Sytek President Mike Stoica building one of his Neotek Elan consoles
Photo Source Mike Stoica
Mike Stoica President of Sytek and producer of
the Neotek studio console series. Part 2. (posted 11-1-07)
Mike Stoica Interview Part 1
Jim Moss: What about the microphone preamps?
Mike Stoica: Well, I think that these days a lot of people I know and a lot of young engineers starting out they look for devices with a lot of character. I keep trying to remind these people when you buy something with a signature, say I buy a mic preamp that sounds like an older NEVE type preamp, that the sound will be great. It will incredible in some channels, but you definitely don't want 28 channels of that. You will loose your resolution. There are some applications where you want that, but it takes a good engineer. And you should try to become a good engineer before you try to find the right gizmos to do a special job, because...
If you add coloration in your sound... it may sound great, but it will be impossible to remove.
It is like condiments.
I can make food with a lot of condiments, but if I don't like it or my guests don't like it,
you know there is no way to take it out. .
Jim Moss: That's right if you record something it should be as flexible for future mixes as possible. Who knows what a track will sound like when it is put in a mix with other tracks. There are issues with Psychoacoustics OR Auditory Masking for example, where one frequency range from one instrument blocks out another instrument with a similar or nearby frequency. This happens in the listeners ear-brain connection processing. That is why you don't record effects to tape on the input side... This should be added on the output (playback) side during the recording process. That said, if you can get a great sound through a tube amp, or a NEVE type amp, you can work with that quite a bit down the line.
One must remember that every element in the sound chain effects the color of the sound. Just take the microphone for example, a Neumann U87 is a beautiful large diaphragm mic. This type of mic colors the sound, but we all love that sound. Like you said, you just don't want to use it across all your channels on the same mix. Instead, I would think of it as how to capture a particular instrument or voice and in doing so, differentiate the nature of that signal from all the others. Every element in the sound chain effects the coloration of the sound to some degree.
On another topic, I have head that VCA's, the voltage controlled amplifiers used in mixing automation, have some serous sonic issues. That this is the reason for the flying fader design.
What is your take on this?
Mike Stoica: Well, I think VCA's... they are a bunch of transistors, basically an array of transistors.
To use a compressor... I spent years in designing some VCA compressors and they sounded great. These were more like the SSL compressors. You have to understand, it is an un-linear type characteristic that of the VCA.
No matter what you are going to do, those transistors will have a sweet point or Q point. If you tune up a VCA to sound incredibly good at that point... So say I am designing automation for a fader automation, where can I tune it up for very low distortion? Well, I will tune it up at around 0db because that is where the faders will sit around. Unfortunately, if you go a little bit over that, they will start adding distortion. If you go very far away from that there you will start adding even more distortion. So, you can always optimize a VCA to be OK at ONE point. You can make that very expensive and very sophisticated and it still sounds good, but... ! We designed VCA automation which was used with the company Optifile automation software...
Jim Moss: Sure, I know those guys! They made automation for the NEOTEK ELAN. Dave Shogren and I were thinking about getting one of their systems in 1998 or so. The problem was, it was expensive and with the digital hard disk recording that I was doing by then, I just couldn't see that it could do anything that I couldn't do with by simply editing tracks. So, I forgot about it.
Mike Stoica: I think that those VCA's were great for some video production and video post production, different types of shows... where you can do some surrounding and param'ing, but unfortunately for a recording studio... once someone pressed down VCA Out in all the channels, it was like night and day. It was like taking off head phones and listening to the speakers. The signal, it lost dynamics and sounded thin coming through the VCA's.
Jim Moss: I see, so the flying fader approach...
Mike Stoica: I think the flying fader approach was probably the best way to go because you never pass the signal to any other nonlinear device. It was just a motor moving the fader up and down.
Jim Moss: Well, we were all fader users originally. I remember having a couple of guys at the board mixing the recordings, making the fader moves. It was fun. If one guy forgot his move you all had to do it over again. Having flying faders just automates that practice, using only a resistance path for the signal. If someone wants to see flying faders take a look at the movie Rock Star, they have my old MCI 2 inch tape machine and a board with flying faders in their studio.
