Ever wanted to set up both a control room and live room in two tiny bedrooms? On a budget? With remote‑control facilities? Actually, it can be done!
Seb Palmer is a drummer, but he also plays other instruments and sings, so naturally he wanted to set up a home studio for his own use. However, the space available for Seb's studio is very limited, so he proposed setting up a compact control room (based around a 23‑inch iMac and Logic Pro 7) in his bedroom, and linking this to a live room in a smaller adjacent bedroom, where his drum kit and vocal mic could be left set up.
Prior to our visit, we'd exchanged several ideas as to how this could be made to work, and to minimise the amount of inter‑room wiring Seb had suggested putting his MOTU 8Pre audio interface in the live room, so that only a single Firewire cable wold need to pass through the wall. This would have enabled him to adjust his recording levels from the live room where the action was taking place, but it also would have meant adding a separate monitor controller in the bedroom studio, as there would otherwise be no easy way to adjust the monitor speaker level when mixing. While it is possible to adjust a DAW's output via the master software fader, some resolution is lost by doing so, and we thought that this approach would thus be something to avoid, if possible.
That, of course, brought up the question of how to control the system when working from the live room. Seb had a second small monitor that he could hook up to his iMac via a video extension cable running through the wall, and the wireless keyboard and mouse he'd bought with it worked fine from anywhere in the house. In short, we had the basis of a working system; we just had to make it work in practice.
When we arrived, we were greeted by a welcome offer of coffee and chocolate Hob Nobs, which was much appreciated after a somewhat tortuous drive. Seb lives in a rented house in Cambourne, where only minor structural modifications are permitted, and this meant that we'd have to attach any necessary acoustic treatment in a non‑permanent way, and also find a tidy way of getting the cables between rooms. Thankfully, as it is a modern house, all the walls are plasterboard, which made our work easy, and meant that there was already some natural mid and bass trapping.
After checking the video extension cable, we found that the connectors would thread through a piece of 1.5-inch plastic waste pipe, so we decided to cut a hole in the wall, insert a length of pipe and then pass the necessary cables through it. Seb would have made the hole before we arrived, but he'd bought a mains and stud detector that suggested there was mains wiring in the area. When we checked it, though, the thing turned out to be so sensitive that it also claimed there was mains on his drum kit, and just about anything else in the room!
By looking at the placement of the existing sockets, we deduced that there was no reason for there to be any mains wiring close to where we planned to drill — but as I was wearing my rubber Crocs, Hugh suggested I did the drilling! I used a hole cutter in a battery‑powered drill and stopped as soon as the bit had cut through the first skin of plasterboard. A visual inspection confirmed that there was no wiring in the cavity, and also no insulation, so there was a clear view of the plasterboard at the other side a few inches away.
I poked a long, thin screwdriver through the centre of the hole and through the plasterboard skin on the bedroom side to guide the hole cutter, moved to the other room and cut out the other hole. Our short length of plastic pipe fitted into the hole and was secured using one of those 'I can't believe it's not welded solid' mastic glues. Masking tape was used to secure the pipe until the glue set and we were left with a neat duct between the rooms that could easily be hidden behind a pair of light-switch blanking plates when Seb moves house.
We'd brought along some Auralex foam panels and glued strips of wood to the rear top edges, so that they could be hung directly onto screws. Because they're so light, plasterboard screws fixed directly into the plasterboard took their weight without any problem. In the bedroom/control room, we fixed a piece behind each monitor position, and a third piece on the wall behind where Seb would sit. Part of the rear wall was occupied by shelving for CDs and DVDs, so that would add a little diffusion.
In the live room, we fixed a horizontal piece of foam across the wall, above a large mirror that Seb uses when giving drum lessons, and two further pieces were fitted to the wall behind the kit. Prior to this, the room had a very obvious ring to it, but a few simple pieces of foam reduced this very noticeably. A further thick block of furniture foam that Seb had found in the garage was leant against the wall opposite the mouth of the bass drum, to help reduce reflections.
