Opinions: In an industry such as ours, those behind the scenes who record, produce and mix music and media content have plenty of them. But opinions on the tools we use to get our work done are deeply rooted in experience, experimentation and the balance between quality and convenience. That certainly applies to the front-end and signal-chain choices made when getting audio into our DAWs. Recently, I contacted a few award-winning industry professionals to hear where they stood on this subject.
“I’d be happy to chime in,” said producer/engineer/mixer Frank Filipetti (James Taylor, Elton John, Foreigner). “Although my answers are probably a bit different from most. I’m using the same converters I bought 11 years ago, the Lavry Blue (Series). I haven’t found anything yet that cries out for changing. But I did upgrade my clock, though — to an Antelope Isochrone 10M atomic clock — and that made everything sound better.”
Top to bottom: Lynx Aurora 16, Steinberg MR816 CSX, and the BURL B2 Bomber.
“I did a listening test with the latest Avid HD interfaces and found they suited what I was looking for in my next step for my Pro Tools front end,” noted engineer/mixer Pete Moshay (Hall & Oates, Barbra Streisand, Ian Hunter). “I have the original Digi 192s, did a direct comparison with them and heard a marked improvement,” he continued. “Not that the original 192 was bad, but they are just a different sound. That may be good depending on the sound you are going for at the time, but I kept 16 channels of original 192 for just that reason. I did listen to a few other converter shootouts online and still decided to go with Avid. All the latest offerings sounded good as well, but the Avid stuck out to me.”
“I patch my pres directly into to an Avid HD I/O as well,” said engineer/mixer Richard Chycki (Rush, Dream Theater, Aerosmith). “But I’m looking at a few other converters right now as well as external clocking options. I haven’t got the whirlwind smack-in-the-head sonic revelation that others seem to have achieved by patching in an external clock. I’m looking though. Thankfully, I do notice an immediate huge sonic improvement when someone plays an amazing performance on a quality instrument, especially when coupled with a great chorus and lyric.”
Engineer/mixer/producer Dan Goodwin (Norah Jones, The Bravery, Devo) also sends his signals into Pro Tools, but with a twist. “I use Pro Tools exclusively, so my choices were somewhat limited for years,” he revealed. “When Lynx came out with the Aurora, it changed my life; I heard them and immediately knew that both the price and sound were exactly right. They’re not the most expensive converters, but when I weighed them against the other heavy hitters, I felt I was missing nothing. The Lynx Aurora has been an absolute godsend to my work.”
Antelope Isochrone 10M atomic clock
“I use a few different converters at my WireWorld studio,” said engineer/mixer/producer Michael Wagener (Ozzy Osbourne, Alice Cooper, Motley Crue). “I have 48 channels of Euphonix MA703/AM713 analog to MADI/MADI to analog, which get used for tracking/multitrack mixing/summing purposes. I bought those in 2000, and I still think they have a very natural sound. The SSL Alphalink SX provides another 24 channels of A/D - D/A in and out of Nuendo, which I use for channel inserts, outboard sends and returns all via a MADI patchbay.”
Wagener continued, “The Euphonix FC727 provides another 56 channels of MADI to AES and back. For the stereo bus return A/D into Nuendo, I use the BURL B2 Bomber ADC. The B2 has a certain sound that I like a lot, it is very clear and open and seems to have the most dynamics of the converters I’ve heard. Eventually, I will replace all converters with the BURL Mothership, which, of course, means rewiring half the studio, so it might be a while. Other converters used at WireWorld are the Crane Song HEDD and the Crane Song Spider, both of which I mostly use for electric guitars (with the TAPE function). For location recording, I use the Steinberg MR816CSX; it has amazing mic pres and converters. On the D/A side, I use the Benchmark DAC-1 for monitoring.”
Drummer/engineer Shawn Pelton (Cheryl Crow, Shawn Colvin, Celine Dion), who mostly records into Live in his New York apartment studio, has his unique viewpoints on the matter. “In terms of the home studio revolution, everyone has to be able to cover so many bases,” he said. “I wonder if we often fall into a ‘dog and pony show’ with some of our decisions regarding super high-end gear. I know I have made some purchases partly based on the fact that the reputation of the gear will chill out any doubts that the signal path is not ‘best in class,’ etc. What’s refreshing about a blindfolded audio situation is you end up having to listen with your ears, not your eyes, and the sound and the music takes the front seat, not the price tag and the label.”
Benchmark DAC 1 USB
Oh, Say, Can You Hear?
I then went on to ask the guys if they thought people could hear a difference in our gear, and/or if consumers even really cared. “Yes/Yes,” replied Moshay. “The public has always been able to tell a great-sounding album and the history and statistics back up that claim, with some of the biggest-selling records in history being the best sounding. No, the public can’t tell you that they like an analog over digital recording, or a 48k vs. 96k album; they just gravitate towards better sound. Better-sounding albums stand a much better chance of being liked and people are not going be able to describe what the exact component is that makes it better sounding. Sound is perception, and everyone will be able to point out something different that moves them about a recording.”
“I do think most people could hear the difference if they were presented with it,” Goodwin opined. “Most casual listeners don’t have the desire to listen that critically, or know exactly what to listen for. That being said, I think these days, the differences between the high-end converter systems are less and less distinct. I think that within a certain level of performance, it becomes a matter of taste or preference, as opposed to good vs. bad. Ten years ago, we had clearer choices in that regard. Very few front ends sounded good at all, and most options were less than ideal. But these days, I think we’ve begun to reach a very high level of performance, even within the lower-end market. There are some new converters that cost only a few hundred dollars and easily outperform the most expensive converters from 10 years ago, no question. So these days, I do think it comes down to taste. There are so many viable and very good options that one can put together a respectable system with minimal cash outlay.”
Solid State Logic Alphalink SX
“In my experience with converters, it’s a matter of adding up a bunch of tracks before you really hear a noticeable difference (with the exception of the BURL),” says Wagener. “I think even the casual listener can hear it in the end, maybe not knowing what it is that they hear. In a controlled studio environment it is probably easier to tell the differences, even though sometimes with just one track, it might be hard to tell.”
How Innovation Affects Choice
Finally, I asked if our group felt that innovations in gear have changed their front-end choices, especially considering the broadened landscape of what “audio pros” are in this day and age. “With the gear, that is such a great question, and I have done a lot of ‘blindfold testing’ regarding converters, preamps and mics,” said Pelton. “It is really interesting what your ear responds to when your eyes aren’t involved. I have had a lot of engineer friends put blindfolds on and listen to controlled A/B comparisons. The amount of preconceived notions that we all have regarding the different parts of the recording chain can be intense.”
“Yes, my choices have definitely changed,” answered Goodwin. “Because I track and mix a lot of projects, I have multiple considerations, the most important is that my stuff works every day and setup is easy. I also need something that allows me to build character into my sounds without either smudging over that character, or dumbing it down.”
“Even modest priced gear now is really great-sounding,” said Moshay. “But most often you pay a bit more for a high-quality piece of gear, and you get something that you keep and treasure forever. I have never regretted buying high-end stuff; it almost always delivers stunning results that are a cut above the rest. I support the die-hard boutique manufacturers that pour their heart into the gear they design and sell. If it weren’t for companies like Manley, Avalon, Focusrite, SPL, Kush Audio, Anthony DeMaria Labs, etc., this industry would be dead boring!”
Rich Tozzoli is a composer, engineer/mixer and the software editor for PAR.