This month, the SOS team visit a student's home studio to help him overcome a few teething troubles with layout and acoustics...
Duncan Drury is a music technology student at Twynham Sixth Form College in Christchurch, Dorset. He was keen to start recording his band at home, so his father, Neil, bought him a G5 iMac, Logic Express and a second-hand Presonus Firewire audio interface with eight inputs, two of which were also mic inputs. On top of this, Duncan bought an Oktava 219 microphone and a couple of dynamic mics. However, he found the vocal sound he was getting in the recording room was far too boxy.
Duncan had also run into trouble when upgrading to Logic Express 7.2, as this needs Mac OS 10.4 to run, and the Presonus interface could only be used on Mac OS versions up to 10.3 because of its reliance on a piece of mLAN technology that (presumably) hadn't been updated by Yamaha. Presonus were very sympathetic but couldn't offer a driver upgrade, as none was available. However, as we were planning an SOS visit to help improve the studio and, as our visit was to be just before Christmas, they very kindly offered us one of their Firepod interfaces to install during our visit. This turned out to be ideal for Duncan, as it has eight good-quality mic inputs with phantom power (switchable in two groups of four channels). It also has a monitor level control, a phones output and a latency-free monitoring function to eliminate delays when overdubbing. As promised, the interface arrived via HHB (or, more correctly, their distribution arm, Source) in plenty of time, so it joined several slabs of Auralex foam and a bag of tools in the back of Hugh's car as we headed off to Bournemouth.
The studio was set up on a corner desk system in a downstairs room of the house that also doubled as a rehearsal room for both Duncan's and his dad's bands. Initially the system was arranged so that Duncan was close to a corner, with two small multimedia speakers and a subwoofer connected to the computer. These were fine for games and general iTunes listening but totally unsuitable for music mixing, so we 'liberated' his dad's little Yamaha MS3P powered monitors. Although a bit on the small side, these were capable of doing a far more serious job.
Small studios normally work best if they are set out as symmetrically as possible, with the engineer facing the wall rather than sitting with a wall or corner close behind. Our first job, then, was to disconnect everything, rotate the desk unit and then add on a previously unused desktop extension section so that Duncan could work facing the middle of the shorter wall in the room. Getting him right in the middle proved impractical because of the position of the door, but at least we were able to get him well away from the left-hand wall and corner, which would improve the monitoring considerably.
With the table rearranged and everything replaced and rewired, the first practical issue to resolve was that the monitors were too low when standing directly on the desk. To overcome this issue, we borrowed a couple of large pottery jars from the kitchen to raise them up. We left Duncan with the challenge of finding something more permanent — a couple of rigid blocks or boxes would do the trick. We then arranged the speakers so that the tweeters would point directly at Duncan's head when he was seated normally.
Duncan had a budget Lexicon reverb unit that he wanted to use with Logic Express, but although his interface had enough inputs and outputs to accommodate it, it appears that the Aux inputs in Logic Express can only be used for routing instruments with multiple outputs, and not — as is possible in Logic Pro — for bringing in external audio sources. One possiblity would be to feed a send buss directly to one of the spare interface outputs, feed that into the Lexicon reverb, then feed the stereo output from the Lexicon reverb (100 percent wet) back into a couple of adjacent spare interface channels, routed to a stereo track in Logic Express. By leaving this track in record-ready mode, it should be possible to hear the reverb and it would also be possible to record the reverb to the track for archiving, so that if Duncan revisited a song after selling his Lexicon hardware, he'd still have the reverb there as an audio track. Though this isn't ideal, it was the best option we could suggest other than an expensive upgrade to Logic Pro.
To improve the acoustics of the room, we used three pieces of Auralex three-inch foam, which we fixed to MDF panels using Auralex Spray adhesive. We hung these from the picture rail that ran around the top of the room, using picture-rail hooks and wire. One panel was mounted horizontally at head height, directly in front of the engineering position, with the other two hanging vertically on the left-hand wall. Again, the picture hook fittings looped nicely over the hooks on the picture rail. Treating the right-hand wall wasn't possible, because of the door and a nearby cabinet. Also, as the door had some glass panels it wasn't really practical to fix anything directly to it, though it may be possible for Duncan to hang some foam over it temporarily, while mixing.
