Buyers guide: Audio recording

SAS looks at the current trends in the audio recording market.
Audio
Pro Tools HD 9.
Pro Tools HD 9.
Sonar X1.
Sonar X1.
The Phanthera.
The Phanthera.
Beta 181 - Shure.
Beta 181 - Shure.

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The transition from analogue to digital has revolutionised the audio recording industry. Software investment has swiftly replaced hardware, and the crisp sound of digital recording has taken over the airwaves. But has the transition been at the expense of audio quality?

Not necessarily, according to Matt Faddy, partner and studio manager at BKP Music in the UAE. “The change in technology has been amazing and it’s been for the good,” he says, emphasising the benefits to post-production in particular. He does, however, admit to some nostalgia when it comes to more old-school methods.

“I’ve just come back from the UK and I was listening to some of my old mixes done on analogue tape and to be honest, they should better that than some of the stuff I’m doing now in many ways.”

He’s says the rapid rise of digital recording has resulted in somewhat of a backlash, with some studio’s no reverting to analogue methods to get the best of both worlds. “I know of a lot of studio’s that are now track laying on tape and then dumping it into Pro Tools,” he says.

A sound engineer since the 80s, Faddy joined BKP 10 years ago and has seen the company grow significantly in response to the growing demand in the region for high-quality, in-house recording facilities.

“Ten years ago we had one studio and about four staff and now we’ve got seven studio’s, two edit suites and an office in Abu Dhabi as well,” he explains.

When it comes to tools of choice, studio mics need to be high-quality and are need to be seen as a long-term investment, according to Faddy.

“Our choice of mic’s is pretty traditional, U87s or AKG C 414s on vocals, Neumann 87’s. The 414 is my favourite all-round mic because it’s great on vocals, its great on acoustic guitar – it’s a good all-rounder. We use other mics as well but our preference is always either 414s or 87s.”

He is slightly less decisive when it comes to music and audio creation tools. “I used to use Logic for music programming and then I came out here [to the UAE] and was using Logic programming and then going across to Pro Tools for audio recording.”

He says that despite some of the shortcomings of Avid’s Pro Tools – “the midi and the programming side of Pro Tools isn’t perhaps up to same standards as Logic” – for the sake of continuity, the firm, which covers recording, composing, arranging and post-production spectrums, now uses Pro Tools almost exclusively. “I love it and the audio side of Pro Tools is very hard to beat.”

Musically, he encourages Avid to plug away on the development of better virtual instrument inclusions in the software. “Pro Tools don’t seem to have got it quite right with virtual instruments – it’s better than it was but it does get a little bit problematic if you’re trying to run lots of virtual instruments.”

And its virtual instruments that Faddy says have provided some of the biggest changes to the industry outside the digital revolution, in recent years.

“Virtual instruments have really impacted the industry. We bought three of the Vienna symphonic Q, and I love that as an orchestral type of virtual instrument,” he says.

“Everyone is doing it now but I think Vienna were the first. If you’re playing, say, a violin part, it’s monophonic so if you play a C to a G, the sample it plays on that G note will be a sample of someone playing a C to G on a violin so you don’t get the strings starting all the time. It’s amazing the difference that’s made to the quality of orchestral samples. And not just for strings, obviously.”

Recent additions the BKP’s studio and edit facilities include the purchase of Omnisphere and Trilian virtual instruments from Spectrasonics. “These days all our investment tends to be software based, it rarely seems to be hardware anymore,” Faddy admits.

One of the hot-button topics of the recording world, thanks in part to its disastrous use on Britain’s x-Factor reality show, is the use of auto-tune. While some appreciate it for what it is, an additional instrument and effect that can be used to spruce up a recording, it’s often blatant misuse can serve as a permanent turn-off.

“I have quite strong views on auto-tuning in the industry,” says Faddy. “Auto-tune is brilliant if you use it properly but the problem is people don’t use it properly, they use the auto function, rather than the graphical mode, which isn’t necessarily a good thing.”

He subscribes to an ‘everything in moderation’-type approach to the tool. “People do use too much auto-tune, in graphic mood you can choose how much you use it. I don’t think you’re cheating, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with it. It’s as much cheating as using a really good quality vocal mic is cheating, if used properly.”

