Would you let two strange men drill holes in your house? USA-based SOS reader David Crane took the risk enough to let Paul and Hugh at his walls with a drill to solve his cabling issues...
David Crane is product demo and training manager for a major audio company on the edge of California's Silicon Valley, so it comes as no surprise that he has a home studio.
David and his wife, Suzanne (who turned out to be a fabulous singer), use various spaces around the upstairs part of their home to achieve sound isolation while tracking. So, while David's Apple Logic Pro based studio had been set up in a spare bedroom, a lot of the actual recording took place in a large closet adjoining their own bedroom, which meant running a lot of cable around the hallways.
The closet had narrow shelves on three sides, at about head height, and while the clothes hanging below the shelves provided excellent absorption, the area above the shelves was essentially reflective dry-walling. The door to the closet was also entirely reflective, which didn't help control reflections either, and the character of the space was evident in the recordings David had made before Hugh and I arrived.
The studio itself measured roughly 11 feet long, 13 feet wide and 8.5 feet high, and in it, David had set up his Ultimate Support desk in the middle of one of the longer walls. Although he knew that using the shorter wall might be better from an acoustic viewpoint, this would have made access to the window very difficult.
On the window side of the main support desk was a large rack unit, fitted with a variety of equipment, most of which David said he used very little any more. There was a Tascam DTRS machine, a Mackie mixer and an old digital reverb, as well as the Firewire interface to the computer. For vocal and guitar recording, David used Universal Audio Solo preamps — and had both the solid state 110 and the valve 610 models to play with, affording a lot of tonal colour.
As we discovered in this case, most Californian houses are made mainly from timber and dry-wall (plasterboard), which means that a useful amount of bass trapping is inherent in the structure. Also, because David had his Event Project Studio 5 monitors mounted on side wings of the stand frame, very close to the listening position, the stereo imaging wasn't seriously compromised by the lack of acoustic treatment. However, the room did have a slightly live edge to it, and there was also some noise from David's hot-rodded Apple G4 computer (which he'd also fitted out with two Universal Audio UAD-1 cards to give him access to some high-end plug-ins without overburdening his CPU). Our challenge was to help David improve the sound of the studio itself and, more importantly, to improve the sound of their closet vocal booth. We needed to find a neater way to run the cables to the closet, so they could be left in place more or less permanently, and we also felt that some reorganisation in the studio layout would be beneficial, especially if we could move the computer into a wardrobe-style closet at the end of the studio room to reduce the noise level.
By way of materials, we had a couple of boxes of the new Auralex Studio Tiles, kindly donated by Auralex along with the necessary spray glue, but everything else we needed had to be purchased from the local Home Depot — a US equivalent of the UK's B&Q home DIY store. Our plan was to stick the acoustic treatment to MDF panels that could be hung in the studio for mixing, but that could also easily be transferred to the vocal booth/closet for recording.
To run the cable, we decided on using short lengths of 1.5-inch diameter plastic water pipe to guide the cables through holes in the dry-wall. The most direct route was to take the cables through the studio wall into his daughter's bedroom, and then to make another hole between the back of her closet and the one in the main bedroom used for recording. Making holes in the dry-wall was easy enough (drill multiple holes, knock out the centre then rasp to shape). We then simply cut the plastic pipe to length and glued it in place using 'No Nails' adhesive. We chose the 1.5 inch pipe because it would accommodate a mic cable, a headphone cable and a length of heavy duty mains cable wired with jacks that David could use when recording his electric guitar, enabling him to put the speaker cabinet in the closet, while keeping the amp head in the studio where he could adjust it. Sound leakage could then be addressed by jamming scraps of foam into the pipe after threading the cables.
Putting the computer in a cupboard had helped to reduce unwanted noise in the monitoring environment, and assisted in clearing clutter from the mixing position. Putting the external drives in there too would have reduced the amount of visible cabling further, which made me wonder why so few companies offer very short Firewire cables for linking drives that are stacked on top of each other? Firewire cables should always be as short as possible, and should, in any event, always be under three metres, so this would seem to be an obvious product to stock. Hugh located some half-metre cables on the Amazon website, but I've never seen these in stores.
