James Burnham is a talented musician who lives in a small rented cottage close to the Herefordshire and Worcestershire border. He plays mainly acoustic guitar and violin, although he has been known to play the odd bit of electric guitar too, and he records under two names, Judo Being and James Isaac, producing both minimal experimental techno and lounge-y jazz.
Before our Studio SOS visit, James had a basic studio set up in a tiny (six by eight feet) bedroom, with a ceiling height sloping from about six feet on one side of the room to nine feet on the other. The recording system, based on Cubase running on a PC, could hardly have been simpler: an M-Audio Delta 4x4 interface, fed directly into his recently acquired Mackie HRM824 studio monitors, and a Joemeek MQ3 recording channel (a preamp, compressor and EQ) provided his only mic input. For recording he used mainly an MCA SP2 side-address condenser mic or an AKG C1000S back-electret model.
Despite having no other equipment and no real acoustic treatment (other than the odd sheet draped about the place), James had managed to make some rather good recordings of himself and other musician friends. However, he realised that the less than ideal acoustics of his studio were limiting the quality of his recordings, and he was also curious to find the best way to expand his system to allow the recording of multiple musicians. To date he'd recorded singing acoustic-guitar players using a single mic, adjusting the placement to get the best balance between guitar and voice, and he had no means of providing a headphone feed to musicians playing in the next bedroom or on the landing.
When we arrived, Hugh and I checked some commercial material played back over James' speakers and, sure enough, the reflective surfaces in the room were diluting the stereo image. The bass end, though a little pronounced, wasn't as bad as expected — which was partly due to some plasterboard partitions acting as impromptu bass traps, and partly due to a large cupboard at the rear of the room extending over the stairwell, which also absorbed some low end. The small landing served both as a vocal booth and to put some distance between the performers and the whir of the PC fans, but the close proximity of nearby walls and doors made this more live-sounding than was ideal. James had removed the control-room door to improve access to the landing, and this may also have contributed to the natural bass-trapping.
For small studio systems such as this one, small mixers can be very useful, providing a few mic channels and EQ for recording, while also giving you a master section that can act as a monitor controller and headphone amp — which could be all you need. To set up a mixer in this way, you need one that has a switch to route the tape returns to the control room output instead of the main mix. You can then run your soundcard's output into the tape input and use the main left and right outputs to carry the mic channel signals to the DAW inputs. Better still, a four-bus mixer will allow you to route the mic channels to four separate mixer outputs.
As it happened, we'd recently had a Mackie 802 VLZ3 mixer in for review and we thought this would be ideal for the job, so we asked Mackie US whether they'd consider selling it to James at a discount as an ex-review model. To our surprise, and James' delight, they said we could install this mixer in his studio. (But before you write in, we're lucky we had one in for review — we don't imagine Mackie will want to give us one every month!). This mixer ticked all the boxes for James' setup, because of its three very nice mic preamps, four routing buses, tape return facility and powerful headphone output.
We opted to use outputs 1-3 to feed the three mic preamps to the first three inputs on the M-Audio interface, and to use the MQ3 to feed the fourth. We could thus leave everything permanently patched, and the only additional kit we needed was a pair of jack-to-phono cables to feed the DAW output to the mixer tape input. All this equipment was powered from a single, surge-protected mains distribution board, and we experienced no ground-loop hums or other untoward noises.
We tested the new setup by making recordings via all three mic inputs, and another through the MQ3. Everything worked perfectly, confirming not only that a simple system like this works very well, but also that the Mackie mic preamps, along with the three-band EQ, are capable of very high-quality results. With these changes, the control-room level knob now governed the monitor level, with the same signal going to the headphone amp, thus feeding the DAW output back to the performer. A setup like this means that the engineer can adjust the balance of the incoming mic and the already-recorded tracks.
On listening, we felt that the monitoring needed a little attention and, as usual, the first place Hugh looked was the settings on the back of the speakers. In this case we both agreed that the 47Hz roll-off position would be more suitable for a small room than the full-bandwidth 38Hz setting that James had been using.
Of course, it isn't just monitor settings that affect the sound. The only acoustic treatment James had in the control room was a heavy cotton sheet suspended below the ceiling, so we removed this and set about installing some Auralex pyramid-profile two-inch foam. Because the cottage is rented, we didn't want to stick anything directly to the walls, so I made up some wooden slats the same width as the panels, screwed a hook into the centre and then stuck the strips to the back of the foam using Auralex spray adhesive. These were designed to hang on a single screw fixed into the wall, making them easily portable should James ever decide to move.
