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Studio SOS: Mark Soden

Optimising A Loft Conversion By Hugh Robjohns & Paul White

Mark's new studio after the SOS Team completed their visit.Mark's new studio, after the building work had been completed, the studio equipment properly set up and with acoustic foam in place.

This month, we take on some computer glitching problems and fix up the acoustics in a newly completed loft conversion.

West Midlands musician Mark Soden first started getting involved in music in the '80s after purchasing an EDP Wasp synthesizer and Roland TR808 drum machine. He played in a trio called ADx3 and then an electronic duo called the Love Boutique, who were almost signed by RCA Records. A successful career in advertising in London then put everything on hold until 12 years ago, when he started composing again on his Zoom Hard Disk in the basement of a bed and breakfast in the English Lake District.

Mark's musical influences are varied and include film scores from the '60s by the likes of Michel Legrand, Piero Piccioni and Ennio Morricone; Italian adult film scores; and more modern influences from Air, Tosca, Koop, Kruder & Dorfmeister, Bonobo and Ettiene De Crecy. Mark also composes soundbites for web sites with his online businesses Malvern 365 and 20 Seconds.

We're told that divorce and moving house are amongst the most stressful things that happen to people, but to that list I'd like to suggest adding switching from a hardware multitrack recorder to your very first DAW! This month's Studio SOS centres around the switch from a Zoom hard-disk multitracker to Logic Pro X, while at the same time creating a studio out of some previously unused roof space adjoining his bedroom. To further complicate matters, Mark and his wife run a bed and breakfast business, so the studio had to be acoustically isolated from the guest areas. As if that wasn't enough to contend with, Mark experienced some frustrating computer problems when he bought a new iMac fitted with the hybrid Fusion drive, as his Presonus audio interface was prone to clicking and popping — a problem that we now know besets other interface manufacturers. When the Mavericks operating system was updated, these problems were resolved for many but not all interfaces, and when Mark did update to the current version, he still experienced glitching on recording, though not on playback. Read on for the solution...

Lofty Ambitions

Mark's studio space is fairly small, measuring around two metres square, and the front wall slopes inwards as it is essentially the underside of the roof. Mark took some 'before' photos, then got the builders in to convert the roof space into a usable room complete with Dormer window and sound-absorbent flooring. I saw the 'before' version and have to concede that the builders had done a great job in converting this previously wasted space into a viable, if small, studio. To prevent sound leakage through the floor, the space between the joists was filled with fibreglass, then a layer of high-density mineral-wool slab was laid over the joists. On top of this went a commercial flooring material (essentially chipboard with a resilient foam backing), then a layer of Cloud Nine underlay before finally fitting the carpet. It worked.

One side of the room is open to the bedroom, the plan being to fit a heavy curtain to provide some sound absorption, though Mark hadn't done this at the time of our visit. This layout also means that the bedroom can be used as an ad-hoc live space for recording vocals or instruments if need be. Mark called us in after the room was built and after he'd taken delivery of the core equipment that he planned to use. He settled on a powerful iMac, a Presonus AudioBox four-channel interface and a pair of Presonus Eris eight-inch speakers as his key components, accompanied by his old Zoom MRS1608 recorder, a Novation 49SL MkII master keyboard, a Microkorg synth/vocoder and an Akai XR20 beat-production centre.

Mark needed help setting up the system, especially with speaker placement and a little basic acoustic treatment, and also with getting to grips with Logic Pro X. He was unsure as to how bestThe loft space, prior to conversion. to transfer existing projects from his Zoom recorder, as that has only a stereo main output (on S/PDIF and analogue RCA/Phono) and no USB output, meaning that only two of the eight tracks can be transferred (in real time) each pass. That leaves the problem of sync'ing up the four pairs of tracks once the transfer is complete. That should have been the sum total of what we needed to do, but life is never that simple!

