Studio: Gear and Usability

Creativity is the kingdom of utterly personal concepts. For me, creativity and usability go hand in hand. There is nothing more distracting than a piece of gear that does not allow a head-first dive into the endless sea of inventiveness. If there is a person on the search for The Holy Grail of software and hardware usability, well, that's me. Welcome to my kingdom.


Studio Gear

This is a run-down of my small-scale home studio corner:

Electric Guitars (left-handed)

My bass guitar is a yellow Schecter MODEL-T LH BTS, heavy but nicely emphasizing the overtones.

I started learning electric guitar on the Ibanez SA260FML-TLB, and am still very happy to this day with its sound, ergonomic shape, and the beautiful lavender color finish. My other resource is the green hollow-body electric Gretsch G5420 Electromatic AG LH. A joy to play, this will stay with me forever. Additionally, I have an electroacoustic Ortega RCE131L.

Electric guitars are usually connected to the amazing tube mini-combo Blackstar BT-1 or, for quiet rehearsing, the Zoom G3 pedal, which has a drum-sound metronome and allows loop recording. It also has a nice emulation of Boss's 80ies "OD-1" overdrive pedal.

Drum machines

Currently, my setup consists of a Yamaha RX5 and the rack-based Roland R-8m drum machines; both are outdated by today's standards, but samples, tweakability, and human feel (on the R-8m) still make these very inspiring machines. I have some ROM cards to fill the gaps. The Cyclone Analogic TT-78 takes care of the more analogish parts.

Sample-based sound modules

Ever since the days of their first ROM sample player U-110, which I owned back in the days, Roland's sample library has been my favorite. Contemporary sound is tackled by my Roland Integra-7, while a fully expanded Roland XV-5080 handles the vintage sound library not contained in the Integra-7 (i.e. all the SR-JV80 card patches). I just added a spare, fully-expanded Roland XV-3080 to my work desk for on-the-fly composing.

For the retro department, I use a Roland S-330 sampler (750 kB of sampling memory!) and a Roland U-220 ROM sample player, the first rompler to allow modest sound design.

Digital synthesis sound modules

The Novation Nova II (36 voices) is my master keyboard. One of the last synthesizers designed for old-school MIDI sequencing, with impressive multi-timbrality, ergonomics, and processing power. Two endless rotary encoders had to be replaced (a well-known problem). Additionally I have its sibling, the Novation Supernova II rack version (ProX with 46 voices). These machines are the most powerful workhorses ever built, thanks to their polyphony, multi-timbrality, and independent effect inserts. Refer to my Nova II review for details (originally posted at Harmony central, but most of its text got removed there by now).

The Yamaha VL70m is a monophonic virtual-acoustic instrument that simulates wind instruments (such as saxes and flutes). With Yamaha's simple breath controller BC-3, its sounds come alive much more than sample-based ones could.

The Yamaha FS1-R is a gem for FM enthusiasts, and is compatible to Yamaha DX7 patches. The amount of user RAM is limited, and its ROM is filled with mostly boring stuff (e.g. 15 variations of a DX7 organ). Check out the brilliant Formant Shaping editor FSeqEdit and see the help directory for documentation.

The Roland D-05 "Boutique" is a modern clone of the D-50, mostly known for its evolving new-age pads and percussive sounds, but I always found it really versatile for unobtrusive pads and leads that do not remind of a digital synth at all. Similar in format is the Waldorf Blofeld desktop, with a great hybrid sound of analog emulation paired with wavetables. The lack of a MIDI-out port is very unfortunate though.

The one-height-unit rack retro section features the Yamaha TX81Z 4-operator FM module, and the Roland D-110. These really bring me back in time to when I started working with sound synthesis.

Recently I acquired a Quasimidi Quasar (rack) and a Korg Triton Rack with a very flaky display. For the latter, I am currently searching for a MOSS expansion board that does not break the bank.

