There are more home‑studio widows out there than we usually like to admit, so when one sent out an SOS of her own, we just had to help, if only to assuage our sense of guilt!
This month's Studio SOS visit was a bit of a departure from the norm, as the request came not from the owner of the home‑studio owner in question, but from his desperate (her word!) wife, Lyn Harvey.
Many of our readers will be familiar with the scenario: your home studio starts small and you're filled with good intentions about fitting it around the domestic necessities, but the gear starts to multiply and creeps into different parts of the house; you learn that working harder and harder to get things sounding 'just right' means that the same tune, and even the same sections of a tune, get played again and again and again... to the point where it drives your better half mad. Much as you love your studio, a little soul‑searching brings you to realise that you probably do love your spouse just that little bit more — so you set to work creating an outbuilding, converting a cellar or something similar, and doing all you can to keep the gear and the sound inside... all of which is great, except that it can be expensive, and you might not end up with a space you're happy with. Then you start planning to throw more at the money pit to make it sound better!
Lyn Harvey's rather distressed email to us clearly anticipated this situation, so we we just couldn't ignore it:
"Please help! My husband has recently converted our block‑built shed into a recording studio, at a cost of remortgaging our house for an extra £5000. My husband has not put acoustics in there himself, but the walls are fully lined with foam board and plenty of insulation in the walls and roof space, plus, of course, plasterboard and plaster, and there's a small glass‑block window and a UPVC door.
"The builder did a really good job, because no matter how loud my husband plays, I can't hear anything — but having soundproofed as much as possible, he constantly comes in complaining about the accoustics. He has moved his desk into different areas of the room and still cannot get the sound that he needs (whatever that may be). He always reads your magazines and listens to Sound On Sound podcasts, and he is now planning on spending another fortune on getting the sound he wants.
"He reads your magazines and the Studio SOS articles and then tells me he needs to do this, and get that — and starts quoting horrendous amounts of money at me. He's driving me round the bend, and I'm at the end of my tether. Please, please help: I have two young children that need clothing and food before his hobby!”
Lyn had sent her plea without telling her husband, Michael, who didn't find out that we were coming until a day or two before we descended on their South Wales home. When we arrived, after a long and very wet journey, we were refreshed with welcome cups of coffee and some delicious choc‑chip cookies, while Lyn and Michael explained the situation in more depth. The original studio had been moved out of the spare bedroom when they had their second child, and they'd taken the decision to relocate it to a converted garden building, which, unfortunately, just happened to be perfectly square. The room was renovated to look nice and tidy, but Michael complained that the acoustics were unsatisfactory and that he was therefore finding it difficult to create good mixes.
The new studio room was built from solid concrete blocks and it had been lined with plasterboard on battens with insulation behind, which created a little natural bass trapping. The entry door and a small window were located to the left of Michael's monitoring position, and his Digi 002 and Pro Tools LE‑based recording system, with a pair of Behringer Truth monitors, was set up on a large studio desk, with a flat‑screen TV fixed to the wall above it.
Michael had already fitted Auralex MoPads beneath his monitors, which were angled down slightly to aim the tweeters at head height, just as they should be. A thin carpet covered the floor, and all the gear was set up in an ergonomically sensible way, with some shelving to the right of the listening seat, and the small, recessed window on the left. We measured the room and found it to be 3.2 x 3.2m square, and 2.1m high. Listening tests using Hugh's BBC test CD confirmed our expectation that there was a null spot in the exact centre of the room, where the bottom couple of octaves simply disappeared. The monitoring also seemed surprisingly bass‑light overall, with poor stereo imaging and a general liveness that wasn't very helpful.
Fortunately, the normal listening position was around half a metre forward of the dead zone, and the bass response was reasonably even here, probably due to some serendipitous bass trapping taking place in the wall linings. The general sound was, however, quite messy and coloured, due to reflections from the untreated walls.
As we were waiting for a new shipment of acoustic foam from Auralex, we'd gathered together what materials we had left over in our store room, and found that we had a good quantity of Auralex 1-foot x 1-foot panels in burgundy, four Universal Acoustics corner wedge bass traps and a handful of Universal Acoustics 1-foot x 1-foot foam tiles in grey. Thankfully, this turned out to be just enough for our needs — so thanks again to those companies for their help and support.
We started out by fitting the bass traps, placing two of the four Universal Acoustics corner traps on the front wall and two on the rear wall. We couldn't get them right into the room corners, as they'd have interfered with the door opening on one side, and we'd have had to move the shelving on the other, so they ended up spaced along the front and back walls on the wall‑ceiling boundaries.
We still felt that the overall sound was a hint bass-light, so Hugh checked the settings on the rear of the speakers... and found that both the high and low filter switches were set to ‑4dB, with the room compensation set flat. He set them all flat, then we repeated our listening tests, which showed a useful improvement — although, to our ears, the HF end was now a little too forward sounding. Dropping the HF back to ‑2dB created a more natural sound, and providing the listening position wasn't moved back to the centre of the room, there was now adequate low end without obvious peaks or dips.