Mike Stoica: I think NEVE licensed the Flying Faders for 10 years and now the are made by Martin Sound. I used Flying Faders last year in a 48 channel console for Chris Wallace. He is a pretty famous producer.
Jim Moss: So who invented the Flying Faders?
Mike Stoica: I am not sure. I think Flying Faders are Martin Sound Proprietary. I know that they spent a large amount of time to write the software. They use to sell us Audio Mate. Audio Mate was an English company. You know my boards with Flying Faders are still available. If somebody wants to buy them. We have our own design that we use. It is based on the same principal, only we want to make things that are more affordable and more simplified with today's technology. The microprocessors are not expensive. Our design is about a third of the price of (Martin Sound) Flying Faders. Flying Faders can cost just as much as the cost of the console, maybe 40 or 50 thousand dollars. Back in those days they had lots of bells and whistles designed in. For the price they had SMPTE, they had the speed and performance which was way over designed in my opinion. That is why I like Neotek. I think that the Neotek Elan and Elite are very very well priced consoles. I mean, if you have $250,000 you can buy an SSL or a NEVE. So what more exactly do you get from $50, 000 to $250,000 ?
Especially in today's economy, it has become a pretty tight market.
Jim Moss: When you look at consoles sold around the world what do you see?
Mike Stoica: I think that in Europe the countries are divided. I think England is very very analog. I think Germany is like half digital and half analog. France is like all digital. Italy is like half and half. I think, that people moved too quick to get rid of their analog gear to get digital gear. I think this sort of thing happened in the 1980s when a lot of people they tossed away their tube gear... and they said "we don't need that. We can buy something that is smaller, better, whatever. Then ten years later hundreds of companies came back and started to design more tube gear.
Jim Moss: Electric guitar players always did have that right.
Mike Stoica: Well, I think that vacuum tubes in the past were expensive pieces of gear. In some applications their characteristics... There are many circumstances where you can really love tubes. If you are a guitar player you can over drive it. They are like a natural compressor. They have a good warm sound. Sometimes you might not want that in the whole recording. I don't know that I would want to have a whole console with tubes.
Jim Moss: Boy that is for sure! With all those filaments? You wouldn't need a heater in the studio you would need an air conditioner.
Mike Stoica: I think all of these technologies they generate a lot of hype when they come out. Later on people sort of stabilize on what they want to do. Again, you know for a small studio it is about what exactly you want to do. Where the market will take you. And most of the time people building small studios don't know that.
Jim Moss: Yes, and I think they have to be really cautious because the advertising that they are reading in the recording or musician publications is coming from an ad agency on Madison Avenue. Oh sure you will see testimonials from people, but maybe they have been compensated somehow (duh). You have to talk to some real producers or engineers personally, and not just one... and older engineers too, who have had a variety of experiences... to get a feel for what can be used, for what.
Mike Stoica: I think with everything in this life if somebody is really cheap... I mean...
I have some people who have told me they can get preamps for 4 channels or 8 channels for $100.
It's like, Yes, but I wish they would have spent $20 more making that power supply more quieter.
Like I said in the very beginning, you have very cheap gear and very expensive gear, and I think we, Neotek, try to be somewhere down in the middle.
Jim Moss: People can buy an instrument that costs quite a bit. They can spend money on special strings and maybe have custom work done on their instruments. I mean, really tweak things with special picks. Heck, even I special order mare horse violin bow hair for its particularly aggressive sound as opposed to using stallion hair. Then these musicians will work on their playing technique in an attempt to optimize their sound.
These very same people might not understand the effect of what they are recording through. It might make them feel that the they cannot play well if they hear a bad recording of their studio performance.
I am always shocked to see the complete intellectual breakdown in this area. All this work on playing and getting a sound only to have it trashed in a poor recording situation. If they took a little time to understand what works for them... in getting their intended sound to tape... they could avoid a lot of disappointment. I mean, it only makes sense to carry the effort from the strings to the mic to the recording. I think it is all part of getting that sound you want.
Can you talk a little about the quality issues that go into creating a good sound path in a channel?
