Make Your Own Gear: An Introduction to DIY Recording Equipment
September 11, 2013 by Justin Colletti
A few years, ago Peterson Goodwyn of diyrecordingequipment.com was living in Milwaukee, WI, perhaps an unlikely place to pursue his dream of becoming a recording engineer.
Goodwyn and his fiancee had been bouncing from one post-college job to another, hoping to land some kind of meaningful and sustainable work. At a certain point, he says that “we kind of threw our hands up in the air,” and the two decided to move to Seoul, South Korea for a year and teach English.
Almost immediately, things changed.
In Korea, Goodwyn met other temporary expats, and discovered there were “thousands of people, like me, who all of a sudden had disposable income.” Luckily for Goodwyn, a good number of them got to thinking it might finally be time to make that record they were always talking about.
“I think I ended up recording something like 12 albums that year,” he says.
Discovering DIY Electronics
While in Korea, Goodwyn also began toying around with electronics in earnest.
His first venture into this world was with a DIY preamp kit by Hamptone. From there, he branched out, trawling the web for new kits and tutorials, and scouring through the open-air electronics markets that Seoul had to offer.
One of the things that disappointed him was how “dispersed and intimidating” all the available information could be. Taking a cue from some of the online open-source communities he loved, Goodwyn began creating a free, comprehensive database of the most popular resources and tutorials available for DIY gear geeks.
“I wanted to bring them altogether in one place,” he says. “What are all the preamps that are out there? What are the compressor kits?
The website he launched, diyrecordingequipment.com, began with “no commercial aspirations.” Eventually, that would change too. Today, selling entry-level recording kits is Goodwyn’s primary source of income. (Although he still gives away most of what he does for free.)
From the Hobby to Job
One of the things that helps Peterson Goodwyn do his job, is that he brings with him the optimistic and self-effacing zeal of a die-hard hobbyist.
If you visit his website today, you’ll find that it is still predominantly a free online resource geared toward getting people excited about – and comfortable with – the idea of building their own recording equipment. It even provides links to other people’s kits and products than Goodwyn’s own. And to visit there is to feel that this whole new world of circuits and resistor values is something accessible.
“I guess I look into the camera and speak to beginners in a way that others don’t,” he says. “Because I still feel like a beginner.”
“One day in 2011 I thought “I know enough now – or at least I thought I did – to offer a re-amp kit. I kind of buried it on the website because I was very queasy about the whole idea of promoting myself or making any profit off of it. And then I got 5 orders, almost immediately. That was a revelation. I had bought enough parts for 3 kits, and I thought that would last a month.”
“Basically my job today is still a continuation of that: I choose a project I’d like to see offered in a beginner friendly way for a really good price; and get the information I need to complete that project.
“That’s pretty much the sum total of my electronics training. I mean, I have a broader base now. But I still come at it very much from the perspective of a musician and an engineer who dabbles in electronics.” That may be exactly what makes his site work.
More recently, Goodwyn has started developing a new project – a kind of ‘lunchbox-within-a-lunchbox’ called “Colour.”
“Sometimes we go to such great lengths to get that last 1% of color and tone,” he says, “harmonic distortion, transient shaping. You might run your signal out to a $15,000 preamp, that kind of thing. The idea here is to just focus on the parts of the circuit that impart that sound.”
To that end, the Colour unit itself is basically a blank chassis meant to sit inside of a 500 series lunchbox. It’s meant to allow DIY enthusiasts to just spend their time working on “the fun stuff.”
“The 500 series rack is by far the most cost-effective option,” Goodwyn says. “And this way, we free up designers from having to think about anything but the audio circuit. The chassis, the power supply, the front panels and IO – Basically all the not-fun stuff is taken care of for you.”
Inside this single-space 500 series unit are three slots, each of which can be filled with a custom-made DIY audio circuit called a “colour module.” Goodwyn plans to start out by offering a few module kits of his own – basically harmonic distortion units with a wet/dry control.
“For lack of a better term, we’ll be doing a tape-ish one; a tube-ish one; a rectifier kind of thing.” And in the spirit of open-source technology, other developers can create their own modules and sell their own kits as well. He says one designer is already at work on an “SSL talkback, ‘crush’ kind of compressor.”
The only catch is that it’s not available just yet. To get the project off the ground, Goodwyn plans on launching a crowd-funding campaign in the coming months. Until then, he’s posting periodic updates and sneak peaks of the circuit on his site.
Finding the Path
When Goodwyn talks about these new designs it’s surprising to think that he landed in this world by accident. These projects seem to consume so much of his mind that you’d imagine he was born to work on DIY kits.
“I’m having a blast,” he says. “Although sometimes in the back of my head I’ll think – wow, this isn’t what I was dreaming of doing. It’s not recording in the studio, exactly. Honestly I never thought I’d be working with circuits!”
“But just the other day I was in the studio, pressing record doing some edits, and I thought – ‘You know what? This is just a job too!’ It’s not necessarily better or more creative than designing circuits, or making how-to videos or building a kit.”
If anything, there was a time when tooling around with electronics and learning the craft of audio design was as important a part of the recording engineer’s job as anything else. Now, as budgets crunch down and musicians take an ever more active role in the recording process itself, that interest seems to be coming back.
An increasing number of young recordists are learning to work with circuits and signal paths in a hands-on, design-focused way, building their own gear from scratch. Diyrecordingequipment.com aims to serve as a doorway into that world.
All this may be a departure from what many young engineers expected their jobs might entail. But if this continues, in many ways, it signals a bit of a return to where the field began.
Justin Colletti is a Brooklyn-based producer/engineer, journalist and educator. He records and mixes all over NYC, masters at JLM, teaches at CUNY, is a regular contributor to SonicScoop, and edits the music blog Trust Me, I’m a Scientist.