Studio 4.0

Posted by on Mar 25, 2016 in Uncategorized | No Comments

Studio4.0 (6 of 10)

Hey folks, long time no see.  How are things?  Things over here are alright.  Albums have been distributed to college radio stations across North America.  Next I’m planning to solicit the great folks to the north; yes Canada, I mean you.  And while all this has been going on, I’ve just been sitting on my ass, right?

Not quite – definitely busy musically.  Am I writing another album?  No, not yet.  Instead of writing, I’ve been spending most of my time learning things.  If I’m going to write another album, it’d be great if I did things I’ve never done before, right?  Absolutely.  Piano, the analog rytm, hell, I’ve even been reading my synthesizer manuals (finally).

And what else?  Well, I’ve been recording Cody Copeland’s upcoming EP.  Five of the best folk songs I’ve ever recorded.  They’re also the only folks songs I’ve ever recorded.  But hey, I can say that it’s going pretty well.  We just finished tracking the album and well, it’s time to hit the mix.  Heh, back to mixing again.  I guess it has been six months since Strangle Quiet Sunset was released.

Six months.  I guess you should expect more from me.  Well, you should, but I have more.

In addition to all that, as soon as Strangle Quiet Sunset hit the world of iTunes, I started upgrading the studio.  You see, it had been a while since any upgrades happened.  When you write an album well, you don’t touch anything.  If you do, god knows what can go wrong.  You think I’m kidding?

Did I ever tell you about the day ableton auto-updated.  In that auto-update they changed a delay compensation algorithm that destroyed some hand perfected tracks I’d been working on.  Yea, that was a fun night of me trying to restore from backup and wondering if I was going to have to pour yet another 40 hours into an already done song.  Thankfully, I’m good at this sorta thing.

Softwarewise things were old, like two or three years old.  And hell, the hardware started getting old too.  My Mac had hit six years old.  It was still clunking, but installing El Capitan on it caused it not to turn on.

And of course, to top it all off, well, I’d really out grown my studio capability.   Yes folks, I’m talking about I/O.  4 pre-amps?  Not for all my synths… and Taylor’s modular… and some of the ideas I wanted to start playing with.

That’s right folks, upgrade time.

 

Studio 4.0

4.0 you say?  What about 1.0, 2.0, and 3.0?  Were there any dot releases in between?  Yep, true story.  Can you folks tell I’ve been a release engineer for a while in my spare time?  True that.

Studio 1.0 was a midi controller and a computer many years ago.  I had an extra room and I decided I’d call it an office.  But then when I got rid of an awful girlfriend, I decided I would dedicate that extra room to music.  And then the studio was born.

Hardly functional, and really just a place to store all my gear, studio 1.0 was where I finished my tenure at Foothill Community college.  Yep, the cheapest interface and monitors I could find, Pro Tools version 8, and some homework.  Ah yes, the good old days.

Studio 2.0 was the house in Emeryville, particularly after I started acquiring gear.  I had gotten a mac, an audio desk (it had a little shelf), and I still had the same midi controller.  Eventually I scored some acoustic paneling, although I flooded my house trying to put it up (a story for another time).  Yep, I had a studio, I was writing music in my studio.  All the little bits and pieces were starting to show up.  You know, I keep coming up with dreams and I decided that studio would be it.  Oh yea, and I got my first real interface – the UAD Apollo.

3.0 was shortly after moving in here.  I had downsized my midi controller and made room for a sweet controller for the DAW.  You know, motorized faders and all that.  The rack was still empty, but I had a much better idea of how things would work in here.  Room for two synths, shelves that light up.  Oh, and we installed all that acoustic paneling, following which I got 8 free boxes of aurelex and installed that too.  That’s my house in berkeley, and studio 3.0 produced Strangle Quiet Sunset.  Well, most of it.  I started, and completed, a couple tracks back in 2.0 – although they would be mixed again here.

Oh, and 3.0 was when i finally replaced those cheapest of the cheap monitors with… well, my babies – the Nueman 310As.  Damn, I just love sitting in here and listening to these things.

Hardware

And finally, the album is done, everything is falling apart, I’m older now and have a couple bucks.  Upgrade time!  Let’s talk hardware, shall we?

