The SOS team travel to London’s West End, to optimise a studio that helps homeless people record their music.
Endell Street Studio is a recording facility in the heart of the West End of London, and it serves to develop and nurture new talent fresh off the streets. All the clients have a history of homelessness, and everyone who signs up to the programme embarks upon a musical journey with a long–term goal in mind: to make records. The recording studio was part of the makeover of the Endell Street Hostel, which reopened in 2008 after refurbishment funded via the Department for Communities & Local Government’s (CLG) Places for Change scheme, and the London Borough of Camden’s Pathways programme (it’s still largely funded by LB Camden). None of this could have happened without the intervention of Mark Thompson of Funky Junk, who was instrumental in getting the project off the ground as well as kitting it out with most of the equipment. Matt Catlow, the studio’s proprietor, told us that the studio is available to hire and is well equipped for overdub sessions and drum and vocal recordings, and offers a good range of microphones.
The studio itself is located in the basement of the St Mungo’s building, close to London’s Denmark Street, and it is rather an odd shape. Although the overall size of the control room is around 3 x 4 metres, the front right and rear left are boxed off, giving the room something of a flattened S–shape. Because of the room’s geometry, the placement of the doors, and the control room window overlooking the small live room, the monitors were set up facing across the room rather than along it. This is always a challenge in smaller spaces, as it makes it more difficult to get an even bass response. Matt had two sets of monitors, his main ones being two–way APS IO models (reviewed in SOS January 2009) set up on wooden, sand–filled, DIY stands. A set of Yamaha NS10s mounted on the top surface of the desk provided a secondary reference.
At the heart of the studio is Cubase Pro 8, running on a rather tired Windows PC — at eight years old, it was rather struggling to keep up with the demands of some plug–ins. It’s fitted with an RME Hammerfall PCI soundcard which most later–generation machines can’t physically accommodate, so when the time comes to upgrade, a new PC and audio interface will be needed. That’s currently outside this community–based studio’s budget, especially in the light of recently reduced government funding.
A Focusrite Liquid Mix was helping share the plug–in load, but Matt was having to freeze or render tracks to get his projects to a stage that he could mix them without the computer giving up.
A couple of old Yamaha 02R digital mixers took up pretty much all the desk surface, but only one was being used for input signal routing and monitoring, linking to the RME card in the computer via two eight–way AES3 cables. These desks had been donated to the studio along with a couple of racks full of assorted gear, some of which would be useful, some less so. Matt said that Funky Junk had been very kind in providing them with various pieces of kit. In the ‘useful’ category came a TC3000 digital reverb unit as well as a few preamp/channel–strip type products, one of which was a TL Audio valve model. There was also an old Alesis Quadraverb, an Aphex Aural Exciter and a couple of hardware samplers by Akai and Emu. Matt wanted to find a way to wire the TC reverb into the O2R for use when mixing, and he also had a Waldorf filter unit that he wanted to patch in, so that he could treat tracks in real time.
First, though, we had to do something about the acoustics, as the low end had a very strong hump in the 200Hz region as well as some noticeable holes, especially at around an octave below. The stereo imaging wasn’t great either, which we ascribed to the wall to the left of the mixing position, which was completely untreated. Elsewhere in the room various DIY absorber panels had been installed, all around 25mm deep and filled with medium density mineral wool. The same design was used in the live room, so we removed one of the smaller panels from there and set it up horizontally at head height on the bare control room side wall, hanging it on just two screws.
SCV Distribution had very kindly donated some IsoAcoustic speaker platforms to use in our Studio SOS visits, and although the ones we had were designed for a slightly smaller speaker they actually worked really well. We used the tube extenders at the rear to angle the speakers down slightly. I don’t know what magic IsoAcoustic platforms employ, but they always seem to tighten up and focus the sound. Of course, we still had the bass hump to deal with, and though a complete cure seemed unlikely in such a small room, we thought we could improve it. But first, Hugh checked the settings on the rear of the speakers... While Matt had everything set flat, the rather mystical ‘bass controller’ was turned on. This switch effectively offers a choice between a bit less bass but a tight low end, or a bit more bass level at the expense of tightness. In this application, a little less low end with tighter definition would be beneficial, and so Hugh turned off the ‘bass controller’ and made sure the speakers were correctly angled towards the listening position.
Matt already had two short tube–shaped bass traps stacked up in one corner of the control room, and we thought we’d add to them using our budget trick of buying rolls of loft insulation and then stacking them up in the corners to fill as much of the floor–to–ceiling space as possible. The local hardware store had just two rolls in stock, around one metre long, so we bought those and stacked one on top of each of the existing traps, which we redeployed to the two front corners of the room. As we were dealing with very low frequencies, the insulation was left in its original packing (at bass frequencies the traps don’t need to be porous), though Matt did plan to find a more cosmetically appealing fabric covering for them. We advised adding more in the rear corners at a later date, which should bring about a further improvement.
Running Hugh’s low–frequency test CD, we found that the 200Hz hump was noticeably less pronounced, and switching to familiar music tracks showed a marked improvement in tightness and stereo imaging. Although it wasn’t perfect, the room had been usefully improved, and for a more accurate idea of the bass end things could be double checked via headphones and metering (which is always a good idea anyway).
