Olmsted Quad Direct Input Amplifier (Quad DI)

Download the specs/user-guide for the Olmsted Quad DI:

DOWNLOAD: Olmsted Quad Direct Inject

Let’s say that you have many vintage keyboards with weak output levels and often with high (10k ohm or above) output impedance.  You’d want to bring them up to modern operating levels and a low source impedance, and maybe to be able to color the sound with some grit.  Based on these parameters, here is what I developed.

The Quad DI provides up to 40db of all-tube gain with a 10db output pad to allow for either clean reproduction or heavy distortion.  The distortion is thick and smooth and has potential application for everything from electric bass to Rhodes piano to synth leads and even mix stems.  The cathode-follower output and hefty output transformers provide very solid bass; at +10 output levels bass response is absolutely flat down to 20hz. This is an all-tube unit, all the way back to the rectifier tube.  The only silicon devices are a handful of diodes in the input-stage heater-supply.  The power supply also features dual chokes, a feature of some very high-end hifi equipment which rarely (if ever?) makes it into pro audio gear.

The unit has 1/4″ TS inputs on the rear panel along with XLR outputs; the inputs are reproduced on the front panel with priority jacks:  I.E, you can keep the rear inputs permanently connected to a patchbay or a synth collection, and the front panel inputs will automatically disable the corresponding rear panel input if, say, you plug in a bass guitar to do a quick overdub.

I found this to be a very interesting piece to develop because it seems to synthesize several notable trends in modern music in one device.  First of all, the desire to be able to add grit/fuzz/overdrive to the sort of instruments that were considered best left ‘clean’ for many decades.  Sure, guitar amps have boasted of ‘overdrive channels’ since the mid seventies; but keyboard amps?  Not until recently.  Second, the prevalence of keyboards/synths in rock music in general:  not done some much in the Grunge era, back in a big way now, especially since bands like Animal Collective became the  standard-bearers of Indie.  Next, the console-less pro studio!  Not a big surprise there.  You can’t give consoles away anymore.  And, finally, lest-i-get-too-meta, the current widespread cultural appreciation of all things handmade + crafted, especially those that function through obsolete or antique technologies.  Could a similarly-functioning apparatus be strung together for the same price out of a pile of Chinese-made prosumer audio gear?  Probably.  But it probably wouldn’t sound this good or function this ergonomically.  And definitely not at 375 volts.

What do we get from the sound of a space?

Above: Mato (drums) and Jon (seated) during drum tracking.  Recognize the space?  If so, you are one of the 12 people who saw this cinematic debacle, filmed largely in this very building. 

Several years ago, before I had Gold Coast Recorders, I had a modest recording-studio setup in the former American Fabrics factory on the east side.  It was a small operation with a large control room and two small ‘booths’ with observation windows linking all the spaces.  Nothing fancy, but I did manage to make a number of successful productions there.  NEways…  due to the very small size of the tracking rooms I sometimes resorted to tracking after-hours and on weekends in other parts of the floor.  A few tracks from one of my final sessions there were recently released.

Have a listen to “Brass Bonanza,” the lead-off track from Five Minute Major (In D Minor), the latest album by The Zambonis.  The record was released in February 2012 to great response from The New Yorker, The Examiner, and NPR.

LISTEN: Brass Bonanza

Horn tracking space for “Brass Bonanza.”

I love Pro Tools.  I’m not afraid to say it.  I love the convenience, the low cost, the rapid editing ability, the fact that it leaves essentially no limits to music production other than the imagination and the skill of the artists/engineer.   And while I tend to use plug-ins (audio-processing sub-programs that run within the pro tools software body) for more corrective rather than creative purposes, preferring to ‘get-the-right-sound-on-the-way-in,’ I don’t have many issues with how they sound either.   The one thing, the one little thing that I can’t quite fall-in-with, though, is digital reverb.

Back in the ole’ days when I used a Yamaha Rev7 and ADATs I really did not mind the sound of digital reverb; the recording media was lower-resolution, the Rev7 was 12-bit and had much less high-frequency content to begin with, and I was certainly less critical of a listener.  In my current set-up of Pro Tools HD3 with Lynx convertors and a properly tuned control room, though, I just can’t seem to fool myself into thinking that the digital reverb plug-ins effectively create the sound of an actual space.  Not that this is the only possible function of reverb; reverb is also useful for smoothing out pitch issues and simply creating multiple planes of depth within a sonic field.  But when I’m recording a rock band, trying to capture the energy and volume of a performance, I feel like it does the band the most justice to ‘put it in a space.’  And what better space than real space?  In the case of ‘Brass Bonanza,’ there was no artificial reverberation used.  The drums were tracked in the space that you see them in: approximately 30% of the way along a 100-foot hallway.  The horns were tracked in the tiled restroom that you see, with the single ribbon mic depicted in the photo.  How much additional value/merit does this give to the recording versus running a reverb plug in?  That’s up to you to decide.  The band wanted a very reverberant sound and the only way that I can be satisfied with heavy reverb is if it has some if the complexity, texture, and non-linearity that a real space offers.

