The owner of an unusually bijou studio setup provides the chocolate biscuits this month, as the SOS team get busy helping to improve the performance of his gear and the sound of his recordings.
Rod Brakes' studio is probably the smallest the Studio SOS team has ever seen, but he still has everything necessary to produce good-quality recordings. His main instrument is the guitar and his home studio setup includes several shelves full of pedals and processors dedicated to creating new and unusual guitar sounds.
Space is clearly a limitation, and the studio is set up as a booth in one corner of his living room, where a set of pine shelves forms a partition to his left and provides space for his computer, as well as for some storage. The space between the wall on the right and the shelves on the left is a little over a metre, so this clearly isn't the ideal place to set up accurate monitoring. Rod called us in mainly to concentrate on his acoustic and electric guitar recording technique but, as always, we tried to improve the monitoring first.
Working in such a confined space, Rod had wisely chosen some fairly small monitors, in this case the surprisingly effective and inexpensive Egosys Near 05 Active 129 models he'd picked up from Turnkey. When we arrived, these were mounted directly on his glass-topped desk — along with his flat-screen computer monitor, outboard rack and QWERTY keyboard — but they were facing backwards! However, this wasn't some weird new monitoring technique: Rod has a very young daughter with a propensity for sticking her hands into exposed tweeters, so he turns the monitors around to face the rear wall when they're not in use, to protect them.
As Rod had them set up on his desk, the monitors were much too low, so we raised them slightly on a set of Auralex foam speaker pads, configured back-to-front to allow the speakers to be angled upwards (rather than down). The extra foam wedges provided with the pads were also used to increase the upward angle, which resulted in the tweeters firing more or less directly towards the listener's head — exactly as it should be. UK Auralex distributor, Audio Agency, kindly donated the speaker pads to the cause, along with a few panels of acoustic foam.
Playing our test audio disc showed that the monitoring actually sounded a lot better than we'd expected in such a tight location, but the stereo image was somewhat messed up by reflections from the nearby wall on the right and the computer on the left. We improved this situation by fixing just two Auralex 24-inch-square foam tiles to the left and right of the mixing position at head height, one glued to the wall (using a spray carpet adhesive from my local DIY store, costing £3.99 a can) and the other wedged temporarily next to the computer on the pine shelves. Rod planned to use map pins to fix this more securely to the side of the shelving unit. The result was a slightly tighter sound with noticeably better stereo imaging. A further benefit was that the foam on the left also reduced noise from the computer. Our verdict was that, with care, Rod could achieve decent mixes with this simple setup, but that if he intended to release any of it he'd ideally need to get it mastered somewhere that had accurate monitoring.
The rest of Rod's system is based around Steinberg Cubase VST software running on a fairly brisk PC with an Emu 1820M audio interface. Level control for the monitoring is done in the Emu software that essentially channels audio into and out of Cubase VST, so one of our first recommendations was that Rod buy a simple monitor controller, such as the Samson C-Control, to allow him hands-on control over monitoring level and also to let him play his CDs or keyboards without first having to fire up the computer. This same box would also provide a headphone output and talkback. Talkback might not seem such a big deal in such a small studio, but Rod tends to use different rooms for recording different instruments, the bathroom being a favourite for acoustic guitar. Having talkback would enable him to communicate with the player in the bathroom via the headphones, although most of Rod's current projects seem to involve him doing all the playing, singing and engineering.
Most people recording an electric guitar in a small domestic studio would use something like a POD XT or other direct-recording device for convenience and flexibility, but Rod is a bit of a traditionalist and has a 100W Marshall JMP Mk II Lead amplifier (dating from 1979) feeding a Marshall 4x12 cabinet built in the '60s — one of the ones fitted with Sutton Surrey Celestion 'green back' G12M speakers. This isn't quite as rash as it might seem, though, as Rod houses the cabinet in a kitchen closet facing a wall covered with acoustic foam and runs cables under the door. There's just about room between the speaker and the wall to get a microphone into position and that's how he records the cabinet sound.
