It's clear from our reader survey that while you like to read about those on the professional side of the recording industry, you'd also like to hear more from fellow mortals! In the first of this occasional series, Paul White talks to Rick Cordes, an SOS reader who's built himself a very tidy basement studio...
One of the many interesting points raised in SOS's 1995 Reader Survey was that you'd like to see people like yourselves in print more often. In many ways, Rick Cordes fits this brief admirably — he has a 'normal' job, loves spending his spare time in his home studio, and was a gigging musician before he got hooked on recording. Perhaps not so usual is the fact the Rick's everyday job is as a passenger jet pilot for a private company — but because the hours are somewhat irregular, he often gets to be home several days at a time, and that often means several days in the studio. Fortunately, he has a very understanding wife!
Like many SOS readers, Rick started out as a guitarist, and he still maintains and plays a nice collection of guitars, including a customised Squier Strat (to which he fitted EMG active pickups) and a lovely old Gibson 335. His first taste of recording came when he played on session for someone back in 1978, and although it was only a 4‑track studio in Wimbledon, he was bitten immediately. Shortly afterwards, he bought his own Teac 4‑track open‑reel machine, and the inevitable process of continual upgrading began.
When Rick invited me to visit his studio, I'd really no idea what to expect, and even though he'd called me in the past for advice on acoustic treatment, I was very pleasantly surprised by his handywork. He's built a very smart, well‑equipped studio in his basement, complete with acoustic treatment, and although space constraints mean that virtually everything has to be done in the control room, he has managed to build a tiny vocal booth into a corner alcove.
"It started off as a personal project for my own benefit, but due to the cost of setting up the studio, I've also started taking in some paying clients. Working in the studio gives me great pleasure, and I spend a lot of time trying to perfect various techniques, such as getting a perfect vocal sound, or using effects creatively. I've found SOS's practical articles very helpful — the use of compressors and so forth — and I've also bought all the Paul White Creative Recording books which have provided a lot of useful information, not least on studio design and acoustic treatment." [See the 'Better By Design' box for more information.]
There's obviously a lot of DIY work gone into building this room. It must have taken you a long time to finish it.
"I did it all except for the wiring, so I've become a bit of a dab hand with a saw and a hammer. The woodwork side of things took a long time, but I'm very pleased with the way it turned out. The next step, though, is to look at air conditioning, because it can get quite warm down here in the summer."
I can confirm first‑hand that one of the least enjoyable things about setting up a home studio is doing all the wiring. How did you handle it?
"I neatly avoided that, by paying someone to do it for me! I'd read that so many people have problems with wiring and ground loops that I felt it would be false economy to have professional equipment let down by an amateur wiring job. I used Rob Andrews from Systems People, and I'm very pleased with the result. Mogami cable was used throughout for the signal connections and the patchbays are by P&R. The cable was very expensive, but there have been no wiring‑related problems at all.
"With the relatively small size of the room, which precludes crawling round the back of racks to reconnect things, I decided to put in five P&R patchbays with most of the regularly used things, such as the MIDI modules and main effects units. These were normalised so as to be active without the need to patch. The mic inputs are connected via a wall‑box at the back of the studio, and this also carries several line‑level ties back to the mixer to cope with DI'd instruments and suchlike."
How did you approach buying the equipment for the studio once it was complete?
"I've been a recording enthusiast long enough to know that what seems a good buy one week can seem very limiting the next, so I made it my policy to buy only what I thought I wouldn't outgrow in the foreseeable future. I've been disappointed many times by buying the fad of the moment and then discovering it's not really what I wanted, so I'm now going only for industry‑standard, solid pieces of studio equipment that will, hopefully, remain in the rack for the next five or 10 years. For example, rather than make do with only budget reverbs, I bought a Lexicon PCM70, which is excellent. I think anyone else who's bought one would agree with that — it's a serious piece of equipment that's found in a lot of major studios. There's a very noticeable difference in sound between that and other reverb units. For example, I have an Alesis Quadraverb which produces some great effects combinations, but when you compare the straight reverb sounds, you're talking about different worlds. Having said that, I also have a Boss SE50 multi‑effects unit which is really very good, and I'll sometimes use the reverbs in that in preference to the Lexicon, depending on what I'm doing.
