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Studio SOS: Improving Your Workspace

Bella Saer
By Paul White

Although Bella's studio setup was not particularly complex, the way it was configured made the working area feel cluttered.Although Bella's studio setup was not particularly complex, the way it was configured made the working area feel cluttered.

The team rotate Bella Saer's entire setup through 90 degrees in search of a more effective working environment.

This month's Studio SOS comes from sunny Brixton, where Bella Saer is a singer, songwriter, and composer for TV. Her music-to-picture work comprises commercials and, more recently, documentaries. She has written songs and sung in bands since she was a teenager and has also sung classically, including as a choral scholar at Trinity College, Cambridge. She plans to release her first album next year and is working on several other collaborative projects. Bella spent a couple of years as a reporter and producer for the BBC and ITN before deciding to devote more time to music.

In an upstairs bedroom of her house, Bella has an Apple Mac G5 running Logic Pro, a setup which she uses for both songwriting and composing to picture. When we arrived, she had the studio set up on a desk in an alcove next to the fireplace, leaving her space for recording vocals and live instruments at the other end of the room, where she'd erected a couple of used office dividers that she'd acquired to provide some acoustic isolation. The floor underneath her desk was a sea of cables and daisy-chained mains connectors and she had a Spirit mixer wired as a monitor level control so that she could add monitor reverb via an Alesis Picoverb. A Focusrite Platinum Voicemaster was patched into one of the line inputs of her MOTU 828 MkII audio interface for vocal and instrument recording via a Rode NTK tube microphone, and an Emu Proteus 2000 provided additional MIDI sounds, though Bella said she didn't use the Proteus as much as her software sampler instruments. Bella uses both an electric piano and an M Audio Oxygen8 MIDI keyboard, and she had both of these plugged into an Emagic MT4 MIDI interface which also fed the Proteus 2000.

Paul and Hugh decided to completely reorganise Bella's setup, and they started off by disconnecting all the wiring and moving the main studio desk to the room's shorter wall.Paul and Hugh decided to completely reorganise Bella's setup, and they started off by disconnecting all the wiring and moving the main studio desk to the room's shorter wall.

As well as being cluttered, the studio environment was not acoustically ideal, and Bella's Tannoy Reveal active monitors, although on good stands, were partially obscured by her computer monitors. Also, their proximity to an untreated side wall made the stereo image somewhat unbalanced. Bella was keen to try a different layout, but wasn't sure what was the best way to go. She also wanted any acoustic treatment to be removable, as she wasn't sure how long it would be before she moved house. Although she wasn't entirely sure about the idea at first (she had only just re-configured the system with a sound-engineer friend) I suggested we dismantle the entire setup and then rebuild it facing down the length of the room. This would mean putting the desk beneath the window with one speaker on either side and with the piano to Bella's left. If we could find a way to dispense with the mixer, we'd also have plenty of room on the desk for her Oxygen8 keyboard, computer keyboard, and mouse mat.Moving gear and furniture around is a great opportunity to dust!Moving gear and furniture around is a great opportunity to dust!

A Radical Rebuild

Having talked Bella into this radical rebuild (and having made a good start on her chocolate Hobnob stash!) we set to work, sorting the cables by type and removing the cable ties that had been used to keep them coiled (most were much longer than necessary). While we were doing this, Bella went shopping for an antistatic fluffy duster, some nylon cord, and some picture-rail hooks, as Hugh and I decided these would make a convenient way to mount the Auralex foam panels necessary for acoustic treatment, without making the fixing permanent. She also bought an extra mains distribution board, as we felt she had too few spare sockets.

Before reassembling the system, I crawled under the desk and taped a couple of power distribution boards to the desk's metal frame to keep them off the floor. These were surge protected and all supplied from a further six-way distribution board plugged into a nearby wall socket, so we created in effect a 'star' mains system fanning out from one point, which is less likely to lead to ground-loop hum problems.

Paul headed under the desk to deal with the mains wiring, gaffa-taping distribution boards to the desk to keep things tidy.Paul headed under the desk to deal with the mains wiring, gaffa-taping distribution boards to the desk to keep things tidy.

Before deciding on how exactly to configure the system, I created a Logic default template song with a Platinumverb reverb plug-in set up so that Bella could try using this to add monitoring reverb while recording. The MOTU 828 MkII runs happily at buffer sizes of 256 or even 128 samples, so there's no real need to set up hardware monitoring given that the latency is negligible. Bella decided this sounded fine, so we were able to simplify the system by losing the mixer and the Picoverb. The volume control on the front of the MOTU 828 MkII was then used to control the monitor speaker level, and the phones outlet on the same unit was used for monitoring while recording. However, we had moved the interface further from the live area, so Bella needed to buy a headphone extension cable.

