We go old‑school in this month's Studio SOS, as we visit a hardware‑only studio and help John Cowburn to inject a Motown vibe into his mixes.
Like so many of us, John Cowburn has his recording studio set up in his house, where space is limited — and in this case, the control room also doubles up as his bedroom. Whereas most musicians now seem to have gone over to computer recording, John prefers the old‑school approach: he uses an Alesis HD24 24‑track hard‑disk recorder, teamed with an analogue mixer, a rack of outboard dynamic processors and a couple of budget Lexicon reverbs. This feels more like the tape‑based systems that he grew up with and it's certainly fast and easy to use. John is considering moving over to a computer for editing, but he still intends to use the analogue mixer, and he'll probably track to the HD24 before moving the files across to the computer using the Alesis Fireport.
When we arrived at John's Wigan home (which just happens to be next door to a great fish and chip shop...), the control‑room gear was set up in one corner of his bedroom, with his Genelec 8030As set up on a shelf, which meant that one of them was placed very close to the corner of the room. A Peavey 24FX PA console handled most of the mixing, but a little Edirol M10DX digital mixer was used as a submixer to provide more input channels, and a couple of M‑Audio Octane eight‑channel mic preamps were connected to the analogue inputs of the HD24 via a patchbay. Of course, these preamps have ADAT optical digital outputs that could be connected to the HD24 directly — but that approach would take away John's ability to change the patching arrangements and to insert dynamics processors while recording.
A home‑made rack on the left‑hand wall contained the patchbays, three Tapco SQ2 compressors, four Samson S‑COM compressor/gates and two Lexicon MX200 effects units. A surprisingly sprightly looking Fostex R8 tape machine was set up on a shelf above, where it could be used in conjunction with a Behringer 1U Eurorack Pro line mixer — and John often used it to bounce his final mixes through, for that 'analogue' character.
The room itself is roughly 10 x 10 feet, and nine feet high. It had a bed in the middle but there was no acoustic treatment at all on its plastered brick walls, only wallpaper. An adjacent, smaller room, connected via a stage box and multicore, is used as a live room, and this was also completely untreated when we arrived, except for some carpet glued to the two sides of a home‑built vocal booth that took up one corner of the room. This left John with an L‑shaped recording space. As we've explained before, carpet is of very limited use as an acoustic treatment material, because when stuck directly to solid walls it absorbs only high frequencies and tends to make the room sound mid and bass heavy. However there wasn't enough here to do any real acoustic damage, so we left it in place.
We both felt that although the control‑room layout could never be perfect — because of the square shape of the room, and because it also had to function as a bedroom — we could rearrange things to get the monitors further away from the corner. We could also improve the immediate monitoring environment, using strategically‑placed acoustic foam. The tracks John played us at this point sounded a little confused, with no real stereo imaging.
Our first step was quite simple. We moved the monitors and the Peavey mixing console to the extreme right‑hand side of the work surface, and relocated the Edirol submixer and a Mackie Spike interface from the right of the Peavey mixer to the left. This allowed us to move the left monitor speaker around 18 inches further away from the corner, which improved the bass balance and imaging considerably. A piece of two‑inch Auralex pyramid‑profile foam was placed horizontally behind the monitors, and secured to the wall using just a couple of dabs of adhesive. Another horizontal piece was fixed to the wall on the immediate left at the mirror point, after we'd relocated a small shelving unit that occupied that position. To the right was a window and then a wardrobe door, which created an unwelcome reflective surface. This was addressed with another foam panel, but because John obviously needed access to the inside of the wardrobe we stuck a couple of pieces of velcro to the door, with their mating halves on the back of the foam panel. This was enough to hold the foam in place, yet still allow it to be removed for easy access to the wardrobe. We hung the foam panel vertically, but as it was longer than needed we cut off a ten‑inch length and glued that to the side of another wardrobe adjacent to the outboard rack, to reduce reflections from this hard surface immediately behind the mix position. Ideally, the rear wall of the bedroom would need some treatment too, and a duvet hanging on a rail would be quite adequate, so John said he'd look after this after we'd gone.
Playing more music over the system now revealed significantly improved clarity and stereo imaging, and although the room was made from solid brick and was dangerously close to a cube in shape, the bass end was more even in level than we'd expected, probably due to the natural bass trapping of the door, window and bed, and to the monitoring position, which was well away from the centre of the room.
