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Studio SOS: John Clark

Home recordings
Published June 2009
By Paul White & Hugh Robjohns

We lend some practical studio advice to a seasoned pro guitarist who's rather newer to the world of songwriting and home recording.

John Clark had a very basic setup with no acoustic treatment, but it took very little work to give him a usable monitoring space, with just a couple of pieces of foam and a pair of Auralex MoPads needed to tighten things up.John Clark had a very basic setup with no acoustic treatment, but it took very little work to give him a usable monitoring space, with just a couple of pieces of foam and a pair of Auralex MoPads needed to tighten things up.

John Clark's Wiltshire home provides him with a fairly small but quite workable room in which to record, and he has bought himself a large-screen iMac with Logic Pro 8, a MOTU 828 MkII audio interface and a pair of Behringer Truth B2030A active monitors. By the time he called us, he'd already made some recordings of himself singing and playing guitar into both single and dual‑microphone setups, and while these had a really nice 'early recordings' vibe to them, he was keen to explore ways of getting a more contemporary sound. He also needed advice on buying microphones, as his AKG C1000S and Electro-Voice RE16 were hardly state of the art. He also said that he'd appreciate some tips on using Logic Pro 8, because he was fairly new to the software.

Studio Diagnosis

John's studio gear was set up in an upstairs study measuring about 2 x 2.5m. The computer, speakers and interface were all arranged on a flat table, facing across the width of the room, and the doorway extended into the room by half a metre or so, cutting off the corner of the room. Our first comment was that the room would probably work better from an acoustics perspective with the speakers set up along the length of the room, which would mean putting the desk in front of the window (and radiator). John didn't want to do that unless absolutely necessary, so we arranged to do some listening tests and acoustics experiments first. Fortunately, the room is entirely dry‑lined with plasterboard on battens, and three of the walls are lightweight stud walls (which allow a lot of low‑frequency energy to pass right through or be absorbed). Because the room hadn't been treated, John's recordings had picked up a significant amount of small‑room ambience, but as he wasn't playing any bass instruments, no low‑frequency problems were evident.

Playing some test material through his Behringer Truth monitors showed these to be rather more neutral sounding than I remember the very first incarnation of the Truths being, but the reflective walls were diluting the stereo image and, as expected in a small room, there was a dip in the perceived low end when listening from the exact centre of the room. John's mixing position was slightly forward of the dead zone, so we concluded that any compromises caused by setting up across the room would be more than compensated for by John's being more comfortable working that way.

The Treatment

Paul tries out mics and placements for recording John's guitar and vocals. The foamed corner and Reflexion Filter dried up the room ambience on John's recordings — but perhaps a little too much?Paul tries out mics and placements for recording John's guitar and vocals. The foamed corner and Reflexion Filter dried up the room ambience on John's recordings — but perhaps a little too much?

The most obvious room reflections could be treated using straightforward acoustic foam, which absorbs in the mid‑ and high‑frequency ranges, but does nothing for the low end. The plasterboard skins of the room acted as impromptu bass traps, as did the window and door, and we set about gluing some thin plywood slats to the rear top edge of some foam panels, so that we could hang them on the walls, 'picture‑style', using a single wood screw: this would avoid making any irreversible changes to the room. We put the wood screws directly into the plasterboard, and they were more than adequately secure to hold up a lightweight foam sheet. The arrangement we settled on was to treat the two corners behind the mixing seat, as well as the two walls directly to either side of the monitors. Ideally, we'd have had an absorber directly behind John's chair, too, but he had a rather splendid print dominating that wall, so we worked around it. In the corners, we hung one vertical 4-foot x 2‑foot sheet of foam on the side wall and one on the rear wall, so that both pieces met in the corner. Not only would this dry up the overall room sound to a useful extent but it would also allow John to sit with his back to the foam when singing, to reduce the amount of reflected sound getting into the front of the mic.

We used Auralex MoPads to isolate the monitors from the desktop, and arranged the foam wedges to give the maximum eight-degree tilt-up, angling the monitors so that the tweeters aimed towards John's head when he was in his usual mixing position. Repeating our listening tests showed an improvement in stereo imaging and a noticeable improvement in the perceived dryness of the room, and the amount of vibrational energy getting through to the surface of the desk was also much reduced.