His traditionalist approach also extends to synths and drum machines. He has just one soft-synth bundle but is most happy when he's putting the separate outputs from his cherished Roland TR909 drum machine through his guitar pedals to wring something new out of it. His only hardware synth is a three-octave Roland Sound Canvas keyboard.
Rod has been DI'ing his Ibanez bass guitar via an Electro-Harmonix Black Finger optical tube compressor and a little Dbx Vacuum Tube Preamp, then feeding the output from this into the mic input of his Emu interface. This particular Dbx preamp has a high input impedance on the line jack, and so is ideal for guitar and bass DI purposes. However, we suggested he used the line input of the Emu interface in future, as the levels would be better matched and the result would be less noise in his recordings.
Before trying anything else, we sat down to listen to some of Rod's own recordings while he furnished us with cappuccino and Hobnobs. (If anyone else is thinking of asking us over, might we mention that there is now a new Extra Chocolate version of Hobnobs that we haven't tried yet?) As it turned out, Rod's recordings were all pretty clean and tight-sounding, and his traditional approach even extended to recording his own drum samples from an acoustic kit, with drums recorded individually using a Shure Beta 57 dynamic mic and a Rode NT1000 capacitor mic. The only serious flaw was the sound of the kick-drum sample, which was quite short and 'boxy'. Kick drums really need a dedicated mic with lots of low end to record them convincingly, and although I knew that processing was never going to make this one sound great I decided to have a go anyway, using the EQ and compressor in Cubase VST.
To improve the overall sound, I set up an EQ with a fairly aggressive boost at 90Hz, a dip at around 200Hz and another peak in the 4.5kHz region, the idea being to lose some of the boxiness, beef up the low end and emphasise the click of the beater. There was a very noticeable improvement in tone, and after I compressed the kick sound with auto release and an attack of 10ms, then switched on the soft-clip limiter, the kick sat reasonably well in the mix — although it still wasn't going to win prizes. Rod's best bet is to become slightly less purist and substitute a nice bass-drum sample from elsewhere!
Turning our attention to the rest of the mix, it seemed that Rod had tried to optimise each sound in isolation, the result being that when they were playing together they all fought to be at the front of the mix. This wasn't so bad in the intro, where only a couple of instruments were playing, but it got fairly messy when the electric guitars came in. The acoustic guitar, though clear, had a somewhat hard quality to it and the DI'd bass also sounded quite assertive. I tried some EQ on the acoustic guitar to cut the region between 500Hz and 1kHz, which took some of the hardness out of it, but the real solution to these problems was to examine Rod's recording technique and see what could be done to improve the sounds at source.
Acoustic guitar figures quite highly in Rod's music and he'd recently treated himself to a mahogany Martin Auditorium guitar, which sounded rather nice played acoustically. Rod also uses alternate tunings, such as DADGAD, which suit this guitar well. Normally he records the guitar using his Rode NT1000 (his only capacitor mic) or his Beta 57, with the common technique of pointing the mic towards the position where the neck meets the body. He generally uses the bathroom to add a bit of life to the sound, but we decided to experiment in the living room, where there was more space, then move to the bathroom after we'd established a working method.
Given the choice, I'd never record an acoustic guitar using a dynamic mic, other than perhaps a Sennheiser MD441, as capacitor mics generally handle the top end more effectively and they're also more sensitive, which helps keep noise down. So we rigged the Rode NT1000, initially with the mic in Rod's usual position (aiming at the neck/body joint from 12 to 18 inches in front of the guitar). We also put a couple of boards on the floor in front of Rod, to reflect some sound back up into the mic. The board furthest from him was angled up, originally because a chair was in the way, but it sounded good so we left it! We used boards because the living room was carpeted and acoustic guitars often respond well to reflective wooden or tiled floors (see photo on the first page of this feature).
