"In 1963, my class at school was offered the chance of going on an educational cruise — for £40, an ex-WW2 troop carrier would carry us over the Atlantic to the northern shores of Africa," explains SOS reader Ron Mulholland. But if you're wondering what this has to do with recording, the answer lies in the alternative plans Ron had for the £40 in question. "Instead of asking my Mum if I could go on the trip, I asked her if I could miss the trip and get a tape recorder instead! I think I won out in the end because my friends all suffered severe seasickness, and those who survived the mal de mer were stricken with sunstroke.
"Fortunately, I ended up with a beautiful Philips reel-to-reel valve-powered tape recorder instead and I had a great deal of fun with that machine. I joined a band playing rhythm guitar and we used the machine to record ourselves, relishing the feeling of achievement when we played it back."
Ron's band improved and ended up playing most weekends at youth club dances and the occasional wedding. "I blew most of the money I earned on a second-hand two-track Revox machine in 1967, and running at 7.5 inches per second with minimal wow and flutter, this really was the bee's knees. I used to cart this unbelievably heavy machine to some of our gigs and record live performances, and it's still going strong using the original valves even though it's almost 40 years old."
The band went from strength to strength, and the following year they were selected as Alan Stewart's backing group, a move that paid off when they ended up signing a contract with Pye and travelling to London that summer to spend a day at the label's Marble Arch studio. "It was a fantastic experience and I learned more than I could have imagined about recording techniques. Although we were only semi-professionals who were relatively unknown, we couldn't help but feel like stars, especially when we heard The Who had been in the previous week recording one of their singles."
But with Ron's interest in recording, it was hard for him to resist the inevitable 'back-seat driver' syndrome at the session. "I can still remember my feelings of alarm while sitting in the control room watching the peak level meters on the 16-track Scully tape machine constantly move well into the red zones. I naively pointed this out to the sound engineer only to be met with the condescending response that 'we always run them like that'. Needless to say, our record never made it and we all ended up back pursuing our chosen careers, which for me was mechanical engineering with Rolls-Royce."
Despite pursuing a successful career outside of the music world, Ron never lost his passion for sound recording. "I couldn't wait for affordable multitrack recorders to emerge, and I purchased a Tascam four-track Portastudio as soon as they came on the market. The quality was truly amazing considering the four tracks were squeezed onto eighth-inch tape, and while there was noise reduction onboard to offset the inherent noise problem with analogue tape, the machine opened up endless possibilities and I had tremendous fun with the machine. It could even operate on batteries, allowing complete freedom to use it almost anywhere.
"In addition to the Tascam, I was using a drum machine, adding bass and rhythm guitar, and even adding some string and brass sounds from a Yamaha DX7. Although the system was limited in tracks and the overall sound quality was less than perfect, especially after several bounces, I spent countless hours recreating the sounds of the Robert Cray Band, U2 and Eric Clapton amongst others."
Like many other musicians, the impact of modern computer-recording technology brought a huge step forward in the quality Ron could achieve with his home studio setup. "Just when I thought things couldn't get better, along comes the world of multitrack digital recording for PCs and inexpensive high-quality large-diaphragm condenser microphones. Armed with a two-in two-out soundcard and Cubasis, I had more tracks than I ever wanted with CD-quality sampling to boot.
"The icing on the cake was the purchase of a Yamaha PSR540 keyboard with an onboard 16-track MIDI sequencer, and while I'm no keyboard player, it did allow me to play a whole bunch of splendidly produced MIDI files I'd downloaded from the Internet. My daughter has a terrific singing voice, and together we've had great fun recording all sorts of music. I constructed a tiny little control room in my loft and ran balanced cables down to her bedroom, which served as a vocal studio."
Recording at home is one thing, but there comes a point when every home studio owner is presented with an interesting project that takes them out of their normal environment, and for Ron this project came from a local music group he belongs to. "I've played in an orchestra called the KVO Big Band Sound for around 10 years now, which is made up of brass instruments, trombones, saxes and trumpets, plus a rhythm section with drums, electric piano, electric guitar and me on bass guitar. We're a charity organisation, rehearsing every Wednesday evening in the local town hall, and we generally play around 10 concerts a year.
