Paul Roy's studio is rearranged to improve the mixing environment.
Paul Roy called us because he wasn't sure of the best way to use Apple's Logic Pro on his Mac G5 alongside his Studiomaster mixer to get the best results. He felt his own mixes lacked focus and sounded very quiet when compared with commercial CDs. Along with his brother David and friend Barry McEwan, Paul runs his studio on the top floor of a converted mill building — it's entirely for their own use, with a view to writing songs to attract a publishing deal. The lads are all originally from Scotland, which may account for the frugal plain Hobnobs we got with our coffee, rather than the more decadent chocolate ones! Paul also runs a photography business from the same building, specialising in glamour shoots — until then I thought I had the best job in the world! Hugh and I picked our way through the chain link curtains, past the pole-dancing booth, politely ignored the red velvet mattress propped against the wall, and stepped into the studio.
The control room had been created within the overall floor space by using studding and plasterboard walls to create a room approximately 20 feet long, 11 feet wide, and nine feet high. A similarly large live room was next door connected to the studio by a multicore cable for the mic lines and several separate additional cables for headphone cue feeds and other miscellaneous connections.
A large custom-made plywood desk housed all the control-room gear and was set up midway along one of the long walls. For monitoring they had a pair of Genelec 8030A active speakers plus a pair of Wharfedale Diamond 8.2 Pro Actives, but no monitoring controller. The Genelecs have built-in resilient feet, while the Wharfdales were set up on a pair of Auralex Mo Pads. To get around the lack of a monitor controller, they'd looped the Wharfedales' inputs from the rear of the Genelecs (using the loop-through outputs intended to feed a subwoofer). This arrangement meant that the Genelecs had to be on when the Wharfedales were used, making it impossible to quickly switch between speakers, and difficult to adjust the monitoring level.
There were some home-made acoustic panels on the walls, but Hugh and I felt these were unlikely to help much, as they were only around an inch deep and comprised wooden frames loosely filled with Rockwool and with a fabric front face which had then been painted. The paint had blocked most of the pores in the fabric so that little high-frequency energy was able to pass through it, so it was behaving more like a loose membrane.
As set up, part of the mixer was being used as a bank of preamps feeding some of the inputs of a MOTU 24 I/O via channel direct outputs. The 24 outputs from the MOTU were then coming back into the desk for mixing so Paul could use real faders and knobs to mix, although he felt the sound quality might be compromised by doing this. It also meant that certain aspects of a project couldn't be recalled easily.
Paul played us some of his songs, which were very well recorded and nicely mixed, but the bass end sounded very spongy (Hugh described it as plummy!) and tended to change if you moved around the listening position. We switched to the Wharfedale speakers and found the same thing. We guessed that in part this was down to the ineffective trap panels on the wall, though we did discover less than the expected bass build-up in the corners, probably due to absorption by the plasterboard walls. Playing some known material from Hugh's BBC test disc confirmed these problems.
We felt that in a room of this size, the bass end would be much better behaved if the monitors were firing lengthways down the room, as that would get the engineer's chair well away from that troublesome 'dead centre of the room' spot that so often results in bass unpredictability. However, as there was such a lot of stuff to shift, we thought we'd just prove the point by moving the monitors first of all. We fixed up the monitors on temporary stands and also propped up a few Auralex panels we'd brought with us to improve the mid-range and high-frequency absorption with the aim of tightening up the stereo imaging.
The improvement in both the overall sound of the bass end and the consistency of bass balance around the room improved significantly, so Paul and Barry agreed we should move the room around. I'd also mentioned to Paul that some form of monitor controller would make life a lot easier, so Paul decided he'd try to get hold of a Mackie Big Knob. I also suggested that mixing would be easier if done entirely within Logic — by bouncing the mix internally, you don't suffer an extra unnecessary trip through the converters. Paul was happy with the concept of doing this, as he'd stopped using his few outboard processors after realising that the ones in Logic were just as good, if not better. However he wanted to mix with real faders and had been thinking about some sort of moving-fader controller for some time. My recommendation just tipped the balance, and within 10 minutes he'd phoned up his local friendly music store and arranged for a Mackie Big Knob and a Tascam US2400 control surface to be delivered within the hour.
