To Be A Master; or, Embracing Amazonian Tactics

Hello, friends and readers, internet denizens and explorers. I have officially graduated with my Masters of Fine Arts from California Institute of the Arts, which is all sorts of arts up in here. It was an amazing experience, in which I learned, grew, and evolved as an artist, even if those three previous verbs turn out to be redundant semantically. I now know an incredible network of talented friends and good people who truly believe in the power of the arts as a way to make the world a better, more understanding sort of place, even if those two previous adjectives also turn out to be redundant.

From another angle, what I’m trying to say is that I’ve now joined the ranks of hopeless indebted Americans with a degree notorious for making survival difficult. But hopefully this blog will help make that a slightly less accurate stereotype! I love this blog, and though my post frequency experienced a deliberate and considerable dropoff over the past two years, I’m thrilled to be able to go back to it and hopefully post on a roughly daily basis again.

To the above end, I have decided to become an Amazon Affiliate. This means that for certain links on this website, I can get a small amount of money if someone buys something after clicking it. I’ll only ever promote products I use myself or believe in very strongly. I hope to be able to help out artists and authors that I feel deserve it, which I’ve been doing for free for the last several years already. If any ads show up, they will be personally selected by myself, which means they will be trustworthy and non-animated, because seriously, I don’t enjoy money nearly as much as I hate animated ads.

Below I’ve compiled a list of my gear. I will add to it (pun?) as I (hopefully) acquire more professional equipment (toys) in the future (present). They will be archived at my new gear page. Please click on everything a thousand million times and buy all of them, because they have literally made me into the musician I am today.

Thanks for your continued readership and support while this blog was on semi-hiatus, and please stay tuned! More in the works. Maybe even an ebook? Okay, moving on!


Macbook Pro

While to some it may seem obvious, my Macbook is the brain of my entire operation, and the main point I’d like to make here is that switching to Mac from PC was the greatest decision of my life. If you even remotely plan to perform using your laptop, ever, one night you’ll be having the set of your life when suddenly your PC will crash. It just will. Be very careful with your third party plugins and (if you’re a beast) Max patches or whatever, and your Macbook will treat you so very right.

MOTU Traveler
MOTU Traveler

If my Macbook Pro is the brain of my studio, my MOTU is the heart. I mean, their company name stands for “Mark Of The Unicorn”. How can you get more endearing than that?

When I bought this piece of gear which was (and still would be) very expensive for someone like me, my whole life changed. I had previously owned an M-Audio 2-channel external soundcard which, to its credit, performed exactly as the box said it would. But I couldn’t stereo multitrack, the MIDI latency was atrocious, and the sound of the inputs made me grind my teeth at night. So I researched for months, and finally bought the Traveler, and it saved my life.

I was living in the living room of a 1-bedroom apartment. I would travel around Los Angeles after work, recording in strange places, mixing everywhere. I’d go to friend’s places and record there. I’d even go overseas and record while abroad. And my MOTU went with me. It doesn’t require a power cable, which is incredible. It has premium sounding mic pre-amps, four of which are dual XLR/quarter-inch. It supports daisy chaining, just about any cable format you can think of, and because of the dual action gain knobs essentially doubles as a mixer. 8 ins and 8 outs! A digital mixing board that fits in a backpack! And it supports near-zero latency MIDI!

No other unit in my studio gets more use or more love than my Traveler. I can’t recommend it enough for the highly mobile laptop audiophile.

Ableton Live 8 Suite

Now, you’ll notice I’m not talking about the brand new Ableton 9 and its Push Controller. This is not because I don’t want to. Indeed, nothing would make me happier than to tell you that I own these things and that you should too. But I can’t afford them, and so I can only speak to Live 8. And what I will speak to it is that it is the best, most intuitive, most useful solution to the Digital Audio Workstation in existence. Ableton changed my life in the same way the Traveler did. I’ve been forced to use ProTools over and over again, and the one thing that keeps running through my head (besides “No, I do not want a detailed report, dammit!“) is this question: “Why are we still trying to recreate an analog recording setup when analog recording setups are becoming obsolete?”

Enter Ableton Live. It was built from the ground up as a live performance space, and then evolved into a fully functional DAW from that perspective. Since it’s a platform meant to allow one to improvise synthesized and sampled music, there’s no better program for composition and performance out there. And for a while, that’s all it was best at. But now, and especially with what I’m told is a nice update to their digital/analog conversion algorithm in version 9, Ableton has become a platform that can run your entire studio, leaving dinosaurs like ProTools and Logic to the meteors.

This opinion of mine is the subject of an incredible amount of controversy. ProTools was revolutionary, and people still get angry at me for badmouthing it. And, seriously, to each their own. I’m not really hating on either ProTools or Logic (much), but for me, and for anyone who considers themselves a composer, Ableton Live is the only program that makes any sense whatsoever.

Rode NT1A Condenser Microphone

When I bought this microphone in 2004, the world was a different place. As I see it, there were two main differences in terms of microphones: first, the concept of buying Chinese-made knockoffs was laughable, and second, the online DIY community was a tiny, burgeoning infant still struggling to get its IMG SRC code right. Now remakes like the MXL 603S exist and are really hard to discount, excuse the pun, and DIY microphones have me drooling more and more with each successive Google query.

So, if we’re being honest here, I have no idea if I’m still allowed to tout the NT1A like I do. But I can tell you that, having worked in six serious recording studios in last ten years, this is still one of the quietest, most universal, best sounding microphones $200 could ever buy, especially if you record a lot of vocals. I get sentimental about my NT1A the same way I do about my MOTU. I’ve beat the poor thing to a pulp, spit buckets into it, thrown it in backpacks and hauled it across oceans, and the little guy just keeps on chugging, like the little engine that could, sounding great, avoiding hiss and if anything sounding better over time. Plus, Rode is a fabulous company who take great pride in their microphones at any price level. Had I ever had to get my mic repaired, they would have done so for free, just like Seagate. But that has never happened, and that’s why I still recommend the NT1A as a multi-purpose condenser mic after all these years.

