Drums, doors and damping... the Studio SOS Team get to grips with Teddy Pagano's London studio.
Teddy Pagano has a rehearsal room and studio setup in a rented room in an old factory on the east side of London. He contacted us not only because he had been experiencing the usual problems with acoustics, but also because there was also significant sound leakage. When Teddy moved in, the room was an empty concrete block shell, around four metres square by three metres high, and with a concrete ceiling and floor. He'd put up a single layer of plasterboard on battens around all four walls, but this wasn't very rigidly fixed — and movement had opened up a small gap all around the ceiling joint. He told us that the plasterboard also resonated quite noticeably when it was tapped. He'd obtained some open-cell foam packing material and had jammed some of this inside the walls behind the plasterboard, but it didn't seem to be helping very much.
When we arrived at the studio, we could see straight away that a second layer of plasterboard would help, and that the gaps around the ceiling would benefit from some silicon sealant, but before we turned our attention to this, we wanted to find out more about how Teddy used his studio.
He explained to us (over coffee and chocolate Hob Nobs that he'd got in especially for us — after seeing them mentioned in one or two previous Studio SOS articles...) that he was a session drummer and wanted to be able to create good-quality demos in the studio for client approval. His main problem was that the drum kit was clearly audible outside, in the corridor — to the degree that it could upset people in neighbouring units. He also wanted to be able to record other musicians.
We had Teddy bash the drums while we listened. Some sound was passing directly through the concrete wall, but more careful listening showed that most was finding its way through the door and the ineffective door seals. The door construction was unusual, in that an outer steel door provided security, and the steel plate rang quite badly when tapped. Teddy had wedged some foam between the strengthening bars to try to dampen this a little, so we packed more in between the bars and the sheet steel, and glued it all in place using Auralex spray adhesive to improve things further.
A wooden inner door provided most of the acoustic isolation, but this 'leaked' in a couple of places: there was an area of the frame that had been cut away, leaving a sonic escape path around the edge of the door. Also, the lock was badly fitted — so much so that it was possible to see daylight through the door down one side of the handle mechanism. We patched up the missing section of frame with a piece of foam that we cut to shape and glued in place. We also removed the lock cover and filled the excess space with compressed foam, before refitting the cover. Next, we cut some two-inch by one-inch strips from some of Teddy's surplus packing foam and glued it around the inside of the door frame, so that the door closed up tightly against it, improving the seal. At the bottom, the door closed against a wooden threshold strip. We glued some foam to the bottom of the door, so that it would push up against the top of the strip when the door was closed. These simple modifications made a significant improvement, although the room was a long way from being soundproof!
Finally, Teddy had fitted an internal oversized door that closed over the top of the existing door — but this was simply a sheet of three-quarter-inch chipboard, with no latch and no seal. We didn't have time to work on this, but suggested Teddy fit a latch and also stick some heavy-duty neoprene draught excluder strip between it and the wall to give some kind of a seal.
To treat the room acoustics, we glued six Auralex two-inch foam panels directly to the plasterboard either side of the listening position, with two more panels on the rear half of the side walls. The final two were fixed close to the centre of the rear wall. Teddy's plasterboard walls were trapping some low end, so our usual bass 'staircase' test didn't show up any unacceptable peaks or dips. However, because the room was so high and still had a lot of untreated bare wall area, there was still some unwanted liveness. We dealt with that by using more of Teddy's foam offcuts, gluing them to the upper parts of the walls in a fairly random way. He also had one really solid piece of foam around three inches thick, and we glued this to the front wall, above the monitors.
Doors and windows are usually the chief culprits when it comes to unwanted sound leakage, as this is where air — and therefore most sound — escapes. The Studio SOS team used foam to create a tighter seal around the studio door, and filled in a hole around the lock using spray foam.
Before we arrived, Teddy had leaned a piece of thin carpet along the lower half of the front wall, and he wondered whether to take it down following our articles explaining why carpet pasted to a wall is a bad idea. However, the carpet had an impervious backing, which I thought could be useful. I suggested that he fix a horizontal two- by two-inch batten to the wall and tack the carpet to that, such that it would hang down behind the mixing desk, leaving a two-inch air-gap behind. That would allow it to take out some low and low-mid energy in a similar way to a hanging curtain of barrier mat. We didn't have time to do this on the day, so we propped the carpet loosely in place, leaving Teddy to finish the job. We rolled up the remainder and stood the rolls in the corners, so they could contribute to the bass trapping.
For the ceiling above the listening position, we stuck on half a dozen or so additional foam offcuts at the mirror point, then set about listening to the room to see how it had improved. When we first arrived, a handclap would set the room ringing in a rather alarming way — and with some very strong flutter echoes — but now the only obvious ringing was from the heads of the drum kit. A couple of Auralex MoPads under the monitors to isolate them from the desktop completed the process.
Listening to some commercial material played back in the room, we could hear that the stereo imaging had been much improved by our work, with the overall sound being drier and less muddled. The bass end behaved remarkably well, given the lack of formal bass trapping. The central image was also nice and stable, and the MoPads we'd fitted under the Mackie HR824 speakers kept most of the vibrational energy out of the desktop, noticeably drying up and tightening the overall sound.