"Another classic piece of gear is the TC2290 delay unit, which is fitted with eight seconds of sampling memory and a trigger facility. It's mainly used for guitar and vocals and is incredibly clean — and I particularly like the tap tempo facility for entering delay times."
Your quest for quality obviously starts with your microphones; it's unusual to see such prestigious mics in a home studio.
"Yes, but to make a good recording, you have to get the sound right at source — to get a good vocal sound, you have to have a good microphone. I usually record vocals with a Neumann U87, but I also have a Beyer MC740 and an Audio Technica 4033. All three are superb, but they all sound different, so it's down to picking which one works best with a particular singer.
"My work takes me abroad from time to time, so I also pick up bits and pieces on my travels if the price is right. For example, I bought an Electrovoice RE20 dynamic mic when I was out in the States, which has turned out to be very flexible when used on things like guitars and drums, and has proved to be a very good investment."
The heart of any studio must be the mixer and the multitrack. How did you decide on those?
"The multitrack is a Fostex G16S which has Dolby S. It's all a matter of what fits the budget at the time, so I did some shopping around and read the reviews, and it seemed the G16S offered the best sound quality for the price. I bought it from Don Larking as part of a package including the Soundtracs Megas Studio desk, and with the SMPTE board installed in the G16S, I can lock up Cubase, which still runs on my trusty Atari. That's very old, but at least it's now expanded to 4Mb.
"Mastering is to a Panasonic SV3700 DAT recorder. The sound quality is excellent, and I find the shuttle wheel on this model very useful. The only problem is editing the material once it's on DAT, and for now I'll have to rely on outside editing facilities."
You still tend to record your sequenced MIDI parts to multitrack rather than mixing directly from the virtual tracks.
"I don't know whether it's just me but I find tape an easier format to use, and once you've got it down on tape it's safe. If you work directly from the computer, you can end up losing things — the power gets switched off at the wrong moment or there's a glitch on the mains, but with tape, once it's there, you know it's not going to change."
The Soundtracs Megas has the benefit of MIDI muting. Do you find that you make a lot of use of it?
"Yes. When it's locked to Cubase, I use it mainly for the obvious things, like cutting out noise on tracks when nothing is playing, but it's very reliable. I had to put in a Philip Rees MIDI switching box to save repatching, but other than that, it's very straightforward."
Has your policy of only buying really good gear extended to your MIDI setup?
"Absolutely. For drums and percussion I use an Alesis D4, which I bought largely on the strength of the SOS review. It produces some very usable sounds, and it's probably the drum unit that I use most, although I also have a Roland R8M with nearly all the available cards, including the Dance and Jazz Brush sets.
"The Roland JD990 is extremely useful for pad sounds and bass sounds, while the Proteus Plus provides me with excellent orchestral sounds. All the piano sounds come from a Proformance, again a superb little box, and a Peavey Spectrum Bass gives me a good range of dedicated bass sounds. I first heard the Spectrum Bass when a friend bought one, and I was very impressed with both the number and quality of the bass sounds. It's reasonably cheap at just over £250 or so, easy to use, and it frees up the polyphony on the other units.
"My main keyboard is still a Korg M1, although a full‑size, weighted keyboard would be useful for those clients who've been brought up on an acoustic piano keyboard. Some of the M1 sounds are really good, even though the machine is getting quite old now. I don't have any General MIDI modules at all at the moment, and everything is running from just one MIDI port.
"I've had my Atari for eight or nine years, and although I keep thinking about switching platforms, I'm reluctant to change from a system I'm comfortable with unless I really have to. I grew up with Steinberg's Pro 24, and I'm now running the latest version of Cubase which works very well alongside the tape machine."
