Designer Talk : Dave Hill | Crane Song
Dave Hill is the designer and owner of Crane Song and Dave Hill Designs based in Superior, Wisconsin where he works out of his own studio and workshop, which allows him real world application and testing of his audio products. Comfortable working with either Analog hardware or Digital DSP, Dave Hill has created some legendary production 'Classics' in the recording world, as well as designing software like HEAT for Pro Tools and his own Phoenix II, RA and Peacock plug-ins.
I caught up with Dave for a chat about his latest Quantum converter and everything in between...
KMR : How did you start off, did you wake up one day and say "I want to build Audio Recording Equipment "?
DH : Well it really started pre-school when I was 5 or 6 years old. A neighbour of mine was playing with radios and stuff and so I got into building them with him, and had little things that could transmit between our houses, we were really quite young - this wasn’t really kits, this was buying transistors and tubes and building stuff out of books, and some magazines.
It must have been about I guess 1965 or ’66 my Grandmother bought me a drum kit, a Ludwig but I never really played in a band that went anywhere, or even had any gigs! - but the electronics thing got developed.
So at first it was radios and stuff then it became amplifiers, and then I knew friends who had a band and I started building synth kinda’ circuits, similar to Moog things.
KMR : So were you always coming from the electronic side or the music side as well?
DH : It was kind down the middle road, as I’ve always been creatively building things, and then I had a job at the local music store, with Wurli organs and Fender amps, and at the time all the Fender amps needed to be fixed, even new out of the box. So that all started to develop.
Then some friends started a studio and I got involved to fix everything they screwed up haha..they had things wired wrong and damaging audio cards. Then it became " do you wanna be part owner - so we can split the bills three ways, as you keep making things work! "
KMR : Was this in Superior area, have you always lived and been based there?
DH : Yeah, pretty much, and this band I was with went on tour to Florida, so I was doing live sound with them, fixing and making things - generally keeping everything working.
KMR : At the time I guess equipment was too expensive to buy or source anyway?
DH : Yeah I guess this was 1973 -74 back then and there wasn’t really much out there. The mixer for the monitor side of things I built that, it was a passive summing thing with a reverb send on it, but back in the studio, I tried making compressors.
KMR : I know you’ve designed many products for other manufactures over the years, how did this come about, for example, the Summit Audio designs?
DH : Well, the Summit thing happened because I had a 1inch Ampex 8 track and I think it was called a VTR1000 or MM something, it was a 2inch video tape transporter and I wanted to see if I could find the stuff to see if I could turn it into a 16 track or 24 track for my studio. So I called around and that’s how I met Mike Papp and we got chatting and he said " if you can design a compressor that sounds like this I can sell it " and it was an LA2A. So he sent it over.
So I did. It got taken into a Hall & Oates session and it was in some scrap yellow box, and they wouldn’t let it go away!..and that was the first TLA-100. The other thing is, it doesn’t use an Optical device.
KMR : Does it not?...I thought it was always an Opto like an LA-2A?
DH : It does not, it’s a variable impedance thing that sounds exactly like it but doesn’t use one. That was part of the magic that I figured out…it works exactly like an optical does except it's not optical. The Falcon is the same deal, only the Falcon is about 4-5 dB quieter. When I designed the Falcon, just to make sure, I set it up with one of the early TLA-100’s and it phase-cancelled down to about minus 50 or something so they’re very close but the Falcon does more than the TLA-100 did anyway.
KMR : Ah I've used the Falcon like it was an ‘LA-2A’ style compressor, which explains why it sounds so good now, even when I hit it hard!
DH : Yes you can just set it and not worry about it, you don’t have to fiddle with it, it just works.
KMR : So how many of the Summit Audio designs did you do?
DH : I did the TLA-100, the TPA-200B, the EQP100 and EQP200 and the DCL200.
KMR : The DCL200 was a really good compressor…
DH : The DCL and the EQP were departures from the standard vintage design stuff, but they sounded good, and I remember there was a thing back with one of the EQF prototypes we had out, and I think it was Roger Waters using it or David Gilmour and we had a conversation and made a change to the coupling caps on it, and they re-cut the vocals! It was such good kit.
KMR : What about other collaborations?
DH : Well when David Bock was at Soundeluxe I helped him out a little bit on some stuff, and Peter Montessi at A-Designs audio I helped design the Hammer EQ. I also did some work for SoundField where I redesigned a mic capsule to help to manufacture.
KMR : So when did you set up Crane Song and what was your first Crane Song product?
