I’ve had a few odd experiences and discoveries lately involving other people who record music (we’ll use the blanket term “recording engineers”), and it’s been a little sobering.
I’m not going to get into details, but it’s been surprising and strange. I’ve never considered myself to be that great at the recording side of things. I never went to school to learn how to do this, and I had no one to be my mentor or teach me anything about sound or recording. I just take care of it because there’s no one else to do it for me, I know what I’m after, and I think I work best on my own when it comes to my music. But I’m beginning to realize I do have some good gear over here, and I’m starting to think I might even know what I’m doing with it sometimes. Some of the equipment some people are using while charging a lot of money for their recording services, and some of the knowledge that simply isn’t there…it kind of boggles my mind.
I’m not talking shit about anyone. I’m just flabbergasted by some of the things I’m seeing.
It kind of got me thinking about how much things have changed over here, and how far I’ve come. For a long time I didn’t have a whole lot of recording equipment to work with at all. First I had a rented keyboard and a cheap tape recorder with a tiny built-in microphone. Then I had a keyboard that wasn’t rented and the same tape recorder. Then I had a few more keyboards and a different tape recorder with a RadioShack microphone plugged into it. Then I got my hands on my first Roland VS-Series mixer/digital workstation, and a host of unexpected possibilities opened up.
I got a few cheap microphones, a few stringed instruments (some of which were rented), and started recording CDs instead of cassette tapes. Recording with “proper” equipment was an uphill battle all the way, and for a while I had no mic preamps, no compression, no EQ, and didn’t know anything about how to use those things anyway. I made a lot of not-entirely-good-sounding recordings, made a lot of mistakes, and learned a lot more than I ever expected to about something I had no training for.
In April of 2000 I thought it might be a good idea to get an outboard compressor of some sort, to help me tame peaks while tracking and to make it a bit easier to prevent things from grossly overloading when I screamed. And up until about the halfway point of 2002, I did my fair share of screaming in my music. I did a bit of research, read up about different types of compressors, and was pretty confused.
I ended up just sauntering into Schlong & McQuade, back when I used them as my main musical resource and hadn’t yet grown wise to alternative methods of procuring equipment, and found this Aphex Easyrider opto compressor. It was four channels, it was reasonably priced, and the controls were about as simple as you could ask for them to be, making it a good compressor for someone who didn’t know much about compression. I bought it and was amazed by how much more balanced a lot of things sounded with a bit of compression to smooth them out — especially bass and vocal tracks.
After a while I thought it might be a good idea to get some kind of dedicated mic preamp. I put a lot of stock in reviews I read in recording magazines, not realizing some manufacturers were probably paying the magazines to write nice things about their products when the hype wasn’t always warranted. When a review mentioned a preamp sounding “warm, gooey, and analog”, I got excited and assumed it was the magic bullet that would take my music to the next sonic level.
I read a description not too far removed from that about the Bellari RP520 mic preamp. It was a stereo unit, and it looked sexy to me. At the time, looks were at least as important to me as sound, and if something looked pretty I thought it music sound good too. Now I look at this picture and it looks pretty ugly and low-end to me. Ten years ago, I was drooling.
I couldn’t seem to order this thing through Long & McQuade, so I took to scouring eBay and found a guy who was selling one for $500 or $600 US. Seemed like a deal to me. We exchanged emails, he seemed nice, and I sent him a money order.
He took a while to ship the unit and sent me a few emails telling me he had to deal with an unexpected family emergency. The name he signed his emails with changed at least once — from John to Dan, or something like that — but I didn’t think much of it.
At last, my big beefy stereo mic preamp came in the mail. My first mic preamp ever. I raked my hands through countless chunks of styrofoam peanuts in the big cardboard box, finding nothing but more styrofoam, until I dug out…this.
It was a single-channel Bellari mic preamp worth less than half the price of the RP520. It wasn’t what I paid for.
I’d been scammed. It wouldn’t be the last time, but it was the first nail in the coffin of my idyllic “buying things off of eBay without a care in the world” period.
It got even better when I plugged the mic preamp in and discovered the tube inside was completely fried. No matter how far I turned down the gain, the only sounds I could get out of it were distorted, and not in a pleasing “analog” way. I sent threatening emails to the eBay scammer. He was already long gone, and I was left holding a useless preamp with a broken tube, and with a somewhat lighter bank account for my trouble.
I got one fleeting moment of use out of this thing in early 2002 when I pulled it out as an experiment while recording an album for ADHD, the hardcore band Tyson was in at the time. I used it on one of the drum overheads. It didn’t sound great, but it got the job done. Then it went back to collecting dust.
