Eric Valentine PT. 1: The Birth of Undertone Audio
As one of the most notable studio minds of his generation, Eric Valentine has mixed, produced and engineered the likes of Queens of the Stone Age, Good Charlotte, The All-American Rejects, Slash and more. Yet, since 2004, Valentine has also taken an interest in building and creating his own gear.
Under the banner of UnderToneAudio, Valentine and his team of techs have taken these creations out of the basement and made them a viable commodity for anyone interested in great recording equipment. In honor of the new relationship between Vintage King and UnderTone, Eric Valentine sat down for a chat with VK and talked all things recording.
Did you start recording music or working on gear first?
I definitely got interested in recording when I was young. I sort of pieced together home recording setups with tape decks, Radio Shack mixers and that sort of stuff. My father was an electrical engineer, he worked in aerospace, so I grew up with electronics and there was just a lot of that stuff around. I didn’t really intentionally get into it until later on. I always wired my own studios and felt comfortable soldering, all that sort of stuff, but I didn’t really get into it until about ten years ago.
Which is roughly around the time that you formed UnderToneAudio?
Yeah. It started when I was faced with this issue that nobody was building a recording console that was going to work for me. I had owned a procession of Neve consoles over the years. The first one was a vintage 8038 with 32 1081s in it and it was just a beautiful console. It was great for tracking, but not that extraordinary for mixing.
After that I got an 8128 and I really loved that console, but it was just falling apart and I was just tired of replacing buttons and having things disappear in the middle of a mix. I just couldn’t rely on it anymore. So then I bought a new Neve console, which is amazing, but it just wasn’t right for me. It was too big, too much to use and insanely expensive. I just needed to have a console that fit into my workflow.
I was fortunate enough to meet this guy, Larry Jasper, who is hands down the most brilliant studio tech and audio design person I’ve ever met in my life. It was really because of the relationship with him that I felt comfortable moving forward and designing a console. He’s the guy that does the heavy lifting of the design at the circuit level. He and I, together, developed the circuitry for the two consoles we built that were for my recording facilities.
At the end of the process, a lot of people were very interested and it seemed like people would be into owning the equalizer and circuitry that we came up with. There was something about it that was really unique and had never been done before. That’s when we decided to go ahead and pursue it as a product.
When you’re starting from scratch with a console, what are your first thoughts?
The two main things that I needed were to have a console that had the sound quality of the vintage Neve, but with a much more flexible equalizer. That’s the thing. It just didn’t exist. It was a Class A vintage circuit with an equalizer that could get really surgical. With all the consoles I had been using, there was always this point where I was like “I’m going to have to go to an outboard equalizer to make this sound right.” If I have a console that has 50 to 60 equalizers in it, I want that to be my first choice, at least 90% of the time. Those were the main goals for me, so that’s what we did.
There are some things designed into the UnderTone circuitry that are really meant to address some of that. Larry has some very specific concepts about the liabilities of digital recording. There can be some pretty nasty artifacts in the extended high frequency range, above where the anti-aliasing filter is, so the UnderTone circuitry has additional filtering up in that range. This happens in particular with the 96k sample frequency.
The sample frequency that has artifacts left over can be very similar in range to the oscillator frequency on a tape machine. So, if you’re playing something off a computer, and putting it on a tape, there will be an interaction that can throw off the biasing on the tape machine. This is very finite, theoretical stuff, but this is the kind of stuff we considered during the design.
The other side of that is the console, and all audio gear in general, needs to have a low catch filter that is filtering out any possible interference from RF signals. All sorts of gear has done it different ways, some of the older gear was more aggressive about it, especially the EMI gear, the TGI series stuff, it has an incredibly aggressive low pass filter. So much so that it caused a phase shift in the high frequencies. On a TGI series console, you can’t really do parallel anything on that console because if you have one signal that shows up in a channel and then come outs and goes into another channel, the high frequencies will cancel out.
On the UnderTone stuff, we put a lot of effort into filtering in a way that would not cause a phase shift in the high frequencies. There is a linear phase design, which is a three phase filter that does it on the UnderTone console.
In Part 2 of our discussion with Eric Valentine, talk turns to UnderToneAudio's famed MPEQ-1, which is now available through Vintage King. Learn how this mic pre/equalizer evolved over time and has become the backbone of Eric's recording techniques.