Comparing Convertors

I regularly review music gear for Sonic State, it’s an interesting job as I have to look in detail at a particular piece of hardware or software. Often when you are just using a piece of kit, you don’t get time to delve into all the subtleties of it and learn all its’ full capabilities. I recently had a look at the new range of Apollo audio interfaces from Universal Audio, the full video review will be coming out in due course over on the Sonic State website, but in the meantime I thought it would be interesting to post up some audio illustrating the performance differences compared to the previous generation of interfaces.

The new Apollo thunderbolt-only interfaces boast different cosmetics and some enhanced functionality, but what I was most interested in was the sonic differences due to the revised A/D and D/A signal paths. On paper the specs show improved SNR, THD and Dynamic Range. Given that the previous generation of Apollo interfaces were already very well specified in this department, I did wonder how much of an audible difference these improvements actually made.

In order to test the differences I set up a simple drum recording session: 4 mics on a 1950’s Premier drum kit (EV RE20 outside kick, AKG C414 on snare, Oktavamod Oktava MK012’s for overheads) and my good friend and ace drummer Mark Whitlam laying down some funky yet consistently repeatable grooves. We tracked first through the 4 preamps on the older generation Apollo, then immediately switched the mic cables into the first 4 preamp channels on the Apollo 8P. Mark layed down the same groove again (clicked for ease of comparison) and that was it. Admittedly, this is more a real-world test rather than a carefully controlled scientific experiment, there will always be slight differences in the playing between each take no matter how consistent the drummer, but it gives a good indication of the differences.

Here are the audio files, listen for your self and decide if you can tell the difference:

First, the old generation Apollo Quad:

And next, the new generation Apollo 8P:

Can you hear a difference?

You can download the 24bit 44.1kHz audio files yourself from this link, load them into a DAW and flip between solo’d tracks to get a more direct comparison.

To my ears, I hear a different emphasis in the mid to high range, I can hear it in the hi hats and ride cymbal. I also perceive a bigger stereo image somehow, the the whole thing sounds a little smoother, more open and less boxy compared to the old generation. These are very subtle differences, but good monitoring or headphones do show them up.

 

 

DIY preamps continued….

As promised in the previous post, here are some sound samples to demonstrate the sonic differences between the DIY EZ1290 Neve-style Mic preamps and the stock preamps on the Universal Audio Apollo firewire interface.

The setup for this was pretty simple, a remote drum recording session where the drummer (the fabulous Mr Mark Whitlam) was given a score and a backing track to record the drum part to. The session was carried out in Marks garden studio cabin, a compact but decent sounding purpose-built space that has been acoustically treated.

Listening to the stye of the track and how the drums sounded in the space I decided to go for a simple 4 mic setup: 2 overheads placed more out in front of the drums to get a more balanced picture of the kit as a whole, supplemented with kick and snare close mics.

The drums themselves were:

Vintage 1960s Zildjian A 14″ hi hats, 22″ Istanbul Agop Azure ride (next to hats), Bosphorus 21″ medium thin ride and an 18″ bosphorus thin crash. Drums …. Snare: Canopus Zelkova, 1960’s premier Olympic 20″ bass drum and 12″ Tom, modern premier 14″  Tom

Of course, all properly tuned…..

On the overheads I used 2 Oktava MK-012 modified by Micheal Joly at Oktavamod, on the kick an Electrovoice RE20 and on the snare a cheap and surprisingly cheerful Audio Technica AT2020 (high SPL handling, nice response, good rejection).

On the following audio examples you are listening to just the overheads so you can hear more clearly the differences between preamps. Note that these are different takes, although the drummer is incredibly consistent, so the comparison is not entirely precise.

Firstly, through with the UA Apollo preamps

 

And then with the EZ1290 preamps

 

You can hear the subtle differences, especially when you listen to that ride cymbal from about 10 seconds in. The Apollo preamps are very good, very clear and crisp, but the EZ1290 has a smoother sound, more open and somehow with a better sense of space.  What do you think?

This is the only direct comparison I’ve done but I’ve been working a lot with these preamps on voice and guitar and really like the sound I’m getting, I’m finding I’m using less processing further down the line to shape the sound. I’ve particularly enjoyed the combination of this preamp and the modified Apex 460 valve mic mentioned in a previous article.

 

Recording a 9-piece latin band (in layers) – Timbaterra Salsa EP

This recording of the Bristol-based latin band Timbaterra comprises 4 tracks covering Reggaeton, Salsa Romantica and modern salsa styles with influences from Cuban Timba. Recorded in Bristol and featuring vocals of Indira Roman and Sandra Lord, and the piano and vocals of Raimundo “El Nene” Fernandes. Rhythm section features Rory Francis playing all percussion, myself on bass and the horns were played by Ralph Tong (Trumpet) and Dave Smallwood (Trumbone).

The aim of this recording was to get the full sound of a 9 piece latin band, but doing it in layers rather than everyone playing together live. The key to this is having a good, grooving rhythm section  foundation to build the rest of the tracks on.  Thus we first layed down bass, piano and percussion together, the percussion was done timbales first to get all the breaks marked out, then we overlaid the congas, bongos, guiro and cowbell. I borrowed a set of Audix drum mics for the percussion, mic’ing the timbales with a pair of overheads and 1 dynamic under each drum, then individual mics on the snare, kick and bell tree.

Vocals were done next, fantastic performances from everyone made this very quick and easy. I used an Electrovoice RE20 for all the lead and layered background vocals, worked very well on these voices.

Finally the horns were done, we couldn’t get both players in at the same time so had to go with layering each part individually. This makes things a bit more tricky in the mix when it comes to making it sound like a section, but not impossible. Again, the RE20 microphone did the job of tracing the horns, I used it about a metre away and it seemed to capture the tone nicely.

Once recorded, the mixing began in earnest. Although I’d played in latin bands for years, I’d never recorded and mixed latin music, the learning curve was steep! Thankfully Raimundo was there to bounce the mixes off, he patiently listened to a lot of iterations before he finally said, “yes, that’s it!”.

In a nutshell, the cowbell needs to be prominent (but obviously not too prominent, unlike here), the congas driving and the rest balanced. Obvious right? Took me a while to get it though. A lot of work went into gelling the horns together to sound like a section rather than individuals playing in separate sessions. I used sample replacement to reinforce the kick and snare drum sounds too, adding more punch than was available in the original recorded sounds.

I also go the opportunity to trial a Universal Audio Apollo system, and used the UAD analogue emulation plugins to mix the songs with. Specifically, I used the Studer A800 tape sims on each instrument bus, the EMT 140 plate reverb as a general reverb, the Neve 88RS channel strips for the percussion, Cambridge EQ and LA-2A and 1176LN compressors for vocals and horns. The overall effect was amazing, I got closer to that sound I was searching for than I ever managed with all the other plugins I’d been using. So blown away was I that I decided to invest and bought an Apollo and a bunch of plugs, haven’t regretted that decision!

I’ve been studying Mastering courtesy of Ian Shepards Home Mastering Masterclass (which I thoroughly recommend by the way), I thought I’d put some of that knowledge to the test and do my own masters on these tracks too. Still learning on that front, there is a lot information to absorb and experience to gain. During the mix process the band had a regular gig at a salsa club, so we had opportunity to test out the mixes on a larger sound system and get an idea of how people responded (they danced!)

All in all I’m very happy with the way this recording came out, it took a while but I had a lot to learn, I’m  looking forward to doing a lot more latin music in the future.