  • First and foremost, a new iMac – and all the things I had to upgrade for them to work with the new mac.
  • Upgrades to storage and backup
  • 8 more mic pres
  • A 48-port patch bay
  • A matched stereo pair of small condenser mics

And probably a bunch of other stuff.  Non-studio includes instrument purchases, and there are some of those too – like the Rytm.  But since this is about the studio and not the live rig (hehe), we’ll get to that later.

 

Upgrading the Mac

So, this was mission priority one.  The last like, I dunno 12 months of the album I kept thinking to myself, “This computer could die at any minute” – You think I’m joking?  Hardly.  I know a lot about computers; I’ve fixed many.  And well, made a career out of it.  If there’s one thing to know about hard drives – they fucking die.

I had a backup solution, but this was an iMac – were I to lose the hard drive, how much time would I lose?  Months, probably.  With the risk of not getting things quite back to the state they were.  That’s just how these things go.

Using my sweet work discount, a new mac.  A new mac indeed.  This new mac came with a shitload of challenges.  I knew most of them were going to happen, but I was surprised a bit too.  Those challenges?  Well simple – shit will stop working, some shit needs to be upgraded.  A computer upgrade would come with a great cost.  Not only financially, but how I made music would need to change.  Simple as that.

What exactly did I need to deal with hardware wise with this upgrade?

  1. Thunderbolt adaptor for UAD Apollo – 1 paycheck
  2. USB Hub – usb 3.0 is a thing now, you know.  Oh, and, you know, a hardware bug where not enough electricity was happening via USB causing my keyboard to not show up on boot.

And that’s it.  Well, a thunderbolt cable.  Now, on the software side, uh.

  1. Migrate old computer to new computer
  2. Get all the hardware to work
  3. Make sure all the software licenses are good
  4. Figure out what software doesn’t work anymore
  5. Learn my way around a ton of new/changed features in the software I know backwards and forwards

Simple right?  Heh.  Let’s talk problems.

  • Migration to old mac to new mac failed.  Turned out things were deteriorating quickly on the old mac.  With Macs you’re supposed to do a mac to mac transfer, and you can do it using any number of methods.  First I tried wifi – it told me it was going to take 3 fucking days.  Then it died after an entire day of copying shit.  The system was unbootable and I had to restore El Capitan from rescue mode… and try the copy again.
    • Try two involved a cat 6 ethernet cable.  This would take 20 hours.  However this died right at the end too.
    • So I did it again.  And it died again.  Fuck.
    • Okay, so I’ve got great backups on my time machine.  I decided to use that and well, it was going to take a god damn week.
  • At this point some data had copied but the system wasn’t complete.  I decided to give up on mac to mac transfer and do it myself.  Ugh.  My user information made it over, and some configurable stuff, but not the software.  I literally went through every single piece of software I used to own, downloaded it again, and fucked with the licenses.  This took fucking forever.
  • Apparently in what was copied was plenty of shit causing system problems.  Two weeks to diagnose and repair most of those
  • Oh, and I still needed to get my data off the old computer.  Two to three folders at a time – just blanket copy it.  Luckily a lot of data was already on an external drive.  So that was nice.

Let’s say, three months later things started reaching a stable point.  No, I didn’t work on the computer constantly; I picked at it.  But i got most of it to work.

I did, however, lose some plugins forever:

  • All the camel stuff.  Apple bought them, they’re gone and I lost the installers I had downloaded
  • My favorite compressor, the PSP Vintage Warmer, just doesn’t work.  Seriously, shit goes horribly wrong in Logic now.  I’m holding out for an update to fix it but uhhhhhh.

And yes, It was literally like two or three big pieces of software, like Logic and Ableton Live, and then a billion plugins.

But things actually didn’t end there.  I lost all my Logic templates, Battery 3’s samples were gone (i have sessions that used them), and fuck, I forgot just how much time you spend configuring tools like Logic.  That shit takes forever, and well, you do most of it over a long period of time.  You don’t remember what the settings are or where they live.  Yea, what a fucking pain in the ass that was.

Oh god, and I still have an unresolved problem where, for whatever reason, my long term downloads will time out.  Uh, I have no fucking idea.  I had to download my orchestral library at work and put it on a USB stick.  No joke.

