When Paul Johnson decided he'd like to teach a Music Technology course at the college where he works, there was one small problem: he had to build the studio himself during the summer holidays, on a shoestring budget with help from just two students. Impossible? Let's find out...
Last year, while reading through the syllabus list for 'A' levels at the college where I work, I came across a new course — Music Technology. What immediately struck me was that here was a new course which was written by music professionals, had 60% of its exam marks based on real studio experience, made use of most of today's current studio technology — and, more importantly to me, would be great fun to teach. The minimum equipment specification was quite mild: a minimum of a 4‑track recorder, a cassette to master on, a small selection of microphones, and a sequencer which could be within a workstation or computer‑based. Our college already had an 8‑track Tascam Midistudio in our media studies department, plus my own racks of outboard equipment, which I let the students use. I didn't really expect any extra funding for a new course, but as our Director of Finance is quite used to me asking for money, I put in a proposal with a request for a digital 8‑track studio, to be based in a 100 year‑old building which was shortly to be vacated by our brickwork unit. Countless meetings with our senior management team followed, then they gave the go‑ahead — on one condition: I had to do it myself, as my funding requirements left nothing spare to pay contractors. I was given permission to employ two of our students over the summer holidays, but that was it. To make the whole plan even more tricky, I couldn't order anything until the week before the holiday, and the studio had to be up and running in 10 weeks, ready for the new intake of students.
At this point, I should mention that I teach Media Studies, Communications, and now Music Technology. All my experience is in that field, and my construction experience is simple home DIY. The only special skills I have for a project like this were those gained last year when I constructed a small sound studio for our media department. I convinced myself that all I had to do was think a bit bigger!
My first step was to prepare two lists of requirements:
1: The building list. Timber, sheeting, insulation, fixings, and so on.
2: The equipment list. Mixer, monitoring, outboard racks, and so on.
The equipment list was reasonably simple. A basic shopping list was compiled, pruned, then extended again when the prospect of gaining some additional funds appeared. The real problem was soon apparent: to order building materials you really need a plan.
The workshop to be vacated by the brickwork department looked ideal. It's an old Victorian school building with walls about 350mm thick, a concrete floor and a very high ceiling. Once the brickwork built by the students in the middle of the room was removed, we had a clear space 15m x 6.5m. At this stage I spotted that the next room was also to become available and suggested to management that this would make a superb space for our theatre studies department, if it could be provided with flooring and lighting equipment. This, of course, would also be just the place to record concerts, choirs and other events which might require an audience. Although there would be a budget available for contractors to do this part of the work, I would have to do the planning and act as project manager.
The time scale was obviously going to be the major problem, and I knew from my previous project that building studwork walls to fit the available space meant odd‑sized panels, and this had taken up a lot of time. My idea this time was to build the studwork in multiples of the sheet sizes that I was intending to use. Plasterboard comes in sheets 1200 x 2400mm, so I designed the studio walls around 2400 x 2400mm panels, with a half‑width size available at 1200 x 2400mm. I had the room sizes and the panel sizes so it seemed a simple matter to use a computer to work out the studio plan. I don't usually find computers a problem but it became apparent very quickly that the software didn't let me produce the plan without involving lots of maths to work out angles and distances. In the end I drew a floor plan on a sheet of large graph paper and cut out suitably scaled wall panels which I joined together with sellotape. I could then move them around until I ended up with a workable plan. I then took the co‑ordinates of the joins in the panels and used that as the basis of the computer plan. It worked! The timber list was prepared and the materials were delivered ready for the first day of construction.
The first problem we found was that the floor was not level. There appeared to be the remains of an old fireplace on the long wall, and where the hearth would have been, the floor rose by 4cm. It looked as though my plan to have all the panels the same size would have to be amended before we even started. After a bit of head‑scratching, I decided that the simplest way to solve the problem was to mark out where the panels were going, and once happy with the layout, simply build the panels where the floor had a hump 50mm shorter, so that the tops all aligned. This would leave a gap at the bottom, which could be infilled with concrete once the wall was self‑supported by the panels either side.
