We help singer-songwriter Jamie Knight make the most of his recording space, and advise on separation when recording multiple sources simultaneously.
This month's Studio SOS saw us visit the West Midlands, where singer-songwriter Jamie Knight was in the process of converting a garden building into a room that could be used for recording and rehearsal. Unlike the many SOS readers who aspire to mastering the entire process, from tracking to mixing, Jamie was more interested in making good-quality recordings — mainly of acoustic instruments and voice — that could be mixed elsewhere. He'd opted to use Logic Express running on a small Mac G4 laptop because many of the local mixing studios seem to run Logic Pro, and although the G4 is a bit short on power by today's standards, it works fine for tracking (you just shouldn't expect to be able to run many plug-ins when you do your rough mixes).
The Garden Room
The recording room itself is around the size of a single garage and built from brick. Jamie has had all the walls insulated and plastered, but there was no acoustic treatment at all when we arrived. Also, he'd initially set up his Event active monitors facing across the room, which didn't produce a very stable low end — and I'd pointed out to Jamie, in an earlier conversation about this project, that in smaller rooms it's invariably best to have the speakers working down the length of the room. Jamie had clearly taken this on board, as when we arrived he was poring over the instructions for a self-assembly computer desk that he'd bought to sit at the end of the room, and on which he wanted to place the computer, his Alesis I/O 26 audio interface and his monitors. It was a typical office desk, with drawers below it on the right-hand side and some kind of edifice designed to sit on top for holding odds and ends. We simply omitted fitting anything above the desktop, so we ended up with a flat-top desk that fitted neatly between his built-in CD/DVD shelves at the far end of the room. Hugh and I helped Jamie put the desk together based on the usual cryptic DIY instructions — exploded diagrams with multiple types of inadequately described fasteners, screws and widgets — fuelled by fresh tea and chocolate Hob Nobs (which arrived with no prompting from us!).
We needed some acoustic treatment to reduce the reflectivity of the room, particularly at the 'mirror' points where sound from the speakers might otherwise be reflected directly back to the listening position. We couldn't fix anything directly to the side walls because the built-in shelves didn't leave enough bare wall space, so I came up with the idea of gluing a thin wooden strip to the top of an Auralex foam panel and screwing this directly to the edge of one of the shelves — so that the foam hung down like a curtain, leaving a couple of inches of air gap between itself and the wall. As this curtain could be lifted, anything on the shelves directly behind it could still be accessed. We did the same for the other side, and then two further pieces were fixed to wooden strips and hung 'picture style' either side of the window, directly in front of the listening position. The offcuts from these were stuck to the ceiling to reduce potential reflections from the ceiling mirror point.
Two further pieces of foam were again glued to wooden strips and hung on nails at the rear of the room, to dry up the area that Jamie intended to use for recording vocals. A heavy curtain over the door also helped reduce reflections in this area. The technique of gluing wooden strips to acoustic foam evolved from a previous Studio SOS visit, where we fixed wooden coat-hangers to the back of the foam to provide an easy way to hang it on a picture nail, and that would have been a viable alternative here.
Having installed this admittedly quite basic acoustic treatment (which was based on two-inch Auralex pyramid foam), we set up the Event monitors on Auralex MoPad foam platforms, arranged to tilt the monitors up slightly at the front to keep the tweeters pointing at the listener's head, and then angled them in to aim at the monitoring position. As these are active monitors, we fed them directly from the Alesis audio interface Jamie uses, which has a monitor output level control as well as a phones output, and includes eight microphone preamps, meaning that no separate mixer or mic preamp is needed. The interface, which sat nicely in the shelf section beneath the desk, draws power directly from the computer's Firewire port, so other than mains power to the monitors and laptop, the entire studio needs only two jack leads and one Firewire cable! To keep things as neat as possible, we cut a hole in the desk's rear panel to allow the cables through from the interface, but that was the only mod needed. For vocals, Jamie uses an SE Electronics tube mic, and the power supply for this fitted nicely in the drawer beneath the interface shelf, making it easy to connect up when needed, without actually having to take it out of the drawer.