And I won’t get started on my photos.  This is a music blog.  But hey, I got it done, and it’s a slick music machine now.

Studio4.0 (3 of 10)

 

Storage and Backup

This is probably a less exciting stopic, I get it if you skip.  Being that I’m an infrastructure guy, I’m gonna talk about it.

So… in the old world there was one backup.  Time Capsule, an apple product.  This was a great idea – wireless 3TB backup that Time Machine hooks directly into.  Yea, except it’s slow as molasses.  I didn’t mind the slowness backing up data, cause I’d just go to sleep.  But holy fuck when you need to search through it to restore something, or fucking try to actually restore a mac from it – yea folks, the damn thing just doesn’t cut it.

I knew USB would be faster by a lot.  In fact, this is how I used to back up, but after I got the time capsule I change my spare USB to be extra storage.  You see, I filled the old computer all the way up.  Data management on the thing had become a real problem, so it made sense.

But there was another problem, my data usage was continuing to grow and well, it was going to be cost effective to try to manage it all with time machine.  I decided I was have two tiers of storage protection.  This would minimize my computer restoration time in case of a catastrophic failure, and give me enough data protection to be able to sleep at night.

The plan:

  • Back the core system up to usb.  This will be my main restoration point.  This is also where data I want versioned goes.
  • Put the rest of my data on redundant storage.  If I lose two disks I’m done, at the same time, that’s a long shot.  This would be external too, and easy to plugin to another system, should I get one.

I picked up a two disk RAID box I configured to RAID 1 and made sure I got a sweet thunderbolt 2 one.  The bus is fast, although those disks are no SSDs.  4ish TB of storage I think (the box claims 7, and in the fine print RAID 0 only, those fuckers.)

It’s some sorta Western Digital or whatever thing.  It’s weird because you can’t configure it over thunderbolt.  You literally have to plug a usb 3.0 port in, just to configure it.  Then you can use your thunderbolt.  Fuck them again.

That whole process went reasonably smoothly.  I named the RAID 1 – Butt Cakes

I/O

It all started when I started jamming with Taylor.  He would bring over his modular and Elektron Octatrack, and I would fuck around on my synths.  He would always ask for several inputs, I would give him two, and then use the remaining two for myself.  I already couldn’t have anything I owned in stereo, let alone have a friend use all the inputs they actually want to.

UAD’s Apollo only comes with four mic pres.  8 inputs total, but only four mic pres.  For instruments, I had four ports.  Typically this would be enough, or I’d just jack in another device to the front and record it temporarily.  I hadn’t really needed more real time capability until I decide to jam on a synth.

After some looking around, I settled on the Audient ASP 880.  It’s a slick looking device that has 8, somewhat revered mic pres.  Even it’s analog to digital converters were well liked.

Studio4.0 (7 of 10)

The blue light is actually a feature I’ll never use.  A DB25 pass through sorta thing for already line level signals.  Basically, they are there if you just want to use the ASP880’s converters.

This came with a little work, beyond racking the thing –

  • When you get new IO you’ve got to… TEST the fucking I/O.  All 8 channels.
  • Since this device and the apollo are digital, I need to sync their clocks.  Long story short, if the clocks aren’t the same, when one device sends information digitally to the other, it might count wrong.  That’s exactly right – it counts blips and that’s how it knows how long a unit of data is.  If it counts wrong, then you get distortions.  To solve this problem you can have one device sync to the other’s clock.  This can actually happen over the optical signal that connects them, and most devices also have BNC connectors if you’d prefer to use coaxial cable.  I did some research, and while I had a hard time finding anything generally concrete, BNC seemed to yield a better clock transmission.  In the case of the ASP880 though, it also sounded like it just wouldn’t accept optical at the external clock source – only the BNC (it’s a little hard to tell from the manual, but that’s my story and i’m sticking to it).

Phew, that was a lot about clocks and not much about testing.  Anyway, the device is pretty cool in that, each mic pre has one of those nueman dual XLR-1/4″ jack in the back.  On the front the two knobs are gain, and high pass frequency respectively.  Yea, you can set the filter frequency a range of 20-180Hz, pretty cool.  In addition to all normal pre-amp features (phantom power etc), you can change the impedance of a given channel use a knob.  The  setting is a simple Low-Medium-High, but since I didn’t even know changing them was a thing – fuck yea.