"One week, back at the beginning of 2002, our Musical Director, Arthur Short, happened to hear me talking to our drummer, Ian Brock, about a new Rode condenser microphone I'd just purchased. We got chatting, and it didn't take long to realise that Arthur was pretty knowledgeable on the subject of sequencers, MIDI and the like. He's a music teacher at one of the local schools, and uses Cubase running on some PCs for teaching sequencing.
"One thing led to another, and with blind enthusiasm Arthur ended up asking if I fancied recording the band and making a CD. My immediate thoughts were a mixture of mild panic and excitement at the prospect — while my home studio was suitably structured to handle just about anything involving single-channel multitracking, it wasn't really geared up for a multi-channel live recording of a 25 piece orchestra! I only had a small selection of microphones, a four-channel mixer, Cubase running on a bulky PC tucked away in the loft, and I realised that this equipment was totally unsuitable for the job."
However, Ron didn't want to pass up the opportunity, so the following week he did what any self-respecting recording enthusiast would do: get more gear. "I came up with a plan that involved purchasing a new 20-channel mixer, borrowing some microphones, purchasing some new microphones, and organising some boom stands, although this still left me with two issues to deal with.
"First of all, I had to consider how many microphones were required to allow reasonably close miking of the different sections of the orchestra, without capturing too much of the reverberant properties of the town hall. And secondly, I needed to figure out how to transport all of the equipment to the hall each Wednesday night and set it up in the relatively short time available. I worked during the day, had to get home for dinner, pack the car, drive to the venue and set up the equipment. I'd already decided to direct inject the electric piano and rhythm guitar, which that made life a bit easier, and I thought I'd add the bass separately in the comfort of my home at a later date."
Once it was clear the project was going to happen, Ron was temporarily concerned about copyright issues when the Musical Director of the band suggested they might be able to sell the CD. "He got a bit carried away and thought that if the CD was good enough, we could sell it at concerts to raise some cash for new musical arrangements. While I'm not usually a negative person, there were some alarm bells ringing, not only regarding the required quality of the recordings and musicians, but also whether we were free to produce our own CD of covers and flog it to the general public.
"The next day, I searched on the web and discovered the MCPS, who are responsible for issuing music licenses, catering exactly for our situation — small numbers of CDs or tapes being sold to the public. I contacted Duncan McCrone, the MCPS's Scottish representative, and explained what we were planning to do. He said that there was no problem doing this kind of thing provided we completed an application form and sent it off to London with a cheque for around £50. This covered the cost of a Limited Availability Product Licence, which would allow us to sell up to 250 copies. The limit is 500 copies and costs £70.50, and the only provision is that you have to boldly display the MCPS logo on your CDs."
Although Ron was keen to record the band by this stage, he was still a little concerned about the practical arrangements — especially the thought of moving his PC out of the loft and transporting it to and from the recording venue. "I worked out that to record around 20 pieces without mistakes would probably take us about six sessions, and while it crossed my mind that I could invite the whole orchestra to my house and cram them into my living room every week, that thought quickly passed within about 50ms!
"I considered a number of possibilities, including using either my Tascam Portastudio or my trusty valve-powered Revox, and even at one stage a Minidisc recorder. But having got used to the world of uncompressed 16-bit digital recording, I was reluctant to return to my analogue gear, and I don't actually own a Minidisc recorder. It had to be uncompressed 16-bit 44.1kHz stereo digital audio or nothing!"
At this point, Ron hit upon the idea of using his company Dell Latitude C800 laptop. "I was sure my boss wouldn't object to me using it for a spot of 'home recording', though I was initially wary, having read several articles in SOS regarding the use of PC laptops. I thought it would require the use of external analogue-to-digital converters connected via USB, which might not have worked with my laptop, and this would have obviously involved the purchase of a reasonably expensive extra piece of hardware.