Mike Stoica: It is very important on any professional console to use quality parts. It is very important to use in the critical positions with amplification and in the feedback of amplification high quality resistors like 1% metal film. Also, in all of the signal path to use high quality electrolytic capacitors. We learned in the last twenty five years how some capacitors perform and exactly what the curve and life expectancies are. If you use a lot of very low cost unknown names who design caps for commercial products like radio and TV they can be a huge cost savings, but the life expectancy in those products can be extremely short, four or five to seven years. Compare that with the electrolytics we use they have a twelve year life range.
Jim Moss: This doesn't mean they will burn out in twelve years...
Mike Stoica: No, in twelve years the performance will begin to degrade slowly. So that in fifteen to twenty years they will see the end of their life. Of course, this is relative to how the electrolytic is kept. I think if you keep a console in the cold or in the garage un-powered for a number of years that will take its toll on the electrolytic capacitors. I think that people should be very careful when they buy a console that they go and see it in a studio. Don't buy it from some garage where the guy has stored it un-powered for the last five years. It is probably good for nothing by now.
The life expectancy of the pots (Potentiometers) is very important. The pots that we use are made by Noble and they are well designed in Japan and they are self cleaning. Those pots are good for an equivalent of one million turns. Compare this to some cheap gear made with pots made in China. I have seen specs that say that they are only good for a thousand or ten thousand turns. I think people come to realize that a good board may sound like a big investment, but it will last for a very long time.
Jim Moss: Do you use the Nichicon capacitors?
Mike Stoica: We use Nichicon capacitors. We use one percent precision resistors. We have places in the buffer output where we use a tenth of a percent precision resistors. Those resistors there are very expensive and they have to be very accurate with temperature changes. All of the op amps are factory selected so that they do not add coloration. Some people forget about that and just change out their op amps without thinking about the selection especially in the mic preamp and the EQ op-amp. These J-FET op-amps are very important because they effect exactly what you hear. If they are not used properly or if they are not selected for the application they can have oscillations. They can have noise.
Also, here I think that the pots are very important too because the signal path is always influenced by your gain pots. The gain pots if they are noisy or any kind of hot spots this will generate noise during recording. The switches are important. We use about the best switches out there, dust proof, completely sealed, ALF made in Japan. These are extremely reliable we haven't had a bad switch in the last ten years. And we learned this the hard way. Early on we used another switch and this company who made this switch made some changes to effect the feel of the switch. This was a disaster. In 1988 and 1989 we replace a hundred thousand switches in the field... because they were failing. Once you have a large console, a 32 channel Elite has over a thousand switches... Actually, has fifteen hundred switches. So your switches better be good because the signal is going to go through these switches back and forth. The reliability of these consoles, especially the new consoles, are extremely reliable because we learned a lot in the last twenty five years.
Jim Moss: When you look at these electrolytic capacitors they are not really in the signal path are they?
Mike Stoica: Well we have the blocking capacitors which block the DC in the old mic preamps. You know you have the phantom power there so you have to block it to or you could cook the transformer. There are a lot of electrolytic capacitors, but we use a very high quality non polarized cap which if used correctly with the right design they should be very transparent.
Jim Moss: The electrolytic capacitors that you use in the decoupling at each IC or transistor amplifier circuit is really there to supply instantaneous current when the circuit tries to pass a large signal pulse, like a kick drum for example. Any signal component that requires a burst of amplification current that exceeds the steady state current supply which can effectively be brought to the circuit through the wires or traces will require a nearby electrolytic capacitor. Traces are resistive and inductive in nature to some degree as they are spread across the board. Electrolytic capacitors provide a low impedance path to ground for power line noise that has been picked up on the traces of the power supply as well.
Mike Stoica: Decoupling capacitors are very important because they actually allow the signal to have an extremely fast slew rate and good dynamic range. If you eliminate all of those you can save a fortune and keep the design very simple, but the whole console will sound terrible and have no headroom.
Jim Moss: I think that this is very common in the cheaper boards.
Mike Stoica: Well, there is no way to build a cheaper board especially today. Most of these cheaper boards they are made with SMD which means surface mounted devices and the electrolytic capacitors to be SMD have to be extremely small. So they use very cheap electrolytic capacitors. They don't use that many decoupling capacitors.
We use a lot of Ceramic decoupling capacitors for grounding RF and higher frequency noise that can be picked up from the environment.
