We paid a visit to Dean McCarthy, the lucky winner of the Dream Studio prize from this year's London International Music Show, to integrate all the new gear into his studio.
Dean McCarthy was sure he was on the wrong end of a hoax phone call when we informed him he'd won the prize SOS Dream Studio giveaway held at the London International Music Show earlier this summer, but when we arrived at his West London studio with a white van packed to the roof with studio gear, he stopped pinching himself, broke out the chocolate Hob Nobs and put the kettle on for coffee.
We went along to help him unpack his prizes and to assist in setting up his new studio system, and there was a lot to do — but fortunately Dean is a former SAE student, and no stranger to cabling and installing software. His new studio system would be based around a state-of-the-art Intel Mac running Logic Pro 8 software and to help him get the best out of it, Apple had included a 23-inch Cinema display. The fact that Dean was already a Logic and Pro Tools LE user made our job that much easier, but even a long-term Logic user can always learn more, and the Alchemea Logic Pro 8 101 and Logic Pro 8 301 training courses included in the prize will be sure to come in handy.
Dean's existing studio was actually set up in a loft space in his parents' London house, but he also works in Oxford, spending a lot of time there, where he has a second, much smaller Mac/Logic system. As it turned out, Dean wanted to use most of his new gear in the London studio, but decided that certain pieces of equipment — such as the Allen and Heath ZED 22FX mixer, and possibly the M-Audio MIDISport 2x2 interface — would be put to better use in Oxford. He thought that the Yamaha Tenori-On that came as part of his prize could be put to good use while commuting between London and Oxford... although it might attract some odd looks from fellow travellers!
While the Ghost panels are conceptually simple to fit, due to their separate wall mounting frames, some packing and fiddling may be necessary when dealing with uneven walls or out-of-square corners, as we discovered. Once the frames are securely fixed to the walls, the panels fix to them by means of keyhole slots that slide over protruding studs on the wall frames. Lining these up when we couldn't see behind the panels required a degree of tenacity, but once in place the panels looked impressive and the room's liveness was nicely tamed — without the acoustic becoming too dead.
The loft studio was a decent size, and Dean's setup faced down the length of the room — an arrangement which invariably gives the best results in typical domestic-size spaces. However, there was no acoustic treatment at all and the sloping upper walls (the inside of the roof apex) were reflecting quite a lot of sound back to the listening position. Fortunately, part of Dean's prize was a Ghost Acoustics set of acoustic panels (their Studio 3 Kit), and we felt that our best bet would be to fit those first and then do what else we could in the remaining time. Two corner bass-trap panels were fixed across the front corners of the room at about monitor height, and a further long panel was mounted at the same height behind the monitors. Two angled square panels were fixed to the side walls as close to the 'mirror points' as the window placement allowed, with a pair of flat panels behind the window and another on the rear wall. We'd also taken along four sheets of Auralex foam, which turned out to be useful in reducing the reflections from the sloping upper walls. We fixed one sheet to the front wall above the existing Ghost panel, two to the side walls above the mirror-point panels and the last one around a rear corner of the room at head height, to provide a slightly deadened area in which to record vocals. Dean said he also planned to buy an SE Reflexion Filter to go behind the vocal mic, which should produce good results in his environment, as long as the singer works with their back to the foam to kill the reflections that usually come over their shoulder.
The Apogee Ensemble included in the prize replaced his existing, somewhat budget interface. The Ensemble has eight high-quality ins and outs, as well as ADAT lightpipe expandability, and Dean expressed an interest in adding a further eight channels via ADAT, so that he'd have less submixing to do within Logic.
Dean's original studio was based around a computer DAW running both Logic and Pro Tools LE, and he'd bought a very large second-hand Studiomaster mixer. Its 32 channels were enough to handle both tracking and mixing, with plenty left over to leave synths and modules connected. He wanted to keep this mixer at the centre of his studio but said that his new Allen and Heath ZED mixer would be perfect for the smaller setup in Oxford, as he much prefers mixing his DAW outputs on an analogue console to mixing inside the box. Nonetheless, he was also pleased to have a Euphonix MC Mix included in the prize, as that would give him hands-on control over those submixing and processing functions that he'd still have to do 'inside the box', due to the limited number of physical analogue outputs.