The construction of the studwork was very conventional, using 100x75mm timber. We made up each frame on the floor using the existing walls as a brace to nail against. Once each frame was complete, we laid plasterboard sheets over the timber and nailed them to the frame with just a few nails to prevent them from moving. It became easy at this stage to use the plasterboard edges to get the timber frame exactly square. We then added the insulation board, followed by the outer layer of plasterboard (see box 'Acoustic Design'). This last layer was nailed into place using nails at about 200mm spacing. It then took two crowbars and four people to get it upright and into the correct place. The inner skin was added when the panels were up in place and secured together. Some of the panels had to join to others at angles other than 90 or 180 degrees, and to get around this problem we ended up not gluing in place the end timber upright, allowing it instead to swivel in the frame. To accomplish this, we had to sacrifice any noggins in the end of the frame and leave the sheeting un‑nailed on this end timber, until after the panels were joined together. Despite my reservations on reducing the rigidity of the panels in this way, we were amazed at how the whole structure locked solid when the ends were coach‑bolted together. The ceiling timbers were 50 x 200mm joists and these were installed on top of the panels in a slightly unusual way. I knew from all the reading I had done that the ceiling would be difficult to do, and in fact we were still deciding what to do with it as the walls were going up! As we didn't want to take up valuable wall space with large traps and resonators (as all the articles had suggested) I decided that the best place for them would be in the roof space. To this end, I decided to use a 600mm‑deep ring of MDF, which was screwed to the top plate of the walls all the way round the studio and control room areas. The ceiling joists were then screwed and glued to the top. This method, of course, left the gaps between the joists open to the outside world and we spent a great deal of time sealing these with off‑cuts from the joists. The actual roof was to be of plasterboard and insulation board sandwich, as in the walls, but with the addition of flooring‑grade chipboard to the top side. In the centre of each area we left out three joists and created instead a large open space which would become a bass trap. We constructed an additional enclosure on the roof (looking like a top hat), which, with the 250mm below, gave adequate depth to the trap. The space between the joists was filled with insulation, and small pieces of MDF were screwed to alternate joists, giving the completed ceiling a series of square holes showing the insulation. I reasoned that having a fully absorbing ceiling could alter the acoustics of the room to make it too dead, so I suspended squares of MDF below most of the cavities, all at different angles to the floor, to disperse standing waves. These panels also provided a suitable location for the low‑voltage lighting we were going to use. The next stage was to clad the inner surfaces of the two areas, which didn't take too long.
The studio floor was going to have to be quite simple, mainly due to cost, and it was reluctantly decided to dispense with any form of floating floor and simply lay flooring‑grade chipboard onto timber battens. This would give us the necessary space for under‑floor cabling. At around this time we also finalised the plans to build blockwork plinths for the monitor speakers. These were duly built and clad in MDF to provide a decorative surface.
Then the patio doors arrived, and we immediately discovered one of the reasons why they were cheap — the advertised hardwood frames appeared to be made out of hardwood dust and resin: they looked like wood, but as soon as we started to drill them we ended up with plastic‑covered bits! More on this later. The doors themselves appeared to be well made and were assembled quite quickly. The first took four hours to install, but by the time we got to the third, we were down to 40 minutes per door.
By this stage, there were large amounts of cabling appearing from various holes in the flooring and the lights were up and running. Painting and decorating started, and two weeks later we were about finished. Equipment started to turn up, carpets were laid, and cables were cut to length. The stand for the mixing desk arrived and was put in position. The studio now actually looked as we had hoped. The acoustic tiles for the dead end of the recording area had arrived, but my quest for suitable adhesive was causing problems. I had ordered the correct type from the tile supplier, but what turned up was 10 tubes of silicon sealant. These were returned, and replaced with 10 more tubes of the sealant. In the end, we discovered that although the sealant tube didn't once use the term glue or adhesive and was anything but sticky, it was indeed the right stuff and up went the tiles. We finished off the interior with some fabric‑covered frames over the last of the holes in the ceiling and that was it — building complete.
