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MUSIC: EQUIPMENT

PHYSICAL INSTRUMENTS
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STUDIO SOFTWARE

PHYSICAL INSTRUMENTS:

Yamaha P200 Digital Piano
Schecter Corsair Bigsby Guitar
Rickenbacker 660/12 Guitar
Rickenbacker 650S Sierra Guitar
Rickenbacker 620/6 Guitar
Peavey Grind 5-string Bass Guitar
Ovation Ultra 2171 Guitar
Ovation CS255 Guitar


Yamaha P200 Digital Piano

This is an absolutely wonderful digital piano which I purchased in about 2000, and it has the best sound and action of any digital piano I have ever encountered. The keyboard is a full 88 keys, and the action is what Yamaha calls their "graded hammer action" which does a remarkable job of duplicating the feel of a real piano. It doesn't have a lot of bells and whistles, nor a lot of sounds, but the sounds it has are truly good for the most part. The "Piano 1" sound is a carefully multi-sampled version of a Yamaha concert grand, and sounds true and lifelike. There are a variety of other piano and electric piano sounds, including some very convincing Rhodes electric piano sounds; a couple of organ patches, one of which is a programmable drawbar organ; a decent vibraphone sound; and a string bass. The "Strings" patch is forgettable and unusable.

Also included are a pair of really good-sounding built-in speakers driven by a 35 watt/channel amplifier; an effects section with a variety of reverbs and modulations, though the reverbs only sound good through the built-in speakers and are not suitable for use in recording; a three-band equalizer; MIDI in-out-through implementation; and stereo line outputs. The construction is top-notch - this keyboard is built like a tank, and weighs in at about 80 pounds, so portability is questionable unless you have some roadies.

The Yamaha P200 has been superseded by their newer P250 and the brand new CP300, but these are instruments that will last for many years, and I have no plans or need to upgrade. I use the P200 as my MIDI master keyboard and for its incredible acoustic piano sound.

Schecter Corsair Bigsby Guitar (Serial #S070710188)

Somewhere along the way I have become a guitar collector. I'm not sure exactly when that happened, but when you acquire six guitars in your arsenal – well, in my mind, at least – that qualifies you as a collector. I'm going to need a bigger apartment pretty soon unless I get over this. Do I want to get over this? I don't think so – it's a gear-head thing and I'm infected with it.

Anyway, to celebrate my 53rd birthday, I decided I wanted another guitar. There was a gap in my existing collection – that's how I justified it. I did not have an arch-top semi-hollow body guitar, and even more importantly, I did not have a guitar with a vibrato tailpiece. I wanted one, so I did some research. There are a lot of great arch-top semi-hollow body guitars out there, and there have been for many years. There are a lot of vibrato tailpieces, too – a far greater variety of manufacturers and theories of design and construction than I was aware of. What I was looking for was something that could give me that classic semi-hollow body sound combined with a vibrato tailpiece that would expand the expressive capabilities of the guitar. Narrowing down the possibilities, I looked at what my favorite guitar players were using. I've been a huge fan of Simple Minds for many years, and Charlie Burchill is one of my favorite guitarists – he plays a Gretsch White Falcon. So does Martin Gore of Depeche Mode –one of my favorite bands of all time. The Gretsch White Falcon goes for a little over $3000 USD, and while I could charge one to my MasterCard, I didn't think it would be a good thing to do. After all, that's the kind of behavior that got the economy in the mess that's it's in.

So I looked for alternatives. Gretsch does make some lower-priced alternatives, and I considered some of them – the 5120, for example, which is a big, deep, single cutaway equipped with a Bigsby that goes for about $700 street price. But I didn't want to take on the floating bridge that the 5120 and others in Gretsch's Electromatic line are equipped with. I also considered the Ibanez Artcore Series AF75TDGIV, which is styled to look pretty much just like a Gretsch White Falcon and sells for a mere $500, but I was a little dubious about the quality. ESP Guitars is a name you don't hear all that much, and I considered their PC-1V Paramount single cutaway rather seriously for a while – it goes for $600 – before finally deciding that I wasn't all that keen on the styling. The PC-2V is the same guitar with a double cutaway and it looks a heck of a lot better, but was out of stock everywhere.

Then I discovered the Schecter Corsair Bigsby seen above – and read a lot of glowing reviews about their quality of construction, playability, and sound. Here are the specs:

Maple body
Set 3-piece mahogany neck
Ebony fingerboard
22 medium frets
24-3/4" scale
Dot inlays
2 Duncan Designed HB-101 guitar pickups with coil splitting
2 volume, 2 tone controls
3-way pickup selector
Tune-o-matic fixed roller bridge
Bigsby B-70 vibrato tailpiece
Crθme multi-ply binding
Grover tuners
Chrome hardware

Musicians Friend, where I have purchased lots of gear over the years, had the gloss black finish I preferred in stock (it also comes in a walnut finish), but I couldn't locate a case for it on their web site, so I called them. As it turns out, they don't carry the case – model SGR-12 in case you're looking for one for your Corsair – but the nice lady I spoke to one the phone turned me on to a deal. For the next couple of days they were running a 20% off sale on gift certificates, and you could buy one for yourself. They sell the guitar for $750, so I bought myself a gift certificate for that amount and was charged $600, and promptly used the gift certificate to purchase the guitar. Not a bad deal – since expired. Sorry if you missed it. By the way, I found the case on Amazon, of all places.

But the best part is the guitar itself. Schecter Guitar Research (I love that name) manufactures their Diamond Series of guitars, of which the Corsair is one, in Korea, then does the final inspection and setup in the U.S. I would like to thank technician #7 at Schecter for the care that was obviously taken in setting up this guitar, because I have never received a guitar before with such a perfect setup right out of the box, and that includes all of my U.S. made Rickenbacker guitars, too. The neck is dead flat, the action is low, the intonation is perfect, the fit and finish of all the components are flawless. It is effortless to play, is capable of sounds ranging from a woody jazz tone to thrash metal and anything in between, and I believe it is quickly going to become the favorite guitar in my collection. The overall workmanship in construction is absolutely spectacular.

The Bigsby vibrato, which was one of my qualifiers going into this guitar quest, works just as I had been expecting, which is to say quite well. While not as extreme an effect as some of the other vibrato mechanisms found on some guitars, it does just what I want it to do, and I find it very intuitive and comfortable to use. Once the strings are tuned, stretched, and stabilized there is no problem with keeping the guitar in tune while using the Bigsby. It quickly becomes second nature to give it a little, almost imperceptible wiggle to get it to return to the center point where the tuning is unaffected.

Maybe one day I'll get one of those Gretsch White Falcons and try to wrap my arms around it, but in the meantime with this Schecter Corsair Bigsby I can get basically the same sounds with an investment of about 20% of what a White Falcon would have cost me today. This is an awesome guitar!

Rickenbacker 660/12 Guitar (Serial #06-05197)

This is my pride and joy - a Rickenbacker 660/12 in the Montezuma Brown finish, the guitar I want to be buried with. It's a solid-body 12-string with two vintage-style "toaster top" scatter wound pickups, a figured-maple body with checkered binding, a laminated maple neck that extends completely through the body for incredible sustain, rosewood fingerboard with triangular mother-of-pearl fret markers, a 12 saddle adjustable bridge, and that completely demonic Rickenbacker 12-string headstock.

Weighing in at 8 pounds, it's a remarkably compact instrument, with 21 frets, and an overall length of 37 inches. It's very comfortable to hold and well balanced. More importantly to me is the 1-3/4 inch neck width at the nut, which gives my fingers more room. Best of all is its sound, which is pure Rickenbacker.

Many people outside of the exclusive circle of Rickenbacker owners are surprised, as I was, to find that Rickenbacker 12-string guitars are and always have been strung in "reverse" to other manufacturer's 12-string guitars. By "reverse" I mean that the fatter, or lower octave strings in each string course, are placed towards the top of the guitar as one holds it for playing. This is a philosophy that Rickenbacker adopted from the beginning, and actually allows for better intonation, though it continues to confound newcomers to Rickenbacker guitars, and more than a few luthiers.

Restringing a Rickenbacker 12-string is a challenge, to say the least. You have to really want to do it, and until you've become proficient at it, you had best set aside the better part of an afternoon or evening. The strings alternate in the headstock between typical machine heads that go perpendicularly through the headstock such that you can actually get to them, and ones which are recessed in grooves in the headstock that will provide endless hours of frustration in trying to get new strings properly wound. Experience makes it somewhat easier, although plenty of beer and lots of time is still a requirement when it comes time to restring my 660/12. I use the standard Rickenbacker compressed round wound strings on my 660.