To deal with the imaging issues and the general liveness of the room, we fitted some of the Auralex tiles below and to one side of the window, but also suggested that Michael make an improvised absorber to prop up in the window space during critical mixing, as the window sat right in the 'mirror' zone, where it could reflect sound back to the monitoring position. To the right, we fitted tiles below the shelves to cover the other side's mirror point and this necessitated quite a lot of cutting to get the tiles to fit around the vertical shelf‑support rails. We cut the foam tiles using an electric carving knife borrowed from Michael's dad and it worked a treat, giving us a nice clean finish. You just have to be careful how you hold the foam so that the nice clean cut doesn't extend to your fingers!
Further Auralex panels were stuck up behind the speakers, extending between the desk and the bass traps, which left the grey Universal Audio tiles to cover the ceiling mirror point above the engineer's knees. The visual result turned out to be pretty good, and listening tests confirmed that the mid-range and high-end were now much cleaner, with far less room acoustic — and this also had the effect of making the low end sound tighter. The stereo image was much more stable too, with a really solid 'phantom centre'.
Having done what we could with the room acoustics, we asked Michael to put up some of his own mixes, to let us see if we could help with anything. He admitted that he sometimes had problems choosing the right vocal reverb, and he also noticed that since we'd fitted the acoustic treatment, some of his original mixes now sounded quite aggressive and bass-light when compared with commercial material.
We addressed the tonal issues first, by experimenting with an SSL EQ plug‑in to try to fine‑tune an existing stereo mix of a 'metal' track Michael had been working on. We found that it needed a little low-end lift in the 90Hz region, but the mid‑range was also quite scooped and warmed up considerably when we applied a broad, gentle 300Hz boost. Harshness was tamed by introducing a dip at around 4kHz, but all these tweaks only involved a dB or two of adjustment. Nevertheless, the effect was very obvious when hitting the EQ bypass button.
We also showed Michael how easy it was to get his mix sounding loud by using his Waves L1 limiter to bring the peak level up to around ‑0.5dB, with the threshold adjusted to show 3dB of gain reduction on the transient peaks. With metal‑style music, this amount of limiting has no audible side effects, yet it makes the music sound reasonably loud, and more comparable with commercially mastered mixes.
Michael then put up some solo female vocals, and we demonstrated that using a short (500 to 800ms), bright plate reverb with around 90ms of pre‑delay made it possible to give the vocal a sense of depth without the reverb washing around and robbing the music of all its space. The level of reverb always has to be adjusted in the context of the rest of the mix, but a starting level of around 20 percent wet always seems close to the final setting for synthetic reverb.
As Michael was having to record vocals in the same room, it was lucky that we'd brought along an SE Reflexion Filter, kindly provided by Sonic Distribution. These screens keep reflections away from the sides and rear of the vocal mic, but as we always stress, they work much better if there's also an absorber behind the singer, to stop reflections bouncing off the wall behind them, and thus getting into the front of the mic. The ubiquitous folded polyester duvet works fine for this, though a sheet of acoustic foam also does the job nicely. Hugh assembled the SE mounting hardware in our usual way (see /sos/may09/articles/qa0509_2.htm), to bring the centre of gravity closer to the centre of the mic stand, as following the instructions can lead to toppling (unless you buy one of SE's own heavy‑duty mic stands).
Before we left, Michael showed us his Eleven amp-modelling hardware and software. Unlike most audio interfaces, the Eleven hardware has been designed to present the right loading for a guitar's pickups, and this enables the software designers to create some very nice emulations. The system delivered some very credible rock tones, of the kind that Michael likes to work with, but it's also quite impressive at handling blues and country sounds, which are musical areas that Michael has started to explore of late.
Given the modest size of Michael's room, using this system seemed a more sensible option than miking his 4x12 stage rig, as that would probably need to be pretty loud to capture the tone he was after, and when you consider that an adult's ears lose HF extension at the rate of around 1Hz per day, even without abuse, sensible levels are very important!
With the studio treated, the mix tips dispensed and a marriage hopefully saved, we thanked Lyn and Michael for the excellent lunch and endless supply of exotic chocolate biscuits, and then set the Sat Nav for home.
Michael Harvey: "I'd got mixes sounding great, if a little light on the bass, in the studio — but whenever I've listened to them on other systems the bottom end has been really flabby. Every night I would go into the house and moan about the mixes, pick up my trusty copy of SOS, and tell Lyn that I needed this bit of equipment or that to try and make the sound better.
"I honestly never thought that Lyn listened to me — and that she just nodded and agreed in the right areas — but I think she could see my frustration, and that I was looking to spend another load of money on things that probably wouldn't work and that we really couldn't afford!
"I'm totally in awe of and inspired by what the Studio SOS team have done. Everything that I have read in the past has now clicked into place. My mixes are sounding full without masking other instruments and are a lot more professional and commercial sounding: I can now place instruments within a virtual 3D space, and make room for other instruments in the mix; I can add more body or more click to a kick drum; and I can hear more detail in a vocal part, and EQ more appropriately. Listening to pre‑recorded reference material, I feel as though I can reach out and grab the instruments on the sound stage.
"I still don't know how to thank everyone involved, but my thanks really do go out to my long‑suffering partner, Lyn, for organising this and to Paul and Hugh for their understanding, help and guidance. I love my room now, and Lyn is abandoned every evening — not that she minds, though, as it means she can at last watch Coronation Street in peace!”