My New Studio

Last weekend I started the process of moving my studio space. For the past four years it has been in a “flex” room, where there was an office, kid workroom/art zone and a reading nook. I was thankful to have a functional studio, but it always felt a bit cramped and having two people in the space was very crowded. The new space is a dedicated room, though still on the small side, it feels enormous to me and I'm excited to be able to spread things out a bit. I just have to use longer cables for some things ;-)

It's hard to picture what a studio move looks like unless you know what equipment is being used, so I'm going to describe all the parts here. I'm hoping folks will find some of it helpful, especially if they are researching a purchase of that equipment. Maybe other folks who don't know the details of what makes a music studio will find it interesting to hear what an independent songwriter does to record their songs. I'm going to list things in order of what I feel makes the biggest impact into the sound quality of my recordings.

Microphone:  Serrano Audio - Vintage 87

This is a handmade replica of the famous Neumann U87, built by Serrano Audio in North Carolina. It is hands down the best mic I've ever used. I went through about ten mics until I found this one. I've never tried a U87, but some folks haid say they like this even better or at least the same as the U87. Not sure about that, but it's amazing that this quality can be had for only $700 vs $3K+ for the Neumann. I don't care about brand name, I just care about the results and those have been stunning with this. 

It sounds great on everything, but for me vocals are the most important so I keep this in my booth. I would like to have a nice mic ready to go for acoustic guitar tracking, so I'm considering buying it's little brother the Vintage 84 to use for that. I currently use a Shure 57 and a Blue Dragonfly. Shure is ok and the Blue a bit better, but I'm thinking with a Serrano on the 12th fret and the Blue at the base of the guitar, it might be a better sound. Of course I need to treat the walls with sound absorption before I do ANY acoustic recording, so that is my big priority as I have one song that needs acoustic guitars.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Preamp: Locomotive Audio - Weight Tank WT-72

Before I got my new microphone, I got this preamp and it made the biggest change in the quality of my recordings. I run EVERYTHING through it when tracking - vocals, acoustic guitars, electric guitars, bass, percussion etc. I love how simple it is, just a gain dial. I usually leave the gain at 40 for vocals, but dial it down to 36 for electric guitars. The impact on the quality of every track is so noticeable to me, everything from the vocals to bass is just more exciting sounding through this thing. Previous to this I used a Groove Tubes Brick preamp, which at the time was a game changer. I had a Bellari before that, which was decent, but not amazing. The Brick started having issues a couple years ago so I did a bunch of research and landed on this Weight Tank from the boutique shop Locomotive Audio. I'm so glad I took a chance on it! It is inspired by the beloved Telefunken V72 tube console and gives recordings a rich and creamy, yet airy vibe.

 

Digital Audio Console: UAD - Apollo x6 

I love this console! For about eighteen years I used a Digidesign Digi002, but when it finally wasn't compatible with my computer, I switched to a Focusrite Clarett 4Pre USB. It was fine, but not spectacular. I read that the digital audio convertors in the UAD products were a step up from the Focusrite and Digi002. What sold me was idea that they do effects processing inside of the console, so your computer didn't have to do all the work. The more I looked into UAD the more I liked the idea, so I gave it a shot with the Apollo x6 and I'm thrilled with this purchase. I don't record live drums myself, so didn't need the extra inputs, I mainly just use the one coming out of my preamp, so the extra five inputs are more than enough. The fact that you can chain these together or just add a satellite for more processing power tipped the scales for me when I was deciding to make this purchase. 

I used the included DAW for a while, it's a program called Luna. I actually really enjoyed using it, even after twenty years of Pro Tools I found Luna a bit more user friendly for most things. I loved how well it integrated with the Apollo and UAD plugins, and the tape emulation on each track is a nice touch. My only problem is that EVERY one of my current collaborators use Pro Tools, and the only past collaborators using something else has been Logic. If I get into a place where I want to do it all myself, or if I find a collaborator using Luna, I will probably try it again.

 

Compressor: Warm Audio - WA-2A

I keep a light touch on this, but I feel like it adds a bit to each track. I run the preamp into this and from here into the Apollo. For guitars I usually keep the compression WAY down (shown here), and put that at around 20-30 for vocals depending on the type of performance. I make sure to watch the VU meter (which I love having by the way!) so that it doesn't push past 3 unless I'm getting really loud and that it doesn't go past about 10 even then. In hindsight I wonder if I should have tried the Locomotive Audio compressor to go along with their preamp, but this was a bit cheaper and I'm happy with it so will probably keep it around a very long time. I listened to TONS of samples of various compressors before purchasing and the WA-2A ones were the best sounding to me. 