Rickenbacker 650S Sierra Guitar (Serial #07-28480)

I couldn't help myself. I hadn't visited the Rickenbacker web site in months and just decided to browse it one day in September of 2007, going to the Rickenbacker 650S Sierra just to see if they had made any of these beautiful guitars recently. It's a model that I have had my eye on for a couple of years now, but they just don't make very many of them, and so they're quite difficult to find. Rickenbacker seems to make a lot more of their other 650 models, which include the 650C Colorado and the 650D Dakota. All three of the models in this series share the same contoured solid body shape, a 24-fret maple neck that runs through the entire length of the guitar with a slightly wider 1-3/4 inch width at the nut, and two humbucking pickups. They all measure 37 inches overall and weigh in at 8-1/4 pounds. The 650C Colorado's body is made from an unspecified hardwood and is available is a range of color finishes, but what sets the 650D Dakota and the 650S Sierra apart is their solid walnut body and headstock wings, and a hand-rubbed oil finish. The 650D features chrome plated hardware, but the 650S Sierra's hardware is 24-K gold-plated, which really sets off the rich wood tones and makes it especially striking.

So as it turned out, I visited the Rickenbacker web site at an opportune time, because they had just recently manufactured a grand total of four 650S Sierra guitars. I found mine at Dave's Guitar Shop in LaCrosse, Wisconsin, which had received it less than a week previously, emailed Dave for a price which he promptly supplied, thought about it for 45 minutes, and called them to make the deal. A week later it arrived, and it is completely gorgeous in appearance, feel, and most importantly, sound.

I don't know why these guitars, especially the 650S Sierra, aren't more popular than they seem to be, and why Rickenbacker doesn't make more of them, particularly when you consider that they are the least expensive model in Rickenbacker's current lineup. Maybe that's the answer itself. The 650S Sierra is currently listed at $1299 MSRP. Oddly, the 650C Colorado lists for $230 more, and to my eyes isn't anywhere near as visually appealing, though they make a lot more of those.

This is going to be my favorite six string. I already can tell that I like playing better than my 620/6 because of the 650's slightly wider neck. Although that's actually a complaint from some players, it's an advantage for my fingers. The humbucking pickups are extremely quiet, the sustain is forever, and you can tailor its sound through your rig to whatever style you're after. The contoured body makes it a very comfortable guitar to play, too.

Three Rickenbackers in my guitar arsenal now – I guess that makes me a collector. I was afraid this was going to happen... 

Rickenbacker 620/6 Guitar (Serial #06-19161)

The color in this photo does not do justice to the gorgeous Midnight Blue finish on my new Rickenbacker 620/6, my first 6-string electric guitar. It's really less teal than you see here, and actually more like the blue color of some of the fonts on my pages. It's a really beautiful guitar, and it's my second Rickenbacker, adding weight to what Rickenbacker owners maintain, that one Rickenbacker is not enough. Once bitten by the Rickenbacker bug you will acquire more.

The body style of the 620 is nearly identical to that of the 660, the dimensions being the same. The main difference is that the 620's body binding is plain white, as opposed to the fancier and incredibly expensive to produce checkered binding of the 660. Also, the 620 does not use heavily figured maple, and in fact, the Midnight Blue finish is opaque - you can't see any of the underlying wood grain. Another difference is the neck width at the nut, 1-5/8 inches here, but I didn't figure that would matter to me since it only has six strings. The pickups here are high-gain, less noisy than the vintage toasters on the 660.

Of note with the 620 are its two different output jacks. One is a standard mono guitar output; the other is what Rickenbacker calls the Ric-O-Sound output, actually a stereo output in which each of the two pickups is routed to a different output channel, if you are so equipped to make use of this feature. It requires the use of a studio insert link cable - Monster Cable makes a very good one - in which you plug a stereo TRS plug into the Ric-O-Sound jack on the guitar, which then splits into two mono plugs. Then you can plug each pickup's output into either separate guitar amplifiers, if that's the way you work, or, in my case, into two different channels on your mixing board.

This enables you to have a different sound for each pickup, based upon your amp setups, or effects that you choose to add to each discrete channel. I have only managed to scratch the surface of this capability in the short time I have owned this guitar, but it's a very impressive feature and not one that other guitar manufacturers have ever offered, to the best of my knowledge.

I will have to admit that, when I first acquired this guitar from a normally reputable dealer, though one that has to be considered a mega-dealer of musical instruments and equipment (odd that Rickenbacker still has one of those on their distributor list, which is otherwise very exclusive), the setup was awful. I went through a period of several weeks in which I was seriously contemplating whether I had made a bad decision in buying this guitar.

The neck had a tremendous amount of relief from the beginning, and Rickenbacker guitars are not supposed to have any neck relief at all - the necks are designed to be set up completely straight. So I ordered a truss rod adjustment tool from Rickenbacker and started to try and make some adjustments. I was able to remove some of the relief from the neck, but not all of it, by adjusting the dual truss rods with which Rickenbacker guitars are equipped. Then I attempted to adjust the intonation, but still found the instrument, for me at least, almost unplayable.

Then it dawned on me that all my other guitar playing had been on 12-string guitars, which necessarily require a great deal more force from the left hand on the fingerboard. It occurred to me that perhaps the standard Rickenbacker strings were too light for my playing style, so I investigated other possibilities and came up with an alternative to try - D'Addario Chromes, which are a flat wound string, in a gauge which was just slightly heavier than the standard Rickenbacker strings. I tried a set and all the intonation problems disappeared immediately.

The Rickenbacker 620's sound has been compared to the Fender Telecaster - as one player put it, "It's like a Telecaster on steroids." I definitely concur, especially with the D'Addario Chromes, and I now love this guitar for its own sounds and capabilities, though not as much as my 660/12, by any means. One thing I've found it eminently suitable for is in the role of a lap steel - perhaps not so strange considering that Rickenbacker originally made their mark in the electric guitar market as a manufacturer of lap steel guitars.

Peavey 5-string Grind Bass BXP NTB (Serial #AQJF0179)

In November of 2009 I invested in yet another instrument which – according to my longstanding theory of justification – filled a gap in my collection. It's getting harder for me to continue with that justification, but if you look at all the other guitars I owned previously, you might notice that not a single one of them was a bass guitar. All the bass guitars in my recent recordings have been sampled instruments, and while those have worked out for many recording scenarios, I found myself wanting more control over the tone and technique than a sampled instrument was capable of being played on a keyboard. That basically left me with two ways to go – either invest in new and better sampled instruments than that which I already had, or actually buy a bass guitar. I had been relying on the 1972 Rickenbacker (I would assume it's a model 4003) and the Lakland sampled basses that came with the East-West Colossus virtual instrument reviewed below, which are great for a lot of things, but eventually you run into a situation where what you want the instrument to do is impossible for a virtual instrument to do. Glissandos come to mind, for example.

So for about the same amount of money as I would have spent on more and better sampled bass guitar sounds, I decided to get a bass guitar instead, which is a lot cooler thing to have in the long run. Of course I would have loved to have gotten a Rickenbacker 4003, which lists for over $2000, but I kind of felt like that was a little out my my price range for an instrument which I had yet to develop any skill in playing. Plus, the Rickenbacker is "only" a four-string, and the music I'm working on requires something with a little more low end, which led me to looking into five-string basses. I was thinking on a budget for this investment and looked into a bunch of different makes and models before ordering the Peavey Grind BXP NTB 5-string bass pictured above. It's a 35-inch scale bass with a laminated mahogany and maple neck that extends the entire length of the instrument for incredible sustain, rosewood fingerboard, two passive humbucking pickups, and a distinctive crashing wave body design crafted from imbuia wood. It's also available as a 4-string or 6-string bass model.

MSRP was $549 without a case (add another $80 for that). I paid $430 including the case from Zzounds. Winner of Bass Player magazine's Editor's Award, they called it "a sonically rewarding experience." I'd heartily agree with that.   

Ovation Ultra 2171 Guitar (Serial #8041097)

The Ovation Ultra 2171 Contour GS Acoustic-Electric 6-string Guitar was not something that I went out and shopped for, but I'm on the email list of Musician's Friend who send me daily reminders that there are things musical that I really can't live without, especially when prices are slashed to the extent that this guitar was. The MSRP on this guitar was $850, but Ovation discontinued the model, so I found it on clearance for $399. Then the day after I ordered it, Musician's Friend dropped the price another $40, so I called them and they adjusted my price down to $359. I had to buy a case separately, but still, this was a steal of a deal.