Seb had recently retired his hi‑fi speakers in favour of a pair of Fostex PM1 active monitors, but the stands he'd put them on were far too low and not adequately rigid. As a temporary solution, we used his old speakers to raise the stands off the floor by the required amount, but Seb assured us that he'd buy some rigid stands now that he knew what he needed. Hugh estimated the stand height would need to be close to 90mm. These sat either side of a small computer desk holding the iMac and some additional hard drives. It was impossible to set up an ideal symmetrical, 'along the length of the room' monitoring situation, but tests using Hugh's test CD confirmed that we were getting a pretty well‑balanced sound.
After wiring up the speakers and MOTU interface, we loaded Logic but found the interface wasn't being recognised. As the iMac is quite new (Seb had used a Mac laptop previously) I surmised, correctly, as it turned out, that he hadn't yet installed the necessary MOTU Firewire driver, so we went to the MOTU web site and downloaded it, along with the latest firmware update for the 8Pre. This worked fine, so we then linked up the extra hard drives, just to confirm that they worked properly alongside the interface, as they'd all have to share the iMac's single Firewire 800 port via a 400/800 adaptor cable. Again, this seemed to work fine, so now it was time to set up a way to remotely control the system from the live room.
The small monitor was plugged into the Mac, and first we set it to mirror the main display, but because of the difference in size and aspect ratio of the two screens this didn't work out; the main display could only show what would fit onto the small screen. The answer was to set up the second monitor as an independent screen, then create a default Logic Song Template with a compact version of the Arrange page, the fader and meter section of the audio mixer and the transport controls shown on the small screen. The main screen showed a normal Arrange page and was saved as Screenset 1, for easy recall. Providing Seb uses this template as the basis for any new song (we set it up with 24 audio tracks and eight software instrument tracks), he can always get the necessary display in the live room by calling up Screenset 1. This arrangement worked perfectly, so all he has to do is carry the cordless keyboard and mouse into the live room when operating from there.
Seb hadn't managed to get hold of a monitor controller by the time we arrived, so we set a manageable listening level using the trim pots on the rear of the speakers, and then explained how to patch in the controller when he got it. He'd decided to get a Samson C Control, which allows switching between multiple sources and speakers and also includes talkback, which might come in handy when working in the studio with other musicians.
Sonic Distribution provided us with a Reflexion Filter for Seb, which we set up on his mic stand with his AT4033 vocal mic and pop shield. He planned to use this in the live room, so we set it up such that he stands with his back to one of the reflective panels to absorb reflections from the wall behind him. A spoken‑word recording test confirmed that we were getting a sensibly dry and clean result. As usual, we rejigged the mounting hardware to make the Reflexion Filter more stable on a normal mic stand (see /sos/may09/articles/qa0509_2.htm for a more detailed explanation).
Our final task was to try a drum recording using just the two C1000 microphones as overheads (Seb had yet to buy a suitable kick‑drum mic). The room sounded much less ringy with the foam panels in place, and our test recording sounded surprisingly good, with a solid sound to the kick and plenty of depth to the toms.
A further improvement could be brought about by putting some foam screens behind the mics to intercept ceiling reflections and, in conjunction with close mics, it can sometimes help to roll off a little low end from the overheads. The C1000s aren't particularly bright‑sounding mics, but a bit of 'air EQ lift' at 10kHz and above gave them more definition. With the addition of a dynamic kick-drum mic, Seb should be able to achieve good results.
With the live room and control room both sorted, and good communications up and running between the two, our job was done!
Seb Palmer: "Over the years I've read Studio SOS with great interest, particularly when the featured studio is a modest one, like mine. So I was thrilled when my correspondence with Paul looked like it was heading in the direction of a visit.
"I have an extensive and ever-expanding back catalogue of material, pretty much all of which I've been unable to finish satisfactorily, mainly because the drums (my main instrument) pose the biggest problems technically. I've used drum machines and MIDI-sequenced kits, some even built from libraries of my own drum sounds, but what I really wanted was to be able to sit at my kit and record in real time.
"Previously, I'd been recording via a Tascam US122, which is a good device, but the two‑channel setup wasn't allowing me to achieve the drum sound I wanted. Now, thanks to having a dedicated drum room, some shiny new gear allowing me to mic the kit properly, and Paul and Hugh's visit, I have a fully functional setup and I'm trawling through my catalogue adding live, real‑time drums. The acoustic treatment of the room really helped, turning a boomy, boxy sound into one that's dry, warm and focused, and having the recording and monitoring areas separated is both useful and fun, so I'm very chuffed.”