The Glitchy & Scratchy Show

The first challenge was that the audio glitching was still occurring even after updating Mavericks to the latest version (10.9.2 at the time). Apparently this was due to a hardware issue involving the iMac that Mark was using, but Presonus were incredibly helpful and explained that if we removed all the current Presonus support software and instead used the interface as a class-compliant interface supported directly by Core Audio it would work fine. They also sent us a very detailed set of instructions for removing the necessary software components and for resetting the parameter RAM of the machine. I passed this on to Mark who followed this to the letter, and the glitching problems were resolved, so we at least had a working system to greet us.

When Hugh and I arrived, Mark had set up his gear on a hardwood desktop he'd had fitted across the width of the room, and though all the gear was connected and working, it was not that ergonomically set up, and the monitors were too far apart considering how close Mark had to sit to them. The speakers were also placed directly onto the worktop so they were a little too low, and were also able to transmit vibrations into the desk. Hugh also identified a fizzy buzz from the monitors, which seemed to be a result of Mark using unbalanced jack cables to feed them.

Our strategy was to first get all the gear where it needed to be, then to check for any acoustic problems. We'd already identified two flat walls that would benefit from some mid/high absorption in the form of foam panels, but we suspected that such a small space might also have some bass issues to deal with.

Firstly we moved the Zoom recorder and the Novation controller keyboard off the worktop so that we could bring the speakers in away from the side walls, then we used Auralex speaker platforms to provide some isolation. These comprise acoustic foam topped with a slab of MDF, to which is bonded a dense rubbery sheet made from recycled car tyres, similar to the surfaces found in some play areas. We still needed to angle the speakers up slightly so I cut a couple of foam wedges that we could place under the front edge of the platforms. Reconnecting the speakers with balanced cables salvaged from my 'cupboard of eternal darkness' fixed the buzz problem, so that the only noise left was very low-level hum and a slight hiss from the active circuitry in the speakers. This remained even with the inputs disconnected, however,Paul shortened the upper tier of the keyboard stand to better accommodate Mark's Microkorg synth. so it wasn't a problem with the system, and we had to put our ears right up against the speaker cones to hear it.

Four Universal Acoustics foam panels were enough to treat the side wall and the rear wall at Mark's head height when sitting in his mixing position, and we fell back on our old trick of gluing unwanted CDs to the back of them and then hanging them on small nails driven into the walls. This is always a good solution if you don't want to do anything too permanent.

That left us with the challenge of finding the best place for the Zoom recorder, the Novation keyboard and the Microkorg. Mark volunteered that he had an old two-tier keyboard stand in the garage, so we used that to support the Novation and Microkorg against the side wall to the right of his mixing position. The two arms supporting the upper tier hung out rather too far over the lower keyboard, so after seeking Mark's permission, I shortened them using a hacksaw and then put the plastic end bungs back into place. That worked fine, though I felt the keyboards slid around on the stand a little too easily and so deployed some non-slip matting between them and the stand to keep things stable. We also used offcuts of the matting under both the Presonus interface and the external CD-ROM drive to keep them from sliding around. We extended the RCA/phono-to-TS jack cable connecting the Zoom recorder's analogue outputs to the input of the Presonus interface so that we could position it under the worktop using an overturned plastic storage box as a suitable mini table. More non-slip matting went under the Zoom's feet so that it wouldn't slide off the plastic box.

Response Team

Sorting out the ergonomics was relatively simple, but when we ran our semitone step test to show up bass problems, it turned out that there was a severe room honk at around 100Hz, and another less serious one at around 135Hz. We considered using the IK Multimedia ARC system to measure the monitor response and to then create a custom EQ plug-in to try to counteract these dips, but as they were so localised, I thought I'd try using a parametric EQ first to see if we could do the job more simply. Using Logic's linear-phase equaliser, I put in narrow notch filters at the two offending frequencies while looping around the relevant part of our test sequence and then adjusted the EQ settings to get the most subjectively even bass response possible from the listening position. However, this meant that in any notes that fell between our rogue honks actually sounded too quiet, so I had to add a third EQ band and set it to boost the region between the two notches. This worked surprisingly well, and running some of Hugh's audio test tracks showed that the low end was now much tighter-sounding with no obvious 100Hz bloom. This EQ setting was saved as a preset and then installed in the main output of Mark's template song. This technique works well for evening out a room's bass response, but it's important to bypass this corrective EQ when bouncing a mix to stereo.

