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Studio SOS: Ergonomics

Simon McEvoy By Hugh Robjohns & Paul White
Published August 2006

Simon's studio before the makeover.Simon's studio before the makeover.

This month's task involves stripping down Simon McEvoy's entire studio to improve the acoustics and ergonomics.

By day Simon is a computer specialist in the IT industry, but when he gets home he spends his time writing and recording music, much of it for musical stage productions. His studio setup, in a converted garage at the bottom of his garden in the Buckinghamshire town of Princes Risborough, is based around Logic Pro v7.2 running on a dual-2GHz Mac G5 with Wharfedale Delta 70 two-way passive monitors powered by a Samson Servo 250 power amplifier. On the day of our visit, a second pair of Sony three-way monitors powered by a separate amplifier were set up at the rear of the room for when louder playback listening was required. He uses a Roland A80 as a master keyboard and in addition to software instruments Simon also has a Korg Triton keyboard synth, a Deep Bass 9 synth module with integral MIDI-to-CV conversion, and an old Korg Mono Poly running from the Gate and CV outputs of the Deep Bass 9. An Edirol UM880 provides the necessary MIDI ports, while a MOTU 828 MkII looks after the audio interfacing. An M-Audio Trigger Finger furnishes a convenient means of tapping in drum parts, and a small Behringer mixer was being used as a master level control.

Simon's original equipment setup left a lot to be desired in terms of ergonomics, with the two main computer screens off to one side of an already asymmetrical monitoring position.Simon's original equipment setup left a lot to be desired in terms of ergonomics, with the two main computer screens off to one side of an already asymmetrical monitoring position.

Simon called us in because he was unsure as to the accuracy of his monitors and monitoring environment, and he also felt that the ergonomics of his setup could be improved to make it easier to start working on a song without having to deal with lots of technicalities first. We arrived to be greeted by no fewer than four packets of chocolate Hobnobs, so this was clearly going to be a good day! We took our coffee and biscuits down to the studio, which was essentially a rectangular room lined with plasterboard on studding with Rockwool insulation behind. The rear wall of the studio was spaced further away from the outer wall to improve the degree of sound isolation. None of the plasterboard was plastered, and there was no acoustic treatment anywhere, so as soon as we walked into the room we could hear that it sounded very live, but this was easily dealt with, as explained in the 'Acoustics Fixes' section elsewhere in this article.

Rebuilding The Studio Setup From Scratch

Simon had his equipment set up on benches and worktops scavenged from his kitchen refit, but the setup was pretty cramped and was all pushed into one corner of the room, which made the monitoring very asymmetrical. The Wharfdale speakers and Trigger Finger were set up in front of a window looking through to the other half of the garage, but the two huge 21-inch CRT monitors he was using with his G5 were set up on a bench to his left, as they were too deep to fit on the worktop in front of him. This meant he had to turn his neck to the left every time he wanted to look at the computer screen, which must have been very fatiguing.

Paul and Hugh quickly decided to reorient the studio along one of the shorter walls, so Paul set about removing all the cabling and equipment so that they had room to rearrange the furniture.Paul and Hugh quickly decided to reorient the studio along one of the shorter walls, so Paul set about removing all the cabling and equipment so that they had room to rearrange the furniture.

The Roland A80 keyboard was set up on an impromptu shelf supported on piles of concrete blocks just below the main worktop. To get the Mac's Airport wireless system to connect reliably with the base station in the house, Simon had also put his G5 on the desk right in front of him, which put him very close to the cooling fans. These are reasonably quiet, but still noisier than ideal, especially when they're only inches from your face! In addition, a separate work surface was set up on wooden trestles bought from Ikea, and there were a couple of keyboard stands for the Triton and Mono Poly.

We quickly came to the conclusion that the system would be much better if it was set up centrally across the shorter wall of the room, with the computer monitors in their correct place directly in front of the mix chair. To achieve this we dismantled absolutely everything and then moved it out of the room while we rejigged the cabinets and worktops. This proved to be fairly straightforward, though we did have to cut some wooden packing pieces to compensate for an uneven floor. To accommodate the deep CRT monitors, we simply set up the worktop around 10 inches from the back wall so that the rear of the computer monitors could overhang. This left room in the front half of the worktop for the Trigger Finger, the QWERTY keyboard, and the Behringer mixer. The power amps, interfaces, and Deep Bass 9 were left installed in a flightcase rack and placed to the right of the main work surface.