(JIM MOSS TECHNICAL NOTE: Signal frequency and conductance through a capacitor is inversely related. That is, for a given conductance value, lower frequencies will require larger capacitors and higher frequencies require smaller capacitors, mathematically. Although the math would suggest that high frequencies will pass just great through a large value capacitor, in practice this is not always true. For this reason you will see decoupling capacitor pairs, a large electrolytic capacitor for the low frequencies and connected across it a small ceramic capacitor for the higher frequencies which can make up the edges of transient spikes. See: Xc Capacitive reactance)
The high frequency is very dangerous, most people don't think about this, because you will make a device like an op-amp to oscillate somewhere above the audio frequency range where you won't hear it. That op-amp will suffer, it will run extremely hot and burn out, then it will create hundreds of dollars in repairs.
Jim Moss: I think the important thing for a musician to understand is that the decoupling electrolytic capacitors can directly effect your sound. Say you are playing an acoustical guitar or a Bluegrass banjo and they attack the string with a pluck, you know, that pluck creates a spike. That spike tries to get through your amplifiers in your console and if you don't have large enough decoupling electrolytic capacitors to supply that instantaneous current which is require by the amplifier circuit, that amplifier will just round off the peak of that signal and destroy or color your sound. It will be like when you have a bad battery in your car and you turn on your headlamps without the engine running. Just this dim glow where you wanted this bright sound. This will totally effect the sound of the board. I have rebuilt cheap boards and the biggest change I could produce was by adding lots of electrolytic capacitors in the decoupling of each amplifier circuit right at the power lead of the op-amps. I would also change the op-amps, but these better op-amps cannot function without the instantaneous current that must be provided to them by the decoupling electrolytic capacitors.
And I have found that these smaller, cheaper, and well known boards have this problem because they cut corners in this department... And you can hear it! The problem is that most musicians who don't record themselves a lot will think it is just their playing, they need to think about this. It can be pretty depressing if you always sound awful in your recordings. I mean, I have even seen on fairly expensive ($56,000) boards that just suck in the EQ (Equalization) sections. You can imagine what a cheap board ($6,000) sounds like when they don't have the money to pay for the electrolytic capacitors they need for the performance YOU NEED. You can spend all night in a studio just trying to get a good recorded sound from your instrument. Well, it is just not going to happen. A good sound path will produce a good sound right off the bat. You should NOT need to use the EQ filter section to get a good basic sound. The EQ is for improving or molding the sound within a mix, but not to simply get a good sound on a track. A well designed board should simply produce this with the EQ section off.
Mike Stoica: Well, of course. What do you expect for a couple of thousand dollars. Again you get what you pay for.
Jim Moss: As a side issue, the EQ pots, there is really no way to clean those is there?
Mike Stoica: Well there is no need to clean them. In the old days with those pots... the way they designed the wiper was such that as you moved the wiper back and forth, it was building up carbon powder under the wiper. So people would blow air or a little solvent in them. Of course, the danger with that was that the solvent would move some of the grease away from the shaft over to the wiper element or eventually remove the grease completely which will effect the feel of the pot.
I think in the new pots, that problem is resolved through the use of carbon film. That plating of carbon film is extremely hard. It is impossible to actually remove it. Also, the wiper design is a comb. So, every time you go back and forth with your pot you actually clean the pot. That is why a high quality potentiometer (pot) like that will cost ten times more than the cheap pot like in a car radio. A car radio pot will be specified for ten thousand turns for it's minimum life span where as for a pro audio console you need a million or more turns for its minimum life span.
Jim Moss: Also, in the car radio that pot is at the end of the signal chain. In the case of a pro audio console the pot is in the beginning of the audio chain. That means that all of the noise it may contribute to the signal will be carried into the compressors and EQ circuits at mix down and out to the stereo bus amps and so on. This will just multiply the effect of this noise or distortion. I am sure that everyone has heard the sound of noisy pots before.
You sell boards that go into different environments, cold environments, humid environments...
What is the toughest?
Mike Stoica: Well, we use high quality parts as I have said, but we also tell people who live in a salty area or in a cold area to leave the console on all the time. First of all, it will keep all the polarized electrolytic capacitors polarized in one direction and keep all the electronics nice and warm. The temperature inside being way above the temperature outside, it will keep any kind of moisture outside to some extent.