Our Universal Acoustics foam wall panels had also dried up the mids and highs, at least from the mixing position, but the sloping and somewhat reflective ceiling meant that any recordings made in that room using a microphone still tended to sound rather boxy and overly live. Our solution for that was to use the adjoining bedroom for microphone recordings, and though that still has more flat, reflective surfaces than might be considered ideal, we felt that a 'behind the mic' screen would help dry it up, and for more serious sessions a duvet could also be hung behind the vocalist. Auralex provided a lightweight screen comprising a foam layer over a curved plastic back panel, and this brought about a worthwhile improvement in the recorded sound.

Mic Check

Our friends at SE Electronics took pity on Mark when they heard he was using a Shure SM58 for all his recordings, and very kindly offered him a Magneto capacitor mic complete with shockmount and pop shield. There's nothing wrong with the SM58, of course — indeed,An SE Electronics Magneto capacitor mic proved a significant step up in quality from Mark's dynamic Shure SM58. for some vocal styles it works very well — but for most studio vocal recording a capacitor mic is more appropriate because of its extended high-frequency response and less live-centric presence peak. Our recent review of the budget Magneto showed it to be a very capable all-rounder that works well on a variety of instruments as well as vocals. We made some test recordings using it and Mark was deeply impressed by how clean and clear it sounded, especially after working with a dynamic mic for so long.

Logical Next Step

Before setting out for home we helped Mark with a few practical issues, the first being the transferal of projects from his Zoom recorder. As there's no option for multitrack digital transfer, our suggestion was for him to re-open existing projects and then to record a click across all the tracks at the end of each song so that this could be used for visual alignment in Logic's waveform display once all the track pairs had been copied over.

However, as many of his songs were based on loops, Mark was also keen to find the best way to reuse those. Having copied them into Logic and then trimmed them to length, I showed him how to convert them to Apple Loops, which offers the advantage of the user being able to transpose them or change their speed over a useful range. Having not come across Apple Loops before, Mark saw the advantages right away. I also helped him set up a template song with reverb and delay sends in place, and suitable screensets assigned to the number keys. I also made a number of preference adjustments so that he was working with a sensible audio buffer size, recording at 24 bits, and with the meters set to 'sectional dB-linear'. This setting provides a much more sensible headroom margin for tracking and mixing, and independent fader settings for record and playback was also engaged. We also explored some of Logic's virtual instruments and the organisation of their sound libraries, as well as looking at Logic's ability to 'stretch' audio regions.

After using Logic for around six weeks, Mark felt there was still a lot to learn but he'd found his way around the essentials with no difficulty. He did, however, say that he would need to fit a blind to his Dormer window, as any ambient daylight makes Logic X quite difficult to see due to its very dark interface and, in some areas, an unfortunate choice of non-contrasting text and background colours. I have experienced similar problems myself, especially when working on a laptop. SOS Editorial Director Dave Lockwood said that going back to Logic 9 from Logic X was like having a headache removed, so we can only hope that future versions of Logic Pro will give the user some control over the background intensity.

Other than that, Mark was amazed at the creative capability of Logic Pro X, and he agreed that composing on screen was far easier than trying to copy and paste song sections in a hard-disk recorder. He was also pleasantly surprised at the range of processing plug-ins and instruments included in Logic, as he was initially rather worried that he might need to buy more kit to achieve the desired results. Now he probably just needs more time!  

Reader Reaction

Mark Soden: "I was very impressed with the final sound and equipment layout after the Studio SOS session, and was particularly pleased with the tighter bass sound that was achieved, along with the improved overall clarity. I'd like to thank SE for the Magneto mic and both Auralex and Universal Acoustics for their generosity in contributing to my new studio setup, as well as Paul and Hugh for their talent and good humour!”Mark in the driving seat in his newly optimised studio.

Published June 2014