Better Recordings

One effective way to dry up the vocal sound further is to put an absorber behind the mic as well as behind the singer, and Sonic Distribution had kindly provided us with an SE Reflexion Filter, which is ideal for this purpose. It absorbs sound that would otherwise get into the rear and sides of the mic, and also reduces the amount of the singer's voice getting out into the room to cause reflections in the first place.

John was interested in buying an AKG C414 for vocals, so Hugh brought one of his own along (a previous generation C414 B‑ULS) just to make sure that it would suit John's voice. We set this up on a stand with the Reflexion Filter (after assembling the hardware in our own way to achieve a better mechanical balance), and used another of Hugh's mics (a Neumann KM184) to mic the acoustic guitar. This was actually a very inexpensive instrument, with flatwound strings fitted, but it gave exactly the vintage tonality John was looking for.

We made a test recording, miking the guitar from below rather than above, in order to improve the separation between the voice and guitar. This was a major consideration, because John likes to play with the guitar in a fairly high position, and when miking the guitar from the front he'd noticed a phasey quality to the recordings he'd made with dual mics — due to the amount of vocal also being picked up in the guitar mic. Our arrangement produced a nice dry vocal, with much less spill on both guitar and vocal mics, and gave a natural guitar tonality, with none of the unpleasant phasiness.

John prefers not to use headphones while playing his solo pieces, though, and he found that the lack of room sound caused by singing directly into the Reflexion Filter made his voice sound rather dead as he sang, which didn't help his performance. We tried the same mic setup without the Reflexion Filter and found that the foam we'd put up behind the singing position was performing well enough in drying up the sound, so he could get away with relying on that alone if necessary — the amount of room sound increased, of course, but the results were still very usable, and much better than before the treatment had been installed.

Previously, John had been recording and playing from his mixing position, and he asked if he could try that again, so we moved the mics and made another test recording. The room coloration was less than on his original recordings, due to the treatment we'd put up, but was still audible, so we felt that recording close to the dead corner in front of the foam wall-panels would work best. This made John wonder how he'd control the sequencer from his playing position, but a simple solution would be to use a USB extender cable, and put the Mac keyboard on the window ledge to his right while tracking. There are also numerous compact remote-control hardware options, including those from Frontier Designs and Presonus.

Moving back to the corner, we repeated the miking tests using an omnidirectional Neumann KM183 and then a Rode NT55 fitted with an omni capsule. Using an omni pattern gives a slightly more open and natural sound, and seems to capture the percussive edge of an acoustic guitar with more realism, but of course room reflections are picked up equally well from all directions, so there'll be more room sound than when using a cardioid in the same position. To overcome this, we screened the rear of the mic during these tests by holding up a jacket behind it. If this was successful, John could use the Reflexion Filter behind the omni guitar mic to achieve a controlled pickup pattern. All the options we tried produced acceptable results, but my own preference in this instance was for the result we got using the NT55, as it seemed slightly warmer than the KM183. We recorded all the results so that John could decide for himself which mic setup worked best for him. We also showed the importance of using headphones while changing the guitar mic position to find the best-sounding spot, as this changes from instrument to instrument and also depends on both the mic and the room.

Logic Lesson

John Clark after the Studio SOS — much more confident in using his Mac and Logic setup than before!John Clark after the Studio SOS — much more confident in using his Mac and Logic setup than before!

Our visit included a long session on Logic, (which saw Hugh slowly slipping into a coma!). John's pretty new to Logic, so we showed him where it saves its files and how to do a track bounce, which places the mixed stereo file in the Bounces sub-folder of the main Project folder. I also tweaked some of the preferences, so that 24‑bit recording was selected by default and the 'Independent Monitor Levels' option was ticked. The latter function is very useful, as it allows the user to set different fader positions for recording and playback, and Logic will remember them. In John's case, the monitor level during recording can be set to zero to avoid any of his performance getting back to the mics from the monitor speakers.

John doesn't record to a click track, so the usual comping techniques aren't suitable: he'll need to record the same song two or three times, then paste together the best sections from each. There's always a risk that the guitar and vocal tracks can be slipped out of time, and to prevent this, the vocal and guitar tracks can be assigned to a Group and the Group parameters all switched off, other than the one that relates to selecting (the very first tick box). What this means is that whenever either track is selected for editing or moving, the other is selected automatically, so they always move as a pair.

John had created a default song, with a number of audio tracks and commonly used software instruments, but we noticed that he'd inserted a separate instance of the Space Designer reverb on each audio track. Convolution reverbs such as Space Designer use quite a lot of CPU overhead, so we went through the process of setting up aux send buses to feed a single Aux channel with just one instance of Space Designer — exactly as you'd do on a hardware mixer. A quick way of creating sends for multiple tracks is to select them all by click-dragging over the coloured boxes at the bottom of the mixer channel strips, then selecting a bus on one of the channels. The same bus send will be added to all the selected channels: a big time saver!

John was experiencing some trouble with levels, because although his channel levels weren't clipping, the master output level did sometimes hit the end stops. The ideal recording level in Logic is with the channel meters peaking around halfway up, which still leaves some 6dB or more of headroom. If the levels are still too high, you can use the 'select all channels and drag' feature to move the channel faders down by a few decibels (when linked like this, they'll all move by the same number of dB, which maintains the relative levels), but if any of the channels include level automation they'll just sneak back up to their original level. Some DAWs allow you to reduce the input gain on the master bus, but in Logic you need to do a simple workaround: insert a Gainer plug‑in into any automated channel (usually after any existing plug‑ins) and then lower the gain in Gainer by the same number of decibels as you just reduced the fader levels. If you have any automated channels with EQ or compressor plug‑ins running, you can also use the level controls in these plug‑ins as overall level trims.

We spent a while optimising a startup song and then saved it as a Logic Template, which could be selected from the 'New' menu. This included screensets that use the number keys to switch between different useful window views, a default reverb and delay on two sends, and some commonly used software instruments, such as piano and drums. John made copious notes as we went along and seemed very keen to put this new information to use.

Bidding Adieu

Our last job was to move our tools back into the car and tidy up, in preparation for taking a few photos of the new arrangement. We'd like to thank John for providing us with lunch and for all the Jaffa cakes (apparently they don't count as one of your five a day!), and we look forward to hearing how he progresses with his recordings.

Sending Out An SOS

John Clark has enjoyed a long career as a professional guitarist, first gaining serious recognition when he successfully replaced the departing Alan Holdsworth in 'Bruford'. Following Bruford he became part of Cliff Richards' backing band, a job he's held down from 1981 to the present. John: "Although I've been a guitar twanger for a long time, electric has always been my thing: acoustic never really 'flicked my switch' somehow. That is, until I had this rather late‑in‑the‑day creative binge. In the past, when I've done sessions on acoustic, I'm ashamed to say I never really took a blind bit of notice of mic selection or placement. Now I wish I had! Touring with Cliff there's always acoustic to be played, but on stage it's always DI'd, and mics don't come into it. Also, up to now I've never been a singer, so all in all I need a proper sorting out!”

Reader Reaction

John: "Paul and Hugh's expertise and X‑Ray ears have certainly pointed me in the right direction. Recording in the corner of the room with my back to the foam panels dried up the recordings nicely (and the Reflexion Filter dried it up even more) but although this was great for recording, I prefer to play without wearing headphones, and the sound in the room was now so dry as to be a bit of a vibe‑killer.

"Since Paul and Hugh's visit I've tried moving back to the centre of the room and recording nearer the mouse, keyboard and screen, but this time using the Reflexion Filter behind the mic. This still seems to damp down the 'room tone' pretty well, and as I find it much easier to work nearer the screen, this seems like a good compromise.

"I agree with Paul that the Rode NT55 mic seemed to work best with my old archtop guitar. The fact that I wear the guitar stupidly high really doesn't help with the 'separation' issue, I know, but I'll just have to work around that.

"The Logic techniques that Paul showed me are brilliant time-savers and speed up the workflow — which is always good for the creative bit. Anyone who has any mic tips for me or who's interested in the tunes, do contact me at johnclark@aaa.myzen.co.uk

Published June 2009