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Tim Powles discusses studio equipment - very detailed ! Print E-mail
Wednesday, 01 January 2003
Trash Or Treasure?
William Bowden trawls through the Aladdin?s Cave of Tim Powles Spacejunk studio.


This instalment of Trash and Treasure took me down to producer/drummer Tim Powles? private studio in downtown Glebe, Sydney - aptly named Spacejunk. While there are not too many cheapo items in his massive collection, there are still a few tips for bargain hunters. We decided due to space constraints to focus on the basics: Compression, Equalisers and a bit of outboard. Welcome to the junk pile.

William Bowden: How long has Spacejunk been in operation?

Tim Powles: It became a studio around three years ago. I was over at Rozelle in the Ex-Electric Avenue studio and David Jacobson, told me that the Jacobson?s were re-locating. I came over and in five minutes we chose this space and became studio partners. I liked the fact that it was split-level so you could look down into the live area - it?s Col Joy?s old office in fact.

WB: What artists of note have been recorded or mixed here?

TP: The Church (After Everything Now This and Parallel Universe - The Church?s remix double CD), Stella One Eleven - In Your Hands, and Skulker - Too Fat For Tahiti are probably the most well known. Alternatively I have also done remixes for the likes of Pre Shrunk and Mental as Anything.

WB: Which piece of equipment have you had the longest?

TP: The Roland SRV-2000 reverb, which I got when they came out in the mid ?80s. I bought it for live use with the Venetians - specifically for the non-linear reverb sounds. I needed to simulate Mark Opitz?s favourite setting from the AMS reverb?s Non Lin 2 patch. He used that setting during the Venetians recordings, always with a reverb time of 9.9 seconds - the same for The Models and Noiseworks.

WB: Let?s talk about compressors. Choose four (ranging from cheap to expensive) and tell us what you use them for, and note any strengths and weaknesses in your opinion.

TP: Okay, probably the most obscure compressor in my studio is the MXR dual limiter (around US$150 on Ebay - WB). Mark Moffat (producer) put me on to those, he reckoned it was the closest thing he could find to SSL channel compression in the way it holds things tonally. I agree with that, I use it on all sorts of things from bus compression to side chaining (a parallel compressed ?feed? mixed in with the main signal) for drums. Its main disadvantage is in its lack of flexibility - the attack and release times don?t change it much and there?s little reactivity in the controls. It tends to do one thing - I guess a kind of pseudo compress/limit, because the two ratio options are just 4:1 and -:1.

...I guess moving up from there, the next best option price-wise and sonically is the FMR Really Nice Compressor. I bought it originally because I wanted to be able to record vocals at home to my laptop system. Now I mainly use it in a sidechain configuration (set to ?Super Nice? on a ratio of 4:1 compression) in order to bring things to the front in a mix. Everything responds well to it, it?s just a really good sounding box. Although I don?t run the main signal through it because I find it?s difficult to get a setting where it?s subtle. It has a ?schmicky? (translation: a bit "hi-fi" and thin) kind of sound to it - a bit like Focusrite and I?m not particularly keen on that sound. The compression characteristics are definitely not bouncy or spongy - it?s the antithesis of a Urei 1176 for example.

...I?m going to cheat and lump the two-dbx compressors (566 and 266XL) in together. Even though the 266 is probably more a ?project level? unit, you can definitely get that dbx 160 ?over-easy? sound. It?s very fast, good on vocals, as well as bringing things to the front of the mix. It?s a compressor that you can really hear if you push it - so if you want the drums to be exciting - chuck the room mics and overheads through it. For backing vocals it adds a lot of excitement, bringing up all the breathing etc. The dbx 566 is almost the total opposite as it?s very very warm. It?s great on guitars, you can really hear the tubes working when you put vocals through it, and it?s extremely cool on bass as well - very retro sounding. I find that it?s generally not a great compressor for drums because of the way the attack and release work. However I experimented with the 566 on the Church album Box Of Birds in Sweden. Dave Trump (engineer) and I tracked the drums through the 566 with no compression, but lots of drive on the input stage, which made them sound quite fat and saturated - almost distorted.