Ovation makes guitars in factories located in Korea, where they manufacture their lower-priced models, and in the US where their high-end guitars are made. The Ultra series were of hybrid manufacture – the sub-assemblies made in Korea, and the final assembly and inspection done in the US. This is actually a very good under-$1000 guitar, with a solid Sitka spruce top, laminated maple and mahogany neck, rosewood fret board, and Ovation's OP-Pro preamp – usually found only on their high-end models. Fit and finish are flawless. The bowl on this model is a deep contour style, so it has a very full sound even when not plugged in. It came strung with D'Addario EXP16 12-53's which I replaced with D'Addario EXP15 10-47's to make it a little more comfortable for me to play. The intonation was not affected by the lighter strings. Tuning has been extremely stable. My only complaint is the location of the 1/4" output jack, which is awkwardly placed for playing plugged in while sitting down.

Ovation CS255 Guitar  (Serial #5009491)

 

This is the Ovation CS255 12-string that started me down that slippery slope of becoming a virtual guitar player. I figured this was a good place to start, and I wasn't disappointed. For those of you who may be unfamiliar with Ovation guitars, they first appeared back in the late 1960s, Glen Campbell being an early endorser of the design, and are distinguished by their unusual construction - the neck and top of the guitar are pretty normal, but that's where it ends. The entire back of the guitar, what would normally be  the sides and back of a traditional guitar, are replaced by a rounded, composite bowl-shaped structure, called simply the "bowl." Its shape is designed to reflect the sound created by the vibrations of the strings and guitar top out the front of the guitar, as opposed to the basic box shape of traditional guitars.

They are also among the first acoustic guitars to have electronic pickups and preamps installed on them as standard equipment. The pickup is a piezo-electric type and is mounted under the bridge saddle, which is of a compensating design for better intonation. The pickup feeds the on-board preamp, powered by a 9V battery, which includes a three-band equalizer, built-in chromatic tuner, and volume controls, with a single mono output.

This is a very nice guitar, though one made by Ovation in their Korean factory at lower cost. Ovation still has a US factory for their higher-end models, but  as more and more instrument manufacturers originally based solely in the US - in fact, manufacturers of just about anything - move their manufacturing to places on the planet where labor costs aren't so high as they are in the US, the Koreans have begun producing some relatively high-quality instruments on behalf of their US partners.

Unusual with the design of this particular guitar is the lack of a single, central sound hole, replaced here by a series of 15 sound holes of various dimensions placed on the upper bouts of the body, set off by exotic leaf motifs in various other woods. It's visually a very attractive design, although I can't attest to what it does for the actual sound of the guitar if, as I am doing, you are recording it strictly from the pickup. The CS255 also features the shallowest bowl design that Ovation offers, diminishing its unamplified volume, and making it unsuitable for unamplified use except for practicing, in which case this feature can spare your neighbors from having to listen to you, which can be an advantage for apartment dwellers.

VIRTUAL INSTRUMENTS:

Arturia Moog Modular V
Arturia Minimoog V
Arturia Yamaha CS-80V
Native Instruments B4 II Organ
G-Force M-Tron
EWQLSO Gold PLAY Edition
EWQL Symphonic Choirs & WordBuilder
Quantum Leap Colossus
Miroslav Philharmonik

Arturia Moog Modular V

For the sake of argument, let's just say that you were a huge fan of the sound of the great big Moog modular synthesizers that were manufactured way back in the late 1960s through most of the 1970s. You idolized people like Keith Emerson, or Wendy Carlos, or others who could actually afford the many thousands of dollars it would have cost you back then to own one of these behemoths, but they were out of your reach then, and they just don't make them anymore. And if, today, you could find a real one for sale, it would probably take thousands more dollars just to put it back into playing condition, and even then, the oscillators would constantly be going out of tune, spare parts would be impossible to obtain, it would take up half your studio, and you would constantly be untangling a mess of patch cables.

Now let's say that a few decades later, an enterprising French company called Arturia, working with the approval of the late, great Bob Moog himself, managed to develop a software emulator of this holy grail of synthesizers that could be bigger and better than just about any of the actual Moog modulars anybody ever had, never went out of tune unless you told it to, included modules like the Bode Frequency Shifter of which only a dozen were ever made in the entire world, had a noise floor of zero dB, could actually store patches, and on top of everything else, you could make it polyphonic. And let's say that you could buy one for an MSRP of $250. I'll bet you'd pee in your pants. I know I just about did when I learned about this a couple of years ago.

This is one of the most amazing pieces of software that I've ever seen, and the sound of this thing is absolutely incredible. It takes a bit of computer horsepower to make it run effectively - faster CPUs and lots of RAM seem to help - but this is an utterly astounding piece of digital technology. That picture above is a screen shot of what you'll see when you load it on your system, either as a standalone device or as a VST plugin. It comes with a bunch of presets, many of which were developed by musicians who were familiar with the actual hardware versions of these synthesizers, though a lot of the presets are pretty cheesy in my opinion. However, they do sometimes provide good jumping-off points for you to make modifications and create your own sounds, which is, after all, what these things are all about.

You have to know the basics of subtractive synthesis before you begin, or at least it helps if you do, since that was the underlying architecture of Moog synthesizers. You connect the various oscillators, filters, and other modules together with virtual patch cables. Click on a jack in the interface and a patch cable appears. Drag it to where you want to plug it in, and you've made a connection between the modules. Twist the knobs by clicking on them with your mouse and turning them to where you want them.

A word of caution, though - you will spend endless hours twiddling with the knobs and plugging this thing into that thing just to hear what happens, and if you're not careful you could end up frying your speakers. Seriously, be careful until you know what you're doing. But this thing is a total blast, and the quality of sound that it can produce is unbelievable. I literally cannot say enough good things about this product, but you will have to spend time getting to know it and making it your own to realize its potential.

Arturia Minimoog V

The original Minimoog was produced from 1970 until 1981 and became one of the most widely heard synthesizers in history, featured on countless recordings, and used by such famous artists as Rick Wakeman, Keith Emerson, Chick Corea, Jan Hammer, and many, many others. It was the first "affordable" performance oriented synthesizer to gain a substantial following, even though at about $1500 back in those days, you still had to have some bucks to acquire one. That would be the equivalent of about $5000 to $6000 today, so they weren't cheap. Moog Music began marketing an updated version of the Minimoog a while back called the "Minimoog Voyager" which is available in various editions for around $3000 in today's dollars, so you could say they've come down in price a bit, and the modern version sports a lot of improvements on the original - notably, oscillators that stay in tune, and MIDI implementation.

Arturia developed their virtual software version of the venerable Minimoog in consultation with the late Bob Moog, as they did with their Moog Modular V, to reproduce as faithfully as possible the warm analog sound of the original Minimoog in a digital emulation. There are those who will argue that the Arturia Minimoog V is less than an accurate sonic reproduction of the analog synthesizer on which it is based, but for an MSRP of $250 I can give up a little authenticity for the privilege of getting close to that sound. Granted, it would be cool to own a "real" Minimoog and be able to twist the knobs by hand, but if using a mouse to do the same thing saves me $2750, I have to consider that.

And I have to tell you, this thing sounds pretty darned good. You might be wondering why - since I already owned the Arturia Moog Modular V - why I would want to add yet another virtual Moog synthesizer to my arsenal. Two reasons come to mind.

First, the Minimoog - virtual or actual - doesn't sound like a Moog modular synthesizer. There is a lot of common ground between the two, but the Minimoog was designed as a performance synthesizer, whereas the Moog modulars were primarily studio instruments. The oscillators and filters share many characteristics, but the Minimoog always had a big fat warmth to it, even when it was screaming.

Second, the Minimoog is a LOT easier to use than the modular Moog. There are no patch cords. You don't feel like a rocket scientist when you're creating a new sound. The architecture is rather straightforward - oscillators to mixer to filters. That's basically it, so it's a lot faster to create a sound, even though that sound isn't capable of being modulated in as many ways as with the Moog modular, and your oscillators and filters aren't capable of as many variations.

Arturia has added many features not found on the original Minimoog, like an arpeggiator, polyphony, and various modulation parameters. But the bottom line is that sound, and if you've been wanting a Minimoog for decades and never had the cash for the real thing, then this is your ticket.

Arturia Yamaha CS-80V

A short while after Arturia introduced their Moog Modular V emulator, they did it to me again by producing an emulator of the Yamaha CS80, one of the first true polyphonic analog synthesizers that Yamaha manufactured in the late 1970s. I had to have it, mainly because, although I could never have afforded one back then, I did have the opportunity to play one once, when a friend of the band I was playing in at the time - a rich friend, apparently - brought an actual CS80 by our studio for a couple of days. I would have sold my soul to the devil for one at the time, but the devil wasn't in the market.

