We visit another SOS reader's studio set-up. This month, it's located in a Portakabin in Bedford, UK.
What have you got at the end of your garden? If it's anything like mine it'll be a mound of paving slabs waiting to be turned into a patio, but Gianni Abruzzese has something much better. Nestling at the end of his parents' impressive garden, in a small village just outside Bedford, sits the Voodoo Cab, a green Portakabin housing Gianni's project studio. Separated into two areas (a live room complete with drum kit, and a small control room where we did the interview), the Cab is hired out by Gianni to bands wanting to record tracks or demos — when he's not working as the recording engineer at a Milton Keynes studio, that is.
Gianni's musical roots are familiar enough: he started out on keyboards, before moving onto guitar and bass at school, but never felt completely satisfied with his playing. "I wanted to be a musician, like most sound engineers, but discovered I wasn't really good enough. So I decided being behind the desk, instead of in front of it, would be the next best thing." Interested in gaining some hands-on training, he tried to arrange some work experience at local studios, with little success. "I couldn't get any work experience, so I thought I'd teach myself." Armed with a Behringer mixer, an ADAT, and a pair of headphones, Gianni began to learn the basics from his bedroom. "I started doing demos for bands at school, but my parents were beginning to get annoyed with drums banging away in the house, and things like that."
So a run-down Portakabin appeared at the end of the garden and the Voodoo Cab was born. But that was just the beginning of the hard work, as Gianni explains: "First we had to get the building right — it was old and smashed up when it first arrived, and the control room was actually the toilet. We panelled it out, did all the wiring and put the control room window in." Did he have any major problems during the refit? "Leads were the main problem. Because I didn't really understand the difference between balanced and unbalanced back then, I was getting lots of noise and hiss and thought 'Jesus, this is really bad quality, what's going on?' I hadn't done any courses at that stage and was learning as I went along, which I think is invaluable. No-one can sit you in a classroom and teach you everything; some problems you have to sort out for yourself."
Having his own setup soon began to pay off. "Because I was able to find my way around a desk, I managed to get some work experience at a couple of studios, even though I wasn't allowed near the mixer, which was frustrating." As frustrating as it was, Gianni knew he'd found his calling. "Basically, I found I liked engineering better than playing, and wondered how I could get into the industry." After deciding to try for a three-year course in music production and engineering, Gianni set his sights on the Paul McCartney-backed Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts (LIPA).
It was during his time at LIPa that the Voodoo Cab really came into its own. "Every holiday I was back here recording demos for bands, to make the money for the following year's course. It was my holiday job." As well as bringing in some cash, the Cab also gave Gianni a major advantage on his course. "Because I had the studio I could spend a lot of time at home doing bits of pre-production, compiling tracks and such." In fact, a large percentage of his final project, working with a local three-piece pop/punk group called Glorious, was completed at home. "We recorded most of it here and mixed back in Liverpool, which left us with a lot of studio hours to spare, so we could mess about with mixing ideas."
- Alesis ADAT digital 8-track (x3)
- Yamaha O2R v2 digital mixer
- Pentium III PC running Cubase VST/32
Leaving LIPa with a BA, Gianni found himself in the enviable position of walking straight into a job as assistant engineer at the Logicom Sound and Vision studios in Milton Keynes. "Finished my course on the Friday and started at Logicom on the Tuesday!" he smiles. "I was very lucky, as a lot of the jobs I'd been offered were badly paid, with long hours. Logicom was nine to five with a good wage." And his run of good luck was set to continue: "Not long after, the main engineer left and, being in the right place at the right time, I was offered a chance at the job. I've been engineering there ever since and I'm loving it."
With a full-time job on the go, Gianni's work in the Cab is restricted to weekends and evenings, and he specialises in recording demos for indie/rock bands. "That's my preference, but I'll do anything. I had a Eurovision Song Contest entrant here in November. He was all sample-based, so he brought his whole computer system here and we just fed it into the stereo ins and the vocalist just came in and did her stuff." When recording with a band, Gianni is focused on his job as an engineer: "On the whole, the bands I work with know their songs inside out and they just bang them down while I engineer and mix." Although more comfortable in his role behind the desk, he will step into the job of co-producer if needed. "The basics of the recording process you can't really change, but if a band have ideas on how they want their stuff to sound I'm always receptive, because at the end of the day it's their music. They know exactly how they want it to sound and I'll work as closely as I can with them."
He must be doing something right, as a couple of the bands recorded at the Voodoo Cab have appeared high in the indie/rock charts of Internet music site Peoplesound.com.