The APRS show was looming, so I decided to prepare my final list of items and actually go and have a look — in our area, we don't actually have any dealers who stock pro equipment. I arrived at the APRS exhibition with, effectively, a large wad of money in my pocket. Would this make the dealers more interested in my requirements? Not a chance. My choice of desk was reasonably simple — 24‑channel, 8‑buss, preferably with a meter bridge, and costing less than £4000. I had narrowed the choice to three makes, all well‑known names. I don't see why I shouldn't name them, as my experience might help others, and possibly encourage the distributors to be a bit nicer to their prospective customers. First I headed to the Soundcraft stand. After being ignored for a while, I started to turn some of the pots on the mixer I was considering. Students are not known for their gentle touch and I wanted to get a feel for the strength of the controls. I thought I was in luck when an Exhibitor‑badged person headed for me, but all he did was reach across and reset the knobs I had touched. Not a word passed his lips, and he returned back to his glass on the other side of the stand. Although there was not a technical reason for crossing the desk off the list, that's what I did.
The whole project has been so successful that one major problem has come to light — I can never get in myself, as it's always full of students.
Next stop was the Mackie stand. No brush‑off this time, but no help either. Still, I did work out for myself that this mixer would not do all the things I required. Its sonic performance couldn't be faulted, but I felt the students could have problems getting the desk to do what it was capable of.
A very pleasant chap on the Allen & Heath stand showed me the GS3 mixer, but for various reasons this particular one wasn't on my list. I had heard very good reports on the Soundtracs Topaz desk, and read a couple of good reviews, so I searched one out. I thought I was in for another problem when the first comment from the man on the stand, when he saw my college name on the badge, was "This is a bit sophisticated for a college, you know". Thankfully, he wandered off, to be replaced with a chap who admitted he wasn't from the sales division but from the engineering side. Here was a man apologising for knowing all about the operation, reliability and installation of the very desk I was interested in. The Topaz was put in pole position. With a few notable exceptions, I was not made to feel welcome at all on most of the big name stands. On the other hand, the smaller exhibitors seemed to go out of their way to be helpful, and didn't seem to mind spending time when there was no obvious possibility of a sale.
Our college does not have a formal tendering system for projects of this kind, but it is in my interest to get the best possible deal I can. I put together the list of equipment I wanted, plus a couple of items where I was prepared to let the dealer choose. I asked for prices on the following items from a number of firms, with the request that an early reply by fax was preferable, due to the time scale.
- Soundtracs Topaz 24‑channel mixer.
- Meter bridge for above.
- Alesis ADAT.
- Panasonic 3700 or Tascam DA30 DAT.
- Tannoy 12DFM monitors.
- Suitable amplifier for monitors.
- Proteus FX sound module.
- Yamaha TG100 sound module.
- Alesis Quadraverb.
- Alesis Midiverb III.
I chose the dealers by simply looking through back issues of magazines for those dealers who seemed to stock all that we needed. To save you skipping through to find out who supplied the gear in the end, it was Music Lab. They responded by fax within the hour, followed it up with a phone call to check a few details, and convinced me on the phone that they really knew what I wanted. The other player needed three phone calls to get them to send the fax after two days. They too spoke to me on the phone, but only to interrogate me as to my choice of equipment — they didn't think my choice of desk or speakers would be suitable and they were anxious to quote me for alternatives. I told them I had indicated where I was happy to accept a recommendation, but that I had made my choice on the other items. The fax duly turned up but the quote was too expensive. I wasn't sorry, and was quite ready to give the order to Music Lab. The other dealer then phoned again and asked if they had the order, and I decided to tell them that they hadn't. At this point, the dealer spokesman said that they had miscalculated the price and would send a replacement fax. They wanted to know what price I had been quoted, but I didn't want to tell them. They then gave me another price on the phone, it was still too high, and when I made this clear, I was offered free tapes! I suggested that this was not a very professional way to run a business and closed the call. A new fax then arrived from them, complete with a sarcastic comment saying that they always provided a professional service, and giving me the new price. This was, by now, lower than Music Lab's quote and included some tapes. However, I wasn't sure what level of backup I could expect from them, so I ordered from Music Lab. They phoned to thank me for the order, and it duly turned up in a few days.