"I was in at the outset with guitar‑to‑MIDI systems, with an early Roland MIDI guitar, but because of tracking problems and delay, I felt that I had to get to grips with the keyboard if I was to be able to take advantage of MIDI instruments. I tend to cheat, as I guess most guitar players do on keyboards, by slowing things down or by overdubbing.
"I've always been interested in dance music, which is why I have an S1000 sampler in the rack, but I also enjoy various kinds of pop music and even some types of jazz. Most of the things I do tend to be in the dance vein, because the studio isn't really suitable for recording live drums.
"The guitar is usually recorded via a rack Sansamp, but I also have a Peavey ProFex which is nice for certain sounds, although it can be rather gimmicky. The Sansamp takes a while to set up, so it's worth writing down the settings, but with just a touch of reverb, it brings the whole thing to life.
"I've recently put EMG pickups on my Squier Strat — the pickups cost me nearly as much as the guitar — but I felt that with the DI work I do, it was worth it. The sound is very clean and flexible, and the EMGs seem less susceptible to buzz pickup from the monitor than the original pickups. I play at the opposite side of the room to the monitor, and find absolutely no problem."
"For compression, I use a Drawmer 1960 valve compressor and a Drawmer 241. I've also got a couple of Drawmer DS201 gates and a Drawmer M500, though I've still to explore the M500 fully.
"The 1960 is used almost exclusively on vocals or guitar and sounds excellent — very transparent. The 241 is great for rhythm guitar and bass, and the expander gate facility is nice for keeping things clean. The DS201s are obviously great for use as regular 'housekeeping' gates, but they're also very flexible because of the side‑chain filters. The trick of using the key‑listen mode as an EQ filter is useful, especially in removing the rasp from DI'd guitar parts or for smoothing out gritty synth sounds. The DS201 is also very easy to set up for use as a ducker — far easier than using a compressor to do the same thing — and you can set the two channels to create a triggered autopan effect by setting one channel to gate and the other to duck. It really is a versatile audio tool, and I think most studios have at least one DS201 in their rack.
"The other major piece of outboard gear is an Eventide HD3000 Harmonizer, which can create some very powerful effects, but it's also useful for tweaking the odd out‑of‑tune vocal. I haven't had it long enough to get to know it fully yet."
Now that you have everything you could possibly want — what do you want to buy next?
"I used to tell my wife that the latest piece of equipment was the last, but now I've admitted to myself that it's an ongoing process. I'd like to get some kind of drum trigger pad system so that visiting drummers can play the D4; I tried building the simple piezo pads described in SOS and they worked brilliantly on their own, but I found it difficult to eliminate crosstalk when several pads were mounted in the same unit.
"There are all kinds of things that you can get to enhance the quality of your recordings, and though I have a BBE Sonic Maximizer, I'd like to get a really good outboard tube EQ, and the two on the shortlist at the moment are the TLA and the Drawmer 1961. Then there's the seductive world of hard disk — and I'm bound to need a new computer some day — and ATC monitors would be nice — and..."
When I arrived at the studio, Rick said he'd been having problems keeping the beginnings of mixes completely clean; as he mixes to DAT, there's no way to clean up the start afterwards without going via a digital editing system. There are no MIDI mutes on the master outputs of the Megas desk, and if you try to unmute all the channels at once, you can usually hear it. I suggested we try a low‑tech solution which used to work for me in my pre‑ADAT days.
The idea is to put the tape machine into edit mode so that the reels can be moved by hand, with the tape still touching the heads. The sound can be monitored normally. The tape is then moved until the first note of the song is located and then backed up a further couple of inches, and then stopped. Switching back to normal mode, you hit Play and the song starts right from the top — so there's no track noise preceding it. The reason the tape is backed up a couple of inches is to give the machine time to get up to speed before the music starts, and this will vary from model to model, so a little experimentation is in order. Narrow‑format multitracks tend to get up to speed quite quickly, and after a couple of trials, Rick decided this was worth doing.