The live room was fitted out with a Yamaha DTX electronic drum kit, augmented by a Roland TD3 snare pad and brain — so there were no problems with acoustics there! For vocals, John no longer used the booth, as it was too cramped and claustrophobic. Instead, he had an SE Reflexion Filter set up on a separate stand behind his Rode NTK mic, so that the singer's back was towards one of the carpeted voice‑booth walls. However, because the carpet was quite thin, we suggested another rail and folded duvet in this position to really clean things up. The way John had his mic set up, it was pushed a long way back into the Reflexion Filter, and we explained that the sound is more natural if you have the mic roughly level with the open end of the shield: if you push it too far back into the curve, internal reflections start to colour the sound in an undesirable way.
Given the bare plaster‑on‑concrete walls and a wood laminate floor, the live room really was very live. So to tackle that, and to make instrument recording less problematic, we hung our remaining three pieces of Auralex foam on the two largest bare walls. Rather than glue it on to the walls directly (which makes it difficult to remove), we glued thin strips of wood to the back of the foam near the top, then drilled a hole in the centre of the strip so that we could slot it over a nail or screw. In this case I drilled holes in the wall for rawlplugs, then used screws on which we could hang the panels. Although we only put up three pieces of foam, the reduction in liveness and flutter echo was very obvious, so when John puts his duvet up behind the vocal position, vocals and other instruments should sound cleaner too.
With the acoustics chores out of the way, we put up a mix that John was working on: a recording of the seven‑piece soul band that he gigs with. He was trying to get the general sound of those early Motown soul records, rather than going for a modern vibe, but he wasn't too happy with the way his mixes were sounding. Mixing wasn't really helped by the fact that the Peavey 24FX desk is designed specifically for live sound — so all the sends (other than the two used to feed the internal effects), are fixed pre‑fader. This means that if you use them as effects sends, the effect level won't change along with the dry sound when you adjust a fader. Worse still is that the desk has no control-room monitoring output — the PFL/AFL buttons only solo channels in the headphone mix, and John had to use the main stereo bus outputs to feed the studio monitors. We experimented with some rather dodgy adaptors to feed John's Genelec monitors from the headphone socket, and that seemed to work alright, as it allowed the AFL function to be used and the phones level control to be work as a monitor control. However, we put the wiring back as it was, because with his adaptors the signal kept cutting out. We left John to make up a reliable unbalanced 'stereo‑jack to two XLRs' cable.
The recording John played us wasn't at all bad — the drums came from his electronic kit, the bass and two electric guitar parts were DI'd, and there was also a keyboard part, plus three sax lines. Space was left for a trumpet line and backing vocals, which were yet to be added. In an effort to compensate for the acoustics of his untreated room — and particularly the bass build‑up from the Genelec that was placed in the corner — John had cut a lot of bass from several of the tracks, including the bass drum and bass guitar, and this contributed to a generally thin and uninvolving mix. We flattened the EQ and started again, looking first at the drum sounds. In the end, we got the best kick sound by using a hint of low‑shelving boost, teamed with some cut at around 180Hz. I didn't try to dial in more top-end click, though, because that wouldn't have been right for the vintage sound we were looking for.
For the snare, I cut some lower mids to take out the boxiness, so there was still a decent amount of snare definition, coupled with some low‑end punch. The electronic toms needed no EQ and the Yamaha electronic cymbals needed only the slightest hint of top boost. Initially, I set up a plate‑like reverb with a decay time of just under 900ms, using one of the Peavey desk's onboard processors. I used this on the snare drum, as well as a hint on the DI'd clean guitars, just to stop them sounding too dry.
I think John had compressed the bass a little while recording it, so it was already reasonably even, and although some rattle and finger noise was evident when this part was auditioned in isolation, it sounded fine in the mix once I'd put back some of the bass end that John had rolled off. A tip for mixing these vintage bass sounds is also to look at boosting between 200 and 350Hz, because that brings up the character of the sound and makes the bass more audible in the mix, without actually making it much louder.
Having balanced up the drum-kit elements and the bass, I brought in the guitars, then took a look at the vocal, which sounded pretty good. The only real problem here was some audible live-room ambience, especially once compression had been added. John had compressed the vocal during recording — because he says his singer has a very wide dynamic range — but, sensibly, he'd not gone over the top, which meant that more could be added when mixing. In this case, we used one of John's Tapco budget compressors, partly because I was curious to see how well they worked. I don't think it'll cause Tubetech many sleepless nights, but at around £50 considering the budget priceit worked pretty well with a ratio of somewhere around 3:1 and a threshold setting that gave a gain reduction of around 5 or 6dB on the loudest peaks. As usual for vocals, I set up a fairly fast attack time and also got the release as fast as I could (100 to 150ms) without letting the sound pump — all of which seemed to rein the vocals in nicely.