 

Amp Simulator: Strymon - Iridium

I don't have a big budget for nice amps and mics for those amps, but I want to get the best sound possible. The plugin amp simulators sound pretty bad to me most of the time, and too much a pain if you just want to pick up the guitar and play. A couple years ago I found this “pedal” and I LOVE it. It emulates three classic amp sounds and three cabinets. I really like that simplicity. I usually leave it on the Fender amp, but switch over to Marshall if I'm looking for something heavier. A bonus feature is the simple headphone out, so I can just plug in a guitar and headphones to practice without having to turn on 10 other things in order to hear it. Of course, I'd LOVE to have those classic amps, it's just not in the cards for me right now, so this has been a huge find. ALL of my guitar tracks go through this into my preamp. Occasionally I'll route that back out to a real amp and mic, but I usually like this tone as is.

 

 

 

 

Electric Guitar: Gibson - SG (1998)

I've had this beauty for over 20 years and it's been tremendously reliable. Never had a repair and only a couple setups. I love that I can grab it at any moment and it will sound great. Every electric guitar track I've ever recorded on all my songs were this guitar. I do have a couple guest players on those songs with Fender guitars, and I really like having the two distinctive sounds. 

I would LOVE to have a nice Fender, it's just never been a priority for me to have more than one guitar. I did buy a super cheap Fender for my son, but it sounds worse than I expected and doesn't stay in tune. Before the SG I had a trashed Mexican Fender Strat that had been battered to heck, but had a nice tone and feel so I do want to get a really nice Strat someday.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Acoustic Guitar: Yamaha - FG-420A

Thirty years ago this was my first guitar. It is STILL the first guitar I reach for when I'm feeling musically inspired. I went to that guitar shop with my brother's friend who knew more about guitars then we did. I had $200 and was hoping to not spend that much. I picked out one that was $150 and was ready to go, but my brother's friend shook his head. He handed me this guitar and said THIS was the one I needed. It did sound slightly better, but was $250. He convinced me it was worth it, even though we couldn't buy it that day. I put it on lay away and a few weeks later came back to buy it. I owe that man a HUGE thank you. It has never needed a repair, though I've taken it to the beach, camping, all over the state. It's got some bruises but always stays in tune. 

When writing a song, I pretty much always start here. I play and sing until I find some spark and structure. Later I use that along with a beat and bass to create the bones of a new song in Pro Tools. I'm not fully happy with my acoustic recordings, that is one area I'd like to improve with a different mic and better sound treatment in the room. I also would love a reliable 12-string, I love the sound of those! I had a cheapo once, but a 12 string that doesn't stay in tune is no fun.

 

 

 

 

Bass Guitar: Epiphone - Jack Casady Bass

I really love playing this bass and it sounds great direct into the preamp. During songwriting I find it's crucial to have a decent bass line before vocals and usually guitars too, though often I have one rhythm guitar before bass. I almost never use this bass track in the final recording since all 20 of my released songs have the pro Tim Lefebvre on bass, but it's still important in the early stages of the song, before I send to Tim. 

I've always loved bass, so it's just fun to play. I often play bass in jams with friends, mainly because it seems like everyone is either a guitar player or drummer. Anyway, I love that this bass can switch from passive to active pickups as there are times when one sounds way better than the other. 

 

 

 

 

Core Guitar Effect Pedals: 
Echoplex Delay and Preamp, Tube Screamer, Big Muff, Boss Chorus, ADA Flanger and Mu-Tron MicroTron IV

Ah pedals, I love them so! From the first two I owned (a ProCo Rat Distortion pedal and DOD delay, both of which blew my mind and got me hooked on guitar) to my most recent additions, it has definitely been a series of several love affairs. My current set of pedals are so good that I don't look around for pedals any more. I know there are SO many amazing pedals out there these days and I'd love to keep buying, but with a tight budget I try to stick with what I've got already. 

