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Studio SOS: The Electric Palace

The SOS team visit a community youth centre to help them make the most of their new studio setup.

Located near Walsall in the West Midlands, the Electric Palace is a centre for young people — one of three run by local charity Bloxwich Community Partnership — and one of the activities it caters for is music.

The Youth Music project was started nearly a year ago to provide opportunities for nine to 19-year-olds to get involved in music recording, playing and live performing. The studio is open during youth–club sessions and in the school holidays, enabling young people to develop their songwriting skills, to record songs and to come away with a CD or MP3. They can also go on to perform at the Youth Open Mic session, which is staged once a month to allow young people to perform their songs in front of an audience, which in turn helps them to boost their confidence. The project encourages the participants to learn new skills and hopefully aspire to study music or media production at college.

As the centre was only an hour’s drive from where Hugh and I live, we chose to make two visits for this Studio SOS, the first being to take a look around and to list what we’d need to complete the job. We then scheduled a second visit to get the job done, but not before Hugh took a few pictures of the current state of the room. Unfortunately Hugh called in sick as I was about to set off to do the actual installation, so I did this one on my own, but be assured that he was there in spirit.

Centre manager Dan Garbett initially asked for our help in improving their music studio as, in addition to the usual acoustic considerations, he had a new Focusrite Scarlett 18i8 interface to install. Dan had also recently acquired an iMac, however he was used to working with PCs and so wasn’t very familiar with OS X. He’d already tried running one of the light versions of Pro Tools (the DAW with which he was most familiar) using a two–channel Mbox, but two channels wasn’t going to cut it for recording bands. The Scarlett 18i8’s four mic inputs, four line inputs and optional expandability promised far fewer restrictions.

Before: the desk that was to be the centrepiece of the studio was originally set up along one of the longer walls of the room.Before: the desk that was to be the centrepiece of the studio was originally set up along one of the longer walls of the room.Unfortunately the version of Pro Tools that Dan had wouldn’t work with third–party interfaces, so I suggested that for the type of work being done, Apple’s GarageBand would meet their needs without being unduly complicated. Though not the latest version, this was already installed on the iMac along with the Mountain Lion operating system. While the software updater keeps trying to tempt the user with a free upgrade to Mavericks, I cautioned against this as all the stories I’ve heard, confirmed by my own experience, are that this upgrade is really only successful if you do a full clean install. If you simply update your existing OS, as I did on my laptop, there seems to be a lot of wasted time when switching between applications.

The Focusrite Scarlett comes with a few very useful bits of bundled software, including three plug–ins, some loops and a light version of Ableton Live, which is ideal for anyone creating loop–based dance music — which, from Dan’s description, describes most of the people using the studio. To control virtual instruments, Dan had already purchased an M–Audio USB MIDI Mini 32 keyboard, and for the main vocal mic he’d chosen an SE Electronics X1 bundle including a pop shield, shockmount and Reflexion Filter. In the monitor department, he had a pair of small M–Audio AV40 powered speakers, so all we had to do was put it all together, find the best place in the room to do it and to try to improve the acoustics.

Man & Wi–Fi

When I first spoke to Dan, he told me that though they had broadband Wi–Fi in the facility, it didn’t reach as far as the room they’d been given to use as a studio. Given the number of updates and authorisations that take place to keep even the smallest studio ticking over, getting usable Wi–Fi to the studio had to be close to the top of my priority list. I suggested that Dan use some of his very limited budget to buy a Devolo Wi–Fi range extender kit. I use one of these at home so I know they work OK and that they’re fast enough to keep up with most broadband systems. Rather than run new network cables everywhere, the Devolo system sends the broadband signal along the existing mains wiring from a sender unit that plugs directly into a power socket and that connects to the building’s Wi–Fi router via an included Ethernet cable. One or more receiver units then pick up the signal and retransmit it as regular Wi–Fi, where each of the receivers has its own password code. These repeaters show up in your Wi–Fi settings as Devolo devices, separate from your original Wi–Fi router. We only needed one receiver from the two–receiver pack that Dan bought, but he thought the other might be useful in their staff room as getting Wi–Fi at that end of the building had proven difficult.

After some head scratching while getting the receivers to pair with the main unit, it turned out that all you had to do was leave them alone for a minute or two after pressing the pairing button and they’d automatically sort themselves out. You know they’ve paired when the home button LED stops flashing and stays on. Note that these systems only work reliably on wiring systems that all go back to the same fuse box or consumer unit, and they can also be thwarted if you connect them to a plug–board with RF filtering built in as that attenuates the high–frequency broadband signal. Luckily we had no such problems.