Studio SOSBella couldn't fix any acoustic treatment permanently, so Paul suggested threading string through pieces of acoustic foam and then hanging them from the picture rail on hooks.Bella couldn't fix any acoustic treatment permanently, so Paul suggested threading string through pieces of acoustic foam and then hanging them from the picture rail on hooks.

We arranged the desk with the computer screen behind the line of the monitors and angled the monitors to converge at a point just behind Bella's normal listening position. This is a good compromise if both the engineer and a client wish to hear the mix accurately. All the USB devices (other than the monitor-screen controls) were fed from a USB hub, and the Logic dongle was plugged into the Mac keyboard. A separate desk, which had been used to house Bella's mixer, her old G4, and a printer, was dismantled and the computer system moved to the lounge to give us more space.

Monitoring & Acoustics Tweaks

Once we were satisfied everything was working, we set about trying to improve both the monitoring and recording acoustics. To help tame the low end, we placed a couple of Real Traps bass traps across the front corners, standing them on the floor to avoid fixing problems. More would have been ideal, but two definitely helped.Some Real Traps Mini Traps were placed in the corners behind the speakers to help with low-frequency absorption.Some Real Traps Mini Traps were placed in the corners behind the speakers to help with low-frequency absorption.

Four-inch-thick Auralex panels were then hung on the side wall (also using picture-rail hooks to hang the left panel on the wardrobe doors) with two more hung at the top of the rear wall and one placed above the fireplace to damp down reflections from that area. Checking the system with Hugh's test disc confirmed that the imaging was much better and the low end was pretty even, a fact no doubt assisted by the fact that the Tannoy Reveals don't have a hugely extended bass end anyway. The speakers were positioned on their stands using blobs of Blu-Tac, which is as good a way of doing the job as any, so we didn't need to make any changes there.

Bella mentioned that she'd been unable to get her Airport wireless Internet connection working on that machine, despite the fact that she'd bought the machine supposedly set up to be 'Airport ready'. I offered to have a quick look in case it was anything obvious and discovered that, although an Airport card had been fitted, the antenna cable was still coiled up and secured with a cable tie. Once I'd plugged the antennae cable into the card — which is a bit fiddly — it all worked fine. With G5s, you also have to remember to fit the included T-shaped antenna to the socket on the back of the machine (which Bella had done), otherwise the signal can't penetrate the all-metal casing.

Because we already had office screens available, it wasn't too difficult to set up a reasonably dead recording zone for vocals and acoustic guitars, but we did rotate the rug to make it easier to roll up, so that she could record guitars over the wooden floor to get a more lively sound. I also mentioned the Frontier Designs Tranzport wireless transport controller that I use in my own studio, as this makes it very easy for musicians working on their own to control the basic essentials of recording without having to keep walking across the room to the computer.Bella's vocal recording area, complete with Paul and Hugh's improvements.Bella's vocal recording area, complete with Paul and Hugh's improvements.

Office screens have a fairly thin fabric/padding layer and so are only effective at high frequencies. Bella had hung thick duvets over two partitions, so we kept these as they improved absorption across the vocal range. We suggested Bella work with her back to the corner where the two panels meet, as this would make the best use of the absorption and also minimise reflections from elsewhere in the room, as she wouldn't be directly facing any flat surfaces. Our only concern was that the panels weren't quite high enough, so we improvised a solution by curving our remaining foam panel and then wedging it on top of the office panels above the corner, which put it directly behind the singing position. We made a couple of quick test recordings to confirm that this worked OK and were rewarded by a nicely neutral vocal sound that had very little room tone superimposed upon it. Arranging longer legs or supports for the office partitions would also be a good solution.

Setting Up A Sequencer Project Template

The final task was to help Bella set up a template project in Logic that would allow her to start work without having to set up lots of things each time. As she was using a single monitor, I arranged two Screensets, one showing the main Arrange page and one the Environment audio mixer, so these could be called up directly using numeric keys. Bella also asked for a third Screenset to open the Score window. On the Arrange page, I set up 12 audio tracks, 12 virtual instrument tracks, and 16 MIDI tracks to address the Proteus 2000, as most projects would require fewer than that. A stereo Aux object was then used to bring the stereo output of the Proteus 2000 into the mix, and I also set up an Audio object with the Proteus 2000 as its source so that Bella could record it as hard audio if she needed to. I set up the 'comfort' reverb on a Buss Audio object using Platinumverb (as it is quite CPU efficient), and set up a total of eight further busses giving Bella the scope to create more sophisticated routing without having to add more Environment objects.