Side note – did you know microphones have different frequency response curves at different impedances?  I never even thought about it.  It actually turns out in the apollo the pre-amps can change their impedance electronically (driven by whatever plugin you’re using).  Heh, now I can play with impedances everywhere – a nice thing to explore.

And yea – they sound great.  I ran some synths through all the channels and well, they are spectacular.

Patch Bay

 

Everything is spectacular ever.  Well, except one.  The part where, if I want to hook anything up to my studio I have to crawl on my back behind a buncha shit and dig through wires for 20 minutes.  Fuck that, patch bay time.

Actually, it turned out that once I got the patch bay is when the real work started.  What I didn’t know about patch bays was how they worked and that they were configurable.  After reading the configuration, the instruction book says something like, “Really think about how you want it to work before you hook it up, it matters.”

So I started thinking.  How would it work?  Well, let’s start with how it does work.  Patch bays are effectively a series of 4 jack modules that you can configure to do a couple of things.  There are 2 jacks on the back, and 2 jacks on the front per module.  Modules have no relationship to one another (unless you wire them together, duh).

Each module has three configuration states.  These are called:

  • Normal
  • Half-Normal
  • Through

Through is straight forward – a port on the front maps to a port at the same height on the back.  Basically, if you just want to plug into something from the front of your rack you use this.

Normal is a little more interesting.  The idea here is that you can have two devices routed to one port, but one device can be active at a time.  When you plug into a jack on the front, a jack on the back is disabled.  This is useful if say, you want to run a bunch of your stationary gear to your pre-amps, but from time to time you want to hook something else up and are willing to sacrifice the stationary device.

Half Normal and hopefully I get this right (after I read about it I decided I won’t need it anytime soon, and promptly forgot.  Also too lazy to verify, it’s not like i get paid for this blog or anything).  In half normal, you split a signal such that it goes out the front and back of the bay.  This is a 1-in, 2-outs situation.  Useful if you want to route sends around your studio and such.

Given those three options and 48-ports (24-modules), I got to work thinking about how I would do all this.  Well, I’d need some patch cables, and I need a design.

I’d have to figure out a way I could map pre-amps, ins, and outs to ports in a way that I’d be able to remember.    I actually thought about this a really long time.  Making sure an interface is intuitive is imperative; a huge part of this project is to make it easier to wire shit into my studio.

If we think about what’s available, the system can have 48 through ports or 24 ports in one of the normal mode.  You can adjust those numbers and come up with any combination in-between, of course.

What I had to wire was the Apollo and the ASP880 to the bay.  That consisted of:

  • Apollo has 8-ins, 4 are mic pres and 4 are line ins
  • Apollo also has 8 outs that could be useful for playing with hardware
  • ASP880 has 8 ins

Oh, I should note that the patch bay is 4 inch only.  I couldn’t afford one of the fancy ones that uses the smaller 1/4″ style adaptors.  What am I talking about?  I did some patch bay research and let’s just say, I couldn’t afford the good shit.  Anyway, a story for another blog.  I also didn’t want to have a shitload of XLR ports because I use them less frequency.  I’ve never needed more than four XLRs, so yea,  good there.

Okay so, that’s a total of 16 ins, 12 ins I really care about, and some outputs.  The configuration I came up with was:

  • First 8 modules would be the apollo ins.  It would be easier to remember a device if they were put together.  The four mic pres would be in Normal, and the 4 lines would be through.  I would wire synths statically into the back of the patch bay and we could override using the front.
  • Second 8 modules would be the ASP880.  Again, it would be easier to remember if the inputs were together.  And since I saw this device as secondary to the Apollo, also easy to remember.  Turns out the patch bay has screws every 8 channels too – makes counting easier.
  • Four outputs following would use through configuration.  Why 4?  I ran out of cables.

Things went mostly smoothly.  Well, sorta:

  1. The manual claims for normal mode to work you plug into the top jack.  Turns out it’s the bottom jack.
  2. Module fucking 1 doesn’t work.  I ended up deciding I could live without it

Other than that, looks great, although things are getting exciting in the back now.