Although this acoustic treatment was fairly limited in its scope, it did make a noticeable improvement in terms of stereo imaging, and would be quick and easy to take down or to move around as necessary when recording or using the room for other purposes.
Connecting the new Firepod was as simple as plugging in its Firewire cable and then selecting it as the active audio device. I had a couple of spare balanced jack cables looted from my own studio, so we used these to hook up the monitors to the back of the Presonus Firepod (Duncan's cables were all unbalanced) and we were ready to power up. The M-Audio keyboard plugged directly into the iMac via USB, though a longer cable was needed to get the keyboard in an ergonomically suitable position on the left arm of the desk. To minimise ground loop problems, all the mains wiring was fanned out star-style, from a plugboard connected to a single wall socket. It often surprises people just how big a difference this simple modification can make to their system.
Hugh produced his usual BBC test disc and we checked out the new monitoring environment which, given the limited low end of the little Yamaha speakers, was actually pretty good. At this point I must mention that as well as Hob Nobs we were offered bacon sandwiches on our arrival, which definitely ups the stakes — not to mention a first-class lunch a bit later!
Not wishing to change the habit of a lifetime, I atempted to get some photos of Hugh's rear end as he climbed under the desk to rewire the main supplies. To create the star system, a distribution board with surge protection was plugged directly into a mains socket and then a couple of other normal distribution boards fed from that.
We fired up Logic and listened to some vocals Duncan had recorded previously. The room sound was quite apparent in the recording, giving it an obvious and boxy character. We're not sure whether Duncan had been singing into the correct side of the Oktava mic or not, as when he first set it up the switches were facing the pop shield, which isn't correct. However, as the mic has a fairly wide cardioid pattern, singing into the back of it didn't sound as appallingly dull as you might imagine, just a touch roomy! Once we had the mic pointing in the right direction, we bought a 15 Tog duvet, stitched curtain rings to it (actually, Duncan's mum did this!) and then used more picture-rail hooks to hang it straight onto the picture rail in a corner opposite the computer. This created a usefully dead recording area for vocals. Duncan's first test recording was made with his back to the duvet before we turned the mic around, so it still sounded very roomy and boxy. The live side of the mic is the side with the badge, not the switches, and once that little issue had been dealt with, the recordings sounded adequately dry and reasonably free from room coloration. A quick experiment with a piece of foam held above the mic showed that further improvements could be made to kill ceiling reflections, and it would almost certainly help to use an SE Reflexion Filter behind the mic — especially as this particular Oktava mic is obviously quite sensitive at the back and sides.
Having got the system up and running, we tried to give Duncan a head start by setting up a default song in Logic, with 24 audio tracks and 16 software instrument tracks. We also stored some useful effects plug-in settings for him and set the audio buffer size to 256 samples, which offers adequately low latency with decent stability (higher buffer sizes could be used for mixing, where latency is not such an issue).
The next step was to set up screen sets so that the number keys could be used to select the most useful pages directly — Arrange, Mixer, Event list and so on — and I also set up a general purpose Platinumverb on Buss 1, fed from a post-fade send, so that reverb could be added to any track without having to use multiple insert effects. In case Duncan hadn't yet covered this at college, we explained that any type of effect or processing plug-in can be used in a channel or buss insert point but, as a rule, only delay-based effects such as reverb and delay/echo tend to be fed from sends — and send effects should be set up as 100 per cent wet, as the effect is added to the untreated sound playing via the channels.
A further trick with Logic's Platinumverb is to use the slider at the top of the window to change the relative balance of the early reflections and the reverb tail. Moving more towards the early reflections gives a more lively sound, with less 'mush'. If you delay the early reflections by 30 or 40 milliseconds, you can get a very nice slapback effect.