This is another extremely well-designed piece of software emulation, with all the sliders that appeared on the original hardware, plus a lot more programmability. A couple of the coolest aspects of the original CS80 were its portamento capabilities, where you could make a chord swoop in from a bunch of different pitches to arrive dramatically, and its ring-modulator, which could produce completely outrageous sounds. One of my favorite avant-garde albums from the time was Vangelis' "Beaubourg," which was recorded primarily with the CS80, and still astounds me to this day.

I haven't spent nearly the time with this emulator as I have with the Moog Modular V, but its sonic qualities are in the same league, and the system requirements are about the same as for the Moog - heavy CPU usage is required, so have a fast system with lots of memory if you want to use one. It also works as a standalone or a VST plugin.

If you're into this kind of vintage gear, check out Arturia. They've also done emulators for the ARP 2600, Minimoog, Sequential Circuits Prophet 5, and Roland Jupiter 8. I don't own any of those, but they were all venerable keyboards in their day, and I'm sure the Arturia versions are at least as good as the originals in sound quality.

Native Instruments B4 II Tonewheel Organ Emulator

Another venerable holy grail of the keyboard world is the Hammond B3 organ, the original versions of which were manufactured between 1955 and 1974, and became mainstays of the rock and jazz keyboard sounds of the time. The original instrument was electromechanical in its sound creation, and the double-manual keyboard was housed in a massive 500 pound walnut cabinet which roadies continue to curse to this day. In addition to the organ itself, to get that classic sound, you needed at least one or more huge, heavy Leslie speaker cabinets with their counter-rotating high frequency horns and low frequency speaker baffles, preferably over-driven by tube amplifiers. So you were looking at about a half-ton of equipment all told. Hammond Organ was eventually bought by Suzuki of Japan, and they recently re-introduced the B3 in an all-digital sound creation scheme which recreates the original tonewheel sound, still housed in a 500 pound walnut cabinet that looks just like the original. And you'll still need the Leslie speakers, and the roadies. It costs $24,995 without the Leslies. They go for about $2000 apiece.

I like walnut just as much as the next guy – it's one of my favorite woods, as a matter of fact. And there's something to be said for one of those huge, heavy organ cabinets with the two manuals of fabulous waterfall keys, and all those drawbars and other controls right at your fingertips, but $30,000 for an organ rig is a little bit more than my bank account can afford, and besides, I live on the second floor.

A number of different musical instrument manufacturers have tried to recreate the classic B3 sound over the years, both in physical instruments – like the Crumar T2B that I bought back in the 1980s which no longer functions, and is the biggest and heaviest paperweight that I now own – to the more recent digital emulations, available first as MIDI outboard devices that still had actual drawbars, to the more recent software-only versions. Native Instruments came out with their first version of the B4 back in 2000, and it was far and away the best software emulation of the original B3 sound. Their latest version, the B4-II, takes the virtual B3 to a whole new level.

Working as a standalone or VST plugin, the Native Instruments B4-II is not just one Hammond B3 organ, but a collection of Hammond B3s which can be endlessly tweaked to create the individual sound that the user wants. Not only do you have the full spectrum of drawbar adjustments, which provide for potentially millions of tonal variations, but you can do things no real B3 is capable of. For instance, you can choose the virtual age of your organ, from a sparkling new one fresh from the showroom floor, to a battered old veteran that's been dropped down backstage staircases a few too many times. You can choose from a variety of speaker cabinets, including both the Leslie 122 and 147 models with either closed or open cabinets, and a number of other non-Leslie models. With the Leslie speakers, you can control the upper and lower rotor speeds, both fast and slow, as well as the acceleration/deceleration of the rotors, and the microphone positions in both proximity, balance, and stereo panning.

You can also control the amount of tube amplifier overdrive – a MIDI controller pedal, not included, is extremely helpful to serve as the swell pedal for this effect and should not be confused with a simple volume pedal. You can create presets and store them for instant recall. You can interface it with an outboard MIDI controller for more immediate tactile response of such things as the drawbars. Basically you can have more control over the sound of your virtual B3 organ than anyone with an actual B3 could ever hope to have. And the sound – the sound is the most important thing, after all – is simply awesome.

The only drawbacks to working with an emulator such as this as opposed to playing the real thing are the lack of an authentic Hammond keyboard, which has a tactile feel that no MIDI controller keyboard can accurately reproduce; and the lack of the immediate real-time control over drawbar settings, which a MIDI controller could help to overcome. But for $230, this is an insanely good substitute for the real thing.

GForce M-Tron

 

If you were into rock music in the late 1960s through the 1970s, the sound of the Mellotron is one with which you are familiar, whether you know it or not. It was used by many of the top artists of the time, including the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Yes, Genesis, and many others, but perhaps most distinctively as a part of their sound, by the Moody Blues.

The Mellotron was a contraption, to say the least, but it was perhaps the first sampling keyboard device, although completely analog in its design. The most common type was probably the M400, which boasted a 35-note keyboard, and the three or four knobs you see in the picture above, a pretty spartan layout even for vintage keyboards of the time. It utilized magnetic tapes which contained recorded samples of the actual instruments being played. These tapes were installed as strips into a frame within the machine, and when you pressed down a key on the keyboard, a playback head would mechanically move along the tape strip and play back the analog recording for that particular note. You could only play a note for about 8 seconds, and them the playback head would reach the end of the tape strip, and the sound would cease, so it took some finesse to voice chord progressions properly.

The technology was certainly crude by today's standards, but the result was a sound that was totally distinctive. You could buy tape frames with up to three different instruments on each strip of tape, and switch between them by twisting a knob on its control panel. A tape frame might typically contain stringed instrument recordings, say, a violin choir, or brass instruments, or an actual voice choir - or anything else you were willing to pay for the company to custom make for you. The string, choir, and flute sounds were perhaps the most common.

But the sound! It was unique, distinctive, and otherworldly. It didn't really sound like what the actual instruments recorded on the tapes were - it sounded really cool and a little weird. It spawned a whole generation of keyboards, beginning in the late 1970s, that attempted to capitalize on the popularity of the string sounds of the Mellotron, which were known as string machines or string synthesizers, none of which was able to accurately reproduce the sound that made the Mellotron famous in the first place.

After several other manufacturers attempted, most unsuccessfully, to alleviate the lack of a viable alternative to an actual Mellotron, with sample libraries of original Mellotron tapes, GForce finally did it right and created the M-Tron, the definitive virtual Mellotron.

Apparently, they scoured the world in search of the best master tapes that still existed of those original sounds, and resampled them with love and care, producing the definitive virtual Mellotron, which works as a standalone or VST plugin. Granted, a lot of the samples they have included are not particularly noteworthy - more obscure tape sets that not many people used, for good reason - but you do get all the greatest Mellotron samples of all time.

And if you hold a note for 8 seconds, it will quit, just like the original, which will make you play your emulator just like the original Mellotron, thus adding to the authenticity of the sounds you create. Awesome - simply awesome.

EastWest / Quantum Leap Symphonic Orchestra Gold Complete PLAY Edition

Earlier in 2008 I followed the upgrade path offered by EastWest Soundsonline and upgraded my EWQLSO Silver edition to the Gold Complete edition. First they made me an offer I couldn't refuse in terms of the cost – a two-for-one sale on some of their most desirable virtual instruments. I bought their Quantum Leap Colossus virtual instrument as my freebie, a kind of Swiss army knife instrument collection reviewed elsewhere on this page. Second, I had the opportunity to pre-purchase a license for the upcoming "Play" edition of EWQLSO Gold, the long-awaited complete re-engineering of the underlying sample playback engine and its associated user interface.

A little explanation of the various flavors of EWQLSO might be helpful. There are three editions of this orchestral virtual instrument collection available: the Silver edition at $295 comes with 11Gb of 16-bit samples and one microphone position; the Gold edition at $695 contains 33Gb of 16-bit samples with many more articulations than Silver, and one microphone position; and the Platinum edition at $1295 features 117Gb of 24-bit samples with all the same articulations as Gold, plus a choice of three microphone positions. All three EWQLSO Play editions now feature the newly redesigned user interface and sample playback engine, and all work either in standalone or VST plugin modes.

The new interface is a joy to behold, and seems much more intuitive than the older Native Instruments Kompakt interface. The envelope filter has been greatly improved, a stereo doubler is included, and a fabulous convolution reverb is now included, too. Under the hood so many improvements have been made that it's not possible to list them all here. One thing you may not like is the new authorization procedure, which will require you to have a little dongle called an iLok, sold separately for about $40, attached to a USB port on whichever computers you are using the software. The iLok stores your authorization keys, so theoretically you can have the software installed on multiple machines, but you can only use it when the iLok containing your license is plugged in.

