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Studio SOS: Kevin Brown

Optimising a garage studio By Paul White & Hugh Robjohns

Even if you have the space and the gear, like reader Kevin Brown, you still need to know how to make the best of it. We paid a visit to help him optimise his new garage‑conversion studio.

Although Kevin had completed the building and decorating work to turn his garage into a studio, there remained plenty to be done — not least some form of treatment to control the acoustics and make the space suitable for recording and monitoring.Although Kevin had completed the building and decorating work to turn his garage into a studio, there remained plenty to be done — not least some form of treatment to control the acoustics and make the space suitable for recording and monitoring.

Some people manage to save enough money to indulge their home recording interests to the extent they'd like to, and some people have enough time for recording — but few are lucky enough to have both at the same time. Kevin Brown was fortunate, however, because not only did he have the time and budget to indulge his passion for recording but also the space (a double garage) in which to set up a new home studio.

This being a major project, Kevin had decided to push the boat out, switching from his old Cubase and PC‑based system to Pro Tools 8HD running on a Mac Pro, with two HD96 interfaces and a C24 control surface. He'd originally shied away from Pro Tools due to its limited MIDI capability, but he said that in the time he'd spent with version 8 he'd been very impressed, despite a few (inevitable) early bugs and niggles.

On Arrival

Reflexion Filter in front and foam behind: a quick route to a nice, clean vocal recording.Reflexion Filter in front and foam behind: a quick route to a nice, clean vocal recording.

A few weeks ago, Kevin operated his studio from the rather more cramped environment of the loft space above his Bromley home, but when we arrived he already had the garage lined, plastered and floored — all of which had been done during the previous three days. He'd temporarily set up his new gear on his existing computer desk facing across the width of the 5.4 x 6.1m room, but his new C24 control surface was hanging off the edge in a rather precarious way, so he'd ordered a rather grand Argosy desk, which arrived the same day; part of it before we turned up and the rest some hours later. As this was rather central to the new studio layout, we helped to assemble it. We were also helped by ex T'Pau guitarist Dean Howard, who is a friend of Kevin's. Kevin is predominantly a keyboard player, and Dean plans to play guitar on some of his songs — but may also use the studio to do some recording with his as-yet unnamed new band.

Changes

Paul and Hugh set about installing Kevin's flash new equipment in his flash new Argosy desk!Paul and Hugh set about installing Kevin's flash new equipment in his flash new Argosy desk!

Kevin needed help with the acoustics because his bare, plastered double garage space was, predictably, far too lively without treatment, but he also sought advice on how best to set up the system to work in an ergonomic way. We thought that having the desk and monitoring system aligned to the long axis of the room would be better than working across it. This is less of an issue in larger rooms, but in garage‑sized studios we've found that the low end tends to behave more predictably and consistently in this configuration. It also ensures that the main listening position is well away from the centre of the room, so you'll tend to avoid the worst of any problems. It seemed logical to put Kevin's keyboard to the right of the desk and his Roland TD20K electronic drum kit to the left, placing them both within easy reach and freeing up the rear of the room for recording vocals and acoustic instruments. After moving all the furniture we could, we retired for a splendid sandwich lunch laid on by Kevin's wife Christine.

Once all the desk components had arrived, SOS's own Andy Brookes, who joined us on this visit, supervised the assembly while we planned and fitted the acoustic treatment. We didn't have enough foam with us to treat the entire space, so we concentrated on dealing with early reflections around the listening area. We also drew up plans for some inexpensive Rockwool‑based panel traps that Kevin and Dean could build to treat the rear and rear sides of the room. We've used this simple trap design before very successfully, and it simply comprises a 2 x 4 foot slab of cavity-wall insulation-grade Rockwool (which is dense enough to be quite rigid) that's fixed into a wooden frame around 75‑100mm deep, flush with the front of the frame so as to leave an airgap behind. The whole thing can be covered with a porous fabric to seal in the fibres and provide an attractive finish. Purely for convenience, we often use the 30mm slabs available from Wickes here in the UK. If you want greater quantity, though, you can often source Rockwool at lower cost from builder's merchants, who'll usually offer delivery too. Square wooden beading can be fixed inside the frame to stop the Rockwool slab from being pushed in too far.

Kevin's friend Dean helps to construct some cost‑effective DIY acoustic panels.Kevin's friend Dean helps to construct some cost‑effective DIY acoustic panels.For the front of the room, we used two‑inch thick Auralex foam stuck directly to the walls. This only absorbs relatively high frequencies, but nevertheless it definitely improves the stereo imaging, and reduces the impression of excessive liveness. The DIY traps will work to a lower frequency because of the air gap, but they still won't go low enough to work as bass traps. However, we did some listening tests using Kevin's new Adam A7 monitors and Hugh's BBC test CD, and found the bass end to be surprisingly even around the monitoring position, and we concluded that we could get away without building corner traps. Some of the dry-lined walls and plasterboard ceiling undoubtedly absorbed some low-frequency energy and, as the room is larger than many home studios, the modal dispersion will tend to be better anyway. Smaller rooms mean fewer modal frequencies, which in turn translate into more exaggerated peaks and troughs in a plot of the room resonances.