The floor wasn't level, so Hugh had to pack small pieces of wood under some cabinet corners to get the surfaces nice and straight.The floor wasn't level, so Hugh had to pack small pieces of wood under some cabinet corners to get the surfaces nice and straight.

We rebuilt the concrete-block shelf supports for the A80 controller keyboard under the main worktop, but dispensed with the separate Ikea trestle table completely. We also swapped the keyboard stands around, putting the Triton on a small keyboard stand Simon had picked up on Ebay. We then used an 'X'-frame keyboard stand behind it to support the Mono Poly a few inches higher. These were just in front of the rack case, over to the right of where Simon would now sit, but that wasn't a problem, as he normally plays them via his Roland A80 most of the time — and they were still near enough for him to manipulate the analogue controls on the Mono Poly when required. Simon pointed out that the volume and resonance pots were very noisy, so we agreed to take a look at them later if we had time.

Having reorganised the furniture, we took the opportunity to tidy up the wiring and to rationalise the use of mains connector blocks to minimise visible wiring. The Behringer mixer was also rewired so that the monitoring output from the MOTU 828 MkII came in via the two-track returns. By pressing the Two-track To Control Room switch, the master section of the mixer could be used as a monitoring-level control while leaving the input channels free to be used for recording or rehearsal at any time. However, if Simon wishes to keep the Sony monitors in the system, a dedicated monitor controller with speaker switching would be more practical. We found room for the G5 under the right-hand side of the desk which reduced the noise to the point where it was negligible. To our surprise, it still picked up a strong enough signal for the Airport system to continue working reliably.

Studio SOS

Acoustics Fixes

Because Simon hadn't plastered the walls, and we didn't want to mess up the surface to prevent him doing so in the future, we decided against gluing foam panels to the walls, and instead opted to use some spare Ready Trap samples from Ready Acoustics that we'd had sent over from the US for review. Ready Traps are, in fact, very nicely made fabric bags with concealed zippers that take standard two by four-foot Rockwool slab panels up to four inches thick.

Studio SOSSome Ready Traps bags which Paul had brought with him allowed him and Simon to cover some Rockwool slabs and hang them from the studio walls from cup hooks as acoustic treatment.Some Ready Traps bags which Paul had brought with him allowed him and Simon to cover some Rockwool slabs and hang them from the studio walls from cup hooks as acoustic treatment.Simon had a couple of packs of rigid Rockwool available, so we filled the bags with double thicknesses of 30mm slab taped together at the ends. As Rockwool tends to stick to everything it touches, we put plastic bin liners over the Rockwool, slid on the Ready Trap bags, then pulled out the bin liners. Straps are sewn onto the backs of the bags for hanging them, so we simply installed threaded plastic plasterboard fittings in the walls where we wanted to hang the bags, and screwed large cup hooks into them, then hung the bags directly onto them. The arrangement of the straps means that the bags tend to hang with the top angled away from the wall by a couple of inches, which actually makes them more effective by providing a small air space behind them.

We positioned three bags on the front wall, two on the right-hand wall and one on the left-hand wall. We'd have liked to be more symmetrical, but Simon had built a window into the left wall and we didn't want to obscure it. A further panel was hung above the mixing position and a final one propped up on the rear wall. Currently Simon has an organ and piano at the back of the room, so there wasn't much exposed wall space to treat.

Because the room was panelled with plasterboard, there was a lot of natural bass trapping anyway, and the Ready Traps effectively mopped up the mid-range and high-frequency reflections. The result was a room that sounded reasonably dead to talk in — very different to how it was when we first arrived — and the stereo imaging was markedly better. Simon was surprised at how much difference the acoustic treatment had made, and agreed that the monitors now sounded surprisingly good.

Testing, Testing...