Flangers always fascinated me, but I often disliked them at the same time. This vintage ADA flanger, made in Berkeley, has the most amazing flange tones and can sound a lot like a chorus, it has so much range. It has a bit of a buzz to it, but I still love it and can't see letting it go. I've gone through MANY choruses and can't seem to land on the perfect one yet. This one is close for me, it's the Boss Waza Craft Chorus. It has those classic 80s and 90s tones, but you can also get more subtle sounds too. For distortion/overdrive I have the twin beasts of the Electro Harmonix Op-Amp Big Muff and the Keeley modified Ibanez Tube Screamer. I like the Tube Screamer for almost everything (including bass), and the Big Muff for lead guitar. I've been through a TON of different delay pedals, loved pretty much all of them, but this one is my current favorite - the Dunlop Echoplex. I've got it paired with the Echoplex Preamp and tap tempo. I use this ALL the time! On every track I have the preamp on, it is subtle but adds something nice to the tone for sure. Whenever I can fit it in, I tap in the tempo and use the delay. So much fun! Another favorite is the Mu-Tron Micro-tron IV. I've owned several flavors and clones of the original, but this is my favorite. Mu-tron is making these again down in San Diego. It is hands down the best version I've ever played.

 

Keyboard: Nektar - Panorama T4

Nothing fancy, but this works great as a simple midi keyboard. I am not a great keys player so it would be overkill to have much more than this. I mostly use keys to fill in some color on songs, not as a lead instrument and rarely as a main part of the rhythm section either. That said, I would love for this to have weighted keys and be full piano size. I do like playing on pianos a lot, though I've never recorded a piano song. For now, this little keyboard does the job. My favorite virtual instruments to use with it are Moog synth, Philharmonic ensemble, Hammond BX3, Opal Morphing synth and Ravel grand piano.

 

Headphones: Sennheiser - HD 600

Quality headphones are so important and I haven't found a better pair then these ones. I'm sure better ones exist, but not for my budget. These sound so good, but also I don't end up with headaches like I often did with my closed back AKG headphones (I still use those when recording anything with a microphone since there is less bleed from the monitor mix). 

I use these when tracking electric guitar, bass and keyboards. Of course I also use them for editing and mixing the recorded tracks. I wish I found these sooner, but am so glad I have them now.

 

 

 

 

 

Electronic Hand Drum: Korg - Wavedrum Global Edition

I love hand drums and percussion, so I was very interested in an electronic version that could generate decent replicas of those drums without having to annoy the neighbors. There are only a couple options for this that I've found, and I gave this Korg a try. I really like it! I've used it on many of my songs. I'd rather have twenty types of drums lined up and tuned, but honestly in a song mix this comes close to the real deal. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hand Drums: Handmade Djembe and LP Bongos

I often combine the electronic drums with these real ones. The djembe was made by a friend 30 years ago. It doesn't have that classic djembe sound, but has it's own unique character. The bongos are just decent bongos. Both are so fun to play. I used to put them on every song, but now use them on every half dozen or so. 

 

 

 

 

Monitor Speakers: Event - Tuned Reference 8 

I've owned these for almost 20 years and they are still awesome! They come in a tuned pair and provide the best listening experience. They are loud and clearly project the whole spectrum of audio. I've even used them outside for a couple of release parties and they shine there too. They've been moved a bunch, dropped a time or two, but keep on rocking. 

 

 

 

Vocal Booth: Whisper Room SE 2000

I picked this up used from a Craigslist ad a few years back. It is a $4k booth that I got for only $750. It sounded terribly boxy at first, but I got three great acoustic panels made at GIK Acoustic and that made a world of difference. I spot treated the corners with bass traps and cheap foam and panels. Then I set up some nice lights and carpet.

I love how this frees me up to sing loudly without worrying about bugging the other folks in the house. I mean who wants to hear ANYONE singing the same lines over and over? Equally important it blocks out street noise, so it's fine if there is street construction or if the neighbor decides to mow their lawn right as I'm about to start recording. It's so quiet and peaceful in there, I can just focus on the song at hand and forget everything else. I have an old tablet connected to Google Docs for lyrics so I don't have to waste paper. I used to waste SO much paper as I was revising lyrics. It's a beast to move this thing, but so worth it. I would love it to be a little bigger so I could bring my acoustic in there, but I couldn't pass up the great deal on this one. So happy to have it part of my studio!

 

 

 

 

 

 

You may wonder where my drum set is? I do have one, but I don't use it for recording right now, so didn't include it here. Right now all my songs are based on drum loops that get replaced by a live drummer. If that changes I'll be sure to made a new blog post about it. Please feel free to ask me ANY questions about this stuff, I love chatting about musical gear. 

-Tony