Whenever possible — and not only because I'm a Yorkshireman — I like to champion the concept of fiscal restraint and, in these tough times, I know that many of us will be seeking inexpensive ways to make our musical lives a little bit easier.
With that in mind, in no particular order, I've put together 11 of my personal favourite cost-cutting tips that won't burn a hole in your wallet, covering everything from monitoring and recording improvements to making your instruments play that bit better.
I hope you find these economical tips useful — and if you have any of your own that you'd like to share, why not post them in the SOS Forum? www.soundonsound.com/forum
The only thing more irritating than a rat's nest of external power supplies is the lack of identification to tell you which power supply belongs to which piece of kit. That's why I bought a label printer — I now have self-adhesive labels on each of my power supplies.
The old-fashioned Dymo embossers work and are dirt cheap, but the new breed of battery-powered labeller are less expensive than you might think and allow you to correct typos before you print. You can also use them to label cables, connectors, external hard drives, USB thumb drives, dongles and so on. I even labelled all of my spice jars!
Non-slip matting of the type sold in household goods stores is extremely effective at stopping small pieces of kit sliding off the desk in your studio. You can also put it between speakers and the surface on which they rest, to keep them from shifting.
Use it to secure monitor controllers, desktop audio interfaces, hard drives, keyboards, laptops and so on. Because of space constraints, I often find myself having to stack three or four external drives on top of each other and without the matting they are prone to getting knocked off and damaged.
WD40 is cheap as chips, and great for all manner of things: fixing squeaking kick drum pedals and hi-hats, rusted screws, seized truss rod nuts and even for cleaning jack plugs, as long as you make sure you wipe it all off again.
It's hard to beat as a guitar string cleaner too: spray a little onto a cloth, wipe over and under your strings and the job is done. And you can even mic it up and use it as a hi-hat substitute! (If you have any annoying squeaking wooden furniture such as piano stools and so forth, also check out the company's silicone lubricant.)
Do you have an old acoustic guitar that never gets used simply because you have a better one that you always pick up first? Rather than leave it in the corner gathering dust, try restringing it Nashville-style. This will offer you a very different tonal texture when recording, all without the hassle of having to learn new chord shapes for alternate tunings.
Essentially, Nashville stringing takes the 'thin' strings from a 12-string guitar set and puts them on a regular six-string guitar. In other words, the bottom four strings are pitched an octave higher than normal while the top two are in standard tuning. This gives chords an attractive chime that works well when layered with other sounds in a mix.
If you buy a 12-string set, you can use it to both restring your regular guitar with the 'normal' strings and to fix up your backup guitar Nashville-style. It's a lovely sound and fits in with most musical styles.
I often find that guitar and bass necks and finger boards (especially those with a high-gloss finish) feel sticky, and don't allow my fretting hand to move as freely as I'd like. Once, out of desperation, I tried dusting my hands with talcum powder, and it improved things so much that I now panic if I turn up at a gig and find I didn't bring any! I've since learned that more than a few professional players use this for the same reason, most notably the excellent Jeff Beck.
An unexpected benefit is that my guitar strings now last much longer than they used to, which appeals to my Yorkshire-born sensibilities! Long string life and improved playability are obvious benefits in the studio, as well as for live performance, and you may also find that string squeaks are reduced somewhat too. There are some commercial powders designed specifically for guitar players, but of the ones I've tried, none have seemed to offer any advantages over standard talcum powder.
The only downside is that the unidentified white powder all over my pedalboard can draw some odd looks!
Unless you have very solid speaker stands, you'll probably find that some kind of speaker platform makes a significant improvement to the sound of your monitors, especially at the bass end.
Cheaper commercial platforms are simply shaped pieces of acoustic foam and their performance can often be improved simply by putting a thick clay or ceramic floor tile on top of the foam to add mass. This can tighten the bass end to a useful degree, especially if your speakers are set up on a shelf or a desk. Use a square of non-slip matting or some Blu-Tak under the speaker to keep it in position.