Studio SOS

With all the wiring sorted and all the equipment placed ergonomically, we came to test the system, but we were greeted by no sound other than some high-pitched whistles and a slight hint of instability coming from the speakers. Earlier we had disconnected a pair of optical cables connecting the Mac and MOTU, once we'd explained to Simon that the Mac's S/PDIF interface isn't compatible with the ADAT format used by the MOTU 828 MkII — and Paul guessed the cause of the problem right away having come across it on his own system some weeks before. For some reason, the current Mac OS and current MOTU drivers only seem happy when you switch on the ADAT optical inputs and outputs in the MOTU control panel, even if you aren't using them. As soon as we did this everything sprang to life.

Banishing the crackles from a couple of pots on an old Korg Mono Poly involved just removing a couple of screws to whip the top open and then squirting a little contact cleaner into the underside of the offending controls.Banishing the crackles from a couple of pots on an old Korg Mono Poly involved just removing a couple of screws to whip the top open and then squirting a little contact cleaner into the underside of the offending controls.The completely overhauled studio setup, complete with acoustic treatment.The completely overhauled studio setup, complete with acoustic treatment.

Using Hugh's very familiar BBC test CD, the monitors sounded clean, but a little bass light. Fitting Auralex Mo Pads beneath the speakers helped firm up the bass a little and we also used the Mo Pads' in-built angle adjustment function to ensure the tweeters were pointing directly at Simon's head when he was seated in his normal mixing position.

To help Simon get off to a quick start Paul set up a default Song file template for him with the three external synths coming in via the extra MOTU 828 MkII inputs to Aux Audio objects within Logic. As the Deep Bass 9 drives the Mono Poly, both synths play at once when addressed, but by using Aux objects the unwanted synth can easily be muted. It is a simple matter to route either synth to an audio track for recording when the time comes. The new default template comprised 12 audio tracks, 12 instrument tracks, individual tracks for the Deep Bass 9 and Mono Poly, plus 16 further tracks for the 16 parts of the Triton. Paul also managed to find an Environment object on-line with all the Triton factory patches already entered, although it transpired that Simon had changed all the factory sounds, so we didn't actually get around to using it!

Screen sets were then created so that Simon could quickly access his most-needed screens or screen combinations on the two monitors, and Paul also set the Preferences to open the Event List when double-clicking on an object in the Arrange page, as this is the window Simon uses most for editing. Two post-fade send busses were set up to feed a Space Designer Reverb and a 'tape' delay, respectively, while Simon's sampled Bösendorfer piano was set up on one of the virtual instrument tracks so he'd always have a piano to work with as soon as the Song loaded. Simon tried out the new layout and agreed that it was much more comfortable to work with, and the newly created default template got him up and running with the bare minimum of fuss.

Cleaning Crackly Pots

That just left his crackly Mono Poly to investigate. He'd already bought some suitable pot-cleaning spray, but he wasn't sure how best to get it into the pots. Access to the inside of the Mono Poly was gained by unfastening a handful of cross-head screws, after which the whole top panel could be lifted up and tilted back. The circuit boards are fastened to the rear of the pots, but if you use the plastic pipe that comes with the cleaner, it is possible to direct the spray into the pots via the slot from which the three contact legs emerge. A couple of sprays followed by some vigorous twiddling of the offending controls soon cured the crackling.

In all we spent less than six hours at Simon's studio, but managed to pull it all apart, reassemble it, and improve the ergonomics and acoustics very significantly. Paul even got to try out his vacuum cleaner to tidy up before we did our 'after' photos! The new layout is a vast improvement on the original setup, and the wiring is largely out of sight. Simon was worried that he might have to budget for some better monitors, but having treated the room they seem fine. The stereo imaging was much improved and the bass end was reasonably even. 

Simon Says...

Studio SOS "Thank you both so much for the Studio SOS. I only had a brief time in the studio after you left last night, but still managed to knock out some new material. The new setup with its improved sound has already given me added inspiration for my work, not unlike the rush of excitement accompanying the purchase of a new piece of kit. The studio now feels much larger due to the logical positioning of equipment, while the new positions of the monitors directly in front has given my neck a long-deserved rest. Whilst the sound bags provide excellent sound absorbency, they also look good too, and thanks to the Auralex Mo Pads I can now hear a good level of bass. The Logic template Paul created in minutes is a life-saver. Having put a copy in my Startup Items I no longer waste valuable time waiting for samples to load and working out the correct synth inputs on the MOTU before starting to write."

music@smcevoy.co.uk

Published August 2006