Grow Your Own Studio
Marantz PMD 430 Professional Portable Cassette Recorder
Audio-Technica AT822 Condenser Stereo Microphone
Audio-Technica ATH-M40fs Precision Studiophones
Superscope PSD230 Performing Arts Portable CD Player
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve attended a killing rehearsal or club date, where the sonics were cool, everyone’s creative juices were flowing and the interplay was at a transcendent level, only to get that dull, what-me-worry look from my homies when I inquire as to whether anybody had recorded it? Jazz musicians are notoriously blasé about documenting their work, when with a minimum of muss and fuss, even the most technologically challenged of our brethren are capable of producing professional quality remote recordings employing this new audio innovation that is currently all the rage: the analog cassette tape. With the onset of all these new digital technologies, it’s worth remembering that the humble cassette endures as a dependable, cost-effective medium. That being the case, for all your hi-fi playback and remote recording needs, the state-of-the-art, three-head Marantz PMD 430 ($699) is probably the last cassette deck you’ll ever have to buy. When employed in tandem with the supremely musical Audio-Technica AT822 (at $399, a low-impedance, unbalanced, one-point stereo condenser dubbed “The Grateful Dead Microphone” for its ubiquity amongst thousands of lightly basted, tie-dyed remote recordists) and a set of high-res Audio-Technica ATH-M40fs ($150) stereo headphones for monitoring, the diligent jazz musician has a practical means of growing their own high-quality live recordings.
No, you’re not going to achieve the gain structure of half-inch analog tape or the extended dynamic range and signal-to-noise ratio of a DAT, but the PMD 430 cassette deck is a dependable, inexpensive, shockingly high-fidelity medium with a host of professional features: it has exceptional high-frequency extension (a glaring weakness of most cassette decks), a smooth, nicely detailed midrange, more than respectable low-end bop. If you are circumspect in your use of recording levels and microphone placement, the PMD430 is capable of reproducing a holographic, realistic soundstage and stable, detailed instrumental images. Recording on the fly? The on-board limiter is surprisingly natural and noninvasive in terms of pumping and breathing, and while your soundstage will flatten out, the extra headroom will enable you to saturate the tape with more level (within reason), while preventing massive bass transients from clipping. Better yet, by plugging in the AC adapter overnight, you can power up the Marantz rechargeable battery from within the cassette deck, thus affording you five-plus hours of continuous recording time. And the AT822 stereo mike is a perfect match; I was particularly impressed by its lifelike, realistic depiction of instrumental details, particularly how accurately it captured the broad tonal spread and gonglike attack of my old Leedy bass drum (tuned wide-open). Positioned close to a source, it conveys a flawless representation of lateral imaging, while placing it farther away increases soundstaging depth and one’s sense of acoustic room cues—simple, effective and musical. And as a critical monitoring tool, the resolution and flat frequency response of the ATH-M40fs compared favorably to more expensive stereo headphones I own, such as the Beyerdynamic DT990 Pro and the Grado RS-1.
Finally, having helped you assemble a practical recording rig for home and the road, allow me to suggest that before you invest in some cheesy CD Walkman or boombox, consider stepping up to a more substantial investment in a small CD deck with a built-in speaker that is just a whole lot more fun. I had a ball playing with the Superscope PSD230 Performing Arts Portable CD Player ($599). It offers exceptional music reproduction when employed as either a portable or a home deck (with a digital out to drive a more upscale D/A converter should you be looking at future upgrades); it reads both CD-R and CD-RW formats; and possesses interactive features that can enhance your practice habits and streamline your analysis and transcription of solos and songs. The PSD230 allows you to increase or decrease the rate of tempo by up to 50% without changing key; its tuning control allows for adjustments in pitch so that you can practice a song in whatever key is most convivial; the musical key of a CD can be raised or lowered incrementally by a whole octave; mic/line mixing allows you to plug in a microphone or a line-level source (XLR or 1/4"), and to adjust level balances for practicing along with a CD; and a special Superscope processor reduces the volume level of vocal tracks by varying degrees on different CDs. The PSD230 is not just a fine portable CD deck, it’s a revolutionary educational/practice tool.
Mackie HDR 24/96
Manley Massive Passive Stereo Tube Equalizer
AKG C 2000B
You know, jazzbos, that for roughly the price of a no-frills major-label recording budget (minus the standard F.U. contract), you could be living large and growing your own by outfitting yourself with the basic guts of a world-class recording rig. Besides the obvious innovation of 24 tracks of digital to hard disk, and 24-bit/96 kHz resolution, the Mackie HDR 24/96 ($4999 before I/O cards) is the first-ever completely closed recording system that operates on the same software and hardware. So when you combine the hard-disk recorder with Mackie’s D8B (Digital 8-Bus, which is their 72-input/56 automated channels console), you have what is tantamount to a truly cross-platformed, multimillion dollar, SSL-equipped, fully automated digital-recording studio for a street price of under 20 grand with plug-ins. Among a dizzying host of features the HDR 24/96 includes an internal 20+ gigabyte ultra-DMA hard disk that delivers over 100 minutes of 24-track recording at 48 kHz, plus an extra drive bay for the pull-out Mackie Media M-90, a 20+ gigabyte hard drive (or you can use what Mackie calls the Media Project, which is a 2.2 gigabyte removable cartridge drive).