We've also tried putting speakers on concrete blocks to provide a high-inertia mounting platform. Not pretty, perhaps, but it is effective.
When recording vocals we are always looking for ways to deaden the acoustics, but with acoustic instruments such as guitar or violin, some reflections can really help to add some life to the sound.
If you're working in a carpeted room, try placing a piece of plywood or hardboard on the floor, extending from beneath the instrument to the mic position, to liven things up. And if you don't have a suitable piece of board, try deploying all your tea trays and hard place mats — they'll do the same job. (You can still use your duvet to tame wall-to-wall reflections.)
Until recently I could never find an amplifier stand that would fold flat when not in use yet hold my amplifier stable when recording or gigging. The metal one I have is rugged enough but it doesn't pack into the car very easily and it angles the amp too far upwards for my liking. It's also quite heavy.
But when wandering around a hardware store, I saw a folding plastic step stool and decided to try it as an amp stand — after all, I thought, if it can stand the weight of a person, a modest combo amp wouldn't present it with much of a challenge. It turns out that lots of companies make these stools using a very similar design; they're easy to find online if your local store doesn't stock them. Some are taller than others; I chose one that's 39cm high and it turned out to be perfect for my combo amp.
Budget Bass Traps
Studio acoustics is a complex subject but, even so, simple solutions can often make a huge difference.
Regular readers will already know that off-the-shelf mineral wool panels of the type used for cavity wall insulation make excellent mid-range traps when covered with a porous material. But to create bass traps to place in corners, Hugh Robjohns and I have achieved good results during our Studio SOS adventures by using rolls of glass fibre or mineral wool loft insulation left in the original plastic wrapping.
You can stack these from floor to ceiling in any available corners of the room to help tame an uneven bass response. The plastic covering acts as a damped membrane to absorb low-frequency energy and you can always disguise them with a porous fabric screen.
Best of all is that you can still sell the insulation as unused and unopened when you are finished with it!
It's a fact of studio life that plugs and sockets eventually get dirty, resulting in poor contact, crackles or signal disruption. A dirty guitar jack socket can also aggravate hum problems by increasing the resistance of the ground path.
Get yourself a can of Deoxit D5 to fix crackly guitar jack sockets or spray a little on a cloth to wipe onto your jack plugs. It can also be used to restore crackly pots, even though it was never designed for that purpose. Other contact cleaners are cheaper, but can leave a greasy residue that attracts dust.
Most of us at Sound On Sound have found Deoxit D5 to be a safe bet. In the US, most music stores seem to stock it while in the UK you may have to order Deoxit online. In the grand scheme of things it's not expensive, and one can should last you for years.
The Humble Duvet
The wrong room acoustics can make a recording sound boxy, no matter how good a mic or preamp you use, and this will only get worse if you apply compression when mixing. Keeping control of the acoustics in the recording space is the key to capturing a good sound. For vocals — and many other instruments, including acoustic guitar — a standard polyester duvet can work wonders in drying up the sound.
Set up a spare boom mic stand in a T-shape and hang the duvet over it at head height. As most home recordings are made using a cardioid-pattern mic, putting it behind the performer will prevent unwanted reflections reaching the 'hot' side of the mic. In particularly difficult rooms, you can try more duvets at the side of the performance area, as cardioid-pattern mics are still quite sensitive 90 degrees off-axis. Even if you already have a 'behind the mic' screen, adding a duvet behind the performer will still make a useful improvement.
Note that I said 'polyester' duvet — that's right, they're the cheaper type. The higher the tog rating the thicker and more effective at absorbing sound your duvet will be. Avoid the expensive, luxury, feather-filled versions, if possible, because the feathers have a nasty habit of sinking to one end when you hang them up!
We've used this tactic countless times in our Studio SOS visits, and we noticed that even the BBC resorted to duvets when broadcasting from home during the Covid‑19 lockdown!