We fixed one horizontal panel behind the speakers at around head height, with a vertical panel in the 'mirror' position on the left wall. The right-hand side wall included a window, so we made up a piece of foam that could be hung inside the window frame when mixing, but that could be removed and stored at other times. A further vertical piece was placed in the centre of the rear wall. However, we were still a little concerned about reflections from the ceiling, so we used the same trick we used a few months ago, whereby we fixed hooks to the walls and then used nylon cord to form a cradle, onto which a sheet of foam could rest. This worked pretty well and also left space for James, should he wish, to put back his cotton sheet — which gives the studio something of a nomad-tent vibe.
Both monitors originally stood on the desk James was using, but this placed them two or three inches lower than was ideal — because the tweeter needs to be close to head height for the best results. Fortunately Auralex had included some Gramma isolation platforms in their latest shipment, and although these are really designed for use under instrument amplifiers, we decided to cut one in half and use it to mount the Mackie HR824s, our reasoning being that it should provide better isolation than the Auralex Mopads that are usually used for this purpose, while also bringing the speakers up to the right height. Fortunately the cut looked nice and neat and the result improved the sound by keeping speaker vibrations out of the desk surface. The initial over-pronounced bass end seemed to have been resolved by Hugh setting the speaker's bass switch to its mid position, and the speakers were already set for 'half space', which was correct for their placement in the room. Further music playback testing confirmed that we now had a tighter sound, with noticeably better stereo imaging — and despite the small room size, the bass end was more even than we could reasonably have hoped for.
With the control room now improved as much as possible (given the space and budgetary constraints), we turned our attention to the landing area, and hung more sheets of foam on the flat walls and bathroom door, with a further sheet suspended seven feet from the ground on a cradle of cord. The improvement was significant, but to really nail the vocal sound we installed an SE Reflexion Filter, which had kindly been provided by Sonic Distribution. This device screens the rear and the sides of the mic while also reducing the amount of vocal reaching the wall behind it, to be reflected back. With a Reflexion Filter behind the mic and a foam or duvet absorber behind the singer, you can get good vocal results in otherwise quite poor-sounding rooms. As usual, we reversed the assembly of the Reflexion Filter to get the weight closer to the centre of gravity of the mic stand, before fitting the MCA SP2 microphone to the stand with a shockmount and a pop filter.
Setting up the mic on the landing with one of our foam panels behind the singing position gave a nicely dead feel to the vocals, which meant James would be able to add the reverb he wanted when mixing. Auralex had also given us some of their Expander packs, which comprise shaped foam panels for putting behind mics to help reduce spill, as well as resilient, anti-vibration support for mic stand legs. We left a pack of these with James, as they'd come in really handy when recording groups of players in the adjacent bedroom (which doesn't benefit from acoustic treatment other than the occasional suspended duvet).
The final challenge before leaving was to repair a faulty XLR mic cable, which my cable tester suggested had a 'pin 1 to pin 3' short. The plugs looked fine but we rewired them anyway, using a butane-powered soldering iron... and the lead was still the same! Apparently it was faulty close to the ends, so we chopped six inches off each end of the cable, which had a nice, woven-braid screen and cotton protection for the inner wires, and replaced the connectors. Still the same fault! At this point, we decided to feel along the cable so see if some evil sod had stuck a pin through it, but although nothing like that was in evidence, manipulating the centre of the cable caused the lights on the cable tester to blink on and off. We'd found the intermittent fault almost exactly halfway along the cable. The long and short of it, quite literally (groan...), is that James now has a perfectly reliable two-and-a-half-metre XLR cable rather than an unreliable five-metre one!
And that was it — a big improvement in both the monitoring and recording environment in just a few hours, plus manageable monitor controls and three extra channels of mic inputs courtesy of those nice Mackie folk in Seattle. We couldn't have done it without the support of Auralex, Sonic Distribution and Mackie — at least not without spending quite a bit of money — but even so the improvements would have been well worth it. Having heard the recordings James had already made with such limited resources, I'm really looking forward to hearing what he comes up with now.
James: "The Mackie mixer has made life so much easier in my studio setup. Firstly, there's no more swapping leads round when recording or for playback: this can now be done all from the mixer. I can still use my Joemeek MQ3, either as a insert on the mixer inputs or directly into my soundcard.
"The acoustic treatment has also made a huge difference to my control room and recording space. When mixing, I can hear a much clearer phantom central image, and the bass problems in the room have been improved by the monitor mounts and resetting the speaker bass switches. Bringing down the ceiling in both rooms with the Auralex foam has taken away the ring and softened the live 'boxy' sound that was previously a real struggle to work with. Even our voices in the room now sound much richer and clearer.
"I've had a lot of fun using the SE Reflexion Filter, which I've found excellent. In fact, the unwanted room ambience has practically been eliminated when using compression on mic input, such as I tend to do using the Joemeek unit.
"Of course, I'd like to thank the Studio SOS Team, Auralex, Mackie and Sonic Distribution. The changes made to my studio have already enabled me to make much higher quality recordings, despite the tight budget and lack of space."