This isn't really a problem with the Silver and Gold editions, since they can be used effectively on a single system – although you should install the sample library and software on separate hard drives for best performance. Platinum users, though, are likely going to want to install each orchestral section – strings, woodwinds, brass, and percussion – on separate computers for best performance, which means that those users will need a separate iLok for each library computer, and one more for the computer running the sample playback engine. So that's an extra $200 just for iLoks to make the system work. However, if you can afford the Platinum complete edition and five computers to run it on, that's probably the least of your worries.

The actual roll-out of these new editions could have gone a little more smoothly. For instance a lot of users, myself included, who bought the Gold edition, didn't receive authorization codes for both the Gold and Silver libraries, which are both necessary for everything to work. But tech support was working a lot of overtime and were extremely prompt in addressing the various issues everyone was having.

Still, the EWQLSO Play edition family is the state of the art in orchestral sample playback. It was a long wait, but the folks at EastWest Soundsonline really did a terrific job with this package.

East West / Quantum Leap Symphonic Choirs PLAY Edition with WordBuilder

The talented and ever-busy folks at EastWest Soundsonline introduced the first version of their Symphonic Choirs a few years ago, and it proved to be an immediate hit, primarily with composers of movie soundtracks, who found countless uses for it, especially in movies featuring gothic, religious and horror themes. How else were you going to be able to afford an entire classical choir on a cheap movie's music budget?

Upgraded in 2009 to the new PLAY interface and sample playback engine which now controls all the instruments in EWQL's symphonic collections, the most dramatic feature of the Symphonic Choirs is the newly developed WordBuilder engine, which allows the user to actually tell the choirs what words to sing. Now before you go off and actually believe the marketing hype delivered by EastWest Soundsonline that makes it sound like accomplishing this is as easy as typing in some words on your computer, selecting a choir, and playing away on your MIDI keyboard, let me caution you. Ultimately, yes you could do that, but you probably wouldn't like the results. This is very sophisticated software, and while EWQL has done a remarkable job in accomplishing what they set out to do with this package, it is not perfect, it has a rather steep learning curve, it takes a powerful computer, and you've got to really want to do something serious with it in order to get acceptable results. If you're the impatient type, don't even bother with it. But if you've got a project that needs or would benefit from what it can do, and have the time it will take to learn the systems, then there's nothing else on the market that can even approach it in a virtual instrument.

EWQL actually recorded the thousands of individual samples that make up the underlying sounds some years ago in the same recording hall that they used for their Symphonic Orchestra collection, so the ambience of the choir samples will blend seamlessly with the orchestral sounds. They have included separate choirs of female sopranos and altos, male tenors and basses, and a boys choir. The sample library itself is huge, requiring 40Gb of hard drive space, and you had better locate those samples on a separate drive from your operating system, which should also be separate from the hard drive that you save your project files to. One nice thing about the Symphonic Choirs package is that EWQL doesn't have separate upgrade bundles like they do with their Symphonic Orchestra in order to obtain all the microphone positions they used to record the samples, and the 24-bit samples themselves. There is only one version of EWQL Symphonic Choirs PLAY with WordBuilder, and it's the whole enchilada, yours for $500 MSRP.

Pictured at the left is the WordBuilder interface, where you will spend most of your time when using the system. Once you insert an instance of the Symphonic Choirs instrument into your DAW as a virtual instrument, and select and load a choir sample bundle into it, you insert the WordBuilder into the MIDI track or tracks that you are using to send notes to the Symphonic Choirs instrument as a MIDI plugin. Then the fun begins. WordBuilder's job is to formulate and transmit the phonetic information about each syllable in the lyrics to the Symphonic Choirs PLAY engine. At the top center of its screen is a text box where lyrics are entered, either in English, phonetics, or the WordBuilder's proprietary "Votox" syntax. Votox is the preferred method, and is a relatively easy phonetic syntax to learn.

The large pane at the bottom of the WordBuilder screen is a bar graph representation of the syllable selected for editing. It shows in order, from top to bottom, each of the phonemes that make up the syllable. The word "choirs" is shown in the example, which is spelled "KwaErz" in Votox. The color bars to the right of each letter represent their relative duration, expressed in milliseconds on the graph. It's a one syllable word, but it has six separate phonetic elements - the initial non-pitched consonant "K", the "w" sound which is a pitched consonant, then a diphthong vowel combination, then two more pitched consonants. You can modify the length of each of these elements, adjust their volumes independently, adjust how long it takes the two vowel sounds in the diphthong to cross-fade, and adjust how long it takes the word to close after the MIDI note ends.

In order to program lyrics for the choirs to sing, you've got to think in syllables, because a word made up of more than one syllable simply won't work if you enter it that way into the text box on the interface. Not only that, but you've got to be conscious about the way that real choirs sing in terms of phrasing, how words and individual syllables are joined together, the tempo at which a phrase is being sung, and the relative space between each individual note. For example, if you wanted to have the choir sing the words "I can't take it" at a slow tempo, then the "t" sound at the end of the word "can't" might actually be articulated before the next "t" sound at the beginning of the word "take". But at a faster tempo there's not enough time for the "t" sound at the end of "can't" to be articulated distinctly. Go ahead and say the phrase at different tempos and concentrate on what your tongue is doing, and you'll see that at a fast tempo, the "t" at the end of "can't" is actually choked off - you don't actually articulate it before the "t" at the beginning of "take" begins. Your tongue hangs there on the roof of your mouth at the end of the word "can't" waiting for the opportunity to articulate the "t" sound at the beginning of the word "take" because there's not enough time to articulate both "t" sounds.

And if you think that the solution is to have the choir simply sing "I can take it" instead, then say that, and you'll see that your tongue actually ends up in a slightly different position at the end of the word "can" in that phrase - it's more flattened out and relaxed against the roof of your mouth behind your front teeth because the word ends with an "n" sound. But when you're saying or singing "can't take" then your tongue is drawn back from your front teeth and is much firmer against the roof of your mouth, which results in the "t" sound at the end of the word "can't" being sort of implied even though it's not distinctly articulated. If you understand that example then you get a much better idea of what you're going to be dealing with using WordBuilder with Symphonic Choirs.

Now before you go away thinking "Well this is impossible - it's just too much work" then consider what an absolutely remarkable achievement EWQL has accomplished with this virtual instrument. This is really bleeding edge stuff, and it can only get better from here. You'll get out of it what you put into it time wise, to a point. In terms of the choirs achieving really understandable words in the context of a total composition blended together with other instruments, it's probably not going to happen. But then again, if you've ever heard an actual symphonic choir together with other instruments, well, they're really not all that understandable either when it comes right down to it. There are many other aspects of the software that I haven't even mentioned that allow for even more fine-tuning of the vocal articulations, just so you know.

One particularly notable feature lacking, however, is the ability of the WordBuilder to work with any of the solo voices provided in the Symphonic Choirs sample library, and EWQL doesn't address why this is the case in any of their documentation. I'm assuming it's because of various technical issues that simply make it impossible at this time, but it would certainly be an obvious feature for them to include in future updates. I'll bet they're working on it.

Quantum Leap Colossus

Sometimes a virtual symphony orchestra, a collection of classic synthesizer emulators, and some really fine guitars just aren't enough. What do you do when you really need some authentic bagpipe samples, or a dulcimer, didjeridoo, clavinet, sitar, or a collection of drum kits or bass guitars, and so on and so forth? You need something like the Quantum Leap Colossus, or its bigger brother, the Quantum Leap Goliath – the Swiss army knives of virtual instruments. Colossus is the instrument that I got for free early in 2008 when I upgraded my EWQLSO software, thanks to a 2-fer sale that Soundsonline was running at the time. It normally goes for $535.

In 32Gb of samples, this virtual instrument covers a lot of ground and fills in a lot of the gaps that I had in my arsenal of instruments. Powered by the Native Instruments Kompakt sample playback engine with which I was already familiar, this is truly a great addition to my studio, especially considering that I got it for free. There are lots of ethnic instruments, keyboards and mallet instruments, brass, orchestral and choir samples, pianos and electric pianos, guitars, basses, drums and percussion, synth pads, leads, and basses, and most of them are really useful and well done.

Worth special comment are the Fazioli F308 grand piano, the 1972 Rickenbacker electric bass guitar, the Taiko drums, and the studio drum kits, but that's only scratching the surface of what's available here. I obviously didn't need the orchestral samples, but if you can only afford one high-quality virtual instrument, then this one might fit the bill for you, even if you have to pay for yours.   

