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Recording line-level synths: Cut out the middle man?


144dB
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Hey all,

 

Ninety-five percent of what I record are 1990+ line-level synths (either +4 or -10). For years I've been running them through a Mackie 1402 VLZ before they reach my RME Multiface II, but now I'm contemplating just plugging them directly into the Multiface. Some say Mackie boards get harsh at higher gain levels, and I'm always trying to keep my levels low for that reason (as well as providing some headroom on 24 bit recordings). But I should be able to avoid this altogether with a direct connection, and most of my boards have buckets of gain without any need for boosting with a preamp.

 

Are there any downsides to doing this?

 

I'll still use my Mackie as a "home base" for summing signals and practicing during songwriting and jamming, but when I go to get the final recording, I'll just patch direct into the Multiface. I could get a 1/4" patch bay to make this easier.

 

I highly doubt this change in methods will be audible on a single channel or track, but I'm hoping it provides just a little bit more clarity, air, and punch with a finished mix.

 

Any thoughts? Do you run keyboards through a mixer before your DAW, or do you go direct?

 

Thanks in advance.

Edited by 144dB
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That is exactly what I would do. I use a Presonus SL16.4.2 mixer/firewire interface for recording, it has all the inputs necessary for the three or four synths I typically use and being an interface it eliminates any need for additional hardware. I typically think simpler is better.

 

My live rig is different though, I feel like I have better control over my synths individually by using the Behringer RX1602 line level mixer before sending the combined signal to the MOTU 828mk3 interface.

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I'm thinking that it's more the Mackie mic preamps (particularly the first generation and early VLZs) that have a more-or-less legit reputation for issues at the top end of their gain range.

 

(That said, Mackie's reputation took hits on a few fronts, some deserved [issues with internal ribbon connectors and slider pots] and some maybe more a result of typical reaction to popular low-cost products that 'challenge' existing products -- and so often seem to generate 'justification' rationales in some who feel a perhaps less-than-rational need to continually defend their own choices.)

 

As someone familiar with the pre-VLZ and first gen Mackie mic preamps, I'd definitely say that they appear to be designed to deliver clean gain over a wide range of levels rather than gradually saturating (as many people appear to prefer). When the Mackies run out of clean gain (which they have a fair bit of), things get crunchy pretty fast.

 

That said, maybe someone who has put them through their paces on a test bench can offer up some insight on that front...

Edited by blue2blue
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I either go direct, or I run it through my Peavey VMP-2 mic preamp line input. This enables me to get a high-pass filter, some EQs, and gain if I want it, which can impart a nice sound. Otherwise, I just go direct. Or very commonly, I run the keyboard out to an amp and then stick a microphone in front of it, especially if it's a synthesizer.

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Whatever works best for ya. For me I still prefer a mixer. I'm happily using a vintage Tascam M-320B. I use the direct line ins to bypass the mic pre. You'll get a cleaner signal going direct, but you lose the convenience of sliders and knobs for levels, EQ and panning, etc, which I still find more intuitive. And if you have as many keyboards and synth modules as I do there just aren't enough inputs on the digital interface. I still have quite a few assorted mixers. One of my favs as a front end to a digital interface is the old Tascam M-106. It has a certain character to the sound. So that's another thing... clean isn't always better. An analog mixer can add a certain something that you may prefer to the direct sound.

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There's no right or wrong answer here... a mixer can be a very useful and flexible tool, and if you prefer to run everything through that, there's no reason you can't. It's certainly the way to go if you need the maximum routing and summing flexibility, especially if you ever lay down mixed or composite sounds from multiple synths at once, want to print with outboard effects, etc.

 

Going through outboard preamps to warm things up, EQ them, etc. (like Ken was discussing) is also a very popular option, as is simply going straight in.

 

If I may offer one other alternative... mic them up! Get a couple of powered speakers, put them out in the room, and put a mic or two up and capture the sound. Sounds like extra effort, right? Try it sometime. You may find the added "real" ambience makes it worth the effort.

 

 

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If I may offer one other alternative... mic them up! Get a couple of powered speakers, put them out in the room, and put a mic or two up and capture the sound. Sounds like extra effort, right? Try it sometime. You may find the added "real" ambience makes it worth the effort.

 

 

Mic them up indeed. I mentioned in my post above also. I try to emphasize this every chance I get.

 

Look at it this way. By sticking microphones in front, you have the opportunity to impart a room sound, a more physical sound, and a sound that blends well with the rest of the instruments if they too have been amped and miked.

 

Keyboards can sound disembodied otherwise, not occupying the same space, and therefore, it can be a little more challenging to make everything gel.

 

Surprisingly, not too many people do this. I know Bruce Swedien does it, and he gets great keyboard sounds. I've been doing it ever since I began recording.

 

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Whatever works best for ya. For me I still prefer a mixer. I'm happily using a vintage Tascam M-320B. I use the direct line ins to bypass the mic pre. You'll get a cleaner signal going direct' date=' but you lose the convenience of sliders and knobs for levels, EQ and panning, etc, which I still find more intuitive. And if you have as many keyboards and synth modules as I do there just aren't enough inputs on the digital interface. I still have quite a few assorted mixers. One of my favs as a front end to a digital interface is the old Tascam M-106. It has a certain character to the sound. So that's another thing... clean isn't always better. An analog mixer can add a certain something that you may prefer to the direct sound.[/quote']

 

 

Absolutely.

 

What I am doing with my suggestion is sort of a mixer of sorts. Well, not really. But it has many of the advantages that Beck here mentions. You can impart a certain "something". You can use EQ. You can have a volume control. So again, I use a Peavey VMP-2 quite a lot for all these reasons. Run the thing through tubes, EQ, levels. Very cool.