Rick, like myself, doesn't use the monitor section of his mixer for setting up a monitor mix, but instead prefers to use his mixer as an all‑input console, by routing the tape machine outputs back through the first 16 channels of the desk. This reduces the number of channels available for putting signals onto tape, but given that most people working at home overdub their recordings, it's not really a problem. The benefit is that you're building up your mix as you go along, so you're almost ready to do the final mix as soon as you've finished recording.
Due to the small size of the studio, Rick doesn't set up a separate musicians' foldback mix, but instead feeds them the same mix as he's hearing over the monitors. This makes the pre‑fade sends redundant, so Rick uses these as additional effects sends. Of course, being pre‑fade, the effects level isn't controlled by the channel fader, which can make life difficult, and if Rick has a criticism of the desk, it's that it can't be switched or easily modified to give all post‑fade sends.
"I've really run out of desk inputs now — every available input is in use, including the groups which double as effects returns when I'm mixing. There are so many outputs on the MIDI equipment, such as the JV990 and the Proteus units, that a 28:16 desk just can't handle all the instruments plus effects returns. I'm thinking about adding a submixer for the MIDI equipment, and one of the obvious choices seems to be the new Mackie LM3204.
"I was initially worried as to how I'd share my effects between the main mixer and a submixer, but your suggestion of feeding the two inputs of a reverb unit from, say, Aux 1 on the Soundtracs and Aux 1 on the submixer, sounds as though it should simplify matters. Most stereo reverbs mix the two inputs into mono before feeding them into the reverb processor, so this should work fine."
Monitoring is handled by the ubiquitous Yamaha NS10s and a pair of JBL 4412s which work very well in the room, apart from being a touch harsh when played at loud volumes. However, Rick is careful to monitor at sensible levels, as his pilot's job demands that his hearing is checked regularly as part of the required medical.
"It's tempting to go for different monitors, and I really like the idea of ATCs, but I've got used to the JBLs, and they work OK at sensible levels. I invariably check my mixes in the car and on other systems, but I also found your tip about listening to the mix from outside the studio door to be invaluable. If anything is wrong with the balance, you hear it straight away. I also keep a selection of known CDs in the studio for reference while mixing. The hardest thing is evaluating the right level of bass."
"I started with just four bare walls in a basement room — which was fortunate insomuch as the very thick walls meant that sound leakage wasn't really a problem. After reading up on acoustic treatment, I decided to put in an apex‑shaped rear wall trap, comprising a depth of Rockwool with a roofing felt membrane over the top — I took the cheap way out and used roofing felt instead of the more expensive deadsheet. This wall has a cosmetic fabric covering, and is finished with a layer of spaced wooden slats to provide diffusion. I haven't had the room measured, but it seems to work very well.
"I've tried to break up parallel surfaces where possible, and the front of the room is covered with Illsonic acoustic tiles, which soak up most of the early reflections from the monitors, and provide very tight imaging. These were quite expensive, but they are very effective at mid and high frequencies, and they also look good. I think that a pleasant working environment is very important, so I've used acoustic treatment plus natural wood to create a tidy but comfortable feel. Most of the cabling is boxed‑in along the side wall which keeps it out of sight. Using your Creative Recording book as a reference, I just went ahead and did what I felt was the right thing, and I've been fortunate in that everything worked out very well.
"The vocal booth is quite small and is only deadened with fairly thin foam tiles, which means there's little or no bass absorption. This becomes evident if you stand in the booth with the monitors turned up loud, as there's a pronounced bass boom in there. In practice, I have to record vocals with the studio monitors turned down very low which avoids this low frequency leakage problem, but because the boominess is below the normal vocal frequency range, the booth doesn't seem to colour the vocal sound unduly."
Do you have any particular recording philosophy?
"I do feel that if you start off with a sound that is basically right without any effects or EQ, then it's best to record it like that. You then have scope to work on it later. If you add EQ at the recording stage, other than maybe LF rolloff, you may not be able to restore the original sound when you mix — you just end up piling one lot of EQ on another."