With Hugh Robjohns driving Cubase we made some test recordings and, sure enough, the result was the same clear but hard sound that Rod had been getting. Apparently, Rod had also tried the higher mic position he'd read about in one of my books, where the mic, in effect, looks over the player's right shoulder, but it still sounded too hard. This just goes to confirm that the sweet spot varies enormously, depending on the characteristics of both the mic and the guitar, plus the tonal preferences of the player or engineer.
The task was now to try to find a mic location that would give a sound close to what we felt we were hearing acoustically from the instrument, and I did this by monitoring via headphones while moving the mic around. Rod played as I moved the mic, and eventually I found a great-sounding spot around a foot from the floor and two feet from the face of the guitar, with the mic aimed up at the 12th fret. Here the sound was really sweet and airy, without any of the harshness we'd heard before. After making more test recordings, we played the original and new mic-placement versions back to Rod and he agreed that the new placement had really captured the qualities of the guitar that he heard while playing it.
Transferring this setup to the bathroom gave us a similar tone, overlaid with a short, bright room ambience, but we had to move Rod around so that he wasn't playing parallel to the wall, in order to make the sound suitably subtle. At this point, Rod asked if it was worth miking the guitar in stereo. This is largely a matter of taste. My own view is that mono miking works well where the guitar is part of a busy mix, but stereo can add dimension to the sound where the guitar is a featured instrument. I'd brought along my own SE Electronics SE1a small-diaphragm cardioid mic, in case extra mics were needed, but you can try this technique with just about any decent capacitor model.
Rather than using a traditional spaced-pair or coincident-pair approach, we left the NT1000 where it was, as the main mic, and set up the SE1a on a separate stand around six inches from the headstock of the guitar, aiming it more or less at the nut (see above). More test recordings confirmed that this produced a very different and much brighter tone than the main NT1000. With equal contributions from both mics the sound was probably too bright for most applications, but by reducing the contribution from the mic on the headstock and panning the two sounds apart, we were able to achieve a very nice, spacious sound with a good tone. In this type of situation, the room ambience can be regulated quite effectively by hanging towels over the bath and radiators, and for this session we found that a towel over the radiator definitely helped. The final sound had just the right amount of ambience to allow it to work in a mix with little or no added reverb.
Our next port of call, after the ginger cookies had been consumed, was the electric guitar. I brought along my POD XT for comparison and Rod was impressed both with its versatility and its ability to emulate his miked Marshall fairly authentically. We also coaxed a very nice DI'd bass sound out of it with little effort. However, as he was already getting the sounds he wanted from his Marshall, he felt that sticking with that would be more organic, especially as he'd built up an impressive collection of Electro-Harmonix pedals and other processors to use with it.
We decided to work through the guitar-cab miking method to see if we could improve on it, and I achieved what I felt was an accurate interpretation of the amp sound by using the NT1000 about two inches away from one of the upper speakers. Rod had been miking one of the lower speakers, but we thought it was a good idea to move the mic up, to minimise any reflection effects from the floor. The mic was positioned roughly midway between the centre and edge of the cone, which worked very well, with surprisingly little sound leakage back through to the studio. However, I felt that the mid-range might benefit if the thickness of foam on the wall behind the mic was doubled, and as we had one piece of foam remaining we left it with Rod to install in the cupboard himself.
Rod then set about demonstrating some of the sounds he likes, using his processors in front of the Marshall, which he generally leaves set to a fairly clean sound. He has an Electro-Harmonix Hot Tubes overdrive pedal, a Marshall Guv'nor distortion pedal, Boss DS2 Turbo Distortion and OS2 Overdrive/Distortion pedals for producing overdrive, and he's customised his Mexican Fender Strat by fitting a Deluxe-style roller nut and locking Sperzel machine-heads. He's also changed two of the pickups. The bridge pickup is now a Seymour Duncan Hot Rail and the neck pickup a Quarter Pounder from the same company. A non-locking mute button has also been installed for creating effects.
