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Studio SOS: Tom Hennessey

Recording on a tight budget
By Paul White & Hugh Robjohns

We show Tom Hennessey that as long as you have good ideas and a good ear, you can put together decent recordings and mixes on the smallest of budgets.

Tom Hennessey's small studio was set up in a rather cramped loft‑conversion bedroom.Tom Hennessey's small studio was set up in a rather cramped loft‑conversion bedroom.

Tom Hennessey is one of our younger readers, and he hopes to become one of the next generation of audio engineers when he's completed his education. In the meantime, he's managed to set up a basic but perfectly capable little recording system at one end of his bedroom, which is located in what was once the loft space of his parents' Gloucestershire bungalow. He's obviously a regular reader of this column, as he sent his mum out in search of chocolate Hob Nobs before we arrived — he was clearly worried as to the consequences of there not being any!

First Impressions

Tom's room is roughly 2.5 x 4m, with sloping eves at either end, starting about half way up the walls. While we'd normally advocate firing the speakers down the length of the room, the positioning of the door and the access hatch to the rest of the loft storage space made this impractical. Fortunately, though, Tom's little iSymphony monitors (which he had picked up on eBay for about £20$30) only have four‑inch bass drivers and, in conjunction with the plasterboard drywall and storage‑hatch acting as bass traps, we found that they held up remarkably well, still sounding quite punchy at the low end. These speakers are powered from a Sony music centre, and Tom initially had one of the original Sony speakers wired up above his bed in addition to his two monitors. While this may have been fine for listening to music in bed, it was confusing the stereo imaging when he was monitoring, so we suggested he either disconnect it or install a switch so that it could be disabled when working on his music.

A little foam treatment, combined with the natural bass‑trapping in the room, resulted in a much better monitoring environment.A little foam treatment, combined with the natural bass‑trapping in the room, resulted in a much better monitoring environment.Tom's simple setup is a testimony to the fact that if you have decent musical ideas, you can make reasonably high‑quality recordings using incredibly basic equipment. Having to fund his own studio from his pocket money, Tom had been very careful to buy only what he needed, and was using Cool Edit Pro (v2.0) running on a Windows laptop. This was augmented by a Behringer Podcasting kit (comprising a tiny Xenyx 502 mixer with a single mic input, a budget dynamic microphone and a two‑in, two‑out USB audio interface that connects using unbalanced RCA phonos) and a pair of Behringer headphones.

The stereo tape in and outs on the mixer were connected to his audio interface, so that he could record through the mixer and monitor at the same time. He didn't have a MIDI keyboard, and although he plays drums a little, as well as guitar, the lack of space to record drums means that he has had to rely on drum loops and other software to provide his drum parts. Our challenge was to help him to achieve better results without doing any permanent damage to his room, so the first step was to bring in Hugh's BBC test CD and listen to some music we were familiar with over Tom's monitors.

Monitoring

The close proximity of reflective surfaces to the left of the mixing position and behind the speakers was compromising the stereo imaging, but the bedroom door, which was directly behind the mixing seat, was normally used as a place to hang dressing gowns and coats — so it acted as a reasonable absorber without further treatment. During playback, we touched the computer desk on which the speakers were standing, and could easily feel the vibrations from the speakers being transferred into the desk — something that has the effect of muddying the low end. Once again, those nice chaps at Auralex had supplied us with some of their acoustic foam products, so we set about devising some simple but effective improvements.

A pair of foam MoPads under the speakers improved isolation from the desk and cut down on vibrations, which helped tighten the low end and reduce the boominess. To address the immediate wall reflections, we used two‑inch Auralex prism‑profile foam panels, but we didn't want to stick them directly to the walls, because removing them would leave a bit of a mess, so instead we glued MDF strips to the back of the panels at the top, then fixed these to the wall using a single wood screw, so that they hung much like a picture frame. In all, we used just three panels: one hung horizontally behind the desk; another horizontally on the nearby left wall; and one hung vertically on the wall behind the mixing position, between the door and the corner. The last of these needed to be trimmed slightly to clear the sloping eves, and to minimise cosmetic damage, we even managed to use the same fixing holes that originally supported a notice board.

Tom had his Behringer mic set up in the corner, so that any necessary singing could be done into the corner — but we had a strategy to improve that, which we explored a little later. We may have been able to bring about further improvements by gluing foam to the sloping eves, but as this would have been too permanent, we decided to settle for a compromise.

Listening to Hugh's test CD again revealed noticeably improved stereo imaging and a less messy low end (the latter largely due to the isolation properties of the MoPads). Touching the desk revealed less in the way of unwanted vibrations, although some acoustic energy was still getting through. Given the compromise in the speaker location and the small size of the room, the low end turned out to be surprisingly even‑sounding, and the little iSymphony speakers sounded much more 'monitor like' and well‑balanced than we initially thought they would.

Vocal Recording

To minimise the cosmetic damage to the walls, we fixed the foam to MDF strips, which were then attached to the wall with a single screw.To minimise the cosmetic damage to the walls, we fixed the foam to MDF strips, which were then attached to the wall with a single screw.

Although Tom rarely tackles vocals, and his sister professes only to sing in the shower, we decided we should do what we could to upgrade the vocal setup — and Sonic Distribution kindly stepped into the breach by offering us an SE Reflexion Filter and a brand new SE2200A cardioid‑pattern capacitor microphone to leave with Tom.

