- Apple Mac running Logic Pro X & Vienna Ensemble Pro for networking four streaming servers
- Collection of vintage & modern hardware synths
- Universal Audio audio interfaces & plugins
- Library of virtual synths & instruments
- Custom-developed sample library
- PMC mastering monitors
Tell us a bit about the studio, Jim!
Based in Nashville for 25 years, The Fortress Of Synthetude is primarily set up for production, programming, mixing, and scoring to picture. I do a lot of music for licensing and film as well as traditional scoring. I’m also a child of the 70s/80s, so I’m a bit of a synth nerd as well, always adding to my collection.
I mix all my own work, so having a critical listening environment is a big deal for me. A few years ago I did a big overhaul and invested in large PMC monitors and I’ve never heard monitors like them.
How do you use your studio?
I do everything here from pre-production and overdubs to mixing and occasional mastering. The only thing I do outside is drums, larger ensembles like choirs and background video (BGV) sessions – and of course strings & orchestral sessions, which I typically do at Ocean Way Nashville.
Which DAW do you use?
Logic Pro. I’ve used it for 27 years and I know it deeply. I can work extremely fast in Logic and nothing else touches it for the way I like to work. It’s extremely customizable, I’ve developed a massive custom sample library for its sampler format which is ridiculously efficient, and it is really ideal for working with lots of virtual instruments.
What’s been the biggest investment in your studio? Was it worth it?
Those big PMC monitors. It made my eyes water to write that check, but it was absolutely worth it. Hearing those absolutely ruined any other monitors for me.
What would you save in a fire?
Film composer and legend John Williams sent me a reply to a letter I wrote him a few years ago, and he signed the cover of my instrumental album I sent him. That’s one of my prize possessions. So I’d probably grab that and my laptop!
What atmosphere do you try and create in the studio and how does it help you with your creativity?
The vibe of the room is incredibly important to me. I’m always tweaking that, but when I remodeled to accommodate my growing synth collection and new monitors, I added some 100-year-old Tennessee barn wood and cool light fixtures to the main walls. That gave the room a nice warm atmosphere. I love just being in the room – it’s got a really relaxed and inspiring vibe about it. And of course being surrounded by synths is really cool – I can pivot to any spot in the room and be inspired by just interacting with real hardware.
What’s something in your set-up that seems boring but is vital to your setup?
Ergonomics. I’m pretty OCD about having everything just right. I love having my go-to stuff within easy reach, so I’m always tweaking that sort of thing. Every little improvement adds up to a better work day.
How did you go about getting the acoustics right in the studio?
Lots of listening and trial and error. When I got the PMC monitors, it took several days to dial in the exact placement for optimal imaging. And weighing in at 100 pounds each, it was quite a workout to constantly be moving them around! But even before that, I spent a lot of time on acoustic treatment as well. It all starts with the room itself.
What is your favourite piece of gear?
Tough call! I don’t know about “favourite” but certainly most crucial is my main Apple Mac loaded with all my software. That’s the core of my whole world. And not to keep flogging this horse, but those PMC monitors have been game changers for me – they are the windows through which I hear everything, and I couldn’t be more thrilled with those. If you can’t hear your work accurately, you can’t make informed decisions. In the synth realm, two of my favourites are from the 80s: my Yamaha DX5 which is the Rolls Royce of the DX line, and my Roland JX-10, which one of the best analogue synths ever made for big, lush pad sounds. I recently got a Retroaktiv MPG-70 programmer for it, which really brings that thing to life. It also makes a killer controller for any synth that accepts CC messages.
You certainly have an enviable collection of synths! What’s your general workflow here? How do you avoid choice paralysis?
Well, I’ve gotten to know them all deeply. They all have very different ‘flavours’ which makes it somewhat easy to choose when to use them. However, there’s certainly some overlap, especially with the analogue stuff – so when I’m looking for something in that realm, that can involve a bit more decision-making.
As for workflow, they are all patched into a digital console which is in turn routed into my Apollo rig, so they are all available at any time. I have them all set up as external instrument channel strips in Logic, so all I have to do is choose any of them right there in Logic, and I can play them from my main controller right in front of me. But I really enjoy interacting with each of them – I get far more ideas by twisting knobs in the real world than by mousing around on a screen. I certainly love my software options, but there’s something to be said for interacting with real hardware!
What is next on your shopping list studio-wise and why?
I keep telling my wife “OK, I think I’m done buying synths for a while – I have everything I need.” And she just laughs now. Probably for good reason; just when I think I’m done, something cool comes out. The ASM Hydrasynth has caught my attention – that thing looks truly unique and I’m hoping to add one at some point. The new Arturia PolyBrute also has some innovative aspects I’d be interested in checking out. Other than that, I have so many options between hardware, software, and effects processing in the box – I truly have far more than I would ever be able to take advantage of. I want to be better about exploring what I already have!
Do you have any frustrations with your current set-up and why?
Going back to the ergonomics thing, that’s always my biggest frustration: how can I shoehorn my most-used stuff into the space right in front of me – into my monitoring sweet spot. I actually set up smaller stereo monitor rigs at each of my synth stations, so when I turn to the side to work with a synth, I can hear in proper stereo. I hate losing the stereo image when I turn sideways – it makes it a pain to try and edit or do sound design work when you’re only hearing “sideways.” My fantasy would be to have the entire room on one big rotating platter, so I could rotate any piece of gear into the sweet spot. I’m not sure how to make that work, but maybe someday!
What is your dream piece of gear?
Man, right now, probably a tricked out high-end Mac Pro tower. I’d love to get away from managing 5 different computers when working on large projects. It’s kind of a necessary evil because my scoring template is so huge – it’s around 900 tracks of virtual instruments. I like having everything pre-loaded and ready to go, but there’s no way to do that on just one computer, so most composers use a main machine with their DAW, and Vienna Ensemble Pro to network their sample streaming machines in. I think the higher end new Mac Pros can finally handle the single machine approach – but man, they’re insanely expensive!
What is your top piece of production advice?
Learn to listen critically to work you admire. Listen to all the layers – try to ‘see’ into a mix as if it were a 3D puzzle, and pull it apart in your mind. Figure out how the elements all interact, and why they work well together. Then try to figure out how to recreate the stuff that inspires you. When you learn how to effectively imitate, then you can start to innovate!
What is the one piece of advice you would give someone starting out building a studio?
Build an environment that inspires you. It’s hard to work all day in a bland, boring space that doesn’t encourage creativity!
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