Given that the low end wasn't causing a significant problem once we'd moved the layout around, we decided that adding more effective mid-range and high-frequency trapping on the side walls, behind the speakers, above the control surface, and on the rear wall would probably be enough. To test this we tacked six Auralex panels to the walls (we couldn't make a temporary fix to the ceiling) and did a listening test, which confirmed that the room now sounded less coloured and the stereo imaging was better.
Paul and Barry liked the idea of building traps in wooden frames with an extra layer of high-density Rockwool behind the foam with an air gap behind, so I drew them a diagram of the traps we built for Hilgrove Kenrick a few months back. A quick visit to the local branch of Wickes procured ten 30mm slabs of high density Rockwool, so we left it up to the guys to do their own DIY on this one, as we were running out of time.
After a short break to fortify ourselves with Hobnobs and coffee, we set about unplugging all the gear so we could move the desk round onto the other wall. This was straightforward enough, but rather than replace the Studiomaster Mixdown Classic 8 mixer back in the centre of the desk where it had been, we decided it would make more sense from an ergonomic point of view to modify the desk's cutout to accept the new Tascam control surface, and to relocate the mixer to a side table, as it would now be used mainly to provide mic preamps. This also made life easier from the point of view of the cables running through the wall, some of which weren't long enough to reach the new desk position. We settled on using MOTU outputs 23+24 to feed the monitors, and since it was easy to do we also reconnected the first 22 outputs back into the analogue desk so that it could be used for setting up a monitor mix if required.
As the studio was originally set up, an Alesis Q8 was being used as a master keyboard and this was positioned between the mixer and the engineer on a low table, which made access to the mixer less than ideal and also placed the Apple monitor screen a bit too far away. Paul said he only used the keyboard for programming the occasional Hammond organ emulation part using Native Instruments B4, so he could swap it with a small Roland PC200 MkII keyboard he'd been given to save space. This seemed like a good plan, so after shifting the desk, we added one further wooden support to allow the Tascam US2400 to sit in the middle of the desk with the Mackie Big Knob to the right. While we were on our next round of coffee and Hobnobs, the new toys arrived and were soon unpacked and installed. The necessary connections were made to get the studio working again (which took around half an hour), we initialised the control surface so that it would talk to Logic, and everything worked perfectly!
Again we played some test tracks to confirm that the monitoring was working correctly, and tried out the Big Knob to balance the levels from the two sets of monitors so that there would be no unpleasant surprises when switching from one to the other. Everything worked as planned, so we put up one of Paul's mixes, reassigned the outputs to conform to our new wiring regime, and tried to see if we could get louder, punchier results.
Firstly we bounced the mix to a stereo file within Logic, then used some of Logic 's mastering plug-ins to try to improve the level and clarity. Logic 's multi-band compressor is always a good starting point if you don't have any third-party dedicated mastering plug-ins you prefer, but I always set it to three frequency bands rather than the usual four, as three is enough to think about and generally enough to get the job done OK. I explained to Paul that, while track compression generally uses quite high thresholds and high compression ratios, for mastering it is usual to set the thresholds much lower and then to team this with a lower ratio setting. So instead of squashing just the peaks by a few decibels, you squash the entire dynamic range by a similar amount. This gives a less obviously processed sound and adds to the density of the mix.
For most material I'll set the bass crossover point to around 150-200Hz and the high crossover between 2.5kHz and 5kHz, so as to leave the mid-range largely unaffected by any oddities that might occur near the crossover points. Using ratios of under 1.2:1 and thresholds in the region of -25dB to -30dB, we were able to warm up the mix in quite a subtle way, and dropping the mid-range by a decibel or so in level meant that the bass and high end came through a hint more assertively, adding power and brilliance to the mix. All subtle stuff, but worthwhile — the gain reduction display was only showing around 4dB of overall gain reduction during loud sections.