So what do you do if you don’t have a 100-foot hallway or an 1100-sq ft live room to track drums in?  I’ll begin with some advice given to me several years ago by the great producer Martin Bisi.  I was subletting studio space from Martin at the time and in one of our many wonderful conversations Martin offered me this bit of wisdom which I paraphrase for you here.  Life is complex; reality is complex.  What we experience in the world is complex.  The more sonic complexity you introduce into a recording, the closer you come to recreating actual lived experience.  I hesitate to say “you make it life-like,” since this is ultimately not possible, but you get closer to that impossible goal.

So if this is true, what does it mean for process?  Well, first of all, notice that there is no mention here of musical complexity.  We’re talking about adding sonic interest to a musical performance.  This ultimately holds the promise of allowing us to simplify and streamline the musical lines/performances while still creating and maintaining a huge amount of interest for the listener.  With enough detail, care, and complexity achieved in the audio rendering of a musical performance, even the most utterly simple melody, phrase, line, or note can create incredible meaning.  This is the most basic, and the most profound, goal of creative audio engineering.

Second, but no less important, is this idea that perhaps it is the complexity of the sonic-event, and not necessarily any verisimilitude to any actual acoustic even/space, that really matters most.  So while I may have coveted the sound of that long hallway and that super-reflective restroom, perhaps what I really gain from those sonic generators is the infinite amount of complexity that they bring to the sound, and not necessarily the fact that I think the qualities of actual physical space are accurately described in the mix.  Here’s something you can try at home.  Create your mix using whatever digital reverb tools you have.  Print the output of the reverb as an audio stem.  Solo that stem.  Find the space in your house/apartment/studio that has the most interesting sonic quality and a pleasing frequency-response character.  Put your monitor speakers and a stereo pair of mics in that space and re-amp the reverb stem only.  Record that to its own stereo track.  You have now added an infinite (within the limitations of the A/D convertors) amount of complexity to a digital reverb that is, necessarily, somewhat limited in detail.  See if this new, 2nd-generation reverb adds interest and complexity to the mix.  You will probably need to EQ it a bit, but you can do this fairly easily by using the first-generation digital print as a guide.  Consider using this 2nd gen reverb as perhaps a ‘spotlight’ reverb for the ld vox, chorus snare drum, or percussion stem.  When we re-orient our awareness to the problem/promise of complexity in sound-recordings rather than fidelity, great things can and will happen.

You can learn more about The Zambonis and stream their new record at TheZambonis.com.  “Brass Bonanza” and “Fight On The Ice” are my two productions on the record; the rest of the album was produced and engineered by the great Peter Katis and Greg Giorgio at the world-renowned Tarquin Studios, also located in scenic Bridgeport Connecticut

 

Swiss Mix

I’ve always coveted these little Nagra BMII audio mixers and but I somehow resisted the urge to purchase one on eBay.  It is a 4 channel mono mixer with simple level and low cut controls.  They come up regularly for around $200 since a fair number were sold (and none were likely disposed of, due to their great cost-when-new). One factor in my hesitance was that *no one is ever willing to confirm that they do in fact work, and/or *no one seems to be able to confirm how to interface them with standard pro audio equipment, and/or *no one seems to be able to confirm what the operational specs are – gain, impedance, i/o format, frequency response.  The BMII was designed and built solely for use with the Nagra recorder, the most expensive, most finely crafted portable analog tape recorder ever built, and the Nagra has somewhat peculiar i/o and power requirements.

NEways… picked one up at the flea market this weekend for a few dollars; it did not come with a power supply but it did have a couple of the necessary Tuchel 6-pin cables, which will save me the trouble of hacking new jacks into the back of the unit.

