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Most difficult instrument to record?


Welcome to our Q&A area, affectionately known to readers as "Talkback". Here, you can see our Editors', Writers', and Industry Specialists' answers to your recording-related questions -- we'll look to answer as many questions as we can. We're here to help!

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Q: Dear Recording Magazine,

My name is Paul Manfrini and I'm writing from Irvine, California.

I got all excited about the BOSS ME-70 Guitar Multiple Effects box. I love all those dedicated knobs! It makes things so easy and intuitive, no need to read the manual (but I always do anyway, for the little hidden tricks).

Too bad it doesn't have a DRY OUT (pre-DSP) on the back panel! Is there a way to switch the "REC OUT/PHONES" output to pre-DSP, while at the same time keeping the processed signal coming out of the "Gt. AMP OUTPUT"? (or viceversa)

When I track guitar I would like to record 2 tracks simultaneously: the processed sound, and a separate dry track just in case I change my mind later in the project and decide to tweak the sound.

At $300 street, you'd think BOSS could afford to add one more mono out with just the pre-DSP guitar signal to their wonderful ME-70. Maybe they can call it the ME-80, make it rack-mountable, and charge a few extra bucks for it.

I was going to order this box right away until I found out the shortcoming.

Other boxes have plenty of outputs, but none of them have the dedicated knobs for each effect, not even the expensive ones like the Line 6 Pod X3 Pro, or even the totally overpriced Digidesign Eleven Rack. They all seem to rely on menus and those pesky "multi-function" buttons.

I think I'll have to do without the knobs for know, because having the outputs is more important for what I do.  I'm not a stage musician, only studio, so I don't need the floor pedals, and I do all my recordings DI (the fewer things between the guitar and the "tape" the better). But even if I were out there gigging, I would still want to have both wet and dry outs out of my guitar multi-effects.

I'm leaning more towards the Behringer V-Amp Pro, because I get both the wet and dry outs, and it streets for only $170.

But I still want all the knobs! Is there a box out there that has the really wonderful knobby interface of the ME-70 AND the extra dry output? Any suggestions?

Paul Manfrini
Irvine, CA

A: Paul,

The REC OUT/PHONES jack on the ME-70, when plugged in, automatically engages the built-in amp simulator on both its own signal and the main outputs. When it's unplugged, the amp simulator is turned off as it's assumed that the ME-70 is run straight to a guitar amp. So there's no joy there.

However, I wonder if you may be missing a more obvious solution to your problem. If you want the option of a completely dry signal from your guitar, why even put it through the ME-70 in the first place? You can buy a good quality amp splitter/merger that won't mess up the high-impedance signal from your guitar, send one solid signal to whatever it is you're recording to, and the other through the ME-70. Your solution doesn't have to be as complicated and expensive as a Lehle P-Split or Little Dual split/switch box, although you could go that route if you wanted to. It could be as simple as adding a DI box with a direct passthrough, something like the Radial ProDI. You'd send the passthrough signal to your ME-70 or other effects processor or amp, and the XLR low-impedance output to your recorder for archival and later processing if it's needed.

This adds a bit of money to your shopping bill, but it carries with it some side benefits. For one thing, a well-made DI with a passthrough can be useful for all sorts of applications beside this one, and every studio should have one lying around. (Do you ever plan to record bass guitar? Boom, the DI pays for itself instantly.) For another, the DI's circuitry -- if it's well made -- will alter your guitar's basic tone considerably less than sending it into your average multi-effects processor and out again, even with the effects turned off or bypassed. And finally, you have the option of choosing your effects processor for its sound and ease of use, not vetoing it because it lacks a function that would be better served outside the box anyway. Think about it!

Two final comments before I let you go.