Jim Moss: So the capacitors can actually re-polarize?
Mike Stoica: Well, I think that the electrolytic capacitors if they are kept off for a number of weeks or days, they can sometimes polarize in a different direction and then when you apply power that polarization can translate to a small surge in current temporarily. This can cause a little bit of damage as the console gets older and older.
Jim Moss: You know those electrolytic capacitors are on the shelf for awhile before anyone uses them in a circuit. So they don't age on the shelf do they?
Mike Stoica: Well, I wouldn't buy some caps that were ten or twenty years old.
Jim Moss: Yes, of course. Do most of your consoles come with patch bays?
Mike Stoica: I think that most of the consoles they have patch bays. We strongly advise people to have patch bays because this will give you very good access to everything in your studio. The patch bay is the switch board for the audio signals. Now if price is a consideration...
Jim Moss: Its a lot of brass.
Mike Stoica: We use the highest quality ABC cast frame jacks which are self cleaning. These are $5.80 each. With cheap jacks you plug your jack in and bend it to the side now it doesn't make contact anymore. Now you don't have access to your microphone anymore.
Jim Moss: And they are heavy, the patch bay alone...
Mike Stoica: Well the patch bay adds cost to the console. A patch bay can add up to seven or eight thousand dollars in the cost of the console. You look to people in the studio they have a tremendous amount of gear and they have a tremendous amount of patch bay.
Jim Moss: The patch bay is how you get the outboard gear into the signal path of the console channels.
Mike Stoica: It is very important that the patch bay be part of the console because you will shield with the console. If you have an out-rack remote the patch bay has to be designed very carefully. Most people think well I can throw a patch bay in an outboard rack. Yeah, but be sure you ground the outboard rack very well and know what you are doing because that patch bay can turn into a live antenna for the whole studio.
Jim Moss: You can create ground loops in unbalanced cabling too. There is a saying, "Ground is ground the world around", however, Ground is NOT ground the world around by a long shot. Ground loops can be your worst nightmare in a studio or piece of equipment if not understood and handled correctly. There is a ground potential problem any time you connect two pieces of equipment across a wire when the system is unbalanced, there is no absolute solution here because it depends on the ground potential of each unit. Sure you can connect ground and you have a conductor now that is trying to make both units be at equal potential (voltage), but in doing this you have created a current flow that has magnetic fields associated with it which will cut into the conductors and there goes your signal. You are now listening to the noise from this current flow in your audio tracks. This is not so bad in balanced connections, but there can be problems with these eddy currents that will still exist somewhere else. This is a problem that is not recognized by a lot of electrical engineers unless they work in the field of instrumentation or audio because most electronics is not bothered by low level signals and so it just doesn't come up. Sometimes you need to try ground lifts or keep your outboard equipment lifted from the chassis... It never ends. It is important to understand that eddy currents are created when a stationary conductor encounters a varying magnetic field.
Older boards: I have heard about the need to re-cap or rebuild them. This can be an issue if somebody is purchasing a used board. You use really good grade components, but somebody who buys a used board, what do you think they are looking at. How do you know if your board needs a re-capping?
Mike Stoica: Its like with a used car, you better understand exactly what you are buying. I once bought a 1968 Mustang that I wanted to rebuild, but I realize after a number of years that it was beyond my capacity to do this kind of job. If you go somewhere else to have them do it for you it can be as expensive as just buying a rebuilt car like that. I think that with consoles it is the same thing. Some people are happy to buy a console at a very low cost and then they are very overwhelmed by the repair cost of the parts and then the labor. And if you don't do it yourself, you can spend almost as much as it would cost to buy a new console.
Jim Moss: If you look at some of the cheaper boards, they obviously are not going to have the high grade parts, and you were saying that electrolytic capacitors in those might only be built to last six or seven years... So how would someone know that if they were looking at a console? If they turn it on and the sound goes through it... ???
Mike Stoica: I always say what I say about buying a car, talk with a technician. Find someone who can run a distortion analyzer. You can make a quick measurement with a hand Fluke meter that goes for about $100 on ebay and a signal generator. I can plug in a console and measure what I get at 1 kHz.