While the musical quality of digital recording has grown by leaps and bounds, there is still something to be said for employing the vintage warmth and sweetness of vacuum tubes to juice things up, which is why you should check out a new modern/retro equalizer that has already become a vital component in many top tracking, mixing and mastering engineers’ rigs. The Manley Massive Passive Stereo Tube Equalizer ($4800) is an all-tube (2 x 5751 and 4 x 6414), dual-mono, passive parametric equalizer with a modular design that allows for future upgrades and special functions. With a frequency range of 22Hz-27Khz (and a dynamic range of 120 dB), bypass switch, selective high and low pass filters (with gain trim) and an EQ boost/cut range of 20 dB over an expanse of 44 frequencies (spaced roughly in 1/4 octave increments), the Massive Passive easily accommodates the most radical style of equalization sometimes required in tracking situations, while affording the kind of noninvasive shadings so critical for vocals and mastering. While compared favorably by hobbyists and pros alike to such classic EQs as the venerable Pultec, the Massive Passive offers variable bandwidth across the entire frequency range, which allows for a much more powerful, significantly less colored style of equalization, which translates into a warmly detailed, natural sounding midrange, high-frequency boosts without sibilance and enhanced low-end heft without murk.
And as you look to assemble a stable of versatile, cost-effective microphones to handle all the grunt work in your studio—high-sensitivity transducers capable of withstanding significant sound pressure levels—the AKG C 2000B ($379) emerges from the pack with an uncompromising level of pro performance at a hobbyist’s price. Equally at home conveying the warm, airy, low-end details of a tenor sax, the subtle dynamic nuances of a vocalist and the fast transients of a drum set or guitar amp, the C 2000B is a hybrid condenser design featuring a 1/2" diaphragm that possesses some of the low-end sensitivity of a large diaphragm and the high-end accuracy and transient detail of a smaller diaphragm. One unique touch is a roll-off filter centered at 500 Hz, which enables you to get very close to a source while compensating for the annoying thump of proximity effect, which might recommend it for applications such as rolling off the toms when employing them in a stereo pair as drum overheads.
Tascam US-428 Mixer
For those musicians exploring the world of computer recording employing software-based audio packages, the Tascam US-428 Mixer addresses a variety of critical interface and control issues for only $599, most significantly the conundrum faced by those of us who are used to the more traditional environment of a recording mixer to route input and output signals around, and who have had to make do with a mouse and computer keyboard to handle those functions. With that in mind, the new Tascam US-428 provides 24-bit analog to digital converters and a multiple series of discrete audio inputs and outputs (XLR and 1/4" jacks) as well as a USB port (Universal Serial Bus, a standard method of getting information in and out of computers on both Macintosh and PC-based systems). This provides users with a control surface that allows one to make many of the moves you’d normally employ your mouse for: to control EQ and pan functions, and physically move level faders up and down. Thus one can take advantage of all the sophisticated editing functions and sonic features of modern software programs (such as Steinberg Cubase Light, a scaled down version of the popular software program that comes bundled with the US-428 as part of a basic start-up package to get computer neophytes up and running), while affording users a more tactile, traditional hands-on approach, enabling you to visualize moves in a more linear manner, as opposed to just working with the on-screen controls.
Roland VGA-7 V-Guitar Amplifier
SWR Mo’ Bass
With the introduction of the new Roland VGA-7 V-Guitar Amplifier, Roland takes a giant step into the future of the electric guitar, by mating a solid-state output stage to the latest generation of digital voodoo to spearhead a new class of modern amplification, much as companies such as Line Six and Yamaha also have. The VGA-7 is a 65 watt + 65 watt stereo combo amplifier with two-12" speakers and two high-frequency horn drivers employing COSM (composite object sound modeling) guitar-amp and speaker-cabinet modeling technology, allowing guitarists to access the sound signatures of 20 different vintage and modern tube amps, plus a number of solid-state and acoustic-amp designs, not to mention a host of cabinet simulations, a wide array of effects processing featuring Roland/BOSS’ most popular effects algorithms, and banks of 80 preset and 80 user memories for storing the complex sounds derived from different combinations of models, effects and EQ. But where the VGA-7 really sets itself apart is by employing COSM technology to analyze what different guitars actually sound like. By reproducing those sounds electronically, the VGA-7 allows you to program in those parameters as part of your onboard patches. You can access this additional layer of guitar models by deploying a special Roland GK-2A Divided Pickup, which also allows you to bypass the physical string itself and employ a variety of preset and user-defined digital tunings, as well as what Roland calls a digital capo function. Radical.