Avid unveils Pro Tools HD 9
Released last month, Avid’s latest version of its famed Pro Tools system, Pro Tools 9, offers what the firm says is an “unprecedented” choice to work with Avid audio interfaces, third-party audio interfaces, or no hardware at all when using the built-in audio capabilities of a Mac or PC. 

The first-ever software-only option for Pro Tools delivers what some reviewers are claiming is the most open, flexible and feature rich version in history.

New support for the Avid EUCON open Ethernet protocol now allows users to expand control surface options to include Avid’s Artist Series and Pro Series audio consoles and controllers (formerly known as Euphonix consoles and controllers).

“One big thing about Pro Tools being an open platform is that I won’t have to run two systems anymore. Right now I have a dedicated Pro Tools system and a dedicated Apogee system and I have to reboot with one or the other—now I can save space and time toggling between them,” says Ulrich Wilde, producer and engineer for bands including Dethklok, Pantera and the Deftones.

“EUCON support is also huge for me as I’ll be able to integrate Pro Tools into my studio workflow, which is based on Logic using an Artist Series controller.”

Cakewalk by Roland steps up to the plate with Sonar X1
Roland System Group’s Cakewalk has just brought its Sonar X1 to the market, an upgrade to the previous versions. It’s said to offer the power and maturity of an industry standard DAW, combined with cutting edge creative tools in an easy-to-use and attractive interface.

The studio version includes unlimited audio and MIDI capability, Roland V-Vocal, surround mixing, T and S series effects, rapture LE synth, RGC synth suite, IK Multimedia Amplitube X-Gear (32-bit) and is 64-bit and Win7 ready.

One of the most visible changes on the latest version is the addition of ‘Skylight’, which comprises a number of enhancements to Sonar’s user interface.

A new window, the MultiDock, can be set to show any of Sonar’s views, including the Console, Arrange view, Piano Roll Editor, and even synth and effect interfaces.

The window can be collapsed or expanded, and is designed to help minimise the need to switch between multiple windows when working. Cakewalk also say that it is ideal for people working with multiple monitors, as the MultiDock can be placed on a separate monitor so that frequently accessed views are always visible.

There’s also the Inspector pane, which displays data on clips, tracks and channels (whichever you have selected). With a channel highlighted, the Inspector will show not only the full channel strip (including effects and sends), but also that channel’s output bus.

The Inspector, like the MultiDock, can be expanded, collapsed, left floating or ‘docked’ to the top, bottom, left or right of the screen (the same is now true of all of Sonar’s views and windows).

Overall, the X1 makes for a faster and easier Sonar.

The U87’s cheaper rival?
One of Dirk Brauner’s newest offerings, the Phanthera, has been heralded by some as a equal to the revered Neumann U87’s due to its high-quality Brauner sound – without the big price-tag.  

It shares the same audio capabilities of its heavy-duty, more expensive cousin, the Phantom V, but offers a fixed cardioid pattern only, and has been stripped back to bare essential accessories.

There are no pads, no high pass (or low pass), or pattern selection switches. Other than the fact that you need to have phantom power available setting up the Phanthera is no more difficult than using a Shure SM57.

Self noise has been described as “stellar” - the 11 dB (A-weighted), frequency response is stated as 20 Hz – 22 kHz and the sensitivity is given as 33mV/Pa. Maximum SPL is rated at 142dB at .3 per cent distortion. The diaphragms are six micron in thickness and the capsule is related to the one developed for the lauded Brauner VMA.

Marketed as a “vocal-only” mic, it’s well worth the investment if you want natural sound quality and an intensity not usually expected from a non-tube mic.

New instrument mic from Shure
Shure has introduced the Beta 181, an ultra-compact, side-address condenser microphone designed for discreet placement and control in studio as well as live environments.

The first wired performance microphone from Shure that features interchangeable polar pattern capsules – cardioid, supercardioid, omnidirectional, and bidirectional – to offer versatility in constantly changing performance environments, it offers low handling noise and high gain before feedback.

“This mic is aces in tight spaces,” says Chad Wiggins, Shure’s category director for wired products. “It’s so compact; it can really fit in anywhere, whether it’s under a piano lid or in, around, and over a drum kit.”

“Paired with the interchangeable capsules, musicians and engineers can get really creative with their mic placement, depending on the sounds they’re trying to achieve.”

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