Tech Thoughts: Game-Changing Gear

There’s a lot about (music-related) gear on this blog, mainly because I have a lot of it. And as expected, there’s good pieces and bad pieces of gear.

And then there’s what I’d like to call “game-changing gear”: pieces of gear (in the widest sense) that have changed the way I make music. This post is about these pieces of gear.

Note that this is not a “best in class” kind of article, nor is it a top-whatever or tier-list thing. Also it’s highly individual – it’s about things that changed my game. Which might not apply to you, because you either had them from the start, or don’t play the same game.

Akai MPC One

What it is: Pretty much a DAW in a box.

How it changed my game: I can now make complete productions without using the dreaded computer.

What it costs: ca. €680.

I already reviewed it here some time ago. Everything I said in the review is still true – but since then, there’s been a lot of improvements. Like support for class-compliant audio interfaces, and new synth plugins. This is so much fun, whether as a musical (sampling) instrument, a powerful hardware-sequencer, something to do a production beginning-to-end, or to start it and then finish it on the computer.

The garden is just one of many places the MPC One feels at home.

SPL Mastering Plugins

What it is: Two (VST) plugins modelling SPL’s big EQ (PassEQ) and compressor (IRON).

How it changed my game: These, together with the DAW’s onboard tools, are all I need for mastering.

What it costs: ca. €30 a piece if you wait for a sale.

I already reviewed PassEQ here, and IRON is pretty much for a compressor what PasssEQ is for an EQ: together with WaveLab’s onboard tools for “technical processing” (brickwall limiter and dither), this is all I need for mastering. Giving me a streamlined workflow to obtain a release-ready master quickly.

EBU R128 Recommendation

What it is: A tech article telling you how to measure programme loudness.

How it changed my game: Everyone means the same thing when saying “loudness”.

What it costs: N/A

Most streaming/online content platforms (YouTube, Spotify, Apple Music, Deezer,…) have started to enforce maximum loudness limits (usually around -14dB RMS), and they use R128 to measure it.

Also, pretty much all tools from today (DAWs, metering plugins) come with means to measure it.

Which means that today, I can simply create a master that is “competitive” (and at the same time, not ruined), and know it will work everywhere. The fact that R128 uses metering based on Katz’ K-System helped me a lot to get into it.

There’s also a downside: due to the gating algorithm, most quiet passages in any ol’ piano sonata will be ignored for the measurement. That’s a pity, but not a showstopper.

One of the many ways WaveLab displays R128 loudness info.

Boss Katana mini

What it is: A small, battery-powered guitar amp.

How it changed my game: Now I only need two portable things to play electric guitar.

What it costs: ca. €90

Having never been a proper electric (bass) guitarist in the first place made me use amp modeling thingies pretty much exclusively. But the absence of a proper amp meant I couldn’t just take guitar and amp and play.

The Katana mini is affordable, it’s practical (small, light box, can be battery-powered), and given those constraints, sounds pretty good.

Electric guitar the Japanese way: RG and Katana is all you need.

Doepfer A-100 (a.k.a “Eurorack”)

What it is: The biggest modular synth ecosystem in world history.

How it changed my game: Well…I use it. A lot.

What it costs: “priceless”

When Mr. Doepfer drove to Frankfurt’s Musikmesse in 1995 to present his new modular synth system, did he have any idea of the consequences this would have some 25 years later?

I like the system, I like Doepfer’s own modules and cases. I use it a lot. It has changed my workflow for sound synthesis. And for algorithmic composition.

My biggest patch. Yet.

Floating-point Audio File Formats

What it is: Data formats for audio files.

How it changed my game: No gain staging required.

What it costs: ca. N/A

Digital audio had the same issue (only worse) as analogue one for most of the time: gains staging was required. If you recorded in 16bit with 12dB of headroom, then used some processing which brought the signal down by a further 12dB, and had some microdynamic material to begin with, then your RMS-to-noise ratio would often be down to around 50dB. And 24bit formats only brought the absolute numbers up, but the problem remained.

Enter floating point formats: when using e.g. 32bit, you always have a bit depth of 24dB, no matter if the current signal is hideously loud or extremely quiet. You no longer need to think about making use of the available bit depth, and you don’t need to think about clipping, either.

So that’s it!

What are your experiences with those pieces of gear? What are the game-changing pieces in your arsenal?

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