Rather than singing into the corner, we've found that it's better to sing out into the room, with a Reflexion Filter or similar device behind the mic to keep room reflections out of the rear and sides of the polar pattern. Having an absorber behind the singer also helps to prevent unwanted sound bouncing back into the 'hot' side of the mic, and as we'd fixed up a vertical foam panel in that corner, the location was ideal. As usual, we rejigged the SE mounting hardware to get the mic and Reflexion Filter assembly sitting over the mic stand in a more balanced way, and arranged the mic to be roughly level with the front edge of the Reflexion Filter.

To test the setup, I brought along a small mixer of my own to use as a preamp — which is just as well, as Tom's little mixer had no phantom power, so we'd otherwise have been unable to run the SE microphone! Once we'd set the levels, a spoken word test deonstrated that we could achieve a very dry, uncoloured sound that would respond well to added effects, such as delay or reverb. There are numerous low-cost mic preamps with phantom power on the market, from companies such as ART, SM Pro and Behringer, so a suitable microphone preamp will be Tom's next upgrade.

Guitar Setup

Paul White tests out the new mic and Reflexion Filter setup with a spoken word recording — ideal for revealing the acoustic character of the space.Paul White tests out the new mic and Reflexion Filter setup with a spoken word recording — ideal for revealing the acoustic character of the space.

Tom has been having guitar lessons for the past four or five years, and he had bought a budget guitar‑plus‑amp package to learn on. His teacher was clearly doing a good job showing him how to play, but his guitar just wouldn't stay in tune. The reason was simple: he hadn't been shown how to string it most effectively! He'd simply wrapped numerous turns, many of them overlapping, onto the tuning machine posts, and these tended to slip whenever a string was bent, resulting in the string going flat. While Hugh was clearing up some of the mess left by our handiwork, I showed Tom how to wrap the string so that it pinned its own free end against the post, and could be made secure with only a couple of turns around it. Once a string is fitted in this way, you can pull the strings tight by hand and maintain tension for a few seconds, after which tuning should be relatively stable. I also showed him how rubbing pencil 'lead' into the nut slots can help to reduce friction at that point.

The action on the guitar felt a little high, which seemed to be due to excess neck relief (the neck was too bowed), and this could be seen when holding down a string at both the first and 17th fret. Ideally, there should be just enough clearance between the string and the frets halfway up the neck to slide in a sheet of paper, or a business card at most, but here the gap was way too large. About a quarter clockwise turn on the truss-rod adjuster, using an Allen key, brought it back to something more reasonable, and also dropped the action to a more comfortable level. (See our back‑issue on‑line articles for more info on basic guitar setups.)

As well as learning to play the guitar, you also need to learn how best to set it up. Our tips helped Tom to improve the tuning stability and playability of his guitar.As well as learning to play the guitar, you also need to learn how best to set it up. Our tips helped Tom to improve the tuning stability and playability of his guitar.The little solid‑state Drive amp that came with the guitar wasn't great, but in conjunction with Tom's Zoom effects pedal it could produce a reasonable range of sounds, providing it was set fairly clean, allowing the Zoom pedal to do all the tone shaping. Tom usually DI's his guitar, but we thought it would be a useful experiment to try miking it with his dynamic mic (a Behringer XM8500), so we placed the amp in a corner facing outwards — which would augment its rather weak low end slightly — and initially set up the mic on a couple of foam offcuts, so that it aimed midway between the centre and edge of the speaker cone. The results we recorded sounded pretty close to how we heard the amp in the room, but Tom then discovered a small desktop tripod mic‑stand — which presumably came as part of the Podcasting kit — so we used that in place of the foam.

Tom had one final question for us about the recording of bass sounds — which was something he'd been doing using a regular guitar via a pitch‑shifter, to drop its pitch by an octave. He was concerned that the sound always seemed distorted in some way.We explained that this kind of artifact was often a side‑effect of budget pitch‑shifting, and that there was little he could do, other than rolling off some high end to help disguise it. As Tom often uses distorted main guitar parts, these may also help disguise any problems in the bass in the context of a mix — even if the bass itself sounds less than ideal when heard in isolation.

And It's Goodbye From Us...

That was about the extent of what we could achieve on our visit, but we think we managed to bring about a worthwhile sonic improvement, as well as answering some of Tom's questions. Tom still needs to get hold of a mic preamp with phantom power, to make use of his new SE2200A microphone, but other than that he has everything he needs to gain valuable experience in audio engineering — which will, hopefully, help him to achieve his goal of eventually taking it up as a profession.  

Tom's Comments

A satisfied Tom Hennessey in his revamped studio.A satisfied Tom Hennessey in his revamped studio.

"When I emailed Paul White to ask him if he had any tips for me regarding the acoustics in my studio, the last thing I thought he was going to say was, 'yeah, I'll come and have a look.' My bedroom studio looked OK before Paul and Hugh came — but afterwards it looked and sounded more like a professional studio. When Paul and Hugh brought the SE Reflexion Filter and SE2200A condenser microphone in from the car, and I thought they were just going to use them to perform some tests on the acoustics in my room — so when I found out that they were for me, I was over the moon! I've now used these to do some recordings myself, and the results sound more professional than before, both in the monitors and in the finished product. I'd like to say a huge thank you to the Studio SOS Team, and to Auralex and Sonic Distribution.”

Published July 2009