We turn a less‑than‑ideal square rented room into a workable recording and mixing space.
Gerry Daly is a songwriter who has recently completed a demo CD that he wrote, recorded and produced by himself. Gerry, who hopes that his songwriting abilities will secure him a publishing deal, studied Sound Engineering at IMW College in Islington last year. He must have paid attention, because his songs are well structured and nicely mixed, and he made good use of guest vocalists when required: you can listen to his material at www.gerrydaly.com.
However, he wasn't happy with the monitoring in his home studio, especially at the bass end. Living in rented accommodation in West London, he needed a solution that would minimise damage to the walls of the room, and that could be taken with him when he has to move — something that's a common scenario for many of our readers.
When Gerry first contacted us, his equipment list included a pair of unbranded monitors, so our first suggestion was that he try to upgrade to something that would perform well in domestic-sized rooms. Of the monitors discussed, he decided on a pair of Adam A7s — active two‑way monitors, which are fitted with Accelerating Ribbon Technology (ART) tweeters.
The rest of the studio system was pretty straightforward, comprising a good, quiet PC that worked almost perfectly, a Digi 002 Rack audio interface with Pro Tools 7, and an M‑Audio master keyboard. He also had a Focusrite Voicemaster Pro mic pre and processor with the digital card fitted, but he'd been sold an optical S/PDIF cable rather than the required coaxial one, so he'd not yet tried connecting it digitally. His mic collection comprised a Rode NT2 and an AKG C414 B‑ULS.
Gerry plays guitar, and had several of them standing in the room. He tends to DI guitar parts using a Line 6 Pod or a Zoom effects unit, but he'd just taken delivery of a new Roland Jazz Chorus amplifier, so we tried to talk him into experimenting with miking the amp as an alternative, possibly using the Pod or Zoom boxes as effects units before the amp.
When we arrived, Gerry had just returned from a trip to buy some cables for his new speakers, so this would be the first time he got to hear them in his room. He needed jack-to-XLR cables, ideally balanced ones, and although the store only had the unbalanced jack version in stock we felt that there was a good chance these would work fine with no hum, as all the mains equipment was connected in a star formation to a single double‑outlet wall socket, which reduces the risk of ground loops. We chatted over tea and some extremely good chocolate‑plated, chocolate‑chip cookies to prioritise the days tasks before checking out the room itself, which turned out to be of the 'almost square' type, with bare plastered walls and a wood laminate floor. The only acoustic treatment was a table top leaning against one of the side walls with a duvet draped over it so, as you can imagine, the room sounded fiercely live and ringy. Gerry also showed us a tiny under‑stairs cupboard that he'd used as a vocal booth, but even with an SE Reflexion Filter behind the mic the space was so small and reflective that the sound was too coloured to give good results.
We hooked up Gerry's new monitors, which he had placed directly on the desktop where his previous monitors had been, and then dug out Hugh's BBC test CD to do some listening tests. Gerry had installed the driver required to route the CD drive output of his PC through to the Digi 002, but hadn't set the computer to use it, so CD audio was only audible through the computer's internal sound card. Obviously, we needed to hear it via the new Adam speakers with the Digi 002 acting as the monitor controller. Hugh fixed this quickly and simply by reassigning Window's default sound playback destination to the Digi 002, and then closing Pro Tools (which takes priority over the Digi interface when running). We were then able to audition the test CD via iTunes as a convenient playback program, and through the Digi 002 to the speakers.
Although the cables linking to the Digi 002 (which also doubles as a monitor level controller) were unbalanced, the system had a blissfully low noise-floor, even with the volume control turned right up, and we had no hum problems at all. As expected, the sound was badly blurred by the wall and desk reflections, with almost no stereo imaging, but the bass end surprised us by being reasonably even, unless listening from close to the centre of the room. On past Studio SOS visits, we've discovered that in square, and particularly cuboid rooms, there's invariably a place in the exact centre of the room where the bottom octave of bass simply disappears, and it is vital not to sit there while mixing. There seems to be no practical way to address this, so you really do need to be aware of it.
Out Of Place
Unfortunately, in very small rooms the mix chair often ends up being in exactly the wrong place, and a similar problem occurs when setting up the speakers across the width of a small room. It is always best to have your speakers firing down the length of a room unless the room is much larger than a typical domestic studio space. Gerry's room was roughly 3.5m square, and our listening tests confirmed that as long as he sat close to his desk when mixing — rather than leaning back into the zone of 'bass death' — the bass end was pretty solid and stable. Thankfully, listening while standing at the back of the room worked well too.
The amount of effective acoustic treatment you can put into a rented room without damaging the walls is quite limited, but we developed a strategy based on bringing the vocal-recording space back into the studio by hanging a folded polyester duvet across one corner to act as an absorber behind the singer. Sturdy metal brackets above the window supported the curtain rail, so we decided to fix one end of a nylon line to that, and anchor the other end to a substantial picture‑hanging screw that was already in place halfway along the left hand side wall. Once the nylon line was pulled tight, we suspended the duvet over it, where it would hang nicely behind a singer's head and shoulders. This also mopped up some of the room reflections, but more help would be needed from strategically‑placed absorbers.
