Thursday, April 27, 2017

BEHRINGER X32 THE JURASSIC YEARS

BEHRINGER X32, 
THE JURASSIC YEARS
by Mark King for proworkshop.com

This is part One of a two part exploration of the journey to X32. You can jump directly to the next part here.

A LOT OF ANALOG BACKGROUND

I became aware of the Behringer product name in the early 1990's. In the pro-audio magazines of the day there were stories of Behringer being sued by Mackie for imitating their products. Next was the story about how Aphex was suing because Behringer copied their $1200 compressor and were selling it for $300. Were these stories even true? I don't know and really, I don't care, I'm sure the lawyers can figure all that out. 

I'm an audio guy and not a wealthy one at that. I love high-end expensive gear but my favorite is inexpensive equipment that sounds indistinguishable from the expensive stuff and helps me realize my vision in the recording studio, that's what I call a win-win situation. 

TAPE RECORDING BEGINS
THE OLD WEBCOR, NOTE MIC STORED IN THE LID
I started recording in the 50's, my father bought a Webcor tape recorder and was recording me when I was only 5-years old. I was fascinated by the spinning reals of tape and enamored with hearing my voice playback, that was like magic. That recorder had a big Green-Eye level meter on it, a vacuum tube display that would undulate to the dynamics of the audio being input. 

THE OLD WEBCOR REEL TO REEL
In the 60's a friend loaned me a Viking reel-to-reel half track that was capable of bouncing between the two tracks. Every sound got re-recorded during a bounce and the noise floor built up very fast, by the fourth overdub the noise was like Niagara Falls in the background but I could at least flesh-out song ideas by myself.
SUPERSCOPE STEREO CASSETTE RECORDER WITH BUILT IN LIMITERS
By 1971 the market for compact cassette stereo recorders was really starting to take off. I found a model by Superscope which had built-in limiters that did not crush the sound but did protect from distortion. I had to give the Viking reel to reel back to the guy who loaned it to me so I bought two Superscope cassette decks and bounced between them to create my musical visions. 
TEAC 3340S
By 1972 I had my eye on a Teac 3340 4-track tape recorder, I was sure that would be all I'd need to write and record my music. It was not until 1975 that I had finally saved up enough money to buy one. It was heavenly for about a week. I quickly realized that tape hiss was still going to be a big problem if I wanted to build up very many tracks. That led to noise reduction systems and DBX was the big name of the day. I bought a 4-channel DBX noise reduction box, completely confident based off everything I'd read that this would really open the door to good sound for me. It did not. The head bump in the Teac and Tascam product made the bass frequencies waffle all over the place as a result of the compressing and expanding the DBX process utilized.

THE EIGHT TRACK TAPE YEARS

Undaunted I moved ahead and upgraded to a Tascam 80-8, 8-track on 1/2" tape recorder with factory DBX noise reduction integrated. Certainly this would be all I'd ever need, right? Nope. Same problem, bass frequency head-bump in the recorder combined with DBX type 1 noise reduction splattered the bass frequency response all over the place. See how much better tape was? I learned to bypass the DBX on the track I recorded the bass guitar on. Later on I bypassed DBX on the track I recorded drums on also. There was more hiss but the tone quality was greatly improved. 
80-8 WITH TASCAM DBX N.R. UNIT
Some people made hit records on the 80-8. "Sweet Dreams" by the Eurythmics was certainly a hit. Another big problem with that 80-8 was the sound going away off the tape the more you worked with it. I painstakingly cleaned and demagnitized my heads every other day. I tried really hard to milk the most out of that recorder that I could. 

In the late 1970's a new low cost recorder hit the scene, it was Fostex and they had the guy who designed the multitrack equipment for Tascam on their team now. Fostex took narrow format recording to the next level, 8-tracks on 1/4" tape. One huge difference was that Fostex used Dolby Type C noise reduction instead of DBX. The difference in sound was very apparent, the terrible bass performance was almost entirely eliminated by the Dolby C on Fostex recorders. 

16 TRACKS AND COUNTING

Around 1983 Fostex introduced the B-16 which put 16-tracks on 1/2" tape. I was an early adopter, the wholesale price on the machine was around $4000 and a dealer friend hooked me up with a deal on it. I made quite a bit of money recording people with that B-16. The sound quality was ok and we could record a full band playing at once without having to combine too many tracks together, having 16-tracks seemed like heaven compared to the 4-track I started with. 
FOSTEX B-16 WITH INTEGRAL DOLBY-C N.R.
I eventually acquired a pair of Fostex E-16 machines and sync'd them together with a Fostex synchronizer. That combination yielded up 30 recordable tracks which was really incredible at the time. Rewinding and syncing was a pain but it worked and did not sound awful. Unfortunately the E-16 machines used electronic braking and they were much more difficult to set up and maintain. The machines would get a little whacked on their tape handling and suddenly the tape was stretched so tight across the head it was peeling the oxide off. My love affair with tape was over.

THE DIGITAL REVOLUTION - MIDI GOES DIGITAL AUDIO

Studio-Vision was the midi software I was running on my Mac in the 90's. I remember when they offered three-tracks of audio integrated with midi tracks, suddenly we had digital recording and midi together in one space and I could splice the audio in all sorts of weird ways right in the computer. Sure beat using a razor blade and splicing tape.  While Studio-Vision was powerful it was also short-lived from that point on because the company was sold and the new owners (Gibson brands) closed the doors on it. The lead developer of Studio-Vision went to work for Apple and built the midi transport support for Mac OS.

DECK BY OSC

Deck was an eight track recording package. Their technology was licensed to Digidesign. Things looked good for OSC but then somehow Digi was able to use the intellectual property without the license fees so unfortunately OSC went away and eventually Deck quit running on Macs due to OS upgrades. I used the audio inputs and outputs on a Targa video board to feed Deck and do simple eight track edits.