Miroslav Philharmonik

Back in the early 1990s, Miroslav Vitous - perhaps better known as one of the founding members of the jazz-fusion super group Weather Report - decided to create a collection of orchestral samples, using the Czech Philharmonik orchestra, and making the samples available on a set of CD-ROMs. They were, at the time, the best orchestral instrumental samples available, and quickly became a favorite of many composers, despite the hefty price tag of several thousand dollars for the complete set. That was then.

Today, they are still very good samples, but instead of shelling out a few grand for them and having to load them into a playback engine of your own, you can buy the whole original set plus some previously unavailable sounds, together with their own playback engine which functions as either a standalone or VST plug-in, and get it all for a $599 MSRP.

There is a lot to choose from here - solo and ensemble sounds of all the orchestral instruments, plus a lot of extras, like pipe organ samples, and some very good choir sounds with a variety of vowel articulations. I'm not too particularly enamored with the percussion section, though they were thoughtful enough to include a timpani crescendo, which is something I had to do manually before. The string sounds are excellent, both ensemble and solo, and the brass and woodwinds are passable and convincing depending upon what you are after.

There is a lot of flexibility for creating dynamic performance combinations, and some of the ones that are included are very well done and quite fun to play for sketching out ideas. There are about 7Gb of samples all told, which come on two DVDs. The GUI itself is serviceable and easy to understand, once you get over the Jules Verne look of it. From a price standpoint, the Miroslav Philharmonik is hard to beat, although you won't want to depend upon it alone for all your orchestral sample needs - it's just one more instrument to add to your arsenal, but well worth it.  

STUDIO HARDWARE:

HP ProBook 4720s
Asus P5W DH Deluxe/Intel Core2 Duo
Focusrite Saffire PRO 24
Behringer Eurorack MX2004A Mixer
Crown XLS202 Power Amp
JBL Studio Monitor 4410 Speakers
Sennheiser HD280 Headphone
Line 6 POD 2.0
Planet Waves Tru-Strobe Tuner

Hewlett-Packard ProBook 4720s XT992UT with Intel Core i5-480M 2.67GHz

Let me qualify what I said below in my Asus P5W DH Deluxe review about never buying another pre-manufactured computer in my life no matter what. I should have restricted that statement to desktop systems, but when I wrote that I honestly did not anticipate buying a laptop system. I ended up with this HP ProBook out of frustration in the lead-up to my producing the April 4, 2011 concert of the Peabody Wind Ensemble, and their performance of Johan de Meij's "Symphony No. 3 – Planet Earth,"  a mammoth work nearly an hour in length that involved close to 150 musicians, including a choir. The piece also requires three keyboardists who variously play piano, celesta, and two MIDI keyboards playing sampled choir and organ sounds. One of them also controlled the cued playback of pre-recorded sound effects backing tracks called for in the score. I tried setting up a system using a loaner Dell PC laptop from the Peabody IT department, but it proved inadequate both in terms of processor power (it was a Celeron), and lacked the proper Firewire chipset to work with the Focusrite Saffire Pro 24 audio-MIDI interface we had just bought.

So I said what the heck, I could use a new computer, and a laptop would be a good thing to have for various reasons, and went to my good friends at TigerDirect to see what they had. The HP ProBook 4720s XT992UT – a name which doesn't exactly roll right off the tongue – was right in the ball park spec-wise, and at $899 USD was about $1650 less than the price of the most comparable MacBook Pro. Here is a brief list of specs and features:

  • Intel Core i5-480M dual-core processor, 2.67 GHz, 3Mb L3 cache, 4 threads, 64-bit, 32 nm lithography, introduced in January 2011
  • 4 Gb DDR3 RAM @ 1066MHz
  • 500Gb, 7200 rpm hard drive
  • Windows 7 Professional 64-bit OS
  • 17.3 inch HD LED backlit anti-glare display, 1600x900 resolution
  • 8 cell Lithium-ion battery providing up to 6 hours power when not plugged in
  • ATI Mobility Radeon HD 6370 graphics with 1Gb VRAM
  • DVD Super Multi Dual Layer Burner
  • 3 USB2 ports
  • VGA port
  • HDMI port
  • RJ-45 Ethernet port
  • eSATA/USB combo port
  • Express Card 34 slot
  • Media card reader
  • Integrated wireless LAN: Bluetooth and Ralink 802.11b/g/n
  • Full-size keyboard with spill-resistant drains
  • Built-in 2MP webcam
  • Dimensions: 16.17" x 10.49" x 1.11"
  • Weight: 6.51 lbs.

It looked pretty good to me, so I bought it, along with a SIIG NN-EC2012-S1 2-Port FireWire 6-Pin Ports ExpressCard ($69 USD), and an HP BP849UT Business Nylon Notebook Backpack ($35 USD) to carry it around in. Total damage $1013.28 delivered. I think I did pretty well, considering. You might be interested in why I decided to purchase this computer myself, considering that the main reason I did it was for a Peabody task. One word – expediency. It was easier and faster to do it myself and take the risk of it not working for what we needed than to go through the process of trying to justify it and ram it through the purchasing process. And I think I made my point clear to my superiors at Peabody in the process. We have been doing a lot more repertoire in our ensembles that require the use of electronics, which I wholeheartedly support being an electronic musician myself. I have no doubt we will be purchasing one or more laptops in the near future to address those needs, and my recommendations will factor heavily into that process. Besides, I get to keep this system and use it in my own projects now.

This is the first system I have with Windows 7 installed, and Microsoft seems to have heard all the complaints they received after Windows Vista was released. Windows 7 is a very nice operating system, and far less of a nag than Windows Vista was. Unfortunately, only a few days after I started using it, Windows 7 Service Pack 1 came out, but it was no problem to download and update the OS. Peabody was kind enough to purchase an upgrade to my DAW, so this machine now is running Cakewalk Sonar X1 Producer edition, which I will review elsewhere on this page. I installed Miroslav Philharmonik on it as the first virtual instrument, since that is what we needed for the Peabody Wind Ensemble project I was working on, and have since begun installing several other virtual instruments in my collection as time permits.

The display is big and as bright as you want to make it, with excellent color, good glare reduction, and very good side-to-side and up-and-down visibility – you don't have to be directly in front of it to see it clearly. Having the VGA port will allow me to attach a spare monitor when using Sonar to take advantage of Windows' two-monitor capabilities, especially important since Sonar provides the user with so much data on its many views of a project. Connecting to a wireless network is as simple and painless as you could hope for. I had heard complaints about HP's touchpad on this particular model, but have to say after using it that I find it very responsive. The only complaint I have about the touchpad is that it blends so seamlessly into the chassis that it could use a little tactile demarcation – I have found myself wandering my fingertip outside its boundaries more than a few times.

My only other negative comment about this laptop is that most of the I/O ports are located towards the front of the base along the side edges, with the exception of the 1/8" microphone and headphone jacks and media card reader which are located towards the left of the front edge. Two of the USB2 ports are on the right, and the third on the left, along with the eSATA, ExpressCard, VGA, HDMI, and ethernet ports. That should be no big deal if you're only using one or two of them, but if you have a lot of external devices connected it can get a little crowded. Especially with the ExpressCard slot, which is a "push to lock - push to unlock" connector that doesn't seem to grab the inserted card very securely, you have to be extremely careful not to accidentally disconnect the card, which could potentially damage the device you have connected. However, laptop architecture is never perfect in this respect, and in this case the rear of the base is where HP located the battery pack, so they couldn't put the ports there anyway.

The SIIG FireWire ExpressCard contains the Texas Instruments chipset recommended for digital audio I/O specifically by Focusrite. The SIIG card contains two 6-pin FireWire connectors, but does not provide bus power to compatible devices directly through the connector as it does on my Asus desktop system. Instead there is a small connector on the external portion of the card which, with an optional power cable (not included), can provide power to the FireWire device. Unfortunately that means another cable in the way next to your left hand, and with the card inserted on the left of the computer, the connector for this cable is pointed in the wrong direction to be useful. So when I have the Focusrite Saffire Pro 24 interface connected I'm using it's supplied wall-wart power supply.

Some of the larger virtual instruments I plan to install are going to require an external hard drive to store and retrieve samples from, however, which is why I was extremely pleased to find a laptop with an eSATA port. I am planning to add an Other World Computing 2TB Mercury Elite-AL Pro Quad Interface External HDD w/ eSATA, FireWire 800, FireWire 400, & USB2 Ports to my setup. This external drive will hold the digital samples from various virtual instruments, so as not to overtax the I/O on the internal drive while Sonar is running. And since the interface is eSATA it will be as fast as an additional internal drive. All in all I'm very happy with this HP ProBook. It is without a doubt the fastest computer I own now, boots fast, runs cool and almost silently. It's a lot of bang for the buck – highly recommended.