Auralex Studio Tile packs are made up of six sets of four different interlocking tiles with a sculpted profile. Because the foam is around four inches deep at the thickest point, the low frequency absorption is better than typical two-inch foam. The tiles can be combined in various ways to create a wealth of eye-catching patterns. They can also be spaced to combine absorption and reflection, but in this case we opted to use them to create a solid pattern that would fit on a 2 x 4 foot MDF panel. In the end we made up two 2 x 4 and one 2 x 3 panels.
It is essential to lay out the patterns first, because the tiles are easy to confuse with each other. After this, the tiles can be sprayed with adhesive and then transferred to the board or wall. There's nothing difficult about this, but you have to take care to get the tiles neatly lined up if you are to achieve a tidy result. Hugh made up the patterns, then passed the tiles on to me for gluing. Before sticking down the tiles, we drilled a couple of holes in the MDF panels and threaded some nylon cord through them for mounting purposes.
By this time, we were ready for a short break. However, David was unable to supply the traditional chocolate Hob Nob biscuits, as these are apparently not standard issue in the US, so we settled for a pizza at a rather good local emporium. Suitably fortified, we set about hanging the panels, using the loops of nylon cord that we'd fixed through the MDF board. For this, we used conventional threaded drywall fixings into which we screwed cup hooks, so the panels could easily be taken down and moved to the closet when needed.
In the studio we arranged one panel on each side wall to damp out early reflections from the monitors, and we hung the 2 x 3 panel centrally on the rear wall, behind the mixing position. This necessitated moving one of David's wall-mounted guitar hangers but it was otherwise straightforward. This approach meant that the same panels could be removed and placed on the closet shelves (sideways) when recording, to help control the wall reflections from the upper half of the closet.
David's mixing room was actually quite usable without treatment but even with such a modest amount of work, the improvement in the room acoustics was immediately noticeable. Overall the sound was drier and the stereo imaging was better defined than before. Placing the same panels in the recording closet dried up the vocal sound very significantly, though we were still getting some reflections from the back of the door and ceiling.
To help with this, we set up a cardioid vocal microphone (Rode NT2), facing the rear of the closet so that the door was behind the microphone. We put a large pop screen in front of the mic, and an SE Reflexion Filter behind it. In case you haven't seen an SE Reflexion Filter before, they are essentially curved absorbers that are made using multiple layers, sandwiched between perforated metal. This enables them to be effective down to reasonably low frequencies without needing a lot of thickness. By placing the Reflexion Filter behind the mic, you can cut out a lot of room reflections from the rear and sides, and also reduce the amount of the source sound reaching the walls.
The combination of Studio Tiles and the SE Reflexion Filter did the trick, and when we made new test recordings to check the re-routed cable runs we were pleased with the nicely neutral vocal sound we were now obtaining. We felt that additional absorption on the closet ceiling might have yielded further benefits but, as there was no easy way to arrange this without gluing foam directly to the ceiling, we left it to David to decide whether or not to do something more elegant at a later date.
David had already bought some additional computer cables so, having sorted out the acoustic treatment and cable tunnels, he and Hugh set about reorganising the studio layout by moving the outboard equipment rack to the right of the desk and moving his G4 computer into the closet, along with the USB hub he used as a 'dongle' station. This reduced the cable clutter behind the desk and meant the Firewire cable to his RME Fireface 800 interface could be kept down to below two metres.
The array of David's external hard drives on top of the equipment rack would also be moved to the closet to reduce drive noise further, but that required additional cables and a little reorganisation of the Firewire connections, so was added to David's 'to do' list. An NHT Pro passive volume control was used to control the monitor levels and this was placed on the desk within easy reach.
The computer noise was certainly much improved by putting it in the closet, and because there was plenty of space in there, cooling appeared not to be a problem.