DH : Well I actually did Crane Song corporate papers a few years before the whole Summit thing ended, it was just to protect myself. The first Crane Song product was the STC8, it took two years from start to actually having the first prototype you could present as finished. I was actually going to start building a Voltage Controlled Oscillator Analog Synth kinda' thing, but then I went...errrr I know more about compressors than selling synths.
So a good portion of the time up front with the STC was spent with gain control, and looking at VCA's and stuff but I didn’t really like where it was going. Then I tried the Pulse Width Modulation thing and went 'oh ok this is gonna work'...
Then I had to design and build a circuit board...then in stereo...then at 6db gain reduction the two channels fought each other and it went to hell…There were a lot of difficulties getting it to work!
KMR : It’s a very good sounding compressor, a classic sound...
DH : Yes I think it still is a very good compressor, it's one of those things that should be worth something in 20 years or so.
The STC was designed to be, the word transparent in compressors is a bad word...haha - but that's what people kinda' thought, it’s very smooth, very musical and you can do a lot of gain reduction - you can just set the knobs and forget about it.
KMR : Your Dave Hill Designs TITAN can be very clean and musical as well...
DH : The TITAN can be a very very transparent compressor - more than the STC but it’s a more upfront forward sound, and with modern music you want the vocal to be really forward, you don’t want it to be that softer thing. The other thing is you have the colour options, so you can muck it up and mess with transients doing things that no other compressor can do. People do need to understand the TITAN as it takes a little time but it’s worth it. TITAN’s are more flexible and I’m going to do a modification to them so if you want to do that surround thing, you’ll be able to link 15 of them together - it'll be one set of knobs and you’ll get Gain tracking and everything!
We’re seeing more and more interest in TITAN’s as people are now figuring it out, on YouTube seeing and hearing how they’re being used. You can do amazing things with them, or likewise if you want to do 5db of compression and don’t have a clue what they’re doing, you can.
KMR : What made you start Dave Hill Designs, it was a step away from what you had been doing with Crane Song in their approach, but still have your sonic imprint?
DH : Well the Dave Hill Designs stuff is all surface mount design and it was really set up to develop this new Digital Controlled Analog stuff, which takes time.
KMR : There's a buzz about digitally controlled analog, and how it’s the way forward. How hard is it to get it to work correctly?
DH : Well, nobody has really done it 100% right yet, and the user interface stuff is hard, it has to work right as well. I think sometimes having non-audio people design the software interface doesn’t work, you can’t have computer guys do it as it’ll sit in front of audio people and they’ll be like 'we don’t get it.' The whole user interface is an extremely difficult thing.
Look at Pro Tools and all the hidden key commands and stuff that’s there, it’s been done because people requested it, but most music people won’t use them or they’ll accidentally hit a button and then wonder why something won’t work anymore...haha.
KMR : You have Crane Song modules now in the 500 series, the Syren, Falcon and Insigna, ( covering a mic pre, compressor and EQ )…What about Eurorack, as that’s a market that is growing constantly is this something you would consider?
DH : Well there is this VCO that I was kind chasing years ago, a Harmonic Oscillator - 10 harmonic outputs with individual controls, and I had bits and pieces I had built..and I’m still thinking I may still like to build that. See this oscillator wouldn’t be cheap to make, but if there was some way of doing preset capabilities, you would have envelope control over each of the harmonics individually - you could do really a lot with it. The Eurorack market is a growing market every year but I've got to get the converter stuff sorted first!
KMR : So let's talk about your new Crane Song Solaris D/A Converter. I know previously when we've spoken this is something that you wanted to get as transparent as possible...
DH : Well the new Quantum D/A clock is technically really really good, and it’s all measured.
I knew I wanted to get a really good clock, one that you couldn’t argue that you have issues with. There is always an argument that 'ok where is that threshold that you can’t hear the difference', but it’s not that simple as some of it is jitter, some of it is filters and how you separate these things there just isn’t a clean way to do, it can always be a bit of snake oil.
I spent a year just working on the clock to make this happen. I put the first D/A together and the clock developed and did four revisions of it. But when I ended up doing the most recent one and listened back to an earlier one, the earlier one was warmer sounding - and I’d just spent a year and a half progressing!..haha
KMR : Does that sometimes happen when designing - do you go round in a circle and feel you’ve not moved forward?
DH : Well here’s what happened. I spent a good half hour listening back and forth, and this is where ear training becomes the issue here. It was mud in the earlier version, what sounded like warmth was non-clarity. It’s a bit like when digital first came out, nobody heard the tape hiss anymore so they thought it was better, after a few years they were missing a load of other stuff, things that tape had been solving like time domain and filter problems.
