Home Studio Test (Part 1)
Part 1 Nobby Line builds 8-track Tascam rig
Once again the Town residence finds itself draped in cable, and recording hardware adorns every available surface. All over the block people are discussing drum sounds and middle eights, although their comments mostly ignore their musical nuances, preferring to concern themselves with dynamic characteristics, as in "I wish he'd flaming well turn it down a bit," or alternatively suggesting novel places where a drum machine might be stored upon one's person.
The man chiefly responsible for making the bulk of this equipment available to me is Tim Frost of Harman U.K., who are agents for both TEAC Tascam products and JBL studio monitors. Having started this series with a look at a system based on the Fostex 8-track ¼" machine, we wanted to take one step further and go for an inexpensive ½" 8-track machine, and at around £1,800 the Tascam 38 seemed to be the obvious choice. The 38 is part of the Tascam 'Series 30' which includes an excellent value stereo machine, the 32-2B at around £599 and an 8-track mixer, the M-35 at around £1,300. Although mastering at this level is normally done on a ¼" machine, the format most often used for hawking around to publishers and A & R men is the humble cassette, and so we also decided to take a look at Tascam's studio cassette deck, the 122, which, although it isn't cheap at around £420, does offer a good number of very useful facilities.
Any straightforward 2:1 compression/expansion noise reduction system such as DBX is bound to somewhat degrade the frequency response characteristics of the machine, and some types of program warrant it more than others. With a multitrack recording, tape noise builds up as each track is used, and, after also taking into consideration the usual necessity for bouncing, I tend to think that at this level (15ips, narrow tape width) the extra 30dB signal to noise ratio gained makes it very worthwhile addition. TEAC are licensed by DBX to manufacture their own DBX units, and Tim was kind enough to add a couple of four channel units to the steadily growing list.
To finish off the pile of equipment from Tascam we had a 4-way auxiliary meter unit, a multi headphone amp and a 4-channel parametric equaliser, each with a very important part to play in the running of a session.
Tannoys last time — we thought JBLs to be a sensible choice for this time, and so Tim pushed his car's suspension a little further to the extent of a pair of fairly diminutive 4401's at around £290 per pair, and a pair of the larger, professional studio monitors, the 4411's which at around £950 aren't inexpensive to the individual's pocket; but they can really shift air particles and sound very good!
"ALL THE PARTS OF THE SYSTEM WORK WITH EACH OTHER EXCEPTIONALLY WELL... PRICES AND PERFORMANCES ARE WELL MATCHED."
If there's one effect that is of prime importance to the subjective quality of a recording, it has to be reverb; it's pure fairy dust to a struggling vocal or lead line, and it lends the whole track depth and sparkle. Now, unless you're prepared to sell the Chelsea residence or start hiring out the jet, it's doubtful that the pocket money will stretch to the purchase of a plate or digital device, and so you are more than likely going to have to settle for a spring. In fact you can spend several grand on a spring reverb, and the term is not necessarily synonymous with poor quality. We chose a model which dan be purchased from the good offices of Scenic Sounds for £783.99. The device in question is the Master Room XL 210 stereo unit, which although it is a bit pricey does produce a very good quality sound.
Since we chose the units for this review, the diminishing dollar exchange rate has had an effect on the price of a lot of the gear, including said reverb unit plus the Tascam and JBL ranges, and these items are now a little more expensive than we originally anticipated. Still, what d'ya want for 60p a month, clairvoyance? (Crystal Balls? Ed.)
The positive effect that a few signal processors can have on a recording's tightness and presence, not to mention the ease with which it is recorded and mixed, is more significant than a lot of people realise. You can approach the purchase of outboard gear by looking through every manufacturer's catalogue, and taking from each the best unit to suit your needs. Alternatively, you can purchase a rack mounting modular system from one manufacturer, wherein modules of an identical shape and size can be bought to plug into a mother board at the rear of the rack frame. The units all share the same power supply, and the same rack can also contain a small patch bay allowing easy access to the modules. It's neat, compact, portable and, because the power supply, casing and wiring is to a large degree shared, it is generally less expensive. That's precisely the kind of system produced by the English company Rebis Audio; as such systems go, it's fairly moderately priced, yet it offers a wide range of units, very attractive, neat packaging and high quality performance, and so we asked Rebis if they would mind us borrowing a rack to take a look at for a while.
