The SOS team head out to singer/songwriter and media composer Olivia Broadfield's studio, to solve her monitoring issues.
Olivia Broadfield is a singer-songwriter who has always taken a very DIY approach to music. She set up her first studio five years ago using a grant from the national lottery. "I confess I didn't really know much about studio equipment, so it was all a bit thrown together,” she said. When she moved into her new studio two years ago, she tried to get a little more organised: "I bought a great new mic, interface and a gorgeous giant of a Mac Pro, but I was still suffering from trying to mix in a box of a room. I have just released my second album, This Beautiful War, and while I can pass my album material onto the professionals to mix, I have also started writing material for adverts, where the turnaround time often means the mix you hear on TV is the mix I did. In my current setup, the monitoring is pretty tough, with sound bouncing all around me, so I called Sound On Sound to my rescue!”
Olivia's current studio is set up in a converted single garage adjacent to her home in the West Midlands. Whoever designed this garage obviously intended that anyone parking there should exit the car through the sunroof, as the internal two-metre width would leave little space for opening car doors! The garage doors had been replaced with UPVC patio doors, offering good sound isolation and allowing in plenty of light, and a new window had been added to the left-hand side, although the plasterboard interior left Olivia with a very reflective room that had an adverse effect on her monitoring accuracy.
Olivia's studio system is relatively simple, as she uses it mainly for songwriting, and tracking music for TV shows and adverts, primarily using Propellerhead's Reason and Record running on a Mac Pro with two screens. She has a small Focusrite Saffire Pro 24 audio interface providing two mic inputs, and at the time of our visit she was using a Behringer UB1832FX Pro mixer as a monitor controller.
Olivia's monitoring system comprised three different sets of speakers. The main monitors were a pair of M-Audio BX5As, which sound surprisingly solid given their small size. She also had an ageing pair of Mission hi-fi speakers fed from a separate hi-fi amp (although these were rarely used, as she didn't like the way they sounded), plus an Acoustic Energy Aego M multimedia system comprising a sub and two tiny satellite speakers.
She had to switch various amps and active speakers on or off to change monitors, as the three speaker systems she had were effectively all connected in parallel, with the mixer distributing the signal from her Focusrite interface.
The desk upon which the gear was set up was pushed right up against the end wall of the studio, and the presence of the Behringer mixer, which had been placed on the right-hand side of the desk, meant the rest of the gear was pushed left of centre, with the leftmost speakers very close to the corner of the room. Olivia was really only using the Mission speakers as supports for the M-Audio monitors, with the Missions placing the monitors at about the right height, so before doing anything we loaded up Hugh's trusty test CD and had a listen using the M-Audio speakers.
There were a couple of warm spots in the bass response, where some notes came over a little louder than others and, as expected with all those bare plaster walls, the stereo imaging was pretty messy. Our first thought was to remove the Behringer mixer from the system, as it was only being used as a volume control, and to feed the speakers directly from the Focusrite interface, as that has its own output level control. Hugh suggested adding an SM Pro Audio MPatch 2 passive monitor controller, which would allow Olivia to switch easily between the M-Audio monitors and the AE speakers. Olivia made a note to get one. She had also taken delivery of a Focusrite VRM Box, which models the sound of a range of different speakers and different acoustic environments over headphones. This can be valuable in checking that a mix will translate well to other systems.
Having dispensed with the Behringer mixer, reconnected the system, pulled the desk out a few inches from the wall and moved everything to a more central and symmetrical position, we played the test CD again, and found that the bass end sounded noticeably more even.
There were, however, some relatively strong vibrations passing from the speakers to the desk, and these were causing some unwanted acoustic buzzes. So we turned the Mission speakers onto their sides (these were being used purely as supports at this stage), and then placed some Universal Acoustics foam speaker-isolation Vibro-Pads on top of them, which brought the M-Audio tweeters back to head height and also prevented most of the cabinet vibration from getting into the desktop. The room reflections were still messing up the stereo imaging, but the bass now felt more even, and certainly tighter.
Universal Acoustics kindly stepped in at the last minute and shipped us some very nice Jupiter Fluted Wedge acoustic foam tiles, 600mm square and 50mm thick, in purple. These have a very subtle surface pattern, so their effective thickness is rather greater than tiles with a deeper sculpted pattern. Olivia also liked the colour. We decided to treat just the basic mirror points, which meant two tiles on the front wall, two either side just forward of the listening position and two more on the side walls, further back in the room. We could also have fitted one to the ceiling, but decided that as the ceiling was relatively high the benefit was not worth messing up the paintwork.
To avoid having to glue tiles onto the side walls, we stuck a blank CD-R to the back of each tile and hung them on panel pins hammered into the plasterboard walls. We placed them at the height Olivia's head would be when seated in her mixing chair. The only slight problem was the left mirror point, which was located over a large double-glazed picture window, so we relocated Buzz Lightyear, Homer Simpson and a few other ornaments, then propped up one of the panels on the window ledge. That way Olivia could take the panel down when it wasn't needed, and easily prop it up when mixing or recording.
I asked Olivia how she normally recorded her vocals (which sound really fantastic, by the way), and she said she just stayed in her mixing chair and turned to face the mic. She didn't even stand up! As she was happy to work in this way, we didn't suggest any significant changes, but I did point out that the back of her vinyl chair might reflect some sound back into the microphone, and that draping a blanket or similar fabric over the back of the chair when recording might bring about a further improvement.
She used the same basic technique and the same mic to record her acoustic guitar (which was missing a top 'E' as Olivia likes the way that sounds), and with the mic pointing down to where the neck joins the body she was getting a really nice tone
Hugh spotted an SE Reflexion Filter in the front corner of the room, and insisted on rejigging the assembly to get its centre of gravity closer to the mic-stand's column. As it was initially mounted, the combined weight of the Filter and her Rode NT2000 vocal mic made the whole thing very unstable, but flipping the microphone support bar 180 degrees made the whole assembly much more stable. We've covered this way of mounting the Reflexion Filter in Q&A in the May 2009 issue, which you can read at /sos/may09/articles/qa0509_2.htm.
Finally, Hugh also noticed that Olivia had been winding cables between her palm and elbow, which isn't recommended, so he provided a brief tutorial on the correct way of coiling cables to avoid getting twists in them. Looping the cable loosely, rather than wrapping it tightly, reduces the risk of breaking the shield in the cable, while alternating the direction that the cable twists for each loop prevents it getting distorted.
Olivia: "It was really interesting watching Paul and Hugh work and, much to my relief, even small changes were making a huge difference. I was envisaging a studio covered from floor to ceiling in ugly foam, but just moving the desk away from the wall and positioning the speakers differently made the sound much more even. With the addition of the foam tiles, I started to get the feeling that I was in a proper studio. I can hear much more clearly what's going on with my mixing and I can't wait to get started on some new material in my new space.
"Gluing CDs on the back of the tiles is a stroke of genius, and Paul and Hugh were a pleasure to spend the morning with — thanks again to both of them! I must confess, though, after years of running music nights and wanting to put cables away as quickly as possible by the end of the night, it might be a case of old dog new tricks with the whole coiling cables thing... Sorry guys!”
Olivia Broadfield has had many of her songs used in high-profile TV programmes, including One Tree Hill and The Real World. Her latest album, This Beautiful War, is out now and can be bought from iTunes. For more info, check out www.oliviabroadfield.com.