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September 2023

A modern classic

Sound engineer, studio owner and vintage lover Sean Tuohy never works without this modern-day MUTEC REF10 SE120 reference clock generator. Read the story.

I have always loved vintage gear.

There’s something I find compelling about it’s history and the studios and sessions it will have been a part of. I don’t believe that being older or rarer instantly make anything better. Or that because it’s expensive it will magically improve the quality of your work.

I know you can make great music with whatever you have to hand if you have the talent. But I think the classics became classics for a reason.

Over the past 30 years I’ve been able to collect a lot of what the industry now considers to be holy grails pieces of recording equipment. When I’m tracking remotely I take some of these pieces with me. A favourite pair of AKG C12’s or Neumann U67’s for capturing strings or a piano. A rack of 1073’s for drums or a 660 compressor for vocals.

Sometimes I pick things I’ve not used in a while to shake things up or an artist will request something we’ve used together on a previous session. We can be funny (almost superstitious) when it comes to the recording process. If you feel a certain mic or signal chain contributed a little magic to a track you often go back to it hoping it elevates a performance again. It doesn’t have to be expensive, it just has to be inspiring. A trunk of old guitar pedals or beat up synths can really help create something special and unexpected and sonically unique. They’re just tools but they can also function as creative toys when in the right hands.

The common denominator with the gear I bring is that it’s always analog and it’s always pretty old. However over the past year something strange and previously unimaginable has occurred. An unassuming black box from Germany found it’s way into my travelling circus of retro recording tools and quickly began to change things. And anyone that’s ever worked with me will know that I do not embrace change!

Firstly it is neither old nor is it analog and it’s not an instrument nor a signal processor. In fact doesn’t process audio or capture sound at all. It’s a clock. To be precise it’s a MUTEC REF10 SE120 reference master clock. And it has been a revelation. No, let me rephrase that. It has been a total revolution!

It might at first seem odd or overkill to bring something as utilitarian and (in theory) mundane as a master clock into another commercial studio. The MUTEC certainly is not what you’d imagine when talking about capturing or creating a cool vibe. But there’s a clear and considered logic behind doing so that makes a lot of sense to me.

There will of course already be a studio clock of some description maintaining order within the digital universes of convertors and interfaces. But over the years I’ve learned that not everyone pays as much attention to their clock choices as they do to their monitors or mic collections. It’s easy to impress potential clients with the shock and awe of a large format Neve or SSL console and racks of coveted outboard. But corners are often cut when it comes to the less celebrated studio purchases that reside tucked away in the machine room.

And I developed a bad clock equals a bad studio rational that has saved me from many a disaster booking over the years. Sometimes the things you don’t see are the most important things of all. And a good clock can do so much to improve your recordings by doing what seems like so little. A great clock however can both change your mind and blow your mind all at once! I understand the economics and ease of using internal clocks but it’s never been something that resonated with me.

I like things that do one thing and do that thing very well. Back in my main control room a session will always be clocked with the REF10 SE120 so why not use the same clock during every stage of the recording and mixing process. It’s not just that it delivers a rock solid digital foundation that will remain accurate and table through the hours/days/weeks of the sessions ahead. It of course does that but that in itself isn’t a good enough reason to swap out a studios existing set up.

What it does that no other clock I’ve heard does is to deliver a richer/fuller/deeper/tighter and more focused sound field that both inspires me and connects me to the process of recording music in a way that feels so rewarding. What I hear inspires me to work harder and to try and deliver better work. I hear things clearer and I aim a little higher because of that.

I get suspicious reading terms like 3D and expansive when anyone describes or reviews pro audio gear as they are vague terms very much subject to personal preference.

And yet those are exactly the kind of words that come to mind when I try and describe what I hear the REF10 SE120 bringing to the table. I am yet to hear a system that I don’t instantly prefer when the MUTEC is used as the master clock. I hear the difference right away. It’s almost like playback of 2 tape instead of a DAW. Not tape as an applied effect but in the way that everything feels more glorious and full of potential played back from a well maintained deck. It’s IMAX compared to Betamax. Things just sing. Convertors do a better job of converting what I hear. From the live room floor to the monitors and then on to my ears. There’s suddenly a clarity and depth often missing with digital playback systems.

I have no interest in abstract notions of accuracy or debating a clocks meritsat a data driven level. I understand that comparing numbers is important for some people but I just care about things sounding better and then harnessing that advantage to make better records.

And that’s what I’m doing here. I’m not trying to impress or convert (pun intended) Anyone. I’m just looking for an edge. Sometimes the cliches are actually true. I don’t find the improvements here subtle or subjective. I find them glaringly obvious. No. I find them gloriously obvious. Yes, it’s a game of inches. But they are inches that very much matter to me. As I’ve gotten older I’ve learned to appreciate simplicity more and more in the studio. I have spent more time than I care to remember comparing clocks and I never intend to do that again.

Time is always money and so the goal is to start capturing music at it’s highest resolution as quickly as possible. And for that process to be repeated each and every time we come back to a session.The REF10 SE120 makes sure there are no unwanted or unexpected variables and it’s hard to express how important that is for me. This won’t make sense for everyone and that’s ok. We each have different budgets and different end goals for the work we do.

I am writing this on my way back from a session late on a Friday night before heading back out for another week of tracking this coming Sunday. My REF10 SE120 sits in a flight case along with set of BNC cables waiting to be put into action again and bring stability to my world. I still bring session specific analog gear with me and imagine I always will. But are we bringing the Mutec? is not something that’s up for debate.

Sean Tuohy

Like many studio owners I’ve loved acquiring the compressors and EQ’s and pre amps I saw in magazines and in the legendary studios I’ve worked in. They have appreciated steadily in price over the years so it’s also been a pretty good financial decision. A tool for today and an asset for the future.

I feel very differently about digital gear. Aside from Lexicon 244/480L reverbs and PCM delays form the 80’s there’s not much value retention and digital often feels like a necessary evil. You know you need it but you also know it won’t be worth anything in 10 years time and it will need replacing long before that.

The REF10 SE120 however feels like an investment in today and in the here and now and as such it’s hard to not think of it as a modern classic.

More about the REF10 SE120