...Finally, the best investment I?ve made money-wise is with the Empirical Labs Distressors. Ted Howard, who works a lot with Garth Porter and is a very accomplished engineer, rang me up and said, "You?ve got to hear this thing". So while I was tracking some drums over at Garth?s, I got Ted to give me a demo and I thought it was amazing! It?s a funny little box, you wouldn?t think that only four knobs and a few buttons would give you much scope, but changing things only marginally gives you access to a phenomenally wide range of sounds. They?ve built it so that when you put certain things in certain positions it actually changes the circuitry inside - and the way the unit reacts. Basically there?s no sound colouration other than when you desire it, and it can do great imitations of other compressors as well. So, for example, the opto-style LA2A-type compression is great for vocals and tracking, and the ?Nuke? function (which is the -:1 ratio setting) is great on drums or anything really. The amazing thing is that from the LED display it looks like all this stuff is happening, but it just sounds transparent and clear - still exciting, but with little audible distortion. If you compress room mics, you don?t get a rush of high frequencies all fighting together - unlike the 1176, which gets quite nasty sounding if you start getting aggressive with it. These particular units also have the ?British? mode fitted, which was intended to simulate an 1176 with all four ratio knobs engaged. I still prefer to use my 1176 for that sound (it?s my favourite setting in fact) and the Distressors sound a bit different anyway. The good thing about the ?British? mode, is that once you go past the 1176 setting, you have a whole new compressor to play with in conjunction with all the other options. I can?t really explain what it does, it?s weird - if you watch the LED display it?s almost unrelated to the program material. On guitars, for example, it?s almost like expansion sometimes; but if you want stereo chunking fuzzy indie-pop guitars, just whack on the British and it?s like the picks are sitting right in the speakers, right there in front of you. It adds a little bit of edge and brightness to the sound, but you can?t actually hear any compression going on - suddenly it just has a lot of presence.

WB: How about a quick rundown on some of your equalisers.

TP: My favourite is the Urei 546. But it?s not just a normal EQ - you can sweep it like a filter, and get wah-wah effects on the fly. It?s easy to see where you?re at frequency-wise, and there?s great placement of the high-pass and low-pass filters. The sound is really good too, very phase coherent, and the variation in the Q factor is incredible - it ranges from very broad to very narrow; so you can use it surgically to remove (or boost) very specific things, or like a simple tone pot?bass/mid/treble.

...I?d lump the HHb Radius and the TL Audio together. It definitely sounds more ?tubey?, but they?re both still very useful. The HHb is my favourite and it has a really sweet top end, very controllable, and nice down in the bottom end too - for the money it?s a bargain.

...I might mention the Focusrite Tone Factories, cos they?re a combination compressor/EQ. They?re useful for specific applications at times. I definitely wouldn?t track my fundamental components through them, but what I think separates them from other units in the (Focusrite Platinum) series is the ?Overdrive? function. It works well for warming things up, not just making them sound fuzzy - it?s almost a very uncharacteristically Focusrite sound. There?s also a nice expander, and the equaliser isn?t bad if you want to get that so-called ?expensive? sound.

...I also use the Electrix Filter Factory a lot. It was one of the first sold in Australia, and I just walked up during a demo at its official launch and said to the guy "errr scuse me mate, but I?ve got to have that!". The great thing is that all the front panel controls are transmitting Midi, so you can jam along with a track until you get what you want. Also the LFO can be synced to MTC as well, and you can divide the tempo by various note divisions. The ?Buzz? section is fantastic for distortion or warmth, and the ?bypass? and ?engaged? buttons are really big - so you can just turn it on for a fraction of a loop, or even a single beat. I often just use it to bring out addition harmonics in a sound as well.

WB: Which delay units do you use the most?

TP: The best delay/echo unit I?ve ever used is the Line 6 Delay Modeller. It really does what it sets out to do. For instance, I love the tube echoes and the Exchoplex emulation is incredible - down to the tape saturation and the wow and flutter! It?s not like a plug-in, it sounds very realistic and has the kind of warmth and analogue characteristic I love. The ?Reverse? is fantastic, as is the ?Sweep Echo? - the only drawback is that it only has three memories. If you like tape echoes and you don?t have one of these? you?re mad!

...I also use the Delta Labs Effectron II quite a bit too. The reason I like it is because the front end has an in-built limiter - you can push it, red-light it, and it doesn?t break up, unlike my Yamaha and TC units. It actually holds the signal, and starts to fuzz a wee bit - but the way it fuzzes is tonally very pleasing. The modulation is quite radical, but the way it feeds back on itself is very musical.

...The Sony V-55 I generally use with a variation of a preset patch called ?Above Pacific?. It?s a delay that starts off with a whole note, then a half, then a quarter, then an eighth and so on and each delay is pitch shifted. Sink that into a bit of reverb and you?ve got this great pad sound straight away. I?ve got a hundred different variations of tempo numbers in there, the unit?s permanently synced up, and whenever I start a new song I immediately write another patch if the tempo?s not quite right. So if I want to go that way I just push up an auxiliary send and it?s there.

WB: What is the least used bit of kit in Spacejunk?

TP: My favourite least used processor would be the MXR Flanger Doubler. It sounds fantastic, but I just never seem to get to it. My least favourite would be the BBE Sonic Maximiser - I never could quite figure out what those things are supposed to do. I?ve tried patching it in, but never seems to do any good - Sorry BBE.

WB: What is the most interesting processor for you in here?

TP: The thing I walk across the room to touch the most is the SPL Transient Designer. It?s like having several assistant engineers armed with patch leads and a rack of different compressors, expanders and gates! There are only two controls - Attack and Sustain - and the best way I can describe them is this: Attack is like ?how close is the microphone?? and Sustain is like ?how big is the recording space?? This is then multiplied by four - which is how many ?modules? the unit has. I use it on drums all the time.

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