I record at 192K now and have been working with the Quantum Solaris D/A and the Egret for Analog Summing with a Spider at the front. I'm also using a prototype A/D and the transient response, clarity and detail on this is insane! I did a thing last week for a client - I have a session at 44.1k and at 192k for comparison - and all the transients (at 192k) and all the edges are clean with the space between the instruments and strums so defined, it's really really different.
We should be upping the sample rate, and this was really the philosophy behind HEDD as it was the best converter and the best understanding of clocks at the time, but also it had a way to alter the signal it and make it sound less digital. You want it to be that way and have control as apposed to have the converters murder it and then you’re stuck!
KMR : So the new Quantum D/A is available in a few of your products now?
DH : Yes, the new Quantum D/A is shipping in the current HEDD unit, which is the same as the new D/A in the Solaris, and Avocet 2A monitor controller.
A Mastering guy has one of my units in LA and has been comparing it against his really high-end Weiss reference, and he’s thinking the Quantum might be a little more accurate, and it’s $1900 rather than $20k!!!
KMR : Why do you think the HEDD is still so successful and popular? Is it the sum of all the parts? Personally, I thought the analog vocabulary helped me when I first used it, with Tape, Pentode etc I think that made it very easy to relate to, even though it's a purely digital box…
DH : Yeah, it’s probably something to do with that - it was almost two years of listening and tweaking the analog and digital stuff and software. It's probably because it’s just not one thing. HEDD always works, even after all these years I just got an email recently from a Mastering Studio and they did a big shoot out with converters and HEDD still won. There have been times when people actually think there are tubes inside it as well.
KMR : What is your main A/D converter, I’m presuming it’s one of yours?
DH : Yes I’m recording with a new Crane Song prototype A/D converter which is very transparent and has such power in the midrange. If you get a converter because it has a sound, then everything you are going to do will always sound like that, and there’s nothing you can do about it. Whereas if things are transparent and you have the proper tools, whether these are analog or plug-ins, you can then do whatever you want.
One of the things that's happening is I’m typically using ambience from my AMS, Cello and Violin mostly getting some Quantec for quicker reverb and then some 480 for some longer reverb. You listen to this stuff and you would swear it’s in a nice concert hall. The guitar has this tight thing going on, not so much like reverb, I’ve managed to create this kind of 3D thing with the space, and if you can hear this with the converters it gives you more ability to mix the sources better. If you don’t have converters that are absolutely transparent it's harder to do this.
I feel do you want to make something good or do you wanna’ make something that is great? It’s like a recording, do you want to make it good or great?
KMR : You mention the AMS there, I know you're a fan of some of that earlier old classic digital kit, it may not have been the best technically compared to today, but there was a sound about it wasn’t there?
DH : There's something about this early digital stuff, yes. In the last couple of years, I bought a Quantec, an AMS delay, AMS reverb and a Lexicon 480. They raved about the 256k memory with a 20mb clock! - but these people spent a lot of time listening to make sure it sounded right. They basically maximised what they possibly could out of it, and by modern standards it's funky but it’s musical. I had an early Lexicon 224 before the LARC even existed and I have an Eventide H3500. The filters on the AD/DA are a funky thing that contributes to the sound of these, to actually get to an AD/DA that doesn’t change the sound is very hard to do.
KMR : Do you use many plug-ins at 192k?
DH : I don't use too many, usually the Massenburg EQ and the Dave Hill Designs and CraneSong obviously - but I tend to use IBIS EQ hardware on the important stuff. I do a bunch of mastering for a few guys, and they’ve heard some of the stuff I’m working on and they ask me “ does that sound as good as I think it does ! “ You get a better transient response at 192k.
KMR : Is this mixed down back into your system or to an external rig?
DH : I run the analog summed 192k mix back into the 192k session, then I sequence, level match, tweak EQ etc, then I dump the whole set out as 44.1k to a second converter system with a HEDD, or with my new prototype A/D that I’m designing.
KMR : Your Studio is burning down ( or your workshop ) what 3 things would you grab and why?
- The 1st thing is the work in progress, the hard drives, you’ve got people who have paid you for this, and it’s work I've done and can’t lose it...
- 2nd would be - the vintage old rack gear I couldn’t replace...
- 3rd if the cat was in there - then probably that...or maybe that would be first!
As an edit - it wouldn’t be all the old gear, it would be like the original QRS or AMS as these are great classics that work.
I’d love another one of each, but I can’t do it!
KMR : Thanks for the chat Dave!