One: boxes like the POD X3 Pro couldn't possibly have a knob for each function or they'd be bigger than your average keyboard synthesizer; they're an order of magnitude more complex and feature-laden than the ME-70. (Believe me, I know; I have both boxes right here next to me in my office at the moment.) If you want all that power and knobs for every function, be prepared to buy a bunch of separate pedals and string them together on a custom pedalboard, and be prepared to spend a lot of money on the board itself so it can power and route all your pedal signals without them dissolving into a morass of hiss and noise. Multi-effectors always represent a compromise of sorts, and the user interface is generally one of the first things to go.

Two: I strongly recommend you listen to whatever you plan to buy before you purchase it, to make sure you like the overall tone it gives you, even with the effects mostly or completely switched off. It's true that there's a huge price difference between products like the V-Amp Pro and the ME-70 and the POD X3 Pro, but what good is saving money if you hate the sound of your guitar? Never forget the often-ignored basic rule of recording: if it sounds good, it IS good, specs and price and "what the big guys are using" and everything else aside.

Have fun and let me know what you end up deciding to do.

Best regards—MM

Q: Hi folks -- For the most part I enjoy the magazine, it has been helpful and I ended up purchasing Ozone 4 because of the review you ran. (I am extremely pleased with Ozone.)

But many times your reviews are not decipherable to someone who hasn't spent the last 20 years locked in a pro recording studio.

An example:

"Of course the most asked questions about this unit are,"Does the solid state side sound like an 8110? and does the tube side sound like a 610?" reminiscent of the sonic signature of 1176LN."

My guess is that the next most frequently asked question is "what the hell is an 8110?"

The whole section called "So what's so cool?" was worthy of a comedy sketch on SNL.

I would guess from reading the gear lists in the reader's tapes section, that most of us are a lot more DIY on a limited budget and don't get much opportunity to A/B test much gear at all. So comparisons don't really clarify things for us.

Paul in California

A: Paul -- I sympathize, I really do. Part of the balancing act we do as a magazine that caters to everyone from the confused beginner to the more advanced user upgrading his studio, is that not all articles and reviews can be aimed to all audiences. In the case of the 710, which has (at least among more knowledgeable studio users) a very famous pedigree, if our author had NOT chosen to compare it with its predecessors, he would have been chastised for not providing proper context for the review to the people who really know and care about this stuff! I guess we know we're doing our job as best we can when we get equal numbers of complaints that we're too advanced AND too simplistic. :)

I think that with a little bit of research, it would take you a lot less than 20 years to learn about many of the more popular and relevant pieces of gear out there. The 8110 is admittedly a bit more obscure than some, but many people who have never actually seen a real 610 at least know what it is... it is descended from one of the most historically significant mixing boards ever, as designed by the great Bill Putnam. Perhaps we should have included a sentence or two mentioning this fact in the review.

We like to help our readers learn about the history and gear of pro audio because a well-informed reader is a savvy buyer who's more likely to get satisfaction from his purchases. So while comparisons might not always seem helpful, as you learn more, you realize they're becoming more and more handy.

Also, I would disagree about the Readers' Tapes section. A lot of our submissions come from people who have a lot of gear at and above this level, it's a really good mix of DIY beginner stuff and more advanced gear. In fact, over the years we've been delighted to watch a fair number of readers resubmit new material as their chops get better and they improve their studios to keep up with their developing skills. It's rather like a proud parent watching a child growing up and thriving. :)

Thanks for your letter, and thanks for reading. I hope we'll continue to help you in your quest for audio enlightenment, even if you find our editorial choices frustrating sometimes.

Best regards -- MM

Q: Recording virgin here. I never got into electric guitars, always acoustic. I enjoy the soft, mellow sound. moreover, people can hear the words to my songs over the music. My problem is finding some type of cable attachment that has a contact mike on one end and a USB connection on the other. I don't know how else to interface with computer music production programs. I never learned to read nor write music either. I feel as though I must rely on a third party program to capture my music before I forget it.

Neil Noble
Columbia, MD

A: Neil,

I am not aware of a product that specifically does that: contact mic directly to USB. However, that process CAN be done in two stages, and what you choose for your second stage can open up options for lots of music recording applications. Let me explain.