Being a sound engineer by trade, I wondered if Gianni found it difficult to 'switch' his ears between the setup he uses for his day job and his home setup. "It is difficult, because I don't really have to think about the stuff I do at work — I know it's going to sound great. But here I have to work much harder to get the same results. I use NS10 monitors at work, and if it sounds good on a pair of NS10s it sounds good on anything. These Spirit monitors sound great, but sometimes I'll take a CD-R into the house and put it on the stereo and it'll sound rubbish. That's why I also use a pair of standard home stereo speakers."
Without a doubt, the core of the Voodoo Cab is the Yamaha O2R digital mixer. Having already worked with two at LIPA, when the time came to ditch his old Behringer Gianni knew exactly what he wanted. "The trouble with the Behringer was the mic preamps — they were hissy and horrible and I didn't like them at all. But the O2R is a whole studio in a box, really. Once you've got this desk and something to track to, that's it — you don't really need anything else. There are dynamics on every channel, auto-mix, two effects processors... It's just fantastic."
In the Cab's control room, you can't fail to notice the three racked ADATs that handle multitracking duties: "I've stuck with the ADATs for purely financial reasons, really. I've looked into part-exchange and I'll get very little for them. They have a nice clean sound, but it takes a while for the third one to sync up. To be honest, I wish I'd gone for the Tascam DA88s — they're much faster machines. The ADATs have a slightly harder edge to the sound, too." How about a hard disk setup? "If I had the money to buy a proper pro hard disk system, it would be SADiE, which I use at work, but a computer can crash at any time and then all your work's gone. I also like the physical feel of putting in tapes." Although Gianni doesn't need to do much sequencing on a typical session, he still runs Cubase VST on his PC. "I tend to use Cubase like an audio editor. I get all the audio files into it and edit out the rubbish. It minimises my auto-mix time, as all the mutes are done already. Then I bounce it back to the ADATs."
With just the two rooms and no isolated vocal booth, I asked Gianni how he went about getting a good vocal sound. "I have to mic singers quite closely as the acoustics of the room aren't great and the sound can bounce around too much. Mostly it's just a case of knowing where to put the mic — over there in the far corner of the room. I use the Neumann U87 predominantly, although I've been using the AKG 414 more and more because I think it suits a wider range of voices. The '87 has a lot of body to it, but for the rock, grunge, and indie stuff I'm doing here I want a certain rawness." Capturing that rawness also entails some subtle processing, as Gianni explains: "I don't like de-essing and I don't compress too harshly either — that can take the life out of a vocal." Of course, having an experienced vocalist helps. "If I'm working with someone who has a good mic technique, and they move back when hitting heavy or high notes, I don't really need to compress that much."
Although most of the bands hiring the Cab play their instruments live, Gianni is not averse to using a few post-production tricks to get better results: "With some bands now, I'm comping drum tracks. I'll get the drummer to play four bars and I'll make a verse, then I'll get him to play a couple of fills. Then the timing's bang on." His Alesis DM5 also gets the occasional look in. "Although I can sequence whole rhythm tracks with the DM5, I tend to use it as a drum replacer." Isn't that cheating? "At the end of the day my job is to make the track sound great, however I do it. With most bands, as long as they get the sound they want, they don't care how I get it. The DM5 is an enhancement, like putting distortion on a guitar."
Even though he's just 22, Gianni has achieved a lot — and he has even more ambitious plans for the future. "I'm looking for a place of my own. Ideally, I'd like a house with a garage so I could do it out properly with soundproofing and lots of valve gear — you can't beat valve compressors." But for now? "I'm really happy with how things have turned out. I'm lucky to be making a comfortable living out of my hobby. I just love it, and I'd do it 24 hours a day if I could."
- AKG 414, D112 and C14 mics
- Alesis ADAT digital 8-track (x3)
- Alesis DM5 drum module
- ART Multiverb multi-effects
- Electrolab condenser mics
- Drum kit
- Neumann U87 condenser mic
- Shure SM58 and SM57 dynamic mics
- Spirit Absolute 2 monitors
- Tascam DA20 MkII DAT machine
- Pentium III PC with 256Mb RAM, 46Gb hard drive, running Windows 98.
- Nero 5 CD-burning software, Sonic Foundry Sound Forge v4, Cubase VST/32 v5
- Turtle Beach Montego soundcard
- Various guitars and basses
- Yamaha 02R v2 digital mixer
- Yamaha SPX90 multi-effects
- Zoom 1204 multi-effects