I guess it would have been the summer of 2001 when I decided I should get myself a mic preamp that actually worked. I was getting by okay with a compressor and no mic preamp in the signal path, as strange as that sounds, sometimes plugging my vocal mic into a guitar effects processor to spice things up a bit, but I thought it was time to take the next step.
Again, I read a glowing review in a recording magazine, and I bought this thing.
If I remember right, it cost me less than $200. It was supposed to be the best cheap mic preamp on the market and the ticket to a more professional sound. I plugged an SM58 into it and couldn’t believe how much more three-dimensional my voice sounded. I never even tried using it as a bass DI. From SUBLIMINAL BILE through to KEEP YOUR SCARS, it was my dedicated vocal mic preamp.
Today some of those vocal tracks sound a little muddy to me, but it kind of suits the angry, murky material I was recording at the time. I also bought the stereo version of the same preamp so I would have three channels of preamplification at my disposal.
This one lived on bass and drum overheads most of the time. Today my ears and gear are good enough that I know all too well how low-end this stuff really was, but I did manage to get some pretty decent sounds out of the equipment I had to work with. The drum sound Tyson and I were able to get on a few of those Guys with Dicks albums with two SM57s, ART preamps, and the no-frills Aphex compressor — most notably on the CASTRATED EP — and then the sounds I got on my mid-band-breakup solo album BEAUTIFULLY STUPID are still some of my favourite drum sounds I’ve captured on CD. Sometimes limitations force you to get creative and think outside the shoebox.
I was happy with all of this gear until I finished KEEP YOUR SCARS and decided I again needed to take things to the next level. I read some more reviews that caught my eye. The DBX 586 Silver Series mic preamps were the hot new thing, and Rode microphones were blowing everyone away with how well they competed with industry-standard mics that were significantly more expensive, or so the recording magazines and online articles told me. I bought it hook, line, and sinker, and picked up two 586 stereo preamps, a Rode NT1 microphone, a Rode NT4 stereo microphone, and a DBX 1046 four-channel compressor. The ART preamps and Aphex compressor went in a box in the basement.
The change in sound quality blew me away, and OH YOU THIS was another big step up from anything I’d done before, sonically speaking. It was like a thick layer of cheap-tube-induced mud had been stripped away and I could hear everything clearly for the first time. The Rode NT1 became my dedicated vocal mic, and for a time it doubled as my kick drum mic. I’d never heard my voice sound so good. I found myself pushing it up higher in the mix than I ever had before, leaving it dry and free of effects more often than not, when less than a year before I’d been burying it in the mix and slathering it in the thickest slapback echo I could dial up.
The NT4 appealed to me because it was a stereo mic configured in such a way that the two capsules were fused together in a permanent X/Y arrangement, saving me the trouble of having to position two different microphones and worry about phase issues. I could just point it where I wanted and go. For the next few years, this stereo mic lived on acoustic guitar, mandolin, and drum overheads.
That specific DBX compressor is one of those things a lot of engineers seem to hate, and they’ll tell you it’s good for live use but not for recording. I’ve been using it as a tracking compressor for close to eight years now, and I still use it on almost every song I record. Maybe what other people dislike about it is what has kept it in my arsenal — it has no character. It has no sound. It evens out the sound of whatever you feed into it a little, without sounding like it’s doing anything. There were times in the past when I got as much compression as I could going with the thing and wondered why I didn’t hear it pumping like mad. It just sounded like the instrument it was supposed to be, breathing in a natural way, but without any huge spikes in volume at random moments.
I think that’s a pretty good compressor. When you want those squashed, gooey sounds and pancaked transients, it’s not the tool to use. But it’s always worked well for me as a pretty invisible compressor to keep peaks in check and help things sit better in a mix without seeming to do anything at all. I can’t see myself ever not having a use for it.
By the time I was recording BRAND NEW SHINY LIE, I was getting tired of having to reposition my vocal mic depending on whether I wanted to sing into it or use it on the kick drum. So I went out and bought an AKG D-112, which seemed to be the go-to kick mic at the time.
This all served me well for a while. I used minimal EQ, cutting out some lows when I mic’d acoustic guitars (or rather the one good acoustic guitar I had at the time…those were the days), cleaning up the kick and snare tracks a little, but mostly leaving things alone. I got a four-mic drum configuration going that I liked. I had no complaints about the way things were sounding.