As we'd already recorded some test vocals, we also showed Duncan how to set up a compressor to keep the vocal level even. If you decide to pick a setting from the presets list, all you need do is adjust the threshold level until four or five dB of gain reduction is showing on signal peaks. If the overall level is too high or too low, it can be adjusted using the output gain fader on the compressor plug-in.
We also opened the channel EQ to add high-end air (a boost of just two or three dB at 10-12kHz) and to address any mid-range honkiness, by dipping the level a hint at between 500Hz and 1kHz. Once we'd done this and added reverb, we were getting a really good vocal sound.
Though Duncan's main focus is singing, he also plays guitar and had a nice 'Strat-inspired' Tokai he wanted to record. The action was set rather too low on this, resulting in rattles and in string choking when bending, so I took a few minutes to adjust it using a suitable Allen key. Duncan had tried the very basic Garage Band guitar preamp that comes with Logic Express but found it either too clean or too dirty, with no really good in-between sounds. After I'd played with this for a while, I had to agree with him.
However, all wasn't lost, as you can also insert Logic 's overdrive or distortion plug-ins before the amp plug-in, to add a more controllable distortion — and we managed to get some useful results this way. We also tried using a compressor after the amplifier, to give us more sustain at lower drive settings, again with some success. We then tried adding reverb or tape echo (Platinumverb or Tape Delay), which really brought the sound alive. However, we found we achieved even better results by using a real hardware distortion pedal to feed the guitar into the system, rather than a distortion plug-in and, in conjunction with the amp modelling, this gave a very plausible sound. We tried a Boss overdrive pedal and also a Marshall Bluesbreaker, both of which produced distinctly different but eminently usable results.
Duncan readily absorbed all this new information and asked us what he should buy next (without spending too much money!) to upgrade the studio. We suggested that improving the monitors should be the next step, after which a set of budget drum mics would enable him to experiment with recording his band in the room. The biggest challenge when recording drums in this small room would be to keep the room sound out of the overhead mics, so we left behind the spare piece of Auralex foam that we'd brought, as it could be suspended over the overhead mics to help achieve this. At this point, we felt we'd achieved about as much as was possible in one day, so we headed back northwards, leaving Duncan to try out his newly functioning studio.
"My son, Duncan, has been interested in music since an early age. From the age of three, he wanted to be up on stage in the limelight. With the help of a prominent local voice coach, Jane Wright, he has developed into a fine singer and musician. He is currently studying Music and Music Technology, as part of his A-levels, and intends to study music as part of a degree course — hence my desire to set up a home studio and rehearsal room. Having made the error of purchasing an audio interface that turned out to be incompatible with my updated system, I realised I needed help and got in touch with Sound On Sound to see if they could offer guidance. Having explained my plight to Paul, he not only offered to help sort out my interface problem but also to come to Bournemouth, along with Hugh, and resolve the poor acoustics of my embryonic studio space. I was delighted by the response.
The weather forecast for Paul and Hugh's visit to Bournemouth wasn't looking good — British Airways had decided to cancel most short-haul flights due to a 'pea souper' around Heathrow! So I was surprised when the door bell rang just after 10 o'clock as planned — I'd had visions of Paul telephoning to say they were stuck on the M5 due to adverse weather conditions. Paul and Hugh quickly got down to applying their particular brand of Feng Shui in what was originally the family dining room — and what a great job they did. The strategically-placed Auralex foam panels made a fantastic improvement to the room acoustics. In addition to his sterling work with a screwdriver and a tin of glue, Hugh used a simple but enlightening method to demonstrate how acoustic foam differs from everyday foam. Once the physical part of the job was done, Paul spent a good deal of time with Duncan, setting up and explaining how to get the best out of Logic Express. It just remains for me to say thank you to both Paul and Hugh for their time and help. Duncan is very pleased with 'his room' and has already made good use of it with his band. I would also like to thank Presonus for their generosity. Neil Drury