The Tuchel connector was a popular audio-connector format for professional gear in Germany in the 60s and 70s; I have some obscure old Sennheisier mics that use these things.  Anyhow, a quick search online revealed a Nagra recorder manual that confirmed the pinout data on the rear of the mixer:

A few things to note: pin two does NOT connect to earth, chassis, or anything else, in the BMII: it only ‘loops thru’ to the other pin 2.  Ground connection is actually achieved only thru the Tuchel shell itself.  The output of the BMII is unbalanced, 2K ohm; this is suitable for connection to consumer ‘RCA’ type inputs.  The inputs of the BMII are 200 ohm, and they seem to be balanced, but since I can’t find a schematic for the unit and there are no input transformers in the unit I can’t be sure.  The entire thing is built on turret boards and the wiring is good… not the best I have ever seen, but very good.  One thing that makes me a little nervous is that all the electrolytics (and there are dozens of them) are they particular translucent-blue brand (anyone?) that always seem to be the faulty component in whatever piece of 60’s pro audio gear I happen to be servicing at the moment.

Alright so… I’m going to build a little power supply for this thing and fire it up, see what happens.  If it does in fact work + sound great, I am thinking I can add a 2K:600 UTC output transformer to make the thing useful for modern interfacing.  Since the BMII was designed for ultra-critical location recording of major film productions, I am hoping to be impressed with the sound…  soon…

UPDATED: Link: Live Radio Interview Friday 5.11 8AM *** 89.5 WPKN Bridgeport

Tomorrow, 5.11.12, I’ll be a guest on Del’s “In Transition” show in the eight o’clock hour.  We’ll be listening to some recent productions I’ve put together at Gold Coast Recorders and talking shop about music, audio, love, loss, and life.  In addition to being a radio host and rocknroll aficionado Del is a veteran audio tech with a long resume that includes many of the greatest recording studios in NYC.  So it promises to be an interesting chat.   Listen in at 8AM tomorrow EST at 89.5FM in the New York Metro Area or stream it live at www.wpkn.org.

UPDATE: This segment has aired and can now+forever be streamed from the WPKN archive.  Click on this link to listen. My bit comes in around the sixty-minute mark.   One correction: in the piece I state that my tenure at SONY began in 1991; this is not correct.  I started in 2001.  Blame it on the A – M.

 

Guitar Synths of the late 1970s

The 360 Systems ‘Spectre’

Today as PS dot com: a quick look at the then-new product-category of Guitar Synths circa 1979.  A great number of small manufacturers sprung up to offer these devices, and a few of the big names got involved as well.  What is required for a guitar synth?  Well, at minimum, independent pitch-to-CV and envelope-to-gate tracking and conversion for each of the six strings, and then some sort of synthesis engine (x6) to create the actual sound that you hear.  Some of the units covered in this post were only the first part of the equation, and you could certainly find monophonic pitch/gate-to-CV modules going back to the early 70s (anyone know the release dates of the specific Moog and ARP modules that did such?).  But putting it all together in a package that a guitar player might want to buy: this took some time.  Guitar synths never really caught on, probably due to the cost initially, but even as prices came down it really seems like the vast majority of players were just happier with a bunch of effects pedals.  In addition, there is something inherently retrograde with performing on the electric guitar regardless; it is very much a signifier of the 1950s and 1960s; so why muddy the waters of yr joyous celebration of the past with so much technology?

If anyone is still using any of these things on-stage or in productions, drop a line and let us know…

The Slave Driver, also from 360 Systems

The Ampeg Patch 200: Note Hagstrom-Swede.

The Gentle Electric (love that name…) model 101 pitch/envelope follower

The MCI B-35S system.  Anyone?

The Polyfusion FFI frequency follower.  Click here for previous Polyfusion coverage at PS dot com.

The Zetaphon

The Roland GS500 and GR500: early products in a line that is still being produced today, over 30 years later. 

The mighty ARP Avatar.  Below, a period advert…

…and click here to view the same-period ARP full-line catalog available for download at PS dot com.

Excellent Tape-Editing Primer c. 1976

Download a five-page article by Mortimer Goldberg as first published in DB magazine, 12/76:

DOWNLOAD:dB-7612-CBS_Radio-Art_of_Tape_Editing

Many thanks to T.F. for sending us this wonderful piece.  Anyone who is involved with editing audio or video should give this a read.  Goldberg gives an explanation of what goes into making ‘natural’ sounding dialogue edits, and my god he’s really got it down to a science.

Goldberg was a technical supervisor for CBS for over a quarter-century, and everything that he offers here is still very applicable to modern DAW production.  I was fortunate enough to learn these techniques first-hand from some of the wonderful audio-post engineers at the now-vanished SONY Music Studios in Manhattan, and the applications extend way beyond dialogue and into music production.  Even if you never do audio-post work, remember that our minds are incredibly attuned to human speech; if you can learn to make perfect, in-detectible speech edits, your music edits will follow suit.  Also notable: Goldberg offers a very insightful account of why the critical demands of Radio speech-editing are far greater than similar work for Television production.  Great stuff.

