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 Ibanez ATK-300 was purchased 3rd-hand, manufactured in Korea around 1995. The bass is very heavy, but has an easy fretboard. For amplification I use an Ibanez SW35 amplifier bought second-hand.

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.

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.

The Roland R-8 mkII drum machine is outdated by today's standards, but samples and human feel still make this a very inspiring machine. The mkII has most of the expansion cards' sounds already built-in (see my self-made summary/list), and I have some ROM cards to fill the (tiny) gaps.

Digital synthesis sound modules

The Novation Nova II is my master keyboard. One of the last synthesizers designed for old-school MIDI sequencing, with impressive multi-timbrality, ergonomy, and processing power. Refer to my review for details (originally posted at Harmony central, but most of its text got removed there by now). Two endless rotary encoders had to be replaced (a well-known problem).

Initially bought to try it out, the Waldorf Blofeld desktop version became a keeper thanks to its hybrid sound of analog emulation paired with wavetables. It is small enough to fit in my studio, but the lack of a MIDI out port is very unfortunate.

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 Kawai K5000r has an unconventional method of sound generation (additive synthesis) and can generate sounds reminiscent of wavetable synthesis and vector synthesis. The floppy disk slot adds to the retro feeling.

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 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.

The Roland D-550 is known for its evolving New-age pads and percussive sounds, but I find it really versatile for unobtrusive pads and leads that do not sound like a digital synth at all.

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.

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. Luckily the X/Y touchpad can be disabled, because mine is defective with jumping values. For sampling-crazy moments, my Korg Microsampler steps in.

Studio gear

For audio mixing, I use the rack mixers Behringer RX1602 (with some mute buttons about to give up) and Rane SM82 S. 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 was delighted to get hold of an Ensoniq DP/4+ effects processor (released in 1992). It can process four inputs/outputs independently. See Don Solaris' video showing what it can do even without any external gear connected!

MIDI is handled by a JL Cooper Electronics MSB Rev2 router and two ESI M8U XL multi-client USB interfaces. Currently, I am also trying the Roland MC-50 mkII MIDI sequencer.

Sequencing and recording is done on an old Lenovo T61 laptop (2007) running Windows XP (not connected to the internet). The RME Hammerfall DSP Multiface I sound card is connected by PCMCIA. For backup, I have the Tascam US-122L USB soundcard. A Chevin A500 amplifier and Tannoy Reveal monitor speakers complete the picture.

Software

Composition and arrangement work is done with Steinberg Cubase 4 (alongside LE4 and LE5 for mobile use), as this sequencer runs perfectly on older gear.

Some essential software plug-ins I have to mention are Waves' Musician 2 (although by now I feel I could have gotten by without them), Sinus' compressor PeakCompressor (shareware) and reverb FreeverbToo (freeware), Magnus' Ambience reverb (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.

I never used virtual instruments (VSTi) much, but the few ones that convinced me are Korg's M1 and Wavestation (require few resources, activation is possible from another computer, all expansion cards are included), open SFZ sample players such as Sforzando, the Ensoniq SQ80 emulator SQ8L, and the PPG Wave simulator.

 


Other Gear

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