Analog-ish synthesis sound modules

The Oberheim Matrix 1000 has 6-voice polyphony and a whopping 1000 preset sounds. If you need a new patch for inspiration, just punch in a random number, and chances are it will be good. A wonderful piece of gear.

The Dave Smith Instruments OB-6 Desktop and the Behringer DeepMind 12 Desktop are recent analogue additions. The OB-6 has the advantage of not requiring any menu diving, while the DM12 boasts with its polyphony (12 voices).

The hybrid section is represented by the four-voice polyphonic Dave Smith Instruments Poly Evolver Rack, and a fully re-hauled Waldorf Microwave I, funnily built into a Microwave II box.

The Roland SE-02 is the most recent addition, an intriguing combination of sequencer and mono-synth.

Backup gear

All the Roland JV sounds in one tiny box, plus one built-in expansion: That's the Roland JV1010. I got one new back in the days, sold it in 2007, then regretted and bought a mint one back used. Now it is superseded by my more recent Rolands, but I keep it just in case. This is my number one bang-for-the-buck recommendation if you can afford one module only.

I bought the Novation X-Station used for travelling, and as an external controller for vintage gear. The synthesizer part is quite impressive. The X/Y touchpad seems to be its weak part (an earlier one's was broken with jumping values, luckily it can be disabled).

Studio gear

For audio mixing, I use two Rane SM82 S rack mixers. Vocals are mostly recorded with a Beyerdynamic M88TG dynamic microphone, other acoustic sources and quieter vocals with an AKG 2000B condenser microphone. As a preamplifier, I use the SPL Track One MkII.

Preferring rack gear over computer-based plugins, I have an Eventide Eclipse effects processor. Unfortunately, the audio routing is quite fixed, and the manual leaves a lot to be desired. For Compression and EQ, I use Elysia's Xpressor and Xfilter.

MIDI is handled by two ESI M8U XL multi-client USB interfaces.

Sequencing and recording is done on an old Lenovo R61 laptop (around 2007) running Windows XP and not connected to the internet. The RME Hammerfall DSP Multiface I sound card is connected by PCMCIA. On my work desk, I use the RME UC USB interface. RME support and stability blow their competition away.

A Chevin A500 amplifier and Tannoy Reveal monitor speakers complete the picture. For cross-checking, I use old HiFi speakers (MB Quart QL40C) and a Behringer Behritone C50A. See my blog post for a very personal monitoring experience.

Software

Composition and arrangement work is done with Steinberg Cubase 4, as this sequencer runs perfectly on my WindowsXP machine. To edit my MIDI gear, I use Emagic SoundDiver 3.0; this was pretty hard to find.

Some essential software effects plug-ins I have to mention are Magnus' Ambience reverb (freeware), Sinus' compressor PeakCompressor (shareware) and reverb FreeverbToo (freeware). Other freeware recommendations are the Luxonix LFX-1310 multi-effect, and digitalfishphones' mastering compressor Endorphin. For delays, Dave Brown's DB ProDelay is still my favorite, but it is an old DX plugin and not available anymore.

The few virtual instruments (VSTi) that convinced me are: Korg's M1 and Wavestation (require few resources, activation is possible from another computer, all expansion cards are included), Garritan Instant Orchestra (lightweight, no online authorization hassles), sample players such as Sforzando (open SFZ) and Shortcircuit, the Ensoniq SQ80 emulator SQ8L, the PPG Wave simulator, and Aly James Lab's drum computers (Simmons and LinnDrum).

My sample library is quite retro-oriented. I own many ProSamples/EastWest DVDs (especially the "Real Drum Kits" are worth mentioning), Time+Space CDs including their re-released collections (Dance Pack 1/2, World Pack, Pro Pack), and Yellow Tools (especially "Pure Drums"). I also rely heavily on the NDK Natural Drum Kit (formerly naturalstudio's kit).

 


Formerly owned gear

This is a nostalgic log of gear I used to own, dating back to 1988: