Although we don't usually cover commercial studios in the Readerzone column, the small Zoo Audio studio of SOS reader Andy Cross, based in Cambridgeshire, has found its way here because it is one of the few studios in the country to contain an Esmono recording booth. I had seen these prefab soundproofed and acoustically-treated booths described in the catalogue of their UK distributors, Studiospares, so when Andy emailed to say that he was willing to let SOS have a look around his in situ, I was keen to find out how it performed in practice.
Andy Cross: "Previously, my studio was based in the top floor of my house, and I used the spare bedroom whenever I needed a vocal booth. It worked OK, but obviously I was limited in what I could do, since there were houses on either side. Then I decided to move house and shift the studio to this place. Fairly soon after I got here, the Esmono booths appeared in the Studiospares catalogue. I got the tape measure out and found that the smallest one would fit in very snugly here.
"Even though it seems quite a lot of money to spend, the advantage of a prefab booth is that you get results more reliably than if you tried to soundproof a room yourself, and you can also take it with you when you move. I could easily have spent £3500 on something that didn't actually work when I'd finished it and was still leaking sound everywhere. It was also going to be a hassle to install a soundproof door, so I figured I'd just go for something which was 'off the shelf' and which I knew would work.
"The booth I got weighs about half a tonne, and it was delivered in bits by truck. I decided to get the taller version, because the girl who sings in my band is six foot three, so I thought I'd better take her and other tall people into account. It was also good to have a bit more height over the cymbals in a drum-kit, so it was worth the few extra quid. A friend and I put the thing up, and it took us the best part of a day to do it. The first time you use the booth, there are some holes you have to drill as you go, but once they're there the process becomes a little easier.
"The inside of the booth is perforated steel with Rockwool, and it really soaks up the sound, to give a very dry acoustic. The difference between recording in the spare bedroom and recording in the booth is incredible! Before, no matter what I did in terms of blankets draped over drying racks and whatever, you could always listen to a recording and tell exactly what size the room was. With the booth, you have no idea. The lack of room sound on the dry vocal is nice for recording music, and absolutely essential for doing voice-over work — you need to be able to put the voice convincingly into the correct acoustic space using reverb if it's required.
"In terms of soundproofing, when recording drums in the booth you can only hear a dull thud from the kick if you're standing next door, which is just the other side of this wall. You can't hear any of the other drums at all. If I really wanted to reduce the spill even more, I could layer some soundproofing on the wall, but I've not needed to yet.
"The booth is so dry that the separation you get on the individual drum mics is sometimes a little more than you'd like, making it a little tricky to knit together the sound. When I'm recording jazz stuff, I'll generally just use three mics — two overheads and kick, with maybe a snare as well — because you want the whole kit to sound like one instrument, rather than a collection of bits of percussion. To get that kind of sound in the booth is more difficult, and you have to think a bit more about your reverb choices."
"The only window in my booth is the narrow one in the door. In an ideal world, it would be nice to see through into the booth, but the expense of knocking a suitable hole in the wall between the control room and the booth, and of buying one of the Esmono window panels, would have added several hundred pounds to the cost. I've got quite used to working without visual contact, and I've never found the lack of a window to be a real problem. Even when I've been recording bands, it's not really been a problem. If you think about it, when you're recording live, you don't actually turn around and look at the drummer that often to see what he's doing. Some people actually quite like a bit more privacy. Some of the people I've had in doing voice-overs like to gesticulate while they're speaking, and might feel slightly self-conscious if we could all point and laugh at them from the control room! Obviously, in some instances, it can be important to have eye contact, and I have once had the bass player standing outside the door so that he could see in. I've also got a cheap webcam in there, which I can use if I really need to see them, although the time-lag can be a problem.
"The booth has an in-built extractor fan which draws fresh air in at the bottom and expels the old air from one of the top corners. I have to say that when I'm doing stuff where you really don't want any background noise, the fan is slightly too loud. So I have it switched off when I'm doing voice-overs, for instance. The noise is quite a low-frequency hum, though, so you could probably filter it out without losing too much tone from the voice. For drummers and guitars you can happily have the fan on and it's not too intrusive. It would be fairly straightforward to rig up an external fan unit, with a hose on the outlet pipe on the roof, and I imagine that would reduce the noise. It can get quite stuffy in there on a hot day if the fan is switched off, though, so on those rare occasions you have to keep letting the person out every once in a while, to get some fresh air!"
"Inevitably, when people leave the studio they compare the results with albums they own which have more spent on them in five minutes than they have spent on the entire project, so my TC Finalizer comes in really handy. People immediately notice if their mix is quieter, so that's the first thing you have to overcome — it's got to sound as loud, never mind whether it actually sounds as good! It's a shame. The albums I really like are the ones which aren't compressed to death, and there are others which I think would be better if they hadn't been. The last James album before they split up just seems to have been flattened, which rather surprised me, because Brian Eno was involved in the production.
"My favourite producer is probably Daniel Lanois, and his albums are noticeably quieter than other people's when you put them on — so you just turn it up! I can understand it for radio, but for CDs I can't understand why everything needs to be so loud when the volume control will get it to the level you want while still allowing some dynamic range. I try to be a bit conservative with the Finalizer, and at least it's a good piece of kit, rather than some dodgy plug-in, so that you can get a decent level without it sounding like you've crushed the audio to death."
Many SOS readers dream of making a living from their home studios, but Andy has managed to make a success of it, and outside London too. I asked how he got to this stage. "I first got into recording when I used to work in London as a guitarist, making not very much money," he laughs. "It wasn't a deliberate decision to move into recording; just by virtue of what I was doing I found that I was hanging around in studios and got interested in that side of it. Then I started recording bands I was playing with, and eventually shifted from playing to recording.
"I started with a small six-channel mixing desk which I already had, and then bought a second-hand four-track reel-to-reel machine, an old TEAC A3440. I figured I could get better quality out of quarter-inch tape at 15ips than I would have been able to get out of a cassette portastudio. From that I upgraded first to a Fostex R8 reel-to-reel, and then to a couple of Alesis ADATs with a BRC. I still have the ADATs, but they don't see much action nowadays, except when I need to do location recording — I did a live album for a jazz big band with them recently, and they were fine for that.
"For audio work I now use a PC running an application called SAWStudio, from RML Labs (www.sawstudio.com). It's an extremely good program, and people who use it will tell you that it's the best pure audio recording system available for the PC, a sort of non-clunky Pro Tools. It supports VST and DirectX plug-ins, and there are some native effects as well, including a decent reverb and some nice EQs. I only know one other person in this country who uses it, and it was because of him that I got into it. I've got 24 outputs from the computer, although I only use 16 of them normally — to access the other eight outputs I have to use one of the ADATs as a D-A converter.
"I use Cubase VST as well, for more MIDI-oriented stuff, and I can sync it up if I need to. I'm on version 5.1 at the moment, but I'll upgrade to Cubase SX when I have the time. However, I find that I tend mostly to do audio-only stuff, and even when I'm doing things that you might normally consider doing with MIDI, I've got rather into the habit of working with audio instead. That way you don't get any timing discrepancies.
"A problem I have with Cubase is that when you hit the Record button it just sits there for a second or so before starting. And if you've been recording a 12-track take for a band, you have to wait for five minutes while it calculates all the waveforms. SAWStudio starts immediately, and the waveforms are all there the moment you stop recording. This has been particularly important for the voice-over stuff I've been doing recently, where you need the recorder to respond straight away.
"Another thing about Cubase is that, now that so many people have it at home, it's hard to impress anyone with it! In fact, something I have to watch is that I'm not trying to compete on the same level as the kinds of setups people have in their homes. I have to be able to offer something you can't do at home, and the booth is obviously quite a big deal in that respect. I've done projects with people running Cubase, where they've recorded the drums here, taken the file away to work on their guitar parts, and then brought it back to do more work on the vocals."
"I try to encourage people to bring in their own reference CDs when I'm mixing, because it makes my life a lot easier, but most people seem reluctant to say 'We want to sound just like this,' because it's almost like saying 'We are a cheap version of this!' However, if I listen to a band's takes and I find that it's in the same ballpark as something else I know, I have a whole load of CDs which I can put on and ask whether any is the kind of thing they're after. If nothing else, it gives me some idea of how to set up the Finalizer!
Given that Andy uses so much software now, I was a little surprised that he still works with such a large analogue desk and a fair amount of outboard. "I still use bits of the main desk, although its main function is impressing clients — people walk in and see a big desk like that and they think, 'Wow, this man's a professional!' For recording bands, the first dozen channels are used, and sometimes I still mix down using the mixer and outboard gear, rather than doing everything via software. The valve units I have still sound better than most plug-ins, and I like to use the Lexicon reverbs and the Finalizer as well. Which way I go depends on the project. If I think I might have to remix things and it's not a particularly big-budget thing, I'll do everything in software.
"I got the NS10Ms for monitoring when I was new to the game, just because everybody else had them. At least if you make a terrible mistake going for an industry standard, everyone else has made one with you! I stopped using them for a while, but I started using them again once I heard them on speaker stands full of gravel, which made such a difference. They suddenly started doing something below about 100Hz, which was a bit of a surprise! Now I generally work on the NS10Ms, with the Spirit Absolute Twos and their subwoofer just for comparison — the Spirits don't give you a particularly reliable sound, but they do give you a different type of sound which helps you spot some of the stuff going on down at the bottom end.
"As far as mics go, my best one is a Neumann U87, which is a real asset to me. I've had people who've been used to working with an AKG C414 who've noticed the improvement with the U87. I've got a pair of Oktava 219s, which sound fantastic — I often use these for drum overheads — and a pair of AKG 391s, which will usually be on the hi-hat. For miking drums, I have a set of Sennheiser 604s, the tough little clip-on ones. These are really useful, given the limited space inside the booth — I can now mic up an entire drum-kit with only three stands. People can, and do, hit the Sennheisers with their drumsticks, but they seem to be able to take it. I've also got an AKG D112 for kick drum, as per usual, and I usually have a Shure SM57 on the snare."
Before I made my way back home, Andy passed on some final tips for anyone planning to set their studio up as a business. "It's important to try to get repeat bookings, especially if you're trying to make a living in a market as small as Cambridge — more than half of the people who have recorded here have come back at least once. I find I also have to be very versatile, because I get a whole range of different projects coming in here — editing, restoration, mastering, live albums, jazz and rock bands — everything, really.
"Another major source of bookings is the Yellow Pages. The first time I took out a block advert it came to about £180; before I'd even realised it was in print, someone had phoned up and booked two days of recording, which paid for the advert before I'd had to pay for it myself!"
- 800MHz Pentium III PC with 512Mb RAM, running RML Labs' SAWStudio, Steinberg CubaseVST 5.1, Cakewalk Pro Audio, Digidesign Pro Tools, and Syntrillium Cool Edit 2000. Plug-ins include Antares Auto-Tune.
- AKG C1000 (x2), C391B (x2) and D112 microphones
- Alesis 3630 compressor
- Alesis ADAT recorders (x2) with BRC remote
- Alesis Microverb II multi-effects
- Alesis Nanopiano sound module
- Alesis Quadraverb (x2) multi-effects
- Behringer Composer dynamics
- Behringer Intelligate dynamics
- Behringer Multicom dynamics
- Behringer Ultrafex enhancer
- Beyer DT100 headphones (x5)
- Boss GX700 guitar multi-effects
- Drawmer MX40 Punch Gate
- Korg TR-rack and X5DR sound modules
- Lexicon PCM90 multi-effects
- Lexicon Reflex multi-effects
- M-Audio Duo USB mic preamp
- MAM Warp 9 analogue filter
- Marantz CDR630 CD recorder
- MOTU 2408 MkII digital recording system
- Neumann U87ai microphone
- Oktava MK391 (x2) microphones
- Sennheiser E604 (x3) microphones
- Shure SM57 & SM58 microphones
- Sony DTC690 DAT machine
- Soundcraft Absolute 2 monitors
- Soundcraft Spirit Folio Rac Pac mixer
- Studiomaster P7 32:8:2 mixer with MIDI muting
- TC Electronic Finalizer mastering processor
- TEAC SW1 subwoofer
- TL Audio dual valve preamp
- TL Audio C2021 valve compressor
- TL Audio C2012 valve parametric EQ
- Yamaha NS10M Studio monitors
Esmono Sound acoustic isolation rooms are available in the UK from Studiospares. Models are currently available in 2m and 2.2m heights, with internal floor dimensions between 1.2 x 1.2m and 4 x 3.7m.
Prices for basic rooms (complete with ventilation system and one door) range from £2819 to £8636 excluding delivery. Optional double-glazed window panels and extra doors are available from £246. Prices include VAT.