Asus P5W DH Deluxe with Intel Core2 Duo "Conroe" E6600 2.4GHz

I promise to never, ever buy another pre-manufactured computer in my life, no matter what. There, I said it, and I can say that because my first-ever built-from-scratch PC not only works, and works extremely well, but also saved me at least 50% of its cost over the nearest PC that I could have bought pre-manufactured. It was actually a lot easier to build than I thought it was going to be, all things considered. Many people seem to think that you have to be an engineer of sorts to do something like this, but you don't. You simply need to know what it is that you want the machine to be capable of performing, research to find the right components at the best price, and then put it all together with the simplest of tools - a Phillips screwdriver, mainly.

The Asus P5W DH Deluxe motherboard that I chose for this project was released in mid-2006 to rave reviews, and it had the right combination of I/O ports and expansion slots that I knew I would require. It is considered an enthusiast-class motherboard, and the BIOS offers many options for overclocking the system to obtain better performance from the CPU and memory. The Intel Core2 Duo "Conroe" E6600 2.4GHz CPU that I installed in it is also considered one of the best that Intel has produced, which also lends itself to overclocking. I haven't gotten into overclocking with this system yet - there really hasn't been any need for me to do that so far with what I have asked it to do. Most overclocking enthusiasts, from what I have determined, tend to be computer gamers, and those games often ask for a lot from a system. My focus with this system is on music production, and I have found that I can throw multiple virtual instruments at it without the CPU load even going above 10-20%, which gives me a lot of headroom.

The Lian-Li case I chose for this system was well worth the $150 it cost. It's superbly engineered from all aluminum, making it very lightweight, and the fit and finish of everything is astoundingly good. Horizontal-aspect cases are few and far between, but that's what I required for it to fit into my studio rig. It has bays for two optical drives and two hard drives within, a front panel I/O port with two USB ports and a firewire port, two cooling fans on the back, and sleek good looks.

Altogether this system cast me just a little over $1000 to build. To buy a pre-manufactured system of similar capabilities would have been upwards of $1500-2000. 

Focusrite Saffire PRO 24 Audio / MIDI FireWire Interface

Now this is a thing of pure beauty. In the fall of 2010 I was recording sample tracks with Sonar 6 Studio Edition on my Asus system using the East West Quantum Leap Symphonic Choirs in preparation for the Peabody Wind Ensemble's upcoming recording of Johan de Meij's "Symphony No. 3 – Planet Earth" which is due to be released early in 2012. I created a MIDI sequence with 12 tracks, each corresponding to a particular choral part in the first movement of that piece. After rendering the audio to those tracks and trying to mix them, I discovered something alarming. The M-AUDIO Audiophile 2496 PCI interface installed in my Asus system was picking up audible noise generated by the computer itself, which only became apparent because the very low decibel audio tracks being mixed together added up this previously unnoticed noise to an audible level. I tried everything I could to get rid of it, but it became apparent that the problem was that the audio interface was located in the computer box itself, and was picking up things like processor clock sounds and who knows what else.

I had to get rid of that noise, so I began to investigate some of the newer external audio/MIDI interfaces on the market, to get more physical separation between the computer motherboard and the audio interface, and eventually decided to give the Focusrite Saffire PRO 24 a try, particularly because Focusrite provided drivers for Windows XP x64 edition which I still use on my Asus system. It's sad that Microsoft sort of abandoned Windows XP x64, since in the five years I have been using it, it has proven itself to be extremely stable, but their decision led many hardware and software developers to abandon it as well, providing little in the way of support and compatibility.

That being said, the Focusrite Saffire PRO 24 integrated seamlessly with my systems – both the Windows XP x64 and the Windows 7 Pro 64-bit – and I have been nothing less than astonished by its audio quality. There is absolutely no discernable noise floor, even at the highest output levels of the quietest musical passages. On top of that everything sounds so much better all the way across the sonic spectrum, clearer and much more transparent. It turns out I did an even better job of mixing than I had previously thought upon listening to some recent projects – I just didn't know it until I heard it played back through this interface. The front panel, seen above, provides two XLR-1/4" balanced combo jack auto-switching inputs, which are the main input channels 1 and 2. To the right of that are the input gain pots for channels 1 and 2, five-stage LED level meters for inputs 1 through 4, an output monitor pot, and a headphone level pot and its 1/4" stereo phone jack. LED indicators glow red underneath the channel 1 & 2 pots to indicate an instrument-level connection has been made. Green LED indicators glow for power-on, FireWire connection, and sync-lock with your host. A push-button applies 48V phantom power for microphones that require it.

The back panel provides an on-off switch and power connection for using the external power supply, and a host of connection points – SPDIF in-out RCA jacks, FireWire connector, optical input, MIDI in-out, two 1/4" TRS line inputs, and six 1/4" TRS line outputs. Included with the package is a CD with the installation files for the Saffire Mix Control, which is a highly flexible mixer and router which is used to control the ins and outs between the Saffire and your DAW application. Quick specs:

  • Frequency Response: 20Hz - 20kHz +/- 0.1 dB
  • Gain Range: -10dB to +60dB
  • THD+N: 0.001%
  • A/D-D/A Dynamic Range = 105dB (A-weighted), all analog inputs
  • Supported Sample Rates: 44.1kHz, 48kHz, 88.2kHz, 96kHz
  • 16 input channels to computer: Analog (4), SPDIF (2), ADAT (8) and Mix Loop-back (2)
  • 8 output channels from computer: Analog (6), SPDIF (2), Assignable 16 input by 8 output mixer

At a street price of about $250 USD this is one incredible deal and a real performer, and has now replaced both the M-AUDIO PCI interfaces reviewed below for recording use. Focusrite makes five other models in their Saffire range, from 2-in 4-out, to 28-in 28-out channels.

Behringer Eurorack MX 2004A Mixer

I know a number of audio professionals who have a love-hate relationship with Behringer products, which are designed in Germany at the company founded in 1989 by Uli Behringer, and manufactured in China under a strict quality control process. The combination of German engineering and Chinese labor are the two points that cause some people qualms, but it's a combination that seems to work very well in delivering some very high-quality products to the "pro-sumer" market. Behringer products work very well for the most part, and if after a few years something goes wrong, or you want to upgrade, you're not out an arm and a leg.

I've had this mixer for about three years now and it has never failed me, but then I don't move it around from place to place either, so I don't know about road-worthiness, but that's not one of my concerns. It features a total of 16 input channels, the first eight of which are mono, with both balanced 1/4" and XLR inputs, send/receive inserts, and three-band EQ with sweepable midrange. Channels 9 to 16 are stereo in and feature four-band EQ. There are two effects busses; two output busses; mute/solo, pan controls, and peak LEDs on all channels; and extensive monitoring capabilities. My only complaint is the huge external power supply, too big to be called a wall-wart, but that keeps the price down as well. Seriously, if you went to Radio Shack and bought all the jacks and switches on this machine, you'd pay twice as much as what Behringer sold the whole unit for - $250 MSRP.

This is a discontinued model, only because Behringer is constantly updating and refining their product line which seems to grow by the day. If this thing were to break, I'd buy another of their newer mixers without losing any sleep over it, and certainly without losing much money.

Crown XLS 202 Power Amplifier

If you know anything about amplifiers, you know that Crown Audio has been in the business of making some of the highest quality and most durable units on the market for decades. The Crown XLS 202 delivers 145 watts per channel into 8-ohms of clean, reliable power; a 22Hz-20kHz frequency response, with a signal to noise ratio of >98dB. You get a front panel with an on-off switch and level controls for each channel, and a back panel with two XLR inputs and a pair of speaker binding posts. Oh, and a couple of cooling fans that if you turn everything else in your studio off on a very quiet night, you might be able to hear if you stand very close and listen carefully. Simplicity, quality, good clean power. Plug it in, turn it on, and leave it that way.

JBL Studio Monitor 4410

Back in the mid-1980s I spent about $800 on a mirror-matched pair of the JBL 4410 Studio Monitors, which was a fortune for me at the time and still today a lot of money, but it turned out to be a great investment because now, some 25 years later, they're still cranking out incredible sound, and in that time I have only had to have them repaired once, to replace a fried voice coil on one of the tweeters, and that was more than likely my own fault.

With a 10-inch laminate-cone bass driver, a 5-inch midrange driver, and a one-inch pure titanium dome high frequency driver in each enclosure - mirror imaged between the left and right for more accurate stereo reproduction, these genuine walnut-veneered monitors weigh in at 43 pounds each, and boast a frequency response of 35Hz-27kHz, delivering accurate, flat, uncolored sound, which is what you want in a studio monitor. They are capable of ear-splitting volume if you've got a well-insulated studio and are into permanently damaging your hearing, but even at relatively low sound pressure levels they deliver incredibly well-balanced, accurate sound.

