This month's challenge was to turn a heap of boxes into a fully working studio!
Bill Price took up guitar playing and singing later in life, to discover that he was actually a very capable singer/songwriter. After making a few recordings in home studios belonging to his friends, he decided to set up his own studio in a spare bedroom in his house in Stourbridge, in the West Midlands. After he'd sought advice from various quarters and checked the suitability of his proposed shopping list with me via a couple of phone calls, I agreed to help him set up his studio with a Studio SOS visit.
So it was that, some weeks later, Bill called me to say that he had a pile of boxes sitting in his spare room, and to ask me to come and help him turn them into a functioning studio! He'd settled on an Apple iMac, Logic Pro and a Cakewalk UA25 EX two-input interface. He'd also bought a pair of Alesis Monitor 1 MkII active monitors and an Audio Technica AT2020A mic for his vocals. However, he hadn't yet got a mic for his acoustic guitar, so I took a spare mic and stand along just to get him started.
Bill's room turned out to be fairly small, at around two by three metres and not much over two metres in height. He had a desk set up at one end of the room facing down the three-metre length, with a window to the right and a mirror-fronted cupboard to the left. A few guitars and other instruments inhabited the rest of the room, but first we had to deal with that pile of boxes!
Stage one was to unpack the iMac, set it up on the table and start loading Logic Pro while we dealt with the rest of the system. Loading all the software takes at least a couple of hours because of the number of loop- and sample-library files included with it. Bill made us lunch, which was interrupted only by the need to feed new DVD ROMs into the iMac. Once everything was installed, it was time to run Apple Software Update to bring both Logic and the Mac OS up to the latest versions.
Welsh company Silent Peaks had kindly donated a set of their speaker-mounting pads, which are designed to sit between speakers and the desk they're placed on, to minimise vibration transfer. Silent Peaks also supplied a mic shield, and I'd packed half a dozen two-foot-square panels of Universal Acoustics foam.
As the software was loading, we fixed two foam panels behind the monitors, and two on the side walls, as far back as we could get them, so they were right up against the edge of the cupboard on the left and the window frame on the right. Two more were fixed to the side wall adjacent to the window at the rear of the room, to help reduce wall reflections when Bill was singing and playing in that corner of the room. We used the now familar 'CD stuck to the back' trick to give us a hanging point for the panels, but Bill said it was also OK to use spots of glue at the corners of the panels to hold them more firmly. The room was decorated using painted wallpaper, so when Bill decides to redecorate, bits of foam stuck to the walls will come off with the wallpaper!
With the acoustic treatment in place, the software loaded and the interface drivers installed, I played some musical excerpts from the iTunes store to see how the monitors sounded, and discovered that the room supported two massive resonant peaks: one at around 110Hz and one at around 220Hz. The monitors were on the Silent Peak platforms at this time, but no matter where I moved them on the desktop, those resonances remained. The platforms were doing a good job of isolating the speakers from the desktop, but the room size and geometry were working against us. A test recording of Bill playing his acoustic guitar and singing confirmed that this was going to be a real problem if we couldn't find a solution. Every time he played or sang a low 'A', everything boomed alarmingly.
Unfortunately, the Alesis monitors don't have rear-panel controls to adjust the low-end output, so as a quick test I tried the 'socks stuffed into the ports' trick, to see if that helped. This tactic reduces the tuning effect of the ports and suppresses the low end to some extent, but in this case not by enough to make a significant difference to the problem. The resonances were just too high in frequency to be avoided simply by reducing the ultra-low end from the speakers. It seems that the problem was being caused by the room's dimensions, which meant it was very close to being one and a half cubes, and by the very solid brick walls that reflected virtually all the bass energy back into the room. I even opened the cupboard door, in the hope that all the clothes hanging in there might work as a bass trap, but that produced no significant improvement either. Was this going to be the Studio SOS that got away? I was starting to think that it might be!
My only recourse at this stage was to move the speakers further from the rear wall. This would eat up valuable space in such a small room, but I had to try it. I perched the speakers on the very front edge of the desk, angled inwards, and pulled the desk itself out around 400mm from the wall. I was relieved to find that the severity of the resonances was very much reduced.
I've also achieved improvements in small and difficult rooms by moving the monitors slightly off the centre axis of the room, so I pushed the desk around 250mm to the right. Again, the resonances were reduced. This works because the distances between the two speakers and the side walls are different, resulting in any reflected bass energy being slightly out of phase for the two speakers. This helps lower and broaden any resonances, so is worth a try once all other possibilities have been exhausted. Moving the desk away from the wall also moved the listening position further back in the room, which in this case may have helped by placing the seat closer to the natural bass null that seems to occur near the centre of most small rooms.