"THE POSITIVE EFFECT THAT A FEW SIGNAL PROCESSORS CAN HAVE ON A RECORDING'S TIGHTNESS AND PRESENCE... IS MORE SIGNIFICANT THAN A LOT OF PEOPLE REALISE."
Every good home recording set-up should have at least one good microphone, and if you don't think it's giving in to the insidious lure of decadence, maybe even a couple of good microphones, so that you can record things in stereo, or even two things at once. AKG seemed a good choice for mikes; I don't know of any company which enjoys greater international regard in the area generally, and part of their ever expanding line is a new, low budget dynamic, the D80, which at around £32.26 looked as though it might be of particular relevance to the cause of high quality performance and appearance at a low cost. A worthy and singularly popular cause, I might add.
Tape is a major part of day to day running costs, and it's very tempting to try and save a few sheets by purchasing second hand or second rate stock. This is generally a big mistake as you'll never get the most out of your equipment with inferior tape, and if after weeks of work you find that your precious master tape, be it multitrack or stereo, starts to suffer from drop-outs or shedding, well... you'll be sorry. After days of messing around with a do-it-yourself, mail order kit consisting of gaffer tape and iron filings, I eventually turned to a couple of the world's leading magnetic tape manufacturers, Ampex and BASF, for assistance. Ampex gave me a couple of reels of their near legendary Grand Master 456, and BASF offered their equally viable SPR 50 LH. Perhaps not such a catchy little name, but undoubtedly still very good tape.
Having so much of the equipment from the same manufacturer really helps when it comes to interconnection; you know that impedances and levels are likely to match well and that choice of connectors should be vaguely standardised. Tascam use almost exclusively phonos (RCA jacks) for all their line connections. Standard mono or stereo ¼" jacks are used for things like headphone outputs, microphone inputs on tape decks, and front panel line sockets intended for occasional use.
"TAPE... IT'S VERY TEMPTING TO SAVE A FEW SHEETS BY PURCHASING SECOND HAND OR SECOND RATE STOCK... YOU'LL BE SORRY."
Harman supplied several sets of TEAC's WR4C series, phono to phono 4-way looms to cope with the task, and I have to say that they have done a great deal to revive my faith in this type of connector. The cable itself is relatively heavy duty, with a very flexible PVC sheath and a cellular polythene insulating layer, which helps to maintain an even distance between the conductor and its screen, thus maintaining the specified capacitance, and also providing a continuous, unbroken screen against induced interference. The outer casing of each plug is a different colour of pliable, moulded rubber which includes a very effective cable stress release bush, and helps to provide an effective means of identifying what's plugged into what.
The pin and sleeve of each phono has an 18 carat gold plating, allowing a very low resistance, low noise connection, and they're protected by the outer and inner mouldings, so that they can take a bit of stick before doing the infamous phono-collapsing-and-becoming-useless trick. These cables are anything but cheap, and yes, you can get away with less, but they're very neat and effective, and I've never had such a hassle-free time with interconnecting lots of pieces of equipment before. If you can afford them, I promise you won't be sorry! The M-35 mike inputs are balanced and use XLRs — no problem.
The Rebis rack and Master Room reverb unit both need standard ¼" phone jacks (guitar type) although the Rebis is also available with either GPO or bantam type jack bays. For these I used phono to jack adaptors which, whilst not being the perfect solution, are good enough for a permanent set-up, and perform quite well as long as you're careful not to give them too much stick. If you do, they tend to break, bend, come unconnected and get noisy, but of course here again, as usual, you get what you pay for.
"D330BT — THE FREQUENCY RESPONSE SWITCHES GIVE YOU CONSIDERABLE SCOPE TO ALTER THE SOUND AT THE MIKE END..."
