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Studio Nels’ sweet setup

Every week we post a new interview with someone about what software they use on their Mac, iPhone, or iPad. We do these interviews because not only are they fun, but a glimpse into what tools someone uses and how they use those tools can spark our imagination and give us an idea or insight into how we can do things better.

New setup interviews are posted every Monday; follow us on RSS or Twitter to stay up to date.


Who are you and what do you do?

I’m Charlie Smith. I’m a record producer, instrumentalist, composer, and arranger. I work out of Studio Nels in Seattle. My partner, Robb Davidson, designed and built this place from the ground up. It’s a special place. We both feel lucky to be able to make records at our own studio.

We do all sorts of things at Nels. We make records with great artists, ranging from synth-pop to jazz to hip hop and more. We also do advertising work and a lot of radio production work with our other partner, Bart, at Bart Radio.

What is your current setup?

Whew! This one is a potentially very long answer. I’ll keep it to the essentials.

Studio Nels has two control rooms: the main tracking room and 3 ISO booths. The A room is Robb’s home-base (The Danger Room), and the B room is my room (we call it the Composer’s Suite). We use each other’s spaces and gear interchangeably.

The Danger Room

The Danger Room

In the A room, there is a 2.8 GHz eight-core Xeon Mac Pro with 22 GB of RAM running Snow Leopard 10.6.8 and an Apple monitor of the same vintage. The keyboard is a modern slim aluminum Apple model, but non-Bluetooth — it’s always USB around here. There is a well-loved Aeron chair at a big antique wood table that came from Bart’s family’s tannery. The Mac has Pro Tools HD cards connecting to 48 channels of Digidesign 192s. The hub of the room is a TL Audio VTC Console. It has vacuum tubes at every stage, which are currently vintage Telefunken ECC83’s.

The main speakers are Genelecs 1032As and the near field monitors are Yamaha NS-10s.

There is a bunch of outboard gear, like equalizers, reverbs, preamps, but mostly compressors and things that create distortion. A couple of can’t-live-without pieces, such as the Manley Vari Mu compressor, Empirical Labs Distressor, and the Lexicon 200 reverb. There are a couple microphones in the mic locker that we wouldn’t be the same without: 1967 Neumann U87 previously used by Johnny Cash and Rick Rubin, and a pair of Royer ribbon mics. (More gear list below).

We are crazy about backups. You can’t tell a musician, “Sorry, the last 4 months of writing and recording have disappeared. Let’s just start over.” There’s a big pile of hard drives at all times. There is the working drive that gets backed up daily (by hand) and goes home with me at the end of the day. For longer projects, there is a third backup that happens every couple of weeks. In addition to those project drives, there is always a Time Machine running for the internal boot drive.

The iPad has played an interesting role at the studio. One of the greatest uses for the iPad that is unique to the recording studio is screen sharing with Screens. With iPad in hand, you can see the Pro Tools levels while away from the control room — this is great for mic placement. I often use it if I’m at the studio alone in the wee hours of the morning. I can hit record and even do simple edits without leaving the tracking room. It’s a powerful tool for keeping the creative flow going.

The other big deal are all the synth and drum machine apps. With an audio interface and MIDI control via the camera connection kit, you can really use these apps as instruments. I’ve got some pretty great analog synths and they are amazing, but there are some sounds that I can’t get anywhere besides the iPad. Here are some of my favorite iOS music apps:

Speaking of analog synths… That is a major part of Studio Nels. We’ve got lots of cool, soulful instruments. Most of them live in the Composer’s Suite. Here are some of the faves:

It’s sort of the playground where artists can write and experiment with sounds and ideas. There are keyboards, synths, drum machines, and guitars.

The Composer's Suite

The Composer's Suite

The Composer’s Suite

The setup in the B room is a MacBook Pro (2.53 GHz Core 2 Duo, 8 GB RAM model). I recently took out the optical drive to make room for a snappy SSD boot drive. What a huge upgrade to an aging MacBook — it’s awesome. It’s always hooked up to a cheap Dell monitor, and I have always kept an older full-sized Mac keyboard around. I’m not ready to take the plunge into the mechanical keyboard realm like Shawn, but I like having an older, fully tactile feedback. I also have a Magic Mouse and a Magic Trackpad that I swap on occasion.

The hub of the B room is a great audio interface and AD/DA converter, the RME Fireface, and a baby console, the Toft ATB04. I’ve got a small pair of Genelecs with a subwoofer and a handful of outboard gear. The secret weapon is the UBK Fatso. It’s a very special compressor and saturator — everything sounds better through that thing. Other than that, most of the gear in that room is the instruments.

I always have a Moleskine at my side. I have a medium-size book that has music staff paper inside. I use it more for writing down meeting notes than musical notes, but I like having the option. Old habits die hard, I guess. I also have a small pocket-size book (graph lined) for each record I’m working on. Sometimes they overlap, so I like to have a dedicated book for each project. I keep all the info in there — everything from vocal-take notes, to mic placement, to artsy ideas from a late-night studio conversation. If I ever lost one of those, I don’t know what I would do. I’ve just recently discovered what a unique archive they have become. I’ve got a nice thick stack of those little guys now.