Nor should bassists feel slighted. Those with a taste for improvisation and sonic experimentation can finally compete on a level playing field. The SWR Mo’ Bass ($1999) allows bassists to get the upper hand on all those sniveling guitarists with their stomp boxes and rack mounts and to reclaim their rightful place as mandarins of the low end—keyboardists be damned. By utilizing classic tube circuitry and a host of dynamically sensitive, analog effects in the preamp stage—with massive reserves of solid state power on the back end—the Mo’ Bass provides ample headroom to produce impeccable clean sounds while offering a kaleidoscopic array of sonic tapestries. Bassists can choose from an array of onboard effects that include a tube limiter, a sub-octave generator, an analog synthesizer, a studio-quality band-pass type equalizer, a rich, creamy chorus and progressive increments of tube overdrive. And as these are analog effects, everything occurs in real time, so there are no digital glitches or tracking anomalies—now if only it had an onboard device that kept bassists from rushing.
Paiste Custom Cast Drum Set
Paiste Spirit of 2002 Cast Snare Drum
Paiste Timbale Traditional
Having marketed several innovative cymbals lines based on their patented Signature Bronze Alloy, the leap of faith required to conceive a statement set of drums cast from solid bronze (derived from recycled cymbals) was a logical, if not entirely pragmatic, next step. Logical in that drum designer Jeff Ocheltree and cymbal maven Erik Paiste turned an afternoon’s brainstorming into a 4-piece set that rings like a church bell, combining epic power and projection with a sweet, focused tone and surprising sensitivity. Pragmatic? Well, hmmm, there’s the weight issue (16" x 22" bass drum with cast bronze hoops, 91 lbs; 14" x 14" & 16" x 16" floor toms, 50 & 60 lbs; 8" x 12" mounted tom, 18 lbs.); then there’s the price: $21,500. However, each kit represents a custom item, made to the buyer’s specs, so if you want shells thinner than 3/16" or different drum sizes...yours but to ask and Paiste will quote you a price. But a Spirit of 2002 Cast Snare Drum (cast from Paiste’s Formula 2002 CuSn8 Bronze) is readily available as a production item at $2,280 (24 lbs./6" x 14"), $2,160 (22 lbs./5" x 14") or $2,040 (21 lbs./5" x 13"), as are Timbale Traditional Sets (cast from the Signature Alloy) at $2,220 for a 13"/14" pair or $2,440 for the 14"/15".
Ludwig LB-552K 6 1/2" x 14" Hammered Bronze Snare
Ludwig LC-401 5" x 14" 401 Classic Maple Snare
Ludwig LC-555 3" x 13" Maple Piccolo Snare
Pearl MH5514DC 6 1/2" x 14" Masters Mahogany Classic Snare
Based on practical, tried and true designs that go back to the very dawn of recorded jazz, and employing Ludwig’s uncomplicated Supra-Phonic throw-off, you’d be hard-pressed to find any snare drums that sound and feel this crisp, this quick, this right, straight out of the box—for me, these drums were just a joy to play. The 6 1/2" x 14" LB-552K ($675) features a hammered bronze shell that resembles those classic K. Zildjian ride cymbals, and while the sound is not exactly dark, there is weight and body to each stroke, a rich, dry character to the sound that translates into effortless projection and a wide range of articulations and dynamic shadings, with terrific speed and bite. And as tightly cranked as this drum was tuned, it never sounded thin or nasal—it’s like the shell just disappears. The 5" x 14" LC-401 Classic Maple ($480) snare is not quite as high-pitched and penetrating as its big brother, but it has a warmer, more ringing tone, responds more felicitously to detuning, and possesses an elemental snap, crackle and pop that translates into sweet, sizzling rolls and fat, barking rim-shot accents that are the very essence of jazz. And fully cranked, the high-pitched 3" x 13" LC-555 Maple Piccolo ($470) has a sweet, snappy, penetrating response, yet can also be detuned for a meaty backbeat thwack that really cuts through.
Similar in execution and design to the Ludwig Classic, the straightforward 6 1/2" x 14" Pearl Masters Mahogany Classic ($519) employs rare African hardwoods (done up in a translucent, scarlet-hued finish) to fashion a thin, responsive four-ply shell with four-ply maple reinforcement rings and MasterCast die-cast hoops, but where the Ludwig has a crispy sound and snappy attack, the Pearl has a warmer, more rounded sound and a fat, crackling attack that recalls those great mahogany snare drums of the ’40s and ’50s such as the Slingerland Radio King.