Portable Production

Feb 1, 2009 12:00 PM, By Kevin Becka



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Portable production has been evolving steadily in the past three decades:. In the early days, there was the need to transport large-format digital and analog multitrack machines, mixers and the copper cable necessary to make it all work together. The landmark release of the Alesis ADAT in the early '90s took quality, convenience and affordability to a whole new level: Not only was quality multitrack digital recording technology suddenly within the reach of everyday engineers, it came in a rackmountable, modular format that was easily and inexpensively set up and shipped. The possibilities for remote operation were expanding. But the real shift came in early 2000, when engineers started truly embracing computer technology, trusting DAWs, interfaces, converters and plug-ins as convenient and reliable road gear. Today's affordable and portable technology lets engineers take an entire studio on the road, whether the rig is a simple laptop and headphone setup for tracking and editing, or one that incorporates portable interfaces, MADI converters, speakers and even small trucks for producing and recording music for live feeds, streaming or distribution.

Although traditional brick-and-mortar studios have been hurt by the ease and low cost of remote production, they have also adapted by working with producers who use portable rigs, adding special touches that can't be achieved in the field. For instance, bandmembers who want to take their time doing vocals at home might use a larger facility to record drums in a well-isolated room with a good ambient signature. The outcome is a broader palette of production styles, gear choices and flavors of output, whether producing for live broadcast, the Web, CD/DVD release or remote recording. We talked with a cross-section of nomadic engineers, musicians and music creators who have adapted to the new production model.

Regional Production

Michael Comstock's Indre Recording and Production (www.indre.com), located just outside of Philadelphia, is a case study in adapting a successful business model to new technologies. Indre started as a traditional recording studio in 1996 and eventually evolved into a thriving remote production business.

“When I started, bands would come in with $4,000 to do their record,” Comstock says. “Now that same band will take that money and buy Pro Tools [systems], mics and preamps to make their own studio.” In 2006, Comstock converted his business into a 100-percent mobile model and never looked back. Indre has an upscale client base, and its projects include a Harry Connick Jr. Christmas special for AOL Music and live concert broadcasts of My Morning Jacket and The Decemberists for NPR.

Indre's business revolves around a small production truck housing a Yamaha 02R96 digital console, Apogee Big Ben Master Clock, Pro Tools HD3 (80 channels), Apple Logic Pro Version 8 (64 channels), Genelec 1031A monitors and a digital signal flow from the stage. “MADI has changed how we record remotely,” says Comstock. “It is easy to run, supports an amazing amount of data and eliminates any ground or RF issues with the venue.” The feed to Indre's truck starts from the stage, with Radial OX8 three-way splitters feeding eight PreSonus DigiMax LT preamps offering 56 total channels. The DigiMax LTs' optical outputs feed an RME ADI-648 ADAT/MADI converter that then takes the signal to the truck. Once in the mobile studio, the signal feeds an RME MADI router to the console, then Pro Tools and Logic 8 for redundant recording. When the truck is not an option, Indre uses “flypacks” comprising dual Pro Tools HD3 systems stored in flight cases.

The call for processing depends on the job. “I'll use some processing for a live broadcast, but for the most part keep it simple for a straight recording.” When tracks call for on-site sweetening, Comstock turns to some plug-ins, but mostly relies on the EQ and dynamics built into his Yamaha 02R96. “It's great to have the hands-on feel of the console when we're live at the venue,” he says.

Out of Africa

Engineer Michael Gassert's work spans from traditional studio work at Mix B in New York City, which he co-founded, to remote work with Bachir Attar & Master Musicians of Jajouka (www.jajouka.com), an ancient village in the blue Djebala foothills of the Rif mountains in northern Morocco. Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones was the first to record the group in 1968. Gassert says, “I have done several recordings with them on tour and in the village over the last three years. We are releasing our first record together and their first in almost a decade, recorded live in Lisbon.”

Gassert tracks on a MacBook Pro running MOTU's Digital Performer. He uses Metric Halo Mobile I/O 2882+DSP converters, as well as custom-built Neve and API clone preamps into an RME Fireface 800 that's ported into his Mac G4 laptop. For the front end, he uses a variety of mics from Schoeps, plus Sennheiser RE20s, 421s and 441s; AKG C 1000s and 414s; and Neumann TLM193s.

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