If you're in the process of putting together a studio, don't make the mistake of confusing consumer stereo speakers for studio monitor speakers in the hopes of saving some dollars. Studio monitors are designed to accurately reproduce the sound signals they are given, and that's why they are so much more expensive to produce. Consumer speakers are designed to sound nice in someone's living room, which is a totally different concept. However, even after 25 years, these JBLs still sound awfully nice in my living room, but then again, my living room is my studio. Spend some bucks on studio monitors for the long run.

Sennheiser HD 280 Pro Headphone

Headphones are a necessary evil in most recording environments for a number of reasons. Perhaps most importantly they allow for musicians to hear themselves within a mix while recording their tracks, without that mix bleeding over into a live microphone and corrupting the track they are trying to record, and eliminating the possibility of feedback if actual speakers were used. If you happen to be recording all the instruments in a small group at once, then perhaps they might be dispensed with, but anytime the overdubbing of an additional track is involved, they become indispensable. For engineers, there is simply no better way to hear the detail and stereo imaging in a mix. Despite their usefulness, they have always been and likely always will be a pain to deal with. Millions of consumers wear them every day in the form of ear buds plugged into their iPod or other music player, no matter that the devices they listen to normally cost less than $10 and sound like crap.

For critical listening, either in the studio environment or simply because sound quality is important to you, a good pair of headphones is essential, and I haven't found a better pair than the Sennheiser HD 280 Pro. They are closed, circumaural phones with comfortably padded ear cups and head band, and can be found from most sources for a street price of $99. There are certainly higher-priced headphones on the market – many of which are also made by Sennheiser – but none that I have found which deliver studio-monitor-like sound (that is to say flat, uncolored sound) like these, and they are capable of very high sound pressure levels without distorting. Now I don't recommend listening to music on headphones at high sound pressure levels for extended periods of time, because that will definitely damage your hearing over the long term. But when you're in the studio environment you're usually taking your headphones on and off pretty constantly, going back and forth between the headphones and your studio monitors to compare and make adjustments. But sometimes you need to crank it up and isolate yourself from the room you're in. For that matter, sometimes you need to crank it down and isolate yourself for the same reason. Either way, these headphones deliver clear, uncolored sound at an affordable price.

They're lightweight at 220 grams, and come with a coiled cable equipped with a gold-plated 1/4" to 1/8" adapter, so you can even plug them into your iPod if you want (and the iPod has enough power to drive them, too, if you really want to look like a geek while you're walking down the street). But if you need to do some critical mixing and you're in an apartment studio setting like me, then the HD 280 Pro headphones are essential if you want to keep your lease. They're well constructed but not indestructible – I'm on my second pair after only about six years, but the wear and tear on my first pair didn't affect the sound quality at all. It was more like plastic seams beginning to come undone, which will happen as you tend to take them on and off constantly. I'm sure if Sennheiser made the construction any more robust, they wouldn't be able to offer the HD 280 Pro for the current low price, and they would probably be much heavier.

Another factor to consider with headphones is that they do require a "burn-in" time before they sound as good as they're designed to sound, so they might sound a little harsh at first, until the drivers have relaxed. My advice here is that if you have a dedicated headphone jack on your system that doesn't automatically disconnect your speakers when you plug in a pair of headphones, then just plug them in and leave them plugged in so that they will be reproducing sound even when you're not wearing them. After a couple of weeks like this they should be burned in just fine.

Line 6 Pod 2.0

I don't own a guitar amplifier, nor do I want to own one. I live in an apartment, after all, and I want to continue living here, and besides, all of my guitar work is for my recordings and not for live performance. But that doesn't mean that I don't want the sounds available from the various legendary guitar amp and speaker combinations available to me in my recording projects. My various versions of Cakewalk have come equipped with some rudimentary guitar amp modeling software, but I've never been completely happy with those limited options, so I investigated further. There were the software options, of course, and some of those are quite well done from what I've read in various reviews. Then there are the outboard hardware devices that contain their own processing capabilities, and have the extra added benefit of having actual knobs to turn, in addition to not adding to your computer system's CPU usage.

The Line 6 Pod has been around for quite some time now, and is one of the best outboard amp modeling devices available. The Pod 2.0 comes equipped with a multitude of classic amp and speaker cabinet emulations, plus a good selection of effects to add to those, yielding a vast number of guitar sounds that would otherwise be unobtainable unless you had the financial resources, space, and understanding neighbors to allow you the use of the original equipment that this unit is designed to duplicate. Go ahead and hook up a 100-watt Marshall head to a 4x12 cabinet and rock out with smooth-sounding tube distortion abandon while still being friends with your neighbors. Plus, you can control it all with MIDI by using the free downloadable software librarian-editor.

Planet Waves Tru-Strobe Tuner

Tuning guitars is always a pain in the posterior, especially when you've got several of them and, like me, you're always playing in non-standard tunings. I had been using a little $30 chromatic tuner with a painfully hard-to-read LCD screen that drove me nuts, so I started investigating what else might be out there on the market, and I discovered this little gem, made by D'Addario's Planet Waves division. Since I'm a fan of D'Addario's acoustic guitar strings – I use their EXP coated phosphor bronze strings on my Ovation 6 and 12-string guitars – I decided to give this little puppy a try, and it's easily the best guitar tuner I've ever used. Designed for desk-top use – it's definitely not a stomp-box tuner – it's elegantly designed in a smoke chrome finish and measures 2.75" wide by 3.25" deep by 2.5" high, with a sloped top so you can easily see it sitting or standing, and the base is rubberized so it doesn't slide around.

It's equipped for either line input with pass-through and also has a built-in microphone, but I just keep it constantly connected to a line-out on my patch bay through which my guitar signal is routed, ignoring the pass-through function. Using it takes a little getting used to, mainly because it's so accurate – to within +/- 0.1 cents. You strum a single string and it detects the pitch, displaying it big and bright in the center of the display. The blue LEDs surrounding the display spin either clockwise or counterclockwise depending on whether you are sharp or flat, and as you tune the string the rotation gets slower and slower until finally stopping when you are dead on pitch. You can set the default reference frequency of the tuning system in 1 Hz increments from A435 to A445. It's powered by either a 9V battery or an optional adapter. This is not a cheap tuner, at a street price around $100, but well-made and worth it. 

STUDIO SOFTWARE:

Cakewalk Sonar X1 Producer Edition

Every few years or so you're forced into the upgrade path with critical software, regardless of whether you really think you need to or not, and so it goes with DAW software if you're involved with music production. I had resisted upgrading my DAW from Sonar 6 Studio Edition as long as possible, since it continued working extremely well for the projects that I had been working on. But then I was faced with the daunting task of producing the Peabody Wind Ensemble's concert and recording for Johan de Meij's "Symphony No. 3 – Planet Earth" during the course of our 2011-2012 season at Peabody. This is a huge work – certainly the most ambitious piece we have done with the Peabody Wind Ensemble in my 12 years of being their manager – and a truly great piece of music, too. Johan de Meij has been a very close friend of the Peabody Wind Ensemble for a long time now, and we have recorded both his previous symphonies, but this one is a monster, with backing electronics, a choir, and three keyboardists in addition to a full wind orchestra.

Truth be told, I had contemplated upgrading to a more recent version of Sonar a few times, but until recently I was still running Windows XP x64 edition on my only music production computer, and Cakewalk no longer officially supported that operating system, so I put it off until upgrading my OS to a more recent and compatible version. However, the de Meij project with the Peabody Wind Ensemble eventually forced me into buying a new computer, the HP ProBook 4720s reviewed above, which came with Windows 7 Professional 64-bit edition pre-installed. Suddenly the upgrade path became a lot more pressing, and with a little help from Peabody I was able to acquire Sonar X1 Producer Edition and get it installed and working for our project in the nick of time. And it worked beautifully for our live production, playing back the sound effects tracks, and handling the Miroslav Philharmonik samples we used for choir and organ sounds.

I will be integrating the new HP ProBook into my studio along with Sonar X1 for current and future projects, and have barely touched the new Sonar version's capabilities as yet, and there are quite a few new features I'm anxious to check out, but I have no doubt this will be my DAW of choice for at least the next few years. At the very least I will be remastering some of my recent recordings with it, since it contains some very nice new mastering plugins that made one of those recordings significantly better sounding after just a few minutes of tweaking. There is a huge amount of capability here, and if you're in the market for a DAW you should definitely check out the full descriptions on the Cakewalk web site.


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