Mark of the Unicorn was the big midi-sequencing competitor to Studio-Vision. After Studio-Vision died I moved to Motu software, Performer version 1.7 was the current version. It started out with some audio integrated into the midi software but quickly the software evolved into Digital Performer,  a more audio oriented program which is how the product is known today. 

I bought in to Digital Performer at version 2.5, I still have all the software and books from every Digital Performer upgrade I bought. Digital Performer advanced the audio features greatly and was a vast improvement in usability but it was not very reliable and I had a lot of "Unexpected Quit". This taught me quick about save and save often. When DP quit it took your work with it unless you had it saved. I struggled along on Digital Performer up through version 4.5 when I lost a big file I had hours of work in. I had saved it but it was corrupted and would not open, I was so angry, that was the end of me and Digital Performer.

PROTOOLS

Protools was the platform everyone was talking about. I had been messing with it since version 3 but it finally seemed like it was time for me to go Pro. I dropped about $5000 in to the system to start with and that did not get me a lot. I hemorrhaged money into Protools hardware and software. Every year it seemed like I had to trade stuff in and buy more new. I spent a lot more on Protools than I did on my car. 

On top of that I was not liking the sound the system was producing, there was a harshness I could never get used to. I think a lot of early digital users credited the digital medium with poor sound quality when it was really inferior technology in the hardware. 

The more I used the system the more I learned to hate the sound of the conversion. When you sit in front of a good pair of monitors for four to eight hours a day working on a song you begin hearing details that can easily be missed in a single listen. The harsh sound quality I was getting out of Protools and Digidesign hardware grated on me more and more every day.

The move from Protools 6 to Protools 7 was going to cost me a lot because I needed more new hardware, imagine that. I was angry and did not feel like I'd gotten my true value from my previous investment. I started looking around at alternatives and discovered Logic and Apogee. 
APOGEE X-SERIES
PROTOOLS OUT, LOGIC IN

Apple bought Logic from a German company called Emagic. Logic was rumored to be much more powerful than Protools but very difficult to use. More importantly it did not require proprietary hardware like Digidesign systems did at that time. I was very fortunate to sell my Protools equipment on eBay for a good return so I dove headlong into Logic and Apogee converters. 

Apogee X-series converters came in 16-track chunks in single rack space boxes, one for record and one for playback. The sound quality from these was spectacular and so much better than anything I'd ever experienced. The happiness was truncated by the fact that Logic 6 was a total nightmare to use. I'd heard it was not user friendly and had a learning curve but wow the user-interface really sucked. Still, the sound quality from Logic through Apogee was very nice and a big step up for me. I prayed Logic 7 would be easier to use. It was not. 

Apple bought Emagic because they needed digital audio engineers to revamp the audio in another program that was taking off like in a very big way, it was their video editing program "Final Cut Pro". FCP was taking the video industry by storm and Apple needed to upgrade the audio features fast. They bought Emagic and put all those engineers working on the audio features in Final Cut Pro. By this point I was already doing video with Final Cut and could see the audio limitations there. 

After version 7 of Logic came out Apple released a new audio program called "Garageband". I was watching the rollout when Steve Jobs first showed Garageband to the public. The audience seemed a bit confused as to why Apple was investing time and resources in this. What we were really seeing is where Logic was ultimately headed. I hated Logic 7 but I loved Garageband. 

Garageband was multitrack and easy to use. I'm as much a songwriter and creator as I am an engineer. I was delighted to have Garageband to compose and create new content. Garageband fulfilled my songwriting needs until Logic 8 finally arrived. 

LOGIC 8

Logic 8 was the first version to adopt the easy to use features of Garageband. Logic 8 gave you access to so much more than Garageband did and it was almost as easy to use. I jumped on Logic 8 immediately and happily used it to record and create many songs. Around this time my marriage of 15 years tanked. During the ensuing divorce process all my Apogee hardware mysteriously disappeared out of my basement studio. As a temporary measure I bought an Apogee Duet audio interface. I liked the sound of my X-series converters but did not have the cash to replace them just yet so the Duet was an inexpensive temporary piece that really impressed me a lot. As soon as I could I upgraded to the new Apogee Ensemble recording interface. 
APOGEE ENSEMBLE AUDIO INTERFACE
I moved to California and that was a great move because I met the lady of my dreams there and we set about recording our first album together which we released in 2009. We recorded the whole thing in the back of my motorhome which was parked in a storage lot near the apartment we lived in. I was mixing on the Neve 8816/8804 and felt very limited with only eight audio line outputs so we upgraded to a Symphony converter package. That was seriously excellent sounding hardware.


FIRST GENERATION APOGEE SYMPHONY CONVERTER SYSTEM
Logic 9 was a fairly big upgrade from version 8 but not monumental. The look of the software changed a lot and there were more virtual signal processors and synthesizers included. Many annoying bugs had been fixed and generally life was very good to me on Logic 9. 

Logic 10 (aka Logic X) brought with it another facelift to the software. Knobs became more simple in appearance. The color space became darker. All of the included plug-in processors were rewritten and given improved interface appearances and enhanced functionality. I reluctantly upgraded to Logic X. I say reluctantly because I really liked Logic 9, we created a lot of music using that software. 

I've been using Logic X since it came out, the Drummer software instrument is really great for songwriters. You can tell the Drummer to follow a guitar track and it will lay down a viable rhythm, this is gold for songwriters. 

From this point we transitioned the studio to the X32 for conversion. Follow along if you'd like to read about how we went from Apogee to having two X32 networked with 112 remote-controllable inputs and a forty-channel Soundcraft analog mixer.