Jamie has also seen a Frontier Designs Alphatrack controller, and he likes the idea of having physical transport buttons and fader control, so one of these may be joining the rest of the system pretty soon, along with a better quality chair. It's not worth scrimping on health and comfort when you spend lots on gear, and a good chair really is essential if you plan to spend a lot of time working in your studio. Jamie plans to do just that, so replacing his folding wooden chair is very high on his priority list! As he wants to be able to work on guitar ideas when seated, a simple office swivel chair with no arms will probably be his best option.
Part of the reason for our visit was to advise Jamie on how best to record his voice and various instruments to a high standard. Vocal recording is best done in a fairly dry environment so that the recording isn't coloured by room reflections. In a one-room studio like this, a good strategy is for the singer to stand with their back to a corner that's treated with damping material, and to put a commercial acoustic screen behind the mic to attenuate reflections coming from the rear and sides. This will also reduce the amount of vocal sound getting out into the room to cause reflections in the first place.
We'd brought along an SE Reflexion Filter (kindly donated by Sonic Distribution), and we assembled this for Jamie, doing our usual mod of folding the mounting bracket's pivot back on itself to get the centre of gravity of the combined mic and screen somewhere close to the middle of the mic stand. By using the rear corner of the room, flanked by a foam sheet and the door curtain, we managed to create a reasonably dry and natural-sounding vocal area.
The Reflexion Filter mounting ironmongery protrudes forward quite a long way, and this can be problematic if you're trying to play the guitar while singing, as Jamie does. We've found that the best solution is to dispense with the Reflexion Filter mounting hardware, instead mounting the Filter directly on a simple mic stand (with no boom arm). The threaded hole in the base of the Reflexion Filter fits a standard European 3/8-inch mic-stand thread. You can then support the microphone with a second boom-arm stand coming in over the top of the filter from behind — leaving plenty of space for the guitar.
The floor of Jamie's studio is basically textured concrete, but he's placed a rug in the centre. For recording vocals, we suggested that putting the rug beneath the singer would help to dry up floor reflections. However, for recording acoustic guitar or vocals and guitar at the same time, where the player is standing, we thought that leaving the hard floor exposed (or laying down a sheet of MDF or hardboard) would produce a nicer, livelier guitar tone.
Working With Spill
Jamie was clearly concerned about spill between the guitar and vocals but this needn't necessarily be a problem as long as the spill isn't high enough in level to prevent the two sounds from being balanced and processed correctly. Where the singer has a strong voice (as Jamie does) and where they record standing up, you can get great results by putting the guitar mic below the guitar, rather than above. The guitar mic can be a cardioid or an omni, with some sort of screen erected behind it to reduce pickup from elsewhere in the room, and you can get fine results with either large- or small-diaphragm mics. Jamie already owns a small-diaphragm Audio Technica cardioid condenser mic that he should find ideal for this task.
Exactly where you put the mic varies from instrument to instrument, and some time spent experimenting really pays off, but in most cases putting the mic around 14 inches from the guitar body and aiming it towards the bridge from below, angled up at around 45 degrees, is a good starting point. Alternatively, I've obtained excellent results by moving the mic out to the player's right (assuming they are right handed): imagine the guitar is a Fender Strat and you're pointing the mic down the jack socket from 14 inches away. Somewhere between the two positions generally produces a good result, and because this mic will be physically well spaced from the vocal mic, the amount of spill is quite manageable. Keeping the vocal mic high and tilting it back slightly to minimise the guitar pickup helps too. We also emphasised that Jamie should avoid pointing the mic directly at the guitar's sound hole, because unless the guitar is a very small-bodied type, it's likely to sound boomy.
Jamie's other concern was maintaining the best possible separation when recording two acoustic guitar players at the same time. Physical distance helps, so having the players at opposite ends of the room is an obvious starting point, but you can also improve matters by erecting an impromptu acoustic screen between the players or behind each guitar mic. You could use a Reflexion Filter for this purpose, but hanging a folded duvet over a clothes airing frame or chair back can give a worthwhile improvement. There's also the option of DI'ing the acoustic guitars using their inbuilt pickups, which is a good plan if a high degree of separation is needed — perhaps to allow independent editing of the two parts.
