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The best tape recorder in the world is for sale!
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Frequently, the selection of a studio will be governed by the equipment that the producer or engineer requires. Even the record company, if they have become aware that a lot of hits are being made using a particular mixing console, will start to think that some of the magic might rub off. As far as the choice of mixing consoles goes, there are just three: SSL, Neve or something else. SSL and Neve still seem to be front runners and other manufacturers' consoles, good though they may be, just haven't been able to find the same status, although Euphonix consoles do seem to be acquiring sufficient popularity to put them among the front runners soon. The reason why Neve is so popular is that the company has been active since the early 1960s and they have made consistently excellent products with hardly a glitch. This kind of track record has made Neve a number 1 name, and if you are recording in a studio with a Neve V series console, then you have no excuse for not getting it right! SSL haven't been going for quite as long as Neve, but they made an important breakthrough in console design in what was practically their first product. The breakthrough was to incorporate a computer into the console which could control the multitrack remotely and automate the mix. Studios liked it, bought it, and suddenly it seemed like hit after hit was produced on SSL consoles, and the momentum the company gained was massive. These days, a producer will choose a Neve studio because, "I like the sound of Neve". Another producer will choose SSL because he started off as an engineer on SSL and that is what he is most comfortable with. Judging from the comments of people I have spoken to, there isn't a lot of crossover between the two consoles, you like one or the other, although you will find the occasional producer who will record on Neve and mix on SSL to get the best of both worlds. If Neve and SSL are joint top of the console league table, can you make a hit on any other console? Of course you can. Pick a studio with a top of the range Amek, DDA, Euphonix, Focusrite, Soundcraft, Soundtracs or Trident (in no particular order) and you are almost certain to be perfectly contented since all these consoles and others have made hits, just not as many as Neve or SSL.
Parallel to the choice of console is the choice of multitrack format. It is just as important, but you have more flexibility since you can hire any multitrack you like and bring it into the studio of your choice. Mixing consoles in comparison are very firmly fixed assets. As a top producer, you will be choosing from four formats: 24 track analogue, 24 or 48 track DASH digital, ProDigi 32 track digital or Otari Radar. It seems that ADAT, DA88 and Pro Tools haven't made it into the top league yet as a main recording medium, although they are often used as a component in the recording process. 24 track analogue machines are still very popular, probably because all the major studios have them already and the damned things just won't wear out. It seems that a properly maintained 24 track can go on just about forever. Many producers still prefer the sound of analogue tape, so I suspect that 24 track machines will be around for decades to come. Whether or not manufacturers will continue to make new ones would be a good question. King of the 24 tracks is probably the Studer A800, with the Otari MTR90 MkII next in line. The A800 is not a current model, and you could argue that the more recent Studer models are better, but A800s are all around and people love them. Synchronise two of them together and you have 46 tracks worth of pure analogue magic (you lose a track on each for sync) and they will probably be included in the basic rate of the studio. Remember to budget for lots of tape. $300 worth of tape (two reels for 46 track) lasts just over 15 minutes at 30 inches per second!
If you have a little more money to spend, then you might look at the DASH format. Sony and Studer make DASH machines although the Sonys are far more common. The 3324A is the model you will see most often and for certain styles of music it is considered to be a workhorse machine. People who know Sony DASH machines speak very highly of them and the premium you will pay to have one on your session (even if the studio owns it, usually) will be worthwhile. Although Mitsubishi pulled out of the digital audio market several years ago, there are still many 32 track ProDigi machines around which will be worked until they drop. In our home and project studios we often fall into the trap of always chasing the latest gear. In pro studios, 'tried and tested' is more often the motto. ProDigi isn't perfect, but many well respected artists and producers are happy to work with it. The other multitrack recorder I have mentioned isn't a tape recorder - but it thinks it is! Eventually I am sure that hard disk recording will be the norm, but studios still view it with a great deal of caution. The Otari Radar 24 track hard disk recorder however is breaking down barriers. You will probably have to hire it in specially, but you will find that it has the simplicity of tape with the editing capability of hard disk. If you need more tracks, hire two!
Aside from the mixing console and the multitrack, everything else is pretty much the icing on the cake. But you would expect a well set up studio to have a good mic selection, a well stocked outboard rack, a grand piano, maybe the odd MIDI keyboard and sampler if you are lucky, and an assistant engineer to help you out with all those knobs and buttons!
I have mentioned maintenance already, because it is vitally important. Also important is the line up of the equipment. Analogue recorders need regular alignment, ideally for each session, to perform at their best, certainly if you plan on recording some instruments in one studio then taking the tape elsewhere for further work. It also helps if the assistant engineer zeros the console by setting every switch and every knob to a neutral position, making it a blank sheet of paper on which you will paint your sound picture.