"The next day I happened to mention this to the head of our Electronics and Acoustics lab, and he thought that the Dell laptop had an excellent converter on the motherboard, which supported two-channel CD-quality recording. He'd done some tests on the bottom-end frequency response and discovered that its -3dB point is around 10Hz, and although he hadn't checked out the top end, he thought it would be fine. He suggested trying the laptop out with a good microphone feeding the signal at line-level through the line-in stereo socket and monitoring the results via the separate line-out socket.
"Needless to say, I tried this out as soon as I got home that evening. I used my Rode NT1 and NT3 via my Behringer MX802A mixer, selected the line input from the software mixer, disabled the built-in microphone, configured the Windows Sound Recorder to sample at 16-bit 44.1kHz stereo, panned the mics hard left and right, and hit the record button. I monitored the sound with a good pair of Sony headphones and when I listened back to the recording, I was amazed at the quality, it was superb. All I needed now was an audio sequencer and I was in business.
"I already had a copy of eJay Studio, which is basically Cubasis, and this loaded onto my laptop without any problems. I tried recording again, this time using eJay, and everything worked fine. The recordings I later made of the orchestra with the same setup were excellent, and while the laptop is quite well specified with 256MB of RAM and a 30GB hard drive, it does demonstrate that it's possible to achieve perfectly acceptable results using a laptop's onboard audio hardware."
Having put together a more portable system for the recording, Ron built a case to transport his Behringer mixers and laptop. "I lined it with foam by cutting the shapes of the various components using an electric carving knife. I sized the case to fit easily across the back seat of my car and used fittings from Allan Gordon, which allowed me to completely remove the lid when not transporting the mobile studio."
After this, attention was turned to the potentially expensive area of microphones, along with the associated cabling and stands. "Since I was bearing the cost myself as the band's funds are already stretched, I had to look for a cost-effective solution and decided to look around for good quality budget dynamic microphones and boom stands. With the piano and guitar DI'ed and the bass and any vocals to be added later, I reckoned that I needed 12 microphones, which was the limit of my existing mixer capability anyway.
"Because I was already very pleased with the performance of the two Behringer mixers, I decided to purchase some of their dynamic microphones. The mixers have exceptionally quiet microphone preamps and a flat frequency response — I know this is the case because I tested them using a Bruel & Kjaer Real Time Analyser that we have in the office.
"I also tested the microphones I owned by comparing them with a B&K reference condenser microphone, and since I didn't have access to an anechoic chamber, I had to resort to testing them in my garden. It was the closest environment that I could get to an acoustic-free field, although my neighbours must have been puzzled at the pink noise wafting through the air. Still, it was great fun testing these microphones, which I did by looking at the transfer function between the reference B&K mic and my own microphones.
"The two mikes have to be placed as close as possible to each other with pink noise blasted at them from a hi-fi speaker, which is positioned about one meter away. In this way, the frequency response of the loudspeaker enclosure doesn't matter, providing that it can reproduce some sound energy from 40Hz to 20kHz. By far the best dynamic microphone in terms of the frequency response was the Behringer XM8500 Ultravoice unit. It even surpassed my Shure SM58 and a Sennheiser e845 that I also have in my small collection. These mics can be purchased for around £20 and therefore represent excellent value for money. I bought five of them, including small boom stands and balanced cables from Allan Gordon. The Behringer XM2000S has exactly the same dynamic capsule and is equally as good."
Having scared the neighbourhood pets with the sound of pink noise, and assembled the gear required for the task at hand, Ron was ready to proceed with the recording. "On the first evening I arrived early along with Ian, although we'd already planned the microphone positions beforehand to try and cover each of the main elements of the orchestra as best we could. Effective separation, even for the drums, was impossible, and was made more elusive due to the large, undamped room acoustics. I positioned myself at the rear of the orchestra facing the musical director, allowing me to give him signals such as when to start."