Audix OM2 Dynamic Microphone

Compare this simple dynamic mic to the Shure SM57 or SM58 on both price point and frequency response, and the OM2 wins out every time. It’s $20 bucks cheaper and doesn’t have weird bumps in the response that suspiciously match tape stock compression.

Look, I know that every studio on earth has like, boxes of Shures. Sound engineers stick with what they know, and in the first half of the 20th century these simple machines were only encumbered by the occasional angel choirs that would sing after a particularly heavenly recording experience. I get it. But we have come so far now. I love the Shures as much as the next studio engineer, but you are wasting cash buying one these days when you can get a better, cheaper dynamic mic from someone like Audix.

KRK Rokit 5 Studio Monitors

One day, decades from now, producers of the future will look back on these speakers as the Yamaha NS10s of our generation. They may not be perfect, they may not get much respect, but they are the people’s speaker. In the wild west that is the current music production scene, these speakers give you the sound you need to connect with your listener. Beginning and end of story. They have an impressive bass response, not flat but nudged just right. These are the speakers Skrillex mixed his breakout “My Name Is Skrillex” album on. KRK makes a ton of great speakers, but the people have spoken, and for the price these simply can’t be beat.

Beyerdynamic DT880 Headphones

Noise complaints have always been the bane of my existence. That, and the carrying weight of a studio monitor pair. So I had to get mixing headphones.

There’s a lot of things to think about when purchasing mixing headphones. First of all, you have to think of any possible way you can avoid it. No matter what you do, psychologically and laws-of-physicsly, your bass levels are going to be off. Another of your most important considerations is comfort: are you really going to want to wear the damn things on your ears for eight hours a day? Just physical comfort-wise?

These headphones have been the trick up my sleeve for years. I auditioned many, many pairs, and when I finally placed these around my earholes, A-and-B-ing between monitors and headphones, at first I wasn’t sure if the headphones were plugged in! True story. They sound extremely true, and that is not something I would say lightly. I developed a workflow where I could get the sound good enough on my headphones, then adjust a few bass levels after a listen in my car, and that was my ghetto mixing flow that ended up working wonders. (Typing that out, it’s actually probably a candidate for accidental genius. Headphones, computer speakers, and car speakers? Basically the entire world’s listening palette these days.)

Disclaimer: These are absolutely NOT recording cans. The giant cushions create far too much bleed; you’ll hear your click in everything. But no matter what anyone tells you, the best recording headphones you’ll ever find are earbuds. They don’t even have to be all that nice. Nowadays any medium-grade earbuds are more than sufficient for recording thanks to the iPod revolution. They’re comfortable, unobtrusive, and create zero bleed. You take that one home for free.

M-Audio Keystudio MIDI Controller

Out of all my workflow, this is probably the most basic element. I was broke and needed something with more than one octave. You’ll find a similar controller keyboard sitting in front of every composer’s workstation in the world. You need a mod wheel and a pitch bend. Everything else is gravy.

They get much more complicated. Honestly, I’m eyeing a smaller interface with knobs to twiddle and sample pads to mash. But, philosophically, we are taking what’s in our human heads and converting that into very long series of numbers. Your controller is one of the ways we’ve found to keep that transition as human as possible. Get a keyboard, or a Launchpad, or something, but if you don’t have some kind of interface your music will suffer.

Seagate FreeAgent GoFlex External 1.5TB Hard Drive

This may be the most insider recommendation I have. There are hundreds of different versions of hard drives out there, and, I don’t know about you, but it seems like no matter how big the drive, internal or whatever, I always manage to fill it up in no time. I’m collecting hard drives like some crazy digital content hoarder. But with all the backups we have to make (you do backup religiously, right?), plus the demands of higher and higher format resolutions, digital storage space is a specter that’s always looming.

I worked in digital storage for years. I worked at a top tier digital post production house in Hollywood, and we operated what was at the time the largest digital storage facility on the west coast. This was used entirely for hi-res video FX and colorization filmouts. And do you know how they were solely delivered? Digital tapes and EIGHT MILLION DIFFERENT TYPES OF HARD DRIVES. And I had to deal with every single one, every single awkward, rickety-assed firewire some FX producer had dropkicked into the backseat of their pickup before shoving it through our mail slot. And do you know the one drive that always, always worked?

Seagate. I have some kind of Pavlovian response to seeing a Seagate label. If I saw one of these come through the pipes, I knew I could relax. Their drive would be efficient, quick, and reliable every damn time. In the rare case there was an issue, I knew that it would be fixed quickly, because they have a lifetime parts and data recovery warrantee. No one ever lost shots on a Seagate. This model that I own has a separate Firewire 800 adaptor that finally broke after two years of mistreatment, and they mailed me a replacement within a week, no questions asked, for free.

And though the newest models are usually a bit pricy, the “old” ones go on sale all the time. All of their drives are 7200 RPM. With a Firewire 800, USB 3.0, or Thunderbird attachment, this means that I can get performance speeds off my solid-state Seagate anywhere I go. I can load up my sample libraries, Atmosphere, all the big dogs and not have to worry about bitrate lag. And the thing is tiny! I can easily fit it in the pocket of my jeans. Not that I do that, mind you, I’m just saying, it’s technically pocket-sized. Take it from someone who hates hard drives: this is an awesome hard drive.

As I said, I’ll be adding to this via this page as time goes by. Any little click helps. And there will be an ebook based one of this blogs most popular posts, with updated and expanded sections. Exciting! See you, space cowboys!

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