Little EQ was needed, but we did want a suitably vintage treatment, which we found in the Peavey's second effects processor. We selected a slapback delay that repeated a couple of times before fading, and combined it with a bit of reverb, setting the actual amount of effect after the rest of the track was playing. On its own, the amount of delay seemed quite high but in the mix it gave exactly the right effect.
The brass needed balancing and panning slightly to place the three sax overdubs next to rather than on top of each other, and I added just a hint of the slapback echo and plate reverb to them. Bringing in the keyboard completed the picture. Later in the day, we experimented with a Lexicon ambience reverb to simulate the effect of recording a whole band playing in a live room, which is how many old soul records would have been made.
It was interesting, when balancing the sounds, that the drum kit sat well back in the mix, with only the snare drum being clearly audible and the kick reinforcing the bass guitar. While many modern records have the drums well to the fore, vintage record producers usually considered drums to be something to put in the background. The overall drum sound also tended to be less bright than we're currently used to, but in context it works extremely well — glueing the mix together without dominating it.
The only thing I didn't really like about the mix was the DI'd electric rhythm guitar part, which, to me, sounded too clean and didn't cut through all that well. As an experiment, we tried 're-amping' this part, and ran the guitar track directly from the output of the HD24 recorder into a Roland Cube amp that was set up in the live room. We placed John's Rode NTK tube mic in front of it, a little off‑axis and eventually settled on an almost clean 'Twin' model sound. We then played the track, recording the miked amp onto a new track as we did so. This ended up sounding really authentic and cut through in the mix much better than the straight DI'd sound, although we also got some nice results by mixing the two versions. The line output from the HD24 is really a bit too hot to feed straight into the guitar amp, but as John is quite handy at soldering things, we suggested that wiring a 47kΩ log pot between a pair of input and output jacks might be useful to attenuate the signal being fed back to the guitar amp. This should give him a better level for setting the right tonal control on the amp, especially when very clean sounds are needed.
John's final query concerned his Roland GR20 guitar synth, which he'd used recently to mock up some trumpet lines. He'd positioned the GK pickup very carefully on a Squier Telecaster, but found it hard to play without triggering false notes, and he'd resorted to turning off the three lower strings to help him play more cleanly. Unfortunately, he couldn't remember how to turn them back on, and as my GR33 works differently I couldn't help. Although John knew where the manual was, getting it would mean spending a lot of time emptying a cupboard, so he phoned a friend at his local music store, who told us how to perform a factory reset. That brought back all six strings, and I was then able to check the string sensitivity settings, which turned out to be way too high — which is why John had trouble with rogue triggering in the first place. We reset these one string at a time so that the LED level meter only got near the top when the guitar was picked hard. After a little fine tweaking to match John's playing style, we got it behaving much more consistently.
By the end of the afternoon, we were all fairly pleased at the improvements our small changes had made, and John also told us he'd decided to look for a new mixer that would be more appropriate for studio use — ideally one with two swept‑mid EQ sections rather than just one, plus a proper control‑room section. Buses would be useful for processing submixes, such as compressing drum groups and brass sections, but we also said that if he could get his mixes to work with 22 tracks rather than all 24 (perhaps by putting the toms on a stereo pair of tracks rather than on separate tracks), he could record his final mix back to the ADAT HD24 as a stereo 24‑bit file. The advantage would be in keeping all his project files in the same place. A second drive in the HD24 would also allow valuable projects to be backed up without first having to transfer them to a computer.
John Cowburn: "After reading SOS for many years and always reading Paul White's column first, I was over the moon when he said that he and Hugh would visit my studio. They arrived armed with soundproofing and a toolbox, and within the space of an hour had the sound in the control room (my bedroom) sounding better than I ever thought possible. With the type of music that I was working on with my band I wanted the authentic '50s and '60s sound, and they achieved it. Paul said that a great deal of the time, with mixing, "less is more," and I now understand this principle. All the members of the band have heard the results and are amazed.
"I'm going to get a new analogue mixer — maybe a Ghost — as the one I have is not right for what I want to do. I'll also probably buy Logic, to look at mixing within the digital domain. A big thank you to Paul, Hugh and Auralex — and especially SOS."