Say at 1 kHz I get 4 db, well how bad is the 20 Hz and how bad is that compared to 20 kHz. That will give you a clear indication of how bad your caps are off.
Jim Moss: I was buying a used U87 mic in 1997 or so. I listened to a few mics with an engineer friend of mine and we looked at one mic which sounded nice and warm. I was thinking warm is good, and said so to this engineer. He then said, "Some people might say it is starting to loose it's high frequency response". Which was a nice way to set me straight on this issue. You have to know something about the systems you are looking at to make an informed decision.
Mike Stoica: It is very important to do your homework. It is very important to ask people who have some experience with this. I think that a lot of people are very quick to flash their credit card and they don't really spend some time researching the item. I mean, help is everywhere. You will be surprised just by asking someone in a recording environment, what should I know? It is very difficult to do the technicians job. If you buy a console and you don't know exactly how to use a distortion analyzer not to mention you will have to spend thousands of dollars to buy one. Probably the best $200 that you can spend is to have a technician with you to say, "Hey what do you think? Do some measurements". Just relying on the ears is not always sufficient.
I see people who buy extremely old consoles, not necessarily a Neotek, but lets say a Neotek, and they buy it for say $1500 on ebay and they call here, they hire a technician. Then when they realize what the expense will be to rebuild this console, they put it back on ebay. So I keep having all these people calling me about this same console for about a year. Its like, what's the serial number... oh let me guess. You know? There is a lot of pressure (on ebay) and that is a sales technique. These auction sites have a time limit. So people say well what do I do? Do I buy it now or do I not buy it now? So then they say, oh what the heck.
Jim Moss: Well this issue that you are talking about with capacitors drifting, that effects any gear, right? Any analog gear...
Mike Stoica: Well that effects any gear and I think if you have expensive gear and you really want to keep it I would say take it once in a while to have it spec'ed out or calibrated. You know there are a couple of places around here in Chicago with very legitimate guys who will rebuild old gear. They rebuild amplifiers... I have a 25 year old amplifier made by GAS, Great American Sound. I sent mine to be rebuilt not because I don't know how, but these guys already have all the gizmos. You know, bring it back to life. Then when I got it back it was like, Oh Gee, this is mine? I didn't even recognize the sound, because that is how huge a difference it was. You listen to things and it is like having your own children growing up under your own eyes and one day you don't even realize it, but they are an adult.
Jim Moss: You do this kind of work on your own gear, your own boards.
Mike Stoica: Oh yeah, I think it is one of the great things about Neotek is that we offer service. So, people with very old boards... We have spent a lot of time helping people out, teaching them what they want. When you are buying used gear, or any gear, you need to think about, who is going to do the service, the maintenance? Who do you call if you have a question? I have seen people who bought gear and then say, well I don't know I cannot find parts for this gear.
Jim Moss: Some people buy digital gear because they feel that digital gear just doesn't have that problem, however, if the digital gear is PC based then they have a real problem PCs become obsolete pretty fast these days. When that happens it is not uncommon to have to buy all new gear or boards.
Technology moves forward and that interface you have, just got phased out.
Mike Stoica: Well a lot of people that I know the are willing to spend a lot of money. They get a piece of software, like I think it was Cakewalk, Sonar 3 I think it was, which was a very good version. I think a lot of people liked it and they said, hey it works, it does what I need. I say get to work and stop trying to chase the best and the latest on the market. It is a tool! Think about it, if it does the job that's great.
One of the biggest mistakes when I owned studios, was that we were always chasing some gear. This is because somebody will be coming into your studio and say, Oh you don't have a Lexicon PCM 60. No, I have a PCM 70s. Oh, I love the PCM 60. Now you are chasing PCM 60s. Why do you do that? People they ask you for, Oh you don't have an Eventide H 3000 Harmonizer, no I have a 940-something. Oh that Eventide H 3000 is a great Harmonizer. As a studio owner it is very difficult to please everybody. I mean there is always a new toy out there that promises to be more than the one before.
Jim Moss: That's how they make their money.
Mike Stoica: I know, I keep buying computers and they are still too slow.
Jim Moss: Exactly.
To be continued
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