Repeating my tests with recorded music showed a much more even bass end at the monitoring position, though I still felt the overall low end was a little too generous for the size of the room, so I found some offcuts of foam rubber and rolled them up into bungs for the speaker bass ports. This time, damping the ports really did help tighten up the low end, so I left them in place. While still not perfect, the room was at least now perfectly usable — as a second test recording of Bill singing and playing guitar confirmed.
The Silent Peaks mic screen, combined with the foam fixed to the side wall, produced a reasonably dry vocal sound that responded well to added reverb, while the guitar came across as sounding pretty natural, needing just a little high EQ or harmonic exciter to add some sparkle.
As Bill was pretty new to Logic, and, indeed, to computer recording in general, I spent some time setting up a song template to meet his immediate needs. I routed the two mic inputs in the Cakewalk interface to dedicated guitar and vocal tracks in Logic. I then grouped these so that any edits involving one would also apply to the other. This is essential given the amount of spill that invariably occurs when you record a guitar player who is also singing: the two tracks have to be kept locked together with single-sample accuracy to avoid tonal changes. A further half a dozen spare tracks were set up to accommodate overdubs or alternate takes, then I added two instrument tracks, for Bill to use for programming drum parts or adding synth lines. I showed him how to select one of the mic inputs as the recording source for the audio tracks, and how to load up software instruments.
To make navigation easier, I set up two screensets for flipping between the Arrange and Mixer pages using the number keys, and also set up a pre-fader aux send feeding a suitable plate reverb (Space Designer), with around 110ms of pre-delay. After establishing a recording level setting on the interface for Bill's voice, I also inserted Logic's compressor on the main vocal track to even up the level, by applying around 5dB of gain reduction on his vocal peaks. I placed some very mild compression plus a limiter in the master stereo mix bus to add further density and to catch any errant peaks. This setup turned out to be quite adequate for Bill to begin exploring Logic, as any DAW has a pretty scary learning curve if you try to take too much on board at once.
We also played with the guitar amp and pedal modelling using Bill's Vintage-brand electric guitar, which produced surprisingly good results. I then introduced Bill to Apple Loops, which can be very handy for setting up a simple rhythm backing that fits the tempo of your project, and to some of the Garageband instruments, which, despite their apparent simplicity and rather bland control panels, can produce great results. Many Logic users tend to forget about these but some of them, especially the Digital Stepper Synth (which has no equivalent in Logic), sound really good. Bill was so impressed by what could be achieved using the software instruments that he immediately added a small USB music keyboard to his shopping list! It is possible to enter notes in Logic using the computer keyboard (by pressing Caps Lock), but although this is fine for exploring sounds, it's hardly the basis for a virtuoso musical performance!
One other feature that impressed Bill was the way in which the touch surface of the new Apple mouse can both scroll and change the zoom magnification in Logic.
Having got the system up and running, and with Bill feeling more comfortable with the basics of driving it, we had to figure out how to make the best use of space in the room now that the desk had been moved forward. It turned out that there was room to the left of the desk to accommodate Bill's rack of four or five guitars, which were previously at the rear of the room, and he said the space behind the desk could be useful for storing his guitar amplifiers.
It also turned out that Bill prefers to record sitting down, so I suggested that he replace his current seat with a comfortable swivel stool (arms would get in the way of his guitar playing), so that he could move from a mixing position to a playing and singing position without too much effort. The computer turned out to be quiet enough to allow Bill to sing and play pretty much anywhere in the room, but if it happened that the most comfortable position for recording meant that there was a bare wall behind him when singing, I advised that he cover it with a duvet, to kill any reflections that might get back to the microphone.
What looked, at one point, like being a bit of a disaster actually worked out really well. The room now sounded suitably benign, Logic was running flawlessly, and the new layout still left Bill with enough space to work. Breathing a sigh of relief, I programmed the sat-nav for the journey home.
Bill Price: "First of all, thanks for doing the Studio SOS. Your help, advice and technical know-how was really, really appreciated. I am also grateful to Universal Acoustics and Silent Peaks for the acoustic products.
"It was a long day that produced, finally, a very acceptable result, in that the studio is up and running at last, and now capable of yielding very good-sounding recordings. I am sure that the studio will continue to evolve and be open to experimentation. Thanks again for all your help!”