BTW, I have not been able to find any other issues of this particular ‘DB Magazine’ (as you might imagine, many publications have been offered under this title).  The full title seems to be “DB The Sound Engineering Magazine” and fwict it was published between 1968 and 1984.  Anyone know where I can get some back issues for a good price?  eBay is asking $14.95 an issue…

 

Pawnshop Classics: off-brand Japanese guitars of the late 70’s

The Aria Pro-II TS-500.  It’s a super-strat, it’s a hippie sandwich, it’s a mock BC Rich…  Aria II was better known for their basses but plenty of guitars were sold as well.  All of the guitars in this post were once common sights at pawn shops and ‘somewhere in the back’ of yr neighborhood music store.  Many were made by the Japanese Matsumoku corporation and then sold in a variety of brand-names around the world.  I don’t see them too often any longer, except for the occasional flea-market appearance.  Since they had neither the baby-boomer appeal of Gibson/Fender/Gretsch nor the flash of 80’s shred-axes, these things traded in the $100 range for decades.  Now, like the mustache, some cachet seems to be building around them and prices have risen to the $500 – $1000 area.

The Aria Pro II PE-1000 of 1979.   I can recall playing some of the PE-series decades ago; they were very fine guitars; note the heelless neck. 

The Washburn Hawk of 1979, a good-quality instrument from their Wing series. 

The Westbury Custom S circa 1981, imported by Unicord (importers of Marshall/Korg/etc…).  Note the similarities to the Aria Pro IIs.

The Westone lineup of 1979. 

Any Matsumoku collectors out there?  Any know of any relevant players using these things nowadays?

 

The Travis Bean TB1000 of 1975

Most iconic of the 70’s ‘aluminum guitars,’  the Travis Bean line up continues to remain a valuable collector’s item.  Famous players include Duane Dennison from this classic band.  You can see a more detailed list at this link.  I briefly played the much crappier Kramer aluminum-necked instrument from the same era; it had a terrible two-bolt neck joint that never seemed to stay tight. Frequent unintentional chorus-ing would result.  Any TB fans out there?

Electra Guitars of the 1970s

Above: an Electra ad from 1979 which seems to be suggesting that by using their sound-effects controls incorporated into the guitar itself (rather than in foot-effect-pedals), you will develop a unique style and attain success.  Okey…  Anyone using one of these today?  Thoughts? 

Electra was a brand-name for Japanese-made guitars imported by the St Louis Music Co. in the 1970s.  There were also Electra-branded amps:  I had a pretty rad solid-state piggyback with a 15″ driver and footswitchable phaser/reverb/overdrive (i think…) in the early 90s…  pretty good sound for a solid-state amp… Anyhow, I can’t find any info on the amps online but maybe someone can send us a catalog?  As far as the guitars: there is pretty good documentation on the web: start with this page.  These dudes also posted the full 1977 catalog, which is one of the best I have ever seen.  To wit:

(image source)

Goddamn hippie cowboy space invader!  Nice.  Anyhow… here are some more interesting Electra ads from the mid seventies which I think no one else has bothered to upload yet… enjoy…

The Electra MPC guitar with modular electronic-effect plug-ins.   Gimme TANK TONE baby.

The Electra ‘Tree of Life’ guitars, part of a larger ‘carved-top-design’ trend in the 70’s…  see here for another example.

Key Break

Man I love this image.  Yamaha YC Combo Organ advert circa 1971. “Organ Eyes.  It’s what happens when you see something in your mind.” Nice.  We briefly used a Yamaha YC20 In our band before we started touring.  It was just too damn heavy but wow are those things cool.  They were also dirt-cheap.

Today: some random bits of 70’s keyboard culture.  If yr using any of these pieces in the studio these days, drop us a line and let us know…

Above: The EML synkey circa 1976.  Touted as being the first user-programmable synthesizer, this piece also has a fairly unique feature for it’s day:  Aftertouch! Or as EML terms it, “Second Touch.” This advert also solves a little mystery for me… I was wondering what ever did happen to CT-based Electronic Music Labs (EML), and it looks like they ended up as part of the CT-based Kaman musical empire.  Click here for some previous EML coverage at PS dot com.

Above: Felix Pappalardi endorses the mighty Mellotron.  These things are so classic that it seems almost unbelievable that these things were once advertised, stocked in shops, etc…  For those unfamiliar, the Mellotron was a very early sampling keyboard.  It accomplished this feat in the pre-digital-audio era by using a separate tape playback mechanism for each key.  The tape was not looped, but rather a spring-loaded strip of eight-seconds length, which has the unintentional effect of requiring unusual playing techniques for any musical passage with long sustained chords.  Get the whole story here.