I dont use) and done ‘a little bit of good stuff’ – but his summation was he uses what he uses to get what he needs, if thats plugs, fine… if analog, fine …. in the end its all about the song and the sound. Gave me hope and stopped me saying ‘I have to do it this way’ – but thought a nice story to support Andi’s comments (mind you dont necessarily want them to stop the photos of the bright young things …………. :-D)

  13. Brandon,
    I once KILLED my reverb unit to the point it wouldn’t accept the reset described in the owner’s manual. A web search resulted in an alternate reset routine that involved holding buttons down during power up. It came back to life!

    Give it a try.


  14. Hate to hear that about the h3000. Sounds like a hardware issue for sure, power supply glitch or something maybee. I find 75% of the time things quit working over bad solder joints under componants that “naturally” get hot(power transistors,rectifiers,etc). I miss analog(sniff), but I don’t miss magnetic tape. I say go for the analog console and use whatever you use to get from A to D. Nothing looks more intimidating than a huge console with 64 channels and 2000 knobs to work with (to those who don’t know better). Those things tend to put their operators into a “godlike” or “guru” status when viewed by outsiders. And remember–Don’t clean your P.C. with an ungrounded helicopter…..

  15. Gadget mania gets everyone at one point or another. You see the latest review or go to some Nashville studio, or whatever. You think, “I will be so much better if I can only get that Neve or the triple quad core, blah, blah and blah. The only think that “really” makes you a better engineer or musician is practice and time. Sure there is better equipment that, theoretically, will make your recordings sound better, but if you don’t have a good ear and understanding of what you are trying to achieve with the recording, that equipment, as you so eloquently put it, becomes a “..doorstop”. I have heard very good demos made on an old school Tascam 4 trk casette tape recorder. You talk about having your hands tied behind your back. But those demos taught me a valuable lesson. It isn’t how much you have, it’s how good you are with what you have. Stop obsessing over getting the latest and greatest and focus on listening better, and understanding more intelligently. IMO that is what makes the difference between a descent recording and a good recording. Plus, if you aren’t going to throw caution to the wind and take the dive into the big dog studio pool, why would you care? The great thing about modern digital recording technology is that it puts the pressure on the big guys to do better. I mean if you have a good ear and learn the basics of what makes a good demo, then why in god’s name would you spend $100.00 and hour for what you can do yourself? M.