Phish bassist Mike Gordon put his Essex Junction, VT home on the market in late December, 2020, looking to get $895,000 for the 12-acre homestead. First purchased by Gordon in 2003 for $425,000, the 3,400-square-foot, 3-bedroom, 4-bath contemporary-style house, built in 1990, has a finished basement, eat-in kitchen and multiple balconies, but the stunning draw for many will be the gorgeous attic recording studio.
Gordon has put the home facility to good use over the years, recording solo albums like The Green Sparrow (2008) and Moss (2010) there, as well as parts of his 2020 collaboration album with Leo Kottke, Noon. Looking through the real estate listing for the house, clearly other rooms have been used for recording as well, including a second-floor bedroom with conspicuous acoustic treatments.
The two-room studio has radiant heat to keep things quietly warm in cold Vermont, and features an antique painted-tin ceiling, reclaimed cypress walls, stained glass and a curved bank of windows with views of the Green Mountains.
Passing through reclaimed mahogany doors to the control room, visitors are greeted by more stained glass and a variety of recording gear. Centered around a circa-2001 Digidesign Control|24 control surface, the room also sports a good-sized rack of outboard gear, adjacent patch bay and a Grace Design M906 monitor controller to switch between the consumer multimedia speakers and Dynaudio BM6A nearfield monitors on hand.
If there’s one thing that we studio people like, it’s consistency in our gear. As the primary brains to most setups, the computer is central to that theme, so when my trusty Mac Pro “cheese grater”—which ran perfectly for 10 years—went down for the count a few months ago, I didn’t take it lightly. It was time to make some big decisions. I weighed the basic questions we should always ask ourselves when upgrading: Do I stay with my current platform (a Mac, in my case)? What’s my budget? What’s the latest hardware on the market to fit my I/O needs? Am I buying for the short term or long?
Over the last few years, I thought about upgrading my old Mac Pro, my primary DAW platform, when I ran into roadblocks with OS upgrades, software and Pro Tools compatibility, but the little “trash can” shape that Apple used for Mac Pros manufactured between 2013 and 2019 just didn’t work for me. I didn’t want to put my Avid HDX card and my UAD Octo card into a chassis. The trash can form factor is now history, however. After working on my laptop for a few months to get me through my “crisis,” I made the move and went big with a new Mac Pro Rack.
Luckily for me, my friend, producer/drummer extraordinaire Omar Hakim, had recently been through the whole process, so I had a guide. “Right before I got my new Mac, my ‘trash can’ suffered a catastrophic thermal meltdown,” he told me. “I ended up using a laptop for a few months while I was waiting for the release of the new Mac Pro Rack. I settled on a 12-core Mac Pro Rack model with 96 GB of RAM, a 2 TB factory SSD card and a base video card. I added two 2 TB internal Samsung SSD EVO 970 NVMe M.2 cards with two Vantec PCIe adapters—components I purchased, assembled and installed myself. I then loaded up my two Avid HDX cards and Universal Audio Satellite PCI card. My studio has never run smoother!” He noted that he purchased the base amount of RAM from Apple and bought the rest from OWC.
With his feedback in mind, I made the decision to purchase a Mac Pro Rack over an iMac Pro or Mac Mini. I visited Apple.com and went through the process of ordering the components I wanted: a 3.2 GHz 16-core Intel Xeon W processor-based machine with the base 32 GB of 2933 MHz DDR4 RAM to get started.
I also worked with Rob Zenn at Alto Music on this purchase; Zenn convinced me to get the AMD Radeon Pro W5700X 16 GB graphics card, as it includes four additional powered Thunderbolt 3 ports. We made sure the hardware came with macOS Catalina version 10.15.5 installed so as not to get into conflicts with the upcoming Big Sur OS release.
The good news: I had a machine that would rock. The bad news? It came to a whopping $9,900. However, since this is the brains of my setup, which I use every day to compose, mix or create music, I judged it to be a good allocation of funds. Besides, it’s a tax write-off!
When the machine arrived, crated in foam, I couldn’t believe what a monster it was. It’s built like a tank. I was taken aback by its design and downright sturdiness. I’ve had a lot of Macs in my day, but nothing like this. It came with eight PCI Express expansion slots, two of which were filled by my Avid HDX card and the Universal Audio UAD-2 OCTO card.
Engineer Mike Dwyer and I slipped on the heavy-duty rack rails (sent separately from Apple) and slid it into the 10-space rack I purchased for it. We hooked up an HDMI video cable from my Samsung to the Mac, set up the cool black wireless keyboard and mouse, and fired it up. Within a few minutes, it was game on.
Next, we attached a single AVB Ethernet cable from my new Avid Carbon interface (which I reviewed last month) to the Mac Pro, and plugged in a Native Instruments Komplete Kontrol S88 Mk2 keyboard and PreSonus FaderPort 8 into two of the included USB ports. I had made an Apple Time Machine backup of my laptop the night before and saved the data on a portable SSD drive, which I hooked up to the new computer.
Using Apple Time Machine’s Migration Assistant, I transferred the files from my backup to the new Mac Pro Rack, and while it took almost two hours, everything transferred over to the new Mac: Pro Tools 2020.11, Reason, all of my Vienna Instruments, Omnisphere, Universal Audio Console and all of my plug-ins. I opened Pro Tools and everything simply worked. With just a few software updates, it was the easiest migration I’ve ever experienced.
This week, I’m ordering 32 GB more RAM and a few SSD internal drives to load the chassis up even more. It’s been flawless in its performance so far, and not even my heavy virtual instrument sessions can choke it. For the first time, I’ve found a machine that works faster than I do, which has already helped my creativity. For me, it’s already worth the money.