Because the Studiomaster desk took up the entire table surface, we set up the computer keyboard, MC Mix and the very useful Presonus Monitor Station monitor controller on a small desk to the right of the console, next to Dean's new Akai MPD32 MIDI pad controller. The Presonus Monitor Station was fed from the tape outs of the console and it, in turn, fed both Dean's existing Alesis Monitor One MkII speakers and power amp, and his new Genelec 8040 active monitors (which we mounted on a wooden shelf, using a pair of Primacoustic Recoil Stabilizer mounting pads to add to their stability). Dean also promised he'd buy some better speaker stands to replace the shelf as soon as possible! Although the shelf was fairly lightweight, this arrangement actually sounded pretty good with the Genelecs' own resilient built-in mounts and the Recoil Stabilizers in place. The Alesis monitors remained on their rather lightweight metal stands, after we tightened up all the fixings and fitted new rubber doorstops to replace the missing feet (thus making the stands much more stable and less likely to slip on the laminate floor). M-Audio also donated a pair of their Q40 headphones that could be used for tracking and checking mixes.
One big advantage of the Monitor Station — other than the ability to switch between speakers and control their levels — is that it allows the user to switch between several input sources. In Dean's case these included an iPod, for playing back reference mixes, and a record deck, which we plugged directly into the Monitor Station's RCA phono inputs, having first set them to phono mode.
Dean McCarthy first started building a small home studio when he was 18, before going on tour for three-and-a-half years with several production companies in Ireland. Through this he was able to travel to places like China, Taiwan, USA, much of Europe and the UK. He found travelling and learning with a live touring company invaluable, learning much about the industry and about live sound during that time.
After completing an Audio Engineering course at SAE, he moved to Oxford, where he's now working as a house engineer at the Carling Academy. He's had the pleasure of working with Alphabeat, David Ford, Jack Penate, Los Campesinos, Aiden, Lightspeed Champion and Frank Turner, amongst others. He also currently works for the SAE Institute as a Technical Supervisor.
Once unpacked, we patched the TL Audio Ebony A1 dual-channel valve mic-preamp directly into the mixer via a couple of line inputs so that it could be routed to any DAW input, although we also suggested that Dean may prefer to consider leaving it permanently patched to a couple of his Apogee Ensemble inputs, to shorten the signal path. The A1 is an excellent mic/line front-end, and I can see it getting a lot of use.
While Dean is a big fan of analogue mixing, he also appreciates good plug-in processing and was particularly pleased to receive the SSL Duende and TC PowerCore X8 DSP plug-in systems as part of his prize. The PowerCore X8 is the rackmount Firewire version, and the SSL Duende is the PCIe-card model, so we managed to install everything without over-burdening the Firewire bus on the new eight-core Mac Pro that we installed under the desk. These two DSP units complement each other rather well, as the SSL Duende provides multiple channels of SSL console dynamics and EQ as well as a mix-bus compressor, while the TC unit includes some first-class synthetic reverbs (and many other plug-ins besides). Also part of the prize was an SSL Mynx modular processing chassis containing the Stereo Bus Compressor module (as well as the XLogic module), and Hugh assembled this before we patched it into the master insert points of Dean's console. The Duende's modelled version won't be wasted, though, and will certainly come in handy on mixes where more than one such compressor is needed.
Studiospares provided us with a good selection of cables for wiring up the studio, and we managed to get all the basics up and running pretty quickly, leaving Dean to customise some of the more esoteric aspects. We also made a start on installing the Logic Pro Studio package but left Dean to complete this, as a full install can take several hours, due to the wealth of library samples and loops that comes with it! Dean was already familiar with Logic so we didn't need to help him get started.