In my experience, the DI sound isn't as natural you get from miking the guitar, but a modelling unit such as the Fishman Aura can significantly improve the sound, using complex filtering to modify the sound spectrum of the DI'd guitar to match an optimally miked reference instrument. We explained to Jamie that you can achieve similar results using Logic's Match EQ, or similar 'fingerprint EQ' plug-ins. You first make the best recording you can of your guitar using a mic (you only need a few bars), then get Match EQ to 'learn' this as the reference. Next you record the guitar part via a DI and let Match EQ learn the sound spectrum. It will then compute a complex EQ curve to match the DI'd sound to the miked sound. A slider lets you morph between the matched and original sounds, and you may find that the best result lies somewhere between the two extremes. Such techniques are never 100 percent successful (pickups have different dynamic characteristics to the acoustic sound of the instrument), but they'll often get you close enough.
Jamie had just a couple more questions. First, he asked about recording levels, and as he was recording at 24-bit resolution, we told him that the safest bet is to aim to get the meters reading about halfway up on signal peaks, leaving around 12dB of safety margin or headroom before clipping. His final question was directed at Hugh: as Jamie often works with a cellist, he wanted advice on how best to record the cello. Hugh suggested leaving the floor uncovered (as with the guitar) to brighten the sound, and setting up the microphone about 14 inches from the instrument on a low stand, looking up towards the cello's bridge. He explained that, as is always the case with miking, a bit of experimentation would be necessary to find the sweetest-sounding spot, but other than that, it could be treated much like the acoustic guitar.
Before leaving, we had a look at some projects Jamie had been experimenting with and noticed that he'd been using separate reverb plug-ins on his channel insert points. While this is a valid approach if you have a specific reverb setting that will only be applied to that one channel, general reverbs are best set up on post-fade aux sends — which in Logic means inserting the reverb plug-in into the bus that's set up as the destination for the aux send in question. This way of working is exactly the same as with an analogue console, where the aux sends feed a portion of the channel signal to the reverb device, so although everything feeding the same send gets the same type of reverb added, you can set independent amounts for each channel. When using a relatively low-powered computer such as a G4, sharing one or two reverbs across a mix can really save CPU power compared with multiple reverb plug-ins. Creating a default template song with a couple of different reverbs on sends one and two is easy to do and saves you having to set them up afresh with every new project. Even though Jamie plans to mix elsewhere, hearing the playback with a bit of reverb gives a better idea of how the end result might sound.
While checking the computer system for potential problems, I also noticed that the internal 70GB drive had only 3GB of free space. We managed to claw back another 6GB by deleting a load of test projects Jamie had worked on in Logic, but most of the drive space was taken up with the operating system and Jamie's iTunes library. Hard drives can slow down dramatically as they approach capacity, so keeping at least 10 percent of the space free is a good idea when working with audio. The easiest solution for Jamie would be to buy a large external hard drive (either Firewire or USB2, it doesn't really matter which) and then archive all his finished projects to that, freeing the internal drive for the projects currently being worked on. We also suggested that he move his iTunes library to the external drive, as this would free up a lot more space.
Everything Under Control
By the end of the day, we'd transformed Jamie's garden retreat into a workable studio environment. Hugh's BBC test CD showed us that we were getting a sensibly even bass response, which was fortunate given the lack of formal bass trapping, and the stereo imaging from the monitors was also very good. As a room to play in, the space now feels more controlled and is no longer dominated by the sound of the room reflections, while the equipment setup on the new desk is far more ergonomic than before. Providing that care is taken with microphone placement and that duvets are deployed when necessary, there's no reason why Jamie shouldn't produce high-quality tracks here that can be mixed anywhere he chooses — although I suspect that when he gains more familiarity with his recording setup, he'll be mixing his own.
Jamie: "Having had the first practice here since the Studio SOS visit, I've noticed a dramatic improvement in the sound of the room, and when I'm listening to music the studio monitors now sound much more accurate. The advice on mic placement was useful and I'm keen to get started — so now it's time to knuckle down and learn as much as possible about recording acoustic guitars and vocals. It feels much more like a working studio, so thanks to the Studio SOS team.
"My immediate future plans are to start recording demos of my own songs, using two acoustic guitars, a cello, percussion and vocals. As for the five Hobnobs left at the end of the day — my dog ate them!
"My existing albums, Where the Heart Lies and Bound, were both recorded at other studios, but now I'm hoping to get the basic recording work done here so that I only have to use a commercial studio to mix. I'm hoping the new album project will be complete in about five months."