A little later on I picked up a few more microphones — a pair each of Neumann KM184 small diaphragm condensers and Rode K2 large diaphragm condenser tube mics — but they didn’t do a whole lot to impress me. The K2s in particular seemed to need an insane amount of EQ in order to get them sounding good, and I ended up getting rid of one of them when I no longer saw the use in having a stereo pair of such fussy mics. I would have to carve out a whole lot of mids before they stopped sounding woolly and started to sound somewhat present. I held onto the remaining K2 and the KM184s because they were expensive and they looked pretty, but it seemed strange to me that the least expensive microphones in my collection were the best-sounding and most useful.
Then I got a Great River MP-2NV mic preamp and everything went to hell as my ears heard the truth for perhaps the first time. The KM184s came to life, the K2 no longer needed EQ, and I started re-evaluating and retooling my entire arsenal of recording equipment. I got into this part of the story last year, so I won’t rehash it all again. I will, however, mention the Crane Song Flamingo I got when I went mic preamp crazy…
…and the Chandler TG Channel…
…both of which have been sitting around for a while now, unused, wondering what their purpose in life might be.
I still have all of these things, even though I haven’t used many of them in quite some time now. Some have been on hiatus longer than others. The Rode microphones haven’t seen a mic stand for four or five years now, while the ART preamps and Aphex compressor have been collecting dust for eight. A few times I’ve thought about selling some of this stuff, but I would always say to myself, “Self, some of these things have depreciated in value so much it probably wouldn’t even be worth it. And maybe someday you’ll have a friend who wants to get into recording their own music at home, but they won’t have much money and won’t know where or how to start building up some gear, and you’ll be able to donate some things that may not be the highest of the high end but could give them a pretty solid start. After all, these things worked for you pretty well once upon a time.”
I’d like to be that generous. But I’m beginning to think an opportunity to help someone in that way might not present itself anytime soon, and part of me thinks I’d rather have a little extra money if I can net decent prices for some of these things.
So this is what I’m thinking.
The Rode mics can go and I wouldn’t miss them. Not with the mic cabinet I have now. The NT4 is a pretty nice stereo mic, and you can even run it on batteries for outdoor/field recordings. I always wanted to try that but never got around to it. Through a mid-level mic preamp it sounds really good. Through a world class mic preamp it sounds less special, but you can do quite a bit with a little EQ. It doesn’t have that harsh, fizzy high end some Rode mics are known for, and if you don’t know much about mic placement it’ll give you phase-issue-free stereo sound no matter what you stick in front of it. I paid at least $1,000 for this mic when it was new, and it’s been well cared for, but now it goes for about half that price on eBay. I’d probably let it go for $400.
The NT1 is, depending on who you talk to, either superior or inferior to the NT1-A that followed and won all kinds of awards for the best microphone in the world at its particular price point. Again, you plug it into a cheap or mid-level mic preamp and it sounds pretty good. I thought enough of it to use it as my only vocal mic for three years and several albums. Plug it into a high-end mic preamp and it sounds kind of thin and sibilant. Supposedly it really opens up when you throw a sweat sock on top of it. I’m not even kidding. This mic wasn’t all that expensive to begin with, and I’d probably be lucky if I could get $200 for it.
The K2 is actually a pretty nice microphone. It feels solid. It looks solid. You plug it into a good mic preamp and it even sounds pretty solid. They say if you replace the tube with something better, the sound opens up even more. Even when I was using lesser mic pres and had to use a lot of EQ to get these mics to open up, I liked the way they sounded on acoustic guitar — especially on a song called “Khaki Lamb” that shows up on the MISFITS (1999-2007) compilation, where I used one K2 and one KM184 on the guitar.
It’s not the greatest tube LDC in the universe, but for the price you could do a whole lot worse. I paid more than $1,000 for it new. Now the mics go from anywhere between $600 and $800 on eBay. I’d probably let it go for $600 or even a little less. This is the one Rode mic I can see myself possibly having some future use for, but only as a drum room mic or an extra spot mic if I found myself recording a number of people at once, and I probably have enough bases covered with my current active mics that I wouldn’t need to reach for it even in that situation.
As for mic preamps, I’ll never have any use for either of the ART pres again. It would be way too much of a backwards move for me. But for someone just starting out recording at home, you can make some good-sounding recordings with one of those pres, an SM58, and an SM57 or two. The single-channel ART tube MP was cheap when it was new, and I probably wouldn’t get more than $50 for it now. The stereo version was discontinued years ago, and on some level I’m tempted to keep it because it’s sort of an archaic collector’s item that isn’t worth anything.