Of course, a studio is only as good as the signals you feed into it — which is why some excellent microphones were included in the prize package: a Rode K2 tube mic, a Shure KSM27 large-diaphragm cardioid condenser, an SE 4400A multi-pattern large-diaphragm condenser, the ubiquitous Shure SM57 dynamic mic for instrument and drum recording, and a matched pair of M-Audio Pulsar II small-diaphragm condensers. So running out of good microphones should be the least of Dean's worries! Rycote also contributed a few of their excellent InVision shockmounts, which are as robust as they are effective.
One of the boxes contained a Korg MR1000 DSD recorder, a device that can store audio at extremely high DSD or PCM resolutions. Dean very soon realised that this would make a first-class mastering recorder, as his mixes could then be transferred to any future high-definition release formats without compromising their quality. We found a home for this little machine just below the computer monitor, where it could easily be patched into the mixer output, with its output sent to the Monitor Station for playback.
Another box contained an Edirol R09HR Flash recorder, which Dean will be able to use when on the move, and to record the live gigs that he often engineers, as a means of reviewing his work. These little recorders are also great for gathering sound effects and sample material on location.
Dean was very excited to receive a Roland Fantom G6 keyboard as part of his prize, but his main instrument is the guitar, and he soon realised that the Emerson Williams Bluestone Pro combined speaker-simulator and dummy load would allow him to record when using a real amp without upsetting the rest of the household — or the neighbours, come to that.
After a brief tidying-up session, which was somewhat impeded by having to record a video and podcast for the SOS web site (which will be there soon), we managed to get Dean to sit still long enough for us to take his picture in his new studio! Then, pausing only to peel the parking tickets from our windscreens, we set off for home, leaving Dean to get to know his new gear a little better — and decide which of his existing older gear will no longer be required. I suspect he'll have a bit of rationalising and tidying to do over the coming days!
Dean: "It was a pleasure having you guys over. Everything's up and running at this end, and I've already had two more people enquiring into using the room and my services — so the future looks bright.
"I'm still very much involved in live sound, but with my home setup becoming more professional I now feel much more confident about working with artists in the studio. The studio itself will mainly be used as a mixdown room, with the majority of recording happening elsewhere, although I'll easily be able to record vocals and individual instruments here when necessary.
"The room sounds great with the acoustic treatment and new monitors. It's all hooked up in a very efficient way, and my general workflow is much better as a result. Being able to grab the Euphonix MC Mix to do 'in the box' adjustments, and working on a faster computer, has made life so much easier. It's obviously very nice to have the SSL Bus Compressor sitting across my mix too — it has to be one of my favourite pieces — but pretty much everything in the prize will be put to good use.
"Thanks again to SOS and everyone else who was involved!"
Dean McCarthy's prize included all of the gear and courses listed below, and we'd like to thank all of the manufacturers and distributors for their generous support. If you're jealous, you'll just have to keep checking the SOS web site for news of next year's competition for the LIMS show, which will run from 11 to 14 June.
- Apple Mac Pro
- Apple 23-inch Cinema Display
- Apple Logic Studio software
- TC Electronic Powercore X8 DSP card
- Apogee Ensemble audio interface
- M-Audio MIDISport 2x2 MIDI interface
- SSL Duende PCIe DSP plug-in processor
- Ghost Acoustics Studio 3 kit
- Rode K2
- Shure SM57 & KSM27
- SE Electronics SE4400a
- M-Audio Pulsar II (matched pair)
- Rycote InVision shockmounts
- Alchemea Logic Pro 8 101 & 301 courses
- M-Audio 2x Q40 headphones
- Genelec 8040 monitors
- Presonus Monitor Station monitor controller
- Primacoustics Recoil Stabilisers
- Allen & Heath ZED 22FX mixer
- SSL Mynx & Xlogic processing modules
- TL Audio Ebony A1 valve preamp
- Emerson Williams Bluestone Pro dummy load
- Studiospares cables
Instruments & Controllers
- Roland Fantom G6 workstation synth
- Euphonix MC Mix control surface
- Alesis Control Pad percussion controller
- Akai MPD32 pad controller
- Yamaha Tenori-On hardware sequencer
- Edirol R09HR
- Korg MR1000 DSD recorder