IMG_0932 2

Apologies for the shitty picture.  They’re hard to take back there.

For the ASP880 and the Apollo both, I ran stereo cable pairs around the studio to the synth station.  Now I have 8 ins available to the right of the console.  Which is sweet, and someone who comes over can plugin to the left and override, well, whatever.

And with that, check out my sweet rack…

Studio4.0 (8 of 10)

 

Workflow

Heh, so everything I just talked about – that was about six months of work.  Okay, maybe five.  I probably ordered the computer in October-ish.  I got the other hardware in January and well, literally got it all hooked up (and TESTED) last weekend.  Yea, it took me fucking forever to sort out the huge pile of shit that went down with all of that.  But it was a good experience none-the-less.

But hey, during all that, I really developed a desire to clean up the studio.  Like, I wanted to really clean up the rugs, fix some random little issues in the room:

  • Cable cleanliness
  • This rug that kept jamming the door
  • Shit laying around that I didn’t use and was just in my way all the time (haha, like my cds!)

And I needed to make my workflow faster.  I had a bright idea – highlight the things I do a lot.  The things I don’t do a lot, well, fucking put that stuff under a huge pile of shit.  Makes sense right?  And hey, now I’ve been doing this shit for like 6 years.  Whereas, I wish I coulda done it right in the first place, I just didn’t have experience.  I had no idea how I would work.  Well I do now.

The idea started with the cables actually.  Since recording Cody, I ended up in a mess a number of times where I just couldn’t find anything.  I wanted a cable and I had to work to get it.  Fucking stupid.  I started going through cables, tying them, and organizing them into piles.  As you might have guessed, there was a ton of shit I never, ever, ever fucking used, everywhere.

I decided to stick all of that shit in a drawer.  Sure, I want to keep my firewire cables, but I don’t need them within arms reach.  What I needed were my quarter inch and XLR cables.  Those are what I go for during a session – audio cables, and the really normal ones.  All the specialized ones, well, there’s a place for you in my closet.

I ended this idea then to everything else – power, microphone stands and instruments. What do I mean?

Well, when I was looking at the room, I knew I wanted to clean under all the rugs (I have the rugs because HW makes this room reverby and I hate it).  After removing everything I decided to lay the rugs down differently.  I moved the white rug to my left, which held my guitars, to the right of the room.  The rug jamming the door I spraweled out in the back of the room (where there was actually room to put it).  When I looked at the guitars, I thought, “I fucking rarely use these, they don’t need to be available” (mind you also, i have an acoustic in my bedroom, these are yet more guitars).  Closet.

Then, whereas I used to have mic stands and keyboard stands all over the room in various piles, I put them where the instruments used to go.  Mic stands get a lot of use now adays, and having them in arms reach is great during a session.

I then extended this idea to microphones.  I store them on my shelf, but had them on a higher shelf I could never see, on the lower shelf I had… uh, notes from physical therapy.  Yea…

Studio4.0 (9 of 10)

And finally power.  This is actually two fold.  One is, I wanted better power access.  Simple, run another power strip.  Easy peasy.  But, I did some research on power conditioners.  The trick is to, you know, have all of your fucking devices on the power conditioner.  I was not doing this, this was dumb.

Not that my power conditioner is any good (another one of those things that’s really expensive to do it right).  But hey, I like pretending I do this for real.

Studio4.0 (10 of 10)

Don’t worry folks, it barely misses my feet.

As a final note, I’ve been collecting clippy lights.  I need to get some slightly different ones, but these will work really well for seeing the synths in low light.

Studio4.0 (2 of 10)

 

 

Conclusions

All of this worked out really well for me actually.  The room suddenly had more space, nothing is in my way anymore.  That, coupled with what I did with the patch bay I can now be pretty agile with what I put in the studio.  Yes, this is all very good.  I feel like I’m ready to take on a slew of new projects now, and it only took… six months.

IMG_0930

Unplanned bonuses too – with the more space and better organization, I’ve got better placement for the vocal booth when it’s up.  Acoustically just as good as before, but more room for me to use… well, the room.  Oh, and I can hook all my synths up at once.

IMG_0912

Thanks for going on the ride with me folks.  Excited to show you Cody’s new EP and get more projects underway.

 

-vt100