I would get so little money for either of these things, it would almost make more sense just to give them away if I really wanted to get rid of them.
The DBX 586 pres I could probably sell for $500 or so a pop. They ran about $1,000 each in 2003 when they were new. A lot of people despise them, but they served me well and were a gigantic sonic step above the ART preamps. I’m not going to sell the DBX boys, though. I like them as decoration (they look much nicer in person than they do in most pictures), and they work well as pedestals for the Great River pres to sit on. They’re also really heavy and would make good improvised weapons, thanks to the strategically-placed handles. And I’ve always been curious to try experimenting with overdriving the tubes for a really gritty vocal sound. So I might just dust one of these off and give it some action again someday.
Likewise with the piece of shit Bellari pre with the fried tube — putting aside the reality that no one in their right mind would want to buy something that’s defective and sounds like garbage, I think it might be useful at some point for some intentionally awful, distorted sounds. I should dig it out of whatever cardboard box it’s been living in and give it a try.
The Flamingo, though it’s been sadly underused over here, is a seriously nice mic pre. It’s worth keeping around because it sounds really good and offers a nice contrast to the other mic pres I have. The Chandler TG Channel is also a seriously nice mic preamp, but it’s a “character” piece, and I already have enough character with the Great River MP-2NVs and the Chandler Germanium. I also now have dedicated outboard EQ, the lack of which was one of my reasons for holding onto the TG Channel even though I haven’t made much use of it in a long time.
I paid more than $2,000 for it new. It hasn’t really depreciated in value and still seems to go for about the same price, and it costs extra for the power supply. I would probably let it go for $1,400 with the power supply included because (a) it’s not brand new anymore, (b) it isn’t the MKII version, so you just get an XLR input and not 1/4-inch (you need a dedicated DI box if you want to run your bass or a synth through the mic pre for colour), and (c) a few places on the gain pot get a little crackly. Aside from that, it works well and it sounds good. The EQ isn’t a surgical tool, but it can be very musical and useful if you know a bit about EQ. With a bit of messing around I was able to get an SM57 in front of an acoustic guitar to sound better than any SM57 ever should in that application. It also looks cool.
The AKG D112 is a kick mic. It does what a kick mic does. Some people love it. Some people find it boring. I thought it did the job just fine, but right now I can’t see myself ever close-mic’ing a kick drum again. The stereo ribbon mic in front of the kit gives me all the kick I could ever want. I could sell the D112, or keep it, or use it as a weapon in a sock. As it stands, it’s been sitting inside the kick drum for a long time without actually being plugged into anything. These go for $200-300 new. Mine is in perfect condition. I’d probably let it go for $150.
The Aphex four-channel compressor…now that’s an interesting piece. I don’t think I’d want to get rid of it. They don’t make them anymore, they’re seemingly impossible to find anywhere, and with a name like “Easyrider”, how can you not be friends? I haven’t plugged this thing in for years, but I imagine someday I could probably find some use for it somewhere. I think it would do a fine job in a live setting. It’s a good no-frills “set it and forget it” compressor that will clamp down on peaks and tame them without getting too obvious, unless you want it to. There’s more potential for this thing to become a sought-after collector’s piece down the road than there is with the ART dual MP preamp.
So I guess the things I’d consider selling, if anyone wanted them, would be these:
Rode NT1 (SOLD)
Rode NT4 (SOLD)
Rode K2 (SOLD)
AKG D112 (SOLD)
ART Tube MP preamp (SOLD)
ART Dual MP preamp (SOLD)
Chandler TG Channel preamp (SOLD)
If anyone who happens to read this is interested in any of those things, let me know. If not, I might consider putting some of them up on Kijiji. Or maybe I’ll just let them stay in their respective cardboard boxes a while longer, and someday someone I know and like will just happen to be looking to get some equipment to record themselves but will be unsure of where to start, and I’ll be able to offer some assistance.
I thought it was worth throwing out there, anyway, even if only to have an excuse to take a brief look back at a few of the things that have come and gone over the years. Though none of them ever really left…
On a different note, to anyone who’s still expecting a copy of the new album in the mail — it’s coming. It’s just taking a bit longer than usual this time. My CD printer died at the worst possible time, setting me back a fair bit, and the combination of the album being a double CD, the CD design eating up a lot more ink than usual, more people than ever wanting copies of the thing, and my list of people to mail CDs to getting longer all the time has conspired to slow me down a little. It takes a bit more work keeping up with this stuff than it used to.
I did, however, manage to successfully steal from my own stash at last when I needed a few extra copies to go around. Yes-yes!