With the microphones in place, the next hurdle was to decide on a suitable approach to live mixing. "I didn't have the luxury of recording simultaneously onto 14 channels, which would have allowed me to perform a stereo mixdown at my leisure, so I had to mix everything live onto a stereo channel at the time. The only option I had was to review the recording, either at the time or at home, and to re‑record the particular piece when we met for the next session if there were any problems. To avoid having to repeat most of the recordings, I had two options: either I ran all of the microphone cables out of the main hall to an acoustically isolated area, or I had develop a method to allow me to perform the mix in the main hall.
"With the cost of buying 14 additional 15-metre balanced cables and the hassle of setting up a talkback system, not to mention the fact that the Victorian-designed hall didn't lend itself to this approach anyway, I decided to live dangerously and mix live in the main hall. Mixing live with headphones isn't ideal since even closed-backed units don't provide a suitable attenuation, especially if the sound level in the room is high — we generated around 95dBA with the orchestra going full pelt.
"Beyer make a pair of headphones specifically designed for this application and claim a 27dB attenuation, although they're quite expensive at around £120. As an alternative, I decided to try out another idea, using a pair of in-ear headphones in conjunction with a set of industrial ear defenders. I had the luxury of borrowing a good pair of defenders from the office, and used a pair of in-ear phones I already had. The ear defenders claim an attenuation of around 30dB, which gave me a pair of Beyer DT300 look-alikes. They worked beautifully."
Another problem that Ron encountered was associated with the DI'ed signals from the guitar and electric piano. "I'd tapped into the direct line outputs from each of the amps and connected these to individual line-input channels on the mixer, but I still ended up with a noise problem that was unacceptable and prevented us from recording. I've experienced earth loop problems in the past, which usually end up with an audible 100Hz noise, but the noise here wasn't a low frequency at all.
"One of our trumpet players works for the BBC in Glasgow and is experienced at locating and solving noise problems, and he walked over asking to have a listen. He identified the problem as radio frequency interference and there was total silence after he unplugged the laptop's mains adaptor. He recommended getting a couple of good-quality DI boxes to cure the problem, so I bought a couple of Behringer DI boxes and the issue was resolved."
After this, the recording proceeded according to plan and the band managed to record about 20 pieces over a six-week period. "All recordings were made with the mixers set with a flat EQ response and I added the bass guitar on a separate track in eJay Studio. Although the laptop's audio processor operates in full duplex mode and I monitored via an external mixer with zero latency, initially I wasn't happy with the bass sound. I DI'd the signal from my Yamaha TRB4 and found it was sadly lacking. But I remembered that SOS had dealt with this topic before, so I re-read the article in the July 2001 issue and set about mixing the direct signal from the bass with the audio signal from a microphone in front of my little Ampeg combo. I was lucky that I didn't appear to have any phasing problems in combining the signals and the result was a significant improvement in the bass sound.
"Next I turned my attention to recording the vocals on the couple of non-instrumental pieces that we play. For this, I used my Behringer B1 and Rode NT1 condenser mics. I added a little compression and some reverb using my Alesis equipment and again recorded with no EQ adjustments. I used the living room at home, monitoring with headphones. There were a few band members present and we had a good laugh laying down the vocal tracks because most of us couldn't hear the backing track — only the sound of the vocalist giving it his all."
After the recording was finished, the next stage was a review of what had been recorded with the Musical Director and a few other key orchestra members. "I set up my Spirit monitors in the front lounge and we listened to each piece. Taking into account that we're an amateur orchestra, and far from perfect, we discussed the overall quality and decided on which pieces were in, which were out and those that had to be recorded again. We've just re‑recorded a few of the pieces and we're almost ready to send the master CD off to the duplicators."
So what are Ron's feelings at seeing the project come to a conclusion? "The whole exercise has been a fascinating experience, giving the members of the band a new injection of enthusiasm. It has also spurred us on to review our repertoire and improve our overall musicianship. Personally, it's allowed me to extend my recording abilities into the exciting world of live work, where I'm now considering offering my services to any other good cause. But at the end of the day, it's been great fun."