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Try it. You won't blow anything up. I don't think you need to add any "dirt" to '90s era synths, but if using the Mackie mixer as a front end makes working more convenient for you (no need to plug and unplug cables when changing instruments) it isn't likely to hurt anything.

 

The Mackie gain problem has to do with internal levels. When you have too many channels running close to their input clipping level, you can overdrive the summing bus. The way to get around this is to keep the master fader and channel fader at the "unity" position and adjust the preamp gain trim to get the meters up around 0 dB most of the time, but low enough to keep peaks below +10 dB on the meters.

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I run my synths through a mixer for monitoring purposes, but if I wasn't concerned with that I would see no reason NOT to connect directly to the ADC.

 

Except for the fact that since switching to the Apollo Twin I have more synths than inputs now.

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I run my synths through a mixer for monitoring purposes, but if I wasn't concerned with that I would see no reason NOT to connect directly to the ADC.

 

Except for the fact that since switching to the Apollo Twin I have more synths than inputs now.

 

You could always add a external ADAT A/D converter for more inputs, and you can use the UAD-2 processing on the optical input channels too, for up to ten inputs... :idea: ...or are you already maxed out like that? :)

 

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Thanks for all the replies guys. I started recording this way now. I'm not sure that I'll notice a difference, but I'll know that I'm getting the cleanest signal possible.

 

Regarding the Mackie preamps, I was always told it was the individual preamps that were harsh, as opposed to the summing bus. I can't find the thread, but one gentleman suggested never letting the meters exceed 0 dBu, even for peaks. In most cases that would be a pretty low signal. I did some vocals that way, and it was hard to get enough gain for the singer to hear herself (via monitoring).

 

Regarding recording synths through an amp, I think it's a great idea if you're blending with real instruments, and you have a nice room. If you have a small room, I think it would just impart a bad room sound. But having never tried it, that's only speculation. I do know that running synths through an amp and speaker can be a great sound in the right context. If you listen to Van Halen's "I'll Wait", it sounds like an Oberheim through a guitar amp, and it just sounds fantastic for that song.

 

Thanks again.

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Regarding the Mackie preamps, I was always told it was the individual preamps that were harsh, as opposed to the summing bus. I can't find the thread, but one gentleman suggested never letting the meters exceed 0 dBu, even for peaks. In most cases that would be a pretty low signal.

 

People will tell you anything when you aren't sure whether you have a problem or not. You can choose to believe me or not, but this is the real truth: There's nothing wrong with a Mackie preamp when it's used properly. Any single preamp will sound pretty good up to within a couple of dB of its maximum output level. It's true that newer generations of the VLZ design are a little cleaner than the earlier ones, but we're talking about a difference of a few hundredths of a percent THD. The problem with the Mackie mixers, and this is nearly universal among mixers of the "Mackie format," is operator error. But the operator error is most often from a lack of useful metering.

 

Look at the meters on your Mackie mixer. The dB value for the LEDs close to 0 (in the middle of the scale) are pretty close together, but when you look at the top of the meter range, there's a +20 dB LED which is often also marked "clip" or "OL" (overload), and the one directly below that is +10 dB. So once you've turned on the +10 dB LED you don't really know how close to clipping you are. Turn on the +20 LED and, just as advertised, the preamp will clip.

 

If you read the manual, it tells you to use the Solo function to sent the preamp direct output to the meters, and adjust the gain so that it's in the ballpark of 0 on the meter. There are a few LEDs above and below 0 that lets you see pretty clearly when you're within 6 dB of your target setting. Now, if you're only "mixing" one channel, true, your mix level will be pretty low. It's OK. You can leave it like that, boost it with the master fader, or goose up the preamp gain a bit.

 

BUT

 

If you have 16, or even five or six channels with each of the preamps pushed up so that they're putting out something greater than

10 dB short of clipping, when you sum them together they'll add up to more voltage than the summing bus can put out, and then you'll get a distorted mix. One of the ways that people have traditionally operated mixers was to set the gain of each channel's preamp so that it just barely stayed below clipping, thinking they were getting the best signal-to-noise ratio out of the preamp. This is a valid theory as long as you're only talking about one channel, but when there's a limit to how much level you can pump into the op amp in which the channels are summed, you eventually run out of steam.

 

People toss this off as "Mackie mixers have no headroom." This, sadly, is true when you don't pay attention to the instructions. By the time the VLZ4 came along, they finally came up with a way to deal with the fact that their users simply weren't going to read the manual and use the mixer however they wanted. What they did was reduce the level internally that was going to the summing buses and them make up the gain after the mix. They were able to do this while maintaining the price point because in the 10 years that the design involved, they were able to find quieter ICs and transistors and not sacrifice signal to noise ratio when running at a lower level.

 

When it comes to recording with a DAW, people tend to look at the waveform display and get worried if the peaks only fill up half or less of the "lane" width. So they boost the level. Then, you have 93 tracks all peaking near digital full scale, and until the latest generation of mixing software and the use of 32-bit floating point arithmetic, you run into the same problem as overloading the bus in an analog mixer.

 

You can make a good recording through a Mackie preamp as long as you understand what you're doing. If you have a really good source (the instrument/voice, the mic, and the room), you can often make a better recording with a Millenia or Hardy or Grace preamp than with a Mackie. But when your source is an old synth, don't abuse the Mackie preamp and you'll be fine.

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You could always add a external ADAT A/D converter for more inputs, and you can use the UAD-2 processing on the optical input channels too, for up to ten inputs... :idea: ...or are you already maxed out like that? :)

 

Yeah that's somewhere down my list, but it's not really necessary for me right now.

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