For this job, Auralex had provided us with some two-inch foam pyramid-profile panels, each 2 x 4 feet in size. They also gave us a set of Aural Xpanders, a box of accessories comprising behind-the-mic type foam screens, and resilient 'PlatFeet' supports to go beneath the mic-stand legs. Auralex also donated a set of their MoPad speaker platforms. We would end up using all of these, but to start with we glued thin strips of wood to the rear of each panel, close to the top along the short edge, and with a loop of nylon cord tied to it, so that the panel could be hung from a single hook like a picture. As we were waiting for our next shipment of Auralex adhesive, we used spray-on carpet adhesive, which works fine as long as you apply it fairly generously to both the foam and the wood, then leave it for a minute or two to go tacky before bringing the two parts together.
Some nails and screws were already in place in the walls, so we pressed these into service to hang two panels behind the monitors, one in the centre of the rear wall between the two windows, and one on the rear right wall, facing our duvet corner. That left the two mirror-points to cover to the left and right of the mixing position, but as luck would have it, a door occupied one of these spaces and a bare wall with no nails or hooks the other.
I don't make a habit of studying TV advertising in great detail, but I did take note of adverts for 3M's Command adhesive hooks, as they have little tabs that let you remove them after use without damaging the surface to which they were fixed. Gerry had bought a few of these already, so we fixed one to the wall and one to the door — following the instructions carefully, of course! You're supposed to leave them for an hour before hanging things on them, so we had another cup of tea ... and about 10 minutes later we hung up our last two foam panels, which we figured would be light enough not to pull the hooks off — which they were.
Because the Auralex foam we used was only two inches thick and hanging close to the wall, it will only really be effective at upper‑mid and high frequencies, and the room response won't be completely flat — but at least the ringing was tamed, and Hugh's test CD sounded much clearer, with normal left/right imaging.
We explained to Gerry that treatments like acoustic foam are more effective at lower frequencies when they're thicker than two inches, or mounted over an air gap. The other cost‑effective strategy is to mount two‑inch foam over a thickness of Rockwool or glass fibre, which is something he may wish to consider if he moves somewhere he can establish a more permanent setup. As it was, all of our acoustic modifications could be taken down in minutes without any damage to the room's walls, and re‑used elsewhere just as easily — yet they made an enormous difference to the sound within the room.
A further significant improvement was made by placing the Auralex MoPads under the monitors, with their foam wedges arranged so as to aim the Adam A7 tweeters up towards the engineer's head (they were a little too low when placed directly on the table top). The foam helps keep the speaker vibrations from being transmitted into the surface of the desk, which in turn helps produce a clearer sound, while the upward‑angled wedges also helped to direct the sound away from the table top, reducing unwanted reflections.
For The Record
For the vocal recording area, our first spoken‑word test using the C414 B‑ULS with an SE Reflexion Filter produced generally good results, but we could still hear a hint of low‑mid room coloration, due in part to our inability to fix anything to the ceiling above the mic and singer. The floor was also very reflective, so we put a thick rug down under the mic stand and used a couple of the Auralex Xpander mic screens in slightly unorthodox ways. A triangular Tri‑Xpander screen was clipped to the mic stand just below the mic, while the 14‑inch long Xpander baffle was rested on top of the Reflexion filter to form a roof. Repeating the test revealed an even cleaner vocal sound with noticeably reduced coloration. Although we weren't quite in pro vocal‑booth territory, the results were in a totally different league from the cupboard-booth, and perfectly acceptable for making serious demos.
The AKG mic was supported in a standard clip, rather than a proper shockmount and, partly because of the wooden floor, any foot movement was picked up by the mic through mechanical vibration. A proper shockmount would help enormously, but as a temporary solution, we fitted some Auralex PlatFeet under the mic-stand legs to provide some much‑needed isolation.
Our final challenge was to check out the S/PDIF link between the Focusrite Voicemaster Pro and the Digi 002. As Gerry didn't have a coaxial S/PDIF cable, I cannibalised one of his spare phono-to-3.5mm-jack cables to make a short phono‑to‑phono lead. We explained that this shouldn't be used for serious work because audio phono cable has the wrong impedance for digital signals and may therefore lead to errors or glitches, but the 'bodge lead' worked fine for our tests, and all we needed to do was set the 002 to external digital‑sync mode so that the Focusrite box became the system's master clock. Of course, this means that the Voicemaster Pro must always be switched on when Gerry's using the system, so that he doesn't have to keep switching the Digi 002 between internal and external sync modes. Another speech recording test proved that all was working properly so, for a change, we made it out of London before the traffic got too bad.
Gerry: "Since SOS revamped my studio, I have noticed a vast improvement in my vocal recordings. Paul straight away suggested that I forget about using the under‑stair closet room for recording, as it was simply too small. Setting up the microphone in the control room, with Auralex foam under the mic stand and more foam above and below the Reflexion filter, resulted in a much more defined sound, and has greatly improved the quality of my vocal recordings. One of the main problems was the wooden floor, and putting down a large rug made a surprisingly big difference. The bass frequencies are now a lot more audible too.
"Thankfully, knowing that I was in rented accommodation, Paul and Hugh managed to mount the Auralex acoustic foam on the walls without getting me into too much trouble, and I really appreciated this.
"With my previous studio setup, I was able to do all my tracking at home, but I had to bring my Pro Tools sessions into a commercial recording studio to get them mixed properly. Thanks to the Studio SOS team, I can now mix my songs at home, saving me both time and money!”