Bella said she'd always found the Proteus hard to use, as patch selection via Logic was very confusing, so I suggested we do an Internet search for a Proteus 2000 patch-name list. This took around 15 seconds and lead us to the site of well-known Logic guru Pete Thomas. Thanks, Pete — it worked brilliantly and made Bella very happy! Now, Bella can call up the patch needed for each part according to bank and program names. We simply copied and pasted Pete Thomas's Proteus Multi Instrument object into our new default Environment page so that it would always be available at the start of each new project. I also took this opportunity to sort out the I/O Labels section in the Audio Configuration window so that audio inputs and outputs could be selected using meaningful names rather than raw numbers.

Guitar Amp Modelling Tips

As Bella also plays a bit of guitar, we experimented with Logic 's Guitar Amp Pro plug-in to see if it suited her picking style. The first two channels of the MOTU interface have high-impedance inputs suitable for guitars and basses. As Guitar Amp Pro doesn't include effects other than basic spring reverb and tremolo, anything fancier has to be added by placing plug-in effects after it. Logic 's various modulation effects really appealed to Bella, particularly the Mod Delay, Chorus, and Rotary effects. She was also quite intrigued as to the possibilities afforded by the tempo-synced Tremolo/Panner.

We took the opportunity to go through vocal compression with her, in order to provide some tips on achieving the best settings. Using Logic 's own compressor and starting with the default settings, we reset the ratio to around 5:1, switched from Peak to RMS mode (Peak is more appropriate for percussive sounds), and then adjusted the Threshold control until the absolute maximum amount of gain reduction on loud vocal notes was around 8dB. This thickened the sound and ironed out level changes quite effectively without obvious side-effects, so we left the Attack and Release settings at their default values. Even if you use one of the included presets, you still have to adjust the Threshold to get the desired amount of gain reduction, as all compressors are dependent on the recorded level and dynamics of the signal being treated. Bella's usual strategy had been to apply a little compression while recording vocals using the Focusrite Platinum Voicemaster, adding a little more in software if necessary, and we had no reason to suggest that she change this perfectly sound approach.

By the end of the day, Bella's studio was looking much tidier, and both Hugh and I had spent a while vacuuming and dusting so that the assembled system was free of dust. Furthermore, Andy Brookes, (who had escaped from the SOS graphics production area to act as one of our camera men for the day) had also adjusted Bella's fridge-freezer to stop it dripping on the floor. Given more time he would probably have boxed in the pipework around her boiler as well!

We all agreed the monitoring environment was better, the ergonomics of the system better, and the system generally more streamlined and easier to use. Certainly the studio was no longer cluttered by excessive Hobnobs by the time we left! Bella also had her Airport system working and so no longer needed to trail an Ethernet cable out of the window and into the adjacent room every time she needed a software update! We tested this new-found freedom by downloading the Spectrasonics CD Joiner patch needed to make fresh installations of their virtual instruments under Mac OS X — an evening job we left for Bella...

The final studio layout was much less cluttered, partly because the reorganisation of the studio routing had rendered a variety of Bella's hardware redundant.The final studio layout was much less cluttered, partly because the reorganisation of the studio routing had rendered a variety of Bella's hardware redundant.

Bella's Comments

Bella Saer: Studio SOS November 2005.

"I'm really pleased with the transformation. The studio's new layout means it's now a spacious and serene place to work. Paul and Hugh created a lot of space by getting rid of a whole table full of kit — my mixer, my other Mac, my external monitoring reverb unit, and other stuff that had accumulated over time. I was a little apprehensive about letting them rewire everything, but the result of their rationalisation is a really neat setup — by the time they'd finished there was a pile of unwanted cables in the corner of the room.

"The Auralex foam had a dramatic effect on the room's acoustics and I was glad it was the nice blue colour as opposed to the lurid purple that they also stock. I'd only recently plugged in my new G5 and I hadn't got round to setting up a default Logic Song, so Paul's help there was greatly appreciated. Loading up the Proteus bank names from Pete Thomas' site was a stroke of genius — well done, Paul! I had stopped using my Proteus in favour of software sampler instruments because I got bored with loading up Multis all the time on the actual Proteus. Now the Proteus is much simpler to use, so I'll pay it a lot more attention as it has some good sounds. I particularly liked the small touches, like the way my mains distribution boards were gaffa-taped to the mixer stand that supports my work surface.

"Thank you Paul & Hugh for coming to my studio and providing a day's top-quality entertainment. And thank you Andy for fixing my fridge!"

Published November 2005