We are gear-heads. It's a dirty name to call someone these days as it carries an anti-artistic stigma. We've all accidentally strayed into talking about gear at social occasions only to have an insufferably self-righteous bore across the table say that they don't think about the technology: It only gets in the way of the music. Yawn.
Being on the mailing list of our favourite manufacturers, liking every company that we can find on Facebook and that giddy of high of learning something about a product straight from the person who built it provide us with a deeper context for what our equipment is doing and the sounds we are hearing. Keeping abreast of this pace of change can be addictive and can indeed detract from what all of these wonderful boxes are really here for – you know, for making music with. But when we take a step back it's arguable that these boxes are attributable to the biggest shift in music making we'll likely ever see.
The argument that rapidly advancing technology has gone a long way to define music consumerism is not a new one. CDs, iPods, Spotify and a whole host of other radical changes have completely skewed how the whole industry works. However, little mention is ever given to what’s happened on the other side of the glass. The analogue vs digital argument is yesterday’s news. What is far more exciting, and far more relevant to us, is the effect this bold new digital realm is going to have on the industry.
Analogue vs Digital is Yesterday's News
The wonderful Crane Song have just launched the Solaris, a two-channel stand-alone converter with the Quantum DAC lifted out of their revamped Avocet. This offering is, although exciting, unlikely to raise much attention. The format is nothing ground-breaking: Burl, Lavry, Prism Sound, Antelope and Bricasti all have super high quality, super low channel count products in their ranges, and Crane Song’s HEDD has been around for years. But the DAC is something very special indeed.
What Crane Song insists on doing well is finding the line between digital and analogue. The Avocet was a prime example of this; a digital box sitting on an elaborate matrix of relays and a super clean signal path. But the point of this product, indeed to this whole preamble, is how the balance between digital and analogue plays out; which ultimately amounts to a judgement call all manufacturers in this area have to make. Burl stands out as an example of the marriage between two platforms exploited in such a way that it, almost literally, blurs the line between the two. These boxes, designed by Rich Williams of the legendary UA2192, allow you to drive the ADCs in the way you would any piece of analogue gear. There's even an attenuator on the front so you can hit the transformers even harder.
What's most notable about this is that Crane Song and Burl both find their compromise (if you can call it that) between the two but sonically they are at the complete opposite ends of the scale. Burl is all about rich colouration and added harmonics and Crane Song espouses a neutral and honest output. There is undoubtedly room for both approaches at various stages in the production process. Luckily, if you're feeling particularly decadent, you can own both a Burl B2 and a Crane Song Solaris for less than the price of a pro interface. They're Dante and USB compatible respectively so you can, theoretically, run them without any further periphery aside from your monitors.
The Avocet IIA is an immensely powerful monitoring tool with functionality that can rival anything on the market. However, it's this expansive feature set that makes it unwieldy and often overkill for most small setups. When all that’s required is a single stereo set of outputs (and nothing more) the provision of talkback, selectable outputs, digital input and surround expandability are all a bit, well, pointless. Plus it's a tragedy to see your box sat there with nothing to do. It's like hiring Bruce Swedien to sit on the mixing desk at a corporate event- an unforgivable waste of talent and potential. So, what if I, the humble mix or mastering engineer with my small edit suite, want that glorious Quantum DAC? Should I buy an Avocet and tape over the 19 buttons I will never use? All the while condemning poor Bruce to sit behind a Mackie Onyx? Well this dilemma has now been resolved as Dave Hill has held out a hand to Mr Swedien and very helpfully put that DAC in a small box with a remarkably small price tag , pegging in at a considerably lower cost than equivalent converters but offering the standard of transparency and accuracy that Crane Song is known for.
What About Audio Interfaces?
Interfaces, conversely to DACs, have been following the trajectory of doing more and more in a single box. You now buy an interface device and it has preamps, four types of digital IO, word clock distribution, MIDI, control room level pots, a toaster, a small family of badgers and a tool for cleaning horses' hooves. Who's going to use all that? Well, songwriters, hobbyists and people who are on the road a lot and need a tool that is as versatile as it is compact. Manufacturers are yet to learn that most people with a permanent setup that they use every day simply need a specific feature set which encompasses only one side of this. Mix engineers find the odd preamp handy for a bit of ad hoc tracking but really, by this point, the mix should be locked. Recording engineers need I/O but will have outboard pres. Mastering engineers need two outs. Nothing more. Sound for vision needs surround outputs and EDM producers need to call their parents.
As long as the world of music making continues to devolve, having fewer channel counts with higher quality converters is likely to prove more and more commonplace.
The Solaris phenomenon adds further momentum to the state of affairs wherein a bedroom producer can boast an identical standard of conversion to even the most professional outfit. World class sound is more accessible than ever and, while music is being created by more people at a faster rate than ever, the landscape of the industry has changed. Large multichannel complexes which book out studios by the month are becoming less and less viable. The burgeoning cost to rent a space teamed with the prevalence of low channel count, high-quality solutions mean that most of what we hear on the radio these days probably has at least some provenance attributable to these new super streamlined, super low overhead production outfits.
The End of an Era
In the 90s and early 00s, rumours that a track or even an album was made in someone's bedroom or loft were the cult stories that enriched these records and caused a few raised eyebrows if they ever attained mainstream attention. How did they stack up next to these big budget recordings that we were used to? In a word, well. They were the early challengers to the status quo of popular music. And arguably the first few nails in the coffin of that era.
The tales attached to the records of what's commonly referred to as the “golden age” of music became the folklore of our age. Recording using buildings as reverb chambers, insane technical and hospitality riders and booking the London Philharmonic for six weeks at a time were the extravagances that added a magical touch of unattainability to these productions. Such endeavours these days would be universally regarded as foolhardy and the big labels are doing more than ever to cut their investments into single artists and maximise their bottom line. Not that this is a bad thing. The big boys are scrambling to compete with the self-released artists and are having to radically change the way they orchestrate everything from A&R to touring.
With social media becoming the most far-reaching and cost-effective way of running a publicity campaign, artists are expected to cultivate their own following. Gone are the days when you need a record label's backing to create an album to a professional standard. More and more bands are self-funded and self-released and there are more than a few well-known outfits that have never given a slice of their profits to these big labels. It's not an understatement to say that converters like the Solaris are perpetuating this decimation of the hierarchy.
As this vertical integration of artist, label and publisher progresses, these small format boxes will thrive and we'll see more and more specific products hit the market. A team of people who never meet will pass their projects around and each will do their specific stage with impeccably high-quality gear. If you're not kitting out a whole studio (because you don't need to), you can spend more on the part of the chain that you do work on. Pair this with this recent trend of discipline-specific spec’d converters and outboard and the result is a music industry consisting of incredibly high-quality production processes that could never exist under the same roof. Needless to say, we’re very excited about the future of recorded music!
By Tom Shorter