For special effects, Rod has an E-bow, which he was still coming to grips with at the time of our visit, but his piéce de resistance is using wah, overdrive and echo while playing the guitar with what might be most safely described as a battery-operated, variable-speed personal massaging device! The golden vibrating tip is effective in exciting the strings, while the electromagnetic interaction between the varispeed motor and the guitar pickups produces a high-energy sound not unlike a light sabre burning its way through a Morris Minor engine block! Apparently, he got some very funny looks while in the shop trying to select the most appropriate model...
Our slightly tweaked mic setup was delivering the goods with the guitar sound, but one thing I noticed was that the Marshall amp had a slightly 'barky' quality when its own overdrive was invoked, which suggests that the output valves may need to be checked, along with their biasing.
At the end of the session, Rod asked us whether he should be working at 44.1kHz or 48kHz, as he felt 48kHz would give a better result. Technically, 48kHz can sound a little better than 44.1kHz, but in a system like this one there is unlikely to be any detectable difference — and by the time a 48kHz recording has been reduced to 44.1kHz, by means of the Cubase sample-rate converter, it may actually sound less good than a straight 44.1kHz recording. Both Hugh and I felt that working at 44.1kHz and 24-bit would be best, leaving dithering to 16-bit as the last step of mastering.
The final part of our assignment was to advise on the best way for Rod to use his Aphex 204 Big Bottom Exciter, his Focusrite Compounder and his new Lexicon MPX550 reverb unit. These sit in a rack on the desk beneath his computer monitor, and previously he'd passed the entire mix through all three in series. This is, of course, quite limiting, as the same amount of processing is applied to everything, but there is a limit as to how flexibly you can use hardware when your audio interface has only eight inputs and outputs.
Our final recommendation was to set up an aux send and return in Cubase VST (using a spare output and two inputs on the Emu interface) and use this to feed the MPX550, set to 100 percent wet. In this way, differing amounts of reverb can be added to each of the VST tracks and the quality will be much better than the rather indifferent software reverbs that come with Cubase VST. Furthermore, because the MPX550 has digital I/O, it can be connected via the S/PDIF socket of any suitable audio interface that has S/PDIF I/O, to avoid an extra stage of analogue-to-digital conversion. The Compounder and Exciter can be left at the output of the chain to process the stereo mix, which can then be recorded back into the system as a new stereo track. Used with care, these two processors are very good for overall mix sweetening, while the EQ and dynamics in Cubase are perfectly adequate for most track-tweaking needs.
Our final advice to Rod was to burn test CDs and play them on as many systems as possible, to allow him to get used to and compensate for the inaccuracies of his monitoring system. Though it's not a bad monitoring setup, the bass end will inevitably be misleading to a greater or lesser degree with such small speakers in such a compact location.
"It's not every day you get the chance for two of the world's most respected experts on music technology to visit your home and spend the afternoon giving you a one-to-one home-studio consultation! I was and still am blown away. I will never forget it. Thanks guys.
"Now everything sounds infinitely better. I certainly don't take the Auralex acoustic foam gifts lightly and I really appreciate them. They make a massive difference to the way things sound.
"As well as being great company, Paul and Hugh were both amazingly helpful and insightful; I feel as though I've learned a huge amount following the visit, and have been immediately putting all the hints and tips into practice. For example, I've just recorded a superb take of an instrumental acoustic number that sounds absolutely first-rate thanks to Paul and Hugh finding the 'sweet spot' for my Martin, angling the mic correctly and making use of some reflective surfaces and ambience. It sounds so good from source now; this one's gonna need pretty much sweet FA in terms of further processing. Nothing short of a triumph!
"Overall, Paul and Hugh's comments were very encouraging, and all I can say is that I must be paying attention when I read Paul's books and SOS! Now all that remains is for me to record a great album..."