Installation went quite smoothly until we came to fit the meter bridge. I phoned Soundtracs and they explained that I wasn't going mad — what I had was an early desk with a late meter bridge, and all I needed was a set of ribbon cables, which I could fit myself. They told me how to do it and the cables turned up within a couple of days. I had decided to use a patchbay with jack socket connections on the underside so that I could amend the layout as more equipment was bought and as student needs changed, but this meant that over 300 jack plugs needed to be soldered on. I completely underestimated the amount of wiring required. The floor swallowed up 100 metres of multicore and simply wiring the mixer to the patchbay used over 100 metres of cable — and it's right next to the mixer. However, it has already become the hub of the studio. Patching changes can be made very quickly between sessions and we couldn't do without it.
Then real problems started. One by one, the Topaz channels started to either hiss, buzz or crackle. Using phantom power sent the meters up hard into the red and the phase reverse switch sounded like gunfire. After two weeks we had problems on 12 of the 24 channels. I knew that the desk would have to go back, but with 25 students using it almost every day, the course would come to a full stop if we had to lose it. I hoped that we could get by until the Christmas holiday, but it soon became apparent that things were seriously amiss. When I phoned Soundtracs and described the problem, they recognised it immediately — a rogue batch of diodes had got into the manufacturing system, but the company didn't know which mixers had the dodgy parts, and until they go wrong there was no way of telling. I explained that we couldn't do without the desk, and they advised me to contact Music Lab. Gary at Music Lab realised that the only way out was to get the mixer exchanged. The next day it turned up, and we swapped it for the dodgy one, which went back to the factory. The new desk is up and running, with no delay to the students at all. This made my decision to stick with Music Lab the right one.
The studio is now occupied for an average of six hours a day and looks like getting busier. Our College has a restricted service radio station about to start, and we're going to broadcast a 20‑minute live band set each night, which our students will mix, record and edit. This should give them experience of recording 20 different bands during a four‑week period. So far, the studio has generated a number of new bands, made up from our students. These range from rock bands, through jazz, blues, funk, rave and orchestral. We now seem to even have a 20‑piece jazz band!
The whole project took 10 weeks to get up and running, and has been so successful that one major problem has come to light — I can never get in myself, as it's always full of students.
The actual acoustic design of the studio was arrived at by using all the published material available to me. I have back copies of SOS and other magazines going back a long way, and various books from our college library. As I have no formal acoustic training, I adopted a simple approach: I went through each article and noted all the suggestions, tips and techniques, working on the principle that if all the books said the same about a particular subject, it was probably vital; if only a few mentioned it, I could afford to give it lower priority. By this method I built up a list of essential building techniques, plus a shorter list of niceties which could be included if I could actually build them, or had the budget to even consider them.
As the actual building was of a fairly massive construction, I felt I could afford to use one timber shell with cladding on both sides. My previous project used a separate outer and inner shell with an air gap between, but standing on the same floor with standard neoprene isolation between the shell and the floor. I decided to use 100mm thick studding for the panels, and a sandwich of two sheets of plasterboard, with insulation board between them, on the outside, with a plasterboard/insulation board/MDF sandwich on the inner face. I decided to use MDF on the inner face as it is strong and dense, easy to decorate, and fairly tough when the students knock chairs into it. Experience in the other studio showed that plasterboard itself was not suitable as a final decorative surface, as it damaged too easily.
The other studio also showed my inexperience as a carpenter when it came to fitting the doors. They always leaked sound, as the fit, when closed, was not exactly snug, so I looked at using patio‑type doors as room dividers. It was obvious from looking at the various studio magazines that this was now a very common feature, and I immediately decided to use them in my plans. We checked out various prices for 8‑foot patio doors and found that prices for what appeared to be similar doors varied by over £1000 per door! Needless to say, the college were keen on the cheapest, and since I couldn't find any major paper specification differences, they were duly ordered.
Earlier, I mentioned problems with the patio doors. The only unsatisfactory area of the studio construction is in its soundproofing. The patio door frames leak. A small amount of leakage is through the glass, mainly due to a small air gap of 6mm (the use of doors with at least a 10mm air gap is recommended). The frames, however, are the worst problem. We spent a lot of time and money putting mass into the walls, and in the end the performance of the doors is the weak link. Fortunately we don't have too many loud rock bands, and the isolation between areas is still sufficient for our needs, but it could have been better. We found that most double‑glazing firms can provide details on the thermal performance of their products, but few have any specs regarding sound transmission.