The process of getting audio into a computer has many stages: you turn moving air into electricity, then you turn electricity into digital data, then you convert the digital data into a form the computer can understand. Audio interfaces all do this, but they do it in different ways.

Let's say that all you wanted to do was record your acoustic guitar and you prefer the sound of a contact mic, that's all, period... then the product you'd want would be an electric guitar to USB cable interface. You'd then buy a contact mic for your guitar, choosing the one that sounded best to you, and plug the guitar-to-USB cable into that.

Alternatively, you could buy a USB microphone and set it up on a stand to listen to your performance, capturing the sound of the guitar in the room rather than with a contact mic or piezo pickup. A USB mic is a little more expensive than a guitar-to-USB cable, but it does more; you can even sing into it if you want to overdub vocals onto your guitar parts.

The most generally useful box in a situation like this would be an audio interface: that's a generic box that lets you plug lots of different things into it, and it turns all the audio it hears into a signal that the computer can understand. Some of them are boxes that sit on a shelf or desktop, some bolt into equipment racks, and some look and work like small audio mixers. If you had one with, say, two mic inputs, you could get a nice microphone for your voice and a different mic that complements your guitar, set them up on stands, and sing and play to your heart's content... and if you ever wanted to try a different mic, you could just change mics without having to replace your interface and teach your computer how to talk to it again.

To learn a bit more about these ideas and how they apply to you, you can read an article I did about USB microphones. Much of what you want to accomplish is the same as what I discussed there. The article is in the February 2009 issue of RECORDING, in the DAW Details column.

Best of luck, and thanks for reading.--MM

Q: Hi,

I really enjoyed Scott Dorsey's article in the May issue about ground loops. Would you mind explaining what "lifting power-line safety grounds " means please? Also the use of 2 prong "cheater" adaptors please? Terrific article, thanks.



A: Mark,

I am forwarding this letter to Scott Dorsey, but in the meantime let me toss in a word or two from the Editor's chair. I think some of the problem you're having understanding what Scott means is simply that Australian technical jargon is different from American. "Lifting the power-line safety ground" means to cut the earth on a mains lead.

A "cheater" is a device that either removes the earth entirely or replaces it with a non-conducting dummy pin. I'm not sure how it's done with the 3-bladed power plugs used in Australia.

Here in the USA, there are two standards for power plugs: one with only two prongs (what you'd call active and neutral, what we call hot and cold or live and neutral) and one with two prongs plus a grounding pin (an earth connection for safety).

In the USA, if you want to plug a 3-prong device into a 2-prong socket you can buy a small device called a "cheater", essentially an adapter with a socket for a 3-prong power plug on one end and a 2-prong plug on the other end. Here's a photo of one in the first post in this forum thread about the subject (which is interesting if not entirely gospel reading, by the way):

Cheater plugs

Notice the little metal ring sticking up on the plug side of the cheater? The earth connects to that. The idea is, you're supposed to put a screw through the ring and screw it into the wall socket's switchplate. Most USA wall receptacles with only 2 prongs have the switchplate screw attached to a safety ground within the wall, so bolting the cheater down this way gives you a safety ground connection even though the wall socket doesn't support it directly.

The thing is, there's no one to force you to attach the clip to the wall; if you just plug in the cheater as it is, then the ground is left floating (the device is unearthed) and it can be unsafe.

Scott may want to elaborate a bit on this, but in the meantime, here's a quick link to that fountain of dubious knowledge, Wikipedia:

Power Plugs and Sockets around the World

You can see the Type I used in Australia about halfway down the page, and a bit above that, the Types A and B plugs used in the USA. A cheater is an adapter that has a type B socket on one side and a type A plug and metal clip on the other. Combined with the picture of the cheater, hopefully now you can see what he's on about -- using an external add-on to disconnect the earth from a mains lead, rendering it potentially deadly.