We then listened to some drum recordings that Teddy had made previously in the studio (using only three mics: a pair of AKG C1000S mics as overheads and a Sennheiser MD421 on the kick drum). The room ambience was clearly audible and the kick lacked a little weight, but other than that the kit actually sounded pretty good. After our additional treatment, future recordings will be noticeably drier, but we also used a couple more of the packaging-foam offcuts to make absorbers that could be slotted over the overhead mics to further reduce the influence of reflections from above. (You can see the absorbers in the photo at the start of this article).
Hugh explained to Teddy the importance of getting both overheads the same distance from the snare drum — otherwise any comb filtering due to 'time of arrival' differences between the two mics will be audible during mono playback. A further improvement may be had by suspending a heavy polyester duvet above the kit, perhaps a couple of feet from the ceiling. You could do this using a light wooden frame, suspended from ceiling hooks by chains or nylon cord — and as it is relatively inexpensive to do, Teddy said he'd probably give it a try.
Those jobs done, we turned our attention to Teddy's recording system, which comprised a Mackie Onyx Firewire mixer and a MacBook Pro running Logic 8. Teddy was fairly new to Logic 8 so we went through some of the basics, including setting up a default template, and also installed the drivers for his Akai MPK49 keyboard/performance pad controller. This connects via USB and it worked right away, though some fiddling was necessary in Logic to make it possible to use the keyboard and the pads at the same time. Both transmit on separate MIDI channels, but by default Logic re-routes these to the current instrument track's MIDI channel — so that the track instrument is played regardless of whether you hit the pads or the keys. Most times this isn't likely to be a problem, as you'll probably only use one or the other at a time when recording, but it can be annoying if, like Teddy, you really need both to work independently. Thankfully, one of our regular contributors, Stephen Bennet, has come up with an Environment setup using Channel Splitters that will do the job — and you can see how this works in the screenshot below.
SOS contributor Stephen Bennett devised this splitter for Logic to enable Teddy to send separate incoming MIDI data streams to different MIDI channels at the same time — something which, normally, is rather tricky in Logic 8.
We also took Teddy through how to set up the EXS24 sampler to work with his pads. Essentially, you tap a pad, note the MIDI note number that shows up in the Logic transport section, then assign an EXS sample to that note by setting the upper and lower key zone limits to the same note. Samples that exist as audio files can be dragged and dropped into the EXS24 editor window, so it is fairly fast work to set up different sounds for each of the pads.
For recording, Teddy wondered whether he should buy an outboard compressor, in order to compress signals on the way in to his system. Of course, it can be worth doing that if you like the sound of a particular hardware unit, and if you're recording to a 16-bit system. But with any modern recording system, you don't need to compress just to maintain headroom — because 24-bit recording leaves you plenty of headroom to play with. By default, Logic records at 16-bit, so you have to go to the Audio Preferences pane and tick the 24-bit recording box if you want to work at 24-bit — and this is one of the first tweaks I'd recommend you make.
For recording vocals, we've found it practical for the singer to stand with their back facing an absorbing surface such as a duvet or foam-covered wall. Sure enough the best place for a singer in this room turned out to be with their back facing the foam panels on the rear wall. It also helps if the mic is set up inside an SE Reflexion Filter (or one of the equivalents) to keep reflected sound out of the sides and rear of the mic, and as we'd been given a Reflexion Filter by Sonic Distribution for this Studio SOS, we installed it, reconfiguring the mounting hardware in our usual way to get the centre of gravity over the mic stand. We also noticed the lack of a pop filter, and stressed the importance of using one when using condenser (capacitor) mics for recording vocals.
After we'd done what we could, Teddy asked what we thought he should upgrade next. We felt that a dedicated kick-drum mic would be a useful addition, and that he would benefit from some better overhead mics, because C1000s don't have a very extended high end. He already had some Shure SM57 dynamic mics, which are great for general drum and guitar amp use, so the main thing now is for him to amass lots of experience in using the system he has — because it's only after you've worked with something for a while that you get a proper feel for what needs improving.
All too soon, it was time to head out into the London rush hour (why do they call it that?), but we were all well pleased with the improvements we'd managed to achieve using relatively low-cost materials.
Teddy Pagano: "Since Paul and Hugh visited the studio and worked their magic, I've received numerous compliments from those who regularly rent the room to work in, and we've all noticed a dramatic improvement. Before the work was done the sound was unfocused, to say the least. Because of the room's shape and lack of absorption, it was difficult to know exactly what you were listening to. We now have an ideal environment, both for rehearsals and to take our recordings to the next level.
"The most valuable lesson I've learned from this experience is that it is more important to know your equipment well than it is to constantly look for what your next purchase should be. This has given me the confidence to realise the potential of my equipment. Now that I know I have the right gear and a suitably tweaked room, I know that the rest is up to me. And that's definitely worth more than a packet of Hob Nobs!"