SweetNotes
First of all, I would again like to thank you all for the e-mail I've been getting. I know some of you may be disappointed because I couldn't answer your specific questions, but I made an effort to respond to each and every one of your messages. In particular I have enjoyed some of the personal compliments (who wouldn't) regarding both this column and about the sounds I have created for Sweetwater (and others) through my small company, Stratus Sounds.

What is ironic is that with this increase in e-mail, I have gotten quite a few responses to my original discussion of the 24 / 96 issue (as in 24-bit / 96kHz). I would say that 90% of the mail I have received seem to support my position regarding this subject (which is that a new standard is fine, but that most of us are still not getting the most out of our 16-bit / 44.1kHz equipment). It would be impossible to print even a small percentage of the mail I got on this issue, but the following message from Tim Scott of Crow Caw Music in San Diego is very representative of the general consensus.

Tim writes: "I appreciated your candid comments about 24/96 vs 16/44.1. For my own particular purposes, there is no more cost effective way to record and mix than to use the (Roland) VS1680. I do 90% MIDI, with occasional guitar parts layered on. I would never go computer HD recording after reading about the issues involved, and watching a friend on mine trying to dump his (tape-based recorders) so he can do 24/96 computer recording. It's a nightmare. But again, this is just for me, but the point I'm trying to make is that you have to make a realistic evaluation of what you're trying to do and what you can afford to spend. If I didn't have the $2200 to get the VS-1680, I would have bought a used VS-880EX for $1000 or so. If I couldn't afford that I would pick up a good cassette 4 tracker. Etc.

"As far as 24/96 goes, I believe it's just one more manifestation of the gear lust (mics, outboard, mastering, plug ins, etc., etc.) that audio people and musicians get into. Does anybody for an instant think that a hardcore urban rap record will sound better (or more to the point, that it will sell more units) if it's recorded in full digital 24/96? Ludicrous. How about the Chili Peppers' new release. There is plainly audible distortion on it — would it have mattered if it were recorded through a $1 million Neve or SSL? Now if you specialize in acoustic jazz or classical recording, certainly you ought to look into 24/96 — but by that time you'd better have spent many (thousands of dollars) on mics, preamps, cabling, connectors, patch bays and monitoring gear . . .

"I have no illusions about the VS-1680's "24 bit" claim, but for my needs, as I say, it's fine. If I had the talent of Lennon, McCartney and George Martin I could create a record sonically equal to 'Sgt. Pepper's' with the VS1680. It's not (the) tool that's limiting me. Gee, it almost sounds like I know what I'm talking about."

I appreciate Tim allowing me to print his e-mail (with a few tiny edits). Folks, the subject is still open, so let me know what's on your mind. I'd sure be interested in the opinions of those musicians who feel they cannot live without 24 /96. (And just for the record, the VS-1680 does indeed record at 44.1kHz using a full 24-bit format, though the onboard A/D and D/A converters are 20-bit.)

Ultimately, a lot of this goes back to plain old gear lust. I think we all want the best tools and feel that these tools will enable us to make better music. Now I'm not immune to this affliction, as anyone who has seen me drool over a gorgeous Paul Reed Smith or Gibson flame top guitar can attest to. And actually, I have most recently been fighting off the digital mixer bug — but I mean, come on, who wouldn't want automated mixing capabilities? In my case, I'm perfectly happy with an analog mixer (and I'd be thrilled with an Oram analog board, but that's a whole other story), but having the ability to capture all my fader moves, EQ, panning, etc. would be such an incredible time-saver. Still, I would still never use anything but my Oram MWS as the microphone preamp in any setup — it just sounds way too sweet.

Another piece of gear that's slowly creeping into my consciousness is the Alesis Masterlink ML9600 with its elegant combination of hard disk recording and CD mastering — and yes, I know it has 24-bit / 96kHz capabilities (and I know the resultant CDs would sound great through my DVD player which is optically linked to my amp for audio). I think what impresses me most about this unit is the combination of features and its incredibly affordable price (which is actually less than what I paid for a CD burner alone about two years ago).

Oh no . . . now it's going to be hard to stop! Okay, since I'm building my wish list for the year 2000 (or sooner if someone out there feels absurdly generous!), I think I might actually want to retire my studio monitors (sorry, but I'm not saying which brand or model I currently use) and go with a pair of Mackie HR824s. I like the idea of an active speaker system for many reasons, not the least of which is the fact that the amplifier is perfectly matched to its respective driver. This, in turn — at least theoretically — should produce more accurate audio. Now if only the Mackie people would build a matching subwoofer.

Finally, since I'm going all out and spending money I really don't have, I think I would seriously consider going 16-track. Since I can easily upgrade my existing ADAT to 16 tracks by purchasing a second unit and a single interface cable, that would be the simplest solution (there's even room for it in my rack). A second option that I'm strongly drawn to is Roland's VS-1680. With this machine I would have the benefits of a portable, tabletop recorder that's compact, yet powerful and includes such amazing features as the COSM microphone modeling technology plus all the other onboard digital effects. I probably shouldn't say this, but I probably use my 8-year-old Roland reverb for the bulk of my recordings because of its lush room simulations, versatility (can't beat that Roland chorus effect) and ease-of-use.

All right, I think I'm done, at least for now. Fortunately I have all the mics I really feel I need, including matched AKG 414s (how can you go wrong with those?), a pair of absolutely superb Earthworks TC40Ks and a few ancillary mics for the odd job like miking a guitar cabinet or bass drum.

In any case, thinking about what we might do to improve our music-making capabilities is a lot of fun and still absolutely free (don't tell the government). Of course, when you talk to people who really know audio, they would most likely say that the best way to improve the sound of any studio is through the proper use of acoustic panels to correct all the horrible things the average room can do to your mix.

I'm sure that, like me, you've finished what you thought was a pretty hot mix, only to hear it in a different environment and wonder, "What the heck happened to that big fat bass line?" If that's happened to you (and I'm willing to bet it has), you were a victim of the spare room mixing curse. What sounded absolutely fantastic in that heavily carpeted, 14 x 18 project studio often literally falls apart when heard in somebody else's 20 x 26 living room with cathedral ceiling. I know some musicians that won't trust any mix unless they play it in their car and it sounds good.

All of which goes to prove that we can have fun spending money — and believe me, I have a ball doing it, just ask the folks at American Express — or you can invest wisely and make your existing equipment actually perform up to the standards it may be capable of. Ultimately the choice is ours. Those of you out there who are fortunate enough to be able to afford great new gear and put it in an acoustically correct room . . . well, my hat's off to you. You've obviously worked incredibly hard to save up the bucks and deserve the best. Either that or you have a ridiculously rich uncle that gets a kick out of hearing your music. Hey, that would be just fine with me.

Okay, that's it for me this issue. I hope I'll continue to hear from all of you out there on a variety of topics. In the meantime, keep making music!

Jim Miller can be reached at jim_miller@mindspring.com