Thanks for reading, and thanks for your letter!


ps. Scott Dorsey adds:

Mike has it right.... remember the US power infrastructure was the first in the world, and we didn't get a lot of things right the first time around. Until the 1960s it was very rare to see grounded outlets, and so there are a lot of 2-to-3 prong adaptors out there to allow people to plug grounded appliances into ungrounded outlets.

The cheaters have a clip that allow you to ground them to the box, but in a lot of cases the boxes aren't even grounded! Some buildings were wired with conduit or BX wire but most were wired with two-conductor materials that carried no ground.

It's a mess.--SD

Q: In Pro Tools LE, why do my wav files (audio) disappear in my track when i go to Audiosuite and change the gain?


Ricardo V. White

A: Ricardo,

Mark Hornsby replies: "You have to make sure the Use In Playlist button is highlighted in the AS plug in." See if that helps.

Thanks for reading!--MM

Q: I am buying a macbook for home use. I thought that I would buy a unit that could handle a multitrack program to record a band possibly. I already have a VS-2480, but i do not want to move it to another location. Do I need a Macbook or a Macbook Pro?

Thanks Ric Palmer

P.S. What is a good multitrack program to buy? I would say I need 16 to 24 tracks.

A: Ric,

A MacBook would do fine for beginning uses; the only advantage of the MacBook Pro (besides non-audio stuff like better graphics and a larger display) is that it has FireWire, whereas for a MacBook you'd use a USB 2.0 audio interface to get sound in and out. If you get an older-model white MacBook rather than one of the new aluminum unibody models, it will still have FireWire on it and represents a great value for home recording work.

As for recording software, don't buy anything until you've had a chance to try Apple GarageBand, which comes free on every new Mac. If you start by recording your own audio rather than just working with the loops, it's quite powerful, sounds good, and it's free!

Good luck, and have fun!--MM

Q: I have a newer iMac and was wondering how to use my monitors with it. It only has a headphone jack and I have the Alesis Mk2 powered monitors. Do I just find a 1/8" to 1/4" Y cable and go straight to the speakers? It seems like the output might be too high and I would have to really watch the level leaving the computer so I wouldn't overload the speakers amp input. What do you think? I'm probably missing something pretty simple here but I would appreciate the help. Thanks.
Marshall J. Daniell

A: Marshall,

The Alesis monitors should be fine with a decently hot line-level signal. My first guess (having used the headphone outs on an iMac of similar vintage to yours) is that your headphone output should actually do a pretty good job. Modern headphones have a very low input impedance, so they can be driven hard by relatively low-powered headphone amp circuitry; the headphone out on your iMac is of good quality but I doubt it's so powerful you'll have overload situations.

If you find it annoying to constantly turn your audio up and down on the computer, consider patching in a passive stereo level control between your Y splitter and your monitors. You'll need to make sure you have the proper cable types (some of these use 1/4" or XLR or offer a choice), but once that's sorted, you might find it nice to have a large volume knob you can grab in a hurry. We have reviewed the A Designs ATTY and the SM Pro Audio iNano; TC Electronic recently released a similar product called the Level Pilot.

Good luck and let us know how it works out!--MM

Q: I am just finishing up recording my new album, and I plugged my mics direct into my 002. Now, I’m having someone else mix it, but I’ve heard of running any loops or synth sounds through a Mic pre just to give it a more Analog sound. Would I be able to get the same effect if I simply Ran each track though a Buss -> Waves SSL G-Channel (to replicate the SSL 4000 Console) and then -> McDSP AC1 (to replicate a Otari Tape Machine), and then print to a new track. By doing this I wouldn’t pre mix it or add any EQ or compression, just simply run it though to help the sonic quality. Or… is this a wasted step and time?