With everything sorted on the hardware front, we turned our attention to the software setup. Though David is a relatively recent convert to Apple's Logic Pro, he was already making good use of the screensets to streamline his work when using a single 20-inch monitor. However, there were a couple of areas he wasn't sure about, one of which was the 'Save as Project' feature. Save as Project is an extremely useful facility, especially when backing up songs, as it creates a single folder and then places all the necessary files needed for the song within that folder. If you work without projects, it isn't always easy to keep track of where your audio files are and you may also use samples that you need to transfer to another studio in order to continue work on the song. Once you elect to Save as Project, a dialogue window opens to ask you what type of files you'd like to include within the project and whether the audio files should be moved to the project folder from their original location or simply copied. In addition to audio and video files, you can opt to include EXS24 samples, Ultrabeat drum sounds and Space Designer impulse responses while unused audio files can either be discarded or copied to a separate folder. I find that starting new songs as projects also helps keep the work organised, and it also makes it easier to backup and archive your projects.
David was also unsure as to why the mutes and solos in the mixer pages didn't tie up with the ones in the Arrange window. They are in fact completely independent, the reason being that you might have several instances of the same track in the Arrange window and only need to mute or solo one of them. The prime example here is when you create three or four instances of the same track to handle the various overdubbed layers of a programmed drum part. They're technically the same track addressing the same instrument, but being able to mute or solo the parts independently means you can isolate the individual layers. In the environment mixer or track mixer however, there is only one visible set of channel controls regardless of how many instances of that track you've created in the Arrange window so the mixer mute/solo function applies to the whole track.
This ability to create multiple instances of the same track in the Arrange window can also be used for 'comping' vocals. When working this way, only one audio region associated with the track can play at any one time, but by using the mute or solo functions, you can audition sections of multiple takes recorded on 'different layers' of the same track and then compile only the best bits to make up your final version.
Another useful function that David hadn't tried was 'Snip/Insert Time', which can be used to remove a section from a song or from a collection of selected regions, after which the following material is automatically moved up — rather like cutting a section out of a tape and then splicing together the remaining ends. Logic 's skip function makes it easy to audition the potential edit, by dragging from right to left in the time ruler window at the top of the screen rather from left to right, which is what you'd normally do to define loop points. The selected section is marked by a thin green line (rather than the thick green line that denotes loop or punch-in points). When played, the playback cursor will skip the selected section and play on seamlessly. Once you're happy this works, you can use the Snip/Insert Time submenu (accessed via the Region menu) to cut the marked section out of any regions within the song that you have selected. For editing across a whole song, you'll need to select all regions before making the edit, but the ability to operate only on selected regions adds to the flexibility of this feature. Any loops that you cut through are intelligently dealt with as 'real' objects are created if necessary to maintain the required continuity. The same menu also lets you insert blank space into the middle of a song so that you can add new material. David was pleased to discover this function as he often experiments with editing arrangements.
The only other change I made at David's request was to set Logic 's preferences to open the Matrix (piano roll) editor rather than the score editor when double clicking on a region. I also showed him how I created custom mixer screensets by setting up different environment layers for busses, audio instruments, MIDI Instruments, outputs and so on. This way you can create a screen set showing the Track mixer (which can only reflect what is on the Arrange page) with further windows below it showing any busses and outputs that you may need to access while mixing. Of course once you've done all this hard work you need to save it as a template so that you can use it as a starting point for new songs.
Having done what we could with limited resources, limited time and no sign of Chocolate Hob Nobs whatsoever, we bid farewell to sunny California and returned home to familiar weather that was rather like sharing the inside of a Tupperware box with a mass of damp cotton wool. Then again, I suppose that if we had Californian weather in the UK, we'd probably not stay indoors long enough to record anything!
David said: "Thanks — it was great having you guys over and the room sounds great. I have completed the running of the wires, and moved the hard drives into the closet — much better. The next day I used the RME Fireface 800 to set up monitoring reverb (using the Alesis Quadraverb II that I had laying around), as well as a talkback mic — I'd forgotten that the comprehensive mixer inside the Fireface made that so easy.
We recorded a voice track while my young daughter, Hannah, was running around the house, and the new setup made it so easy. The Reflexion Filter is a great addition, and I'll be checking out the Logic Tips on the Sound On Sound web site for sure."
David's website is www.pearlalleyband.com