In The Box Workflow

Transitioning to In The Box… Like Everything

Little background on me: I’ve played piano since the age of 5. I’m also a professional DJ and music production hobbyist. I picked up music production, mainly making remixes, when I started spinning records over 20 years ago. We used Fruity Loops (before it was referred to as FL) and Acid to arrange tracks. A few years later, I got into live recording for fun. So I have collected a few mics and preamps over the years and I also had a wishlist of gear that I wanted to collect. 

I like to produce music for fun, nothing too serious, so spending stacks on racks of outboard gear just to “collect” was not a priority. Instead I prioritized having a collection of Soft Synths and Samples. This is where I got immersed in the world of Native Instruments. Maschine and Komplete Kontrol were easy to use and as expandable as you could imagine. I have a Maschine MK3 with 20 years worth of collected samples. I also have a Komplete Kontrol S49 MK2 with Komplete Standard as well as some fun NKS-compatible synths such as Sylenth and Serum. The ability to have all of these instruments and samples contained within the NI ecosystem has made my music production hobby more enjoyable. Technically, this part of my workflow is completely in the box, I just have a better way of controlling and browsing everything.

One thing that stuck in my mind was an interview I saw with elite music producer Andrew Scheps. While his mixing workflow is 100% in the box, his tracking workflow was still dependent on outboard: “For recording, you need gear, and I love all the gear I’ve got”. I hold Mr. Scheps’ opinion in high regard, so I always wanted to emulate that formula: Track with outboard gear, do everything else in the box. 

So aside from my NI gear, here’s what I had in my studio prior to the complete ITB solution: I rock an M1 MacBook Pro running Logic as the centerpiece of my studio (which gets replaced every few years). My monitors were KRK VXTs and my interface was an Apogee Duet. I had a PreSonus Studio Channel and WA73 preamp. My mics were AKG C214, WA87 and a Michael Joly Rode NT1A. By no means was it an impressive collection, but it was what I collected over the years. 

What got me rethinking my setup was a recent vacation I went on with my family. We wanted to record a song during our vacation, so we brought some gear with us. I brought my NT1A, mainly because the shock mount has a pop filter on it. I also brought an Epiphone Les Paul, and a Komplete Kontrol M32 (which I ended up giving to my nephew). My nephew brought his Scarlett Interface. We wrote and recorded a track out there, and I mixed it when I got home. During the recording process, I couldn’t help but wonder what my niece’s vocals would sound like on my AKG or 87 running into a WA73. So I started searching for a compact 1073 type preamp that I could travel with. The best I could come up with? Seventh Circle Audio’s N72, which gets great reviews and is compact enough to take on the road. $499 for the fully assembled preamp plus $170 for the case with power supply. So $670 for a preamp that I would probably keep in a mobile rig. Not too inspiring. So I called off my search and enjoyed the rest of the vacation.

Upon returning home from the vacation, I decided to finally replace my broken KRK VXT monitors (only one was working)  with Yamaha HS5s. There was no way was I going to attempt to mix our track on a single speaker, so I ordered them for same day pickup once I got home. I needed new monitors anyway, so this wasn’t a big deal. While I was in my local Guitar Center waiting for the associate to bring out my monitors from the back, I started looking at some of the interfaces that are out. I was an Apogee user dating back to the Duet Firewire, having upgraded to the Duet 2. These interfaces allowed me to truly bypass the internal preamp and use outboard gear. However, the move to the M1 chip did not work well with my Apogee Duet 2, and their Duet 3 came out a while after I switched to M1. I needed something to use in the meantime, so I picked up a Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 which was a hold-me-over as it was compatible with the M1 chip as I waited on Apogee to release something with the compatibility I needed. Apogee eventually released the Duet 3 which I took a hard look at in the store, but it was at that point where a light went off in my head. I can solve a couple of problems with one solution: UAD Unison. I get a new compatible interface as well as the ability to use an array of UAD Unison preamp emulations. My new goal, against the wise words of Mr. Scheps, was to get my tracking process in the box. After all, I’m just a hobbyist and would rather keep a mobile-ready rig as opposed to collecting preamps. So my needs were simple, I need an interface with enough DSP to run a Preamp, compressor, and maybe reverb during recording. I also need it to be mobile, meaning bus powered. My decision was quite clear, I need the Universal Audio Solo Heritage Edition. At the time of my purchase, it came with some free plugs, mainly the Neve 1073 Preamp + EQ. Some of the included plugins have also been updated to work natively, meaning a UAD interface wasn’t required to use the plug-ins. This is gold! $500 for a nice interface with just enough DSP to do what I need, and bus powered! So now I can use some great emulations of some of the most sought after preamps and effects in studios across the globe. Now we are on to something!

So my “Travel Preamp” problem is solved and I am 100% in the box. I have plans to sell off my outboard gear and possibly use the cash and rack space for more Apollo DSP.  It was time to address my final problem: wishing for a different mic for my source. So I started looking into the Universal Audio Sphere LX. It’s a pretty stiff price at $1,000, but then again most great mics are pretty stiff as well. But with this combination, I don’t have to wonder what the tracking would sound like if I had brought x mic or y preamp. I have the options to do it, all I need is the Sphere LX and Apollo Solo. The Sphere LX is now on the wishlist.

So that’s my story. My studio desk has 12U of top rack space that will be emptied out. From here on out I will invest in DSP and plugins as opposed to expensive mics and outboard preamps. Is it a professional workflow? Maybe not, but I don’t claim to be a professional. I just need a mobile ready rig, and the Apollo Solo + Sphere LX is such a light solution for $1,500.