Jon Evans

A: Jon,

The wonderful thing about working in a DAW like Pro Tools is that this sort of experimentation is easy to do! Set up the chain you've described and bounce your audio to a new set of tracks; they can exist side by side with the original copies. You'll need to adjust for the latency of the effects chain once you're done recording, so everything lines up nicely. Then you just have to mute one group of tracks vs. the other to A/B them and decide which you like better... and you even have the option of leaving them all there when you go to mix and offering the mix engineer the choice.

If there's a disadvantage to this approach, it's that leaving these sorts of decisions until the mix *can* result in having too much material to wade through when the clock is ticking at the mix studio... or at least delay your getting there. I advise that you try it on one track, something that you think could use the added character, and see how it works. Then, if it sounds good to you and doesn't muddy things up, add it to more tracks slowly and see how far you go before you stop making the song better and start running in circles.

Good luck and thanks for reading!--MM

Q: Hi there: Just a quick question for Paul Stamler. I’ve modified my cable for my Shure SM58 (“The Taming of the Shure”, May 2006) to better match the impedance on my TASCAM FW-1082 as written in Recording, and it’s working great.

My concern is that the FW-1082 has only one phantom power switch for all XLR inputs. I’ve used the SM58 before with other phantom powered mics with no problems, but haven’t tried it yet since modifying the cable. Is it safe to use the SM58 still with my other phantom powered mics?

Thanks for the great info.
Franz Peters
Ontario, Canada

A: Hi Franz:Yep, it'll work fine, no problem. The phantom voltage is the same on both pins 2 & 3, and with no difference in voltage, no current will flow through the added resistor.

Enjoy! Peace—PJS

Q: I’ve been a subscriber for a few years. I came across this sound sample (link below) and I am at a loss to explain the huge width of the sound field. It was recorded in 1952 by Hugh Tracey (inventor of the Kalimba - interesting story) on a Lyrec or Nagra recorder. I would like to understand what Hugh did to capture this. Please feel free to forward this and/or reply.
Thanks—Mark T. Chard

A: Paul Stamler and Mike Rivers responded to this with nearly identical replies.

Paul writes:

Judging by the streaming-audio sample, the recording's two channels have opposite polarities—in popular (if inaccurate) terms, they're "out of phase" with each other. A field recording from 1952 was almost certainly mono; for whatever reason, the streamed version is in stereo, with one channel's polarity backwards. Listen to the recording in mono (with the two channels combined), and it almost disappears.

Usually when a recording has "super-wide" stereo sound, something like this is going on. Engineers occasionally do stuff like this for special effects, generating sounds that appear to be "beyond the speakers", but they cause all kinds of oddities when the recording is played back in mono, and for various reasons they make the recording almost unplayable on the radio.


Mike writes:

Well, this one is easy. It's a mono recording with the same program material on both channels of a stereo file with a problem. The problem is that the polarity is reversed on one of the channels, putting them 180 degrees out of phase. This is what creates the big hole in the middle.

If you have a DAW program that easily allows you to invert the polarity ("phase") of one channel, do that and it'll sound like it's supposed to sound. You can accomplish the same thing by reversing the wires going to one speaker.

Hopefully only the sample file on the web site is screwed up like this and not the CD. Incidentally, in 1952, the recording was almost certainly mono (Nagra didn't introduce their first stereo recorder, the IV-S, until 1971).

In this sample, the two channels aren't identical, which they should be in a proper stereo representation of a mono program. This could be a result of the data reduction process used to make a small web-friendly sample (MP3 compression) or it could be the result of the the original full track recording being played with a stereo playback head and re-recorded as two channels. This is suggested by the bit of "swishiness" you can hear, resulting from the worn tape wobbling a bit as it passes the playback head, causing the same sound to be reproduced at a very slightly different time in the two channels of the playback head.

By today's standards, this would be considered pretty sloppy transcription work, but it may have been the best the low budget company could do when the record was originally issued. Smithsonian Folkways may not have had the original recording when they reissued theit on CD. There's really no excuse, however, for the inverted channel on the web sample other than that someone just wasn't paying attention. It's easy to fix.--MR

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