Desk Job

Once we had working Wi–Fi in the studio we could start sorting out the space. Dan had his studio desk set up facing one of the long walls of the rectangular room, which is never ideal in smaller rooms, even with small monitors. The bass end is invariably inconsistent so we had to do some furniture moving to allow the speakers to face down the long axis of the room. We cleared the end of the room nearest the door so that we could put the desk there — it would be offset from centre slightly because of the door, but I wasn’t too worried about that.

Some decoupling speaker stands were crafted out of leftover acoustic foam, ceramic tiles and some non–slip matting.Some decoupling speaker stands were crafted out of leftover acoustic foam, ceramic tiles and some non–slip matting.I put a couple of square metres of acoustic foam on the wall behind the speakers, with two further areas at the left and right mirror points, plus a smaller area on the ceiling above the edge of the desk. These were all intended to minimise reflections getting back to the listening position. The right–hand mirror point was partly occupied by a window with slatted blinds fitted, so I fixed the foam directly adjacent to the window. On the other side we had to obscure part of a notice board. For this project, most of the foam panels were kindly supplied by Comfortex, a UK manufacturer of acoustic foam based in Oldham. They make a wide range of panel and trap types but we used one of their smaller tiles as it made it easier to fit into odd spaces without the need for cutting. We also used two larger panels on the side walls, these kindly supplied by Universal Acoustics.

The rear of the room had already been treated with acoustic foam, which made it ideal for vocal recording. It also helped reduce the severity of reflections bouncing back from the wall to the mixing position. Using a Reflexion Filter behind the mic and with the singer standing with their back to a foam–covered wall such as this, the result is adequately dry and much less tonally coloured than you’d get from a typical small vocal booth, which is what Dan was thinking of building until I talked him out of it! In fact he had a second–hand UPVC front door and frame in the studio when I arrived that he’d earmarked for that very purpose, so we had to lug that out into the corridor.

Dan Garbett getting to grips with GarageBand in his newly reconfigured studio.Dan Garbett getting to grips with GarageBand in his newly reconfigured studio.I don’t like putting monitors directly onto the shelf section of studio furniture, as vibrations can be transmitted into the desk, blurring the sound. In this instance I fabricated a couple of impromptu speaker platforms using foam offcuts glued to the bottom of a couple of spare ceramic floor tiles. A sheet of non–slip matting was then used between each speaker and tile to keep them stable. This setup left us with the speakers at just the right height, and we angled them in to aim just behind the mixing seat. The Scarlett interface and USB MIDI keyboard both fitted on the desktop, leaving plenty of free space for mousing around. Once all the foam was in place the sound from the monitors was clear and exhibited stable stereo imaging. You don’t get seriously deep low end from small monitors like the M–Audio ones Dan had, but as long as any important mixes are double-checked on headphones that shouldn’t be a problem.

Install Wizard

After downloading the Focusrite support software and free bundled goodies, which rattled down at a good speed thanks to the Devolo Wi–Fi repeaters, I checked the setup using GarageBand set to 24–bit/44.1kHz. I made some test audio recordings via the SE microphone and also by recording some MIDI parts using the available software instruments. No drivers were needed for the USB keyboard — it really was a simple case of plug and play. Everything worked first time, and the audio quality from the Scarlett 18i8 on playback was perfectly clean, just as I would have expected. Next I suggested that Dan avail himself of any useful free plug–ins, as many manufacturers make available simplified versions of their main products as a taster and to expand their mailing lists. The FXpansion compressor, for example, makes a really nice alternative to the GarageBand compressor, so I suggested he start there.

As Dan wasn’t familiar with GarageBand, I showed him the basics, which was itself interesting as I have a later version than he does, so not everything works in quite the same way! However, it did confirm that the program would meet the needs of the majority of users, with the light version of Ableton’s Live being well suited to the more urban–inclined visitors.

After having a bit of a tidy up, I left Dan to explore his new kit before handing it over to the young musicians who would be using it.

Reader Reaction

Dan Garbett: “I am really grateful for all that Sound On Sound have put into this project, and for the resources given by the companies who have supported our worthwhile cause. The Comfortex acoustic treatment has made a big difference and now we have the Focusrite Scarlett installed we can record bands as well as individual musicians. The young people who usethe studio should be really pleased with the results, and I look forward to seeing their reactions just from entering the room! They will get even more excited now that the equipment has been set up in the right way. The Sound On Sound visit has shown me that a few alterations and advice on equipment placement really can add up to an improved quality of recording.”