All the parts of the system work with each other exceptionally well, and depending on how much importance you place on the various parts of the chain, performances and prices are well matched.
That's an overall look at the system and our rationale for choosing the units we did; now let's look at individual products more closely.
AKG D80 — although this is one of AKG's least expensive models, it still has a very high quality black satin stove enamelled finish, plus a technical spec and subjectively high quality performance that have you rechecking the price list. It is a low impedance, balanced unit with a standard XLR connector, and although I wouldn't say that it was ideal for use on the road where it may receive real serious mechanical abuse, for the home recording studio and for less demanding live schedules, it's got to be about the best value low-budget mike I've seen. The only obvious limitations are those concerning the lack of easy access for servicing, and the windshield cage, which although not exactly weak, wouldn't take too heavy a dose of 'roadie's remissness'. Highly recommended though, and no worse in those areas than many other more expensive mikes.
"D80 — FOR THE HOME RECORDING STUDIO AND FOR LESS DEMANDING LIVE SCHEDULES, IT'S GOT TO BE ABOUT THE BEST VALUE LOW-BUDGET MIKE I'VE SEEN."
AKG D190E - Dynamic cardioid response. The 190E weighs in at precisely twice the price of the D80, and for home recording applications, I wouldn't say it was twice the mike. For demanding live work, or for use on a drum kit where it might get sporadically clumped, the 190 has to its advantage a more compact, stronger body and windshield cage, although it really is no easier to service. Apart from a slightly greater sensitivity, which might possibly make it a more flexible unit, its spec is not dissimilar to that of the D80, and in fact subjectively, for vocals and acoustic instrument pick-up, I preferred the less expensive D80. Good value if you're anticipating a lot of heavy road work though.
AKG D202E1 - Dynamic, two-way, cardioid response. Over the years the D202 has become a classic, and is still a very popular mike in both studios and live work. It was one of AKG's first 'two-way' designs, which use a separate LF transducer mounted concentrically behind the HF transducer. The acoustic design of the unit allows an extended bass response, and gets rid of all traces of the proximity effect (a rise in bass response experienced in directional mics when the source is placed in close proximity to the transducer).
At £158.13, it is definitely an expensive dynamic, and whilst the lack of proximity effect is extremely useful in situations that demand close miking for separation, if you intend to be working mostly electronically or on your own, it's a capability and an expense which you won't put to full use. On the other hand if you're trying to mike several things in the same room, it may just be worth it. It's extremely rugged, a bit on the large side, but has an impressive, wide frequency response and features a switchable bass cut filter giving 0, —7dB and -20dB at 50Hz. Once again, if you're looking towards getting on the road with your own gear, you can trust it to still be working on the last night.
AKG D330BT — Dynamic Hypercardioid Res. The 330BT is part of the 300 range which consists of two other less sophisticated models, the D320B and the D310. The 'B' in the title refers to a 3-position bass cut filter, whilst the 'T' concerns the inclusion of a presence boost at 4KHz and so now I'm sure that I can leave it to you razor sharp minds to fathom which mikes have which facilities!
The frequency response switches give you considerable scope to alter the sound at the mike end, which is useful if you haven't got particularly comprehensive Eq facilities on your mixer, or if you're not using a mixer at all, and of course for live work, it's also invaluable. It has to be one of the most ruggedly constructed mikes on the market, and for servicing comes apart in a trice to allow you to remove the diaphragm structure, the balancing transformer, the humbucking coil and the anti-handling noise transducer together with the presence boost switch, all in one cartridge. Its technical spec, and subjective quality are very good, plus its hypercardioid response pattern is ideal for most recording applications and live work, where the proximity effect either doesn't bother you or can be used to your advantage.
If you can afford it, this one definitely offers substantially more useful facilities for recording and live applications than the D80, and is therefore worth the extra sponduliks.
That's all the dynamic mikes taken care of, I'll go into the condensers together with the Tascam range next month, when once again we'll 'Talk Technical'.
This is the only part of this series active so far.
Feature by Nobby Line
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