The Auralex foam was initially deployed either side of the listening position at head height, and orientated horizontally, with the centre of each panel at the 'mirror point', the place where a mirror held flat against the wall would show a reflection of the monitor when viewed from the listening position. Two further panels were fixed at the same height — again, horizontally — behind the monitors, to help prevent reflections coming from the rear wall bouncing to the listening position. The ceiling was relatively low, and we felt it needed treatment as a result, so one more panel was glued there, again at the mirror point, to reduce early reflections from the monitors. Yet another panel was glued around one of the rear corners, the idea being that vocal recording could be done with the singer's back to the absorbent foam, and an SE Reflexion Filter behind the mic, so any vocal recordings made in that position should sound reasonably dry. We checked the setup using Kevin's SE Gemini tube mic on its stand with the Reflexion Filter, to make sure everything was in the right place (see the Q&A section of this issue for details on how best to set up a Reflexion Filter).

Kevin and Dean took notes on what was needed to make the extra acoustic panels, and we all agreed that it would be best to have three on the rear wall and two on each side wall, towards the rear of the room. We stressed that any covering fabric should be acoustically transparent — and you can test this by seeing if you can blow through it (in a commercial facility, this would also need to be a fire-retardant material that complies with fire regulations). All seven panels could be hung vertically, picture-style, on a single hook each, and the tops should line up nicely with the foam in the vocal corner.

Studio SOS: Kevin BrownEven without the additional traps, the acoustic was noticeably drier around the listening position, although some liveness emanating from the rear of the room was still evident. The stereo imaging was much improved, and with the new traps fitted the overall room ambience should be much calmer. It's important, when applying relatively simple acoustic treatment such as this, not to overdo the area being treated, because the panels will otherwise soak up too much high end and leave the low end and lower mid‑range to dominate, making the room sound 'boxy' and coloured — and this will, in turn, lead to poor mixing decisions. With all the trapping in place, the treatment we prescribed should take up no more than around 20 percent of the total wall surface area, and although a professional acoustician would approach the problem in a much more rigorous manner, the difference between an untreated room and one treated in a fairly basic and pragmatic manner (as this one is) is huge and immensely beneficial. On a scale of one to 10, this simple work can raise the acoustic quality from an untreated room rated at one or two up to a six or seven, while a professional acoustician might be able to push it further to a nine or ten — depending, of course, on your budget.

Monitors &, Erm, Monitors

Once we'd added such acoustic treatment as we could, and we'd more or less finished constructing the huge Argosy desk, which came equipped with a bay designed to take monitors up to 19 inches wide, we all set about trying to figure out how best to mount Kevin's 30-inch Apple monitor. We could simply have placed the monitor on the desk's bridge shelf, but that would have put it too far away from the engineer, and too high to be comfortable. The best solution was to remove the back cross-pieces from the monitor bay: this provided enough space to clamp the arm's base assembly to the rear cross-member of the desk, although we put an additional piece of pine board beneath this to prevent the arm placing too much stress on the particle-board cross-member. After experimenting with the position, we came up with an arrangement that placed the monitor at a comfortable viewing angle to the right of the desk and still left room for the two Adam A7 monitor speakers — although the spacing between these had to be reduced somewhat to avoid one of them being acoustically shadowed by the monitor screen. We also placed the Adams on Auralex MoPads to decouple them from the desk's structure, and angled them inwards to aim at the listening position.

Result

Kevin sits back in his newly-treated studio: with acoustic foam at the mirror points above, behind and either side of his speakers, he's in a much better position to start mixing his tracks.Kevin sits back in his newly-treated studio: with acoustic foam at the mirror points above, behind and either side of his speakers, he's in a much better position to start mixing his tracks.

We then helped Kevin and Dean transfer the equipment from the old desk to the new one, and were able to audition a few tracks and get an idea of how the new setup worked. Ergonomically, the new arrangement seemed fine, and the acoustics were greatly improved. They'll be improved further with the addition of the extra panel traps, too. With the job done, we made our way across a cold and wintry motorway network back home!  

Reader Reaction

Kevin: "Before investing in the new setup, I had a Yamaha piano and Cubase 4 and used to record my songs in MIDI format. I'm currently developing these into full-blown tracks, with help from my good friend Dean Howard.

"I'm finding Pro Tools 8 a great improvement: the new MIDI section is particularly good and feels as good to me as Cubase did in this area. The C24 desk makes working with Pro Tools quite easy — although it's taking quite a bit of getting used to. I still use the mouse for many of the operations, because I find it easier — but, overall, its nice to have easy access to some of Pro Tools' features to speed things up.

"Fitting all the acoustic panels, including the ones we made on the day, has made an enormous difference to the room, and the new layout keeps everything to hand. The sound is pretty dry in every corner of the room, and I've already recorded a great‑sounding acoustic guitar track, using two mics a few inches away from the guitar, plus two more sitting on the wood laminate floor about four feet away. This gave me a great sound, with just the right amount of depth, whereas before the treatment it sounded hollow and distant. Vocals are also much easier to manage, and using the SE Reflexion Filter with the wall-mounted foam behind the singer gives me a very clear sound.”

Published May 2009