I was sitting in my studio working on a mix session recently when it hit me — there were certain pieces of recording equipment that I tended to avoid. Over the years we've tried to weed out gear we didn't use much, that we thought sounded bad, didn't do its job well, or just plain didn't get touched by anyone - and we're about to purge the racks again soon. So which things are gonna go? I started to think about which items presented the most difficulties whenever I attempted to learn how to use them properly — problems due to shortsighted design or ambiguous labeling. I know, "Use your ears." Believe me, I do. But many times I am required to work really fast, and I need to visually see where equipment settings are positioned and to know I'm not doing something dumb right off the bat, like leaving a high-pass filter engaged on a kick drum mic's preamp. Simplicity of use is key, and sometimes I'll choose a single- knobbed preamp before a more complex device for this reason — not because it sounds better. Some pieces of gear have been getting liberal attacks with the P-Touch labeler, though in many cases we still can't make the stuff as easy to use as it should be. Hey, I know sometimes it's a simple case of front panel real estate, especially with all the 500-series rack gear coming out these days. But if I can't plug in a piece of equipment and get right to work with it in the studio, then in some sense don't you think the design has failed? We're not gonna mention any manufacturers by name, but suffice to say that almost everyone designing gear has failed on at least one of these points at some point. Making records is already enough of a guessing game. Sorry to have to point this out, but I've got a record to make and your gear is getting in my way. -LC

Here's a list of what we feel are offending design flaws:

Knob settings labeling - even
if it is vague or nonsensical, a
reference for where a knob is set
to can help the user align two of the
same pieces of gear in a similar way or
aid in recalling settings. I can think of
one EQ where I can't find the center of the boost/cut knob, so I rarely use it. -LC

Power up front - Put the power switch on the front of the unit. If not, please put the address where I can send my commercial electric bills. -GH

Make it a hard wire bypass - being able to take circuits, makeup gain and transformers out of the loop can indicate what's really happening to a signal. All bypass switches should light up or have a lamp/LED nearby to indicate status. -LC

More bypass - I have some gear that does not have a bypass at all! This can be inconvenient, to say the least! -SS

Knobs that don't slip - almost every manufacturer is guilty of assuming that the set screws in their precious little knobs will stay put forever. They don't, and knobs slip all the time and give us incorrect information about settings. -LC

Blue LEDs - The use of overly bright blue LEDs should be minimal. I have some equipment that I simply hate looking at due to the weird glow and frazzled vision they induce. If I hate looking at it, I probably won't use it. -LC

Is it OFF or ON? - Many pieces of equipment have this problem, like say with polarity switches (and don't label it "phase", you science class dropouts). I'll be looking at a polarity switch and it will say IN and OUT on the different positions. IN and OUT compared to what? Does IN mean that the polarity switch is engaged? Or does it mean that the signal is IN phase? If so, in phase with what? -LC

Where's the front? - Think of all the mics you own. Do you know where the sound is meant to arrive from? Is this clearly labeled? I guess we assume that the little metal badge means "front"? Is this always true? -LC

Phantom power indicator - switches for phantom power should light up or have a lamp/LED nearby to indicate status. -LC

Link switches - please find some way to tell me what functions link together on a compressor so I don't waste my time setting disabled knobs. -LC

Is this a second gain stage or passive output trim? - I know some users might not even understand this, but on preamps with two sets of "volume" knobs, the output knob can sometimes be a passive trim circuit (where full on is at unity and the preamp works efficiently). But other times it can be part of a gain stage where some position on the knob is at unity. This is almost never possible to determine from a front panel, yet when grabbing a new preamp to use it's one of the most important things to know to attain proper gain staging and avoid unwanted clipping. -LC

Concentric knobs - there has to be a way to clearly indicate which one I am grabbing and what it controls. Stop with this fancy front panel design BS and make it easy to use. -LC

Meters - I'd sure like to see some kind of metering on EVERY piece of equipment. I know I'm a dreamer, but damn, they sure do make things go faster and life easier. -LC

Which pin is hot? - I know it should be pin 2 these days, but some companies sneak pin 3 hot gear out there and don't label the jacks. Shame on you. -LC

Tiny knobs - It's nice that gear takes up less rack space, but not when I have trouble turning a knob or seeing how it's set. -SS
Cascading menus - I have a great sounding, flexible multi-effect that I've never used on a mix because it's just too confusing. -SS

Vintage labeling - I have a "vintage-style" equalizer that I love, but a client (who is an engineer himself) was confused by the vintage-style labeling. People don't covet that old equalizer because it says "KCS" on the front — you can label the frequency switch "kHz" without feeling compromised. -SS

Label the connectors on the back - just because it's XLR does not mean that it's balanced, and if it's 1/4" it's usually impossible to tell. -SS

More metering - I have at least one
mic preamp where I had trouble figuring out if the meter indicated input or output. -SS

What's the frequency? - At least one EQ includes a high-pass at a fixed frequency, but does not say what that frequency is! -SS

High-pass filter - Call it what it is — a "low-cut filter". If it allows highs, mids, low-mids and some low frequencies to pass, it's not a high-pass, it's a flipping low-cut. -GH

Left or right? - Does the left channel correspond to connectors that are on the left when facing the front, or on the left when facing the back? Label this! -SS

Threshold knobs - If they're not going to be standard across compressors, can they at least be clearly labeled as to which direction they go? (I also have one compressor where the ratio knob is backwards. Huh?) -SS

Mic pad - If you build mic preamps with a pad it should have a pad button. Do not make the pad an always-in-and-hardwired part of the signal chain. -GH

Manuals - How about writing one? The amount of gear that comes with no manual or a one page starter sheet that says things like "Input — controls the level of input," is both disappointing and unprofessional. -GH

Q Bandwidth - Often EQs have Q labeled via numbers. Is that a number of octaves or a Q? Which way does the knob go? Pictures are clear, so are words like "wide" and "narrow"! -SS

Which DB25? - If you're going to use DB25 connectors, explicitly state which standard you use. There are two primary, industry-accepted wiring schemes plus several alternates. Bonus points if you silkscreen the pin out on the back of the unit. -GH

Tape Op is a bi-monthly magazine devoted to the art of record making.

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