Both Hugh and I have a passing familiarity with the original 02R desks, but we’d both forgotten how cumbersome they are to operate compared with the later generations of Yamaha console, and they lacked some of the features we expected to find. Thankfully, Matt had a printed version of the online manual in a ring binder, which we could refer to when trying to reconfigure some aspects of the installation.
Matt was very keen to plug up his Waldorf 2–Pole analogue filter unit — it’s a nice unit, but his previous attempts had all failed. The obvious way to integrate a filter unit like this would be via the console’s inserts, but that wouldn’t work here because the O2R’s insert points can only be used in the corresponding analogue input channels, not on the AES3 digital inputs from the computer. This meant that we had to set it up as a send effect, with the aux send control set to pre–fader on whichever channel it was being applied to, allowing that channel fader to be turned right down to kill the dry signal without affecting the send level. Though a little cumbersome, this worked out fine.
Matt also wondered whether he needed a DI box and, if so, whether an old Sescom Split–Matcher box he had found would do the job. The Split–Matcher name is a little obscure, because this box is in fact a conventional passive transformer–based DI box, with an input pad, a link output, and a ground lift on the mic–level XLR output. When connecting a mains–powered effects unit like the Waldorf with unbalanced cables there’s always a potential risk of ground–loop hums, and had that occurred here then a DI box would have been a good way of negating the problem. But, happily, the Waldorf worked hum–free with standard unbalanced TS–TS jack cables between an aux send and a spare channel’s line input.
Connecting the TC3000 reverb unit to the 02R desk was a little more straightforward, as it is configurable as a mono–send/stereo–return effect with a 100–percent ‘wet’ output, allowing Matt to record the reverb signal as a clean effect back into the computer, if required. However, this apparently simple endeavour was complicated by the fact that the TC unit had only balanced XLR connections, while the mixer end needed balanced jacks — Matt didn’t have the required cables anyway! We ventured out to a Denmark Street music store to find some appropriate cables, but the price of over £20 (nearly $30) per cable was deemed unacceptable for the budget. Returning to the studio, Matt rummaged around and eventually found a couple of spare XLR mic cables and a short TRS–TRS jack cable — so I cannibalised these, fitting the jacks in place of the male ends of the XLR cables, using a little gas–powered soldering iron I keep in my portable tool kit. The jacks were held steady during soldering by plugging them into my EMO cable tester, which then also verified that the finished cables were wired correctly.
Once we had everything running smoothly, we showed Matt how to set up the desk’s aux sends on the tape-return channels carrying the computer audio, in order to send signals out to the effects processors, and then how to return those signals to spare desk channels and route those onto the buses that could then be re–recorded in the computer. We also discussed ways of improving the monitoring and studio foldback arrangements. Matt was using auxes 5 and 6 to feed the studio headphones directly, but that gave no easy way of using talkback or sending an alternative signal to the headphones. This could be easily solved by using the desk’s own studio monitor section, which still employed auxes 5 and 6 for the artist cue sources, but also included talkback and the ability to select various other monitoring sources at the press of a button.
The control-room monitoring arrangements were complicated by the fact that the APS speakers were being driven directly from the desk’s main stereo output bus, and the NS10s from the control room monitor section. Unfortunately, the O2R doesn’t have a switchable alternative monitor facility. Really a dedicated monitor controller would be the best solution here, but given the budget, we suggested a sensible future investment would be a small two–way switch box so that the control-room outputs could be switched between the APS and NS10 monitors.
Matt showed us a couple of mixes he was working on and asked advice on smoothing out an aggressive guitar sound, and an overly edgy vocal part. We explained that there aren’t necessarily fixed strategies for every problem, but rather various things to try, and then you pick whichever works best in each case. The most obvious is basic EQ, where you can dip the offending frequency (which in the case of harshness usually lies in the 3 to 5 kHz range), but this isn’t always successful if the stridency only comes in at odd points throughout the performance. If that’s the case you have the option of automating the EQ, multiband compression, or using a dynamic EQ. We improved the guitar sound by using a multiband compressor set to act only in the offending band, and we tried a tape–emulation plug–in after it to make the highs less gritty while filling out the lower mids. The difference was suitably subtle but still enough to diminish the unwanted edginess.
The vocal responded to simple EQ cut after locating the trouble spot — which you can do easily by setting the EQ to boost and then sweeping through the upper mid–range until you found it. Again a tape emulator can be used to both smooth and warm. Other than these minor tweaks, the mixes sounded good, and Matt was already getting a great live drum sound considering the small room he had to work in. And so, after doing a little re–organising in readiness for the ‘after’ photos, we said goodbye to Matt and headed out into Oxford Street to get our train home.
Matt had this to say about our visit: “As an avid reader of Sound On Sound, I am always checking back issues of the Mix Rescue column, trying to improve my mixes so that they translate well to different sound systems. I always felt there was an element of guesswork and compromise involved in the bass end of my mixes. I was eager to test the new room treatment on a particularly troublesome mix and was really pleased when I got the finished result home, as well as into my car, to find that the bass was definitely a lot tighter and more controlled. I am also a big fan of tactile controls in recording sessions, so it is a real game changer for me to be able to break out of the box with external effects and analogue filters. The clients at St Mungo’s Broadway send their thanks!”