This was followed by Logic 's mastering limiter set to trim around 3dB from the louder peaks. This makes the material sound loud without destroying its character and ensures that you make the best use of the available headroom. Where the mix needs more 'air', a gentle wide-range boost at 12kHz usually does the trick, but it is important to place the EQ before the limiter, and my own preference is that it usually comes after the compressor. Paul compared his 'before' mix with our treated mix and agreed that ours was significantly louder and a little brighter, making it sound clearer and more open. We saved the plug-in settings so that he could try them out himself later.
As we had Logic running, I showed Paul some of the features that he'd missed, as he has a self-confessed allergy to manuals and is still finding his way around Logic on the Mac having been introduced to it via its earlier PC incarnation. The Freeze function, for example, allows processor intensive tracks to be rendered as temporary audio files, which in turn reduces the overall CPU load. The Snip function under Cut And Insert Time is also a useful tool, as it allows you to select some or all tracks, then remove the section between the locators in the ruler bar. All material after the edit on the selected tracks is automatically moved up to fill the gap, so if you simply want to lose a few bars, this is usually the easiest way to achieve it. Paul was already using Logic 's Screensets, because it's difficult to manage without when you've only got a single screen, but he is planning to add a second monitor so that he can view two full-size Logic screens at the same time.
The other thing Paul hadn't twigged was that you can select multiple channels in the Environment window and then make changes to all those channels at the same time — things such as setting up a send, dropping all the levels by the same percentage, or setting the output routing. This is very useful, and can save a lot of time. If I'm running out of headroom in a mix, I select all my channels, drop the fader level by 3-4dB, then reset the main output fader to unity gain. Of course you need to do this before activating the mix automation or it will just fight you. We played around with Logic for a while longer comparing our ways of doing things, until finally it was time to hit the M1 and head for home.
Turning the room layout through 90 degrees once again made a huge difference to the consistency and quality of the bass end, so in a small to medium-sized room it is definitely worth working along the length of the room, not across the width. It also made the room appear larger and less cluttered. Simplifying the system and relegating the mixer to input-channel duties made sense, and the addition of the new Tascam control surface means that all the necessary mix data can now be saved in Logic for complete recall later. The Tascam US2400 worked perfectly, and though it has slightly fewer features than Logic/Mackie control, it actually addresses the aux sends in a much more direct way, and the scroll wheel is beautifully smooth. Given its current low price here in the UK, it is a great way to control a DAW where you need 24 moving faders. Being less deep than the mixer, it allowed the engineer to sit closer to the computer screen and made operating the mouse much easier.
Adding the Mackie Big Knob also brought about a huge ergonomic improvement, and Barry said he'd be able to rig up a sliding keyboard shelf for the little Roland controller keyboard so it could be pushed out of the way when not needed. At the end of it all, I'd got to clean up using the studio's vacuum cleaner (getting to be a habit!), Hugh had done lots of crawling around under dusty desks amidst forests of cables, and the studio now felt a lot more spacious, sounded a whole lot better, and was much easier to operate.
Paul Roy: "I was delighted when Paul and Hugh agreed to come up to the studio to analyse the way we were working and cast a professional eye over our acoustic treatment. I prefer to spend more time on writing and producing than on the technical elements of music, but over the years have been forced to adopt the role of engineer, so my knowledge has always been about what I need to know in order to get good results, rather than learning things for the sake of it.
"Wherever I've had a studio setup before, I've always just tried to get the best from the room as it is, but the trouble with this approach is that you find yourself making unnecessary tweaks to sounds to compensate for the room sound. Throughout the visit I was continuously asking all the questions I had always wanted to ask, and Paul and Hugh were extremely helpful. Paul demonstrated the use of the multi-band compressor, which is an awesome tool which I have never used, and he also showed me some quick tips in Logic which are massively time-saving. I love the Tascam controller, and have now set up all my songs to work with it easily, although we had to do some re-routing within Logic to get independent metronome feeds to different musicians in the studio.
"Overall Paul and Hugh gave us a studio makeover which has made a huge difference to the way we work and record. The raw quality of input signals, playback, and mastering has made us get halfway to recording a very professional product without spending thousands. Thank you for spending the time — the day just wasn't long enough!"