What software do you use and for what do you use it?

Pro Tools is the number one most important piece of software in the studio. We run the same version in both rooms so that sessions are easily shared back and forth, which is PT 10. It’s the industry standard. We can walk into any studio with a hard drive in hand and have a session up on the computer in minutes. There are pluses and minuses to the software, but we just roll with it.

The next most used application is Ableton Live 9. A lot of artists use Live to demo out their songs at home before they come to the studio. It is a really cool piece of software, but it’s tough to explain. It just works much differently than any other professional recording software. It’s conducive to writing and recording on the fly and very flexible and fun, whereas Pro Tools is basically a big ol’ tape machine inside a computer.

Now, plugins. This is another big part of what makes things work. We tend to use real-world analog gear first, but there are certain plugins that get used on every record. Audioease Altiverb 7 is indispensable. It’s a convolution reverb that provides audio snapshots of real rooms and gear from places all around the world. iZotope Ozone and RX3 are downright amazing audio repair tools (we’re not talking about Autotune here). A practical example: You have the perfect piano take but the sustain pedal squeaked. You can “erase” the squeak without altering the rest of the audio, which is truly future-time.

For non-audio things, I have a bit of a different setup. Up until just recently, I had a current model MacBook Air for business-y things like email, website updates, and invoices. I found that I was reaching for my iPad and iPhone more and more and almost never using this super amazing computer on the coffee table. So, I got rid of the MacBook Air and upgraded to a 32GB iPad Air. I can do almost everything I need to do on the iPad. I’ve always got the studio MacBook for when I need the occasional “real computer,” but I find the iPad to be the best productivity tool I’ve ever had. Also, a great entertainment tool.

I’ve got a couple folders full of music apps. Garageband is my musical scratch pad, and I love it. I’ve written some serious music in there. Also, Beatmaker 2 is a serious music application. I tend to do more hip hop things there. It allows you to chop samples just like a MPC. One other music app that I haven’t used much but has just turned 2.0 is touchAble 2. It’s an Ableton controller that works through WiFi and MIDI. I’ve tinkered with it before, and this upgrade may make it a major part of my workflow.

For email, I mostly use Apple’s Mail app. When the inbox gets crazy, I’ll use Mailbox to sift through. I love the snooze function, but I wish it wasn’t Gmail only.

For news, I’ve got a nice combination of Feedly, Flipboard, and Pocket. I really like Calendars 5 for iPad and the new Fantastical on iPhone to handle my calendaring.

I still need the right To Do app. A year ago I decided Things was too much for me and I wanted something simpler. I haven’t found it yet. I recently gave up and started using the built in Reminders app, but I don’t like it. Suggestions?

I’ve used several Markdown editors over the years. I like Writeroom. I’m typing this in 1Writer — it’s a good one. I really like Pages, too. Day One is a wonderful app. I use it almost every day.

I am an iPhone photographer. I’ve never owned a real camera. I shot only Polaroid up until they stopped making the film, and that was right about the time the first iPhone came out. I think the iOS 7 Camera app is great, quick, and simple. I shoot with Hipstamatic most often. It reminds me of the polaroid days. I like to process my photos a lot, so I use Diptic to the max, Image Blender for double exposure, pxl, and DEKO for artsy stuff.

Tracking Room

How would your ideal setup look and function?

Well, that’s an unfair question for audio nerds. There is never enough money to have the ideal setup, but there are some things we’ve got in our sights for the future. A small, very vintage Neve console sidecar would be a great addition. We actually just acquired an illusive piece of gear, the Roland Dimension D. There’s always more synths and mics and reverbs and compressors. We’re doing fine with what we’ve got right now, but I suppose part of an ideal setup would be a sponsorship from a cool company like Manley, API, Moog or Dave Smith Instruments.

As far as computer setup, it’s pretty ideal right now. We don’t have the newest machines, but that’s a good thing. If you have new computers, then you are forced into an upgrade cycle with Avid that is… undesirable. I think we’re at a sweet spot where we’ve got all the good stuff but aren’t being gouged by the man.

(Any question I should be asking but am not? Feel free to improvise.)

What you would probably end up asking me if we were having coffee in Seattle right now (not at a Starbucks) is: “How has file sharing and Spotify changed the music business?” Thank you for asking.

The music business is a mess. The good news is, most of the profits being lost are by the big four major labels. Independent labels are thriving.

Internet distribution like Bandcamp, Soundcloud, and YouTube (even piracy) have given smaller bands and labels a way to reach listeners that we have never seen before. For the first time you can listen to a Dirty Projectors song right next to Katy Perry track. It’s an even playing field and more about what the listeners want to hear than ever before.

This is empowering for the artists and labels that don’t have millions to spend on a record campaign. Bon Iver is a great example of this. Justin Vernon is just a guy that makes music and signed to a group of labels, Secretly Canadian. Last year he won a best new artist Grammy for his second album. Secretly Canadian is a fully independent record company. Not only that, but they distribute through their own distribution company.

We are going to see more and more of this kind of story. The headlines have it wrong. The internet isn’t hurting the music industry, it’s hurting the Walmart version of the music industry, and that’s fine with me.


There are more Sweet Setup interviews right here.